Making the Move to Self Sufficient Living
Mark Valencia of Self Sufficient Me is doing what many of us yearn to do... creating his own self sufficient property and living life with a lower 'footprint' than most.
We catch up with Mark and hear about his journey so far...
Mark, whereabouts is your property... and does it have a name?
Our 2.9 acre property is in Bellmere, Queensland situated north about 50 mins drive from inner city Brisbane, 45 mins from the Sunshine Coast, and 20 mins from Bribie Island.
No, it doesn’t have a name yet... How about “Valencia’s @ Bellmere” will that do?
How did you end up there... what led you to the decision to move to a small acreage and what made you decide that this was the place for you? And how long have you been there now?
Well... Everyone has a narrative; but, in order to “get into my head” I need to tell a bit of a story.
In 2001, my wife (Nina) and I had already served many years in the Australian Army. At the time, I was serving as a sergeant in an airborne unit in Sydney and Nina was a corporal medic in Brisbane – life was pretty hectic. Previously I had served on two overseas deployments, the Sahara Desert for 11 months in 1991, and the first push into East Timor in 1999 and without getting too “deep” these operations had profound influences on me and my views of humanity.
In May 2001, I was involved in a freak parachuting accident whilst jumping during a training exercise in central NSW (near Wagga Wagga). All this happened in a split second - as I prepared to follow another soldier out the door of the Hercules aircraft, he briefly balked, unfortunately, due the force of the guys behind me I stumbled almost over the top of the soldier in front and my exit from the plane was hampered. Consequently, the dispatcher did not safely pull my static-line out of my way in time, the cord wrapped around my right wrist and the force of exiting the plane with my arm still attached to the line resulted in me receiving severe upper body injuries.
Also, due to my right arm being semi-amputated, and considering I was weighed down with heavy combat equipment, I was unable to steer the chute. Luckily, I was able to free and drop the combat equipment (with my left hand) just prior to hitting the ground; nevertheless, I still sustained lower body injuries on top of my more severe arm, shoulder, and chest traumas.
A military ambulance was despatched to me (lying in a heap on the airfield) and within visual it promptly broke down as it approached, so a civilian ambulance was then called... it really wasn't my day. To cut a long story short, after many operations, plastic surgery, and intense physiotherapy, I’m pleased to say after 2 years I regained the proper use of my arm and hand and although I do still suffer several effects from my accident, if I wear a long sleeve shirt no one would suspect I had an arm injury at all.
My accident and my service highlighted to me the fickle nature of life (not that I was never thankful before) but I began to muse more about the pros and cons of being “driven” and successful in a monetary sense, compared to being successful in a spiritual and lifestyle sense.
That’s when (in close consultation with Nina) we decided to work towards a goal of “slowing life down a little” and the self sufficiency seed started to grow. Of course, it wasn’t going to be easy to make the move and the military beast wasn’t finished with us yet with both our careers taking-off with promotions and senior appointments following. In 2005, whilst posted to Brisbane we began looking for our lifestyle property and by the end of that year we had found it. An affordable small acreage backing onto parkland in an obscure acreage estate in Bellmere.
Just as we were feathering our nest and within weeks of Nina giving birth, I was required at short notice to deploy to East Timor again. I remember after this tour my Regimental Sergeant Major gave me a raving public send-off about how Mark Valencia is “going places” with my future career... if only he knew my real dream.
On returning from my last deployment in 2006 back to Nina, 3 year old James, and a 6 month old baby (Luke), we began a serious wind-down to our military careers and made our discharge intentions known; it’s fair to say, the news about us leaving was poorly received by our superiors at the time. And, in 2008 I left the Army and began a new life as Mark the home-dad, freelance contractor/manager, and writer; and shortly after, Nina left the apron strings too and became a Red Cross nurse/training consultant. The pay-cut consequence was substantial dropping from over $160k per annum (standard salary) down to under $70k collectively, nevertheless, we were determined to make this change work.
