Posted by: Mike Grenville | 28 April 2009

Review: Surviving and Thriving on the Land

What Can Transition Initiatives Learn from Smallholders?


Rebecca Laughton, author of the newly published ‘Surviving and Thriving on the Land’ (Green Books), has written the following article exclusively for Transition, about what lessons Transition initiatives might learn from the smallholding community.  It draws from the book, which is based on extensive research and interviews with people in a broad range of intentional communities and smallholdings.

Lessons from Low Impact Living on the Land, by Rebecca Laughton.

In order to feed ourselves in a post peak oil future, a much larger proportion of the population will need to live and work on the land. Such a prospect appeals to many, but are we prepared for the work involved in managing land with minimal reliance on fossil fuels?

Many communities focus on subsistence, rather than commercial food production, resulting in a significantly lower cost of living.

Many communities focus on subsistence, rather than commercial food production, resulting in a significantly lower cost of living.

During the past fifteen years, the low impact development movement has created affordable opportunities for people to live and work on the land. Tinkers Bubble was one of the first projects to obtain permission for a small community to live in self-built homes on 40 acres of land in Somerset. Members of the community manage orchards, grassland, gardens and a forestry plantation without the use of fossil fuel powered machinery, whilst aiming to derive their income from the land’s resources.

In addition, residents cook solely with firewood and generate electricity with wind and solar power. During the time I lived at Tinkers Bubble I worked hard at growing and selling organic vegetables, took part in the communal decision-making process, hand-milked our house cows, and sawed all my own firewood by hand. Whist my lifestyle was probably sustainable in terms of natural resource use, I sometimes found myself running low on that other, most valuable of resources – human energy.

The maintenance of personal health and happiness is imperative for the success of any environmental project, and I set out to discover how other smallholders and community members manage to balance their own needs, with ecological sustainability and economic viability. Many of my findings are applicable to the Transition movement, especially those who are endeavouring to adopt a low carbon, land-based lifestyle in an economy where cheap oil still provides challenges to economic competitiveness.

The significance of social structure

Efficient, proactive weed control is paramount when using solely hand tools for commercial vegetable production.

Efficient, proactive weed control is paramount when using solely hand tools for commercial vegetable production.

The only places I encountered that were avoiding the use of fossil fuels altogether were communities. On the whole, such communities are primarily producing for subsistence, rather than commercially. Thus, there is less need to be economically competitive, although self-sufficiency significantly reduces living costs for community residents.

Also, in communities there are more people, with a diverse range of skills, to do the work. Although domestic vegetable production is possible for a single person using solely hand tools, as soon cereal crops or farm animals that require winter forage are introduced, the need for labour increases dramatically. Never has the proverb, “many hands make light work” seemed more apt than when making hay by hand – mowing with scythes, turning with pitchforks and transporting it by a cart pulled by the horse who will eat some of the hay that winter. Potential drudgery was turned into an idyllic rural party.

Another benefit of community life is the “on-the-spot” practical and emotional support network. Whether you need help with child-care or polytunnel irrigation while you go on holiday, there is always someone you can call on. The challenge of living communally is that decision-making takes longer, sometimes resulting in intractable conflicts. Good communication is vital, yet takes time and energy. Many commercial smallholders prefer to trade in the benefits of community, in order to be more efficient and have greater control over their operation.

I concluded that the ideal set-up would be to have geographically clustered, independent smallholdings, which combine the best of both worlds – sovereignty over your own patch of soil, but with like-minded neighbours only a walk away when you need them.

Order, tidiness and energy efficient design

Many hands make light work - Haymaking at Tinkers Bubble

Many hands make light work – Haymaking at Tinkers Bubble

Another valuable proverb is, “a stitch in time saves nine”. Nowhere is this more applicable than in the garden, where early hoeing of seedling weeds can save hours of pulling larger ones later. Likewise, well maintained fencing avoids the frustration of crops being destroyed by escaped animals. Successful smallholdings are notable for their tidiness and order. Tools are stored clean in an organised tool shed, so they can be found when needed, and are maintained so they are sharp and efficient to use.

Forethought given to good design can pay huge dividends in human energy as well as fuel/electricity efficiency. The relative location of different elements of a system can reduce back-breaking work and time-consuming walking between jobs. For example, when building an animal shelter, make use of any natural slope to allow manure to move downhill, and if the garden/field that receives that muck is next door, so much the better.

