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Is anyone self sufficient? Or heading that way?

(17 Posts)
Hopefully Fri 12-Jun-09 13:33:05

DP and I are contemplating setting ourselves a target of being as close to self sufficient as we can be in 5 years time. Not quite intending to grow our own cotton to weave cloth, but were thinking of:
- Growing all our own fruit and veg, which would mean being able to make our own preserves etc as well
- Chickens
- Taking part in a pig/cow co-operative (have heard of these things locally where you basically buy the animal at birth but someone else raises it) - am not quite up to livestock yet!
- Solar or some other form of power generation
- Waste water treatment and grey water recycling

As well as this, we'd like:
- what we do buy to be responsibly sourced, so where we are creating a market demand it's for responsibly manufactured goods
- an 'active' house - i.e. one that generates more power than it uses and supplies it back to the grid, with the eventual aim of offsetting the carbon involved in the original build (no idea if this is possible in the UK, have heard of friends of friends abroad doing it)
- to be a part of local community - increased use of payment in time and favours rather than cash for goods and services

Does anyone else do anything like this and have any tips?

I may even keep a blog if we set ourselves a deadline - be interesting to keep a record of how hard (or even possible) it is to move from rented 2-up-2-down terrace with a small patio to living the Good Life in 5 years flat...

Fibonacci Fri 12-Jun-09 18:40:25

I think it's a fantastic idea and I wish you all the best.

For information and advice about generating your own power, I suggest you visit this website:

For the past 3 years, we've been self-sufficient in vegetables from June through October. I've just got a poly tunnel (2nd hand so no carbon impact) which should enable us to extend the growing season by several weeks either end. I think you will need either a poly tunnel or greenhouse, simply to be able to grow a better variety of veg -- like tomatoes, peppers, aubergines.

Get to know your neighbours -- I don't keep chickens because I have a bird phobia but I get all my eggs from a neighbour in return for my leftover veg peelings, which are fed to her chickens, and some surplus summer veg.

which part of the country do you live in?

Takver Fri 12-Jun-09 21:01:44

Sorry, this is going to be a long answer. We started off with 2 allotments in the city about 15 yrs ago, have since lived on our own smallholding in Spain then for the last 5 yrs in a housing co-op on a farm, been off grid for electricity for the last 10 yrs, so we've had a variety of different experiences, my feelings would be:

- Growing fruit & veg + preserving . . . . dead easy, only difficulty is providing fruit for school snacks throughout the year . . . one allotment might be a bit short of space for fruit as well as veg unless you have garden space too.

- Chickens . . .. also dead easy but more of a time commitment, we are leaving the co-op & moving to our own place, DH is working on automatic door openers and waterers so that we don't have to be home every evening by dark! Often not allowed on allotments, so dependant on your own space.

- Taking part in a pig/cow co-operative (have heard of these things locally where you basically buy the animal at birth but someone else raises it) - am not quite up to livestock yet! . . . The only difficulty I see with meat is that unless you have a freezer (which is stupidly high energy consumption so hard to combine with generating your own power and daft anyway regardless from a climate POV) then preserving it for storage is a lot of work. (Have you read John Seymour's book Fat of the Land which is very inspirational btw)

- Solar or some other form of power generation . . . totally possible depending on location, but make sure that you get really good advice from a trustworthy person. Solar hot water is a much more cost effective place to start, especially if you make your own, CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology) run courses I think, in fact they are a good place to look for advice on all sorts of things.

- Waste water treatment and grey water recycling... I would keep this one lower down the list, less impact in general plus seriously icky when it blocks up.

As well as this, we'd like:
- what we do buy to be responsibly sourced, so where we are creating a market demand it's for responsibly manufactured goods . . . for sure

- an 'active' house - i.e. one that generates more power than it uses and supplies it back to the grid, with the eventual aim of offsetting the carbon involved in the original build (no idea if this is possible in the UK, have heard of friends of friends abroad doing it) . . . . very hard to achieve, probably better to look at low impact building, straw bales and the like if you are thinking of building your own.

- to be a part of local community - increased use of payment in time and favours rather than cash for goods and services . . . for sure again, are you in a city, if so is there a local LETS?

