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Why Small is Successful ­– how to get planning permission for your small land-based enterprise

Emily Ingham
Sunday, 25th November 2012

Have you ever dreamed of working the land? Emily explains how you can survive and thrive while running your very own smallholding

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Many Permaculture magazine readers dream of a move to the country, but how to support ourselves whilst feeling part of the community? A common choice is to make the move later in life once we've built up adequate savings; but what about an integrated approach to living and working on the land?

These low acreage livelihoods provide a means to live and work closer to the land, and were the subject of The Ecological Land Cooperative's 2010 report, Small is Successful. Here we address the benefits that small farms and smallholdings can provide to local and national economies, as well as to individuals. We also look at the main obstacle to these, and give some useful tips on how to pursue this path.

The Report – Small is Successful

Written in 2010 Small is Successful is as pertinent now as it was then, providing information on eight case studies of small and successful low acreage livelihoods, working on less than 10 acres each. These businesses are too small for subsidies, but survive and thrive, providing an adequate living for owners and other staff.

Viability was assessed purely through the success of land-based endeavours, and not income garnered from other ventures on site, such as courses, entertainment or accommodation.

As the Food Climate Research Network states in its review of the document, Small is Successful is an important 'first' to address "the lack of information on financially viable, small scale farms in the UK".

By detailing real examples, warts and all, it provides a concise reference document for planning authorities and policy makers. 

The Most Important Ingredient for Success

What Small is Successful champions is the pay off of hard work – this is pointed to as the key reason for the encouraging performance of these start ups.

It isn’t going to be easy, but being the master of your fate and working closely with all your stakeholders (customers, the community, your suppliers and your staff) is more likely to incite bloody-mindedness, motivation and determination when the going gets tough. This is especially true if the project appeals to your personal ethics.

A Critical Obstacle to Small Agricultural Businesses: A Call for Change in Policy

All this sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Sadly, though, there is a ‘but’.

Small is Successful highlights one particular hurdle which can take smallholder-hopefuls so long to get over that they lose out on potential earnings; run themselves ragged for years; and/or give up well before the finishing line.

You may have already guessed it ­­– gaining planning permission for the construction of dwellings on these properties is extremely difficult.

The report infers that these small businesses are more successful if the owners are able to live close to where the work takes place, not least because it cuts commuting costs, and removes the need to own two pieces of land.

The Case for Land-Based Enterprise in Small Spaces

Despite an apparent move towards mega farming, the case for small farms has long been argued. The Government Office of Science stated in its 2011 report A Future for Small-Scale Farming that they "contribute importantly to national, local and household food security, and to poverty reduction". The efficiency of small farms is also heralded by George Monbiot, and was first documented in 1962 by Nobel economist Amartya Sen. Schumacher, of course, was also big proponent of small.

Particularly in non-livestock farming, production per area of a small farm is cited as being considerably higher than on larger farms.

Localism improves community spirit and reduces its carbon footprintLocalism improves community spirit and reduces its carbon footprint

Towards Independence

For me, the most important benefit that these small land-based enterprises exhibit is the independence they offer their owners. They can also play a potentially crucial role in national food security through localism of trade. A shorter supply chain ensures these enterprises are less vulnerable to changing commodity prices, while global oil prices have less of an impact when services are procured locally.

What's more, by providing their own income, and not qualifying for farming subsidies (due to their size), they are more economically sustainable, and resilient to changes in hand outs.

Care for the Environment

With a smaller space, controlling inputs and outputs is more manageable, resulting in less waste. Meanwhile the business will not be as dependent on heavy and expensive machinery, pesticides or fertilisers, making a permaculture approach more achievable.

With customers and suppliers chosen as close to the business as possible, money is kept in the locality rather than being syphoned away to other areas. The carbon footprint associated with fossil fuels burnt in vehicles is also kept to a minimum.

A Sustainable Income

Small land-based projects may not make you rich. But it seems they can provide a living for which you feel responsible, and of which you can be proud. This is especially true if they are in keeping with what you hold important; including self-reliance, localism and environmental protection.

Starting a low acreage livelihoods is possibly not a route to riches, but it can provide an alternative income option to those who wish to work the land.

An Engaged Workforce

A lonely life on large farms?A lonely life on large farms?

These businesses may need to employ others occasionally or all year round. Working closely with their employers is more likely to ensure that staff work efficiently for a shared goal, especially if they feel they are supporting an important enterprise, and not being exploited by a team of directors who haven't taken the time to meet their labourers. 

As Peter Rosset, director of Food First puts it, "when it's a farm family whose future depends upon maintaining the productivity of that soil and that piece of land, they naturally take better care of it. When it's a huge corporate farm with relatively alienated wage labor doing the work, the employees do not have the kind of tie to the future of that piece of land that they would if they were family farmers."

Inspired? Here's How to Make the Dream a Reality

If you think this is for you, Small is Successful makes the following suggestions for success, having learnt from the experiences of the eight case study subjects:

Consider supplying to farm shops, who will value local produceConsider supplying to farm shops, who will value local produce

  1. Keep set up costs low, investing more as you earn more. This reduces interest payments on loans, and ensures a “a low and slow development trajectory” which seems to be more manageable.
  2. Mental attitude and approach are the strongest determinants of success, as are patience and the ability to take a long-term perspective, attention to detail, creativity and solution-focused thinking
  3. Horticulture is generally more suited to low acreage livelihoods than livestock
  4. Seek out local businesses which provide local produce as part of their brand ethos
  5.  ‘Adding value’ brings viability to low acreage livelihoods, rather than just selling fresh produce – e.g. making apple juice from apples, or paté from mushrooms
  6. In this vein, combining a range of enterprises allows robustness, resilience and efficiency, especially if the waste of one process is an input for another
  7. High property prices and the planning system are the greatest barriers to growth in this sector. You will need to be very thorough and organised in your approach to applications. Be prepared to be rejected and have to appeal

Adding value will increase marginsAdding value will increase margins

The Future of Small

In its closing pages, Small is Successful, produced in 2010, cites the introduction of the Localism Bill as an anticipated important next step towards more widespread support and acceptance of low acreage livelihoods, such as those seen in the case studies of the report.

The Localism Bill became an act of parliament in November 2011 and as yet change has been slow to say the least. Indeed, as yet only one council area in England has introduced an official standpoint on developments which may fall under the category of low acreage livelihood (Shropshire’s affordable self build scheme). Hopefully, the One Planet Development opportunity in Wales will produce a knock on effect in other parts of the UK and abroad.

Photo by Ben RussellPhoto by Ben Russell

These developments will continue to suffer scrutiny like anything else, and this further slows development and disheartens their proponents.

However research such as Small is Successful should pave the way for support for these local (in every way!) endeavours, especially as governments the world over try to figure out how each country is going to feed itself sustainably, in a way which is more resilient to changes in international markets.

Emily Ingham is a former environmental consultant, and now writes for Permaculture magazine on issues relating to environmental legislation and policy. 

Help spread the permaculture word...

Teresa Eden |
Sunday, September 15, 2013 - 10:44am

Does anyone have any ideas for us - we own a small farm that has been passed onto us by our parents, about 50 acres, in Suffolk. We have retained the hedges around small fields and over the last few years have grown wheat and sugar beet. We are running at a gradual loss and all our machinery is very old and out dated. We don't have much money to invest but really want to keep the character of the farm going, provide ourselves with a farm working life style - we are not afraid of hard work! We have thought of lots of ideas such as camp site, brewery, holiday lets, but none of these are right for one reason or another. We are looking for ideas - can you help?
I look forward to continuing the discussion.
Teresa Eden

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