Grow­ing pains

Is self-suf­fi­ciency the an­swer to a bad Brexit?

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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

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