Our Farm of Two Acres 1

Half a century ago there was a good deal of sauciness in the temper and manners of people who had the management of land. The great landowners were introducing improvements, the small farmers were giving up an unprofitable game, and the large farmers — trusting in the Corn-laws — claimed to have their own way, did not care to study their art, unless they lived near Mr. Coke or the Duke of Bedford, and laughed at everybody who attempted tillage on a small scale.

This sauciness brought out William Cobbett, with his strong spirit of antagonism, to contradict every insolent saying, and almost every received maxim of the class; and he broadly and positively declared that a cow and pig could be kept on a quarter of an acre of land. He explained in detail how this might be done; and a great number of people have followed his instructions, finding, for the most part, that though the thing might be practicable for one year, or occasionally at intervals, it is not true that, one year with another, a cow and pig can be kept on a quarter of an acre of land. Since the repeal of the Cornlaws great changes have taken place in the general mind as to what quantity of land will and will not repay the efforts of the husbandman.

The prodigious improvements which have been introduced into agriculture have benefited small properties as well as large; and the same science and art which render it good economy to expend thousands of pounds on the tillage of a large farm enable the intelligent husbandman to obtain from a few roods an amount of value which, nobody but Cobbett dreamed of in the last generation.

We do not know that the regular “small-farming” of a former century has as yet revived among us; the competition of the holder of thirty or fifty acres with the tenant of a thousand: but the experiment of making the most of two or three acres is at present one which attracts a good deal of attention. There are few signs of the times in economy and social affairs more thoroughly worthy of the interest it has excited.

There are two classes of persons, broadly speaking, to whom this experiment is of consequence — the husbandman who lives by his land, and gentry, especially ladies, who happen to have a little ground attached to their dwellings, from which it is just as well to derive comfort and luxury, or pecuniary profit, as not. Two remarkable and very interesting statements have been published on the part of these two classes; and I, the present writer, am about to offer a third, in order to render the presentment of the case of ministure farming complete.

John Sillett, the Suffolk shopkeeper, who forsook the shop and took to the spade, recovering his health, and maintaining his family in comfort on two acres of land, has given us his experience in his well-known pamphlet of seven years ago, on “Fork and Spade Husbandry.” The great extension of Freehold Land Societies affords to a multitude of townsmen in England the means of leaving town-industry for rural independence, as John Sillett did, if they choose to work as he did; and it seems probable that a future generation may see a revival of the order of peasant proprietors in this country which was supposed to have died out for ever.

As to the other class to whom small-farming may and does answer, we have just been presented with an agreeable description of their case in the little volume called “Our Farm of Four Acres, and the Money we made by it.” In my I opinion the book is somewhat too tempting. The I statements, each one no doubt perfectly true in itself, will require some modification when taken I to represent the first six years, instead of the first six months of the experiment; but the narrative is so fresh and animated—the example of enterprise and energy is so wholesome, and the scheme of life is so wise, that the book must be a real boon to a class of society which sorely needs such aid; — the class of gentlewomen who have not enough to do.

We hear a great deal of the penalties of an unnatural mode of life endured by single and widowed women in confined circumstances, who pine away their lives in towns; and we see many who do not suffer from poverty, losing health and energy for want of interesting occupation. If this book should induce only one in a hundred of these languid women to try a country life, with the amusement of a little farming in a safe way, it will have been a blessing to our generation.

John Sillett’s experiment was one of fork and spade husbandry exclusively. That of the ladies on their Four Acres was an experiment of grazing, almost exclusively. Mine is one of an intermediate order. I do not derive the subsistence of a household from my two acres; nor do I keep cows and pigs on the easy conditions of a plentiful allowance of grass and arable land, with the resource of a Right of Common, to serve at every pinch. I am obliged to keep a considerable portion of my little plot in grass; but my main dependence for the subsistence of my cows is on fork and spade husbandry.

Thus, like the ladies, I keep cows for comfort and luxury, to which I may add the serious consideration of creating a subsistence for a labourer and his wife; while, with John Sillett, I obtain the value of the ground and animals chiefly by tillage, instead of merely gathering in the expensive commodity of grass. The case is this:

I bought a field, in order to build myself a house, in a beautiful valley in the north of England. The quantity of land was somewhat less than two acres and a quarter, of which more than half an acre was rock. On the rocky portion stands the house, with its terrace and the drive up to it, and little oak and sycamore and ash copses behind and flanking it. An acre and a quarter was left in grass, which I at first let for grazing for £4 10 a year.

