“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
You may have got the idea by now that simple living consists only of growing, cooking and eating your own food; while this is true for many, others live a simple lifestyle without recourse to their own land. Before humans were farmers, they were gatherers and, in the way history tends to move in cycles, many find themselves to be gatherers in the twenty-first century. To this end, this chapter will explore other ways to live simply for those without land, and even for those who live in the middle of a city with no access to land.
First, let us look at the options for those who do not have land, but would still like to grow their own food, or at least grow some of their own food. You may grow food on land that is not owned by you, or you need to consider other simple means of feeding yourself and your family.
"Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?"
~Gerrard Winstanley (Digger)
The seventeenth century in England produced a large number of radical groups who questioned the status quo and looked for new answers. The Diggers held that the land belonged to all, irrespective of wealth, and that it should be shared amongst all people to grow their own food. In many ways the allotment movement draws on the spirit of these impressive and inspiring pioneers.
In much of the English-speaking world, a small parcel of land, no bigger than a suburban back garden, is called an allotment. In Britain, the need for people without garden space to have access to land for food production is recognized in law in the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908, as well as further legislation in 1922 and 1950. Other areas of the world have similar legislation so it is well worth checking for local provision where you live. In World War II, allotments were an important part of the ‘Dig for Victory’ movement (called ‘Victory Gardens’ in the US) in which everybody was encouraged to grow their own food and help feed the country. I feel that the need is still here with us today to make food production an important part of everybody’s commitment to solving the world’s environmental and economic problems.
Local Authorities usually have a waiting list for allotments; how long that list is depends very much on the local population and how fashionable allotment holding is at any moment in time. Over the years allotments have occasionally become the ‘trendy’ thing to have, but such surges of public interest often wax and wane, with allotments again becoming desired only by those who actually want them to grow food over a sustained period.
If you are lucky enough to get to the head of the list and gain the tenancy of an allotment, please take care; most have clauses that if you do not look after them properly, and allow them to become overgrown, then your tenancy will cease and the land be re-allotted to the next person on the waiting list. You need to take your responsibility carefully, and while the land is under your stewardship you must look after it as well as you would land that you owned.
A great many things relating to an allotment are down to luck, the position and direction of your plot, the immediate neighbours on other plots (sometimes people can be so friendly that you cannot get the peace and quiet you need to work the land), and the way it was left by the previous tenants. I was once tenant of an allotment and had to work on it early in the morning to avoid some of the more ‘chatty’ folks on plots nearby who never ceased giving unsolicited advice at great length; you may be luckier! My allotment had the added disadvantage of having plots not adequately fenced off from the surrounding countryside; herds of vegetable-lusting deer would regularly visit and strip the plots of anything green. However, many find that renting an allotment fully compensates them for not having land to grow at home, and allows them a degree of self-sufficiency that would otherwise prove impossible.
“On 1899 May 23, the Aston Clinton Parish Council held a meeting to allot allotments and smallholdings, not exceeding three acres, to labouring inhabitants of the parish. There were five labourers anxious to take the land at Stanbridge so lots were drawn; the winners were Reuben Lovegrove….”
(Forgive me a self-indulgent quote about my great-grandfather ~ HQ)
In many towns and cities, the idea of allotments has been superceded by community gardens; an area of wasteland, maybe publicly or privately owned, is taken over by a community who jointly use it to produce food. These gardens may be run as a cooperative venture or run by a committee, but the idea is the same; you give up your time to work on the community garden and in return you get a share of the produce. The really good thing about community gardens is that those working in such schemes are usually very committed, and the sight of a community garden in full flourish is a wonderful thing. You may need to do some homework to find a scheme operating close to you, and if you live out of town you may find that such schemes are much less popular.
“For pleasure has no relish unless we share it.”
― Virginia Woolf
You may be part of a large family with no space to grow your own food, while not far from you may live someone who is unable to look after their garden due to old age, disability or even a lack of interest. In many towns and cities, schemes are operating that get people from the two groups together; the garden is worked to produce food and a good share goes to the owner of the garden and the rest goes to the family who have put in the work. Assuming some degree of goodwill and communication is present, the scheme seems wonderful; those with large gardens that they are unable or unwilling to tend get maintenance and some fresh food, whilst the landless workers get to care for a garden and attain a degree of self-sufficiency. If such a scheme does not operate close to you, could have a go at setting it up yourself with any neighbours that are amenable.
“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Guerilla gardening is the possibly illegal (though unlikely to be challenged in most areas) act of finding some derelict ground, publicly or privately owned, and growing food on it. The risk is that you may not get to harvest your crops as the land may be cleared by the rightful owner or your produce will be stolen, but chances are that at the end of the season you can harvest and enjoy your produce.
