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I have always been interested in the idea of living a self sufficiency as a way of life. When I was growing up, we were lucky enough to have enough room to grow all our own fruit, vegetables and herbs and we also kept chickens. I would like to do the same thing myself but as I have only an allotment and no garden of my own I have to rein in some of my ambitions for the moment. Whilst saving up for a smallholding, I am keen to relevant read books as well as gain the experience I need to make a success of the place when I do get it. That is the reason I bought A & G Bridewater's book "The Self Sufficiency Specialist."
THE BOOK ITSELF
The book isn't the longest one I have read on the subject, but it is one of the more interesting. There is only 80 pages but this no doubt helps to keep the price down to a very reasonable £4.99. I have been given or have read large hard back books on similiar subjects that cost £25 or £30 and yet contain scarely any more information. The space tends to be filled with photo spreads which while looking attractive are not necessarily of much practical help. That isn't to say this book doesn't have plenty of illustrations, but they some more in balance with the amount of text than in other examples. Most of the pictures are drawings rather than photographs although the latter does feature. The well labelled diagrams that accompany the explanations of alternative fuel and water storage systems have been especially useful to me because they make the text much clearer. Overall, the book has an attractive and uncluttered layout which makes it easy to read, and dip in and out of.
The front cover of the book lists 16 aspects of self sufficient living covered in the book ranging from growing organic crops and keeping livestock, to off-grid power and water supplies. Before dealing with these areas individually, there is a general introduction to the subject. This explains the different approaches that could lead to the same goal. For example, you could either go all out and sell your home, give up your job and buy a full time smallholding, or you could chose to live in a town, hire an allotment, and install solar panels on your roof. Or you could farm your land in a partnership with others. Obviously, not all approaches will lead to 100% food and energy self reliance, but without endless time, money and land, most of us will probably end up making some compromises. I found this part gave me a surprising amount of food for thought. I had not thought of the possibility of hiring a smallholding or even someone's garden as opposed to buying land. I am not sure why, as in hindsight it seems quite obvious! I worked through all the "questions to ask yourself" and I finished with a plan of action for both the short and long term that is quite different from the one that I started with. I am greatful for the book for allowing me to see solutions to many of the things that seemed to stand in my way, especially lack of space.
The remainder of the book deals with keeping livestock, raising bees, growing vegetables, "green" power and water systems, preserving your harvest, recycling waste and making candles and vegetarian soaps. Each one of these subjects is dealt with in a couple of pages each, so it is no surprise that the coverage is not in depth. I found the alternative power information interesting, but if and when I own my own home, I would not feel confident choosing a particular system over another based on the brief information given. As an introduction and as an inspiration, it's fine though, and it has helped me shortlist the areas that I most want to look into further. The same goes for the pages dealing with food production. There is nothing here that isn't in the books I already have on vegetable and fruit growing, and no detailed information on what to sow or plant when for example. I would not be able to use it as a stand alone guide to help me with my allotment crops, but I do think it gives a realistic idea of the sort of effort involved with vegetable growing. As a vegetarian, the keeping of animals for food does not feature on my "to-do" list. I suspect that, again, the pages dealing with livestock would be best used as an introduction for beginners, as I know from a family member that kept sheep that there is a lot more to caring for them than can be covered in 2 pages. The part on preserving has not been especially useful for me as it contains few recipes, and those that are there are standard ones that I already know such as apple and blackberry jam. The basic jam and chutney making methods given though are very adaptable, and I have page marked them to use as a base recipe come preserving time.
WOULD I RECOMMEND IT?
If you already have some experience in keeping animals and growing crops, you may think from the use of the word "specialist" in the books title that this would give you some useful extra tips. I doubt whether this would be the case given the brevity of each section. For a beginner such as myself, in the planning stage, the book has proved to be a useful overview of things to consider and different approaches to the same problem. I have read it more than just the once and I will keep it as a reference title to look at as my plans progress. The glossary will also prove helpful in this. So I recommend it for beginners, but not the more experienced, and I would not suggest it as a replacement for a specialist book in any of the subject areas you are really interested in. For £4.99, it represents great value.
As the country's economic belt continues to tighten, more and more of people are switching on to the fact that growing our own fruit and veg has plenty of benefits other than the obvious fact that it can help cut down on the family shopping bill.
However, complete self sufficiency is a goal only to be found a few steps higher up the lifestyle ladder than simply planting a few seed potatoes in an old dustbin every Easter. This book, 'The Self Sufficiency Specialist' is part of the 'specialist series' published by New Holland that will give you a metaphorical leg up that ladder.
I must say though that I think the word 'specialist' in the title is slightly misleading - if this book was written at specialist level then it would cover each subtopic under the umbrella of self sufficiency in far more detail than the two or three sides per subject it offers us. Perhaps a title like 'The beginners' guide to self sufficiency' would be more appropriate - this book is very good at introducing a facet of the self sufficient lifestyle to the reader, giving just enough information to whet our appetite and leave us hungry to find out more. This is because the book is presented in a way that encourages enthusiasm from the aspiring Tom Good and has a good mix of informative text blended with informative illustrations.
After a foreword by the author which sets out his ethos for righting the various wrongs that have been done to our planet, the book is then split into four chapters which are: Getting Started, The Self Sufficient Set-up, Keeping Animals and Using Your Produce. As stated above, within these chapters are a couple of sides dedicated to each sub topic.
I will cover in more detail each of the book's four chapters below:
Chapter One - Getting Started
The question is asked of us "What is self sufficiency?" and the author then gives us his definition. This definition serves to set out the contents for the remaining topics in the book - namely lifestyle choices, food production, energy use and animal requirements.
