Next month marks nine years since we moved our family from Toowoomba to the little smallholding in the hills we call Thistlebrook. A lot has happened in that time. We've added two kids to the brood. Endured biblical floods and droughts. Seen neighbours come and go. Raised livestock and buried dead stock. We've had seasons of plenty and seasons of want.
The summer just passed was about average, produce-wise, which in real terms means that we had an abundance of some things, and a lean season for others. The blackberries were epic, for example, but the tomatoes...dismal. We've picked a reasonable amount, but blight got the plants during a December wet spell and they haven't recovered. As for the current season, autumn is shaping up to to be similar, with abundance and scarcity in roughly equal measure.
What hasn't been abundant in the last few months is money. We've been running such a tight ship since Christmas that the bolts holding the beast together have almost sheered off from the pressure. We're essentially holding on for grim death until next term, when some invoices are due for payment and, barring a catastrophe, we can ease the strain and loosen things up a bit.
No-one tells you about this aspect of smallholding life when you're stuck in the city and dreaming nightly of a move to the country. You can research books and websites in minute detail and you can pick the brains of those hardy souls who've already made the move and persevere with the dream. Personal finances are one of the last great taboos, so for the most part, nearly everyone who blogs, speaks, and spruiks about smallholding will never mention the fact that this way of life has always been financially precarious, at best, and devastatingly effective at forcing a signature on a bankruptcy form, at worst.
Here's the hard truth: Unless you have major capital reserves that enable you to purchase a viable property outright, or you can earn very decent off farm income, or you can grow high value crops that earn a decent on-farm income, or you have a thriving farm related business, it's nigh on impossible to make smallholding pay its own pay. We've tried, and failed. Almost all of our income now comes from off farm sources (for me, writing, for Kylie, piano teaching) and that's barely enough to make ends meet.
This isn't a whinge. Or a plea for help. Or a boast, if that's the way your mind interprets such personal financial disclosures. It's simply a statement of fact, and I hope, a case in point. In addition to the hard truth I just outlined, there's another: Time is money.
Benjamin Franklin, American Founding Father and renowned polymath, coined this phrase. It refers to the concept of "opportunity cost", which is one of those wanky terms economists like to trot out to impress economic plebs like you and I, but it's a concept worth getting your head around. In simple terms it is the value of the next best thing you give up when you make a decision. The simplified version of Wikipedia puts it this way:
"Opportunity cost is how much leisure time we give up to work. Because leisure and income are both valued, we have to decide whether to work, or do what we want. Going to work implies more income but less leisure. Staying at home is more leisure yet less income."
In smallholding terms it might go something like "opportunity cost is how much farming/food growing/smallholding time we give up to earn an off farm income. The more work we do off-farm, the less time there is for smallholding."
The ideal situation is to use your land to produce enough food to feed your family, and produce a surplus that can be sold for good money, generating enough income to make the smallholding financially viable. I know of some really hardworking, clever people around Australia who've managed to achieve this, but for most smallholders, it's simply not going to happen.
So what's the solution? What advice would I give someone determined to make their smallholding dream a reality? I've got a few ideas.
Grow high value crops and farm full time. This is doable, but you'll need the right combination of factors to make it work. Decent land helps. A reliable, cheap water supply is a must. Really hard, physical work is a given. The right kind of crops must grow in your climate, and you'll also need access to markets that will value your produce highly and be willing to pay a premium.
Minimise, or eliminate debt. To own a piece of land outright is to ensure maximum flexibility when it comes to opportunity cost. One of our issues at Thistlebrook is that we still have a chunky (but not excessive) mortgage keeping us tied to the rack, and this eats up a large part of our monthly income. One way to minimise debt is to buy a cheap property, and in certain parts of Australia (eg TASSIE!!) this is still a possibility. As for high interest consumer debt such as credit cards and interest free deals - they're the work of Lucifer himself. Pay them down and close the account or better still, avoid them in the first place, however tempting.
Minimise expenses. The more frugal you can be, the more time you will have to farm. In fact, these two are interrelated. By growing your own food, cutting your own firewood, harvesting your own water and so on, you will reduce your expenses, freeing up more time to farm. But pay attention to the idea of opportunity cost (see below).
Try really hard to get your opportunity cost settings right, and revise them continually. A friend of mine worked for a while as a dentist. He was in such a decent paying job that he could afford to work a day or two a week, buy a house to live in and a house to rent out, and spend the other few days a week studying for a second degree and doing whatever he damn well pleased. But not all of us are qualified for high paying jobs. Some of us (me included) work in struggling industries where the rate of pay hasn't increased in a decade or more, while the cost of living has gone interstellar. get the balance between time and money right and you'l be more likely to keep the smallholding dream viable.
Persevere. My family is at a critical moment right now. We're making hard choices. One option is to quit this way of life, get decent full time jobs and dramatically downsize the amount of land under our care. Or, we can stay put, spend less time smallholding and more time earning money. The choice is that simple, and that complicated.
For now, we've chosen to stay put, and to persevere. This means that we'll have to bear the cost to time spent actually in the garden growing things, and will require us to really prioritise what we do and don't want to grow. I'll probably spend less time and space on plants that my immediate family doesn't like to eat, and devote more time and space to the things we really love. There's no way we could give up entirely, knowing deep in the pit of our guts that smallholding is the most direct path to the good life. And the good life - purposeful life that is inwardly rich but outwardly poor - is absolutely, doggedly, worth striving for.