On Self-Sufficiency

Amanda over at As A Bee innocently asked in her recent comment “how long have you been trying to go self-sufficient?”  The question got me thinking, as I’m not sure it’s an easy answer.  And I realized that there’s nothing in my “About” page that reflects that goal.  But Amanda’s right, it is a goal…of sorts.

The Skipper and I both have…shall we say…independent streaks.  We are both oldest children, and do our best to manage and boss each other around, with mixed results 🙂 .  The idea of creating a little off-the-grid world where we could fully control our own destinies was perhaps a natural fit.  First we considered living on a sailboat and cruising full-time.  Those of you that remember those impassioned days may be surprised to find us now contemplating homesteading instead!  But the two paths actually have much in common–being self-reliant and feeding our lustful curiosity about the world to name just two aspects.

This was in the early days of the new century, and although we were aware of environmental issues, sailing seemed a light way to travel and live.  But as more and more information became available about the environmental crises we face, I began to struggle with the idea of living in a way that seemed dependent on the surplus of others.  Sailing is a light way to live, but you have to get to land to get to your food, and there has to be extra food and supplies that you can buy from those who have more than they need.  Sailing away also began to feel like a kind of opting out of the world’s problems, and ethically I struggled with that too.

So that led to much discussion about the possibility of working towards an off-the-grid homestead.  The Skipper is a carpenter by trade, and an all around handy guy, so this seemed quite feasible.  Land prices were an issue, but there are inexpensive pockets, even in BC.

Two things happened to that fantasy.  One was simply the practical–we still needed to earn a living in the short term, which led to career decisions etc, which have their own needs and paths.  The other was my realization of the limitations of building one’s own kingdom in the wilderness.  We can’t control or hide from climate change in our own “perfect world.”  If there are no fish left, and if all the streams are polluted, it won’t matter if we’ve got a lake and fishing gear.  I finally GOT what so many people in the environmental movement had been saying for so long–survival and adaptation are about community building.  We will not survive without each other.  You might not be able to pick your family, but you can’t pick who’s on your planet either!  We’re all stuck with each other in this closed ecosystem.

Which brings me to self-sufficiency.  There’s a lot of debate about what that term means, or indeed, if there even is such a thing.  None of us alone can produce everything that we need to function; the most that some are trying for are closed-system farms, where there are no external inputs to the agricultural operation.  A worthy goal given where we are now.  What most people mean by the term today (I think) is becoming self-sufficient in vegetables, fruit, and possibly protein and for some people grain as well.  In some cases, it’s possible to also become self-sufficient in energy and water.

I think that the Skipper and I have come to a place where we are trying to take steps toward a sensible level of self-reliance in a complex and unpredictable world, where we have one eye on the possible future but stay grounded in our daily lives.  When the opportunity to move out of the city came up, space to garden and grow food in a serious way was an important criteria, and we were thrilled to find the property we did. (I’ll do a proper garden tour one of these days!)  We’ve got lots to learn, but I don’t think that self-suffiency in fruit and veg is out of reach, even in our small space.  We’ve been fishing and crabbing and prawning, and although our success hasn’t been great (!), the salmon we’re still eating is what we vacuum-sealed and froze last summer–all fish we caught last year. Whether that’s a sustainable practice is another question, but it does increase our self-reliance.  As I’ve mentioned, we’re also considering chickens or ducks–to provide manure and help with the kitchen waste as much as for eggs.  It would help to close our food production system a little.  (Although we’ve recently scored a great source for composted horse manure, so that takes away some of the urgency!)

We were also aware, when we bought our house, that we have gained some potential advantages for self-sufficiency, should the changing world make those more desirable in the future.  We are not buried in the woods, and we have an east-west facing roof, so solar and/or solar hot water are definitely options.  We will put in a woodstove so that we’re not so reliant on electricity.  We’re already on a well and we have our own little water treatment system, so we’re independent in that sense, but both require electricity, and that would have to be addressed somehow.

The biggest advantage that I see, though, is in our specific location.  One of the biggest issues for those who head to rural properties where land is cheaper is the lack of both community and local markets for their goods.  Although we are living rurally, we are within walking distance of a small town, and within a couple of kilometers of a shopping centre (bikeable or walkable).  There are other small town centres within biking distance in several directions, all of which host some version of weekly markets.  The bigger local centre, the small city of Duncan, is also within biking distance and has all necessary services as well as a large farmer’s market.  We’re very lucky in all of this.

The thing that keeps us from being both sustainable and self-sufficient is our commute; something we’d both love to change, but it will be a while, if ever, before it does.  The commute pays the mortgage, which pays for the land which gives us our independence.  It’s the irony of the modern age.

