Tag Archives: self sufficiency

More harvest than festival

???????????????????????????????After picking flowers, I couldn’t resist laying out some samples of the autumn harvest. I didn’t get too obsessive. There is much that I forgot to include – a good potato crop, sweet corn, another year’s supply of dried beans (not sure we have finished the 2013 bean harvest yet) and I forgot entirely about the show-off avocados which we have in such abundance that we are giving them away by the supermarket bag full.

What I can tell you, as we personally move more to a diet dominated by plant-based protein rather than one heavy on animal protein, is that anyone who says that you can be relatively self sufficient in food on a few metre square raised beds and an hour or two of work a week hasn’t actually done it themselves! With a lifetime of experience, it takes Mark a great deal of time and space to generate a wide range of food that we want to eat. Most of it is organic and we are also interested in the whole issue of nutrient density – more on this another time.

We are swapping surplus tomatoes and melons with a friend for eggs and pumpkin and appreciative friends also reciprocate with jars of preserves made from our surplus produce. It is a satisfyingly simple way of life that we followed in our twenties in our hippie days and we are enjoying rediscovering decades down the track.
The melons – both rock and water – take some effort here. Mark starts them early under a cloche in almost pure compost. The cold, wet spring meant that stone crops were sparse this year but the abundant melon crop is an indication of a good summer.

The yellow fruit by the melons are chaenomeles (japonica apples). I have boiled some down and strained off the liquid to use later for some conserve or jelly. The green fruit, for non New Zealanders – is the feijoa, a South American fruit we have almost made our own here. The oranges are one of our staple fruit here – we can harvest all year round, especially from the Lue Gim Gong tree.

Sadly, while we can grow sapotes, macadamia nuts and other marginal crops, mango and papaya are never going to grow here. We do still buy some extra fruit and vegetables.

I have even made Cape gooseberry jam again this year.

I have even made Cape gooseberry jam again this year.

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A mast year for strawberries in the quest for semi self sufficiency here

It appears to be a mast year for strawberries here. That is a term for when plants produce a significant abundance of fruit. In nature this can be important. Apparently kakapo need rimu to have a mast year in order to breed. But here it just means we are having a bumper strawberry harvest. Not wanting to overstate the case, but they are coming in by the bowl full.

This leads me to the issue of self sufficiency and the observation that if you want to be self sufficient, you have to accept that there will be mast years and there will be famine years for some crops. At least we have the supermarket option these days so the famine stakes are not as high. I have noticed that self sufficiency has become trendy again, often espoused by people who claim that it is terribly easy and achievable in very small areas, taking relatively little time. All I can say is that self sufficiency must mean different things to different people and varying levels of home provision are being hailed as self sufficiency.

We describe ourselves as relatively self sufficient in fruit and vegetables. We produce enough fruit for high individual consumption all year and only buy additional fruit for variation in the diet and seasonal treats which cannot be grown successfully in our area. We generally produce sufficient vegetables but there are times we have to supplement. The husband felt such a failure when I had to buy a bag of potatoes last week because we had run out of old ones and we had eaten the first crop of early ones already. The onion harvest was poor this year so we have had to buy. Purists would maybe go without onions for the year.

But we are nowhere near self sufficient if you take in grains and animal protein. We don’t even attempt to produce our own grains. While we raise our own beef, we haven’t done our own poultry for years. To be genuinely self sufficient, you would need to factor in sufficient grain cropping to be able to feed the poultry as well.

Nevertheless, it is astonishing quite how much area gets taken up in providing sufficient to keep us going at the level we like for just the two of us and how much time it takes on the part of He Who Produces it All (aka Mark). Fortunately he enjoys doing it. If it was left to me, it would be a poor harvest of basil and lettuces at best because I would rather grow flowers. Mark has long scoffed at suggestions that you can achieve self sufficiency in a tiny plot and in dinky raised beds so we returned to The Oracle to see how much land she thought was needed. The Oracle is Kay Baxter, founder of the Koanga Institute. She only preaches what she practices and she has close to 40 years of experience in food production, organics and self sufficiency. We have the utmost respect for her opinion. According to her: “To grow all your veges and grains, you will need 100 square metres per person.” Yes that does include grains, which not many of us produce, but it does not include fruit. That is a hundred square metres of healthy soils in full sun with good shelter – per person. For a family of five – five plots of 10 metres by 10 metres. There are reasons why modern society has turned to the industrialisation of food production and one is the economies of scale.

If you want to produce your food on organic principles, you may need an even greater area. Generally speaking, organic production relies on producing crops at optimum times and not pushing the boundaries either end of the season (because that is when pests and diseases will strike more readily). You also need to be meticulous on crop rotation and soil management because you don’t have the fall back position of a chemical arsenal to rectify problems.

Factor in time as well. Time every week, not just when the gardening bug strikes in spring. To get reliable production in the vegetable garden requires constant vigilance, planning and regular work. If we costed in our time, it would be cheaper for most of us to buy all our food.