Time management

Any land-based project will have its “bottleneck periods”, when everything seems to need to be done at once. It takes skill to remain calm when the pressure is on. List-making is a good way to prioritise tasks, but try to avoid becoming ruled by the desire to reach the end of the list. It is wise not to have high expectations of what can be achieved in a day, but instead build in elasticity, so that unforeseen events, such as a surprise visit from a friend, or catching escaped animals, can be accommodated. Jobs invariably take longer than anticipated, and it is easy to spread yourself too thin as you get distracted by other seemingly urgent tasks. One smallholder I encountered found it best if she planned to do only one task each day, so if she got another done it was a bonus, rather than trying to do too many things in a day and being disappointed.

Everyone benefits from regular rests to restore their energy and enthusiasm amidst the mental and physical work of land management. Even when in the midst of a highly pressurised period it is vital to take regular breaks for refreshment and the occasional day off. Where several workers are involved, breaking the day into two hour chunks, and gathering everyone together for tea and lunch breaks at the same time each day can be a significant motivating force. The conversation during such breaks can do as much to re-energise people as the food and drink.

A final word

Above all, get to know your limits. Regularly pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion or injuring yourself by working too long will only cause bigger problems later on. If the land/your business/the global environment seems to demand that you go beyond your limits, maybe it is time to consider a different way of doing things. Even Gandhi, the very principled social activist, took a pragmatic approach to compromise, stating that, “The work for which you are setting out should consist in living a sane and lasting, and therefore, a model life, and not in killing yourselves in an out of the ordinary way. Believe me, it is my very love of truth which has taught me the beauty of compromise”.

Rebecca’s book ‘Surviving and Thriving on the Land’ is out now, and available from here.



  1. My family is weighing up the pros and cons of moving out of a city to a small holding. Rebecca’s book is proving to be one of the most useful resources to assess how sensible this might be. We’re all very good at imagining the best of the future, not necessarily the most realistic of the future and Surviving and Thriving on the Land is a real insight into the real challenges.

    USA: TX, MS, FL, CA, AR; Mexico, Rep. Dominicana, Côté d’Ivoire, Nigeria,
    Nicaragua, Honduras, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Haiti, England, India, Uzbekistan

    Workshops in organic, no-till, permanent bed gardening, mini-farming and mini-ranching worldwide in English & Español

    Proven Practices for Home Gardening

    These are based on the internet, US & international agriculture magazines, experiences teaching agriculture in many countries, research and farmer experiences in those countries and a demonstration garden. They are ecologically sustainable, environmentally responsible, socially just and economically viable. There is unlimited, documented proof. On mini-farms the following can double the yields and reduce the labor by half compared to traditional methods. There are 200,000,000 no-till acres worldwide. ¡It works!

    Fukaoka Farm, Japan, has been no-till [rice, small grains, vegetables] for 70 years. An Indian gardener has been no-till [vegetables] for 5 years. A Malawi gardener has been no-till [vegetables] on permanent beds for 25 years. A Honduras farmer has been no-till [vegetables & fruit] on permanent beds on the contour (73° slope] for 8 years. Ruth Stout [USA] had a no-till garden for 30 years and 7,000 people visited her garden. In 2006 a Cal urban mini-farm of 1/10 acre produced 6,000 lbs. of vegetables [not organic; not no-till]. OSU/OARDC: gross $90,000 acre. Not organic; not no-till.

    1. Willing to change: in the mind & in the garden.
    2. Financial: Little funds are needed. A few hand tools, seed, free land available, irrigation water.
    3. Restore the soil to its natural health: Contaminations: inorganic pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.
    4. Healthy soil: Healthy soil produces healthy vegetables, for high yields, and prevents most of the disease, pest and weed problems.
    5. Feed the soil; not the crops [Inorganics feed the plants and poison the soil; organics feed the soil and promote health.]
    6. Increase soil organic matter every year
    7. Little or no external inputs [not necessary to buy anything, from anybody, for the garden. Certain things are recommended]
    8. Leave all crop residue on the beds.
    9. No-till: no tilling, no digging, no plowing, no cultivating: No hard physical labor is needed so the elderly, children and lazy people can garden.
    10. Permanent beds
    11. Permanent paths
    12. Hand tools & power-hand tools
    13. 12-months production
    14. Hoophouses, row covers, shade cloth
    15. Greenhouse [DIY but usually not needed]
    16. Organic fertilizers [16-20 probably not needed with healthy soil]
    17. Organic disease control.
    18. Organic herbicides.
    19. Organic pesticides.
    20. Biological pest control.
    21. Attract beneficials
    22. Protect pollinators
    23. Protect soil organisms
    24. Soil always covered
    25. Use mulch/green manures/cover crops.
    26. Organic matter: Free. Delivered free? When economically feasible, transport to the farm. Use as mulch.
    27. Composting: Not necessary except for special use. Too much time and work. Pile excess organic matter until used as mulch.
    28. Vermiculture Not necessary. Worms will be in the beds.
    29. Crop rotation
    30. Inter-cropping
    31. Drip irrigation [Purchase or DIY drip lines]
    32. Muscovies and Guineas
    33. Small animals in pens over beds
    34. Legume/grass forages
    35. Hay/silage for winter as needed
    36. Grains as needed
    37. Imitate nature. Most gardeners fight nature. ¡Nature always wins!