Enough ground was left for a few vegetable and flower beds, which the women of the household took such care of as they could. At the end of a year from our entrance upon our pretty house in the field, the state of things was this. The meadow was a constant eyesore; for the tenant took no sort of care of it. His cow was there, rain or shine, without shelter or shade, and usually ill, one way or another. The grass was lumpy and weedy. Sheep burst in through the hedge on the south boundary, that hedge being no business of mine, but belonging to the tenant on the other side. It was a broad, straggling, weedy hedge, which harboured vermin, and sent showers of seeds of pestilent weeds into my garden ground; and as sure as my cabbages began to grow, the hungry sheep — sharpset as they are in March — made their way in, and ate off a whole crop in the night. It cost me from £6 to £10 a year to hire an occasional gardener, by whom the aspect of the place was barely kept decent.

At the same time, my household were badly off for some essential comforts. The supply of milk in our neighbourhood could never be depended on; and it failed when it was most wanted — in the travelling season when the district was thronged with strangers. During that season, even the supply of meat was precarious. Fowls, hams, eggs, butter, everything was precarious or unattainable; so that housekeeping was, in the guest season, a real anxiety.

Becoming nearly desperate under difficulties which townsfolk scarcely dreamt of, I ventured upon the experiment — more bold eleven years ago than now —of using my own patch of land for the production of comforts for my own household. I have made this explanation because I wish it to be clearly understood that I did not propose to make money by my miniature farming, and should never have undertaken it with any such view.

I could not afford to lose money. The experiment must pay itself or stop. But, here was the land, with its attendant expenses; here were our needs and discomforts; the experiment was to make the one compensate the other. At the end of eleven years, I find that the plan has been unquestionably successful, though some of the estimates of the first two or three seasons have been modified, and an average of agricultural mishaps has occurred, as if to render the enterprise a fair specimen. It has, on the whole, been sufficiently successful to attract a great deal of notice, and influence some proceedings in the neighbourhood; and, therefore, as I conceive, to justify my adding one more illustration to those which already exist of the benefit of making the most of a small area of land.

The first essential was a labourer. I obtained one from an agricultural county, as spade husbandry was a thing unheard-of in my own neighbourhood. He brought his wife; and his wages were at first 12 . a week, out of which he paid the low rent of 1 s. dd. per week for his cottage; a model cottage which I built, with the cow-house adjoining, for £130. These stone dwellings last for ever, and need few or no repairs, So that money is well invested in them; and I regard as a good investment the money afterwards laid out in a hay-house, a little boiling-house, a root-house, two fowl-yards, and a commodious stone dwelling for the pig.

My man’s wages were raised by degrees; and they are now 14 s. a week all the year round, with the cottage rent free. The wife has the use of my wash-house and its apparatus, and opportunities of earning a good deal by means of them. In case of my scheme not answering, there was a certainty that the cottage and other buildings would let at any moment, with the land; while their quality would not deteriorate with time, like that of brick or wooden buildings.

The other requisite preparations were tanks for manure, implements, and some additional fencing. Two tanks, well cemented within, and covered by heavy stone lids, receive the sewage and slops of every kind from the house, cottage, and cow stable; and a larger tank, among a clump of trees in a far corner of the field, receives the sweepings of stable and stye, and the bulk of the manure.

The implements are spades, an elastic steel fork, hoes, rakes, a scythe, shears, and clippers, a heavy roller for the meadow, a chaff-cutter, a currycomb and brushes for the cows’ coats; troughs, milk-pails, and the apparatus of the boiling-house and dairy; to which were afterwards added a barrel on wheels to receive soap suds and other slops at back doors for the liquid manure pit; a garden-engine of large powers, and a frame and hand-glasses for the kitchen-garden. About a third part of these implements were necessary for the mere gardening which we attempted so unprofitably before we had a labourer on the premises.

I am not going to speak of our dairy affairs now; 1 will do so hereafter; but my present subject is the tillage of the soil: and I will therefore say no more here about cows than that we began with one, and finding that we could keep two for almost as little trouble as one — the stable and the man being provided — I rented another half acre adjoining my field, at £1 15. a-year, and kept two cows, thus securing a supply of milk for the whole year. We produce food enough for about a cow and a half, besides vegetables and fruit for the household, and find it answer to buy the requisite addition to the winter food, as I will explain at another time.

Here, then, we were at the outset, with simply our cow-stable, pig-house, and tanks, and an acre and a quarter of ground on which to work, to produce food for a cow and pig, besides household vegetables; fettered also with the necessity, that, on account of the view from the windows, at least three quarters of an acre must remain in grass, the most expensive of all conditions. We pared off the corners, and laid them into the arable part, in the first instance, so as to leave the grassy area just three quarters of an acre.