Incidentally, neither Nina or I have extended family in or around Bellmere – I'm originally from Toowoomba and Nina's from Bermagui (NSW), we just followed our instincts and settled here without any real prejudice.
Give us a bit of an idea of what the property was like when you first arrived.
Credit must be given to Nina for choosing the property as I overlooked it initially as a boring, barren, weed infested block; however, she insisted on checking it out and straight away saw the potential as a blank canvas.
And what is it like now? What have you done to improve its self sufficiency properties? And what are you growing?
There’s still lots of work to do but that’s an important part of the whole venture always adapting, renewing, and recycling the property. In the past 6 years, we’ve planted in excess of 60 fruit trees (mostly different types) including mangoes, avocados, citrus, apples, olives, pomegranates, mulberry, and native bush tucker to name a few kinds.
We’ve created 6 separate garden areas to admire, plus over 550 square metres of dedicated vegetable growing space with 14 raised vegetable beds of various sizes. We try to grow and eat in season as this saves resources on several fronts. Bellmere is a subtropical designated climate; even so, depending on the time of year and micro-climate we can grow most vegetables.
What about the wildlife… has that increased since you have improved the diversity of the property? What wildlife do you see there now? And what is the surrounding area like?
We’ve noticed a huge increase in native frogs since developing the gardens and growing the fruit trees – I often find them amongst my broccoli and cabbages . When we first arrived there was little habitat for frogs; in fact, I didn’t see a green frog for the first two years! Around the immediate house and garden only the introduced pest cane toads were seen when we first arrived. I’m positive the extra foliage and structures has helped their revival and I often go for a walk outside with my Maglite frog spotting – they're gorgeous.
Of course, our native trees have been attracting the birds even if the cockatoos and parrots do gravitate towards our veggies for a munch it’s still worth it. And, I see plenty signs of mammal activity from possums, bandicoots, to echidnas; although, I wouldn’t attribute them being present to my management, but we certainly don’t discourage them.
What are some of the skills you had to learn, and knowledge you needed to obtain, for the work you have done so far on the property?
I had no food growing experience, so I did lots of reading, watching, and experimentation. Nina and I still laugh at our first attempt at growing lettuce. I planted the lettuce seedlings (purchased from our local farmers market) in the most under nutritious soil imaginable, in the middle of summer, and about 1 metre apart. They bolted to seed within weeks and looked like cactuses in the great desert. My fruit trees didn’t escape pain either as I lost several trees to “wet feet” due to our heavy clay soil until I learnt how to manage clay and plant/grow fruit trees correctly.
I’ve learnt lots since then like landscaping, fencing, general maintenance and gardening skills through every different type of media I can and directly through other people – that’s the key, to always ask and be prepared to learn even if it’s about something you think you know well.
What are some of the challenges you have had to overcome?
Like I alluded to, soil conditions aren’t the best here so I have had to use plenty of composting techniques and source manure etc from other places and my own chickens to improve my soil. Also, the rainfall through summer is a challenge here so I needed to divert some water from flowing directly through my property in heavy downpours and causing erosion damage. However, I am hesitant to use heavy machinery due to the collateral damage it can sometimes do to the landscape and habitat so I’ve done most work by hand and so far the subtle changes in flow and drainage have worked well.
Finally, and less important is the monetary question, which no doubt most people wonder if it’s worth taking the pay-cut? Totally worth it, but it is a challenge there’s no denying the fact money makes the world go around and now we have less of it; however, some people would be surprised at how much money can be saved by growing your own food and changing your lifestyle habits slightly. We’ve gotten used to living a quieter life and we don’t envy our previous life in the fast lane. I wouldn’t knock back a lotto win though...
And what are some of the joys, the most memorable moments and ways you have been inspired by what you are working to achieve?
