Is self-sufficiency the answer to a bad Brexit?
In January 2017, my husband, Jared, and I moved our family from a semi in Ramsgate to a ramshackle house in rural Kent that came with two acres of mud. Our desire for change was born of the political, social and environmental turmoil. There was certainly a naive pursuit of the good life, but we were also reeling from the outcome of the Brexit referendum and feeling sick about Trump’s presidency. We needed a personal survival plan.
In the face of a world shifting in a direction we could no longer understand or predict (and despite having no practical skills or experience), we wanted a shared vocation that was less tied to systems and structures that appeared to be wobbling. We planned to grow and raise some of our own food and – as wildfires, floods and landslides hinted at the impact of climate change – move towards a more sustainable way of life. It felt like a personal resistance that would be good for our family life and physical and mental health, and teach us new skills.
Nearly two years on, we are mulching the fruit and vegetable garden as we wait to see if Theresa May’s Brexit deal will make it through parliament. Jared dumps wheelbarrow-loads of our own compost and leaf mould on the remnants of summer growing and I spread it out in a thick blanket over each square bed, starving the most pernicious weeds of light and making the 300-metre square look neat and ready to work again. The worms will do the work of digging it in and the roots I’ve left in the soil will hold it together and help keep the microbial life of our garden thriving. As I rake, I wonder if parliament could do with a couple of thousand tonnes of mulch right about now.
Making time for these kind of jobs alongside our freelance careers is harder than we had anticipated. Balancing the care of chickens, ducks, geese and goats – not to mention two children aged five and eight – while growing and preserving food, making our house more fit for sustainable living and clinging on to threads of sanity is too much at times. Our new life is often lovely and we are very grateful for it. Yet it’s also full of hard work that can feel endless and that we have to shoehorn into slivers of time.
Progress is slow. We have put in a log burner and acquired a few months’ supply of seasoned logs in a neighbourly exchange of old fencing posts. That, alongside new external insulation and triple glazing, will help us use less electricity – which will be handy if prices hike upwards come spring. The money ran out before we could install solar panels to allow us more freedom from the grid and minimise our carbon footprint. Instead we are considering all-in-one woollen underwear.
The renewed interest in grow-your-own and self-sufficiency can be seen in the vast array of books and products for aspiring home producers. Fermentation, pickling and preserving have gone from being niche interests to fashionable pursuits. Although allotment numbers seem to have plateaued after a recent sharp rise, community growing schemes are expanding rapidly. Chris Blythe, the director of the Social Farms & Gardens network, notes a substantial increase in the number of community food-growing projects across the UK over the past decade, “clearly linked”, he says, “to a number of social- and health-related concerns including austerity, the need for better connected communities, the health and wellbeing agenda, and the growing awareness of food security as a concern for all”.
Claire Harris (not her real name) runs a food co-operative in Wales alongside a small community garden. After supplying local cooking projects with ingredients, and donating a significant amount to a nearby food bank, Harris has little left for herself, particularly as a long winter and summer drought have taken a toll on the harvest. She wishes she could be more self-sufficient, feeling that the “government and business don’t give a damn about us”. When the UN’s special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights has accused the British government of needlessly inflicting “great misery” on its people with austerity measures (as indicated by the soaring use of food banks), it is hard not to sympathise with her view.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that we’re far from the only idealists whose dreams of self-sufficiency are mingled with political concerns. Amy Walker, 33, and her partner moved to a Kentish farmhouse in July this year and are trying to become as self-reliant as possible while preparing for a worst-case Brexit scenario. Their property was chosen for its potential to provide its own heating and it has an on-site water source. Walker and her partner are busy transforming their garden from lawn to “a productive garden that we can live off if Brexit doesn’t get stopped”. They plan to grow root vegetables, which can be stored or traded, are constructing a greenhouse for more tender crops and are using a damp nook to grow mushrooms.
Meanwhile, our own garden has been neglected after a busy summer. I am behind in my winter growing schedule and haven’t yet invested in a polytunnel. Also our vegetable store is emptier than I would like; slugs ravaged the squash plants, the caterpillars got my cabbages and I ran out of time to do a second sowing of carrots.
