Could you run a course? Helen Babbs investigates what’s involved in running courses on your smallholding.

The smallholding pioneer John Seymour once described a smallholder as a jack of all trades and master of none. But whether it’s making cheese, laying a hedge or shearing an alpaca, smallholders over time do become fairly proficient at their many “trades”! It’s nice to pass these practical skills on and one way to do this is to run a course.

A course can just be a voluntary get-together, such as for local members of your sheep breed society, or running courses can become a smallholding business in itself. Mike and Stella Whyte started their Tartan Dragon smallholding courses ( eight years ago, after watching several celebrity TV smallholding programmes. “We looked at each other,” explains Mike, “and we said, "That’s not real smallholding. We’d been smallholding for about 12 years, so we started our one-day Introduction to Smallholding courses, to demonstrate to people what it’s really about.”

Perfect planning

Whether you’re running a members’ day or a paying course, the first key to success is always to plan thoroughly. Work out exactly what you’re covering, and be realistic about the time it will take. “For the Introduction to Smallholding course, we’re trying to show people what’s available and let them get an idea what suits them,” says Mike. “So we’ll spend about an hour and half with the pigs, an hour each with the sheep and the poultry, and another hour or two with the cattle.” If you’re uncertain about this, it might be worth having a “practice run” or two, getting a few friends to come in as participants, who can then offer feedback as well.

As well as time, you’ll need to work out the equipment that will be required. For livestock courses, this may be as simple as having enough pig boards to hand, but for craft courses, you’ll need to specifically allocate sufficient tools, supplies and working space for each person. More general facilities need to be considered too, such as car parking space on your smallholding. At the Tartan Dragon smallholding, the cattle are on a different site, so transport arrangements have to be made between the two. “I fit up to six people in the LandRover to take them over there,” Mike explains, “so that does affect the number of people we can have on the course.”

Trainee smallholders

The participants are, of course, the other essential for running a course on your smallholding. Like with any business, you need to have a good idea of your “market” – the type of people the course is for. “We get a real variety of people on our courses,” says Mike. “There are people with 15-20 acres, or with only two acres, and people who are just dreaming about smallholding too.”

How many people you’re aiming to have on each course again varies with the course itself, but it’s generally best to start small. “Four’s a nice number,” says Mike. “Two people is our minimum, and we have had up to twelve, but four means you get some chat and questions going, especially if people come from different backgrounds.”

For a paying course, it’s possible to control the numbers when taking bookings. This is obviously much harder to achieve for a members’ open day, but it’s still a good idea to collect names and get the best idea possible of the number planning to come.

A warm welcome

Whether you have many participants on the course or only a few, you need to aim for them to not only learn on the course, but also feel welcome and comfortable. This starts even before the course, with making sure people have clear directions to your smallholding, and know the course start time! “We have tea and coffee, and a hot lunch if it’s an all day course,” Mike describes. “On the course, I’ll demonstrate turning a sheep, foot trimming, or such, and then let people have a go while I talk them through it, but I do understand if they want to opt out of something or just watch. People don’t always like to go into the field with our Highland bull – he does weigh nearly a tonne and have a five foot horn span!”

Former course participants are always welcome back at Tartan Dragon too.

“When people leave, we tell them to keep in touch,” says Mike. “Sometimes they come back for other courses, or just phone for some extra smallholding advice, a sort of follow-up service.”

Paper work

For any course, it’s a good idea to have a paper hand-out or information sheet to give to the participants. This can cover extra background material, or be a recap of what they’ve covered during the course. “I always tell people they don’t need to take notes,” explains Mike. “There’s so much – if I’m talking about cattle, I’ll also be talking about grassland management, fencing, abattoirs, meat sales, and so on. It’s a lot to take in, so we have a comprehensive set of notes that we give out.”

This way, Mike finds the course isn’t slowed up by people trying to note things down, and nobody misses essential points. “I’m a graphic designer in my day job,” he explains, “so it wasn’t hard to put it together. Digital media does help as well: people can take photos or videos with their smart phones while I’m demonstrating.”

Team effort

Running a course does take a lot of effort. “It’s definitely a two person job,” says Mike earnestly. “Stella’s support for the tea and coffee, making hot lunches and a cake, taking the bookings, even doing the washing up – it’s crucial! I can’t over-emphasise that.”

If you have a lot of people on the course or are covering a large subject area, it can also help to have more than one “instructor.” “We don’t keep poultry,” Mike explains, “but we have a smallholding friend nearby who does, so we go up there for the poultry section of the course. She can talk about what she knows well, and it gives people a fresh voice to listen to, as well as a short break for me!”

Staying safe

Finally, for all to go well on your course you’ll need to consider potential problems and hazards, and how to avoid them. “Ours are hands-on courses,” says Mike, “but we don’t take any risks. I keep people informed about any dangers, like that pigs have sharp teeth, or that the cows with new-born calves can be a bit protective and unpredictable. Mostly it’s just a matter of making people know what to expect and be aware of.”

In case of accidents, a well-stocked first aid box is essential, along with public liability insurance. “We’re fully insured,” explains Mike, “but we’ve never had any injuries or claims.” Insurance companies may require a formal Risk Assessment to be carried out, or a written ‘Health & Safety Policy’. For some courses, particularly food related ones, there may also be hygiene regulations that need to be complied with, such as providing sufficient hand washing facilities.

Spreading the word

Once your course is planned and organised, it’s time to publicise it. A members’ get-together will simply need listing in the club magazine or Facebook page, but paying courses will usually require wider advertising. “We have our website,” Mike describes, “and get other bookings from word-of-mouth recommendations.” How much you want to advertise depends on how large a part of your whole smallholding enterprise you want the courses to be. “We keep it small and don’t push it as much as we could,” says Mike. “We get about 30-40 people a year, and those sort of numbers suit us.”

Good for everyone

Running a course doesn’t only give the satisfaction of passing on your skills and bringing in a useful income stream, but can be good for other aspects of your smallholding business too. “We get a number of people who’ve been on our cattle courses coming back to buy breeding stock,” says Mike. “We’ve started about half a dozen other ‘folds’ or herds of Highland cattle around the country.”

Smallholding can be a rather solitary occupation, so having course visitors can be a pleasant and stimulating change, as well as a good way to appreciate your smallholding in a new light. “The livestock seem to like it, too,” Mike adds. “The pigs in particular really love all the attention!”


With thanks to Humble by Nature for photos


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