This week, Garden Growers Australia caught up with Andrew Horsfall – a semi-retired, casual academic at Western Sydney University, about his experience living off the grid. Andrew lived off the grid with his wife and two kids on a small organic farm on the western fringes of the Blue Mountains, NSW for 14 years, up until 5 years ago. Burnt out from a corporate life, Andrew became very interested in permaculture and off grid living which prompted the move to the farm. While Andrew and his family no longer live at the farm or completely off the grid, they still grow some of their own food and use a hybrid solar system.
Can you describe what ‘off the grid’ living is?
It’s being self-sufficient (for us anyway) in elements such as water, electricity, and to grow as much food as possible. We collected our own water, primarily off the roof. We had an off grid solar and battery system, we didn’t have any wind, and we grew about 70% of our own food. The only thing that we were connected to was telephone and internet and we used to buy in gas bottles. Other than that, we were mostly off grid.
What were the main drivers for you and your family to switch to off grid living?
It was a long time ago… It was a combination of things really – I was working in a corporate job and I got tired of that, it became a little bit meaningless. I became very interested and did a lot of reading about permaculture and off grid living. Meanwhile, our eldest child was really struggling at school. All of these things came together to actually start to explore whether we’d be interested living off the grid and growing our own food. We also started home schooling as well so the kids left school and I home schooled them.
What were some of the challenges that you and your family experienced living off the grid? And how easy was it to adapt to them?
For us, it wasn’t the easiest thing to do. For a start, the place that we bought was really off grid. It didn’t even have any solar. The previous owners used car batteries to light a few lights. So, we had to install the systems, they didn’t really collect a great deal of water, and the place had a few edible plants but not many. Back then, even though I’d done a lot of reading, I wasn’t really an avid gardener – my knowledge of gardening was pretty basic and rudimentary. So, a combination of having to get the power on relatively quickly, certainly get better water collecting storage and infrastructure, and starting the home schooling and the growing. All of those things certainly made for a 7-day week, 10-12 hour day for quite a few years.
What were some of the positive experiences?
I think you start to get a real connection to where your food comes from. The fact that growing most of your food yourself (as we’re vegetarians) in an environment that’s not particularly rain conducive – it’s pretty low out there – being able to overcome those challenges is one thing, but I also think having a really deep appreciation of food and where it comes from and what you have to do to be able to plant it from scratch, keep it alive, and then process it in to regular Monday through Sunday meals became a really great achievement. Given the fact that I came off a very low base in terms of plant knowledge. I could cook, but I certainly hadn’t planted much before. And I think you also get a sense of ecological independence. When the thunder storms used to come through and all the lights around us used to go off, our lights didn’t go off because we were self-sufficient. There’s something about self sufficiency that really gives you something deep and meaningful about your sense of purpose.
Run me through your garden; what did you grow? Did you have livestock? And what percentage of food was grown vs. bought?
70% was grown, 30% bought – the only livestock we had were chickens. We had chickens for a number of reasons; we ate the eggs, we also used them for, what they call ‘tractoring’ in the various beds, and they also provided manure for the compost and various other places. So, they were an integral part of the system. We used to grow everything from potatoes, asparagus, broad beans to herbs, fruit, we had an orchard – apples, pears, cherries. We didn’t grow coffee as its not a suitable climate for that, and we didn’t produce our own diary. We owned 25 acres, but only put in to production probably about 3 acres of that. Within those 25 acres, we used to produce a fair amount of our own firewood. The land was very degraded so we also planted close to 10,000 trees over the period of 14 years.
You mentioned that you’re no longer living off the grid, why is that?
When we first moved to the farm, it was never connected to the grid – so the decision was relatively easy. We did want to live off grid, but to actually get connected to the grid was going to be ridiculously expensive. However, when you are off grid, any excess power gets wasted – it doesn’t go anywhere.
At our current house, and with the system that we’ve got now (a hybrid solar system), when we have any excess power – it gets fed back to the grid, and therefore becomes a more efficient way of using existing infrastructure that is already available to the house. That’s the reason.
What advice would you give to anyone considering living off the grid?
I’m not sure that I want to give any advice [chuckles]. I certainly don’t think it’s something you would do lightly. A lot depends on your personality and your circumstances. Looking back, I underestimated how hard it would be to control the various elements of food growing, particularly pest control, climate, water management. We went through probably 6-7 years of drought which made life quite difficult. So, if people are going to go off grid I think they should choose, if they are relocating, a particular place that is conducive to growing, and also conducive socially to off grid living. I think it’s more accepted now, but back then we were seen as quite odd within the community – being off grid, growing your own food, being organic. I think you’ve got to match the social elements with the physical and environmental elements if that makes any sense.
And I don’t think its something that can be done to that extent if you / and your family are working full time. I think it’s a lot easier now anyway – you could probably go off grid even in more of a suburban setting, you could certainly go off grid from an electricity perspective.
But again, I have certain issues with literally going off grid, as I said earlier, if you are generating electricity – there are times, regardless of what your system is, you’re going to be generating excess, and if you’re already connected to the grid, there are means now where you can use that system and feed back in to the grid which means that excess gets used by someone else. I think its more environmentally sound to do that. I think a hybrid system is probably the better way to go than completely off grid.