An exercise in imagination
Picture it: it’s your first day exclusively eating food you’ve grown yourself. This moment has been months in the making, from planning a garden to getting sheep to installing a root cellar. You sit down to a meal of lamb meat balls and roasted potatoes hot from the oven. You have never eaten anything more delicious.
Picture it: it’s your sixth month of eating exclusively food you’ve grown yourself. Physically you feel pretty good, but you can’t get too excited at tonight’s menu of lamb meatballs and roast potatoes. At least it’s September, so you have some kale on your plate.
Picture it: it’s your 365th day in a row eating exclusively food you’ve grown yourself. Though you’ve occasionally changed it up with meals like leg of lamb, lamb chops, and a single, glorious turkey, tonight’s menu consists of lamb meatballs and potatoes. You have a hard time remembering exactly why this seemed like such a good idea that you committed half your life to it.
Three ways to grow your own
What do we mean when we grow our own food? As I noted in my previous post, there are gray areas; does a chicken purchased from a hatchery, fed grain purchased from a mill, count as homegrown? For that matter, how self-sufficient are we when our garden crops rely on a new seed purchase each year? What about hay bought from a neighbor to overwinter a steer?
If you stick with me through another lengthy post, you’ll find that this is not just a weird intellectual game. It is also a useful rubric to approach about the food system more broadly and how an individual should think about engaging with it.
But first let’s look at three distinct ways to take the idea of food self-sufficiency, starting with the most extreme.
Approach One: The Purist
In the thought exercise that opened this post I leaned pretty heavily into the lamb and potatoes. That was not an arbitrary choice. If I had to be as close to purely self-sufficient as I could, these would be the staples on which I would most rely. What I mean by pure self-sufficiency is acquiring tools, seeds and livestock at the outset, then bringing in nothing else, period.
Before I get to what that might look like, I am going to say something that will come up again and again. Complete food self-sufficiency is a bad goal. The only way I can imagine pursuing it myself is if aliens landed and said, “Garth, we are cruel and utterly arbitrary aliens. We will destroy your planet unless you and your family live for years exclusively eating food you grow yourself. You may pick any selection of tools and livestock at the outset, but then you’re on your own.” Maybe you have a better or at least more plausible reason.
So I’m not going to be doing this, but if you are, the place to start is calories. Assuming there are four people to be fed, you will want want to aim for an absolute minimum of 14000 calories per day, or 3500 calories each. This would almost always be a little excessive, but you’re planning for not just a bad year but a catastrophic year, so that even if all of your food sources perform poorly, you will still be able to survive. Also, growing all this food will be a lot of work, which increases caloric requirements.
One pound of ground lamb has about 1200 calories, primarily from fat, which is good. Fat is palatable and energy dense. Being meat, it’s also a good source of protein. Aim for about a pound per person per day, so you’ll need 1500 pounds for the year. That leaves just over 11000 calories per day to get from plant sources. For potatoes shoot for 5 pounds per person per day, worth about 1500 calories, along with half a pound of cornmeal for another 800 calories. So you need 7000 pounds of potatoes and 700 pounds of corn to give you 3800 calories per person per day for an entire year. All the other stuff — squash, hunted game, dried beans and so on — will be a bonus as well as a hedge against poor yields in the foundational crops.
Purist staples, why and how
Lamb – Sheep would work best in this scenario for a few reasons. First, they are smaller, and each animal eats less, meaning a given acreage can support a more numerous herd than if you raised something like cows. Since you will not be buying in new stock, more animals with more genetic diversity will be critical to the flock’s durability. There are also management reasons having to do with keeping a very high level of fertility in cultivated areas and being less reliant on freezers for storage, but those are too granular to bother with here.
Leaving a big buffer for disasters, 35 sheep should do the job. These will comfortably live on about 20 acres, which will provide them with both pasture in the growing season and hay through the winter. Speaking of hay, one of the biggest jobs is putting up 10 tons of it by hand each summer, using a scythe, rake and fork.