The benefits of a self sufficient lifestyle are outlined in this chapter, such as energy savings (both in our pockets and reductions in fossil fuel usage), the repair to the environment that self sufficiency promotes, the advantages of organically produced food over mass produced chemical soaked crops, and also the more personal benefits of a self sufficient lifestyle are mentioned. Trying to live in a self sufficient way does have many benefits to the person, but perhaps the most noticeable will be the small fortune you could save by cancelling your gym membership and instead spending nothing but the time it takes to dig over some or all of your garden to enable the growing of your own edible greens.
The author acknowledges that people who wish to pursue his dream lifestyle will be coming from different backgrounds and that it may not be possible for a city dweller to keep chickens due to space or local council restrictions. For balance, he offers plenty of suggestions in this chapter which allow a compromise - if your garden isn't as big in terms of space as Man City's wage bill is in terms of cash, then look into local allotment availability by contacting your local council instead.
Chapter Two - The Self Sufficient Set-up
Following on from the author's recognition in chapter one that not everyone lives in a countryside four acre small holding, he explores the differing options for changes that can be made to varying house types - including town houses, apartment blocks, village cottages and of course small holdings. These changes are explained in the text and backed up excellently with informative drawings, all of which are festooned with explanatory labels.
Each type of dwelling also has a self sufficiency checklist that asks important questions specific to that type of house - for example in a town house or apartment with access to a shared garden the author suggests that we speak to our neighbours and find out if they are happy with the sound of chickens clucking in our back yards, which are probably only separated by a wall or fence. I found these checklists to be a useful way of making sure I'm not overlooking anything in my personal journey towards self sufficiency.
This chapter also covers energy use and alternative energy sources. The different types of water sources available are covered as are alternative electricity sources such as solar and wind powered options. Also, solar powered water heating has a dedicated couple of pages along with other types of home heating including trombe walls and geothermal heating. The solar powered water heater is quite a cost effective option - you don't need much more than piping, an old radiator and some wood to make the supports and a frame.
Not all of the options given are easily affordable, although the author doesn't seem to force these options on us in a 'you must buy, you will spend' way - instead he gives us the available choices with their pros and cons which allows us to find a happy medium that suits our circumstances best.
Chapter Three - Keeping Animals
The more obvious choices of chickens and bees are included in this chapter, as are geese, goats and pigs to name a few. Each animal's dedicated few pages give important advice about species related health issues, choosing a breed, housing options, feeding requirements and general care. All the animals covered in the book can be eaten as meat when their productivity for milk / eggs etc has ended (with the exception of bees - unless you are a bit odd), but the author doesn't go into any detail about dispatch methods, dressing, evisceration, butchery etc. Instead, he advises that in all instances we should make contact with a local society / association for expert advice. That is fair enough as animal slaughter related legislation can and does change which could render any information he might have offered as incorrect or even illegal. Also, keeping animals for carnivorous demands is an emotive subject, so I think that the author has taken the safe route by advising that people should contact experts before killing any of their livestock, thus ensuring the animal is killed in the correct and most humane manner.
Chapter Four - Using Your Produce
There are some very effective methods of food storage and preservation in this chapter - I regularly use several of the methods myself so can vouch for their effectiveness. For those who grow their own produce, food storage and preservation methods are in my opinion just as important as soil preparation and composting. Why go through all the hard work of nurturing a seedling into full fruition if those fruits of your labour don't get eaten straight away and rot after a week out of the soil due to be stored incorrectly?
There are some good tips and recipes for drying, jam and chutney making, smoking, beer / cider and wine making, and clamping. If you've not heard of clamping, I can personally vouch for its effectiveness for storing root vegetables as a small corner of my empire is set aside for my potato clamp. It's basically a pile of straw onto which your root vegetables it, then are covered with more straw which is then all covered in dry soil. For ventilation, there are bundles of straw poking through the soil walls at regular intervals. Clamps really do work in keeping the worst of the winter weather off our precious carrots and spuds and they ensure that we still have a supply of fresh veg long after the growing season has ended.
All ingredient measurements for recipes such as chutneys and wines are given in both metric and imperial which is useful, as are the pictures of pieces of equipment you may need for each of the various techniques.
Two of the preservation methods that the author gives in this chapter come from left field (not an intensively farmed field containing more chemicals than an Amy Winehouse urine sample!). These are making vegetarian soap and candle making. The soap making method recommends herbs are added to the mix, and that one of the ingredients for the candles could be our own beeswax. I can't offer much opinion on the soap and candle making methods as I've never tried them, but after looking at the methods several times I suspect that I would require more information before I made any attempt to try and make them - especially as hot wax can be dangerous and soap making requires sodium hydroxide which can also be dangerous if not handled properly.
At the back of the book is a glossary and index which no self respecting reference book should be without. I would have preferred to see a 'further reading' list and also contact details for various relevant organisations in the self sufficiency world, but the author could argue that he has omitted a further reading list to do his bit for tree conservation by saving the few trees that these extra pages would require!
Considering that self sufficiency is such a wide ranging subject, the author has made a very good attempt at trying to cover as many areas as possible in this book. However, for me to actually take this book and use it in the garden or around the house as a 'how to...' book would be difficult as there simply is not enough detail. However, this book is a good read prior to undertaking a self sufficiency makeover in you life - it gives a quick "heads up" prior to getting stuck in to a project (after researching in more detail from other sources first).
Taking into account its lack of detail, I award this book four out of five stars and would recommend it as an introductory eye-opener to those wishing to proceed down the manure smeared path of self sufficiency.
Author - A & G Bridgwater
Publisher - New Holland
RRP - £4.99