Book Review: The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency

This classic by John Seymour was one of the first books written for a generation that loved the idea of being self sufficient but didn’t know where to start.  First published in 1976, this book has inspired thousands of people to move forward to a “better sort of life”.  Our 1992 reprint is one of the most treasured books on our bookshelf, and I love leafing through it of an evening in front of the fire once the kids are in bed.

The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency covers the whole gambit of living a self sufficient life.  It is broken into various sections that cover different aspects of growing your own food such as:

  • Food from Fields – growing grains and cereals
  • Food from Animals (from poultry to beef, bees and rabbits)
  • Food from the Garden (growing fruits and vegetables)
  • Food from the Wild (foraging)
  • Natural Energy
  • Crafts and Skills

Seymour has tackled an enormous topic with skill and good humour.  His chapter on Horse or Tractor Power details the pros and cons of the three main methods of powering farm instruments.  The tractor, garden or walk behind tractors or animals.  His discussion of the various merits of different animals speaks volumes of Seymour’s experience

“Mules are very hardy, particularly for hot and dry climates.  They walk fast, will pull hard, can live on worse food than a horse, and I find them completely unlovable.  They will not exert so much traction as a heavy horse and are inclined to scratch, kick, bite, and generally misbehave.”

Each section meticulously lays out what techniques you need and what equipment you require.  Most of the tools described are hand tools, that today are hard to come by and look laborious to use.  We have found some of the tools in our shed, relics of a bygone era.  It is nice to know what they were used for, and for some, we have been able to re-use them.

When we started butchering our own sheep, I referred to Seymour’s book.  He describes the technique used to humanely butcher and clean several animals such as sheep, pigs, rabbits and poultry.  He explains the techniques, with a practical element borne from his experience.

“Keep working until the pig is absolutely clean… You really need two or three good men and true to scrape a big hog, with one boy to bring on the hot water and another to fetch the home-brewed beer (vital on this occasion).”

The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency is written for a much gentler climate than ours.  Seymour estimates that a horse will eat the produce of a one acre of land in a year, or of two or three acres of poorer land – which is a very optimistic estimate for our area.  Seymour’s basic model is for a one acre (4000 sq m) lot, however it can be expanded to a five acre lot (2 hectares), and meet most of the needs of a large family, except perhaps coffee and tea.

A special section deals with (almost lost) crafts such as spinning wool and cotton, dyeing and weaving fabrics, tanning hides, working stone and making bricks and other techniques important for someone who wants to have a go at everything.  In this modern age of YouTube, you can easily find videos to augment Seymour’s descriptions of how to practice these skills.

Even Seymour’s section on Natural Energy is still relevant.  Whilst not listing the latest in solar panel and inverter technology, the principles of solar passive design, insulation and harnessing wind power are almost timeless.  The section on a water-wheel was particularly quaint, as it was a form of power that was too unreliable with Australia’s cycle of droughts and floods.

Underpinning the whole book is the importance of soil – the basis of all life on earth.  Seymour’s whole enterprise is based on many facets of poly-culture.  Beneficial relationships between every enterprise increase soil fertility and recognise the inter-contentedness of every element of the farm.  We would now call Seymour’s techniques permaculture or even regenerative agriculture.

There is something magical about a book such as this.  Part of it harks back to a simpler time, however it was written in the modern world for people seeking a life more ‘fun that the over specialised round of office or factory”.  Despite it being written over 40 years ago, it is as important as ever, and one of my favourite books.

Calving Commences and Odd Jobs

Historically the 10th of August is the coldest time of winter in our area.  From here on, the weather rapidly warms into spring.  On the ground our grass has turned green, but it is waiting for rain before it will jump out of the ground… I hope.  I have been busier than I’d like with work, and the kids have been busy with sport and music activities before and after school that reduces the time we have available to enjoy The Rock Farm.  Thankfully it hasn’t been all work and no play.

Our maiden heifers have started calving, and as I write we have two gorgeous calves on the ground.  These gorgeous calves gambol around and make us laugh.  Our sheep with their lambs are also growing strongly, however have been a little more timid.  I will try to get some better photos of them soon too.

