Friday, February 1, 2008

Farming for Self-Sufficiency: Independence on a Five-Acre Farm

Farming for Self-Sufficiency Independence on a 5 Acre Farm, John and Sally Seymour (Introduction by Mildred Loomis, The School of Living, Freeland, Maryland). Schocken Books, NY 1973.

"Give any man, anywhere in the world, his fair share of earth's surface, and--if he survives one harvest--he and family need never be hungry again." (p. 14)

In 1973, only seven years after I was born, already the basic structural problems for early 21st century society from industrial farming had been mostly identified and articulated: "depletion and erosion and disease were resulting from the chemical-pesticide regime and the commercial, mono-crop agriculture, sometimes called agri-business." (p. 2) As Loomis says, the Seymours offer a report on twenty years of living differently, organically and sustainably, locally, what "in the 1920s, Ralph Borsodis had christened 'modern homesteading.'" (p. 12) The strength of the book is the depth of experience shared in it; there is a "lived-with" feel, in which the rougher bumps and hard edges of life have been worn down and softened by apprenticeship and long practice, so that knowledge and experience have yielded a weathered wisdom. There is much of common sense, age, and hard work here, the results of which are freely and graciously shared with good humor.

The writing is strong. Chapter titles are mostly simple, one-word affairs: "Horse," "Cow," "Pig," and the like. What the internet now has the potential to provide--a resource for reporting and exchange of information with others who are engaged in a similar way of living--was once the purview of journals and newspapers and paper journals like The Interpreter and books like this one by the Seymours. The problem with paper publishing is its limited availability. And the problem with a book is that it carries a single perspective and limited experience, however relevant and important that particular perspective may be. It takes many books of this sort to provide a truly ample view of the self-sufficient life as it might be lived in suburban central Indiana, for example. But the Seymours' books are out of print, available only at the library or via used book sales at Amazon and the like. The good news is that there is an explosion of such writing and sharing going on now in blogs, on websites, and via sharing of online videos (with gardening and farming "how to's"); it merely needs some coordination and careful vetting to be more useful. I suspect that we are on the verge of forming a network of small-scale, diversified, suburban "experiment stations," designing and carrying out tests, and reporting results. Together we can discover what works, what is sustainable, and what flops.

Most of all, the book is a guide book, a "how-to-live-on-the-land" book. As such, it offers complete instructions for every crop and livestock project imaginable (and some that aren't imaginable for people with an acre or less in the suburbs)--and offers recipes for cooking and preserving the food produced on the farm. There are some difficulties for the U.S./North American reader caused mainly by the difference in locale. The Seymours were British farmers, meaning that there are climatic, historical, social, and legal (then U.K., now EU) differences on the two sides of the pond. ...not to mention linguistic differences, especially in using the Queen's English. It is not insignificant that John Seymour had lived in both African and Indian villages at one time or another. Seymour draws on this cross-cultural experience to provide context for a "post-industrial self-sufficiency." What he intends is a partial self-sufficiency. John and Sally both worked for cash (but only a little cash) , thus not contributing much to "the development of the atom bomb," etc. I think this taking of matters into one's own life and hands is necessary in a world when it is so difficult to have a meaningful impact as an individual on such things as the 2007 Farm Bill. It is better to plant and grow and eat your own vegetables--and to buy them from local farmers' markets--than to wait for the Farm Bill to stop subsidizing industrial corn and soybean production. Seymour suggests that for periods of time, for two years perhaps, and with a severely restricted diet (all beans all the time!) one could, like Thoreau at Walden, approach self-sufficiency more nearly even than the Seymours or the Nearings or others of the more recent vintage of self-reliant individuals and couples.

Partly, the case for self-sufficiency is one of anticipated necessity. (See the 1970s Resources and Men, W.H. Freeman and Co., San Francisco; National Academy of Science and National Research Council of the U.S.) Fossil fuels will eventually be used up. Today we might add that Global Warming will catch up with us. But the case for self-sufficiency is also a case for enjoying life. It is enjoyable and rewarding and the diversity it enforces on the production of what we eat is more interesting and less boring--or can be--than industrial corn and soybeans (or Thoreau's all-bean diet). For the purpose of the book, it is clear that for the Seymours and their children, a "fair share of the earth's surface" was five acres for a family of six. Another part of self-sufficiency, even on as many as five acres, is managing one's affairs carefully. There are also, obviously, dietary restrictions. For example, in Indiana it will mean eating a substantial number of root crops in the winter. It wouldn't necessarily mean that in California.

There were some disappointments in the book for me. For example, Cobbett (a favorite of Seymour) says that you can keep a cow alive and productive on half an acre with Swedish turnips and cabbages--but Seymour recommends two acres per cow. I guess that rules me out of the cow business--even if the neighborhood association would grant me the livestock exception. And it is somewhat ironic in a book on self-sufficiency to find--as in books by the Nearings and others of similar genre--the nearly universal praise and high veneration of community. The desired community is defined usually as like-minded neighbors living in a similar manner. Of course I live in a community of like-minded neighbors, they just aren't minds like mine. There is too little land (1/2 acre or less usually) in a suburban lot and the community is like-minded in its consumerist focus, a way of living that is diametrically opposed to the values of self-sufficiency.

There are lots of things that can't be learnt from books or web sites, and plowing with a horse is one of them, but Seymour recommends a tome anyway. (George Ewart Evans, "The Horse in the Furrow," Faber and Faber) But, of course, it will be a blue moon--and hades frozen over besides--before I get a horse. Seymour points out the difficulty of finding implements for sale for horse plowing and harness for sale. In this country it is good to start your search in Amish country, where you'll have not only the opportunity to buy but also the opportunity to observe and learn.

Perhaps my favorite recipe, and one I'll try this summer (stay tuned to the website and Tumbledown Farmer's Blog) is the one for dried yeast. The yeast is used to make either bread or beer and appears on p. 148.

3 oz. hops
3 1/2 lbs rye flour
7 lbs corn or barley meal
1 gallon water

"Rub the hops and boil them in the water for half an hour. Strain. Stir in rye flour, then corn or barley meal. Knead and roll out very thin. Cut into circles with a tumbler and leave to dry hard in the sun. Wild yeast will infect the biscuits. To use it, crumble a biscuit and soak in warm water with sugar and salt in it and next day use as yeast."

Already familiar with the Seymour book? Why not try this one?