Brief Hiatus…

I’m heading over to Vancouver this afternoon for the week–more on why when I get back!  Leaving the Skipper to harvest the garden (a little nerve racking).  I will try and post once or twice, and try to finish up Part 2 of Income, but thanks for your patience–it will depend on how much fun I’m having :)!


On Self-Suffiency 3: Income (Part 1)

Hey look at me!  I’m writing a series! :0  I started with some reflections on my own definitions of self-suffiency, and where my husband and I are at with our goals.  Then I offered some thoughts and historical perspective on our economic and ecological relationship with land. In this post, I’m muddling through my thoughts and dreams around the dilemmas of income: how do we make a living off the land, or should that even be a goal?  Is the need to make a living from our land actually structuring the way we use and abuse it?

So.  Money.  Yeah, ugh.  The root of all evil or the secret to freedom and happiness?  Discuss.  (This is a generational test ;).  The answer is here. (at 5-6 mins in, if you don’t have the patience) Ah 1994.  Good times.)

As part of the Skipper and my discussions on how to live in a more ecologically sound way, the question of money comes up pretty regularly.  We struggled for a long time on the subject of whether buying a home and property was feasible or even desirable.  Now that we have a little piece of land, and we’re happily working away on the garden, the boat, the house, we have regular discussions about how we might be able to live this life full time, rather than having to go out to work.  Our commute (we each drive 45 minutes in opposite directions) is the least sustainable part of our lives, and although we feel lucky to have good-paying jobs that we generally like very much, we have no trouble imagining more idyllic ways to live.  At the same time, we recognize that these idyllic lifestyles (more on this coming) are both potentially real and an incredible privilege that forever define us as incomprehensibly wealthy in the scheme of things.

I’ve noticed that we’re not the only ones who regularly talk about living off the land as a more meaningful way not just to live, but to make a living.  There is a ton of discussion out there about small-scale farming as a way to reconnect alienated city-dwellers with their food, to create a more sustainable food-production system, and there are a lot of alienated city-dwellers who get interested in doing that sustainable food production themselves, as a way to reconnect with the environment (like me!).  But is it just me, or is part of that discussion of how much we want to get out of the city also a kind of longing to get out of the wage economy?  To somehow opt-out of modern industrial capitalism all together by finding ways to produce directly (food, energy, clothing, etc) those things that industrial society usually produces for us, albeit not usually in an environmentally sustainable way?

So here’s the dilemma as I see it.  We want out of the wage economy, which feels like we’re contributing to the problem and that takes us away from the places we want to put our life’s energy. But we need money to buy the land that we might be able to make a living off of, and if we need to make a living off the land, then we need a bigger piece of property, which means we need even more money.  There are multiple ways to finance that purchase (and as discussed in Self-Sufficiency 2 probably ways around the purchase part at all), but most of them mean more debt.

[Aside: I was highly influenced by Your Money or Your Life‘s definition of money AS life energy.  Think about it: we only have so many hours of life.  In the wage economy, we are trading those hours of life for money, which we then use–in typical North American lifestyles and in the book’s argument–to buy things which either allow us to work more or compensate for the stress and emotional disconnection of the job.  A vicious cycle. ]

I know I went through the next logical question: do I have to earn money at all?  I talked previously about how we cannot be islands unto ourselves and produce everything we need to survive.  But is money an essential part of the community relationship? Some folks are experimenting with barter and trade economies, local economies, and even cashless lives.  Others are reducing their expenses to the extreme, to find out how much little they need to save in order to be financially independent sooner.  Your Money or Your Life advocates this process: figure out what the most meaningful, sustainable lifestyle is for you, and then work to save enough to perpetuate it.

