Rooted in tradition, growing for tomorrow. Smallholding and sustainable farming in the UK.

From plot to plate: Rosie Stead-Brennan explores the growing market of sustainable farming in the UK, following the journey of a lifetime of work, through the harshness and glory, for a sustainable future for all. 

Small family farm based in Shropshire. Credit: Rosie Precious Stead-Brennan

The Great British Farmers are known to be the backbone of our growing society. With the agriculture industry using 69% of the country’s land, farming produces over half of the food we consume yearly. But with prices going up, people are turning back to the basics to help save a penny.  

From the launch of the ‘Dig for victory’ campaign – started during World War Two – the standard family was encouraged to grow their own food. When almost 80 years ago bombing was the biggest threat to our stomachs supply, modern society’s standards of ‘organic’ have depleted and once again we are taking up shovels in order keep our futures alive. 

Since the years of the worldwide COVID19 pandemic, many people across the UK have adapted their way of life, through sustainable-means of living. One of which being Homesteading – or as we call it in the UK- Smallholdings. 

From buying roughly half-an-acre of land at the start of lockdown, John Doherty and his family initially wanted to build a new-modern home but after careful thought and consideration they decided to take the leap into this wild lifestyle. 

John said: “We’ve re-evaluated how we live and what we do over the last few years, as a result of going small. We don’t need a lot of the trappings and stuff we have, or we had before”. 

The Doherty family, based in Northern Ireland, have been keeping a sustainable and echo friendly lifestyle. Originally deciding to keep a few ducks and chickens, they have expanded their small farm to include some – slightly muddier – members: “Bacon and Bap” – two Kunekune pigs. 

John Doherty with “Bacon” the pig. Credit: John Doherty

While the chickens and ducks lay eggs, which the Doherty family sells in summer months, they aren’t raised simply for one purpose. 

John said: “Everything’s too convenient, if you know what goes into rearing a bird – or rearing an animal, I think you appreciate the food more. Plus, you know what goes into it.

“If you charged what it would take to cover the cost of them, then you wouldn’t make any money.  But then again, they are providing us with Sunday dinners.” 

Along with the farm animals, John and his family keep sustainable in their everyday home life – by living in a wooden cabin where they use a log burner to cook on and heat their home. 

Doherty family home. Credit: John Doherty

He said: “Our goal isn’t to be 100% sustainable, it’s to be as sustainable as we can do and be comfortable along the way”. 

John’s wife, Fiona Doherty has even started her own business based on a passion she has always been interested in – beekeeping. After initially doing a beekeeping course, she has grown her passion to produce natural beeswax candles and beauty products for everyone to enjoy.

Picture of bee on sunflower. Credit: John Doherty

On a bigger scale, Fordhall Organic farm, based in Shropshire, is one of the longest running natural organic farms in England and has been in a community ownership since 2006. They are committed to building a sustainable and affordable future for farming – while creating a fun and interactive space for visitors to enjoy the picturesque countryside. 

Arthur Hollins, founder of the Fordhall Organic farm, vowed after World War Two, to never put chemical fertilisers on the land of Fordhall again. Since his passing in 2005, his children Charlotte and Ben Hollins have continued his extraordinary work. 

Charlotte Hollins with a sheep. Credit: Charlotte Hollins,

Charlotte Hollins said: “You can have two types of smallholdings; you can have a productive one – that’s actually trying to produce food. And you can have a smallholding that someone’s just got to pet sheep and horses and its actually just there for fun.

“Neither is right or wrong. However, if you have more of the latter, you remove the opportunity for more productive farming.” 

After an intense battle fighting for the ownership of Fordhall Farm between 2004-2006, Charlotte and her brother truly look out for the smaller farmers. 

Charlotte said: “ There is no reason why you can’t have more smaller farms, and I would call them small farms – not smallholdings. That I think more smaller family farms is absolutely what is needed to get the complexity to manage land at a landscape scale in the limits that we have – each field we have on the farm we manage differently – and we have 128 acres here at Fordhall,

“but when you’ve got thousands of acres, you rely then on technology to make the differences between each field. “

“I could also argue that then also does lead to monoculture – does lead to biodiversity loss, because you haven’t got the same care and attention a machine is going to give – as a person’s going to give and the same observations that you can take – to what birds are flying over the sky and have you got worms in your soil. So, I think definitely people managing smaller plots of land for productive food production in an environmental, agro-ecological way – would be advantageous. But it’s not economically viable.”

Fordhall farm is not only community owned but has a strong community feel throughout the whole place. From the school trips that children can take here, to the walks that locals go on across the back fields – Charlotte and Ben have created a home for humans and animals of all shapes and sizes.  

“Every single day small family farms go on the market and no-one can afford to buy that piece of land to pay a mortgage off on the incoming rate. So, therefore those that go into the small pieces of land are the people that have lots of money and their not looking to make any money for it and you potentially then end up with people that think it’s just nice to have a field with some animals in it. “