Living off the land: The joy of self-sufficiency and how to get started

Living off the land: The joy of self-sufficiency and how to get started

New Zealanders are wonderfully connected to nature. It was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived here from the UK three years ago. Over here, hiking is awesome no matter what your age, camping doesn’t need Glastonbury to totally rock and without fail, every change of seasons sparks a million conversations between foodies excited for what the new harvest has to offer.

Such respect for nature seems to nurture a greater, more sincere appetite among New Zealanders to attempt self-sufficiency. At least everyone I know – whether they rent or own a property – makes the best of their outside space by growing at least one fresh food item at home. Put ‘self-sufficient living NZ’ into Google though and it returns dozens of blogs, news articles and forums dedicated to the topic, often the word ‘dream’ alongside it or slightly less optimistic phrases or questions such as: ’reality check’, or quite simply: ‘is it possible?’.

So how closely does the idea, or indeed the dream, of becoming self-sufficient, match up with reality? And for those of us to whom the word ‘pot’ means nothing more than a cooking utensil, how best to make a start? Anna Mahy, who owns Preserved Cook School & Eatery with her husband John, says the key is to start small and simply. At Preserved, Anna and John teach students traditional methods of salting, fermenting, curing, preserving and pickling food. The couple pride themselves on growing much of their own food and partner with their community to plug the gaps.

Anna Mahy says she owes many precious family memories to her self-sufficient lifestyle, including watching their first chick hatch with her three children.

Anna Mahy says she owes many precious family memories to her self-sufficient lifestyle, including watching their first chick hatch with her three children.

“Getting started is easy,” Anna assured me. “Put a herb pot in your kitchen. Plant something, anything!  A pot, a fruit tree, a herb. That first feeling of using what you’ve nurtured is addictive.” Anna recalled the moment she first felt as though she’d finally got out the blocks with pursuing a self-sufficient lifestyle. “We’d moved some chickens into our garden and the first egg I had was amazing! I cracked it the pan and it sat there; plump and golden in the middle.  It didn’t spread out – the yolk sat glowing and proud. My egg – I had nurtured the chicken that laid it, I had gathered it in the morning light while it was still warm and here it was. It was the most perfect egg I have ever eaten.”

For Christchurch farmlet owner Thea Hewitt, buying a plot of land with the aim of being 80% self-sufficient for protein and greens within five years was an expression of a decade-long passion of hers. Thea was raised in the UK on a ‘traditional’ arable farm (this means land that’s capable of being ploughed and used to grow crops) where pellets of man-made fertiliser were dumped on the soil each year.

“Learning about how human food production has negatively affected the quality of soils worldwide and the levels of C02 in the atmosphere, partly due to added nitrogen in the soil flowing into rivers and the sea, really kickstarted my appreciation of organic and biodynamic permaculture,” said Thea. She then came across the concept of forest gardening, which is the practice if intentionally planting gardens to allow animals to live and fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms and plants to grow in a way that mimics natural ecosystems.

Anna Mahy with her family planting their first garlic harvest together.

Anna Mahy with her family planting their first garlic harvest together.

The concept solidified the idea in Thea’s mind that she and her partner Duncan could provide most of the protein, starch and greens they needed within their own property. She realised it would also help free them from being reliant on supermarkets and in turn the way large food retailers treat farmers, not to mention reduce their consumption of food that carries air miles, prevent them from throwing away food packaging and over time, save them money.

An understandable misconception about what it means to be self-sufficient is born out of the inclusion of the word ‘self’ in its name. It implies that one must go it alone; a thought that can seem daunting and isolating. These are emotions that Anna experienced when she set off on her journey towards self-sufficiency. Learning to recover from setbacks including house fires, lack of water, earthquakes and illness helped transformed her viewpoint. Anna now sees self-sufficiency as sharing and harnessing the skills of an entire community.