I spent many years trying to go this route.  I simplified my life dramatically, worked to save as much money as I could, and fantasized about being financially independent (or retiring early, as most call it).  At the moment of financial independence, I would no longer NEED to work for a living, and then I could live life freely. (There is a huge not-so-underground movement of people out there working toward and dreaming about this, and the crash hasn’t slowed them down–too many links to add, but ask if you’d like to look at some)

But I ran into a couple of stumbling blocks.  The first was that I never actually earned much money.  I naturally–for the same reasons I was interested in getting out of the wage economy–gravitated towards jobs that were rewarding in all ways other than financially!  I spent 13 years in post-secondary education, many years in child and youth care, and did a variety of other part-time jobs.  I was the only person I knew who managed to SAVE a little money while doing these jobs, but only a little.  But eventually, between my husband and I, we were able to start getting into the black, and we started to think about the best way to manage and invest our money.  This is where the second stumbling block comes in.

In all of the personal finance books out there, it’s clear that the only way to become financially independent in a short-ish period of time (like before you’re too decrepit to enjoy it!) is to make a return of some sort on your savings that will outpace inflation (ie to keep your savings equal in the future to the purchasing power they have today).  The usual advice is to earn lots, save most of it, invest it in the stock and bond markets in some way, retire, live off the returns on your savings plus a little bit of the principle as necessary.  (Much discussion usually follows on the “safe withdrawal rate”.  No double entendre intended).

Now I am not a math and numbers person, but I gave learning about all this stuff a valiant try for several years.  But the fundamental paradox is clear: in order to take your life energy out of the industrial capitalist system, you have to invest your money (= life energy) back into the industrial capitalist system.  Sigh.  Couldn’t find a way to resolve that paradox, for now keeping some ethical funds going in small amounts.

During the last couple of years of upheaval that led us to many of the life changes we’re now enjoying, I questioned most of my own assumptions about life.  I wondered why I had become so pre-occupied with early retirement.  Why did I not want to “work” ? (work for me was never the same as “labour”–I don’t mind “labouring” I just didn’t want to think about jobs, careers, etc)  What was it about my life that I wanted to retire from, and more importantly, what did I think I was going to do with my time once I was free?  What was the life that I was trying to get to, and–the big question–perhaps there was a way to live that life without financial independence first?

We put the questions aside temporarily and focused on lifestyle.  Our wage jobs allowed us to buy a lovely little house on a lovely little piece of property.  They enable us to live in the way that makes us very happy.  We are very happy.  But we’re still commuting. Maybe that’s ok.

But if living full-time on and working out of our home is what looks like dream life to us, what are our options?  And are they any more ecologically sound? Part 2: The Pros and Cons of Small-Scale Farming (as I see them ;))

Back to our Regularly Scheduled Program…

Hopefully I’ve still got some readers left out there 🙂 .  Back to the garden…

Last of the Spring Peas

After that long cold spring of watching the baby plants and hoping they would grow up to be food, I’m finally feeling a little overwhelmed by the garden bounty.  I stopped regularly picking peas a week ago–we just couldn’t keep up with eating them.  I won’t plant QUITE so many next year.  I’ve pulled out the Dwarf Grey Sugar pea vines; they were the first to produce and the first to finish.  I succession planted some more, but I think I’ll pull them out too.  The Green Arrow shell peas are finally in full swing, though, and they are wonderful, so I’ll leave them a little while longer.

We’re being taken over by salad greens.  Salads all week for lunch and dinner!  The Red Sails lettuce are huge–I picked one head last night and mixed with beet green thinnings and mesclun mix it looks like it will last us for a few days.  But I’ve got probably 8 heads left in the ground!  Luckily it’s not in the hottest spot in the garden, so hopefully it will hold a little while longer.  Lettuce takes more than a month to grow, so I really should be planting some more, but it’s hard to get motivated when it feels like there’s more than we can eat right now!

I’ve been harvesting the Napoli carrots; they are so beautiful and so tasty.  I’ve never been a big carrot eater, but I think I’m converted.  There’s just something about the miracle of pulling roots out of the dirt.  You never know what’s going to come up, and it just feels like such a wonder when what’s beneath the greens is an actual vegetable!

