The Call, Column 77 – Why Self-Sufficiency?

30 07 2017

(July 30, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Why Self-Sufficiency?

Have you ever been at the market, buying a blog of cheese, a head of lettuce, or a dozen eggs, and found yourself wishing you could grow or raise or produce that thing yourself? Or maybe you do grow a garden a raise a few chickens, but hate that you still have to buy water and higher-value consumer goods, when the only thing stopping you is a good catchment system or the skill of your own hands?

I’m pretty sure that a lot of us have these thoughts. Stemming from either wanting to save money, or a desire to be acquainted with the production process, or even aversion to support a harmful industrial model, I think it’s pretty standard that well-informed people begin to resent our role as meager end-consumers of goods and services, wishing instead that we could be make and do more things ourselves.

This, my friends, is how I define self-sufficiency. If you remember from last time, I promised that I would write a couple of columns on some of the vague concepts that surround that grandiose idea of “homesteading”. I figured we could start with this concept of self-sufficiency – producing more, most, or all of the things one consumes within one’s own homestead. I am going to look at all of this with a moderately critical eye, and discuss how we might implement some of measure of self-sufficiency within our own urban farms without getting bogged down in extremes. Let’s begin!

Before getting to practical considerations, we need to discuss the different forms or “levels” of self-sufficiency, and the motivations that might drive each of them.

The first of these is what I’m going to call “modular self-sufficiency”. That is, choosing certain goods and services that you and your household consume, and integrating production models for those goods into your life. Nearly every person on Earth, even in the consumerist West, engages in some form of this modular self-sufficiency. Activities like cooking and baking one’s own food, managing one’s own finances, and even providing one’s own entertainment (i.e. recreation) are all moderately good examples of self-sufficiency in services. There is a short list of goods we require to keep ourselves alive, and a longer list of goods and services that we desire to keep ourselves comfortable, and a giant list of goods and services that we consume in order to live standard Western lives, and any individual act of providing ourselves with one of these goods or services instead of buying it (i.e. cooking instead of eating out), is at, its base, modular self-sufficiency.

But the real magic happens when we go beyond the basic activities that everyone around us does to keep themselves alive and comfortable. Though subsistence farming is pretty standard in much of the rest of the world, it is not so in the United States. Here, growing a three- or four-season garden or raising a flock of chickens is quite the revolutionary act of modular self-sufficiency, of providing yourself with certain food items instead of buying them.

And so it goes. This idea of modular self-sufficiency is applicable to any good or service you consume. Deciding to collect rainwater to irrigate your garden, raising fruit trees and bushes, chopping your own firewood, taking on some kitchen or workshop craft (i.e. cheese-making, brewing, furniture making, canning, whatever) is a revolutionary act of modular self-sufficiency, of rejecting the industrial production model of that good or service, and using your time and resources to substitute your own.

And it is great, to be modularly self-sufficient in as many goods and services as you can. But some people desire to take this further. Some people with enough land, and time, and know-how, make their goal to be completely self-sufficient. But what does that mean?

In my view, there are two types of complete self-sufficiency – truly complete self-sufficiency, and effectively complete self-sufficiency. Truly complete self-sufficiency is when you, on your own land and using your own resources, produce literally every good and service that you consume. There is something romantic about this idea, about being completely independent of any external production model for anything you consume, from the produce and meat and water you eat to every toy and widget you would otherwise buy. But to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever read about or encountered anyone who is successfully, happily, “truly completely self-sufficient”…and that’s probably a good thing.

In economics, there is a principle called The Law of Diminishing Returns on Investment. The basic idea is that, within a specific context, each additional unit of something that you utilize yields less benefit than the unit before. The typical example that is given is artificial fertilizers. But because we are well-informed urban farmers with nuanced views of agricultural production, we should substitute compost for artificial fertilizers in the example (just like in real life). If the first cubic foot of compost you put in your tomato bed increases your tomato yield by 30%, the next cubic foot will likely have less of an exaggerated effect…and the next one less, and the next one less, until, at some point, more compost does nothing in terms of increasing production. This is the point of diminished return on investment.

I would suggest that we can apply this reasoning to the modular acts of self-sufficiency that one can take towards the goal of truly complete self-sufficiency. Depending heavily on your individual situation, there are certain acts of modular self-sufficiency that produce huge benefits. For a relatively small amount of effort and money, you can grow much of your own produce; for maybe 20% the cost per dozen of free-range, organic eggs, you can raise a flock of chickens and become self-sufficient in that arena. And it goes like this, for quite a few general categories of items, from fruits and even meat (rabbits, anyone?), to rainwater catchment for irrigation, renewable energy systems like solar arrays, and a good many services (cooking, financial management) and value-added products (things like cheese, alcohol, etc).

But what about that Pinterest recipe that requires tarragon, quail eggs, and mustard greens? Truly complete self-sufficiency requires you to grow these yourself, so do we set aside some garden space, and build another coop, in order to have these specialty foods? And then, consider goods that cannot be grown in the Northeast – citrus, olives, avocados, coffee…do we abstain because we can’t grow them ourselves?

In the standard, “come-to-Jesus” education of a well-informed urban farmer, there is a point where he or she would probably answer “yes” to both of those questions. For years, I sure would have! Now, of course, I’m not knocking any of those foods. If you use tarragon every day, or have a penchant for quail eggs, then they are probably within the previous list of effective acts of modular self-sufficiency. But these examples are well-beyond the point of diminishing returns for most people, and it’s not worth the time, effort, and expense to produce a specialty good if it can even be done in your climate, nor the deprivation of abstaining from those that cannot, merely to satisfy the black-and-white notion that everything you consume, no matter how small, must be produced at home.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. The globalized, commodification-based, environmentally- and socially-exploitive, fossil-fueled production model is the problem, not the urban farmer that grows elderberries to avoid having to potentially buy cough syrup, even though he doesn’t get sick (*blushes*). I figure that you probably already recognized that, as readers of my column. But that doesn’t change the fact that a socially-, environmentally-, economically-, and globally-conscious urban farmer such as yourself, would be using an unnecessary amount of your time in forcing yourself to make furniture or grow a half-acre of pineapple mint (there, I’m not only picking on tarragon), when your neighbor is a skilled carpenter and your friend is a farmer of specialty herbs and spices, simply on the vague notion that you need to do these things yourself. Do you see where I’m coming from?

So what’s the solution? What is the goal to strive towards? The answer: effectively-complete self-sufficiency! You need basic food (fruit, vegetables, meat), water, energy, and shelter at a minimum to stay alive. And you need community, recreation and entertainment, certain value-added foods, and a slew of case-specific services to keep you comfortable and happy.

Instead of spreading yourself too thin, trying to produce a little of every possible thing you consume, a more fruitful path towards self-sufficiency is to satisfy your needs and wants for each of these general categories in an environmentally-sustainable manner, and allow yourself to buy or trade for specific things that you don’t produce yourself from other people producing them similarly!

Next time, we will take a look at what this effectively-completely self-sufficient production system looks like in practice, on a community level, and discuss some practical ways you can make it happen.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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