People & Culture

Out of the grocery store and onto the land

How this self-reliant duo has transformed their lives to forage completely off the land

  • Jan 13, 2023
  • 1,051 words
  • 5 minutes
A man and a woman stand in a forest holding a chicken. They are laughing and there are other chickens behind them.
This couple's motto is “we only eat what we catch, grow, harvest or raise." (Photo: Hans Tammemagi)
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Berries, beans, bull kelp bulbs. With a bounty like this, this B.C. couple has no need for a grocery store.

Stef Lowey and Chris Hall of Pender Island spent one year without purchasing a single morsel of food. Their entire diet for 2020 to 2021 — 100 per cent of it — came from their garden, raising chickens, pigs and other animals, and foraging from the land and sea.

Visiting their ocean-front property on north Pender Island in the southern Gulf Islands is like entering a botanical garden. More than 75 varieties of vegetables and fruits fill every nook, wedged between the trees that were already there. Starting in August 2020, the couple planted gardens in any available open space. They made a drip irrigation system from discarded hoses. Their chickens and turkeys provide rich compost. Every deck and walkway is lined with potted plants, several hundred in total. But it wasn’t always this way.

“It was a huge learning curve because neither Stef nor I have any farming background,” says Hall. “We gave away all of our packaged food, spurned alcohol, coffee, tea and soft drinks, and started to cultivate the 0.5-acre, ocean-front property.”

Initially it was constant work, Hall says, who inherited the property from his father. “We had to build fences, gardens and bird coops as well as experiment with different crops and meals. We had a few problems, as when a storm blew down our newly built greenhouse.”

A couple sit with their arms round eachother on their porch. They are smiling and there are rows of plants behind them.
“Not only are we closer to our friends and family, but we have developed an empathy for everything around us,” says Hall. (Photo: Hans Tammemagi)
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Today, they grow beets, bok choy, kale, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, rhubarb, lettuce, beans, potatoes, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. They pick walnuts and hazelnuts from nearby trees and they grow stevia to dry and grind as a natural sweetener. The hazelnuts are used to make milk, and coffee is made from dandelion roots. Salt is obtained by evaporating sea water.

“We’re experimenting constantly and it seems like every week we find something new to grow and eat,” says Lowey. “We’ve recently planted avocado and fig trees. Roasted dandelion roots make a not-bad coffee substitute, and our diet includes prawns, crabs, oysters, bull-kelp bulbs stuffed with minced pork, snack chips from dried bladderwrack and seaweed salads with sea asparagus sautéed with giant oyster mushrooms.”

In a fenced area that encloses 20 chickens, three turkeys and four ducks, Lowey fills a basket with eggs. In front of the house, a purple hive overlooks the Salish Sea, home to thousands of bees, which help to pollinate the couple’s plants. “And the honey is a great sweetener,” adds Hall.

A wooden staircase leads down to a boulder-strewn beach, adorned with seaweed. Barnacles, limpets and oysters cling to the rocks. Below the waves lurk fish, crabs and prawns. Lowey and Hall keep five pigs at a nearby farm; they cure the ham in ocean water.

Chickens, turkeys, ducks and quail provide not only eggs but their meat. Killing their first turkey was emotionally very difficult, says Hall. But they used every part: the meat was eaten and bones were boiled for soup; liver became paté; intestines were bait in the crab trap; blood and bone meal became compost for the garden.

Very little goes to the landfill in Lowey and Hall’s household.

A woman stands in the ocean, holding a wooden basket, which is being filled with kelp by the man crouching on the shoreline. They are both wearing denim overalls. It's a lewk.
The shoreline is a parlour for Lowey and Hall. (Photo: Hans Tammemagi)
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The pair is amazed at how they transformed what had been stressful and unhealthy into a satisfying way of life. “We’re healthier now, and we’re having much more fun,” Lowey says with a broad grin. They show me photos of how their bodies changed with their new way of life. And “it’s not only our physical side,” says Lowey. “We have improved so much in confidence and in our enjoyment of life.”

Hall describes a memorable feast they enjoyed while the sinking sun painted the horizon mauve. They started with spicy barbecued salmon fillets with roasted potatoes and honey-glazed carrots, followed by two Dungeness crabs, caught that morning. They barely had room for about 40 spot prawns. All this was accompanied by seaweed salad mixed with garlic, chilies, carrot and beet. The oysters were salty and fresh. As they ate, a pod of orcas cruised past, their dorsal fins rising and falling in the water.

Lowey and Hall’s new lifestyle also changed their resilience. “Relying on ourselves is a strength,” says Hall. “We are able to cope with difficult moments on our own, without outside assistance, and without alcohol.”

The couple found the experience so rewarding that this past April, they embarked on a second year of culinary self-sufficiency. And they want others to know that this can be possible for them too.

With today’s fast-rising costs of living — and disconnection from nature — many are captivated by the concept of self-reliance, yet few have the means or knowledge to proceed. To share what they’ve learned, Lowey and Hall have documented their journey on YouTube — their channel is called Lovin off the Land — with videos of their daily life including making spreads from nuts and grinding bone meal, growing mushrooms in fallen logs and foraging for bladder wrack and sea asparagus along their shore. They encourage their audience to take the time to learn some new skills that increase culinary self-reliance.

Their best advice would be to “do what you can, where you can, with what you can,” they say. “Even if you grow a couple of vegetable plants in old buckets on your balcony. Learn what you can forage in your area. Learn what edible weeds are available around you.”

Lowey and Hall, who were both born and raised on the west coast, have day jobs (Lowey is a body work therapist while Hall works in tourism); however, their lifestyle lets them live quite frugally. They save considerably on food, but in the first year they had significant expenditures on sheds for the chickens, or purchasing their animals. This year will be much better, not only because the infrastructure is now in place, but their menus have become much more diverse and interesting. They have allowed themselves one “cheat.” They will purchase flour, but nothing else.

Stef and Chris smile as I leave. Not only have they raised self-sufficiency and their quality of life to a new level, but they have shrunk the much touted 100-mile diet to a few tens of metres.

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