For us, it is a measure of a very high standard of living that we can produce most of our fruit and vegetable requirements. It is not a point of principle so much as a measure of quality – quality of both produce and life. When our lives were more frenetic and we had the demands of running a seven day business, there was not the luxury of time to produce food which could be bought cheaper and more conveniently from the local shops. There can be luxury in simplicity. Just don’t believe the current advice that you, too, can be self sufficient in fruit and veg in next to no time with minimal area and effort and it is all wonderfully simple. Ask such proponents again in twenty years time and you may be told something very different.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

Relearning the old ways while getting to grips with new technology

The chaenomeles - attractive and aromatic but not overly versatile when it comes to doing anything with them

The chaenomeles - attractive and aromatic but not overly versatile when it comes to doing anything with them

Feeling guilt at wasting the windfall chaenomeles

Feeling guilt at wasting the windfall chaenomeles

It is in the nature of Mark’s and my life that we receive a certain number of invitations to be guest speakers. Not that we are on the celebrity speaker circuit, I hasten to add. Nobody is offering to pay us $4000 to listen to our gems of wisdom. We might be a great deal more enthusiastic if they were. These days we decline most such invitations – it takes a great deal of time and effort to prepare a talk, quite aside from the travel time to go and deliver it. But I relented and accepted an invitation from outside the area to speak to a horticulturally inclined group this week. The reason was quite simple. I needed to learn how to put together a power point presentation and this would force the issue. Which it has done, but not without stress. A quick lesson from power point-savvy daughter at Christmas more or less equipped me to start. I put together a sequence of images on a theme of learning about summer gardens from England and the garden design debt to Moorish Spain. So far so good. We headed out to check that it all worked with a friend who regularly gives such talks. But there was a problem and it was a case of the semi sighted leading the nearly blind as we tried to solve it. We had to have another glass of wine instead and the next day, I returned to the problem of trying to fit photo images to screen size. Spending all day in front a computer screen is not the norm for me, so I tend to fluff around and multi task. There I am, laptop on power point stretching me beyond my technology skills, while starting to cook dinner and making fresh grape jelly when Mark asks: “What are you going to do with the passion fruit crop?

To be fair to Mark, his question was not unreasonable. He has cooked, skinned (I dislike cooked tomato skins) and frozen large quantities of home grown tomatoes. He has taken corn off the cob, blanched it and quick chilled it, and packed it in meal sized portions. He has been cleaning and drying beans. He consulted with me about how many tins of tomato we might buy throughout the winter and spring and how often we might eat corn. I suggested up to 70 servings of tomato (twice a week) and maybe 40 of corn. Having reached that target, he started worrying about what to do with the remainder. Meanwhile the avalanche of autumn produce continues. What to do with the many bucket loads of pears, a variety without keeping qualities and rather too blemished to appeal to others? And the grapes? Our tastes have matured to the point where we are no longer so desperate as to make homemade wine. We haven’t even started on the apples yet and the feijoas will be starting soon. The chaenomeles are falling. Fortunately the pumpkins and potatoes just need sorting and storing but there are other crops shouting for attention and basil and tarragon seem to be going to waste. There is such a lot of pressure in this self sufficiency drive.

The crop of motley looking pears

The crop of motley looking pears

Back in the late seventies, the world clock of peace ticked, apparently inexorably, towards the midnight which would signal the onset of the feared nuclear holocaust, petrol rose dramatically in price and home interest rates were up to 24% for second mortgages. Along with others, we felt the drive to simplify life and to be less dependent on outside supplies. We bottled and dried and froze food, ate largely from our own garden and shunned all tinned and pre packaged options. I will even admit to doing macramé (it was the age of macramé, an aesthetic aberration that has probably bypassed younger generations). The knotted sisal rope holders I constructed for our stereo speakers were a tour de force. I made elaborate patchwork dresses from old fabric (called vintage these days) which I smocked and embroidered and sold to a local craft shop. Mark produced handsome woodturning and I bought him a book on how to make sandals from leather and old car tyres. The sandals never eventuated but we were children of the land. In modern parlance, our carbon footprint was very low indeed. So we are not without experience in this field of partial self sufficiency even if it has taken us thirty years to return to the practices.

But my goodness, hasn’t the Christchurch earthquake been a timely lesson for us all on considering how we might cope in a similar disaster? True, all Mark’s tomatoes and corn would defrost. Depending on the freezer for food storage means one is also dependent on electricity. But we are not going to build our daily lives around a worst case scenario and it takes even more time (and indeed expense) to preserve food by bottling.

What to do with a surplus of grapes when home made wine does not appeal?

What to do with a surplus of grapes when home made wine does not appeal?

Interestingly, it is the time element that we had forgotten about. It takes a great deal of time both to grow food at home in sufficient volume to come anywhere near meeting one’s needs and then it takes even more time to prepare and store that food. If you don’t derive pleasure from doing it, the commitment is more likely to seem like an unnecessary burden. If you measure your time in dollar values, it is hugely more economical to simply hop in your car and go out to buy the food you require. But it is not the same. There is no way anyone could derive the same sense of satisfaction from unpacking supermarket bags and putting away packets and tins as one can from stowing away home grown food. Squirrel Nutkin Syndrome, I call it. The woodshed is full, the freezer is filling, and the pantry has a wide range of food options, even if it is a lifestyle choice which will not appeal to some. Mark also comments frequently that it takes a lot of land to produce a surplus of food and some of the extremely low estimates of how much area you need have him perplexed. And that is without even attempting to grow our own grains.

Should we suffer a natural disaster on a par with Christchurch, you can be sure of tomato and corn chowder here for about the first week. It may be cooked over an open fire but there should be plenty of it. However, the problem of what to do with the passion fruit harvest remains. As do the pears.