Big potential of smallholdings

Television programmes such as River Cottage and Jimmy’s Farm have helped highlight the potential of small-scale agricultural enterprises – leading to a demand for smallholdings – a new report has found.

Barriers to accessing farming as a career, and the entrepreneurial activities and lifestyle benefits associated with having a smallholding, have also contributed according to research by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

The Future Demand for Smallholdings in Scotland report, by Steven Thomson, Rob Mc Morran and Eugenio Perez Certucha, found there was demand for access to smallholdings from people with a wide range of backgrounds, but particularly those with some experience of living or working on land-based businesses.

The researchers analysed June Agricultural Census data, and carried out an online survey and workshops with SRUC students and staff to determine the level of interest in having a smallholding; the types of smallholdings and activities of interest to participants; and the key perceived barriers and opportunities to becoming a smallholder.

In 2018, there were more than 20,000 unique non-croft smallholdings in Scotland, generating a turnover of around £175 million – about six per cent of Scottish agriculture’s total.

Steven Thomson said: “Instead of using the conventional definition of smallholdings, which excludes many intensive horticulture, pig and poultry businesses, this analysis demonstrates that when smallholdings are simply defined by the amount of land they have access to, then some smallholders are making significant economic contributions.”

However, prospective smallholders are often put off by start-up costs, and a lack of availability, income potential and knowledge about how to obtain a smallholding.

Of the 126 survey respondents, 89 per cent had previously thought about becoming a smallholder, with nearly a third aspiring to do so within the next three years, just under half aiming to do so within four to ten years, and the remainder viewing it as a longer-term option.

Those focused on developing a business were more likely to have an interest in conventional livestock, poultry, artisan food, a farm shop, tourism and renewable energy, while for others there was a higher tendency towards a horticulture, equine/livery and conservation focus.

Rob Mc Morran said: “We found that the survey respondents and workshop participants could generally be classified as ‘lifestyle’ or ‘entrepreneurial’ potential smallholders.
“Among those with well-established business ideas, these opportunities often related to what would normally be classified as farm diversification or alternative enterprise.”
The report concluded: “Many of these opportunities do not need large areas of land, but require a unique selling point, access to their target market and to be marketed and run with a degree of entrepreneurial flair.”

The report identifies several opportunities for increasing smallholding activity, including the provision of start-up grants, small business training and guidance and support.

Further opportunities for the Government to improve access to smallholdings include: providing incentives for landowners to create small holdings; creating publicly owned smallholdings; relaxing planning regulations to enable new smallholders to build homes; and promoting the benefits and economic opportunities of smallholding in Scotland.

The research was funded through the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme 2016-2021, with the support of SEFARI.

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