In the meantime, I’ve got a bed full of chard and beet greens that we haven’t touched in what feels like a month, cause we’ve been so busy eating spinach and carrots and peas and onions and garlic scapes and … oh yes, fava beans.  Sigh.  Still probably 7 lbs of those in the fridge… Maybe I’ll freeze some if I’m feeling ambitious.

The blueberries are ripe, I’m savoring the last of the spring raspberries, and the strawberries are pretty much done.

I’m a little worried that we’ll have a little dry spell before the tomatoes and beans and zukes are ready.  The beans and squash and cukes are still pretty tiny, and though the tomatoes are looking like an impenetrable jungle, they’ve still got a ways to go (I think) before we’ll be eating them in earnest.  Of course, when they hit, look out!  We’ll be canning like crazy!

Ok garden, I’m coming, I’m coming! 🙂

On Self-Sufficiency 2: The Land Question

Warning!  LONG post ahead!  No pictures 😦 . But I hope what follows will be interesting, and do let me know if you’d like no more of these long, academic posts! 🙂

So those of us trying to pursue a more sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle are well aware that one of the major stumbling blocks in our way is the cost of land ownership.  This is the issue quoted the most in discussions of the future of farming–how do we make land more accessible to young people who want to farm?  For those of us living in expensive areas of the country, like the Lower Mainland, the Okanagan, Southern Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, etc, the cost of land is not only an issue for farmers, but even for the simple option of home ownership that would allow for substantial and stable backyard food production.

Solutions and creative alternatives are out there, and I’d love to hear how you’re thinking about and getting around these issues on an individual basis.  But in this post, I’m thinking about the broad strokes of the history of land ownership in Canada, and where it leaves us today.  I am, of course, in a blog post, VASTLY oversimplifying.  One of my premises here is that owning the land that you can live off us is essential for true food security.  This is a very debatable premise.  I have no idea what the percentage of people in the world is who live off land that they own is, but I suspect it’s not that high.  And the whole concept of “ownership” is also a strange one from the Earth’s perspective, definitely shaped by our individualistic focus in North American and European culture.  But bear with me here as I try to pull together some of the issues and historical threads that I’ve been pondering recently.

1.  Take me back…no, further back….

In North America, I think we often imagine a sustainable time as something that existed historically in a vague image of family farms, animals grazing peacefully in fields, horse-drawn plows, barn-raisings.  For most of us in this younger generation (mid-twenties to late thirties?), family farming is at least one generation removed, so the images and realities are hazy.  But the family homestead may seem like something stable, that existed at one time.

I’d like to back in time a little further.  In Canada’s history, we have the very diverse First Nations who lived off the land before European contact (and long after, of course).   How they lived off the land varied greatly according to climate, region, culture, size, etc.  It’s likely, though, that First Nations here, as elsewhere, did practice a kind of “agro-forestry.”  This means that they were active participants in producing the food that they ate.  While they weren’t farming in a way that Europeans would have recognized, they were nonetheless actively selecting valuable foods and making sure there were conditions available under which those plants and animals would thrive.  Whether that was creating occasional fires, maintaing meadow zones, spreading seeds, or harvesting from different areas each year to preserve stocks, they were not simply living at the vagaries of nature.  While there was no concept of “ownership” in the way that we think of under capitalism, there was a clear sense of belonging and relationship with the land that spanned time and that was secure.  Land could not be taken away; it was simply home.

I think that when I imagine a life that simply IS, where I work for the survival of my family and community, rather than for some objective, externalized entity, it’s this relationship that I imagine and probably romanticize.

In Europe, meanwhile, land ownership was a possibility only for the very few.  The landlord was royalty or the church, and most of the population lived and farmed lands they didn’t own, at the pleasure of the landlord.  This feudal system existed for many centuries, and was transferred to Canada in the colony of New France.  You may remember your high school history: the seigneurie system in New France meant that the king owned all the land, a seigneur managed each section for him and collected rent, essentially, from the habitants who actually worked the land.  The rents, as in Europe, could be paid by labour on the king’s land, in crops produced, or in another form of tithe before the cash economy came to be.  Cash was also accepted when it became more available.  The seigneurie system existed in Canada until the 1850s!

