Many times we have had people come over for a visit or a braai, and they gush with amazement at how we live our lives; they express wonder at our vegetable gardens, our fruit orchard, free-range chickens, pasture finished turkeys, and grass-finished lamb.
Often we are able to put a meal before our guests that is entirely off our own property. They marvel at the succulent full flavoured meat, the amazing veggies and fruit fresh from the garden. Very often they will assist in picking and preparing the veggies straight out of the garden. They often say that this is the life that they want to have, or dream of having. I can however, honestly say that not one of them has yet made the jump from perceived urban security to a rural, grow-your-own lifestyle. Why not? I think most of them are just too scared. They see what we are doing, and how we are living, but don’t know how to get there. Also they are often in a rut, too used to life in the city and only dream of what they would like to achieve.
Self- sufficiency is a very broad concept and I don’t think that any one person can have a definitive answer as to what it comprises. Some will see it as being able to grow some or all of what you eat on your own ‘patch of heaven’, others will want to include power and maybe fuel requirements, still others will see it as all of the above plus income generation.
My family’s definition of self sufficiency has changed a number of times over the last few years, due to many internal and external factors, as well as our own personal belief system.
What a lot of people don’t realise is the sheer amount of physical effort and planning that goes into our daily life. Without trying to scare you off, there are a lot of things that need to happen to get to a point of self-sufficiency. Not least is the need to feed self and family. With our government’s stance on land redistribution, which often results in productive commercial farms being destroyed, food is going to become more and more expensive. For many years South Africa was a net exporter of food, but last year saw a dramatic reversal of that situation. What better way to get around the hike in food prices than growing your own? It’s not the State’s responsibility to provide for your family, it’s yours and yours alone.
My family’s journey to self-sufficiency has taught me that it is extremely important to work smart if you would like to eat the fruits of your labour. Now, before we undertake any new venture, we first research the pros and cons of each decision and based on our needs make what we hope is the best, most informed decision. Normally our decisions are based on cost and labour versus the return we expect. If a venture has a high cost, requires a lot a labour and will likely have a low return, it gets shelved and something else is done in its place. However, on the flipside, there are instances where low cost, low labour and high returns can also be a problem.
One of our first bad decisions was to plant a massive vegetable garden. Living on a plot and not having a veggie garden is like having a yacht and not sailing, it just goes with the territory. We planted almost every type of vegetable seed that our local hardware stocked, and then some.
Three months later we quickly learnt that we needed to process or give away a lot of vegetables very quickly. That year a lot of it went to waste. To our dismay, after the growing season we didn’t have a lot left over for winter. We literally had a few jars of pickled onions, some beetroot and a few bags of carrots in the freezer. So much for self-sustainability!
We have now learnt to stagger our planting and thereby stagger our harvests. In addition we have learnt many new canning, freezing and drying techniques which allow us to capitalise on the time invested in summer for use in winter when we can’t grow many fruits and veggies. My wife in particular loves the idea of not having to dig vegetables out of the garden and then wash and prepare them for every meal, as they are already in the house waiting for her to pull them out of the freezer or drawer.
Start with a veggie garden
The best place to start your journey to self-sufficiency is with a veggie garden, for which you don’t need a large piece of land. I know of people that have ripped up their entire lawn to produce food for their family. My advice to new veggie gardeners is simple: start small with a few easy-to-grow crops and expand every year.
Nobody will be able to become 100% self-sufficient in a year. It takes years of practice and lots of trial and error. When we planted our first veggie garden (in suburbia), I can remember harvesting a few tomatoes, some carrots and radishes and TONS of cucumber. It was not a well-balanced veggie patch and everyone that came to visit was given a bag of cucumbers. People soon stopped visiting… however the point is this: you need to grow into your vegetable garden, trying to go the whole hog at once will only set you up for disappointment and disillusionment.
