Dr Fred Slater looks at the number one event for smallholding, gardening and sustainable living In most walks of life it is often a help to have started at the bottom and worked your way to the top, for then you know how it all works and it tends to keep your feet firmly on the ground. In the 1970s I was asked to put on an exhibit in the Horticultural Marquee of the Royal Welsh Show as it was Radnorshire’s featured year and I was based on the estate of Sir Michael Venables Llewellyn the last Lord Lieutenant of Radnorshire.

I was welcomed in, given a “free” lunch ticket for my help and before I knew it I was a Steward who became Senior Steward, Chief Sectional Steward and eventually Chairman and Honorary Assistant Show Director of the Horticulture Section.

This clearly reinforced the old truth that there is no such thing as a “free lunch”. Because I then “knew how the Royal Welsh works” some convincing sales patter and no doubt a bit of ill deserved flattery from the higher echelons and I was invited to help with the then Smallholders as it was just a “small event”!

Again, a decade later, I seem to have climbed the “slippery pole” of advancement, although in retrospect the “pole” I’ve climbed seems to have been the opposite of slippery as once on it you have climbed on there is very little chance of being allowed to fall off unless you offend an awful lot of people!

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy what I do and together with Kay Spencer, the Festival Director am excited that this “small event” has grown in relatively few years to become one of the major events in the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society’s diary.

As we have grown we have developed the Smallholder and Garden Festival into a broader event, which, to reflect what it now offers, we are calling The Royal Welsh Spring Festival with the strapline on all our advertising and publications of “the number one event for smallholding, gardening and sustainable living”. But if over a cup of tea and a Welsh cake to still want to refer to the event as The Smallholders I’m sure no-one will complain.

The reason for this change is that we have moved on from “The Good Life” concept of smallholding by adding so many more features relevant to many who work in this field but without losing our core smallholding experience.

Year on year we are asked by committees to define “a smallholder” so that we can be more selective of exhibitors etc and suggestions come forward based on land area, breeds reared or headage but none of these are adequate and create boundaries where none exist. I prefer to say that a smallholder is someone who regards themselves as such and has a “relatively small holding of land” with no divisive numbers attached.

Smallholders are more than the plots of land they own or the stock they rear, they are in general people who want to be at one with their environment who, in modern parlance, want to create the smallest possible environmental footprint by embracing aspects of sustainable living.

Unlike farmers, who have many money-hungry acres to keep productive, a smallholder can often say “let’s try a bit of this just to see what happens”. In other words they can often be innovators ahead of the bandwaggon. I know of people who were ahead of the crowd using biofiltration to treat their waste, some incorporating, willow which has good financial opportunities for basketry from a small area be it wet or dry.

Self sufficiency in power, be it wind, water or photovoltaic, moulds well into the sustainable lifestyle and I know of other people with limited land holding who have branched out into growing fungi (shitaki mushrooms and truffles) as well as establishing olive groves in favoured areas and even growing tea plants. Adding value to products of the smallholding by producing food items also works well at this scale.

Looking through our offerings for the 2012 Festival it is easy to see how some of these alternative small scale interests are reflected in say our Green Horizons eco-exhibition and the Farmers’ Market. That the Women’s Institute Federation want involvement and the Young Farmers are keen to continue their work with us gets us to the real roots of country life.

Perhaps with the trend for fewer but bigger farms, Young Farmers who cannot afford the big bucks of large scale farming may be stimulated to join the ranks of smallholders, retaining their interest in the land but at a smaller scale.

I hope that if you come to the 2011 Festival it will still be everything you expected but just that little bit more, as we will do our best to provide you with an affordable, enjoyable, informative and entertaining weekend providing, we hope, something for everyone as we realise that there are almost as many combinations of smallholder interests as there are smallholders themselves. We keep our eyes and ears open for what is new for the future so that you as smallholders can give it a try.

No one could any longer describe this as a “small event”, but neither do we want it to grow out of hand. I’m sure the whole team enjoy getting the show on the road but we do value your feedback – if we don’t know what you think then how can we respond?

But beware, if you have too many bright ideas then you too might be offered a “free lunch” ticket with an invitation to help – and look where that led me!