How to become self-sufficient

Gradual steps you can follow on your way to reducing your dependency on others while developing a sustainable and healthy life.

In late August Vancouver got nailed with a major wind storm and a loss of power ensued. In the past when the power has gone out in Vancouver no one really seemed to mind. It was a short interruption to daily life — a blip, if you will, maybe an hour without TV, a mild inconvenience, nothing more.

This time, however, things were different. This time it was the “single largest outage event” in B.C. Hydro’s history, affecting 710,000, or half its customers. Some people in Vancouver went up to three days without access to what we consider very basic necessities: hot water, transportation (cars got stuck in carports), food (perishable food perished and food became scarce). My friends shared stories on Facebook about the associated hardships, and I remembered all too clearly what #DarkNL was like.

It doesn’t need to be a big weather event to interrupt our modern-day conveniences; Nova Scotia had a gas shortage that caused many delays, 90-minute wait times at the pumps and other interruptions to people’s daily lives. Can you imagine not being able to refill your gas for several days? Unable to rely on the transportation system either, how would you get to the doctor’s office for an appointment? I live out in cabin country and rely on being able to commute to the St. John’s for work.

Events like these remind us of our need to be as self-reliant as possible. They should prompt us to think critically and consider the possibilities of what could happen. It can seem overwhelming, though — where do you start?

We started with gradual steps, to be more self-sufficient without changing our lives too drastically, too fast.

“Put legs on your dreams.” – Ella McBride (my husband Steve’s grandma)

Set a few self-sufficiency dreams/goals for yourself, both short and long term. Allow them to be fluid because things don’t always work out the way you want them to. If you are pliable enough to bend with the situation, the outcome is usually a lot more positive.

Our very first goal was the lofty concept of ‘getting out’. We had no idea how to go about it at first — all we knew was a young, married couple had few choices in Vancouver, no future. The real estate market was out of control, the cost of living was rising, and our wages would never allow for the next stage for us — owning a home.

In 2008 we decided to ‘put legs on our dreams’ and move across Canada to St. John’s. That decision would set the foundation for our future.

Raised bed vegetable gardens and easy to build and great way to build self-sufficiency. Photo by Lisa McBride.
Raised bed vegetable gardens and easy to build and great way to build self-sufficiency. Photo by Lisa McBride.

Living in Newfoundland has inspired us. We developed passions we never knew we had. It started simple, through picking blueberries and learning about local foods we could forage, and edible ‘weeds’ we could harvest, such as the dandelion.

The more we learned about local food, the more we wanted hands-on involvement in our own food production and consumption.

We decided to raise some backyard ducks for eggs, and when milk prices continued to rise we decided to get goats for dairy.

In seven years we have gone from living in large, busy city to maintaining our own homestead on an acre of land in cabin country.

Our plans would have never been successful if we hadn’t taken a lot of small steps first.

Getting started

I often hear people say, “sometimes I wish I could just forget all this and move out to a little cabin in the middle of nowhere.”

Well, that’s just not realistic for most people. And, quite frankly, if you gave everything up all at once you would probably go into shock. It needs to be a gradual process. Start with the small things first. For example, learn how to cook from scratch at home.

Cooking and baking from scratch in your own kitchen has many benefits. It reduces your grocery bill by reducing the number of prepared—and often processed—food items you buy.

Purchasing things like flour or sugar in bulk helps you save money. Meal planning can be a great way to reduce money spent on groceries too. Making of your own bread each week is very rewarding and delicious, for instance. You can start out by using a bread machine if doing it by hand is intimidating. I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with different ‘gourmet’ recipes such as pretzel buns, sourdough and Italian ciabatta.

Make your own treats such as banana bread, cookies, scones or cinnamon rolls to reduce the amount of money you spend on sweets and packaged foods. Give yourself the empowerment to know exactly what goes into your own food, helping to keep your body as healthy as possible.

Creating your own meals from scratch helps to reduce kitchen waste by making us aware of the time and effort it takes to make something, and it gives us an appreciation we don’t have for store-bought. Add in your own homegrown vegetables or foraged fruit, and I guarantee you won’t be wasting a thing!

Golden raspberry jam. Photo by Lisa McBride.
Golden raspberry jam. Photo by Lisa McBride.

Baking and creating meals can be a rewarding experience that brings people together. In the event of a power failure you might just have a recipe or two you can whip together from scratch. During DarkNL we made pea soup and hot chocolate on the woodstove for our friends and neighbors.