2. The British Colony

Once Britain became Canada’s landlord, it wanted to secure the colony with British settlers.  Settlers for the mysterious Canadian forests were hard to come by, though, so there were more French than English around for a LONG time.  The Brits had to come up with some incentives, and the possibility of earning land title was a big one.  Britain’s system of land ownership was equally limited for most folks, and even wealthy families who were landlords often couldn’t promise land holdings for each of their children.  Scots and Irish, who had even more limited options at home because of the religious wars in the 1700s also took advantage, and these were some of the first settlers in the Maritimes.  But you had to already have some money to be able to afford passage and then to settle in the new world, so the numbers were still small.  The Brits offered more perks: soldiers who served in the North American colonies could earn land title there, settlers who developed the land over a set period could too.  For these middle classes, the advantages of owning your own land were obvious, lands at home limited, and the potential of the colonies seemed vast.

In the early 1800s there were two major events that changed the game for the lower classes.  The Napoleonic Wars in the early decades created blockades in Europe and demand for goods from elsewhere skyrocketed.  The economic booms for Maritime lumber for boat building, for instance, drew relative hordes from Britain and Ireland.  But after the wars, the famines began.  The potato famines hit Scotland and Britain hard, and other famines hit other parts of Europe too.  The famines were disastrous, not just because it left families starving, but also because it left them unable to pay their rents.  So families that had farmed in particular locations for centuries had to find new homes.  They were destitute, so most ended up homeless in the cities, and when things got so bad for everyone else in the cities, the governments started to feel the pressure to do something.  Subsidizing passage to the New World was one of the solutions, and presto, lots of immigration (we’re in the 1840s roughly now).  This large wave of immigrants, as you can imagine, brought with them a deeply ingrained desire to own their own land at all costs.

3. Confederation Needs Settlers Too

Now, you’ll remember that Confederation doesn’t hit until 1867, and what is Confederation?  Well, it’s the various groups of settlers in different parts of Canada (each independent colonies, if that’s not an oxymoron!) who come together and decide that they should be one nation, together sort of independent from Britain.  But it took some decades for all of the provinces and territories to agree on terms (some things never change).  BC didn’t join until 1871, and it wasn’t until 1870 that “Rupert’s Land”, which was the huge tract of land that formed the Prairies and the NW Territories, was purchased by Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

So in the late 1800s, we had lots of land, a few relatively densely populated areas in the Maritimes, Southern Ontario and Quebec, and around BC (Victoria and around the Fraser River).  The settlers building the nation were passionate about land ownership, which had been largely unavailable to them in their home countries.  I’m completely glossing over the question of how the land became “owned” by the crown in the first place, though in Eastern and Central Canada, this was largely done through treaties between First Nations and the Crown, relatively peacefully.

Once the Canadian government took possession of Rupert’s Land, though, a whole new set of questions began.  The Hudson’s Bay Company left some trading forts, some larger settlements around those forts (larger is a relative term!), they had sold some sections to people like Lord Selkirk in Scotland, who tried to create a settlement in the Red River colony for his tenants that he was removing from their traditional lands in Scotland (and he was one of the good guys!).  Relationships with First Nations were trade-based, and their traditional lifestyles were largely intact.  But when Canada bought the territory, it had to figure out what to do with it.  In the late 1870s, Sir John A. and his colleagues came up with the National Policy.

The National Policy created a vision of a united coast-to-coast-to-coast nation, at least economically.  This was the policy that envisioned the Prairies as both the breadbasket food producers for the populated East and as the Western market for Eastern manufactured goods.  In order for the vision to become a reality, the government needed a lot of settlers to farm, and they needed a railway to transport food and manufactured goods east to west.