The land question is a major one these days, especially for those working to increase the number of young farmers in order to ensure the Island’s/province’s/nation’s food security.  I keep coming up against the reality that traditional farms are a legacy of colonialism and settlement in this country, and that we’re going to have to really re-think how land and title work if we’re going to be successful.  It’s a classic problem of trying to solve the world’s problems within the limits of the tools that created them, though!

So that’s where we’re at these days on the question of self-sufficiency.  I’ll have some future posts considering other aspects of this grass-roots activity, and in the meantime, I’d love to hear thoughts about your definitions and goals, and what you’re doing to achieve them…

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6 thoughts on “On Self-Sufficiency

  1. Thank you for answering my question with such thoroughness! What a delight to hear of someone doing something so important and so close to my home.

    We’ve been very lucky in the fact that we’ve got a gig caretaking a farm. Because my husband and I, at 28, living on the Gulf Islands BC, cannot afford land. Especially since we abhor debt, despise property tax and would rather run free like little woodland fairies. We also are considering living on a sailboat if our farming gig dissipates. Though I hear what you’re saying about having to live off the excess of others.

    Though a form of self-sufficiency appeals to us greatly, I think being in a community where we can trade produce for produce would be greatly advantageous. We have honey, you have strawberries, let’s make a deal!

    One of our greatest goals is to not work for “The Man” anymore. We want to both have the freedom to do what we want to do, keeping bees, farming, growing culinary mushrooms, etc. And reduce our spending to a sheer minimum. And we are getting there, thankfully!

    Thanks again for the post. I may put a nod to you on my blog as I found your post very informative.

    Cheers, Amanda As A Bee!

  2. Thanks Amanda; it’s such a pleasure to make connections with others who are trying to negotiate how to, as they say, be in the world but not of it. I’m convinced that there are a lot of us who feel the same way, and I am really interested to hear about all the paths we’re taking to try to live differently. The land question is definitely the biggie–how wonderful to hear of your caretaking gig! I think it’s really important that we all keep sharing stories of the ways we can find to simply *live* rather than work to get money to live. It may be a little shift in topic for me, but I think I’ll keep on this train of thought for a while. My post today was supposed to be about food, but you’ll notice these same themes are creeping right back in! Look forward to hearing more of your thoughts and experiences too.

  3. If I can pipe in here, I think this is an interesting topic (i.e. not just food but self-sufficiency on the whole) worth exploring further. My husband and I live in Ucluelet and are now working in the fishing industry, which luckily is basically on our doorstep. One of our goals is to be able to produce enough of our produce so that we can stop buying it at the Co-op. We are years away from that, having just moved here, and have an entire clay-soil back yard to turn into a food producing garden.

    Because incomes here are largely seasonal, everyone, it seems, has several jobs. Fishing in the summer, carpentry in the winter (or EI, for lots of people). Dan and I are trying to find ways to diversify our income by creating a business as well as having other little jobs. We aren’t making much money right now, but we live in this great and beautiful place, eat fresh fish, and get to go to Long Beach whenever we want. We could move somewhere else and make lots of money, but what aspects of our lifestyle would we have to sacrifice to get that? What if we didn’t enjoy the work? So even though things are tight, money-wise, we are actually quite happy. I think the self-sufficiency thing is largely about being in control of your own life as well as having the knowledge to make/do things for yourself. And that has its own reward: satisfaction of having created something.

    1. YarnSalad: I lived in Ucluelet for 5 years. I loved it there and much of my heart is still there. I’m so glad to hear that you’re trying to a more self-sufficient lifestyle. I have some people you should meet there if you don’t already know that are trying for a similar thing, or pointing in that direction!

      But back to the topic at hand, it’s exactly what Toni said, “trading our freedom for possessions we don’t need.” It’s amazing how much stuff is out there and how difficult it is NOT to accumulate it!

      Even with our baby on the way, it’s difficult to know what is necessary and what is superfluous!

      Love this discussion!

  4. Stace, I think you are right on about the control of your destiny aspect of all this. I think what doesn’t appeal about the fast track for a lot of us is the sense of being chained to a career that isn’t all that satisfying, or being in debt for life. It’s not that these things in and of themselves are a death knell, but I think a lot of us recognize that we’re trading our freedom in for possessions we don’t need. The idea of finding a place you love and simply building a life there is definitely one way to go–and a very old way too. Perhaps I’ll write about the traditional aspect to all of this tomorrow; it goes back to the land question for those of us that feel rootless…

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