How to Grow Everything
Extreme opinions attract the most attention online. This dynamic can be innocuous, if stupid, as in the case of sports, or incredibly corrosive, as in the case of politics. But in other areas it’s just confusing. For example, I’ve recently seen people condescendingly claim that it’s delusional to imagine that anyone could actually raise all the food they eat. On the other side I’ve seen people saying it’s as easy as moving to the country and planting a garden. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between, and, as we will see, it somewhat depends on where we draw the boundaries.
I cannot settle most online arguments, but I can settle this one, in detail, and in doing so I can help you think through how much food you could grow as well as — and this is just as important in my opinion — why you might want to grow some, though probably not all, of what you eat. I am qualified for two reasons. First, I’m a farmer. Second, I once ate only food I raised myself for a year. Well, I did it for eleven months before the prospect of skipping most of the Thanksgiving meal broke my will.
By necessity this is a pretty long article. In this first part I start it with a few principles that you should keep in mind when thinking about food production, then go into detail about options for plant and animal foods. The second part will look at what combining some of these choices into a diet might look like, and then examine the good and bad reasons to grow your own.
Monotony is more efficient, variety is more resilient
This is pretty straightforward, but it is fundamental to food self-sufficiency. Think of it this way: it would be much easier to grow enough potatoes to provide the bulk of your calories than to grow some potatoes, some beets, some corn, and some oats. You only have one crop to manage rather than four. But if a blight takes out your potatoes, the value of having a more varied selection of crops will quickly become apparent.
Specialization works really well
This follows from the previous point. One miraculous thing about the modern food system is its efficiency. Coupled with modern logistics and infrastructure, the regional failure of a crop is no longer the disaster it once was. Farmers can focus on growing huge amounts of one or two crops, and the broader system can balance out variations. This has created a world of cheaper, more abundant calories than at any other point in human history.
Raising your own food opts out of this system and into one of much, much less specialization. You become responsible for four or six or a dozen primary food sources. You will not be able to raise any of these as efficiently as a farmer producing at scale.
Raising your own might save you money, but not for the reason you expect
You won’t directly save money growing your own, with the possible exception of high value crops like specialty greens and heirloom tomatoes. On things that are actually calorie dense, such as grain, potatoes, and meat, you will have a hard time spending less just on direct costs, to say nothing of the time you’ll invest. If you set out to raise chickens, by the time you’ve paid for brooder lamps, housing, feeders, chicks, feed, and a rudimentary butchering setup, even if you amortize the cost across several production cycles, you are not likely to save money compared to simply buying the Perdue broiler at the store. If you are handy and good at scrounging from Craigslist and if you have no losses (which, with broiler chickens, you almost certainly will) you might save a few dollars, but it won’t be much. If you are unlucky and a fox gets in you can lose a lot of money very quickly.
That said, processed food is often quite expensive on a per calorie basis. Replacing any amount of packaged food with a whole food alternative might cut down your total food bill; you can’t grow potatoes cheaper than you can buy them for in the grocery store, but you can grow them cheaper than buying them after they’ve been made into chips, seasoned with barbecue flavored powder and sealed in a foil pouch.
Think in calories
Some of the easiest and most rewarding things to grow are fresh veggies like lettuces and other greens. With a few square feet of garden space and a little effort you can get a level of freshness, quality, and variety far superior to the offerings in a grocery store. I cannot recommend growing them highly enough.
But if you are after subsistence, that is, growing enough food to keep yourself alive, these should be at the bottom of your list. They simply don’t provide many calories. As I said a moment ago, calories are in such abundance in the modern food environment that most of us work to avoid accidentally eating more than we intend. Cutting yourself off from that modern food environment inverts this. You need to start thinking pragmatically about how you are going to fill your belly with enough energy every day to keep a spring in your step.
Subsistence is local
I am in central New York, and all of the detailed advice I’m about to get into is based on my experience is specific to this place. Much of it is broadly applicable, but things like crop selection and storage will be different in a different climate. What makes sense here might not make sense there.