Apart from The Fat of the Land, I'd also read Rebecca Laughton's book Surviving and Thriving on the Land, and also if you haven't done any consider doing some WWOOFing with low impact families/communities.

One other thing, you haven't mentioned space heating, cooking or transport which are serious energy users.

ABetaDad Fri 12-Jun-09 21:10:09

Hopefully - this is an interesting idea and one I have been thinking a bit about too. The problem I have is that I grew up on a large farm so am trying to scale that experience down by a factor 100 which is perhaps not the best way to go about it.

Anyway, this is how far I got in my thinking.

The first limiting factor is how much land I have (or will have). Stating the blindingly obvious, if I have 5 hectares of land it is easier to be self sufficient than with 0.5 hectares. More land means more food production capacity.

Choosing, to be 100% vegetarian rather than eating veg + meat would also make it much easier to be fully self sufficient. From what you are saying, you are planning to share a pig/cow but will you be growing the food to feed it?

The reason I ask is because my understanding is that it takes about 10 Kg of plant protein to produce 1 Kg of meat protein. The animal also needs carbohydrate on top of that to sustain it while it is growing of course. If I were just 100% vegetarian I could just eat the 10Kg of protein plus the carbohydrate myself rather than just 1 Kg of meat and hence be more self sufficient with less land. If I just bought a share of a cow/pig and let someone else feed it and they also buy in the feed grown elsewhere it would feel to some extent like cheating to me. I guess it depends how 'ethically sustainable' I/you want to be.

My feeling is that if I kept several nanny goats (for milk and fattening the kids), ducks and chickens might be more truely sustainable and more in keeping with small scale husbandry than a shared pig/cow. I have also been thinking of hosting bee hives in return for honey share. Not sure about the economics of honey or the likely yield though.

I agree with Fibonacci on the vegetable growing issues. The main question again for me is how much plant protein I can grow. Also, what about winter and should I be trying to grow fruit throughout May - October?

The energy issues are a bigger struggle.

Collecting power via wind is uncertain and weather dependent as is solar photovoltaic. Your idea of selling power to the grid when you have a surplus and taking it back when you have a deficit is a good one. The problem is that, as I understand it the price I would get for the surplus power is a lot less than I would pay when in deficit. Maybe I am wrong on that.

My alternative is a ground heat pump plus a simple solar hot water system to provide space heating and hot water. Cooking would be with a wood burning AGA/Range and that would add a bit of top up space heating and hot water. There is no way I could grow enough energy as wood though so I might need to collect windfall wood or buy in logs in exchange for say some hedge cutting work. I might then be able to get away with windpower and sell/buy from the grid just for low energy lighting.

I don't have a car so would rely on public transport, walk, bike and occassional taxi so would have to earn enough to pay for that by working locally or via internet.

I have not thought through the total CO2 offset as the calculation is so very complex. The default position is I could buy a few carbon credits.

Water, we could fit a grey water system for loo flushing and atering the land but without a very complex filtation and purification system I think mains water would still be necessary for drinking/bathing/cooking/washing.

Well thats how far I got. It would be very interesting to follow your project so reading your future posting on MN and links to your blog would be fascinating.

Good luck and enjoy the experience. smile

ABetaDad Fri 12-Jun-09 21:13:19

takver - x posted with you and very very impressed at what you have achieved.

paisleyleaf Fri 12-Jun-09 21:21:42

I've heard of people selling power back to the national grid in this country.
I'm so sorry I can't remember the program - but there was a woman on telly a few months ago living self-sufficiently (in Devon, I think). They were using wind, and she said that they were always in quite alot.

Is it also worth thinking about having a copse for copicing for fuel? We got ourselves a wodburner last year (In anticipation of these gas bills). It's already paid for itself.

Hopefully Fri 12-Jun-09 21:30:52

Wow, thanks for your thoughts everyone, really appreciate it and lots more to think about.

DP blethering in my ear about a horse (no idea why, he has no idea which end goes first), so will read properly and respond when he shuts up!