Winter also brings with it strong winds – and we have had a few days that have tested the structural integrity of our shed.  Unfortunately some of our Peppermint Gums (Eucalyptus Nicholii) didn’t cope so well.  These trees are probably about 40 years old, and are prone to drop branches in strong winds, especially when stressed for water.

It took me a little while to cut the bulk of the branch up.  Over the weekend I will enlist the help of the family to remove the green branches and pull the balanced log safely down for next year’s firewood supply.  The rest of the tree looked in good health, with a wonderful large nest safely remaining untouched.  As to who is living in the nest, I wasn’t sure, as they didn’t like the noise of the chainsaw.

With the landscape so dry and September normally one of the windiest months, I brought forward my annual service on our water cart.  I treated to the pump to fresh oil, cleaned the spark plug and air filter and filled it with fresh petrol.  We had been using the trailer for other jobs over winter, but it was a quick job to re-install the tank and pump.  I hope its main purpose over summer is watering trees, but it is good to know we have 1000 litres of water ready to use in an emergency should we need it, until the big red trucks arrive.

Whilst the cattle were curious with my efforts on the water tank – you may see them in the background of the photo above.  I think they were also more than happy to take a few moments to enjoy the sunshine as we clawed our way from a minimum overnight of minus 5 degrees.  

We will keep a close eye on our expectant mother’s over the next month or so, and keep our fingers crossed it all goes well for them.  Our biggest challenge will be keeping them in good condition as we head into Summer.  In the meantime, it is lovely to take a moment and enjoy the sunshine and the coming of the warmer weather!

Winter on the Rock Farm

We have settled into winter on the southern tablelands.  Our recent weather patterns seems to be cracking frosts followed by crystal clear days, or bleak overcast skies with lazy winds that seem to pass through every layer of clothing you can wear. Sadly we have had precious little rain to bring us any growth.

We have been feeding the cattle since the start of winter.  I am rotating the cattle through the paddocks, and have even opened up some of the tree guards for the cattle to graze under the established trees.  The grass has turned green – but it is too cold and dry for it to grow.  The cattle need the roughage that the old pasture hay provides, and I have just started feeding them some silage we purchased at the start of winter.

It is my preference to buy hay and silage over fertilizer.  The more I learn about soil health, it is far better for the soil to receive nutrients that have been processed by a ruminant stomach first.  If only the cost of feed was cheaper!

The one good thing to come of the lack of grass is one of our pest weeds, the serrated tussock is easy to see.  We have been chipping out tussock for a while now, but even I had to admit defeat and hit large swaths of it with chemical.  It sure isn’t my preferred model for control, but after reading Millpost (Book Review -Millpost, a broadscale permaculture farm since 1979) I decided I had to make better use of my time.  We will use chemicals on large patches until we have got on-top of the tussock and then hopefully revert to chipping to stay on top of future outbreaks.  The little hundred litre tank and 12 volt pump make spraying remarkably time effective.

I have taken the opportunity of re-purposing the old roof sheets from the house into panels on the side of the hay-shed.  With most of our pasture hay stored in an old stable, the hay-shed has become the default storage shed for the truck and horse-float.  In an attempt to make it more weather proof, and suitable for storing hay into the future, we have been using the old roof iron to make walls.  If and when feed costs become more affordable, I hope to ensure we store enough hay to get us through a couple of winters in this shed.  We have been lucky to get through this far with what we have, but we need some growth to get us through spring.

The sheep have been enjoying the run of the place, and manage to find enough pick to keep in good condition.  It was a wonderful surprise to check on them after a couple of days at work to find they had started lambing!  We will mark these lambs in a few weeks, but for now, we were happy to let them be (and give their mum’s a treat of some oats).

The only problem with all the work outside is that is cold… damn cold.  Especially overnight.

But the dogs wouldn’t know that…  they reckon it’s summer all year around on the Rock Farm!

Sadly not long after this photo was taken, the dachshund Dilys passed away.  She has been part of our family for 10 years and despite her little size, has made a big hole in our hearts.  We buried her down by the stables, where she loved chasing rabbits, even if she was never quite quick enough to catch them.  Good dog.  Rest in peace.