The act of guerilla gardening itself may be as simple as sowing some seeds and then coming back at the end of the season and seeing what has come up, or seriously cultivating the land as one would on an allotment. Some local authorities in the UK have been very supportive of this idea and have cooperated to the extent of helping to identify possible sites. Others have been less impressed and taken to destroying any site found. You can try to find out whether any organized guerilla gardening goes on in your locality, otherwise you just have to do it yourself, but please don’t grow food on any land that is heavily polluted. Again, for obvious reasons, this seems more of an urban than a rural pursuit.
I am not a guerilla gardener myself, but have certainly sown seeds of ‘bee friendly’ wild flowers in many areas of wasteland, hoping that this will help feed pollinators and that the flowers will seed themselves at the end of the season. In fact, if you have ever tossed an apple core into the hedgerow you might be a guerilla gardener yourself! It can be argued that the American settler ‘Johnny Appleseed’ may have been the most successful guerilla gardener of all time!
“Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.”
~ “Blackberry Picking” Seamus Heaney
Nothing is as wonderful as coming home with a basket of fresh, free food and enjoying it; foraging can be done by anyone but perhaps those with land to cultivate are too busy in the late summer and autumn to take full advantage of the bounty. To some, foraging is a pot or two of blackberries in late summer, but to many others, it is a year round activity that involves the whole family and can provide real food of value. What you can forage depends very much on where you live, but be sure that food is out there for you to find. A very good guidebook is essential, especially at the start of your foraging career (see suggestions at the end of the chapter), but as time goes on you will develop an eye for free food.
Generally, you don’t have to worry about the organic nature of foraged food, but do take care when harvesting near heavy traffic; it is best to take nothing too close to the road, and take care if you are foraging in fields that have been sprayed with pesticides. Other dangers in foraging all involve not researching your target crops well enough. In the UK in recent years there have been deaths resulting from mistaking deadly nightshade berries for blueberries, and eating toxic fungi in mistake for field mushrooms. Again, your insurance against these problems is in using an excellent guidebook or going foraging with an expert.
As well as foraging for food, you can look for firewood, kindling (including dry pine cones), bean and pea sticks, and some pick up scraps of wool in sheep fields for spinning and weaving.
Growing Food Indoors
If you have and windows in your house or a dark cupboard, then you can grow some of your own food with very simple equipment. No one is suggesting that you will become self-sufficient by doing this, but you can supplement your diet with fresh green herbs, sprouting seeds and bean sprouts pretty much throughout the year.
Some seeds are very easily grown in seed sprouters - a container that can be rinsed through with fresh water several times a day; more ‘sticky’ seeds like cress and basil are best spouted on paper in a small tray.
Despite having enough land to grow food for the family, I still sprout seeds on a windowsill, especially in early winter and spring.
Those with the space to do so can also grow a much wider number of crops indoors, but be warned, if your home gets damp in the winter months then growing anything more than sprouting seeds indoors is not for you.
“We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls.”
Even the Amish, who for most of us are fine examples of simple and self-sufficient living, have to visit the shops. Even with a better growing climate than the one I (and I suspect most of you) am used to, it is almost impossible to produce either the variety of foods you want to eat, or be able to ensure supplies all the year round. Sometimes you just can’t produce all the food that even the simplest of families need to use. Accepting that you do need to shop, where do you do it? At the local farmers market? In the small independent store? At the supermarket? Unless you are in possession of a very good income, the cost of what you buy will have an effect on where and how you shop. It may be that you can support the local retailers and provide their business with the support they need, but if you cannot afford to use them for all your needs, then chances are you will need to shop at a supermarket, either regularly or at least occasionally. I’m not suggesting for one moment that you shouldn’t do all you can to support good local traders where you can, I’m just pointing out that if you have a large number of people to look after on a restricted budget, then looking after your family will become a priority.
Next comes the problem of how to shop ethically while using the supermarket; this can be addressed easily if you have some choice. However, if you live in a rural community it becomes more difficult. The following points may help;
· Avoid supermarkets and other stores that make contributions to political parties, or other causes that you are opposed to.
· Stick to your own code of ethics when shopping, be it organic, vegetarian, vegan, free range, fair-trade, kosher or whatever you have decided. Only buy from such choices and hold fast to it.
· Avoid products of those manufacturers with a poor record of environmental care, treatment of workers, exploitation, or those who contribute to causes you despise.
· Avoid products that have been shipped around the world when a perfectly good alternative is available from closer to home.
· Avoid all products that are over-packaged or packed in a way that makes recycling impossible.
· When it comes to fresh produce, choose loose (usually cheaper) produce over that which is pre-packed.
· Do not buy goods that are exported from countries whose governments promote ideas that are an affront to human decency; leave them to rot on the shelves!
· As far as possible, research that the products you buy are ethically sourced and that you are not contributing to the suffering of other people, animals or environments, just to get the goods you want.
