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3 November 2015

Living off the land

I watched a BBC documentary on UTube while I was ironing yesterday. It showed a Hutterite community, living on the Canadian prairies, who had voluntarily cut themselves off from the rest of the world. The entire program was interesting but what I liked most was how this small community banded together and as a group of about 160 people in numerous large family groups, sustained themselves and earned a living. They had dairy cows and a chicken farm and the community provided the workforce for the cows to be milked every day and to get the chickens to eggs and meat. There was no outside help. It is their way for the women to work in the home while caring for the family, the children went to primary school and the rest of the people there all had a job working for the collective good of the group. Unfortunately I can't say everyone was happy but they were all productive.

Making your own soap and laundry products will give you good quality cleaning products with far fewer chemicals, while reducing the cost of living.
Growing calendulas and other flowers and herbs allows you to add beneficial extras to your soap and cleaners without added cost.
You can make good bread for less than you buy it for.

As most of you know, I'm old enough to have been in my in my teens and 20s during the sixties. Many hippies went back to the land then and while most of them lived in poverty, some thrived. Then in the 1970s, during the world-wide oil crisis, people from all walks of life tried to make good lives working their own land. 

Now in 2015 it is still possible, through hard work, organisation and planning, to work your own land so that it sustains you. There are a number of people who read this blog who do exactly that. Usually they have paid off a mortgage or are close to it, and they give up a full time job and use that time to work the land instead. They still need to earn some money though. Often one part of a couple will go out to part-time work. Or they both work part-time and have the equivalent of a full-time wage. That cash money goes towards bills for phone, electricity, clothing, shoes, health, transport and possibly travel and entertainment.

You'll need to develop the skills to help you store an abundance of food when certain things are in season. Knowing how to preserve/can food will give you seasonal food in the form of jams, sauces and relish even out of season. It will also give you a variety of food all through the year without having to go to the supermarket to get it.

If you have a house cow or goats, you can make a wide variety of dairy foods, including butter to spread on your bread.
Saving the seeds of open pollinated vegetables provides heirloom vegetables and fruit without having to buy new seeds every year. 
Pure breed chickens, with the addition of a rooster, will give you a continuous supply of chickens for eggs and meat.

John Seymour wrote an excellent book The New Complete Book Of Self Sufficiency * (UK) that gives details of backyards, one acre and five acre plots and how you can best manage them. And Carla Emery (USA) has her widely read book The Encyclopaedia of Country Living *. Sadly, both these authors are dead now, but I have had both these books for many years and I am happy to recommend them to you. There are two Australian books I can recommend too - The Permaculture Home Garden by Linda Woodrow and Backyard Self Sufficiency by Jackie French. Three of these books guided me early on. All the authors lived this life for many years and built their skills by doing what they write about. They share good ideas on how to do things most books don't even mention.  *If you're in Australia, all these books are available locally from Booktopia.

These photos of our vegetable garden are from a few years ago when we grew as much as we could. This gave us the opportunity to freeze and preserve the excess for later in the year.

I guess Hanno and I lived off our land too for the past thirteen years before we started to pull back a bit because of our age. Now we are content to tend smaller gardens.  If you have the land and are debt-free, and if you have the energy and will to do it, partial self-sufficiency in a backyard garden is entirely possible. If you start out with the intention of growing all or most of your fruit and vegetables, and you keep chickens or have aquaponics fish, it will take about a year to be in full production but you'll have a good chance of success. If you're vegetarian, it will be quicker. Add bees and a goat or a house cow if you have enough land, you'll also have honey and milk and you'll be able to make cheese, butter yoghurt and soap with the excess. If you're in the sub-tropics or tropics, you could even grow your own coffee, tea and nuts - it's all there for the taking as long as you put in the work. And it's hard rewarding work. You need to know what you're doing or have a mentor close at hand, but it is possible. If you can't grow everything you need, grow as much as you can and buy in the small amount that you can't produce.

There are other things you can do, along with food production, to help reduce the cost of living. Recycling, repairing, mending, solar panels, making your own fertilisers and saving water from the roof will all fit well into your backyard scheme. In fact, if you're going to grow a large garden, setting up a water catchment system from the roof to tanks or several water buts will save money on water and help fulfil your ideal of sustainability. Whatever you can do to recycle and repair and save precious resources - be they financial or produce, will stand you in good stead as the years progress. Foraging and bartering help too and they're both a vibrant part of many sustainable communities. It all takes careful planning though and you have to learn all the skills you need. You can't just stumble along because if a crop fails, you'll be without that particular food for that season or you'll have to return to the shops to buy it.

This is the second water tank we put in and it sits behind our shed. It collects water from the shed roof and part of the house roof.  Using this plastic tank and the metal one below, we can store 15,000 litres of water and we never have to use town water on the garden or for anything outside.
This white down pipe on the side of the house runs under the pathway and over to the large tank photographed above. Hanno rigged this system of collection pipes so we could collect water from the house room and store it in the large tank attached to our shed.
This is the original tank we put in during our first year here. It's still the tank I use to water the vegetable garden and bush house.

Pay off your debt, or get close to it, before you start. Living with no monthly mortgage payments will make the path ahead so much easier. Make a plan - work out what fresh produce you eat every week and every season then find out how much of that you can grow yourself. Work out the cost as well because there is no benefit in growing food if you're paying so much for water that you'd be better off buying what you need. If you live near someone who is already doing this, I'm pretty sure they'll help you learn the skills you need and give you ideas about how to organise yourself. If you don't have anyone and want to dive in, go over to the forum and share your story there. There is a lot of information about building soil fertility, saving seeds, growing various crops, preserving, storage etc. already there and I've just created a thread where this important topic can be discussed over the coming days.  If you're not already a member, you can join free of cost. I'll be popping into the thread when I have time and I'll help as much as I can but there are also a lot of other people there who will be willing to help.


