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Low-Cost Steps to Self-Sufficiency, Part 2: Start With The Basics

bag of oats

As I wrote in my previous article, it is possible live in a more self-sufficient and sustainable way without spending much money. You will require some basic skills and resources, but it is possible to pick up necessary skills without shelling out a lot of money or subjecting yourself to a standardized curriculum. Today we’ll look at low-cost, low-waste ways of getting access to some of the physical resources we need.

Food is a good one to start with. Most Americans are now fed by a wildly unsustainable system that uses ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy, all while shipping most food items more than 1,500 miles. This doesn’t make for good eating, or soil health, or resilience in case of economic disruption. It’s important, and fairly simple, to start taking control over our food supply.

There’s an inexpensive way of keeping a food surplus even if you don’t have access to land. Find a wholesale store, a buying co-op, or (best of all) a local farmer who sells beans and grains in twenty-five or fifty-pound bags. Buy and use these regularly, and buy a little more than you think you’ll use up before your next order comes in. This will save money on your regular grocery bill, get you in the habit of cooking from scratch with whole ingredients, and provide you with a constantly fresh surplus of staple foods. You’ll need tightly sealed containers to keep mice and mealy worms out of your staples; I use clean garbage cans with tight-fitting lids. Store food in a cool dry place. Our unheated pantry keeps staples fresh even in hot summer weather, though during July and August we don’t buy flour very far ahead because it is more likely than beans and whole grains to spoil after a couple of months.

Of course it’s more efficient and more satisfying to grow and gather your own food.  For this you need access to land. You may need less than you’d think. My 250′ x 50′ vegetable garden provides all the fresh summer vegetables and most of the stored winter vegetables for my family of three. During the summer we also have plenty of produce to send to a neighboring soup kitchen. Our garden is laid out in permanent beds and paths. This is much more space-efficient than standard row cropping, since one three-foot bed will hold two rows of tomatoes or broccoli, three rows of peppers or six rows of carrots or garlic. If we were pressed for space, we could narrow or eliminate at least some of the paths and use strategically placed stepping-stones.  Square-foot gardening works well for small patches.

Discover the secrets to successful food storage…

If you don’t have land of your own, think about how you could access public land.  Many cities offer plots in community gardens.  Some permit gardening in vacant lots (though it’s wise to get the soil tested in case the site’s previous user left toxins behind). CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms provide subscribers with fresh local produce throughout the growing season; the up-front subscription fee may not fit a limited budget, but many CSAs offer “working shares” in which some or all the subscription fee is paid off by your labor. This gives you a chance to learn gardening techniques as well while getting affordable local food. Look for opportunities to collaborate with neighbors. I know a pair of “garden buddies”: one has a yard with space for gardening and money enough for seeds and soil amendments, but can’t keep up with garden work because of severe health problems; the other lives in a yardless apartment but has energy and working knees. They plan the garden together and share the produce.

This kind of land sharing can work for livestock as well as gardens. Last year someone approached us about grazing sheep on a portion of our hayfield; she was used to running sheep on other people’s land, moving them frequently through small paddocks in a way that promoted legumes and other desirable plants and spread manure evenly over the fields. We were interested in her offer, but she found another landowner closer to home. I have a friend who keeps goats. She has enough land for a barn and exercise yard, but not enough for pasture, so every evening she takes her herd out to graze on the brush and long grass along the sides of a nearby public bicycle trail. (If you want to try this, check first to see whether grazing is a permitted use, and make sure no herbicide is being sprayed.)

You can harvest wild food even if you don’t have land. Rights-of-way for fishing are usually clearly established, and hunting on other people’s land is a familiar practice. It’s also worthwhile to learn local wild edible and medicinal plants. You can’t pick these from state parks, but some other kinds of public land allow visitors to gather fruit or herbs. Private landowners may allow this as well. I used to cut quantities of wild mint from a neighbor’s horse pasture, after checking with the neighbor to make sure that neither he nor his horses wanted the plants. You may find some edibles growing on roadsides. Some people say to avoid eating these plants because they’re exposed to high levels of salts and assorted toxins from the road. This is a judgment call. Our road is sanded, not salted, and gets very little traffic, so we don’t worry too much; we ate a giant puffball growing near the shoulder and suffered no ill effects. Make sure that you know which wild edibles have toxic look-alikes. My region is home to many types of edible mushrooms, but I stick to harvesting the four kinds that are just about impossible to mistake for anything dangerous.

