A Micro Scale Study
Having taken a job in Saskatchwan last year in order to satisfy my emotional dependency on being financially independent, I then was living two provinces away from my husband, my farm, my animals–essentially everything I hold dear to me. After 9 months of this, I finally had a meltdown one morning in front of my closet while trying to decide what to wear to work. With scintillating clarity it came to me: I don’t want to wear proper clothes. Instead, I want to be in my gumboots, on my farm, with my husband; I’d rather scoop poop than figure out which shirt to iron this morning.
And there is was: my emotional trajectory launched itself at the foot of my bed in front of my closet. At last I was ready to accept my husband’s offer to support me through his teaching job; this was my chance to indulge myself in the farm. I would attempt food sovereignty—and maybe write a book about it, too. I was apprehensive about this decision, because I didn’t grow up on a family farm and had always thought that this accident of heredity precluded me from being a farmer. But if I could study to get a PhD, surely that same diligence would help me become a farmer, especially with the resources available to me through neighbour farmers in the valley and the now voluminous resources of the Internet.
It just takes time:
It is a daunting undertaking. In particular, figuring out where to stop and what my limits are has been difficult. In fact, it is an almost daily negotiation: should I buy sugar so I can make jam with all my fruit, should I buy vinegar to can relishes and pickles, should I make vinegar myself from my own apples, etc, etc.? I had to decide whether I would be a ‘purist’ or simply accept that some foods are necessary to make other foods last. Ultimately, I acknowledged that even the pioneers and cowboys had sugar, flour and coffee!
In the beginning, we talked about cutting out foods we couldn’t produce ourselves, such as olive oil, coffee, wine, beer, etc., as Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon of the 100 Mile Diet fame did, but ultimately we decided not to–because of the time constraints. Smith and MacKinnon spent their time sourcing local foods whereas I’m spending time growing it. What’s more, they’ve already done it–and for that I am grateful. What they have achieved–getting local eating on the media agenda, locally, regionally and internationally–is a major accomplishment. My hat is off to them.
We also decided not to cut out all ‘off-farm’ luxuries for socio-cultural reasons. Food creates community. Food is culture. Food is a social binder. Once you decide to cut out this or that, you can find yourself suddenly sitting alone on the bench (If you’ve ever gone on a strict diet you will know this!). In addition, this year, we knew we would be hiring a bunch of people to help us get barns built and green-houses built. The compromise we have made instead is buy regionally roasted organic coffee and to brew our own beer and wine at the local U-brew. I just couldn’t see myself explaining to ‘the guys’ why I couldn’t make them a coffee to keep them going at mid-day, or offer them a beer after a hard day’s work!
In the end, I let the idea of rigorous ‘Personal Food Sovereignty’ go. I had to. For one thing, it was just too unrealistic a goal: I don’t own enough land, the growing conditions here are not conducive to grain, and I am only one person (albeit with a helpful partner). Moreover, I don’t have the funds to buy not only the necessary larger piece of land, but also the requisite equipment needed to accomplish the above. Finally, I didn’t want to be divorced at the end of the year!
It was a good mental exercise to work through these ideas. It has been, to say the least, a thought provoking exercise and something I encourage anyone reading this to ponder in terms of their own life. How much food to you eat each year? In what quantities? How will you preserve them? What if the hay doesn’t last for the goats? When you sit and think about how you would feed yourself, your family, your animals should you ever have to, it certainly sharpens the mind and focuses your energies! Once you suddenly realize just how dependent you are on ‘the system’, you will be humbled, if not shocked and somewhat un-nerved as I was.
What we accomplished and learned:
I’ve learned more about what is important to me. I’ve learned that what is important and what I can manage ultimately comes down to time, my community, and my priorities and abilities for living a rich life. Through the blogging world I have found a community of like-minded others who, by their own writings, have mirrored with scintillating accuracy my own feelings about the day to day of a small-holding. As this fellow blogger, Stonehead, states so humorously:
As always, there are just two of us working the [farm], one full-time and one helping out as and when. It means we cannot possibly do all the things that everyone thinks we should be doing, whether it’s tanning rabbit skins, keeping a house cow, making our own paint brushes from pig bristle, keeping the place totally weed free, making our own soap, or dancing the fandango on the rooftoop every hour on the hour while playing the bagpipes. We have to decide and adjust our priorities constantly to ensure we get the important things done first…
Over the past year, learned to fly fish and I have gotten my hunting license. I have yet to go out hunting, but that should happen in October or November. I have taught myself to make cheese, learned about fermenting foods, and a host of other food preservationist skills. We built a 12′ by 36’ greenhouse which I am learning to use, and a 22 ‘x 20’ turkey barn/brooder house (so we can get the chicks out of the garage!) and so I will be learning how to raise chickens and turkeys on a more self-sufficient scale. We started a roadside stall, to see what would sell if anything. We learned it takes a huge effort, and at the end of the day the return is maybe $5. Bringing in the honesty box, I feel I am an average world peasant now, living on my $5 a day!
We learned that we like to maintain a certain level of ‘haute cuisine’. The Nearings in the US managed food sovereignty, but I bet they didn’t have lavender jelly or home made bread or gouda cheese! I realized that to truly be secure in food, I must reduce what I grow to a few successful, reliable crops. Now I see why my Irish ancestors lived solely on potatoes! But I’m not a purist. Life is a compromise; I’m giving up a lot already—no income, no medical coverage, no UI. I don’t want to give up everything, but I know that I could if I had to.
I have learned that you can’t do it on a shoe-string budget; that it is somewhat costly. We just invested $1300 in 2 more fridges/freezers and built another barn to raise turkeys which cost close to $20 thousands dollars. On top of those costs are all our canning/pasteurizing/crock pots/cheese presses cost, too.
I have learned that, for me, a deep dependency on a system is not a feeling I’m comfortable with. Consequently, that has become my focus: extracting myself as much as I can from ‘the system’. I have made a shift from the original goal–to grow all my own food for a year, to creating interdependency within my community and social circle. This goal, like my garden, is growing, changing, and continuously evolving based on its relationship to the outside world and my innate limitations.
What’s next? In future I’d also like to replace the ducks with rabbits, breed the goats, eat the kids, milk the goats for a while, and establish beehives. In time. It all takes a fair amount of money, sheer determination and heaps of effort, and a fantastic amount of creativity and imagination. But, it feeds my body, nourishes my spirit, is an outlet for my creative energy. It’s my ‘slow motion art’.