I read an article in a British smallholders’ magazine recently by two former townies who have moved to South Devon to live sustainably and away from the rat-race entitled “Ten things we have learnt about living on a smallholding”. It made for interesting reading.
Of course, many of the things the two Brits have learnt on their patch of countryside don’t apply to living on a plot in Gauteng. For example, in the UK one is very carefully controlled as to what one can do and build on one’s land. Council permission is a must, even if you want to erect a greenhouse. And, because of periodic outbreaks of mad cow disease, moving livestock over any distance at all in the UK is a legal and logistical nightmare.
Then there’s the water issue. Here, we are pretty constantly short of water. It’s a hot dry country we live in. There, one is pretty constantly trying to drain one’s land of the excess, a failure of which will result in one’s livestock suffering from foot rot and all manner of waterborne ailments.
But there are some aspects of smallholding life which we share and are probably common the world over.
For example, you will want to get to know your neighbours, from a security perspective, or to ensure you follow the correct procedures for firebreak preparation or fence repairs, but also because, if you have kids and they have kids, you will often find them messing about together on ponies, quad bikes or whatever. An instant friendship circle with, hopefully, not too many scraped knees or bust heads. In the UK, too, country folk, when you get to know them, are unfailingly generous of their time and friendship.
Then there is the question of death. There is a lot of death on a plot. Dogs, cats and cage birds die of disease or old age. Chickens keel over inexplicably, (or need their necks wrung), and sheep, goats, pigs and cattle all need to grace the family table at some time if they are not merely to be expensive, oversize housepets and lawnmowers. Here, we South Africans, even squeamish townie ones, have an advantage, as our workers are often from much more rural backgrounds that we are and come with an enviable skill-set when it comes to slaughtering animals and dressing carcasses. If one has such employees, therefore, one can simply leave it up to them (although in my case I vowed that I would never ask anybody on my plot to do anything I wasn’t prepared to do myself so I got my admirably-skilled farm worker to show me how it is done.)
Not that I slaughter my own animals any more. Not having a bandsaw, or meat cleaver etc meant that the spoilage factor, even under the tutelage of my farm worker, made the exercise wasteful. And, besides, even with the most atavistic will in the world I found the whole exercise somewhat nauseating, to the extent that I would become an involuntary vegetarian for a few days after. So nowadays I sell my surplus livestock on the hoof, and send my wife to the butcher with the takings to buy meat for the freezer.
In the UK, you do your own slaughtering with no helpful handlanger to guide you, or you find an abattoir that suits your purpose close by.
Still with livestock, on one aspect we differ, and that’s the question of stock theft. There, one can leave one’s animals out in the field, especially on warm nights. Here, such a practice would soon render them “takeaways” in no time.
Not that theft, stock or otherwise, is unknown there. My UK-based sister once watched from her seat aboard a train her Landrover being nicked from the station parking lot just as her commuter express from her country village to London began pulling out of the station.
But another similarity we share is that one never stops learning on a smallholding. And, as a corollary, one is never, ever, idle on a plot.
And one’s never too old to take advice from neighbours and experts around one, and neither should one be too clever or superior, because pride will come before the fall. Long ago, I was proudly (and probably pompously) showing a new smallholder friend, who professed to want to learn about fixing a Vaaljapie, around my own such tractor, having spent considerable time and effort stripping and painting the bodywork, and overhauling the engine before re-assembling it. I had been mildly puzzled, once I got the tractor started again, that it was running hot, and I put it down to the engine being tight and needing to be run in. He, however, peered at the engine, and the radiator, and asked, “Isn’t your radiator fan on back to front?” Of course it was…