Potatoes – As I mentioned in my last post, potatoes yield calories more efficiently than just about anything else. Commercial yields range from 25000 to 70000 pounds. On the high end these are optimally fertilized operations with pristine seed potatoes. Assuming the low range, about ⅓ of an acre will yield at least 7000 pounds. Most years you won’t need nearly so many, but you could at least survive for quite a while on your potato crop and nothing else if you had to.
Storing that many potatoes will require an excellent root cellar, especially if they will be a staple throughout most of the year.
Corn – Unlike small grains such as wheat and oats, corn can be reasonably efficiently grown, harvested, and stored without any particularly specialized equipment. In storage it is more durable than potatoes, and any excess could be fed to sheep to increase weight gain or milk yield. This would be particularly useful if you decide you want some dairy in your diet.
While modern hybrid corn, drenched in nitrogen and grown in bare soil, routinely produce over 200 bushels per acre, at 50 pounds a piece, you’ll be lucky to get a fifth of that from the sort of open pollinated variety you’ll need to rely on if you wanted to save corn seed from one crop to plant the next. So getting 700 pounds of corn will require another ⅓ of an acre.
Incidentals – You should grow one type of storage squash, such as kabocha, tomatoes, some dried beans, kale, onions, and one or two other types of vegetables that are easy to save seed from. Given the amount of space squash require, this could easily fill another ⅓ of an acre. Plant a small orchard and a patch of raspberries.
Hunt, fish, and gather if you‘re inspired to, but don’t count on these activities for anything.
Notes and thoughts on the purist approach
The first notable thing is that this operation takes at least 20 acres for, overwhelmingly for the sheep, yet the bulk of the calories are coming from the one acre of potatoes, corn, and other veggies. But the yield from that one acre assumes a very high level of fertility, which could only be maintained year over year with manure from the sheep. If you wanted to do it with just plant matter — perhaps harvesting grass for compost rather than hay, and then spreading that — it would take perhaps another three acres to provide enough fertilizer for the single planted acre. And then I’d still be left with grave worries about where to get enough protein, and graver worries about where to get enough fat.
Second, this is a lot of work. This is the best combination of ease and durability I could come up with. But putting up that much hay by hand and managing the sheep herd, while also cultivating a full acre of assorted crops would be a huge amount of labor. If you imagine self-sufficiency, and if by “self-sufficiency” you mean as close to complete insulation from any external inputs as possible, something like this is what you’d be looking at.
Third, it’s a pretty solid diet. Yes, lamb and potatoes might get boring, but most people would do just fine with them as staples. Trying to subsist within tougher constraints, particularly less land, would lead to a more nutritionally precarious situation.
Approach Two: The Pragmatic Localist
I think of this as a maximally local diet, and it is far more realistic than what I just finished describing. The basic idea here is to get as much of your food as possible from as close to home as possible, whether that means raising it yourself or buying from a nearby farm.
Perhaps you want to produce a whole lot of what you eat, and you want to have a very good idea where the rest came from. But you’re fine with buying grain to feed your chickens, or picking up milk from a local farm. You’ll buy in a steer or a couple piglets. Further, because hostile aliens haven’t forced you into a situation in which you literally must grow everything you need or else starve, you can produce only what you want and no more, which means you won’t need to hugely overproduce. In case of a crop failure, simply buy in more food than you’d planned.
Or maybe you just want to have some idea where your food comes from, you want to support your local economy, but you don’t care about how much you grow yourself.
The Messy Middle
The only benefit of the purist approach is its straightforwardness. All it requires is trying to envision a way to theoretically grow enough food to survive, and to keep doing it year after a year. Open things up just a tiny bit, as pragmatic localism does, and it gets far messier. Questions of want replace questions of need: do you want to raise meat or veggies? Do you want less of one thing and more of another so you can barter or sell? Are you more interested in variety or efficiency? In growing what you cannot purchase locally or producing your own staples?
This flexibility means I cannot detail what a life based on a pragmatically local diet might look like, with numbers attached to calories and the acres required to produce them. There are simply too many variables. Giving just a few sentences to some the foods you might grow for yourself, as I did in my last post, takes thousands of words. I wish I could be more specific, but it’s too situational to describe comprehensively. Still, I’ll try to sketch a few of the many possibilities.
