U.S. Homesteading Versus U.K. Smallholding

Reader Contribution by Cathie Ackroyd
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Since joining MOTHER EARTH NEWS blogging community as one of the ‘Happy Homesteaders’ I have been musing about the term Homesteader as it is not one that is in use here in the UK.

I love the term hugely as it feels so accurate in describing the lifestyle we have decided upon which strives to make home the heart of everything we do and therefore is a place we long to spend time and energy in rather than wanting to escape from it when we have spare time.

Here in the UK I think the closest term to describe a similar way of life to that of a homesteader is ‘smallholder’ but to me this has quite different connotations.

A smallholder is officially a farmer with a small agricultural holding in order to raise animals and/or vegetables and fruit but for me, the word doesn’t evoke the associations of home spun crafts, cottage industries, food preservation, thriftiness that ‘homesteading’ does.

For some reason also in my mind the two terms have different gender associations. A smallholder is a quite a masculine term being one of pure animal husbandry and land management whereas a homesteader seems to be a more feminine label encompassing pursuits which in the past were traditionally the domain of the matriarch in a family.

In the UK when we refer to a smallholding or smallholder it will almost always mean a rural setting with enough space for at least a few diverse livestock (possibly pigs, sheep or cattle and usually always poultry) whereas I am beginning to understand that the modern homesteading movement in the US includes many people, like ourselves, who are creating more self-reliant havens in urban settings. 

Here in the UK I wonder whether we have a more ingrained culture of the themes of homesteading and so in a way the term was possibly a little redundant until recently when so many modern folks have now shunned their heritage of providing for their families.

For normal people it has probably only been the last generation (my own parents’ generation) who have been able to opt out of raising their families’ fruit and vegetables at home – before that, my grandparents’ generation, were absolutely required to have their gardens dedicated to producing potatoes, onions, brassicas, legumes and so on due to the massive impact the Second World War had on Britain’s food supplies.

We are a tiny island which relied heavily on food imports by the 1940s and so when Germany started to block supply ships full of food to attempt to starve us the government decided to create a Dig  For Victory campaign which was very successful. Even modest housing at that time were built on fairly sizable plots so that everyone could have some food growing space. Allotment gardens were created where large swathes of land were divided into many small parcels of land for people to travel to by foot or bike, tend to their vegetables and fruit and to bring some home to the table. Today all of the elderly rural people I am friends with have fruit bushes, vegetable gardens and either kept bees, chickens or rabbits. Making their own jams and chutneys seems to have been a standard way of life for them but one which my generation are just discovering for the first time as it was not how we were raised by our modern parents with their urban jobs.

In the UK we don’t have zoning and so keeping a few chickens and bees is almost part of our cultural heritage – certainly our rural heritage as it is what country people have always done but now is seeing a great resurgence in popularity. We have always dried laundry on the line outside despite the constant having to dash and collect it in when a frequent rain shower appears and tumble driers as we call them are generally used occasionally for finishing off clothes that have been on the line or on airers inside. laws

I don’t actually even know what these zoning laws are but gather they are controls against having housing areas looking unkempt and so restrict using homes for practical and possibly unsightly activities such as outside laundry drying and the keeping of poultry.

British folk do seem to be a nation of naturally thrift and so have always enjoyed having ‘charity shops’ a-plenty in the high street where people take their unwanted clothes and belongings only to come away with more stuff than we donated for under £10. Each High Street will typically have one or two such stores raising money for a particular hospice or children’s charity. Some High Streets will have more. They are great places to get cheap kids clothes, toys and kitchen equipment and also great for offloading such clutter when we are finished with it. Donations are always so gratefully received.

I think perhaps the experience of living through the incredible deprivation of both horrific world wars had such an impact on the population here in Europe and so ‘making do and mending’ is really quite ingrained in our collective psyche and therefore naturally leant towards homesteading without really knowing that we did it but in recent decades we have emulated so much of the States’ culture of shopping malls, fast food, big cars and daily glamour of sumptuous housing and pretty manicured lawned gardens which were always a visual status symbol to show off how much land did not need to be used for food growing in large stately homes and manor houses.