In the US, the Homestead Act had come into effect in 1862, enticing settlers to the Western Frontier.  But it didn’t take long for the best land to be taken up, and when Canada enacted a similar act in 1872 (the Dominion Lands Act), lots of Americans and American immigrants headed north.  Both acts were straightforward: a small application fee ($10) gave you access to 160 acres, and then you just had to farm a section of it (40 acres) and build a permanent home for yourself within 3 years.  After that, you could apply for the land title, and it was yours.  In Canada, you could also apply for the neighbouring plot at the same time, so many doubled their acreages immediately.

Now despite this easy access to land, not many took up the call, and it wasn’t until the infamous Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton took over the task in 1896 that things began to change in a significant way.  Sifton decided that the need for successful settlers was urgent, and he went on a massive promotional campaign across Europe for farmers hardy enough to break the Prairies.  This is when we get the huge influx of Eastern Europeans to Canada: from the late 1890s to about 1914 when the outbreak of World War I changes the picture again.  But the amount of immigration that took place in those 20-25 years is pretty staggering: around 3 million, which was the entire population of Canada in 1867!

4.  What’s My Point? (Yes, I do have one…or seven)

So what’s the point in this long history lesson?  First, I think Canada really is the product of people for whom land ownership represents security in a profound way.  This is a deeply rooted part of our culture, and I think it continues today–Canada still promises land ownership to those displaced from their homes in other countries.

Second, in this country land ownership is also seen as the pathway to wealth.  There are good reasons why First Nations in BC (who have never had treaties with the Crown) are considering individual land ownership rights as part of their self-determination, despite the potential risk to their communities if people decide to sell to developers and leave.  I would argue that the whole idea that wealth, survival, and retirement security come from owning your own home is a mixed legacy of this history–the trade-off of individual land ownership is the break-up of family and community systems, for better and for worse.

Third, I want to stress the point that we have land ownership in this country because of colonialism.  Land in the Prairies was repossessed from First Nations under dubious circumstances and in BC it was simply appropriated without negotiation.  The Crown then sold it at bargain basement prices to anyone who was more desirable than those original inhabitants (and yes, there were folks who were less desirable who were shut out as well, including women, in some cases).

Fourth, land will never be offered under those circumstances here again.  In other words, the legacy of those original homesteads is fixed.  Some families got a lot of land for a small price (and I’m not condemning them, by the way, the work that was required to transform those lands would take too long to talk about here, and many failed or died trying), and their families have prospered over the centuries because of it.  Those homesteads were the starting point for the wealth that much of mainstream white Canada has today, but that deal will never be on the table for us again in the same way.  I was amazed to read recently that even the Back-to-the Land-ers in the 60s and 70s were largely middle-class young people who sold possessions, including homes, in order to buy the lands they were going back to.  It may be that those financial pressures were also what caused the demise of some of the attempts–that’s another area I’m interested in reading more about.

Today it seems the lesson is that we’ve got to come up with our own money to afford market rates for land, be willing to move to possibly less desirable locations where land is cheaper, or be exceptionally creative.

Fifth, I’m regularly amazed and intrigued by the fact that the Canadian Prairies became the “Breadbasket of the Nation” for political reasons and expansionist ideolgies, and for no ecologically driven reasons.  The precariousness of Canadian agriculture today rests in part with industrial farming practices, but also with fact that the decision to farm the Prairies at all was never made based on what the land might be good for.  This paradox and it’s ecological legacy is an ongoing research project of mine.

Sixth, it is this same legacy that created another, I would argue untenable, current situation: the large farm.  The large homesteads were partly based on what would work for growing cereal grains and for ranching/dairy farming.  I assume that most folks had vegetable gardens, and so producing small scale produce wasn’t a marketable idea at the time.

The situation we have today in the Cowichan Valley is representative, I think, of the kind of transition that we’re in.  Today, ALR farmland here largely rests in large 200-acre parcels that have been passed down through family dairy farms.  Those parcels are incredibly valuable and incredibly expensive.  Young farmers can’t afford them.  So if the farm doesn’t get passed down to children who want to farm, it has become either vineyard or it has come up for redevelopment permits to take it out of the ALR.  As nice as it is to have lots of vineyards around, neither option helps to maintain or increase food security.  At the same time, many young farmers, I think, are interested in farming in lower-tech and more sustainable ways which don’t require 200 acres.  But folks are understandably nervous about breaking up these large parcels.  Time for some co-op or other new models, methinks.

