Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
My name is Alan Beat, and with my wife Rosie, I’ve run a 16-acre smallholding in Devon, England, for the last 28 years. “Smallholding” is a UK term that’s broadly equivalent to the term “homestead” in the United States, meaning farming on a small scale with a strong element of self-sufficiency in food. I’m delighted to have the chance of connecting with other like-minded people by means of this blog.
It’s been prompted by the publication of my new book Smallholding: A Practical Guide to Self-sufficient Living (find it here in the U.S., and
Despite the geographical differences, there must be a great deal of common ground between the American homestead and the British smallholding — so let’s find out!
Smallholding: A Practical Guide
Statistics show an increasing drift of population away from areas of urban sprawl towards more rural parts of the UK. Among the many factors that are driving this trend, the search for a better quality of life is foremost. People are seeking to regain control over their lives, to grow their own wholesome food, to spend less time driving on congested roads, and to raise their families in a higher quality environment. That’s why more and more of us want to start smallholding!
Rosie and I made that change of lifestyle with our two young children back in 1987, after four years of planning. We now keep sheep, pigs, poultry and waterfowl to produce most of our own organic food; make our own bread, beer and country wines; harvest our own firewood; and generally have become as self-sufficient as makes sense to us. In the process, we have discovered new resources within ourselves. This is the essence of smallholding.
It wasn’t easy to move far away from family, friends and the familiar surroundings in which we had been brought up. The “culture shock” of arriving in a small rural community was very real and it took time for us to adjust.
At first, nearly every aspect of our new lives required knowledge and skills that we did not possess, so we had to acquire them. New areas of interest arose from our adopted lifestyle, including friendship and cooperation with other new smallholders and established farmers.
There were undoubted health benefits from the move: we became physically fitter and stronger through regular outdoor exercise and manual work, while our new direction rewarded us with a positive sense of achievement. Each day was full of interest; we loved every minute and there were few regrets.
Many years later, we have learned so much and yet we are humbly aware of how much more there is yet to learn. It seems that one lifetime will not be long enough. Years ago, we were puzzled by a remark of the elderly John Seymour, when he qualified an incident in his youth with the phrase “when I was even more ignorant than I am now.”
Why would a man who had spent many years living, studying and writing about rural self sufficiency, describe himself in such a derogatory manner? Only now do we understand the truth and humility with which it was written.
Looking back, it seems astonishing that we could ever have been so ignorant ourselves. How had we gone through the education system to degree level, then lived, worked and played into our late thirties without knowing how to feed, clothe and house ourselves? All that society had really taught us was the intellectual means to earn money, without which we were helpless.
The net result of doing more for ourselves, instead of paying others to do it, is twofold. Firstly, less money is needed, so less time needs to be spent earning it, thus neatly reversing the vicious circle in which modern society traps us.
Secondly, it inspires self-confidence, the belief in our ability to cope. We see this quality in many smallholders whom we have come to know; not usually overconfidence, just an unspoken inner strength.
Of course, living on a smallholding is not idyllic all the time. There are days when the weather is against us, when nothing seems to go right, or when our best efforts fail to achieve their purpose. But such hardships serve only to heighten appreciation of the better times, those other days when smallholding really is sheer pleasure.
Overall our quality of life is now so different, so vastly improved from before, that it’s difficult for us to imagine living in any other way.
Alan Beat trained as a mechanical engineer, working 20 years in the profession before making a deliberate change of lifestyle by moving to a 16-acre smallholding (homestead) with his family in 1987. He restored an historic water mill to working order, and now grinds locally grown organic wheat for demonstration and to feed his family. Alan has written a regular monthly feature in Country Smallholding magazine for the past 25 years and has contributed to a number of other UK publications on a freelance basis.
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