In its most rigorous version this might not look so different from what I out laid out above, with a lot more perks and a lot less stress. You could raise a much smaller flock of sheep, and buying in hay means doing so would require less land. You could buy a steer to raise some beef for variety, or relax a little more and raise a pig or some chickens on purchased grain. When I raised all my own food for a year these were the basic parameters I held to.
But you could also just plant a garden and buy beef from one neighbor, milk from another, eggs from a third, and so on. If you’re trying to buy locally (by whatever distance qualifies for you) the biggest challenge is likely to be grain you want to eat rather than feed to pigs or chickens, but if you’re very lucky you might find a source.
Notes and thoughts on the pragmatic localist approach
Make no mistake, in the context of the modern American food system this is a truly radical way to eat. If you have bread, you or a neighbor will have baked it. You might have honey or maple syrup, but you will not have sugar. You might find yourself dabbling in yogurt making, which is simple, or cheese making, which is not. Depending on where you draw the lines, you might be making your own butter or curing your own bacon. You will have no reason to ever set foot in a grocery store.
Whatever form it takes, even buying in all your food, this diet is every bit as reliant on a rural or semi-rural context as the more extreme, purist version of self-sufficiency. Unless you live in an area that has a significant amount of farming going on you will not be able to find a local farmer to buy milk from, or a source of flour or eggs, or a sugar shack that makes maple syrup. You won’t be able to find piglets or a steer. And if you do want to produce any amount of your own food, as I hope I’ve made clear, you’re going to need at least a couple acres of land, which is not something that’s available in most suburbs.
Option Three: Uncomfortable Reality
There’s actually a fourth option, which most people take out of choice or even more often out of necessity: simply buying food from some combination of restaurants, convenience stores, and supermarkets, with little thought to where any of it comes from.
But a lot of people fall somewhere between this baseline and pragmatic localism. They might love the idea of local food but know that eating only local food is completely unrealistic, due to cost or time or a simple absence of availability. They are aware of the problems with factory farms but wisely recognize that raising hogs in the back yard might not go over well with the neighbors. They want to grow some small part of their own food but don’t know how.
From talks with both friends and customers over the years I suspect this describes a great many people, far more people, in fact, than the handful of absolute maniacs who actually set out to chase self-sufficiency.
An Even Vaguer Standard
When describing a pragmatic locally diet I didn’t get specific with what should be grown, so obviously I can’t here, either. In fact, this category is so amorphous I cann’t even come up with a good shorthand for it. Yet I think there are a lot of people who are fascinated by the idea of food self-sufficiency, of disconnecting from the big, messy, thoroughly compromised, opaque American food system in favor of something simpler and more knowable, even if it’s not a realistic option to actually do so.
This sentiment is worth fostering for a number of reasons, but the pragmatic forms it might take, which are myriad and varied, cannot be contained in a blog post. If you live in a city apartment, maybe a pot of thyme and a tomato plant on a windowsill are a possibility. Most houses with a yard can support at least a small garden. Perhaps a couple of hens are in your future, or even a few sheep. Maybe you want to do your civic duty and help bring down the whitetail deer population.
In her wonderful book To Boldly Grow, which addresses this precise topic in entertaining detail and with far more useful instruction than I’m giving here, Tamar Haspel coins the phrase “firsthand food.” By this she means any food that you have grown, raised, gathered or hunted yourself. In almost any circumstance there is some way to use food as a vehicle for engaging the world, and doing so is deeply rewarding.
Good and bad reasons to grow your own
Everything I’ve written is building up to this. I suppose I could have saved myself a lot of time by getting straight to it, but hopefully my odd, meandering meditations on the practical realities of various approaches to subsistence have given you some context and me some credibility.
Good reason: Grounding, both metaphysical and physical
At a party one spring my daughter was given a packet of seeds, some soil, and an empty egg carton. Though we grow a big garden every summer, we buy our starts from a nursery over the hill. She watched and watered and watched some more as the first leaves unfurled, and then as the plants — tomatoes, basil, and something else I can’t remember — distinguished themselves from each other. The whole incredible process took months to complete, and at the end of it there was food. There’s no need to be a child to find the experience of producing food that can sustain your body engaging.