Takver Fri 12-Jun-09 21:49:07

I don't know if this is of interest, but as mentioned we're moving out of the co-op into our own place. The house we've bought is a bog standard 30s semi in town (we rent a 1 acre field which we use for our business and we also grow bulk crops like potatoes, onions, leeks for our own consumption up there). We already have the chicken run built In terms of the house & energy use this is our priority list:

1) Switch to Good Energy (100% renewables), get a big and visible remote electricity meter (OWL meter thingy), get rid of the fridge and any incandescent light bulbs, lag all the pipes everywhere to within an inch of their lives.

2) get rid of the gas CH and gas rayburn and replace with wood fired CH. We're still debating between high tech batch heating wood boiler plus cooking only wood rayburn or alternatively old fashioned wood + DHW/CH rayburn/esse or similar, will probably go for the latter as we'd need to do a lot of structural work to deal with the large heat store needed for the former, plus we know we'll always be able to get parts and it doesn't involve fancy electronics that can go wrong. This will be our first big thing to do, we are only hanging out for a bit through the summer to see if we can come by a suitable 2nd hand burner.

3) Sort the washing machine so it fills from the domestic hot water and doesn't heat with electric (basically involves chopping out the electric heating element so it can't take any power!)

4) solar hot water panels (dependent on rebuilding a garage so may take a while)

5) a wood fired earth bread oven on the patio (a bit frivolous, but we like bread & pizza grin )

6) photovoltaic panels (at the other end of above garage) - generally not considered cost effective in Wales but we know from the last 10 yrs that we can get by on minimal electricity, and we like to produce our own energy. I would try to get people together for a collective big windmill (much more efficient) but we are in a National Park and I would probably be shot, they managed to stop one that could even be seen from the Park boundaries. We'll stay grid connected because of the environmental impact of batteries, the technology's a lot better than it used to be in the past when we went off grid.

Hopefully Fri 12-Jun-09 22:07:13

Right, he has given up talking about the horse hmm

Fibonacci thanks for that link, looks like it's got a lot of useful information. Well done on the self sufficiency for part of the year!
- Polytunnel (at the least) is an essential, plus lots of research on how to extend the seasons and store veg throughout the winter.
- I live on the south coast, by the way, pretty much straight down from London.

Takver shock and envy at your self sufficiency all at once.
- It's simple things like fruit for snacks that I need reminding about - I look at simple things like growing veg throughout the summer and think 'right, got the fruit and veg bit sorted.'
- Chickens/time/space commitment - DP and I have often thought about the pros and cons of living on some kind of co-op farm to avoid things like having to be back before dark. However, I just don't think we're tolerent enough to live lives so interlinked with others! Would be interesting to investigate automatic watering and door openers.
- Your point about the freezer is interesting. I initially started out thinking that a freezer was a bad idea from an energy consumption point of view, but then got to wondering, if you had an efficient big chest freezer, and used it to store, for example, a lot of berries for winter fruit, and therefore avoided the need to buy fruit grown elsewhere for children during the winter (I don't think I'm hardcore enough to inform DS that he can't have any fruit in the lean months, but maybe I'll get there), it would offset some of the badness, iykwim. Clearly more thinking to do there though, to see whether the sums come anywhere near adding up.
- Thanks for the CAT suggestion, will research that as well
- Waste/grey water issue - I'm surprised you say that it should be low down the list. I know that in terms of carbon water isn't a huge player, but water conservation is always touted as such as 'green' thing, I sort of assumed it was a Good Thing. Although, to be fair, my research on this matter at this stage consists of reading the guardian environment pages...
- The active house - I recently read a fairly involved article that suggested that a well designed 'active' house could offset its original carbon footprint (after providing its own power) in something like 20 years. Love the idea of straw bales though - we actually started the whole self sufficiency thing through looking at the prospect of building a straw bale house.
- Will check out your book suggestions, and wwoofing - have just googled it and it looks like a really useful experience.