Our country’s transportation system, like our food system, is fossil-fuel-driven, unsustainable and unhealthy. There are a few basic things we can do to increase self-reliance in this area. One is to produce more of what we need and want at home or in the neighborhood so that we don’t have to drive to get income, food, fuel, amusement, or social time. Another is to cultivate the habit of using human-powered transportation as much as possible.  Walking costs nothing, improves your health, and gives you a chance to notice and visit with your neighbors. Bicycling offers the same benefits, plus greater speed and effective distance, at very little cost. Decent bicycles are often available at garage sales or even in some junkyards; we’ve also had people donate bikes to us. Panniers for hauling groceries are easy to make from cheap or free materials (Google “make your own bike panniers” for a plethora of designs). If you bicycle regularly, you’ll want to learn some basic repair skills. A heavy-duty cargo tricycle, with major hauling capacity, real brakes, and good gear ratios requires a more serious investment, both of money and of energy, but ours carries up to 500 pounds effectively and has been a very economical replacement for our pickup truck, as it uses no gas and does not require registration or insurance.

Shelter, heat, and energy are also basic needs, but meeting them sustainably may be a more challenging process. There are plenty of techniques out there for energy-efficient homes, such as passive solar design, micro-houses, earth-sheltered construction, and super-insulated buildings. If you’re buying your own land and building a house, it makes sense to research these designs, which will save a great deal of money and energy in the long run. Many of us don’t have the luxury of a fresh start, and the buildings we inhabit may not have been designed with maximum energy efficiency in mind. Insulating these buildings better can be a hassle, but it often isn’t prohibitively expensive if you’re willing to do the work yourself, and it makes a great difference to your present fuel costs and your eventual ability to heat (and, in warmer climates, cool) the home sustainably.

This might just be the most comprehensive guide to back to basics living ever published…

Sustainable heat and energy sources vary considerably depending on your location.  Here in the Northeast, wood is plentiful and easily available; we’re able to heat our building and our hot water with wood from blow-downs and dying trees in our woodlot. Solar heating, both passive and active, works especially well in areas where cold days tend to be clear; here in the lake effect belt where the winters are cloudy, it’s not so effective.  Wind power obviously makes sense in flat regions like the Plains; in rougher terrain, it’s helpful to consult a wind map, as wind speeds may vary greatly over a span of a few miles. Do some research, pay attention to your neighbors, and see what seems to work in your area. Do your research thoroughly and perhaps build up your savings using the techniques described elsewhere in this article before switching to a new energy source.

Of course, there are a few basic energy-saving things you can do for little or no money. Dry clothes on a line in summer and on racks indoors in winter. Preheat water in a black tube coil on your roof or a black tank inside a sunny window. If summers are hot in your area, plant annual vines that will grow in front of your south-facing windows and shade the house in summer, but will die back and let the warmth and light through in winter.

You’ll also need some basic tools and supplies—digging forks, shovels, hammers, saws, axes, canning jars, books, seeds, plants, etc. Some tools can be borrowed from neighbors, especially if you’re reliable about returning what you’ve borrowed promptly and in good condition (it can also help if you’re also willing to lend your own tools to responsible borrowers).  Some things can be obtained free if you’re willing to ask. Ten years ago, my family put word out on the local grapevine that we wanted canning jars, and the donations poured in until we had to ask people to stop. Lately we’ve had a couple of neighbors start to take an interest in canning, and we’ve been able to pass on our surplus. Bicycles and bike parts, yarn and fabric scraps have come in the same way. We’ve also gotten assorted useful goods from the roadside. An intact dog carrier that also worked for piglets and some derelict furniture with useful hardware were put out by the curb for trash pick-up. Bolt cutters, a sledgehammer, and a pair of worn but sturdy sandals were found lying by the road far from any houses. When my brother was making harps and wanted tuning pins, he saw a derelict piano sitting by the side of the road. He inquired at nearby houses until he found the owner, who said, “Oh, I never got to pushing that all the way down over the bank… sure, take any parts you want.” The wooden parts of the piano were rotten, but the metal pins were intact. and offer more organized ways to obtain and share free stuff.  (Freecycle deals with all sorts of goods; it is open-ended, and you can take anything offered without having to offer anything. Paperbackswap is for books only and requires you to send books to others in order to obtain credits to get books. Freecycle is local; Paperbackswap international.)

Good-quality older tools and equipment are often available cheaply at auctions and garage sales. For these things, newer is not always better! You can save yourself a great deal of money if you are willing to wait a little while and keep an eye out for what you want.

Most of us know people who compulsively hoard junk in the hopes that it will be useful someday. Beware of this tendency in yourself. Remember not to clutter up your time and space with things you don’t really want or know how to use simply because they’re free or cheap.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I expect many of you are thinking of obvious steps toward self-reliance that I’ve left out. The important thing is to stop worrying about what you can’t afford, start thinking about what you can do, enjoy your experiments, and always keep paying attention.

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