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.

Book Review: You Can Farm

Anyone considering moving onto a farm should put You Can Farm – The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start and Succeed in a Farming Enterprise by Joel Salatin on their list of books to read.  This book is written for, in Joel’s words: “wannabes, the folks who actually entertain notions of living, loving and learning on a piece of land”.  The question the book addresses is simply “Is it really possible for me?”.  Whilst this book was written 20 years ago and in a North American context, it remains especially relevant today

This book explains what you need to consider if you want to make a living from a farm, as opposed to living on a farm.  Joel Salatin believes that the opportunities for farm entrepreneurs have never been greater, especially as people look for alternatives to industrial agriculture, and seek ethical, and healthier choices.

The other reason to read this book is it will help you develop a farm model, especially if you need to to secure finance to purchase your farm.

Joel takes us on a journey through his farm enterprise, which is a polyculture set up.  Ironically this is nothing new – however his farm looks more like a farm you would have found in the 1950’s.  As agriculture has moved towards mono-culture, and high input / high output models, Joel asks whether all this is really necessary.  His enterprise is run on ‘threadbare efficiency’, and uses many innovative (cheap) solutions to enhance production.  It is full of practical advice, with an astute business mind driving the process.

Joel opens the book sharing his philosophy about farming, so you can understand his perspective.  He also recognises that the reader may not share his views entirely, however that doesn’t mean you should stop reading. Rather it sets the context for the book.  Some of Joel’s fundamental principles are “Environmentally enhancing agriculture”.  The term today is Regenerative Agriculture – but as Joel’s book was written in 1998, that term hadn’t been coined yet.  He strongly believes in using seasonal production cycles to boost efficiency and to develop bio-regional food security.  His enterprise is based on humane animal husbandry and building soil and bio-diversity.    He does not believe in the high input farming models that chain farmers to corporate fertiliser, seed and crops where the farmer holds all the risk for the corporate giants.  Joel is all about family friendly agriculture.  These are all values that I share and partly why I really enjoyed his book so much.

One of Joel’s lessons is that if you want the make the farm your life, you have to embrace it.  The farm is every part of Joel and his family’s life – they have made a conscious decision to live as much as possible on the farm.  They don’t spend their weekends socialising or chasing kids sports in town.  The kids are involved in animal husbandry duties and are fully involved in the enterprise.

Joel also recognises that many people move to the country for a lifestyle.  And that is fine.

This book has made me think about the Rock Farm.  It helped me realise that our operation is very different from Joel’s.  There are many reasons for this.

  • We live under an hour from some of the best schools in the country and we value the education opportunities these provide for children.  We acknowledge that until our children finish high school and the associated music, sport and social activities that go on with that, we will spend a lot of time commuting to the big smoke.
  • The Rock Farm is a choice made by Jo and I to live here.  Our children are here by default, but they did not make the choice to live on a farm.  They love playing in the paddocks, building forts, riding their motor-bikes and making mischief, however the choice to live here was not theirs.  We get them to help out on the farm, especially when working stock or chipping weeds, but they have their own interests to pursue.
  • I am extremely fortunate to have a job that I really enjoy and I work with some inspiring people.  I enjoy working in a close knit team and I really enjoy the interactions I have at work. I know I would miss that aspect of my life if I was to leave it entirely.
  • Being close to a large centre, our land value is not based on farm production opportunity like most farmland throughout the world.  This means our investment in the Rock Farm is more about real-estate than farming potential.  This was brought home when I stumbled on a study conducted by our local council, that determined the ideal block size in our area was 20 acres, and 15 minutes commute from town.  Every minute extra on the commute reduced the property value and every additional acre suffered diminishing returns.

Whilst there are many aspects of our farm that are different, this book has also opened my eyes to many opportunities that exist on the Rock Farm.  It has made me realise there is comfort in threadbare efficiency and helped me look at ways to maximise the return on my effort.  It has helped me crystallise what the Rock Farm is and how we can love and nurture it and help regenerate it into a productive and healthy farm.

This book has also given me confidence that when I am ready to stop working in town, there are opportunities here, even on our small patch of earth, to make a red hot go of things.  If you have the slightest inkling that you too might want to live in the country, then make sure you read You Can Farm – The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start and Succeed in a Farming Enterprise by Joel Salatin..