I do have a lot of potatoes: desiree, arran victory and cara varieties, grown from seed potatoes I planted in the spring. I dug them up with my children last month and they shrieked with delight as they uncovered the mysterious purple and pink shapes. I’ll cure the potatoes before storing them in the basement; its high humidity and constant temperature keep the rot at bay. Hopefully, I will have a few left by 29 March, when we are scheduled to leave the EU. At present the UK imports 25% of its potatoes and the crop features regularly in Brexit “to worry about” lists.
Our family’s desire to have our own supply of vegetables, eggs, cheese and milk and to make sure our children know how to store them has felt a little less of a romantic folly as the past two years have unfolded. Every month we spot another sign that society has been busy shrugging off skills only to realise we needed them after all.
“The hungry gap” is one phrase that has fallen out of common use too quickly despite the chasm between those who have enough to eat and those who don’t widening in recent years. I learned it while reading John Seymour’s 1961 selfsufficiency classic, The Fat of the Land. The gap begins at the moment each year when winter stores have run low, before spring crops are ready; its length is dependent on the success of harvests and spring weather. Our ancestors would have planned around it and sometimes so suffered through it. With supermarkets su and imported food (which (w our family still relies on), we have ha swiftly forgotten about it, but we might need the hungry gap in our ou consciousness once again as it coincides co so exactly with Britain’s planned pl EU exit.
Emma Baylis keeps an allotment with 20 chickens in Warwickshire and n works as a barber. Chatting to a broad cross-section of her community co is part of her job and she is concerned that we have become too to complacent and disconnected from fro our food supply. “I don’t think
We agreed with the children that we won’t eat the geese. The cockerels’ cockerels fate hangs in the balance
The money ran out before we could install solar panels. Instead we are considering woollen underwear
the majority of people even think of where food comes from,” she says. Baylis is considering whether to kill some of her surplus poultry for meat for the first time; our family is having similar discussions. It’s a battle between how fond we are of the animals and a growing sense that we should only eat meat that we can be certain has a high-welfare provenance. We talked with the children and came to a compromise that we won’t eat the geese or ducks, but will breed from them next year to supply our own freezer. The fate of five young cockerels still hangs in the balance. I’m hoping this Brexit jumble is worked out before their meat starts to toughen.
In 2016, the gardening writer and broadcaster Monty Don poured scorn on the middle England pursuit of self-sufficiency, stating it is “inevitably doomed to humiliating failure” and is a path towards madness. He’s probably right. For most of us, true self-sufficiency is impossible and unnecessary. I cannot grow enough food for my family without it being a full-time job. Even then there would likely be periods of the year when we would be hungry or have only increasingly shrivelled turnips to eat. Should a Brexit disaster interrupt our national food supply or drive the electricity prices into orbit, we might have, at best, a week’s advantage on everyone else – probably less, now I have talked about our potato store in a national newspaper.
Yet I also agree with Don that seeking to provide some of your own food and energy – what he calls “self-provision” – is pleasurable and worthwhile. After all, there doesn’t have to be a survival motivation to growing. The quality of produce, the chance to eat something that has ripened on the tree, bush or vine, or to watch your children shell and gobble peas like Maltesers is enough. Being outside and feeling the impact of the change of seasons, noticing the first day you break the ice on the animals’ water buckets or seeing the shimmering haze of spring on the cobnut trees connects me to the world and acts as a shield against the anxieties of modern life.
Underneath all that, though, I believe that many of us who share a love for growing our own food are undertaking a less extreme version of “prepping”. We might not have nuclear bunkers or 10 years’ worth of canned goods, but we are driven by a human need to know we can rely on our own means and pass this to our children – which is made sharper in times of crisis. I suspect and hope I will never need to radically scale up production of food from my garden and animal sheds, but I will know how to if the time comes.
More than that, in the face of uncertainty and turmoil, I feel, perhaps irrationally, more powerful when I bite into an apple or roast a parsnip that I grew and harvested. Sometimes we all need to feel in control, just for a moment, in this very confusing world.
Rebecca Schiller and family