One of the things that I find great about UK agriculture is that it’s very inclusive. From allotment dwellers and smallholders to large-scale farms – no matter how big or small one’s operation is – there is a place for everyone and an important part for everyone to play. Every player’s contribution is vital to the overall success of British farming. It also proves that any operation can thrive with good business sense and effective marketing.
Large scale agri-businesses help feed a nation. They are the ones who can produce the food we need on the scale we need it, and at a level of efficiency that meets the needs of cost-conscious consumers. Large farms are also the ones making huge strides into greener farming methods that will have a very real, tangible benefit.
I’ve read many blogs and articles and heard many “experts” talk about how smallholdings are the answer to greener agriculture and how we should all hit the allotments or became smallholders and eat what we produce. I think, fundamentally, that’s asking a lot of smallholders and such a burden is unfair – agriculture can produce the scale of food at an efficiency and cost that smallholdings just can’t match.
As a nation, we probably need to work to update the public’s prevailing view of smallholders. When someone mentions smallholdings, it’s amazing how quickly Tom and Barbara Good are referenced. You only have to search online for “smallholders uk” and every other search result mentions “the Good Life” in the headline.
Now I’m in my mid-40s, so I do get the reference to the classic Brit sitcom about the ups and downs Tom and wife Barbara experience when they attempt to escape commercial living by becoming totally self-sufficient in their home in Surbiton. I get it – but it’s time to move on for one key reason. Smallholders aren’t really about self-sufficiency anymore – at least, not in the sense of escaping modern commercial living.
As a regular at many of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire’s glorious farmers’ markets, I do make the point of talking to producers to find out more about their wares and about how their smallholding works. Based on what I’ve heard and researched, I suspect very few smallholdings are given over 100% to food production. I also suspect that very few smallholdings provide full-time occupation level income to the smallholders. And you know what? That’s okay.
In my experience, the most successful smallholders are the ones producing an artisan product for a niche market. They are very much geared toward quality and using traditional methods, which just wouldn’t be practical or viable to produce on a large scale.
The overwhelming majority of smallholders I’ve spoken with do it because they love it, they are following a passion. And that passion is evident whenever I engage with them at a market.
Having them present at markets, with their excellent produce, engaging with the public, talking passionately, advocating quality, is hugely important to the make-up of the countryside and a huge pull to get people out of the towns and cities to sample a piece of the Good Life (damn it!).