After Hurricane Igor, the grocery stores did not have much fresh produce available, and that heightened our awareness of the importance of growing and foraging for food. To learn about foraging for your own food, I recommend having some foraging books on hand, like Peter J. Scott’s Edible Plants of Newfoundland and Labrador. Fruit such as blueberries, cranberries and raspberries can be easily identified and gathered for the year; it can be preserved by making syrups, canning, freezing, dehydrating, pickling and jamming.

With growing, we originally started off small by growing vegetables like beets, carrots, lettuce and mustard, in containers. We didn’t have much space at the time, but having access to fresh food was important to us. We did container gardening on our roof top and the unused half of our driveway — edible plants were tucked into every sunny spot we could find. Now we have 16 4×4 raised garden beds and a greenhouse that produce a large amount of food for both us and our animals. Veggies can also be grown and saved for the year by using cold storage such as a root cellar or by blanching, freezing, canning, dehydrating and pickling.

Collect useful skills and information

Gather as many useful skills as you can to become as practical as you can be. Learn how to reuse and how to repair broken items. Teach yourself a skill such as knitting, sewing or crocheting. Learn how to do simple repairs to ensure your clothes last longer, such as fixing a button, or sewing a patch. Be creative and repurpose unwanted indoor furniture, like making a garden bed out of an old single bed box frame.

Learn how to fish for your own food, and how to hunt for wild game. Skills such as how to butcher meat, or how to tan leather can be useful as well.

Teach yourself basic outdoor survival skills, such as how to start a fire to keep warm or where and how to locate fresh water. Learn as much basic first-aid as you can; how would you treat an injury if you could not access a health professional? Have basic first-aid supplies on hand and begin learning what plants around you can be used medicinally. Understanding how to make natural medicinal salves and tinctures can be beneficial but must be done exercising proper due diligence. It’s also a good idea to always hike with a guidebook on hand so that you can learn to properly identify and safely harvest plants.

Making your own soaps, massage oils, bathroom products such as toothpaste, and cleaning supplies like apple cider vinegar, for instance, which can be a great step toward self-sufficiency. All of these easy-to-make products eliminate the need to buy commercial products and are often much better for the environment.

Become self-entertaining

Take a good hard look at the modern day conveniences around you ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” Or, “Could I benefit from going without this?”

Do you really need both a landline and a cell phone? We decided that cable TV wasn’t something we needed in our household, however Internet access was something we could not do without.

Photo (and drawing) of Clementine the duck by Lisa McBride.
Photo (and drawing) of Clementine the duck by Lisa McBride.

Another example of a modern day convenience we decided we no longer needed was the microwave. Since we were making so much fresh, delicious food at home we were just no longer using it. Something as simple as setting up a clothesline can be of immense cost savings and benefit. Besides, who doesn’t just love the smell of fresh clothes off the line?

What would you do if you could not access technology? Many people feel lost without their electronic devices to keep them company. Having the ability to keep yourself and family entertained is priceless. Playing an instrument or singing can help keep you entertained for hours at a time, as can telling stories or playing cards.

Reading is a wonderful way to pass the time, especially while cozying up on a cold day by the woodstove. Basket weaving and wood carving and basic carpentry are other great skills to learn, leaving you with hand-crafted artisanal products to barter with.

Painting and drawing are good creative outlets too. I personally enjoy picking homestead subjects to draw, such as our goats and ducks. Our pets provide us with countless hours of entertainment and enjoyment. Who ever heard of a goat being able to shake a hoof? That’s my Maple! Or two goats falling head over hooves in love — that’s my Goldie and Cornelius. Ducks who jump for grapes? Daily life on the homestead holds so much excitement and so many stories; I find I never even miss things I used to think were indispensable, like cable TV.

Know your neighbours

Get to know your neighbors, as many opportunities come from sense of community. Visit the farmer’s market, buy from local businesses and go to some of the various community workshops that pique your interest. You’ll meet a lot of great people along the way who are interested in various aspects of self-sufficiency, people who have years of previous experience and who are a wealth of knowledge to tap.

Learn how to use the barter economy, trade surplus produce or crafts for items you have not yet learned to make or for skills you wish to have.

Joining a local community garden is a great way to start growing food, but if you can’t dedicate the time to a community garden just yet, don’t fret. There are many local online groups to aid you along your journey of self-sufficiency: Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL, Backyard Vegetable Farmers NL, Local Produce Buy-Sell-Trade — St. John’s Area, Root Cellars rock, and many more.

Each step toward self-sufficiency is empowering, and a reward unto itself. Take enough of these small steps and you might just end up on a journey!


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