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All Carrot, No Cake

January 15, 2015

Before beginning this blog post, I recommend you sit down.

You might think that what we’re doing - growing all our own food for a year - is kind of out there. (Whoa, you might say to yourself, I’d really miss Fresca, not to mention Habbersett brand scrapple!) You might think it would be too much time in the garden. (A tomato plant is one thing, but what’s all this about rutabagas? No thanks!) You might think the whole thing sounds like a huge waste of time. (The whole thing sounds like a huge waste of time!) Even if you think it’s a cool idea (Cooking everything in tallow? I’m down with that!), what I’m about to tell you will be stunning.

Seriously, have a seat.

We didn’t grow any grain, and even before going on this food plan I didn’t eat much of the stuff.

That’s right, no wheat, no corn, no oats, no barley, no rye, maybe a little rice.

I’ll bet you’re shocked.

Aren’t you shocked?

What? Half the people you know are paleo, and the other half are trying to avoid gluten? You didn’t think there was anything to it, but then you dropped Pizza Monday and Pasta Thursday, and you actually do feel a bit less bloated? Like, you’re not ready to give up all grain all the time, but you’re considering at least cutting back on the bagels or maybe even going all the way for a few days while you try a juice cleanse? At the same time, you’ve just wrapped your head around why gluten might be bad, and now everyone wants to tell you about lectins and phytates, and if you so much as see the words “intestinal permeability” or “nutrient malabsorption” you’re going to cast off your internet viewing device of choice and retire to a life of peaceful luddism?

Well, even though I do think grains are not a particularly health-promoting staple, there are significant practical reasons we aren’t relying on them. To reply to your earlier thought about time in the garden, yes, planting, fertilizing, weeding, watering and harvesting enough root vegetables to fill a small bunker takes quite a lot of effort. But trying to raise cereal crops by hand would take even more, particularly the harvesting and winnowing, which involves standing around outdoors on a breezy day, picking up grain and pouring it out until either all of the chaff has blown away or you decide that eating a few wheat hulls is fine and that anyone who feels otherwise can shut up about it and pick out any you missed.

Grains make sense on a larger scale, because all of their qualities that make them annoying to deal with by hand have mechanized solutions. More importantly, grain stores well. Really, really well. So long as you can keep it dry and free of vermin, it will be edible for years. Even the best keeping root veggies, on the other hand, are liable to head south in eight months at the outside, and that’s under perfect storage conditions. Most of them (carrots, turnips, beets) are biennial, meaning they want to sprout new leaves, send up a flower stalk, and start making seeds, and they want to do it on something of a reasonable timetable. Grain, like most seeds, is far better at maintaining an indefinite dormancy until conditions are favorable for germination.

For this reason, I am now thinking it would have been prudent to grow at least a small plot of corn or oats. I can easily envision a scenario in which I’ve exhausted my squash supply, the last roots in the cellar are rapidly deteriorating, and a late spring has pushed back the earliest baby beets far enough that there’s a real gap.

But on the whole, if you’re trying to raise a significant amount of your own food, be it in a yard, on a farm, or in a super secret compound you’ve built in the middle of Yellowstone in which you plan to ride out the coming nuclear, zombie, North Korean invasion, plague, environmental, or eschatological apocalypse, I recommend planning on more roots and less seeds. That way, when you’re up to your elbows in dirty carrots, you can take solace in knowing how much worse the harvest could be.

Garth Brown

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