A Story of Self Sufficiency

By Elaine Reeves

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Tasmania’s population growth is fed by people who come here on holiday and like the look of the place, like the temperature, like the price of real estate and, often enough, like the prospect of growing their own food and being self-sufficient.

Self-sufficiency is a big goal, seldom achieved, but Sharee McCammon and Graeme McCormack (“they call us the Macs”) have nailed it. They have a property of little more than 1.5 hectares that provides 90 per cent of what they eat – and they and their two young-adult sons are not vegetarians.

The couple knew zilch about providing their own food when they moved here from inner Sydney in the early 1990s. But then they were not aiming that high.

“We did not have a plan,” said Sharee.

“It just got bigger and bigger. We winged it.”

They both work part time at the University of Tasmania, a 40-minute commute from their home in the Pelverata Valley between Huonville and Cygnet. Sharee is the gardener and Graeme sees to building (including the house itself), fencing and firewood. She grows three different types of garlic, because they keep differently, about four different beans, several different beetroot and swedes, turnips, kohlrabi, sugar beet, celery, leeks, onions, shallots, asparagus, zucchini, tomatoes, capsicum and chillies.

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At the end of summer she will freeze 10kg of corn kernels and harvest basil by the 20kg bucket to be frozen for pesto. About 100 pumpkins are needed for a year-round supply. And here’s a garden tip: never plant more than one cucumber says Sharee, tired of picking more than a dozen a week. There are apple, pear, quince, plum, nectarine and peach trees; berries, melons and nuts. With friends they buy a couple of young pigs a year and fatten them up.  

“They can do the tractoring and dig up bracken to get a new garden ready,” said Sharee.  

They are killed, at home at 10-12 months old, when the meat has good flavour.

“Eating your own meat is not easy, it’s so psychologically challenging,” said Sharee.

“You really appreciate your meat when you have processed it yourself, and it’s the only way you can be sure it has had a good life.”

The family eats meat a couple of times a week on average, but it fluctuates.  

“Just after we have killed a pig we have roast pork a lot,” said Sharee, perhaps accompanied by King Edward potatoes cooked in lard.

They keep between eight and 50 chooks, mostly for eggs.  

“Rabbits are a much more efficient way of getting meat for us – we do not have to buy grains for them, they live off garden scraps,” she said.

And there are goats for milk – much more practical than a cow because they will fit in the back of a car when they need to be taken to the buck to mate. Sharee makes about 80 cheeses a year, which she matures in a “cellar” underneath the kitchen floor.

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In her day job she manages a laboratory that uses research mice. The mice are transported in wide shallow plastic boxes. Sharee uses these to contain her maturing cheese.

“I thought, if they keep mice in, they would also keep mice out,” she said.

They also have two donkeys on the property, whose purpose is to provide “a bit of frivolity”.

“I think lots of people are doing this around the place, although not everyone does it with the animals. You realise that’s why peasants lived like that – all the waste gets used to feed an animal and then the manure comes back to the garden. I just love the circularity of it all.

“There’s so much more to it than just growing the food; it’s how do you preserve it, what do you plan, how do you keep the wasps out, all sorts of things.”

Spring famine – when the winter crops are done and the summer ones are yet to start – is her biggest challenge, and the time when the pantry and freezers come into play. It’s not good to run out of onions, you can have too much plum jam and Sharee “feels a bit of a failure” if she has to buy potatoes because her own crop has not covered the whole year.

“It’s a whole mindshift – sometimes it’s an exercise in not beating yourself up!”

And you need a great deal of storage when you grow your own food. The walk-in pantry is completely lined with galvanised iron.  On its shelves are sauces alphabetised according to category, preserves, jams, chutneys, packets of foods from the solar-powered dehydrator, onions and pumpkins and galvanised tin bins for the couple of items Sharee does shop for – flour and rice.

This article is from A Table In The Valley, food stories and recipes from Tasmania’s Huon Valley, written by Elaine Reeves, recipes by Steve Cumper, and photography by Paul County and Nick Osborne. Available at good book stores from November.