Like most people of a certain age, the whole self-sufficiency thing drifted into my consciousness via two main routes: Tom and Barbara Goode, and John Seymour.
What they didn’t tell you back then is that the reality isn’t much like either.
I think I probably knew the first time I read the detailed description in John Seymour’s classic ‘Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency’ of how to kill and skin a rabbit with your bare hands that this wasn’t going to be something I would ever do.
Similarly, sloshing about in two feet of mud while being laughed at by the neighbours and having to forsake Prosecco in favour of home-brew parsnip for the foreseeable future was not something that greatly appealed.
This is a sad thing. I think more people are put off providing food for themselves by the prospect of having to choose one of these two scenarios to live in than by anything else.
In fact, it’s perfectly possible to raise your own food while also working full time at a desk job, having kids, clean clothes (most of the time, anyway) and drinking Prosecco. Every day, if you want to.
I used to think I was the only person who approached it like this, and suspected I was either a) a little bit bonkers, as nobody else was stupid enough to try having it all, or b) self-deluded and not ‘properly’ self-sufficient at all. Then I read John Jackson’s ‘A Little Piece of England’.
It’s a re-release of a book first written in 1979 but it could have been written about my life right here in 2014. In fact think I may have been John in a former life. Well, obviously that can’t be true as John is alive and well and living not a million miles from me just over the border in the Yarty Valley in East Devon. But rarely have I felt so strongly that here is someone who’s approached things exactly as I have: muddled, slightly chaotic, bordering on lunacy from time to time, but on the whole deeply fulfilling and a lot of fun.
John set up home in the Weald of Kent with his family, commuted to London to work long hours as a lawyer, brought up three kids with his wife Ann and generally lived a very normal life. Except that he used his spare time to raise animals – lots, and lots of animals – and work with his family to feed himself from the land.
You can’t call it farming, exactly; it’s not even smallholding, as neither myself nor John own much land. Like me, John got by borrowing bits of land here and there, occasionally paying rent, more often bartering a spring lamb or (in my case) some veg gardening advice. But it is taking responsibility for yourself and what you consume, by providing what you need by means of your own skills and effort.
John was a lot more adventurous than me: his animal owning expanded to include bullocks called Angus and Ogilvy, a goose called Henry and goats called Chance and Fancy.
The very act of naming your animals sets you apart from farmers (and, to a large extent, smallholders too): they are part of the extended family when you only keep a handful, just enough to keep you and yours in lamb, chicken and eggs. John found out the hard way the best bit of advice I was ever given by my mum (who also kept sheep): never, ever name animals you’re intending to eat. The ram lamb currently gambolling in my field will be on my plate by November which is precisely why I very carefully miss him out when scratching the other sheep behind the ears.
Naming your animals also gets you laughed at: and John like me has had his fair share of being the butt of much hilarity among local farmers. I laughed like a drain at John’s very un-farmerly solution of catching your sheep with a herring net. Journeys in the car with assorted farm animals sitting on your kids’ laps is also familiar territory for me and gets you a lot of funny looks, I’ve found.
Just sometimes, though, muddling out your own way of doing it turns out to be an improvement on conventional farming methods. I tamed my sheep early on, which amuses friends and local farmers no end: but whereas the local farmers need dogs, and complicated sheep runs made out of hurdles, and tractors and trailers to move their sheep 50 yards down the road, I just pick up a bucket and mine follow me meekly across to their new pasture.
John, too, discovered by doing things differently the joys of ‘butterfly beef’ – almost totally unknown these days, but according to John a revelation. He ended up by a series of accidents with two Jersey bullocks: you can’t keep them, as they have an unfortunate habit of turning into bulls, but Jerseys are milk cows. In the milk farming world, they go to pet food.
When you’re self-sufficient, raising just enough for your own needs, that amounts to a criminal waste; so John sent them to the abattoir anyway. This ‘butterfly’ beef was once a well-known delicacy: it has yellow fat (which is why butchers and their customers don’t like it) but is, John says, ‘a lean meat with a granular texture and wonderful flavour, and the yellow fat… is tastier, as well as prettier’.
John Jackson is also founder of the Countryside Alliance, an organisation created for the right reasons then sadly hijacked by the hunting lobby. But the widespread perception they’ve managed to create that the countryside is all about large red-faced men hunting and killing things for sport and not much else is a travesty.
This is the land that feeds you, and me. It is so important that I run out of words: it is fundamental to everything we are. It’s the brown earth that I pull my potatoes from, the grass that feeds the sheep that produce my lamb and the chickens that lay my eggs. It’s the hedgerows that shelter the butterflies which pollinate my beans. And it does the same for you, and you, and you, whether you pick the beans yourself or not. It is, quite simply, the reason we are all still here. We destroy it and we perish ourselves.
I’ll leave you with more eloquent thoughts on the subject from John himself:
“The detachment from the land which goes with urbanisation brings with it many problems. All over the world people living and working on the land congregate in relatively small communities. And they have a strong sense of what a community is and its contribution to social stability and social values. Communities are the building blocks of any nation… Misunderstand the need for it and the complexity of the task [of meeting modern requirements] and our marvellously varied countryside which is one of our unique national assets will wither away. Soon – if we do not care for it more – the countryside will have no ecological or social value and will not be there, in any meaningful way, for any of us to enjoy.”