To finish with the pasture first, the treatment it requires is this: Before the winter rains we give the grass a good dressing of guano every alternate year, or of bones broken, but not to powder, every third year. Early in winter the whole is strewn with manure from the tank, and a compost heap we have in a hidden corner of the new half acre. At the end of February this is raked away, and the meadow is bush-harrowed.

A month later it is well rolled and weeded, if any noxious weeds, such as oxeye daisies, or bishop’s weed, are found rooted in it. If any moss appears after long rains it is treated with lime. This care is well repaid by the beauty of the surface and the value of the grass. The little spot is conspicuous for its greenness when all the rest of the valley is of a uniform hay colour; and there is no hay in the neighbourhood to compare with ours.

The cows eat off the first growth in April. It is then shut up for six weeks or so for hay, and is mown towards the end of June, when it yields nearly three tons to the acre. We do not exhaust the ground by mowing it twice, but allow the cows to feed it pretty close till November. After two winters we found that the anxiety of keeping such hay stacked in a rainy climate was more than the thing was worth; and I therefore built a hay-house, and was only sorry that I had put it off so long.

Knowing what the plague of rats is in such buildings, I adopted the only perfect security — that of using such materials as no vermin can penetrate. The floor was flagged as carefully as a kitchen-floor, and slate stones went deep into the ground below the flags. A few years later, when a winter inundation penetrated every place in the levels of the valley, and wetted our hay, I granted a raised wooden floor to the entreaties of our farm-man: and there our hay and straw keep perfectly well in all kinds of winters.

Hay, however, is an extravagant kind of food for cows; and ours have it only for variety, and as a resource when other things fad, and when they calve, or happen to be ill. Our main dependence is on roots and vegetables. As this was nearly a new idea in the neighbourhood, we were prodigiously ridiculed, till our success induced first respect and then imitation. It was a current maxim, that it takes three acres of land to feed a cow; and this may be very true in the hill pastures, which are mossy and untended.

Our milk would cost us sixpence a quart, it was said —we were starving our poor cow — we were petting our cow, so that she was like a spoiled child — such were the remarks till events silenced them, and people came to see how we arranged our ground, so as to get such crops out of it. We constantly gave in explanation the current rule: “the more manure, the more green crops; the more green crops, the more stock; the more stock, the more manure.” And by degrees the true principle of stall-feeding and spade-tillage became clear to all inquirers.

Our soil is light,—not very deep (lying above slaty-stone) sufficiently fertile, and easily treated, but so stony in parts as to dismay a labourer from a clay or sand district. The neighbours advised my man to cover up the stones, and think no more of them: but we concluded that it would be better to make use of some of them. We dug deep where the garden paths were to be, and tilled in the stones, so as to make drains of all the garden walks.

Others went to mend the occupation-road which runs along the field, and through the half-acre. On the south side, and in the half-acre, there is scarcely a stone, and the tillage is perfectly easy. Our way is to dig two spits deep, straight down, manure richly, and leave abundant space between both the plants and the rows. Hence our fine roots, and our weight of produce.

I need say nothing of our garden tillage, except that, with the exception of winter potatoes, we obtain an abundant supply of vegetables for a household of four persons, and their occasional guests. All common fruits become more plentiful every year. This being understood, we are here concerned only with the food for the cows and pig. In summer, we sow cabbage-seed,—being careful about the kind, as the common cow-cabbage spoils the milk and butter. A kind between the Ham and Victoria cabbage is by the Norfolk people considered the best.

The young plants are pricked out in early autumn, some hundreds per week for six weeks, to secure a succession next year. They should be eighteen inches apart, in rows a yard apart: and if they can be allowed to keep then places till they weigh ten or twelve pounds apiece, they of course afford a great bulk of food for the animals. Anywhere above four pounds is, however, worth the ground. The rows being placed so wide apart is to allow of the sowing of roots between them.

In April and May we sow turnips (Swedes especially), carrots (particularly Belgian), and mangold in the centre of the spaces left; and, by the time the root crops have been thinned, and are past the danger of the fly, the cabbages are fit to be cut. The alternate ones are taken first, and light and air are thus let in freely. The cabbages begin to be very substantial about mowing time, and fill up all intervals till November; &at is, while the grass is growing after hay-making, and between the first, second, and third gathering of the mangold leaves. It is the fashion now to discourage the thinning of the mangold: but we find the roots rather the better than the worse for the process.