In fact, I think things like gardening and picking berries (or picking beetles off of berry plants so that you might have berries later) and watching cows wander around are all potent antidotes to the generalized anxieties that our online lives promote.
Bad reason: Surviving the collapse of society
The stereotypical survivalist, with six months’ worth of MREs, an arsenal, and a canister of iodine tablets is planning for an extremely specific cataclysm, in which society crashes so hard and fast that literally heading for the hills is the only way to survive. But relatively quickly, right around when the MREs are running low, that same society will miraculously have mended itself enough to have food back on the grocery store shelves.
Producing your own food as a hedge against shortages is a fine idea, as the start of the pandemic demonstrated. Thinking it will save you from a total collapse is no more rational than building a bunker. No doubt, if you’re feeling creative, you can spin out some scenario in which those of us with large gardens and livestock weather one cataclysm or another better than folks in cities, but it’s just as easy to imagine the reverse.
Good Reason: Thinking hard thoughts about meat
I don’t think raising livestock is a requisite step to appreciating the moral challenge presented by eating animals, but I do think it makes it harder to ignore. When you know as a concrete reality rather than an abstract fact that every drumstick was once the leg of a living chicken, you can’t stop making the connection in the grocery store or when looking at the restaurant menu. Any number of things might follow from this. Maybe you’ll become a vegetarian. Maybe you’ll be more appreciative when you order the McNuggets. Maybe you’ll see the value of supporting farmers who treat their animals well.
Bad Reason: Smug feelings of superiority
I really enjoy food, producing it, and thinking about all the intricacies: the upsides and downsides of more or less reliance on grain in the food system, how radically diets have changed in the past century, and so on. But I’ve noticed in myself an inclination to a reflexive condescension towards people who know less than me, people who due to a lack of knowledge or the particulars of their circumstances don’t eat as well as I do. Though this seems to be a close to universal human tendency, it is pretty gross. I try very hard not to indulge it. This applies to any diet, but for our purposes here:
Seeking to engage with the simple, physical pleasure of food = good.
Seeking to eat in a manner that proves you are a better, purer, more knowledgable individual than the ignorant masses = not good.
Good reason: It’s a healthy way to eat
I’m on the record as being pretty skeptical of nutritional science, at least when it comes to claiming one food is healthier than another. The exception to this — and it’s a big exception — is that eating fewer processed foods is most likely good. If you grow more of your own food or start sourcing it locally, chances are you will be shifting your diet in a positive direction.
Good and bad reason: the ascetic impulse
Eating turnips every day gets old pretty quickly, but so does eating ice cream. It’s just less noticeable, because ice cream starts out so incredible that even if habit significantly diminishes the wonder it still tastes better than almost anything else. On the thirtieth straight day you can still get excited about a scoop of rocky road. Turnips start out marginally palatable at best, so by day thirty you’re desperate for a change.
Lots of food we eat, especially the processed stuff, is towards the ice cream end of the turnip-ice cream spectrum. Eating less of it, as I just said, is probably a healthy decision for most people, but it can also recalibrate expectations so that a treat really tastes like a treat. Eating less ice cream can make it taste better when you do chose to have some. It can also make less intensely hedonic foods like mushrooms and salad more enjoyable, since they aren’t having to compete with Breyer’s for your attention quite so often.
That said, any diet can be taken to extremes. This is a fraught topic, and each of us has to figure out what works for ourselves, but obsessing about only eating locally can get out of hand if taken too seriously.
I hope this has given you something to think about, or at least provided you with an entertaining daydream in which aliens force you to retreat to a seclusion of potatoes and sheep. Looking back over the good and bad reasons, I am happy to see that the bad reasons to grow your own food are the ones that require a full lifestyle commitment, while the good ones invite engagement by degrees, as you are able. Plant a garden! Get hens! Cook an ambitious meal!