Self-sufficiency is an interesting way of living. I've been working on finding out about my family tree and that has prompted a lot of thinking about the way that many of those people lived. Some were relatively well-to-do, but many were "agricultural labourers" around Essex, Wiltshire and Dorset. (These are the Anglo-Saxon branch of the family, anyway.) I can only imagine how they lived. Some ended up working in other people's houses, some in the workhouse... and some, obviously, emigrated to Australia.
In thinking about how some of these people lived, it made me consider the current notion of "self-sufficiency" that is mentioned frequently in articles about energy, climate and other matters.
An agricultural worker in Dorset around 1800 would have qualified as "self-sufficient" these days. No doubt the amount of work that these people supplied would have been enough to maintain themselves, their families and the more affluent owners of the land upon which they worked. Most of their work would have been physically labouring, with the help of animals, but no "oil-based" input of energy. Life expectancy was lower, though for many, especially men, once they reached an older age, seem to have lived into their 80's or thereabouts. Their diet must have been adequate.
One particular family that I have been following seem to have worked for a few different landholders, all within 15 or 20 miles, and must have been able to move (indicating few possessions) with their growing family of up to four children. I imagine that payment might have been partly "in kind" if food was being produced on the land that they worked…. and that money would have been spent on ingredients that were not locally made or grown. It makes sense also that wild foods would likely have been useful… especially "pot herbs" that would have supplied nutrients that are needed for health. I imagine also that seeds collected from useful plants or foods would have been planted near any home-base, much in the same way that date seeds (probably from dried dates bought for food) have always been planted around farmhouses in arid areas. Those date palms are often there long after the house is deserted and falling down. I wonder how pot herbs and root vegetables (the easiest to grow) were added to the diet. Much of the information about foodstuffs from earlier times are more likely to have been what middle class or wealthy people used because these are the records and writings that remain. Even Mrs Beeton's book of household management would have had little relevance for the poor even in her time.
Self sufficiency is the current catch phrase. I don't buy much food from the supermarket and I have been going to the local farmer's market for the items that I can not produce. Gradually, this has been becoming less and less. These days, I only go there for fruits and some specialty items that I can't grow… coffee (locally roasted) tea (blended locally) and some fruits and grains. Most of my food comes from my garden.
I have experimented with growing grains and with a few "new to me" vegetables. many of them have been successful, though the easiest vegetables to grow, with the greatest calorific reward, are potatoes and those root vegetables that do well in winter. This may not be the most innovative way to go, but in terms of self sufficiency, those "old" varieties that were no doubt planted by my "agricultural labourer" ancestors remain the most productive when "calories in and calories out" are considered.
This year I have planted quite a large area of potatoes and I have been "bandicooting" enough to eat regularly for quite a few weeks. (More about potatoes and how to eat them later.)
Over the past couple of weeks I have planted a selection of root crops and winter peas and beans. The area that I have planted is quite large because with winter rain, I am hoping not to have to irrigate very much. The rain that we have had over the last couple of days has been well timed. I plant the seeds relatively thickly, and thin them once I can see what they are doing. I also "fill in" any gaps with a few more seeds if necessary. These "late germinators" are not a problem for me, though they would be for a commercial crop where harvesting is usually done altogether. For me, having a few early or late specimens of anything is useful as I only want to harvest enough each day for current use.
Potatoes… and their nutrients
Potatoes are one of the vegetables that has "lost" the most nutrients over the past 50 years or so. The data that I have found is from Canada, and included in an article by Andre Picard, a Public Health Reporter for the Globe and Mail...
The potato " has lost 100 per cent of its vitamin A, which is important for good eyesight; 57 per cent of its vitamin C and iron, a key component of healthy blood; and 28 per cent of its calcium, essential for building healthy bones and teeth.