If they were not, we could still hardly spare the resource of those three leaf crops; but the fact is, no such mangold as ours is grown anywhere near; and strangers come to look at it, both in the ground and in the root-house. We now devote the arable part of our rented half-acre to this root, except when it is necessary to grow grain for a change, which happens every third or fourth year; and this last year we obtained about six tons from a quarter of an acre. It keeps admirably; and our cows were still enjoying it a month before Midsummer.

There is an occupation-road through the half-acre which produces only grass; and the same is true of a strip running its whole length, under a row of noble ash trees, which of course prevent all tillage under their shade and within the circuit of their roots. The arable portion amounts, in fact, to hardly one-third of an acre.

We early obtained a small addition to our territory in a rather odd way. After we had suffered from two or three invasions of sheep through the great ugly hedge, I received an occasional hint that the neighbouring tenant wished I would take that hedge into my own hands. Seeing no reasom why I should trouble myself with such a vexatious and unprofitable piece of property, I paid no attention to the hints: but my farm-man at length intimated that he could make a good thing of it, if I would let him demolish the hedge, which he would undertake, except felling the pollard-ashes, with his own hands.

He was sure the contents of the hedge, and the ground we should get by it, would pay for a good new fence. It did indeed pay. We had firewood enough for more than one winter, and a good deal of soil; and we gained a strip of ground about three feet wide, the whole length of the field. Moreover, my neighbour obtained the same quantity, to the great augmentation of his friendship for us.

The new fence cost £9. It is a crosspole fence — the only kind which is found effectual here against the incursions of sheep. They leap upon a wall; they burst through a hedge; they thrust themselves through a post-and-rail fence; but they can get no footing on a crosspole fence; and only the youngest lambs can creep through the interstices. The material used is split larch-poles; and those who object that such a fence is not durable must have omitted the precaution of tarring the ends which enter the ground. With that precaution it may last a lifetime; and it is easily mended if a pole here and there should go before the rest. It occupies the smallest portion of ground — is no hindrance to air and sunshine, and is remarkably pretty. When covered with roses, as mine is for the greater part, it is a luxury to look upon, reminding travellers of the rose-covered trellises of hot countries, — as in Louisiana, Damascus, and Egypt.

We were so delighted with it that I carried it along the bottom of the field, where also I was not chargeable with the care of the fence. I see strangers come in and examine it, and try to shake it, as if they thought it a flimsy affair for a farm, even on a miniature scale; but I believe it will out-last the present generation of inhabitants, human and quadruped.

It will be necessary to give some account of our live stock and its produce before we can form an estimate of profit or loss on the whole scheme of my little farm. Meantime, we may say thus much:

Twelve years ago we saw about our dwelling an acre and a quarter of grass, in unsightly condition, grazed by a sickly cow; a few beds of flowers and a few more of vegetables — the former not well kept, and the latter far from productive — and, for the rest, a drive and little plantations, and slopes rarely neat, and always craving more care than we could give.

For the grass I obtained, as I said, £4 10s. a-year; and, to an occasional gardener, I paid from £6 to £10 a-year. In connection with these particulars, we must remember the housekeeping troubles — bad butter, blue milk, and thin cream; costly vegetables which had travelled in the sun; hams costing £1 at least; eggs at 1d. each, and fowls scarce and skinny; and all this in a place where the supply of meat is precarious at the most important time of year.

The state of things now is wonderfully different. The whole place is in the neatest order conceivable; the slopes are mown, and the shrubs trimmed, and the paths clean; and the parterres gay, almost all the year round. With only three-quarters of an acre of grass, we have about £12 worth of hay; and part grazing for two cows for six months of the year. We have roots to the value of about £8 a year, exclusive of the benefit of their green part, which affords several cwts. of food. Then, there are the cabbages for the cows, which in favourable seasons have afforded the staple of their food for three or four months. In southern and eastern counties they would be a more ample and certain dependence than in the north.

Then for the house, we have always had an over-supply of vegetables (except the winter store of potatoes), the surplus going, rather wastefully, to the pig. Beginning with cress, and radishes, lettuce, and early potatoes, and going through the whole series of peas and beans, turnips and carrots, spinach, onions and herbs, vegetable marrow and cucumbers, cabbages, cauliflowers, and broccoli, up to winter greens, we have abounded in that luxury of fresh-cut vegetables which townspeople can appreciate. All the common fruits follow of course. The comfort of having an active man on the premises, ready for every turn, is no small consideration in a household of women.

All these things have been created, we must observe—called out of the ground where they lay hid, as it were. This creation of subsistence and comfort is a good thing in itself; it remains to be seen whether it is justified by paying its own cost. This we shall learn when we have reviewed the history of our Dairy and Poultry-yard.

Harriet Martiniau.

Cover: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/388928117802153978/  – Artist unknown


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