You should still grow your own food
These may sound negative, as if I don’t want you to grow your own food. I do not mean them to be! I just consider them important realities to keep in mind when thinking about questions of food systems, whether on a household or national scale. As you’ll see in part two I am pretty ambivalent about the idea of total food self-sufficiency, but I also think that, as a general rule, having more people produce more of the food they eat is an unalloyed good, as is having more awareness of what food production involves
The Homegrown Menu
There are three sections to the menu of this guide: things you can grow, things you can raise, things you can hunt, and miscellany
Things you can grow
I had a hard time deciding how to organize this part. Particularly when it comes to vegetables, there is an almost endless variety of options. But since the focus of this guide is thinking about producing a substantial amount of your own food throughout the year — remember, we’re trying to at least partially replace the grocery store — your storage options will determine much of what you grow, with caloric density also factoring into crop selection.
A root cellar is the gold standard for root vegetable storage. In ideal circumstances you can be eating sounds carrots eight months after harvest. Unfortunately, “ideal circumstances” means extremely cold and damp: a temperature just above freezing and as close to 100% humidity as you can get. You might have a cold, damp corner of your basement, but I doubt it’s that cold or that damp. Functionally, nothing matches a dedicated root cellar, and if you are serious about raising your own food, you may want to invest in one.
But even if you don’t have a root cellar, that cold, damp corner of your basement should work decently well. You can also try making a traditional clamp, or burying a fridge, though I wouldn’t trust either not to freeze in my climate. Anyhow, once you’ve settled on a storage location, you have a lot of options or filling it.
Root cellar crops
Potatoes – If you’re serious about growing a significant portion of the calories you eat, potatoes are the best garden crop, and it’s not even close. They are prolific, easy to grow in large quantities even when using only hand tools, and some varieties store excellently.
Further, they are calorie dense and palatable. These may not be great qualities when potatoes, in the form of french fries, are the only vegetable on the menu for school lunch. But if you do try eating only food you grow for any period of time, you will most likely discover that eating enough can be more of a challenge than eating too much. The year I grew my own food a blight came through that destroyed the potato crop. I’d planted a bunch of backup root vegetables, especially rutabagas and beets, but even though I had unlimited quantities of them I struggled to eat enough calories. I still can’t stand the thought of rutabagas or turnips, but I could eat potatoes every day for a long time before getting tired of them, and I could actually get full doing it.
Carrots – Carrots are a tier below potatoes. They’re a bit harder to grow, though still easy enough, but they have fewer calories per pound and will not be able to match the yield of potatoes. Still, carrots are an excellent choice for the homesteader.
Parsnips – From what I can find parsnips actually have slightly more calories per pound than potatoes, which seems right based on how filling they are. They can also hold their quality through incredibly cold weather. They store excellently in a root cellar, but you can also leave them in the ground. After a harsh winter I’ve dug parsnips from the just-thawed soil and found them better than the previous fall.
But parsnips are low yielding and extremely difficult to grow. Specifically, they have such inconsistent germination that it can be quite a challenge to get them started. They also have some common pests, particularly carrot rust flies, which, as the name suggests, also target carrots. There are good controls, the easiest being a floating cover like Agribon, but is another thing to think about if you’re relying on them as a staple.
Turnips, beets, rutabagas – Grow these at your discretion and as insurance. If you love them, go for it. They are quite easy to cultivate. Even if you don’t, growing some as a hedge against a poor potato or carrot crop is a good idea, as I discovered. Just remember, compared to potatoes you will need roughly twice the volume to provide an equivalent number of calories.
Cabbages – These are not root vegetables, but they last a surprisingly long time in a cellar. If the outer leaves start molding, simply peel them away when you’re ready to cook the cabbage. If you make sauerkraut, or any other fermented veggies for that matter, they can last almost indefinitely if kept cold.
Cool and Dry
My utility room is in the 50s through most of the winter, and it is quite dry. These conditions are much easier to find than cold and wet, particularly in modern homes. Unfortunately, this only suits a couple of storage crops.
Onions – Onions (and garlic) harvested at the end of September can hold their quality into April. They are happy all the way down to temps in the 30s, but they don’t mind being stored a bit warmer. I like onions, but I can’t imagine trying to eat enough of them to have them be a significant source of calories. Still, they add some much needed variety to the dinner table when the snow is flying. Just make sure you are growing storage type onions. Other types won’t last.
Squash – Some varieties of winter squash, particularly kabocha, can last for up to seven months when stored in a dry place. Combine this with how easy they are to grow, and they are a great staple. But they take a lot of space to grow, about three times the area per pound when compared to potatoes. It’s also worth noting that they actually prefer warmer temps than onions. Store them much below 50 and they’ll lose quality.