Abetadad interesting that we are coming from opposite positions - you have obviously had lots of involvement with large scale production, my only growing experience comes from helping my mother with her raised beds and proudly admiring my trough of beetroots outside the back door!
- Land - I think we would have to do what we can with a smaller volume of land, and accept that compromises will be made. We do not intend to be totally and utterly off grid (i.e. we will need to buy clothes, washing liquid etc), so we will need DP's wage, and his particular line of work requires us to be near the coast, which means expensive land, which means less of it for us.
- Vegetarianism - we do not intend to become totally vegetarian, despite it being the most 'sound' thing to do. We will, however, cut down our meat consumption even more (we only have it at absolute most 3 times a week now, usually once) and only eat local meat. This will, as you say, involve some compromise due to the trade off of 'wasting' resources feeding up the animal before eating it, whether we or someone else is growing the food.
- bee hives - hadn't thought about this, thanks for the idea
- Winter veg/fruit - this will be a major challenge, and I think that given that DP and I will (a) not have an enormous amount of land and (b) are not prepared to give up all creature comforts, we will do the absolute best we can, and ideally end up only buying fruit/veg in the really lean months at the very end of winter.
- Ground source heat pump is something we have thought about, although not researched in depth. Growing wood to burn is an interesting thought - it's interesting looking at the pros and cons of the various heat/power issues
- We have a car, and TBH it will probably be the last thing to go, if it does at all. If we need to replace it any time soon (unlikely) we will look at the greenest option for this. This is a massive compromise, and will mean paying for fuel, but until we have done everything else we can, I'm not sure I'm prepared to give up the ultimate luxury of being able to move around easily
- mains water - agree that this would be essential, although would hope to minimise our use of it through recycling etc. Someone tell me exactly why minimising water use is essential? Telling myself that wasting water is a Bad Thing is now making me wonder more about it!
- Will keep the great MN informed/link to blog when it's up and running - think it's important to have a log of things like this, so if we do actually succeed anyone else who is idly thinking about it can see what two normal people, with no real experience and only a desire to be green and cheap, can achieve.

Paisleyleaf interesting - I've heard someone else say that they were in credit all of the time, but this was (I think) in France. They said it was lovely that the brown envelope landing on the doorstep every quarter was a cheque, not a bill! I don't really know that much about how much power a normal domestic home can hope to generate, but nice to know that there are positive stories.

Thanks everyone for the ideas, given me loads more to think about already. Keep the thoughts coming if you have more!

Hopefully Fri 12-Jun-09 22:12:47

Takver we have a remote energy meter. It was hideously expensive for what we thought was just a frivolous thing just to keep an eye on our energy usage, but my goodness, it's made us so much more aware. I doubt we'll save enough to pay it off (and the carbon of making it. God, the dilemmas of being green) any time soon, but it is saving us energy every day as I try to keep the watts below 100W whenever possible. With limited success much of the time blush

Takver Sat 13-Jun-09 10:10:30

Hi there hopefully we are in the process of moving right now so not around much this week. . . but a couple of thoughts:

Winter veg - not hard, there are loads of veg that stand over winter or store well (squashes, swedes, carrots, chard/leaf beet, kale, celery, leeks, onions, just for a short list), like Fibonacci said a tunnel is a fantastic resource as it means you can have salad right through the year. Bottling fruit (and tomato passata) is easy if you have a pressure cooker, so no problem keeping berries etc for pies. The problem is coming up with a 'piece of fruit' for snack once the apples run out usually end of Jan, which freezer wouldn't help with, luckily dd is very fond of carrots, we also are not so hardcore that we won't buy bananas as we all like them and haven't yet figured out how to grow them in Wales!

Betadad I dither on the meat thing, I am totally happy to eat rabbits grin also as an addicted tea drinker I find oat milk a poor alternative & don't want to drink soya as that seems daft when we can grow cows in Wales. Have you run into the "Land" magazine, they have some great articles which give loads of stuff to think about, Simon Fairlie from Tinkers Bubble wrote a great article about 'can Britain feed itself' looking at the food production options if everyone were vegan, different amounts of meat eating etc. My dislike of veganism at the moment comes from the fact that to me stockless farming means East Anglian chemical farms. But one of my big aims for the next five years is to farm our rented field without stock or animal manure (the chickens are in our garden and their muck will stay there) and generate fertility through serious green manuring and large scale composting (we have a little Kubota with a digger arm on the front which I know is cheating!!).