I really like the term homesteader and it sums up what this family are now about far more than the word smallholder.

Both my husband Darren and myself have been on several courses which introduced us to the basics of various rural crafts than simply the raising of food.

Although we do grow vegetables, fruit and have kept chickens for meat and eggs for the past few years Darren has also made some lovely chairs out of freshly felled Ash wood, I have made a basket out of willow, learned to make pretty rainbow blankets by crocheting and several other handicrafts have begun to be explored.

Having had these thoughts and written about them today I am now hoping to raise the profile of Happy Homesteading in the UK a little as it really is an improved description of this kind of lifestyle.

I wonder from people reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS Happy Homesteading blog posts what does the term mean to you? Are you from a part of the world where the term is in use and understood or do you too have a different word which describes a similar way of life? What makes a homesteader?

From Wikipedia

Homesteading Definition

Broadly defined, homesteading is a lifestyle of self-sufficiency. It is characterized by subsistence agriculture, home preservation of foodstuffs, and it may or may not also involve the small scale production of textiles, clothing, and craftwork for household use or sale. Pursued in different ways around the world — and in different historical eras — homesteading is generally differentiated from rural village or commune living by isolation (either socially or physically) of the homestead. Use of the term in the United States dates back to the Homestead Act (1862) and before. In sub-Sahara African, particularly in nations formerly controlled by the British Empire, a homestead is the household compound for a single extended family. In the UK, the term ‘smallholder’ is the rough equivalent of ‘homesteader’.

In homesteading, social and government support systems are frequently eschewed in favor of self-reliance and relative deprivation, in order to maximize independence and self-determination. The degree of independence occurs along a spectrum, with many homesteaders creating foodstuffs or crafts to appeal to high-end niche markets in order to meet financial needs. Other homesteaders come to the lifestyle following successful careers which provide the funding for land, housing, taxes, and specialized equipment such as solar panels, farm equipment and electricity generators.

Modern government regulation – in the form of building codes, food safety codes, zoning regulations, minimum wage and social security for occasional labor, and town council restrictions on landscaping and animal keeping – has increased the marginal cost of home production of food. This, combined with the delayed rewards of creating a viable agriculture site, increase the difficulty of establishing a self-sufficient homestead from scratch, particularly for those of limited income.

Actual financial savings from adopting a homesteading lifestyle appear most closely related to lower material living standards and conservation of purchased resources (such as electricity, fertilizer, water, and foodstuffs) rather than lower costs of living. Economies of scale in modern agriculture and opportunity cost of manual labor prevent home-raised food from being an economical choice. However, many homesteaders express deep satisfaction with their standard of living and feel that their lifestyle is healthier and more rewarding than more conventional patterns of living.

A smallholding is a farm of small size.

In third world countries, smallholdings are usually farms supporting a single family with a mixture of cash crops and subsistence farming. As a country becomes more affluent and farming practices become more efficient, smallholdings may persist as a legacy of historical land ownership practices[dubious – discuss]. In more affluent societies smallholdings may be valued primarily for the rural lifestyle that they provide. Often, the owners do not earn their livelihood from the farm. There are an estimated 500 million smallholder farms in the world, supporting almost 2 billion people.

In British English usage, a smallholding is a piece of land and its adjacent living quarters for the smallholder and stabling for farm animals, on a smaller scale than that of a farm but larger than an allotment, usually under 50 acres (0.20 km2). It is often established for the breeding of farm animals on an organic basis on free-range pastures. Alternatively, the smallholder may concentrate on the growing of vegetables by various traditional methods or in a more modern way using plastic covers, Polytunneling or cloches for quick growth.

Generally, a smallholding offers its owner a means of achieving self-sufficiency as to his and his family’s own needs which he may be able to supplement by selling surplus produce at a farmers market and/or temporary booths or more permanent shop facilities are often part of a smallholding.