“The only way that the homesteader can farm his piece of land as well and as intensively as possible is to institute some variant of what was called “High Farming” in Europe in the last century. This was a carefully worked out balance between animals and plants, so that each fed the other: the plants feeding the animals directly, the animals feeding the soil with their manure and the land feeding the plants. A variety of both animals and plants were rotated about the same land, so that each species took what it needed out and put what it had to contribute back, and the needs of the soil were kept uppermost in the husbandman’s mind. Each animal and crop was considered for what beneficial effect it might have on the soil.”
– John Seymour from ‘The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency’.
I have mentioned my garden enough, that by now everyone knows my feelings about gardening, land use and food production. Our neighbours find us funny – they have alluded to us being akin to something from The Good Life many times now – a concept that isn’t far from what I would hope to achieve. But when it comes down to it, would we be ready to “walk the walk” and “talk the talk”?
Farming is now a ‘dirty word’, it brings to mind images of intensive factory-farming, of profit margins and cruelty to animals – and sadly enough in many instances I believe this to be true. But I also believe that man, as a species, was made to live from the land, to be connected with the thing that bore him and will one day reclaim him as it has done for thousands of years. However, intensive methods, cruelty to animals and destruction of land (with the aggressive use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides) won’t ever be the way forward, nor the way of supporting nations. The best way to support a nation is by pulling together and working for one common goal, to better our food and our lives by being in touch with the land and our food itself.
This is a view that, a mere 5 years ago, I would’ve laughed at – myself as a smallholder. Notice the word smallholder, much preferable to farmer, smallholders tend not to make money (profit) from their produce, but they try to live as self-sufficiently and as sensitively as possible. It’s a big step, and so much hard work going from 100% dependence on supermarkets to having to be responsible for your own food crops throughout the year – and it is just that, a year-round job. I know why many people don’t want to do that, because the work involved is so huge, but even making a dent in your supermarket-dependency has got to be a good thing. If, and this is a huge “if” world war three broke out, how many people out there would be able to sustain themselves and their family through growing their own foods? People now are scared of touching a piece of raw, prepared chicken – so what would it be like if someone had to see that chicken from egg to chicken to dinner? Supermarkets have played a huge role in removing the humanity from food; we don’t see it so it doesn’t happen. And that is like removing a limb – we are now dependent on the supermarkets to do everything for us, and to advise us what’s best. Is it any wonder that now we are a nation of unwell, unhealthy people?
The funny thing is, you don’t have to give up your day-job, leave all of your worldly possessions behind and move into a commune to make a difference to your life. Vegetables can be grown so simply in a relatively tiny plot, or even in containers. On Carol Klein’s Grow Your Own Vegetables programme the girls at the RHS kept a plot of raised beds measuring no more than 3mx3m going for a year, planting things that would sustain a medium-sized family for the year. It showed it could not only be done – but it could be done in a small plot without taking much time at all. Although food-sacrifices have to be made – in winter, when the garden is pretty lean and you may only have cabbages, broccoli, potatoes, carrots and parsnips to rely on, could you go without your Dutch salads, Spanish strawberries, American apples and tasteless Belgian tomatoes? Although we have stopped eating anything that isn’t in season, and anything that isn’t British (including things like melons, bananas and oranges), part of our vegetables do come from a supermarket, because of yet we’ve not been “sorted” enough to have a complete year-round supply of vegetables. Last summer we did manage to do-away with almost all supermarket shopping, something that left us feeling not only very good, but it saved so much money!
To be a smallholder there are sacrifices that have to be made. It’s only because of our dependence on someone else to do virtually everything for us that we’ve lost our food, our skills and our will to have better. To most people “having better” means more money and faster cars, for me it means being able to have a smallholding, growing our own produce, from pigs to chickens to runner beans. Going back to the roots and living from there.
In my head I have this idea of being self-sufficient, and for me it tends to be a rather black-or-white idea of how I’d like to live. Which is where Four Winds Farm came about, it’s my imaginary smallholding, populated by all the animals and plants that I would grow if I had a rickety old cottage and a few acres. But even though this place is imaginary, I still one day believe it’ll happen, it won’t quite be to my mind’s exact imaginings, but it won’t be much different. It’ll happen when it’s meant to happen – and for now I’m concentrating on making our lives as ecologically-sound as possible. I myself am willing to do pretty much whatever it takes to live from the land.
In his book, John Seymour advocates a self-sufficient way to live. He tells it like it is, and has been living in a self-sufficient manner since the 70’s when one of his most popular books “The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency” was published. In his introduction he states that:
“[…] self sufficiency is not “going back” to some idealised past in which people grubbed for their food with primitive implements and burned each other for witchcraft. It is going forward to a new and better sort of life, a life which is more fun than the over-specialised round of office or factory, a life that brings challenge and the use of daily-initiative back to work, and variety, and occasional great success, and occasional abysmal failure. It means the acceptance of complete responsibility for what you do or what you do not do, and one of its greatest rewards is the joy that comes from seeing each job right through – from sowing your own wheat to eating your own bread, from planting a field of pig food to slicing a side of bacon.”
His views are echoed nowadays by many. He was happy enough to do everything from weaving his own fabric to making his own beer from his own ingredients. His modern-equivalent, who I suppose is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, openly admitted that his revenues came from his television work, books and article-writing and didn’t come from working at River Cottage and later, River Cottage HQ. But had he not been a minor-celebrity, his life at River Cottage could’ve been a completely self-sufficient one. Every week at our local farm shop I see more and more 30-something women, dripping with children deciding to do their shopping at the farm shop rather than trek all the way to a supermarket. If nothing else, it’s a nicer experience and although a tad more expensive, the strawberries, potatoes, cabbages, swedes, turnips, plums and more have all come from a farm just down the road. The prices that supermarkets charge isn’t the true cost of the food that is sold. The workers who are employed to grow, package and transport the food are underpaid and unfairly treated, from whatever country the food comes from. In England a dairy farm a week goes out of business because the supermarkets just refuse to cut into their profit margins to allow farmers more money – and everyone who buys their milk from a supermarket makes this happen. But no one wants to take responsibility for their actions anymore.
The sacrifices are more than not eating some of your favourite foods, though. If you aim to be completely self-sufficient, then a lot of thought has to go into the process beforehand. Just how are you going to pay bills, even if you live off-grid through your own renewables – what about council tax, money for emergencies, tools and seeds etc. That is the difficult bit – in our society, such as it is, it’s almost impossible to live off the land and not have to pay money to someone somewhere. There is always the option of bartering, say with a farmer or friends in your area: when you grow your own you almost always have a glut of one particular fruit or vegetable – which should be different to their glut, and you can swap. Or you can become a market gardener. This is my dream, being able to sell baby plants and vegetables from my own completely-organic plot, and make enough money to save for the council tax or an emergency. I agree wholeheartedly that a back-up is needed.
I should really get around to the point of this blog – it’s a hefty piece of reading, and any of you still reading – thanks. I know many have already “turned off” at the first paragraph. I’m not sure there is a point per se, rather a putting of ideas out there. All my life I’ve been told (and laughed at) by people here and there that this isn’t possible, and I started to take that to heart – until I realised something that my grandmother said – that there is no such thing as impossible. From then on I vowed that I would at least give the life I want to lead a chance. We probably won’t get a smallholding for many years to come, but I’m learning through every possible means, just how we’re one day going to achieve this self-sufficient life I’ve put my heart and soul into.