ISBN: 0-96381909-2-8

Book Review -Millpost, a broadscale permaculture farm since 1979

I have taken advantage of the cold weather and re-visited an inspirational book written by David Watson about his experience running a permaculture operation on his family farm.  Millpost is the name of the Watson’s farm, and David takes us on a journey through the many facets of the farm, and shows how permaculture principles have been put in place.  David and his wife Judith implemented permaculture principles on their farm in 1979.  They enlisted David Holmgren to help draw up a whole farm plan in 1994.  David Holmgren was one of the co-founder’s of permaculture in Australia.

Permaculture isn’t a term often applied to broadscale farming operations.  These days you might term it “Regenerative Agriculture” but digging beneath the surface, the aims of permaculture and regenerative agriculture are often very similar.  The Watson’s farm is near Bungendore, which is similar country and climate to the Rock Farm.  Whilst their operation is much larger than ours, it was the first time I had read a book where someone was able to put permaculture into practice on a large grazing property.

What I really liked about David’s book is that he has broken down many facets of the farm’s operation into specific chapters.  From the commercial aspects of the farm with superfine merinos, to the vegetable gardens, tree plantings and chickens, David shares how they make the various aspects work for their family in a permaculture setting.

From David’s analysis of his experience, he has developed several simple lessons.  For example: “Lesson No. 11: Work out which species are suited to your soil before mass planting anything.”  Seems like common sense really, but the words are borne out of years of planting any and all types of fruit and nut trees.  Some species have done really well, but the hot dry summers and brutally cold winters mean that not all trees survive.  Walnuts apparently are one species that doesn’t thrive in this area, with some 30 year old trees barely 3 metres tall and having never borne any nuts.

David’s advice is based on experience and is extremely practical, based on years of following his permaculture plan.  We share many of the challenges with Millpost.  One such problem on the Rock Farm is our serrated tussock weed.  I am coming to realise, like David, that I will need to use chemicals to bring the tussock under control.  Once the tussock is in manageable quantities, I hope to be able to continue chipping out any patches as they occur, like they now do on Millpost.

Why am I so keen to avoid the use of chemicals on the Rock Farm?

It’s simple really.  We eat our own products, and we feel that if our soil is healthy, then our livestock have the best chance at being healthy too.

If you are looking for more information on Millpost, and to purchase some of their superfine wool products, visit the Millpost Farm website here:  https://www.millpostmerino.com/millpost

Millpost, a broad scale permaculture farm since 1979 by David Watson, 2018.  ISBN 978-0-646-98482-7

 

Book Review – What Makes a Good Farm for Wildlife

In my quest to regenerate the Rock-Farm into sustainable and productive farmland, I have read many articles and books, and listened to lots of interviews with fascinating people.  I have also picked the brains of Rangers, Botanical experts and Farmers in an attempt to find the best way forward for our patch of paradise.   A large reason for setting up this blog was to share our lessons learnt and I thought one way to do this would be to review some of the books I have read.

The first book review, in what I hope will become a regular feature of my blog is: What Makes a Good Farm for Wildlife, Lead Author: David B Lindenmayer, published by CSIRO in 2011.  My wife found it in the local library and brought it home for me to have a read.  Being winter, it s a great time to settle down with a cuppa in front of the fire and start getting ideas.

David has pulled together a number of authors with a range of backgrounds.  From experts in ecology and conservation biology, contributions also come from farmers and people with a background in forestry.  Whilst all the findings are backed up with research and extensive footnotes, the book is easy to read and not an academic text.  It is a practical and realistic guide for landowners with achievable actions that can make a huge difference for biodiversity in a productive farm.

What Makes A Good Farm for Wildlife opens with a clear aim – and it sticks to this throughout:

Our aim in this book is to highlight some ways to promote wildlife conservation on farms.  We are acutely aware that managing land for multiple goals is a difficult task and that not all parts of a farm will be managed in the same way or with the same order of priorities.  Given this, we provide new information to help landholders make decisions about ways they might manage parts of their farms.  To do this, we describe the characteristics of good remnants, good plantings, good paddocks, good rocky outcrops, good waterways and then collectively, what makes a good farm for wildlife.