“My first naive vision [of self-sufficiency] was to do it all and do it all myself,” Anna said. I’ve grown and changed a lot since then. I’ve also come to view my original vision as a lonely pursuit. Now I feel it’s more about getting back to basics, creating memories with others and sharing skills. I can’t do everything but others I know can’t do what I do. It’s about joining together. I can make salami and the man down the road can catch fish – a perfect trade!  I think food does and should bring people together. So now it’s not so much me doing it all, but doing what I can and sharing that and joining with like-minded people.”

Similarly, it was a challenge for Thea to acknowledge that she too needed the help of others in order to be become more self-sufficient. “We can’t grow enough grains or starch for year round consumption and can’t whittle a broken metal tractor part out of flax – we’ll always be somewhat reliant on others for things and that’s ok, it creates community.”

Both Anna and Thea share the belief that self-sufficiency is more a journey than a destination, which is an important point to remember for anyone looking to give it a go. Letting go of the myth that self-sufficiency equals an idyllic existence was another hurdle that once over, Thea found put her in a better mindset. While the outcome is a simpler way to live, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Some aspects are tough and not for faint-hearted. 

“It’s hard to kill an animal,” says Thea, who is vegetarian except for eating meat that’s farmed on her land. “But there’s a quote I say to myself every time: ‘in order for something to live, something else has to die’. That applies to the whole circle of life; apart from photosynthesis. It even applies to vegetarians!” On the flipside, Thea cites the people she’s meant in the pursuit of self-sufficiency as being the biggest highlight and says the community around the lifestyle has been a ‘huge’ support to her.

“Tapping into other’s knowledge is incredibly important – learn from other’s mistakes,” she said. “There’s no reason to try and reinvent the wheel.  People in this community are generally all trying to save the world in one way or another and save money, so there’s always something to talk about!”

For Anna, the lifestyle has gifted her many precious family moments that she otherwise wouldn’t have experienced. “I’m still not there [with self-sufficiency] but I’ve created many memories with my own children based on this idea that what we have is simpler, although not really easier, so much more satisfying and creates better bonds between people. Our first chick hatching, the smell of fresh baked bread with the kids eager to dive in. Meals with friends that started with a wander round the garden to see what we would have. The peace I feel when I’m gardening. 

Anna teaches her daughter how to pluck and dress a chicken.

Anna teaches her daughter how to pluck and dress a chicken.

Anna continued: “The sense that I have somehow, even a little, separated myself from consumerism and have a greater understanding of my food and how it is produced compared to other food. “The joy of seeing three bums sticking out of the pea patch as the kids eat all the peas leaving none for me. The unbelievable sweetness of a sun warmed ripe strawberry.  The people I have met and the friends I have made.”

Anna and Thea had these tips to share for beginners looking to explore self-sufficiency:

– Failure helps you learn and grow. This is important to remember when you first start planting and growing.
– Enjoy the experience and to share it. 
– Never be afraid to ask for help. People who are trying to live a more sustainable, local life are passionate about it and want to see others doing it. Other people on the same journey are always ready to help when asked.
– Learn patience. You may want everything to grow quicker but you can’t hurry Mother Nature without consequences and remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
– Research edible weeds and how to forage – truly forage. Humans need a varied diet and weeds provide many vitamins and minerals that are precious. Don’t kill them – learn their uses!
– Grow or graft your own trees if money is tight.
– Let go of thinking it’s attainable to reach this heavenly place of self- sufficiency and accept what’s realistic. 
– And a final tip from Anna: If you ever want to keep pigs… get really good fencing!

  • Karla Legg

    Are these ladies part of a community group in and around Christchurch?? I just loved this article. My husband and I moved ourselves and our two small kids to Christchurch in 2010 searching for this way of life but the earthquakes had other plans for us and we lost our home. We moved back to Brisbane for family support due to the effect the quakes had on our children but the the plan is to go back to Christchurch in the next 12mths and start again….on the land. Being in contact with ladies/families that have started from the ground up would be an enormous support to like minded people/families. If nothing comes out of my question, I thank you for a fantastic article. It warmed the heart of a 40 something woman sitting in built up suburbia of Brisbane, dreaming of this way of life.