How to farm for free (almost)

Ever wanted to live the Good Life but can’t afford the land? Rebecca Sullivan has great advice on how you can grow veg and even keep livestock without spending a fortune

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Ah the Good Life! So many of us want a simpler life where we grow more of our own food in a sustainable manner. We’re all being encouraged to grow more of our own veg and turn unused land into productive plots. Some of us are already lucky enough to have gardens where we grow a few vegetables, but should we be more ambitious and look to become a bit more self-sufficient? And is there any hope for those of us without the outdoor space?

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The biggest stumbling block is the cost. Property prices are still high and most of us can’t afford to set up a smallholding. But what if you could get the land for free, even if you live in an inner-city flat?

Here are some simple ways to acquiring that desirable land and growing food, with little, or better still, no money at all. (And don’t forget to share experiences of growing your own and
your advice for getting the most out of your plot, however small – email editor@countryfile.com).

1. Allotments

The first thing that springs to everyone’s mind when thinking about growing a bit of veg or planting a few fruit bushes is an allotment. Well you are right; it is one of the simplest ways to acquire land for very little money. In the UK, allotments are small parcels of land rented to individuals, usually for the purpose of growing food crops and for a minimal fee. There is no set standard size, but the most common plot is about 10 rods, an ancient measurement equivalent to 302 square yards or 253 square metres.

Any kind of vegetable, fruit, flower or herb can be grown on your allotment, but some councils will limit the amount of space taken
up by fruit, so be sure to check what you can and can’t grow before you sign a tenancy agreement. Rules vary depending on your council, but in some places you can also keep hens and other livestock, keep bees or build a hut or shed on your allotment if there’s not one already there.

Plus, allotments not only enable you to grow a plethora of free food, but they are also a fantastic way to meet new people and forge strong community bonds.

Under the 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act, where there is demand, it is the duty of the local authority to provide residents, registered on the electoral roll, with allotment space. The Act even gives local authorities the power to compulsorily acquire land for allotments, if they don’t have sufficient already.

What do I do now?

  • For general information: www.allotments-uk.com
  • To find out more about renting an allotment: www.direct.gov.uk
  •  Contact your local council for information about allotments in your area. There can be long waiting lists, but this can be overcome if as many of six of you petition the council for land. A good example is the Bristol City Council website, which has a comprehensive list of allotment sites across the city and even indicates which sites have vacant plots. They may be able to give you an idea of how long your wait is likely to be. Your local council should have the same information.
  • Talk to some of the current allotment holders to see if anyone needs an extra pairs of hands or is willing to share their allotment.
  • Every allotment site has a rep. Find out who they are and make friends with them.


2. Common land

Some of us have access to land for grazing livestock and don’t even know it. If you live near a common, your property’s title deeds may reveal that you have rights to utilise its resources. Common land and common rights are a hangover from medieval times – or even earlier – when those on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder relied on access to common land to graze their animals, collect wood for the fire and bracken for bedding. These rights still exist in many areas.

In total, there are 1.3 million acres (526,000 ha) of common land in England and Wales, ranging from inner-city parks to wild moorland. Common rights vary from site to site – for example how many cattle or sheep you can put on the land, how many trees may be felled etc.

Keeping livestock may seem daunting, but one householder in Cambridge has managed to use her common rights to graze a small herd of cattle on Midsummer Common. Many smallholders make use of common land to increase the numbers of livestock they can keep.

What do I do now?

  • Check your property’s title deeds for any common rights.
  • Visit the Open Spaces Society website www.oss.org.uk
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3. Foraging

Think of the countryside as an allotment where all the work is done for you. Wild foods are available all the year round, and even in the winter months you can find tasty morsels that will cost nothing, so long as you know what you’re picking. Although only the most dedicated foragers survive solely on wild foods, they are an excellent addition to your diet and can help reduce the cost of your main shop, particularly in autumn when there is a glut of blackberries (above), sloes, feral apple trees, plums and nuts.


What do I do now?

4. Landshare

Landshare – recently championed by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – brings together landowners with spare land, and those without land who are keen to grow vegetables. It’s a brilliantly simple idea, with the aim to bring more unused or waste land into production so that those with small or no gardens can have the opportunity to grow their own food or even raise livestock. The landowners benefit as they receive a proportion of the produce. Even better, it helps create a sense of community and a sharing of knowledge.

All you need to do is sign up, either offering to give land in return for produce, or produce goods in return for land. There are plenty of forums, blogs and advice online to give you all of the information you need to be a successful landsharer.

What do I do now?

5. Be creative with existing space

More and more people are using flat roofs, vertical spaces and other non-traditional areas to grow food. Even if you only have a tiny windowsill, you can grow salad and herbs and save yourself a few pounds a week. Having them growing in your kitchen means you cut down on waste, such as plastic bags or cartons. But if you have a sturdy garage with a flat roof, why not consider putting a few raised beds on top?

Some chefs are taking things even further. Take Shane Osborn, two-Michelin star chef at Pied a Terre on Charlotte Street, London. We met on a fairly cloudy Tuesday afternoon to discuss what he could do at his restaurant. I checked out his roof (which is no bigger than three square metres) and a week later we had planted nine different varieties of herbs, tomatoes, blueberries, raspberries and even built a beehive.

Shane now saves his business nearly £140 per week on herbs and has access to them at their peak for maximum freshness. He grows what he wants – not what he’s told he can have by suppliers – and he can compost a lot of the food scraps from the kitchen such as peelings and coffee grinds and dig the results back into his roof garden.

What do I do now?

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