Designing Your Small Farm: Choosing What Animals and Crops to Raise
Before selecting crops and livestock for your home farm it is important to decide what your aim is, whilst being realistic about what you can manage given your acreage, soil fertility and climate. If you aim to be as self sufficient as possible you will want to select a wide range of crops and several animal species. If you aim to produce income you might chose to specialise in fewer crops which have a higher resale value such as asparagus and raspberries or crops which you can turn into a higher value product such as Goats milk for yoghurt and cheese.
You will also need to decide whether you are prepared to kill and eat your own livestock or cull unproductive ones. If not, but you want to keep chickens for egg laying for instance you will have to accept that some of your space will end up being taken by elderly birds producing few eggs.
Livestock for your Home Farm
Factors to consider when choosing livestock for your home farm:
What end products do you want e.g. Eggs, meat, milk, wool, fur, fish? What do you like the taste of? For example not everyone likes the taste of duck eggs.
Is there another purpose in keeping the animal for example to show your animals? If so you will probably want to get pedigree animals, such as maran chickens rather than the more productive commercial hybrids.
If you don’t have much land you could opt to keep your animals penned for much of the year, but would have to buy in more food for them. Most small holders wanting to produce milk for home use select goats, such as the golden Guernsey, rather than cattle as they take up less space, may stay in milk for years after producing a kid and produce a more manageable quantity of milk for a small family.
You need to be realistic about what you are able to handle and about your own knowledge when starting out with livestock. Research your chosen species and breeds, try to go on a course at a local agricultural college if possible to gain some experience of handling and caring for them or spend some time helping out other smallholders with their stock.
All livestock need care every day, but some require quite a lot of time on a daily basis such as dairy goats, whilst others might require a lot of time seasonally such as angora goats at shearing time. You will need to consider who will care for them if you want to take holidays.
One of the joys of having your own livestock is being able to select a breed which you like the look of. You only have to look at the range of chicken breeds available to realise that people have been selecting for appearance in livestock, as well as qualities such as egg laying, for generations.
Dual purpose breeds are a boon if you are aiming for self-sufficiency. For example the rex rabbit is a good for both meat and fur and the Khaki Campbell duck which is quite a prolific egg layer, also makes a good bird for the table - it will also help you out by eating slugs around your crops.
Some smallholders also make money from the sale of breeding stock to other hobby farmers or as pets. In recent years fancy and traditional breeds of chickens have risen in popularity with people enjoying keeping them in gardens as a productive and decorative pet.
An added bonus from livestock is that they will produce droppings. You might not think this is a bonus when you are cleaning out their pens, but added to the compost heap it will help improve your soil's fertility.
Crops for Your Home Farm
Factors to Consider when choosing plant crops for your home farm.
Although you can work to improve your soil’s fertility by incorporating lots of manure and compost, infertile, thin soil could initially limit what you can grow successfully. A crucial part of your home farm should be maintaining and improving the soil. To this end you might want to grow crops known as ‘green manures’ such as fenugreek and forage rye for the fact that they can be dug back into the soil to improve it.
As a smallholder you are unlikely to run to the expense of heated greenhouses to extend your productive season greatly, but you can still get earlier crops by making use of a poly tunnel if you live in a temperate climate.
Water is also a factor and having enough water can be critical at certain phases of plant growth. For example potatoes need water most whilst the tubers are forming until they are harvested, whilst onions need to be wet during bulb formation but ideally dry nearer harvest.
Artificial irrigation can be useful, but is often time consuming and an additional expense.
You are likely to be more successful if you work with the climate when choosing crops. For example, olives and citrus fruits would be likely to disappoint if grown on a smallholding in Wales, but could be just the thing in Florida.
Produce - What do you want your plants to produce for you? Be specific; if the answer is fruit then do you want fruit for eating fresh, cooking, freezing, bottling, jams, jellies, juices, cider. The list of products you can get from plants goes well beyond just food and drink and includes hemp, cotton, fuel and timber.
Do you want to be self sufficient in as many areas of life as possible or would you prefer to concentrate on being self sufficient in food?
If you plan to be completely self-sufficient in food you might find that it is easier to change your diet then to grow all the different types of food that we as modern consumers are used to. In the UK that could mean eating a lot more red currents, which grow well here, and no bananas. As with anything it is easier to start small – perhaps aiming to be self-sufficient in 10 fruits and vegetables and then extend your range as you become more experienced and confident.
What Do you Like Eating?
It's easy to get carried away with a crop if it grows well on your home farm, but if you are aiming for self-sufficiency there is no point in growing marrows or leeks just because they grow well if you don't like eating them - unless of course you plan to enter the 'biggest marrow' competition at your local show. If marrows grow well in your area they are likely to be of little use to barter with or swap because everyone else will have them too. However if you can find a profitable niche product that you can make from your leek or marrow glut, you might be on to a winner.
You may decide not to grow some crops but to forage for them in the countryside for example blackberries may be plentiful in your local hedgerows for free.