Anywhere dry and free from rodents
Wheat, oats or other small grains – Grain is interesting in that it is incredibly labor intensive to grow without specialized equipment, yet it is the most efficient plant to grow with equipment. As such, it presents a particular challenge to the homesteader. It is calorie dense, versatile, and most of all stable. Properly dried grain remains edible for years. Particularly in the early months of spring, when pickings in the root cellar are getting thin, the ability to bake a loaf of bread becomes a marvelous luxury. But owning the equipment to grow grain simply won’t make sense except in the context of commercial production.
Beans – Beans can be harvested and husked by hand. Though it’s quite a lot of work, it’s easier than harvesting and threshing oats or wheat, and beans are easy to plant. They are also a better source of protein than grains, and they provide a nice change of pace from other staple crops. Further, there is a big selection of dried bean out there to experiment with.
Corn – Because it has large kernels that grow on a robust ear, corn is much easier to cultivate without specialized equipment than small grains. For this reason it is the one grain crop that you can viably grow and harvest at quantity entirely by hand. Also, cornbread made from fresh ground meal is delicious.
The role of grain
Grain, with its storability, is wonderful insurance against going hungry. There’s a reason most ancient civilizations were based on a staple grain crop. But it most acutely raises the question of why on earth you would want to grow all your own food. Growing grain by hand is incredibly inefficient, while grain grown with the use of machines is incredibly cheap. Why not buy it from a neighbor, or at the local feed mill, or a local coop, or even accept that some of your calories are going to come from the midwest?
Before I get to the role of grain in its production, I suppose I should first directly address the necessity of meat. If you are in a climate like mine, you will have a very hard time producing all your own food without consuming animal products. You might be able to survive, but it will not be pleasant. You will struggle to get enough protein, and you will struggle harder to get enough fat, unless you both have access to unlimited nuts and find the idea of unlimited nuts considerably more appetizing than I do.
Things might looks very different in a more tropical climate, but I am in no position to speak to that.
Now, back to grain for a moment. Besides its durability, a wonderful thing about grain is how easily an excess of it can be turned into chicken or pork. While there are lots of big, thorny questions about the role of grain fed livestock in the food system writ large, in the household or local scale using extra grain to produce meat, eggs, and milk just makes sense.
Chicken – There is no faster way to get meat in your freezer than chickens. You can complete the whole cycle in about two months. It’s easy to build a portable chicken coop, and though home chicken slaughter isn’t pleasant, it is less intimidating than dealing with a larger animal.
The issue is that chickens, particularly modern ones bred for meat production, have very particular metabolic needs, which you will have a hard time meeting with food you grow yourself. In other words, chickens are the easiest way to get meat into your freezer if you are willing to buy in both them and their feed, which will mostly consist of grain. If you’re after self-sufficiency, chickens might not make sense. I have to squint pretty hard to see a categorical difference between eating a chicken that’s eaten purchased wheat and just eating a loaf of bread made from purchased wheat yourself.
Pigs – Pigs take about six months to grow, and they are a bit more metabolically flexible, but for production purposes you can think of them as tastier, four legged chickens. What I mean is that you will need to give your pig some sort of concentrated feed in the form of grain. Unlike chickens, pigs can eat quite a lot of other stuff, so if you have a surplus of beets or potatoes or anything else, by all means toss them into the trough. Just don’t think these can replace grain entirely.
No matter where you are, you can most likely find someone local selling piglets. Do not even think about getting a sow for yourself until you’ve raised lots of pigs and decided for certain that you have a great idea for what to do with a couple dozen piglets each year.
Pigs root, and as a species they have a well cultivated disdain for fences. They require quite a robust pen to contain them. I’d rather raise pigs than chickens, but doing so is more of a commitment – more space, more money, more infrastructure. As with chickens, the ideal is to move them regularly, but this takes more space, more fencing, and more know-how.
I mentioned fat as one of the critical nutrients animal foods can provide in a temperate climate, and pig fat, specifically rendered lard, is by far the most versatile and tasty option, with the possible exception of butter. Using beef tallow as a cooking fat for a few weeks is guaranteed to give you an abiding appreciation for lard.
Beef – Perhaps you’re thinking, “Ah, but Garth, I don’t eat any grain, and neither will my animals.” It’s true that ruminants don’t need grain. None of the cows or sheep I raise eat the stuff. Besides not requiring concentrated feedstuffs, they are much less efficient at converting grain than chickens or pigs, so I don’t see any point in using it. Instead, I let them magically transform grass and clover into delicious meat.