Its really interesting that you are in the scaling down process - we are really trying to make a step change & scale up as to date our growing has gone from allotment scale to small market garden size, but we are thinking to shift up one gear as it were to field size, (sorry this isn't really relevant to the OP though, its about our business)

However I look forward to your blog, will be around and more coherent in a week or so hopefully grin

Oh, one more thought on the book front, I like Patrick Whitefield's book the Earth Care Manual, it kind of covers everything that you are thinking about, not in enough depth to solve your problems IYSWIM, but enough to help ask the right questions and know where to start looking for good answers. If you've run into permaculture in the past and found it too hippy-dippy PW is not like that, he seems to really know his stuff inside out.

Takver Sat 13-Jun-09 10:11:54

blush I mean Hopefully, not However

ABetaDad Sat 13-Jun-09 11:14:15

Takver - thanks for the tip on 'Land' magazine and the book references too.

I think I have come to the end of the road using 'scaling down' thinking. I am going to have to start using 'scaling up' thinking to take it further. My previous experience of jumping on a 200 horsepower tractor planting 50 hectares a day in a single pass monocultivation is actually totally irrelevant to what we are talking about here.

The fertiliser issue is an interesting point. Green fertiliser using say a clover undersow (or similar) and composting is a possible solution. I guess using human waste from a septic tank is completely impossible and dangerous without special treatment plant?

I must admit, I would be constantly worrying that without animal/human manure the soil might become gradually depleted but 'green fertiliser' is certainly a well respected solution and probably just needs careful management and monitoring. Like you, I feel a standard chemical fertiliser is a cheat and not terribly good for the environment but with limited judicious use of say a slow release form it may be a compromise worth considering if all else failed.

All the best for the move and I look forward to hearing how it went when you get back on your feet again.

<wonder if DW would let me have a Kubota with a digger arm for Xmas grin and a bit envyious>

Hopefully Sun 14-Jun-09 07:46:58

LOL at banana growing in wales!

Thanks for the book tip Takver. Hope the move goes well.

Interesting to read about the debates when you get to the next step up from a market garden, as it were - issues like fertiliser genuinely had not even occured to me!

One of the biggest problems we will face is financing the whole shebang - although once we are at the point of being self sufficient our outgoings will reduce a lot, getting to that point is going to be a hideous struggle. We currently rent, and would definitely need to buy before tackling any of the power/heating issues, although renting and having space to grow food is less of an issue.
It's frustrating to be at a bit of a hurdle when it comes to the initial finance - we are saving like crazy and pinning our hopes on more of a property price fall. Annoying that so many people are optimistic about property again!

Hopefully Tue 16-Jun-09 13:07:42

By the by, I have started my blog on our drive to become self sufficient. It's not much at the moment, but I'm hoping it will prove to be an accurate record of our attempt, and a useful resource for anyone else planning the same thing.

It's fairly simplistic at the moment, mostly looking at ways to grow veg, reduce bills etc, all so we can save a bit of cash (and, by happy coincidence, the planet) to get us onto the next stepping stone of the path to self sufficiency. In the coming months (and years. Eek!) it will also contain any research I do on different technologies available, courses I attend, tit bits I learn. And so on and so on.

efficient sufficient

Takver Wed 17-Jun-09 13:29:02

Hi there hopefully, back briefly while I check my email

Have had a quick look at your blog, looking forward to reading it properly when less things are in boxes

In the meantime just a quick thought, I remembered these people at selfsufficientish and I wonder if what they are doing is along the same lines as you are thinking

Hopefully Tue 23-Jun-09 11:40:53

Takver thanks for the link - I've been on their site before and there's a few interesting bits and pieces on there. Hope the unpacking's going well!

Had an interesting conversation on the weekend with someone who has researched being self sufficient and is now vehemently against it.

He had come to the conclusion that self sufficiency is hugely inefficient in financial and environmental terms - i.e. it's more efficient for him to earn money in his specialist area, then pay someone else to work in their specialist area, such as growing food.

I didn't particularly agree with him, as even if, for example, a specialist food grower was more efficient in terms of crop per feet, or per £, there's still fuel used in using a machine to plant, fertilise and harvest a crop, get it to a shop, run the shop, for me to get to the shop and get home again, etc etc.

Be interested to know if others have had any similar thoughts? I did a blog post about it too (address above).

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