Like all foodie urban dwellers, I had fantasized for many years of living the life of a self-sufficient peasant. Of course, thinking about the possibilities soberly, I knew that I didn’t want to be imprisoned by poverty, that I didn’t want the monotony of life that true peasant toil brings and, mostly, I didn’t want my existence to be threatened by the failure of one crop or another. So no true, and hence unromantic, peasant living for me. But what about a smallholder with a private income? Now that’s an attractive proposition.
In my early 40’s after the adventure of the restaurants in London, we emigrated to rural South Africa and bought a smallholding. Well it was more a tract of virgin, indigenous forest with a smallholding attached. Our kids were 6 and 11 and emigration was quite a change from urbane West London.
We had a large established garden with plenty of fruit trees and the bones of an erstwhile vegie patch. There was grazing aplenty and space, space, space. I had dreams of self-sufficiency in fruit and vegetables, goats, sheep, pigs and chickens. Well they all came true plus a herd of about forty beautiful local cows – the Nguni breed. But it came about by lurching from accident to mistake to disaster and back. The neighbouring farmers could have been less helpful, but that would have difficult. So for advice I turned to the local, non-landowning folk, some of whose practices, I found somewhat eccentric. Apart from the obvious fact that we couldn’t understand each other, even if we had spoken the same language.
I started trying to plant onions by putting seeds in an unprepared bed and assuming the sporadic rainfall would do the rest. Needless to say nothing happened. But I got some gentle and not so gentle coaching from a Zulu gardener, John Seymour’s books (the granddaddy of the UK self-sufficiency movement) and a retired environmentalist neighbour. In the modern city, one calls in skills – at least I did. Be it a plumber, roofer etc. To have to discover these things oneself is either a source of serious frustration or great pleasure, or, more likely, both.
So the first thing I learnt is that nothing happens without a compost heap – and not just a heap but a creation of an environment where rotting can be controlled and accelerated. Next came serious watering and some laid down irrigation. Then some collecting of some cast off planks and terracing in our sloping vegetable garden. I had never even hung a shelf in my life and here I was with chainsaw, nails and stakes. I even learnt the difference between a spade and a shovel. And found that the difference is as marked as that between a fillet sole and a paring knife. It was going well. Of course, I started with the quick and easy stuff – lettuces, spinach and herbs. Then came the root vegetables. Always a bit anxious making as you can’t see what’s going on under the ground. Often half the crop would be wasted by my preliminary investigations. Mary, Mary you should have seen how my garden grew. Asparagus, artichokes galore, soft fruit, stone fruit, potatoes for months (not quite 12, but hey). So what next? Eggs.
Let’s get some layers. The local farm and pet shop, staffed by the caste of Deliverance, sold all sorts of useful animals – not just those of the stroking variety. Off we went and got four Rhode Island reds (big red egg laying chickens to you and me). ‘Give them six weeks and they’ll start laying one a day’. Sounds easy.
Two and a half months later, two chickens and an egg a week - sometimes. Back to the shop. ‘What are you feeding them?’ ‘What sort of housing do you have for them?’ Food, housing? Don’t they just peck and forage around the place and sort themselves out at night? What, gymnogenes, civets, servals, adders? What nature of unspeakable, wild and crepuscular creatures are these? Just part of the hugely rich and interesting place in which we had chosen to live. So a small hen house was built and I discovered the feed shop where I could buy some boffins’ mix that enabled our thoroughbreds to lay an egg a day each. I still wonder what exactly goes into those feeds.
Good eggs and happy chickens. Your first herb omelette with baby potatoes and salad from your garden is a moment of joy. Of course it’s also a moment of deep self-deception as the butter, the wheat for the bread, the oil, the salt and the bottle of wine are from elsewhere. Nevertheless, we all live for those very moments and there are times when the cynic should be left in his cellar.
Good eggs and happy hens. But these were chickens bred for laying and after two or three years of laying, even I knew that they weren’t going to make the Sunday roast. So let’s get some meat chickens. These are a completely different breed, stupid and dull beyond belief and ready after only seven weeks. So off I went to get twenty day old chicks. Pretty little yellow things. They had a cozy, straw covered secure (I thought) dedicated hut. I was a proud farmer in my gun boots, muddy jeans and pitchfork. They next day I rose to inspect the overnight growth of these wonders. Well I should say ten had died of cold and another eight of being smothered. At night, they climb on top of each other to keep warm and smother their fellows with complete compunction. Of course, incubator lights. So now I was running electrical cords through the garden, installing incubator lights, gathering more straw. Another twenty to add to the hardy two and…………
Yes, the next day there were still twenty-two. I was yet to deal with the determination of jackals and the athleticism of the caracal. Nevertheless, we raised brood after brood of these animals and got to fifty chicks a time and losing only about five. Of course, it took much longer than seven weeks to raise them as I wanted them larger and to grow slower. I was raising them for taste, not profit. Slaughtering them (which we did ourselves) was never much fun but one can become inured quite rapidly. It helped that I never developed the affection for them as I did for our layers.
To be continued.