But there are a few things working against the grass fed beef homestead. First, cows, particularly those fed only pasture, take much more space than pigs or chickens. They require more fencing and more active management. Second, unless it’s a business, owning a herd of cows will not make sense. Instead you will want to buy one or two weaned calves and raise them out. Finding good ones can be a challenge.
Third, cows need to eat something all winter. For grass fed production this means hay. Hay is right there with grain in the degree to which mechanization determines its viability in an operation. It is very efficiently harvested with the help of large machines, and incredibly labor intensive without. If you are happy buying from a neighbor, and hay can almost always be found better and cheaper close to home, this isn’t an issue. But if you want to be self-sufficient, get ready to invest an absurd amount of money in machines you’ll hardly use, spend weeks scything, raking and forking hay, or learn how to work with draft animals.
A more minor point is that while slaughtering beef yourself is doable it is a more ambitious undertaking than anything else on this list, simply due to the size of the animal involved. This also makes it efficient from a time perspective, but doing it properly requires a bit of specialized equipment.
Lamb – Sheep are a better choice than cows for most homesteads. They are smaller animals, meaning they need less robust facilities to safely handle them. They also eat less and produce much less meat per animal, which means keeping a flock is far more reasonable than keeping a herd of cows.
Goats – Do not raise goats. If you decide not to take my advice, you’re on your own.
A brief ode to the freezer
When discussing things you can grow I categorized crops by storage method. I haven’t done this for meat because there really aren’t many options. Meat can be cured, dried, or frozen. If you’re dealing with any volume at all freezing meat is by far the best. Vacuum sealed meat can hold it’s quality in a chest freezer for years. Wrapped in freezer paper or stored in a standard upright freezer it will only last a few months before beginning to lose quality, but it will never become unsafe to eat so long as it stays frozen.
Of course, this is yet another area where self-sufficiency becomes a bit of a strange idea. It is possible to raise all your own food. It is not possible to build your own chest freezer.
In theory hunting avoids many of the difficulties of raising livestock. You don’t need to worry about feed, fencing, or anything at all except your ability to catch what you’re after. That, however, is the first and biggest caveat. While hunting can be an enjoyable activity in its own right, it can also take a huge amount of time, and there are no guarantees as to the result. If you plan on using hunted meat as a significant protein source, be ready to commit every free moment during the season to it, and have a back up plan in case you have a bad year.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on all of the things you could hunt, because this will be so specific and because I am much less knowledgeable about it than about growing food. But I’ll touch briefly on a few.
Deer – While it’s easy to spend ridiculous amounts of money on gear and guides in the pursuit of trophy bucks, it is also possible to hunt on a budget. Whitetail deer are so abundant throughout the northeast that in many places you can get multiple tags, which can put quite a lot of meat in the freezer. Further, because deer overpopulation is a real problem, there is no compelling case not to eat venison and feel good about doing it.
Rabbits – Rabbits are plentiful in most places, but they are small. I would recommend them as a supplement rather than a staple.
Turkey and other fowl – Wild turkeys are delicious, but they can be quite challenging to hunt. I’ve never hunted any other bird species. Given their size, I doubt they would be worth the effort.
I know even less about fishing than hunting. I am sure it is a viable food source in certain contexts, but I can’t provide any useful guidance.
Dairy is a wonderful addition to a homestead diet, but milking is a commitment. A milking animal needs consistently excellent feed quality, and of course you need to be prepared to milk twice a day. Further, if you have a milk cow you will almost certainly have an excess of milk, meaning you will need to figure out some way to preserve it, such as making cheese. Like growing grain, I think dairy makes more sense with enough scale to be efficient. Buying from a neighbor or bartering is great solution if you want to eat extremely locally but don’t want to make your entire life about doing it.
There are lots of interesting wild greens, and many people are passionate about foraging for mushrooms. I eagerly anticipate ramps, which are one of the earliest signs of spring on the farm. There are a few things, like acorns and cattail root, that can theoretically provide significant calories, but both require so much work to gather and process that you’d almost certainly be wiser to focus on your garden.
Conclusion, for now
I hope this post has given you a sense of the remarkable breadth of potential options for raising your own food. In part two I will build on this by outlining what it might look like to raise all your own food. That is, if you wanted to grow the 4-5 million calories it would take to feed a family of four, how might you do it? Then, I will explain why building a regional food system makes far more sense than trying for complete self-sufficiency.