Days on a Smallholding, Part 1

Gone WWOOFing!

Doesn’t that sound funny? WWOOF stands for World Wide Organization of Organic Farms and/or Willing Workers on Organic Farms, depending on your information source. It was actually started here in the UK by a woman who wanted to give urban folks the chance to spend time on farms. Can’t remember if she was the farmer or the volunteer. Anyway, the point is for volunteers to learn more about how to garden, keep animals or even just have the opportunity to interact with those who create their food. The farmers get willing volunteers to help out with skilled and/or unskilled labor, at no cost. Both benefit. At first it was just folks coming to help for a day or a weekend. Over time, the WWOOF situations began to develop into more long-term stays – much like an apprenticeship for young people interested in becoming farmers themselves. And as the idea spread from country to country, folks saw that they could volunteer in different countries. WWOOFing has become a popular way to travel for those interested in working their way around a country or the world!

So here I am, an old lady of 49, gone WWOOFing for a bit myself! As most of you know, I’ve tried my hand at keeping chickens and rabbits (quite successfully), growing vegetables (meh, only moderately successfully), and taking care of dairy goats as part of a goat coop in Santa Fe. I only recently found out that there IS a history of farming in my family, on my dad’s side. I always thought I was just some weird anomaly in the Weisman family. 

But having a farm these days is a tricky business. It’s hard, physical work. Land (good land with water rights) is expensive – at least it is in New Mexico. Most successful farms are gargantuan, commercial ventures. They run on a scale and in a mode that far outstrips anything I’d ever be interested in doing. Still, there are ways…

In the US, we call it homesteading. In the UK it’s referred to as Smallholding. And even if it’s not exactly the old pioneering, start from scratch, “Westward, ho!” kind of venture any more, it’s how we generally refer to someone who wants to to own some land, keep a vegetable garden, maybe have some small livestock, and aims to live a generally more self-sufficient type life. A homesteader will have a few back issues of Mother Earth News or Organic Gardening lying around. Maybe even Small Farm Journal. They’ve got worn looking work boots – not fancy cowboy boots that never see straw or hiking boots that never get muddy. Homesteaders do not get mani/pedis. Why get your nails all fancied up when they’re just gonna have dirt under them in a half hour? 

Anyway, most small farms that I know of are supported by off-the-farm employment. Often it’s because income from off the farm far outstrips anything that can be made by working at home. Simple economics. Other farm owners choose to work in a different field while living in a rural atmosphere (often called a “hobby farm”). The small farm that is financially self-supporting is a bit of an oddity these days. I’m interested to know how folks are doing it. And yes, I could just investigate at home, in the US. But by WWOOFing, I can get my needed dose of “away” while observing and asking about contemporary farm life.

The first farm in my WWOOFing adventure was located just outside of Glasgow. If you head northwest for about a half hour, the city begins to taper off into suburbs. The suburbs then space themselves out as villages. Field after field of green grass is separated from its neighbor by gray stone walls. The walls  undulate up and over the hills and down into the valleys, maneuvering around stands of tall trees and along roadways. I doubt there’s a right angle on the land anywhere. It’s like a deep green crazy-quilt of pastures. All of Scotland’s countryside looks like this. The only difference is in the number and density of interrupting villages and the frequency of hills. Sometimes you can see for miles, sometimes only as far as the next set of hills. At Ardunan Farm, the buildings are set at the midpoint of a long, sloping hill. You can’t see the village of Strathblane, below. The trees and shape of the land make it impossible. However, you can see beyond the village valley to a set of smooth, treeless hills that jut up from the valley floor. I find it hard to call them mountains. It’s hard for anyone who lives at the tail of the southwest’s Rocky Mountains to call anything at this elevation “mountains”. However, I do recognize that these hills are the beginning of the hills and valleys that will develop into the Scottish Highlands just a few miles north. In fact, the famous Loch Lomond and the mountain Ben Lomond are within viewing distance not far from the farm. It is pure romantic Scotland, all around the place. My first day there, I took a walk nearly down to the village and saw all kinds of cottages and greenery and even Highland cows that let me know I was truly in Scotland.

The first day’s walk down to the village (outskirts) of Strathblane. Scottish hills beyond.
Lovely country homes surrounding the fam. Each has a name like “Dunblane House” or “Killbrudighe” inscribed on a plaque at the front gate or entryway.

Along the same road.
Woven willow fence, quite commonly seen where there is no stone wall or shrubbery.

A large field with Highland cows grazing. I saw a few calves and decided not to give the cows any reason to charge at me. Hey, have you noticed the blue skies?!?! Amazing.
Beautiful wildflowers everywhere.

The farm itself is a twenty something acre parcel that the owners bought many years ago. David and Gillian began developing it as a farm and their future home about eight years ago. Prior to living here, they were both Glaswegians. They lived in the upscale, fashionable West End. Both had high powered jobs. They ate out at restaurants every night. “Our friends and family thought we were absolutely knockers doing this farm thing” Gillian laughed to me on my first day there. “But they’ve gotten used to the idea and even come to visit now and again.” 

Due restrictions on the land (comparable to our zoning laws), they were not allowed to build a house here unless it was as part of a working farm. The intent was to keep the open land from being sold and turned into more suburbs. I don’t know if David and Gillian started the farm so they could build their house here or whether the reverse was true – that they wanted to have a farm and so ended up building a house out here to be near it. I do know that David has kept sheep here all the time he’s owned the place. The farm is now home to a small flock of sheep (maybe 40?), some pigs (about ten adults and numerous young ‘uns), a bunch of ducks, a handful of laying chickens, a few chickens kept for breeding stock, some vegetable beds, and a passel of turkey eggs were in the incubator during my week and a half stay. The main house was built recently. They moved in last February. There is also a large barn, several smaller huts, two caravans (mobile homes or trailers, as we would call them) and a bunch of trailers, stock trailers and unidentifiable farm machinery about. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge. I suspect that’s partly due to never having enough time to get anything done beyond the essential “have to”s and partly due to the recent house construction. There are still building supplies scattered everywhere. The entryway to the house is half plastered. A large, new hoop house is underway as well. It’s a busy place.

The farm from just down the hill. Pigs’ field just there in front, sheep pastured beyond on the left. Barn is the big structure to the left with green roof. House is on the right.
Gillian cleans off a new piglet while David looks on.

Looking back at the house from the sheep fields. Hoop house underway!
Ducks in the barn. Loud but fun. They were my favorites, after the sheep and Scooby.

Scooby, the white dove that has decided Ardunan Farm is its home. Plenty of food and water about, good dry barn for napping, people to talk with. what more could a dove ask for?
The sheep (some kind of Lleyn/Blue Faced Leicester mix.)

The first full day I was at the farm, one of the sows had a litter of about a billion piglets. (Okay, 14. But it was still a lot!) There was great stress and running about as David and Gillian had to set her up with her own pig house, water, food and area cordoned off by electric fencing. Then they tried to get her to go inside the house to have her babies. She was having none of it. She had them out in the open air, alongside her house, right smack in the straw and mud. It was extraordinary to be there right as all this was happening!

The field and pig “houses”. Barn beyond.
All 14 newly-born piglets and one very proud sow .
Me with a piglet! We had to bring a couple in for bottle feeding on the first night.

So that’s an overview of Ardunan Farm. More about the daily activities, exploring the area, and a few observations on farm life coming up.

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