Books: Farming for Self-Sufficiency

Books: Farming for Self-Sufficiency

“Now, the sort of self-sufficiency which I wish to treat in this book is not the old, pre-industrial self-sufficiency: that of the illiterate peasant or hunter who has never heard of anything else. That kind of self-sufficiency is, for better or worse, on the way out. What I am interested in is the post-industrial self-sufficiency: that of the person who has gone through the big-city-industrial way of life and who has advanced beyond it and wants to go on to something better.” – John and Sally Seymour, Farming for Self-Sufficiency, 1973.

Farming for Self-Sufficiency, John and Sally Seymour, 1971.

In Farming for Self-Sufficiency, English smallholders John and Sally Seymour present a delightful, heartwarming, and practical guide to moving to your own farm. Unlike The OwnerBuilt Homestead, this text maintains focus on the high quality of life that can come from living on a small farm with your family while also providing plenty of practical instruction. The tone of this book is best shown by the excerpt on the back of my copy,

Sally seymour pantry from Farming for Self-Suffiency
A well stocked pantry of rich, home-grown food. Sally Seymour’s unique and charming art is one of the many strong points of this book.

“We have, in fact, lived for eighteen years on the fat of the land: we have probably eaten and drunk better than most other people…Our food has been good, varied, fresh, and of the best quality…We have lived very well on a very small money income, and the tax-eaters have not done very well out of us. We have not contributed much to the development of the atom bomb.”

This shows the overall message of the book: you can leave the city and lead a peaceful and happy life on your own farm. And the joy of such a life!

Farming for Self-Sufficiency is a celebration of the life of the independent yeoman farmer, and strives to show that traditional practices have a place in today’s world. The authors introduced me to the great early 19th century writer and agrarian William Cobbett, who was already lamenting the move away from small homesteads in the 1820s. Delightful and incisive quotes from the great wordsmith serve as the epitaph for almost every chapter. Like Cobbett, the Seymours are disgusted by the excesses and disconnectedness of the modern world, and have found as much freedom as can be had by caring for themselves and beings self-reliant.

Cow and calf art from Farming for Self-Sufficiency
A happy cow caring for her calf.

This text provides extensive information about picking a site and raising diverse livestock and crops. Due to the authors living in the UK, this primarily deals with finding an abandoned old farm, instead of carving a new one out of the wilderness. The Seymours spent their first 8 years supporting a family of four on five acres of land and saw it improve annually without bringing in any fertilizer. Their main method was by raising diverse animals and crops and moving their location regularly. As is well known, this type of rotation reduces all sorts of diseases and pests and encourages consistent fertility. They acknowledge bringing in some food for animals, but pointed out that they also exported many animal products from the farm. This book explains an old maxim, “to buy hay is to buy land.” This means that it not only frees up your land by not growing the hay, it brings in high levels of fertility to your farm. Because of this, winter hay is said to be the one external input to add to your farm if necessary (it just ain’t that expensive compared to the milk a cow provides.)

Sally Seymour farmyard animals from Farming for Self-Sufficiency
Diverse, happy livestock in the farmyard.

Farming for Self-Sufficiency provides in-depth information about caring for different livestock on your farm. The book emphasizes, as always, that on your farm you want to do more than survive- you want to thrive. The Seymours make sure to explain the joys different animals will bring you and the way the animals work together (for example, whey is a crucial pig food.) More importantly, the animals play different roles in agriculture. This includes fertilizing fields, pigs breaking up poor soil for future planting, sheep controlling broadleaf weeds, chickens processing waste, and ducks controlling insects. All of these animals inhabit the same spaces at different times, making use of the symbiosis which comes from animal diversity. (Though one animal they are not fans of is the goat- which they say is more trouble than it is worth.)

While the Seymours rely on animals for their farm, they are also compassionate and understand the way the animals rely on them. Early on, there is an impassioned argument for why non-vegan vegetarianism doesn’t make sense (most notably, to make milk or eggs some males are always produced, and there is not a way to use all of the male animals without eating them.) They further point out that if the whole world were to go vegan there would be nothing to do but release or kill the existing animals. However, the Seymours always focus on on making sure that the animals are treated well and are slaughtered in the most humane way possible. This really is the fate of domesticated livestock, which is why it is important to treat them kindly and respect their sacrifices.

draft horse gear diagram
A diagram of a draft horse’s gear. Some of the art in the book provides practical instruction.

Unlike many in sustainable agriculture. the Seymours believe that at least some tillage remains necessary. Besides breeding stock and the cats and dogs, the one animal on the farm that will not meet the fate of slaughter is the draft horse. While the Seymours see a practicality in tractors in some situations, the book argues there is great joy in using draft animals. Further, horses allow greater access to some areas, do less to compact the soil, fertilize while they work, and do not rely on fossil fuels. Beyond that, there is the great joy one gets from horse ownership. Most of the sections on field and garden crops are relatively straightforward, but nonetheless provide entertaining reading.

There are two more things about this book which I find particularly noteworthy.

Firstly, the authors consider ample home brew to be crucial to “living the good life.” There are several occasions in the book where the strength, healthfulness, and flavor of home brew from home grown barley is praised. Along with detailed explanation for the brewing of beer, there is also advice about its uses. For example,one is advised to get sufficiently drunk on the home brew and get a friend’s help before slaughtering a pig- to save your wife from the experience. It is also recommended to water down the beer for city folk, who will not believe you about the strength- and won’t notice the water anyway, as the beer will still be stronger than what they are used to. Though one is also advised to water it down before doing field work, or else little will get done (we’ve all been there.) Since this was an era before microbrews were common, it is difficult to know how the criticisms of the era’s city home brew would measure up today. The book says, of the home brewers of the time,

“The makers, nurtured on windy chemical liquid made by the giant brewing companies, cannot recognize beer as beer unless it is bubbling like sodawater, and so they mess about with their hydrometers their dollops of sugar, their screw-topped bottles until they end up with an inferior imitation of bottled pub beer and it is horrible. Real beer, such as nurtured the Englishman and the Welshman in days of old, is a beautiful rich, slightly viscous, bitter, completely unwindy (yes–‘flat’) liquid, akin to the ambrosia of the Gods”

Sally Seymour seafood harvest from Farming for Self-Sufficiency
An illustration of the seafood harvest.

I wish I could try John Seymour’s beer, because it sounds like an entirely different experience!

Another thing which I appreciate Farming for Self-Sufficiency is the discussion of collecting seafood. There is an amusing quote opposing sports fishing (which I have previously posted here), but what is more important is the discussion of ways to make seafood collection practical. Unfortunately, little of this advice is helpful for someone who does not live near saltwater. However, it makes me jealous that I don’t live in a place where it is practical to catch the herring run!

Farming for Self-Sufficiency is a positively delightful book about life as a smallholder. While not all of the advice is practical to the United States, it provides great insights on several topics, detailed information about animal and crop production and processing, and many important insights into the value of life on a small farm. Most importantly, it makes the reader feel like this is something they can do and enjoy!

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