Return of the Good Life

Posted on: 21 December 2011 by Michael Wale

A demand for The Good Life is coming back as the ambition to become a smallholder booms

Michaela Giles - bringing home the baconAs it happens, the main attraction of being a small holder is that you don’t have to take up farming full time, and it's possible to grow crops on a tract of land as small as one or two acres.

This is therefore growing in popularity, and typical of the new movement is Michaela Giles and her husband Neil, who bought six acres in West Sussex just over a decade ago. Despite this, both remain in full time work. Neil is a policeman in London and his wife works for DEFRA.

Neil says that despite having to get up at 4.30am to get to work in Southwark, he still finds the whole smallholding experience calming. ”I have been working for the past two years on child trafficking”, he explained, “which can be really depressing. But once I get home and can walk out into the countryside, I totally recover.”

Helping him do so is caring for the family's livestock every day. First there are the piglets, which are offered to visitors to hold. These are rare breed British Saddlebacks, which are white with a black hoop around their bodies.

The older pigs are allowed to roam in nearby woodland, also owned by the family, eating acorns and other woodland fare. The pigs are removed during the Spring, however, so visitors can enjoy the massed bluebells that bloom in the woods at this time, though interestingly, the pigs do not have much of a taste for their bulbs.

The fields that slope above and away from the woods contain further enclosures of pigs and above them the sheep. These too are of unusual breed, such as the long-tailed and white-faced Welsh Torddu and the fast moving Hebrideans, plus two or three horses, which were the animals Michaela first took interest in.

To supplement their living and pay for the animal feed, the Giles organise Corporate Days, where companies can bring their workers to learn about the countryside and take part in various activities. They organise courses on pig keeping, and also sell some of their pork and lamb.

Another smallholder is Alan Rayner, who retired after 32 years in the Fire Service. Although he started out in Loughton, Essex, he ended up as a fire officer in the Scottish Highlands. He found what he describes as 'a bit of a Scottish hill' there that he liked to cultivate on, and felt that when the moment for retirement came he wanted a smallholding there.

This wasn't, by his admission, as easy as it sound. “You can’t make money out of it so we sold our house and found two acres with a bungalow down in Lincolnshire near Spalding”, he told me.

He doesn’t make a living from it, although he does sell eggs from his 49 chickens at the farm gate. Instead, he has to make do with his pension.

In addition, he keeps sheep, which are very skittish and can run as fast as stags, and are kept in line by a couple of collie dogs. He also planted a small orchard with trees bought frugally at stores like Lidl and Aldi for £4 each, and grows most of his own veg.

So why did he switch to a smallholding of a mere two acres? “I just love being in the open air” he confesses. “I’m a practical person. I had to think about something to do when I retired. I’m 57 and I didn’t want to work for someone else now. I have to do everything cheaply. For example I grow my own hay, cut it by scythe and turn it all by hand.”

Back in West Sussex, Michaela Giles feels that life has come full circle, noting: “I think people are absolutely tired of the rat race and want to get back to simplicity.”

She admits that while tempted, she probably couldn't be a full-time farmer. “But it’s a wonderful cure for stress. I think the intimacy makes you a better farmer. The relationship we have with these pigs is fantastic”.

Michaela is also chairman of the West Sussex Smallholders, and is receiving a 'phenomenal' number of enquiries. “I think people are reaching for a slice of The Good Life”, she explains. “You can’t make it pay the mortgage, but it has attracted people coming up to retirement or being declared redundant.

“I think more and more people will have a smallholding and also a job like we have. That is the way it is in France and Spain. A lot of people are going to Wales where land is cheaper.

“We have a membership of 120 who actually have smallholdings. Some of these are co-operatives where ten people will own a small part each. In fact we have about 300 people involved”...

For further details on obtaining your own small holding, or to find out more about the West Sussex Smallholders Club, click HERE for more details.

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