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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Small holding v farming

I have slightly mixed feelings about curating the Smallholders Ireland Twitter account. What I don't like about it is something I really don't like in myself. It is a class/race thing.

I don't think any Irish farmer likes being called a smallholder, because it is a lesser sort of being than a farmer. We never had a 'Smallholders Act' like they had in England, instead we had land reform that turned tenant farmers into land owners. There is huge pride (and snobbery) attached to land ownership. The class system in Ireland is perhaps more fluid than in the UK but it is still attached to wealth, landownership and from time immemorial, to cattle.

Cattle are so much part of our psyche that the word for road, 'bothar' means cow track, and the word for boy, 'buchaill' means cowboy. Most northern Europeans have a history of cattle farming and perhaps it has made us the bullies we are internationally.

My grandfather Sam McKeever  described himself as  framer's son on the 1901 census form. He was 19 at the time, and in his older brother's house. His brother described himself as a 'grazier'.  Later he rented a farm, and started to buy out the lease, a job my father finished. The point I am making is that most farmers rented their land from the 10,000 or so, big estates, until the 20th century.
My great grandfather describes himself as grazier and cattle salesmaster in 1911

I am the last of my immediate family still farming. Giving up my milking cows in 1999 was like a bereavement. I still keep a few beef cattle although it makes very little financial sense, but I cling onto them for sentimental reasons.

I believe the future of my farm and of all  farming in Ireland will not include so many cattle, and will become more plant based, but it will be hard to take the cowboy out of the Irish farmer and replace it with a grower of crops. I also think the future of farming everywhere will be in smallholding. I would like to see a world where most people had a green patch they enjoyed, and supplied them with at least some of their food, and that the rest could be supplied by small farmers who could make a living doing what they enjoy.

So, for this week, I will embrace my inner smallholder, and share it with you.

farmer A person who owns or manages a farm.
smallholding An agricultural holding smaller than a farm.

grazier A person who rears or fattens cattle or sheep for market. 


  1. On a similar but slightly different bent... our neighbour a large farmer has this year decided to develop a veg garden similar to ours for the first time ... we can all influence each other.

  2. Yes, indeed, and sometimes things change quickly.

  3. We are also ambivalent about the term 'smallholder', mainly because it cedes to a tiny minority of agricultural producers the designation 'farmer' - can you imagine a GP allowing themselves to be called a 'little medical practitioner' instead of a doctor because their practice is smaller than average?

    "Worldwide, farms of less than 1 hectare account for 72% of all farms ... Farms between 1 and 2 hectares account for 12% ... only 1% of all farms in the world are larger than 50 hectares." (FAO statistics from 2014, given at www.globalagriculture.org)

    Effectively, most of the world's farmers are relegated to the margins of farming, rendered second-class producers by the ideological power of language. We increasingly describe our small holding (rather than smallholding) as a farm, even if most Irish farmers (never mind the Dept. of Ag.) would see it as little more than a back-yard field. It's already bigger than 84% of the world's farms, after all.

    1. Great comment, I wish I could have been as articulate.

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