Lindenmayer et. al. 2011 p1

The Rock-Farm adjoins some remnant woodland, and using the description of what makes good remnant, I have been able to look at what species this habitat supports.  I was most surprised at the number of species of insect that live in woodlands, particularly beetles and how important they are for native birds and mammals.

The authors examine what makes a good planting to restore woodland.  The authors explain the various ways trees can be planted, what species to use and how large the plantation should be.  Some of the information surprised me. Plantations support and favour different species to remnant woodlands.  The size of plantations is also important, especially being large enough to provide interior areas away from the edges.  This is important for birds such as the Rufous Whistler and Willie Wagtails.  Several of the paddocks in the Rock-Farm are lined with native trees such as Casuarina She Oaks and Peppermint Gums.   Whilst these provide good food sources for birds such as the Glossy Black Cockatoo, I learnt they are limited in their value due to the breadth of the plantings.

Lines of trees along fence-lines provide some limited habitat

Lines of trees along fence-lines provide limited habitat

The chapter on good paddocks examines the importance of large paddock trees.  I have several Brittle Gum trees that fit this category. I learnt it is not just the trees, but also the dead branches and fallen timber that are important for beetles and bird habitat.  The book details strategies to protect these important trees, and techniques to link large paddock trees with plantations to provide more habitat options.  I have previously cleared fallen timber from these trees, whereas now I will ensure I leave some logs and parts of the branches on the ground (after repairing the fence!).

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After cutting fallen timber off the fence, I am now leaving some of the timber, such as from this Ribbon Gum, behind to form logs for beetles and other creatures to live in.

One large Yellow-box paddock tree has recently died and I have been eyeing it off as a future firewood source. After reading this book, I will leave it standing to provide habitat for birds such as the Superb Parrot.   The good news is that the dead tree is surrounded by many young trees, that I have been encouraging to grow.  They will continue to stabilise the gully and provide a good stand of shelter in the future.

Creeks and water courses are examined.  This is an area I haven’t really explored on the Rock-Farm, but the book explored techniques to enhance this area too.  From leaving natural snags to slow water down, to managing stock access, it gave me plenty of food for thought.  I also really liked the author’s description of what made a healthy dam – including an island for bird refuge from animals.  We have been talking about making a floating island in our large dam, and this book has given us some ideas as to how to make this happen.

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The creek is an area for improved efforts to slow water down –

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but we have to be careful when it floods!

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Our dam needs work to improve habitat – we want to build a floating island to provide a refuge for ducks and other aquatic birds

What is interesting is that most of the farms examined in this book found that by increasing tree plantings and improving habitat, they also had the advantage of improving soil health.  The added benefit of improving the biodiversity also lead to psychological health benefits for the farmers, with the knowledge they were improving the land.

I like that the authors acknowledge the difficult balance that landowners face, especially when transitioning from high input-high output operations to less intensive operations.  There has been a huge change in expectations on landowners, as it wasn’t that long ago that governments instructed farmers to clear large areas of land.  The authors also acknowledge that some changes must take place beyond the farm at the landscape scale.  Whilst the challenge may seem overwhelming, if we all take little steps in the right direction, it will make a huge difference.  I feel that the future of our planet depends on not a few farmers practising regenerative or sustainable agriculture perfectly, but all farmers trying it imperfectly.

I was really pleased to find that much of the work we are doing around the Rock-Farm is consistent with the messages in this book.  That said, I have been guilty of trying to clean up paddocks by removing fallen timber.  I will now make sure I leave more of this in place – especially under large paddock trees.  It also has made me more conscious of how small changes I make can have enormous consequences for biodiversity outcomes.

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Some logs left after the branch fell on the fence. A balance of future fire wood and habitat for beetles.

Whilst What Makes a Good Farm for Wildlife is no longer in print, I borrowed a copy from our local library.  David Lindenmayer is a prolific author, and he has recently published Restoring Farm Woodlands for Wildlife (2018) which appears to build on this earlier book.  If you’re interested, it is available at the CSIRO Publishing Website here:  https://www.publish.csiro.au/book/7844