  1. Amen to all that you said. While we don't have land, I am trying to employ much of what you say. I love that photo of the bread, do you have a link for its recipe?

  2. Maybe I have to try that; ironing while watching tv or Youtube or something like that. Thanks for the eye-opener!

    For us, it's hard to be as selfsuficient as we want to be: we live in an apartment, in the middle of a small city. We do try to make, mend and do, keeping a happy sight of our future plans, but boy, is it hard to do.

    Luckily we have your book at home and this site to always return to. Thank you!

    Love from Holland

  3. Rhonda greetings. Great topic as usual. Our family came to Australia late 50's with 9 children under age 18. So you can imagine our parents had to be inventive with lots and lots of ideas. When after living in a hostel for 3 years we got our own brand new house(we joined together to pay for a block of land). We had a wonderful vegetable garden which Dad watered with the 'grey water' from our laundry room...piping it under the surface to where it was needed. So many ways of being more economical...I've learned a lot from those days long ago.

  4. Great Post Rhonda.
    John Seymour and Karla Emery were my inspiration and go-to books when we bought our two acre smallholding back in 1981. Still good and relevant today. I met John Seymour in the late 80s when he bought out his "Blueprint for a Green Planet" a terrific book, well worth a read. I bought it then and he signed it, but I lent it to someone and haven't seen it since Grr.
    Gill in the UK

    1. Hello Gill. I borrowed Blueprint for a Green Planet from the library and loved it. What a pity you lost your copy. Old John really wrote some exceptional books.

  5. I think there was a time where married newly weds would live in the home of the older parents..... house sharing was common....It would be neat for many families to truly help other out in times of need and to fulfill basic live duties and skills....unfortunately personal issues like mental and social health can cause significant strain. jelousies build up and so on.....

  6. I have to say I'm so glad my husband and I are debt free. At one time he and I lived off the grid. It was a good experience but some people thought it was free.
    We have a few groups of Mennonites. Also the Mormons. Both of there faiths teaches them to resourceful with each other.
    But I know it not for me, I do like my privacy....Coffee is on

  7. Hi Rhonda that would have been an interesting clip to watch, I would really enjoy working with a group of like minded people on a sustainable lifestyle. I think I was born 100 years to late. I would have been very happy living as they did back then. We had a wood stove all of my young years and always had a veg garden and chooks, how wonderful life was. I wish the values people had were more common now, but I see so much rudeness and laziness that go along with todays wasteful lifestyle.take care from Judi

  8. A good post to remind people of whats possible with hard work - We were very self sufficient for many years but age and health issues are forcing us to downsize - sadly.

  9. I had a dream that involved living off the land. Then I came across your blog and the blogs of a few other women who all shared the same dream. I knew I could do it too! I took care f my father for the last two years of his life, which, I would never trade for anything! After he passed, I was able to sort out his estate with my sisters, sell the home I was in (at a bargain for the young couple because they knew real estate laws and had family in real estate) and subsequently purchased five acres in a less expensive area of the US to live. I am "sitting" on my land now almost a year after moving here, to see what goes on where and formulating the plans I have for it. We mainly have horses, because that is what we had at the old home, but now I have more chickens, two geese, some goats and plans for a sheep or two for the fiber. We are on a well, and septic system, the only thing we get from the outside world is the electric, and right now our food. (Oh and cable for TV, computer, phone) I have already started planning for spring and where the garden is going, I started baking bread and other things for us to eat again. I am reading everything I can on making cheese from my goats milk (when that happens) and I also want to make soap. I'm excited. Oh! I also will be able to get back to my weaving and quilt making, which hopefully will become a small source of income when spring rolls around again. I want to thank you for all of the knowledge you have shared, it has helped me immensely!

  10. On the front of John Seymour, I highly recommend his "Self Sufficient Gardener". In many ways its more detailed and more accessible than the complete guide to self sufficiency in that it deals exclusively with gardening. I shamelessly plagiarized the ideas when laying out our garden (standardised beds, covers that can move from bed to bed etc.)

    A really excellent tome

    1. I wasn't all that interested in his thoughts on gardening because I had a pretty good garden before I found him. It was his philosophy and traditional skills I was interested in. Reading that book was like winning the lottery. :- )

  11. Watching tv while ironing? I've never done that, i always tell myself some stories and btw...ironing is not that important since there's no husband who needs clean shirts for the office.
    The office where i worked all my life provides me now with a pension so i'm deptfree and live the live i love.
    A smal garden for my veggies and an atelier where i make my art. Yesterday i bought white cabbage and will make sauerkraut tomorrow.
    You know what???? I love being old..................

    1. You know what, Martine, I do too. :- ) On some days it feels like an exhilarating blast of fresh air and other days it's a warm cloak to shelter in.

  12. I loved reading your blog, even though I work full time I still like to live self sufficient. I was so excited that you too have read Permaculture Home Garden by Linda Woodrow. That book is my gardening bible! I started my mandala garden a year ago and all the neighbours are amazed. I have 7 round gardens filled with amazing veges and fruit trees. I just love it and get so much enjoyment from growing but also being self sustainable - a feeling of satisfaction and every day I'm rewarded 10 fold from the effort it has taken. Lorraine

  13. I've been away from you blog for a couple of years as life has shifted for my family. It was lovely to 'drop in' and read your last few posts! My, how your grandchildren have grown!
    I'm glad to see you still have the same wisdom in what you do ;)
    Love, Jennifer


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