Looking at this list, you will instantly spot that it is not always the cheapest product that will find its way into your shopping basket and it could well be that some products just stay on the shelf. That is good because all chain retail outlets spend vast amounts of money on researching what customers want, and if enough of us reject the unethical items they will eventually be replaced. If products or procedures in stores are presenting an issue for you, then get busy writing letters and emails to challenge them; if you say nothing, then nothing will be done.
|© Brian Labont ~ SDSU Farmers market|
Farmers markets are sometimes the best option for buying fresh produce at a reasonable cost and may provide an alternative to supermarket produce. It will depend very much on where you live as whether or not you have access to a quality farmers market. Provision can often be poor in the heart of the countryside or in inner cities, but if you can find markets where towns border onto country areas, they will often be thriving. Don’t assume that all you find in a farmers market has been grown by the person selling it to you and don’t assume that the goods are all organic; you need to ask questions. If you are not close to a farmers market, you may have access to a fruit and vegetable box delivery service. These are generally marked up as organic and, as long as you make your needs known, can be an excellent source of supply.
Again, in an ideal world, all of us would be shopping in the high street of our local town, keeping family businesses afloat, but how many of us can afford to do this for all our needs? Shopping online can provide you with access to those unusual things that are hard to find locally and in turn, ensure that many people can find a livelihood as online sellers. If you live far out of town then you may well need to use online suppliers to provide you with specialist ingredients and products that you just can’t source from closer to home. The environmental benefits of finding something online instead of travelling from town to town looking for it should not be ignored, and nor should the saving of time. Don’t forget that one needs to shop ethically on line just as much as when one walks into a shop; don’t be afraid to ask questions about any ethical issues before you make your purchase.
Coupons, Offers and Deals
Making ends meet is a problem for many of us, so the occasional offer to get things at a lower price is worth noting. However, it is easy to get carried away and to spend too much time hunting for offers and then overspend as a result. Self-restraint and common sense are needed; I follow these guidelines;
· Only use coupons for products that you would normally buy anyway; don’t be tempted to buy something that you don’t need.
· Never buy more fresh produce than you can use, or have time to process.
· Don’t let deals, coupons or offers lure you away from those ethical guidelines that your family live by.
· Never stock up on things that you have not got the storage space for.
· Never get into debt to take advantage of a deal; if you haven’t got the cash you have to let it go!
· If you are opposed to gambling then consider carefully whether entering some competition or other by buying a product is not compromising your position.
Buying in Bulk
If you have enough room and safe storage then you can buy food in bulk. Shopping around will help you find much cheaper food, especially with dry goods like flour, oils and lentils. Buying in this way does have its drawbacks, in that the food may not be used up before it spoils – wasting food is never acceptable for the consumer who is trying to live simply or environmentally carefully. You might find that if you live close to others who have similar needs and you get along well, you can buy food in bulk and split it. This might even develop into a full co-operative where you buy in bulk, split and sell to friends and neighbours in a way that covers costs but does not make a profit. You need to think carefully before embarking on this kind of action, and it is best to start with just a few items. For instance, if you can find ten families who all make their own bread, then buying direct from the flour mill will bring down the cost of your home-produced loaves.
· Consider getting an allotment to grow food
· Try and find a shared garden scheme in your area
· Grow sprouting seeds at home
· Remove unwanted foods from your diet by not buying them; replace them with preferred items
· Make up a ‘pro forma’ shopping list and buy only listed items when shopping
· Never go shopping without a list
· Never go shopping while hungry ~ you will end up buying more than you need!
· Shop where you can to provide help and support for local traders and farmers
· Support farmers markets wherever possible
· When you use supermarkets, take particular care about ethical shopping
· Do not use coupons or take advantage of offers if by doing so you are buying things you don’t normally buy
· Do not buy from shops that support political parties or causes that you do not agree with
· Consider forming a co-operative with others to buy food in bulk
· Consider starting your own shared garden scheme if one does not operate near you
· If you find good farmers markets, do your bit in promoting them
· If you can afford to, shun supermarkets altogether and source all the foods you cannot provide yourself locally
· Campaign for more issues relating to food supply
· Take up guerilla gardening
· Become an ethical food supplier yourself
You may like to read
Richard Mabey Food for Free Collins 2012
An up to date edition of the book that many would never have started foraging without.
Alys Fowler ~ Thrifty Forager: Living Off Your Local Landscape Kyle Cathie Limited 2011
I love this book, but then I love all everything that Alys Fowler writes; it’s all practical and possible.
John Wright Hedgerow Bloombury 2014
A practical guide to what to look for when foraging and small enough to take with you.
Elizabeth Millard Indoor Kitchen Gardening Cool Springs Press 2014
As well as sprouting seeds and leaves, this book also advises on more adventurous indoor growing.
Wikihow How to Start Guerilla Gardening
Enough to get started.
Sustain Food Co-op Toolkit
A wonderful and comprehensive UK guide to how to start a food co-op
Robert Harford Eat Weeds
Full of recipes and collecting advice, regularly updated.
To find Farmers Markets in North America
To find Farmers Markets in the UK
To find Farmers Markets in Australia
(C) Ray Lovegrove (aka 'Hay Quaker') 2014
(C) Ray Lovegrove (aka 'Hay Quaker') 2014