Last, (lucky number 7!) I think it’s important to remember (and this is really a reminder for myself, because I have completely fallen for the home ownership spell, perhaps because my family didn’t own a home until I was an adult on my own) that most people in the world still don’t own the land they live off of, and that land ownership, at the end of the day, is part of the capitalist economy that doesn’t make much sense from an ecological point of view.  It is possible to live in other kinds of relationships with the land, some of which may be equally secure and productive.  Doing a little research on the variety of possibilities would be enlightening, I’m sure.

Ok, that was a REALLY long post.  Anybody still with me?!  What do you think?  Is land ownership an illusion or the secret to self-sufficiency?  What are you doing to overcome these hurdles?  Does thinking about the history and culture of land ownership change your perspective at all?  Whew!  Deep thoughts for a Tuesday!

Travel Food Round-Up: Pleasure Beats Habit

Sorry to the Harvest Monday folks; as we were away this weekend, there’s not too much to report.  But I did harvest 3/4 lb of carrots and 1 1/2 lbs of peas for the trip, and I pulled up the last of the early potatoes last week, about 4 1/2 lbs.  And now that we’re back–the blueberries are ready!  So I had fresh blueberries with breakfast this morning, instead of the strawberries that have been sustaining me so far.

We had a great sailing trip, though we’ve come back tired and a little sunburnt.  In decent wind, it officially takes us 10 hrs to go from Ganges on Saltspring Island all the way around the top of the island and then back down through Samsum Narrows back home to the Cowichan Bay.  The weather was glorious, but that’s a long day.  No complaints, though!

What struck me most as I thought about food during our trip, though, was the regular dilemma that I presume we all go through: what’s the best way to change bad habits, pleasure or pain?  In other words, do we change habits naturally once we get a bigger payoff from a new, healthier habit, or do we need to hear the dire warnings and serious consequences of what happens if we don’t change?

Before we left, I joked about our travel food habits: pack lots, eat a little of it, and go to the pub.  We like going out to eat; we both have lots of pleasurable memories and love the feeling of relaxing on the patio with good beer.  We have been fish and chip connoisseurs over our lifetimes, and have enjoyed pub food (yes, we are a little quirky!).  At various times in our travels, we have blown our budget in order to go out, and not suffered for it.

Recently, though, things seem to be changing.  It’s partly a lifestyle change.  We love being at home, and we’re eating amazing flavours out of the garden.  I’m off at the moment, so I have more time to enjoy cooking, and we’re less likely to go out just because we’re tired and hungry.  Now that the weather’s great, the picnics on our own patio or on the boat are better than any other experience we can think of.  And that, I think, is going to finally break us of the pub habit.

We were well prepared for our long days of sailing, with lots of snacks, sandwich makings, and chips and other treats.  We had a couple of really enjoyable feasts on our way to Ganges–and the best parts were the peas and carrots, cherries and blueberries!  We arrived in port in the early afternoon, and had plenty of time to wander happily through the amazing Saturday market.  We treated ourselves to fudge and lemonade and some fresh mini-donuts.  We headed back to the boat to relax in the late afternoon and have a beer in the sunshine.  We got chatting to other boaters moored around us, and were having a great time.  We got hungry around 7, and as we had planned to eat out for dinner, we headed to the pub at the marina.  We figured it was Saturday night, and there was no point in walking back into town where there would be more selection–everything would be packed, and my blood sugar was dropping rapidly!

Our meal was fine.  The beer was good, the oysters were fresh, and the mains were tasty.  But the bill was high, we had as good beer in the icebox, and the view from the patio couldn’t beat the one from the cockpit.  We’ve always known that it’s a rare meal that’s better than the ones we make ourselves, and this was not an exception.  In the end, I think our tastes are simplifying, and the sheer pleasure of the picnic on the boat is going to finally overcome the pleasures of the pub in a way that all the budget warnings or other moments of dissatisfaction never did.