Now that we live out on a plot, things have changed slightly. After 6 years of plot life we have slowly increased our level of self-sufficiency every year, to a point where we are now able to go months at a time where a good 90% of our food come from our own property.
When looking at starting your veggie garden, plan first. What do you enjoy eating? Are you able to freeze or can/bottle your produce? Do you have suitable storage space for root and pumpkin harvests? It’s of no use growing tons of a particular type of veggie if only one member of the family enjoys eating it. Can a vegetable be incorporated into another ‘product’? Freezing whole tomatoes is possible if you are going to cook with them, but more efficient space utilization is possible if you turn them into a chutney or sauce that can be used in a variety of meals. Rather use the space to grow a crop of storable veggies or one that is loved by all.
Our family eats a lot of pasta and tomato-based meals, so one way that we get around the problem of buying tomatoes in winter is to freeze a lot of basic tomato and onion base in summer. We have actually been doing this for the past few weeks and have amassed enough sauce to keep us going till early December!
In tangible terms, it means that we will not need to buy those insipid, flavourless, washed out pale pink things that are offered in place of tomatoes at ridiculous prices in winter. All my wife needs to do is open the freezer and pull out a bag of our own organic tomato sauce to use as the starter for a hearty stew or pasta dish.
With the exception of brinjals, our entire family eats every vegetable we grow in our gardens, with sweet corn and mielies a firm favourite. This year we have only managed 10kg of loose frozen sweet corn, and are still waiting to harvest a trial of traditional open pollinated Lesotho mielies. This will provide the seed stock for a two-acre planting next summer and a few this year for fresh consumption. The two-acre planting will mainly be used as animal feed as well as providing our family with organically grown mielie pap to go with our tomato sauce.
We also grow a lot of pumpkin, six or seven different types, from the little Gems all the way through to Mammoth Golds that top about 30kg each. Some are good for storage and others for processing. Each has its own place in my family’s diet and each is treasured for its different flavour and texture.
One point to remember with growing pumpkins is that they need space. If grown too close to each other they will reduce their fruit set. If you want to keep seed for the following year, learn to hand pollinate pumpkins, and save seed from these hand-pollinated, pure varieties for the following year.
Three vegetable gardens
We have three vegetable gardens as well as permanent plantings of asparagus and berries. Why three gardens you might ask? Mainly it’s for labour reasons, as well as being able to ‘fine-tune’ the different gardens with manure and compost. We have one specifically for pumpkins and sweet corn, a second close to the house for common items like tomatoes, lettuce, salad greens and green beans, with a few herb plants in between and then we have a large garden further away that produces the larger harvests like dry beans, beans for freezing, processing tomatoes, corn, potatoes, millet, beetroot, carrots, peanuts, bambarra nuts, onions, peas, peppers, melons etc.
There is a fast-growing interest in heirloom and open pollinated vegetable varieties which taste great and have the unique characteristic of allowing the grower to save seed from year to year. The problem that we have in South Africa, is that we cannot easily and legally import heirloom vegetable seed into our country. (Unless you are prepared to jump through some regulatory hoops). It has taken me about five years to build up a modest collection of heirloom and open-pollinated vegetables, most of them from trading with older, more knowledgeable gardeners who have been saving their own seed from year to year.
We plant heirloom and open-pollinated varieties wherever possible, mainly because we enjoy the romance behind growing and eating a variety that has been lost to most of the world, as well as the ability to save our own seed for the following year. However, where we need fast and large production we will consider certain hybrid varieties to fill this need.
Typically, I used to spend hundreds of rands every year on seed, and very often I had to buy more than one packet of some seed just to satisfy our families requirements. Now we have learned to save seed, we eat what we sow and sow what we eat.
Self-sufficiency is an individual ideal, the worst thing that can happen is someone becoming prescriptive and telling you how you need to do it. Start small and if you enjoy the fruits of your labour then by all means expand, who knows where you will go and what you will do on your journey. Life is for living and living is for the love of it, so do it with all your heart.