The first thing I think about in answering this question is, children. Kids are such visual learners when they’re growing up and our children have seen their parents gardening, creating, preserving, caring for the environment, and because of this they’re now interested and educated in a self sufficient lifestyle and that’s great.
Personally, I’ve noticed my stress levels are considerably lower and my marriage has always been good and it’s even better now that we have more time together. Before, we’d regularly dine out at expensive city restaurants and now we’d prefer to stay at home to entertain and cook/serve our own produce. Not that we never indulge, just that, we’ve “grown” away from that kind of lifestyle on a regular basis because, quite frankly, we don’t think it’s necessary. It’s just a waste of environmental resources to constantly live a lavish lifestyle purely because one can.
What are some of the most important things this journey has taught you so far?
The most important teaching so far along my short journey into self sufficiency is the environmental difference I feel one family can make by becoming a little more self sufficient shouldn’t be underrated. When I started growing most of our fruit and veg, I experienced how easy it was to walk out the back door to select vegetables or salad for dinner and I realised by simply growing my own vegetables I was not only saving a quid but I was also reducing my environmental footprint substantially.
Also, lifestyle change is scary, but easier than most may imagine and life’s too short to procrastinate over change just because of money.
How has your family adapted to the lifestyle? How have you seen them grow and flourish over time? And how do they help out around the property?
I guess I’ve answered these questions already except for the helping around the property. My boys mostly help themselves in the garden to any ripe fruit they find (especially berries) but they do the odd chore like collecting eggs or locking the chickens up for the night after a day of free-ranging. Nina does a lot of pruning and weeding and tending to the non-fruiting plants and gardens and I mainly do everything else on the property (all the heavy work and some of the good jobs like planting and harvesting).
Small acreages aren’t hard to manage in my view, particularly, if a person enjoys the outdoors and is under 80 years old. Truthfully, I don’t spend all day every day maintaining my property. I have the odd big day/week but I mainly only spend 2 or 3 hours per week maintaining the garden add a little more in summer with the extra mowing/edging.
How about the future... what's next, and how do you see it unfolding for you?
Many of the fruit trees are yet to reach maturity so I see the future as just beginning and also more of the same. We’re finally content with this lifestyle and we never talk about giving it up; even a lotto win wouldn’t move us from here now. Working a lifestyle property is fun, educational, rewarding, it saves money, produces healthy food, and naturally keeps a person fit – it’s an all-in-one lifestyle tonic gulped down with a grin.
What advice would you give people thinking of undertaking a similar venture?
If the feeling of wanting to change lifestyle to a more self sufficient one is in your heart then do it sooner than later. Just be sure to plan (don’t just quit your job and buy an acreage tomorrow) make the move methodically and do some research into the costs and skills you’ll need to make the change. Having said that, living a “more” self sufficient lifestyle is not rocket science it’s very simple and usually comes natural to most.
So, if you have made the decision self sufficiency is for you, then start the process of change immediately by perhaps turning your current backyard into a small food garden and practising living more frugally and environmentally friendly – this should give you good practice and experience for when you do make the move. If you are already doing that and you want more, then like we used to say in the Army – don’t let fear hold you back.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I’d like to publically acknowledge and thank Earthwise Harmony ( Anthea and Carl ) for giving me the opportunity to share my story on their outstanding website. We may not be able to change the world individually; however, collectively we’re a powerful force and through websites like this we can grow together (literally) and improve the world through passive influence on governments and corporations.
Remember, to live a more self sufficient lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean moving to an acreage property, some of my best inspiration has come from people living in suburbia with innovative gardens in small spaces. So seize the moment, forgo the cafe macchiato in the city and get into the backyard instead because the power of the pitchfork is in our hands so lets start using it.
Thank you for those kind words Mark! And for giving us such a unique view into your transition to what sounds like a more fulfilling and nurturing lifestyle, on a deeper level. I imagine your story may inspire others to 'have a go' at least on a small scale level in their backyards... and maybe to eventually make the shift to their own 'patch of paradise'.