I get that this is what simpler living is all about.  We’ve been working on simplifying our lives for several years, with many successes.  But the missing link at times has been a level of inner fulfillment that we’re finally experiencing now.  Much of our previous simplifying has been a matter of living ethically and without ravenous consumption, as well as trying to live in a financially sensible way.  But in our last living experience, in the city condo, I actually started to feel that life had become TOO simple; we’d let go of too much that was meaningful and creative for us in the name of de-cluttering and simplifying.  That life was still too much about work and not enough about pleasure.

Here, I think we’re finally finding out what simple living is really supposed to be about.  The garden, the sailboat, the house, the small communities are so enriching our lives and giving us so much pleasure, that we are willingly walking away from the things that we used to use to compensate for or recover from the stresses that otherwise occupied our time and attention.  My hope is that as we continue on this journey, in a natural, rather than punitive way, we will continue to reduce our cost of living until we need to work fewer hours to pay for our lives.  And isn’t that what sustainable living is all about?

Travel Food

It’s official: The Skipper and I are off sailing for the weekend!  It’s a first for us together; we’ve slept aboard once before, but I didn’t actually do the sailing part.  So this time we’re sailing briefly this evening, spending the night anchored somewhere, then making our way hopefully to Ganges (Saltspring Island) on Saturday, so as to do a bit of poking about on land before heading home on Sunday.  Not much wind expected, so it will be a slow sail, but calm seas make for happier sleepers, I expect :).

So today I’m contemplating the provisions.  The Skipper and I have done a lot of camping and other traveling over these many years, and I always say, somewhat sheepishly, that we tend to travel for the weekend, pack enough food for 2 weeks, and then when we get to our destination, we head straight for the pub. 😉  After all, eating in new places is part of the reason to travel, right?  Food memories are visceral memories, and they are the ones that we revel in later–for better or worse.

Those who’ve travelled with us will know that we chart our knowledge of the small communities around the province by what we know is good to eat there: we know that the best butter tarts on the Island used to be at a cafe in Qualicum Beach, that Port Alberni has some of the best fish and chips around, that the Crofton pub is best avoided, but the Crow and Gate (as much for the ambience as the food) in Cedar is worth its own trip.

Choosing food to travel with always feels like a vacation from regular eating to me too.  It’s my big chance to re-live my junk food habits: chips, Dairy Queen, soda.  Special foods that I don’t eat in my everyday life, but that match that feeling that I’m doing something different.  The problem is, I also always end up on an expensive run to the grocery store before the trip, and then we go to the pub. 🙂

We’re keeping watch over our pennies a little more carefully at the moment, so I’m trying to think a little differently about provisioning this time.  Plus, we’re not bringing a stove (haven’t quite figured out a way to cook safely at sea yet), so that simplifies things greatly.  Our standard fare for road food is good sandwiches: good bread, good cheese, avocados and sometimes tomatoes.  We usually snack on nuts and fruit too.  I don’t think I’ll upset that routine for this trip–sandwiches are easy over the two days for lunches, and we already have nuts, some chocolate-covered almonds (you know, health food 🙂 ), and I think there are some cherries left.  We’ve got some hummus, so we just need some foods for dipping.  I’m having flashbacks to road trips with my grandparents as a child and mason jars filled with cold water and carrot and celery sticks!  I’ve got carrots waiting to be pulled, peas waiting to be harvested, and a bell pepper in the fridge–I’ll skip the celery (didn’t plant any)–and maybe I’ll use that mason jar trick.  Cereal for breakfasts, but I’ll miss my fresh picked strawberries on them!  And we’ll PLAN to hit somewhere on land for Saturday dinner.

It’s been so long since it’s been warm that I’m reveling in how little besides food there is to pack–usually I’m rolling up wool pajamas and as much fleece as I can cram in a backpack.  Not during this heat wave!  Woot!  Enjoy the July weekend, and I’d love to hear your favorite road food stories…

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…