    Ken Hargesheimer

    When Soil is Tilled
    Dr. Elaine Ingham, describes an undisturbed soil—where a wide diversity of plants grow, their roots mingling with a wide diversity of soil organisms—and how it changes when it is plowed. A typical teaspoon of native grassland soil contains between 600 million and 800 million individual bacteria that are members of perhaps 10,000 species. Several miles of fungi are in that teaspoon of soil, as well as 10,000 individual protozoa. There are 20 to 30 beneficial nematodes from as many as 100 species. Root-feeding nematodes are quite scarce in truly healthy soils. They are present, but in numbers so low that it is rare to find them.

    After only one tilling, a few species of bacteria and fungi disappear because the food they need is no longer put back in the system. But for the most part, all the suppressive organisms, all the nutrient cyclers, all the decomposers, all the soil organisms that rebuild good soil structure are still present and trying to do their jobs.

    But tillage continues to deplete soil organic matter and kill fungi. The larger predators are crushed, their homes destroyed. The bacteria go through a bloom and blow off huge amounts of that savings-account organic matter. With continued tillage, the “policemen” (organisms) that compete with and inhibit disease are lost. The “architects” that build soil aggregates are lost. So are the “engineers”—the larger organisms that design and form the larger pores in soil. The predators that keep bacteria, fungi, and root-feeding organisms in check are lost. Disease suppression declines, soil structure erodes, and water infiltration decreases because mineral crusts form. Dr. Elaine Ingham, BioCycle, December 1998. (From ATTRA News, July 06)

  3. Rebecca’s view makes a lot of sense. To achieve anything close to self-sufficiency, community is needed, as none of us can do it all alone. Amazingly, we have found on our first 18 months on a small 5 acre holding, that others like us in our area are naturally forming an informal community of sorts. At the moment it is based on a shared love of homebrew and good yarns around a fire, but also holds the promise of interdependence through helping each other if and when that becomes necessary.

  4. Thanks for the article, Rebecca. It really helped! We have been growing, storing our own food etc. for the last twol years on a very small holding and I find sometimes that I could cry with the amount of work to be done and the fact that I am not physically able to work 6 hours a day or carry enormous loads on my shoulders! So I am going to try to work in a rythm of 2 hours at a time, do one thing at a time, etc! Its amazing how easy it is to transfer the stresses of the working city “dealines” to self-imposed ones when working on the land!

  5. Rebecca – while I read a lot of good practical sense in your article on smallholding, as a farmer myself it raised some concerns.

    First, anyone who’s been working the land for a living over the last decade knows that the climate is getting increasingly unstable. The scale of a smallholding means that there can be little in the way of reserve options when weather disrupts, or destroys, production –

    Second, getting a living means, for most smallholders, getting a job, and often the costs of a vehicle to commute to it.
    This means that working time on the land is much reduced, further cutting the yields available.
    It also means that we are once again heading into what happenned in Thatcher’s first recession – when untold numbers of smallholders couldn’t earn enough to meet the bills, and were forced to sell up.
    Which was a deep sorrow for many.

    Thus I’d challenge the ethics of gaily encouraging novices to buy smallholdings, especially at the outset of this unprecedented slump.

    What would you say to those families who get forced out ?

    I think there is an alternative option that offers better prospects of sustainable livings, though it will require much work. It is that of buying a substantial farm in common, (for less than the price of multiple smallholdings) and, beside meeting on-farm food & energy needs, adding value to every possible item of produce before it is sold.
    In this way outlays are minimized while optimizing income streams – and people get to share the land, permanently.



  6. […] Review: Surviving and Thriving on the Land « Transition Network News In order to feed ourselves in a post peak oil future, a much larger proportion of the population will need to live and work on the land. Such a prospect appeals to many, but are we prepared for the work involved in managing land with minimal reliance on fossil fuels? […]

  7. […] Also reviewed  Transition Network News here […]

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