I have spent a lot of time over the past 20 years pondering the idea of growing all my own food. Within the last couple of growing seasons, I have attacked this idea with a new fervor, having overcome what I initially perceived to be a difficult problem; the small-scale production of grains and dry beans. I had assumed that since most gardens did not include grains or dry beans it was because it was either impractical on a small scale or required specialized machinery. I had attempted growing some of these in small plots in the past, with average to below average success. The truth is I had never really invested the time to learn how to grow these types of staples, nor had I given these crops the proper attention they required. I was far to busy raising heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and all the other expected crops one would find at a vegetable market. In hindsight, I have found that raising grains and dry legumes is no more difficult than most summer vegetables, and in some instances, is easier, especially in post-harvest processing.
I can suggest no “easy” method by which one can grow a large amount of food. I utilize aspects of the Biointensive growing method, as well as traditional “row” cropping. The obvious key to success in any garden or farm is building healthy soil and maintaining fertility. I follow a 4 year crop rotation. 3/4 of my fields are put into legumes (heavy givers) and grains (heavy givers and carbon efficient). The other ¼ of my rotation is vegetables (heavy feeders). The legumes add nitrogen to the soil while the grains help maintain fertility by producing biomass for the compost pile, as well as residue for tilling back into the soil. I am also experimenting with multi-cropping in the hope of reducing the tillage required to control weeds. Mark Shepard’s, Restoration Agriculture principle of doing less, or even better, doing nothing, has a great appeal to me. I plan to incorporate some of his ideas into my own “evolving” farming system.
I have spent hours pouring over nutritional books and websites to try to determine the correct types of plants to grow and in the right amounts to meet all of a person’s nutritional requirements for a healthy diet. What I have found is that the science of nutrition is very complex and subjective; way above my pay grade. I have come across “total diet” farming formulas and found the fare to be a little spartan for my tastes. I like diversity in my garden and on my plate. I decided to leave precision nutritional planning behind and instead focus on growing an abundance of the things I like to eat. I have also put time into learning how to turn basic staples into simple and traditional comfort foods. Dry soybeans become hummus and tofu. Field corn becomes rich polenta. The only point I can add in regard to nutrition is that any serious plan to grow ALL or MOST of your own food should include grains and dry beans (as well as certain, high calorie root crops, like onions, garlic, potatoes, and so forth). The simple reason is that grains and beans are concentrated sources of protein and calories. Vegetables, like tomatoes and lettuce, are excellent sources for micro-nutrients, but they do not offer much in the way of protein or calories.
*I should note here that I am not including any animal products in my data. I am not vegetarian, but neither do I raise any animals. I purchase most of my meat, eggs, and dairy from local sources. A comprehensive plan to feed yourself with plants and animal products would have to account for a lot of variables. There is plenty of information out there already regarding this.
I do believe that my farm can produce all the food for myself and my spouse in its current configuration. This would include the summer vegetables and perennial crops we tend, in addition to the grains and legumes. While we still eat out occasionally, purchase animal products and certain foods that are not available as locally grown, like citrus, bananas and chocolate, I believe that IF I had to supply all of our food, I probably could.
The following data is meant to stimulate your thinking about “what” and “how much” could be grown on a small plot of land here in the Midwest (Northern Indiana is zone 5). The following staple crops are all being cultivated on a little over 20,000 square foot. Call it ½ acre. Our soil is mostly clay loam. The drainage is fairly poor. I do have a small tractor with a 4′ tiller for prepping plots. All planting is done by hand. All cultivation is done primarily by hand. I do have a small Honda tiller for working between beds and rows. Likewise, all harvesting is also done by hand. I have added some small, human-powered equipment for handling the post harvest grains, but initially I did all the threshing and winnowing with nothing more than a pillowcase, a piece of rubber hose, 2 buckets, and a house fan. Lastly, I do almost all the work by myself (my wife does help with some of the hand weeding in the spring/early summer). It is a full time job for me from April to October. This time also includes running my greenhouse plant business in the spring and seed business in the fall.
All crops are raised in 4′ wide beds or rows spaced 3′ apart. There is a built-in buffer of about 2500 square foot to account for pathways, etc. between individual crop plots. In one season I average the following yields of dry staples:
RYE 200 sq foot yield 20 lb grain
CORN 1000 sq foot yield 50 lb shelled corn
TEFF 200 sq foot yield 8 lb grain
RICE 1500 sq foot yield 75 lb (61 lb after dehulling)
BUCKWHEAT 300 sq foot yield 8 lb of hulled groats
PEARL MILLET 200 sq foot yield 16 lb grain
HELL’S CANYON MILLET 300 sq foot yield 15 lb of grain
DALE SORGHUM 500 sq foot yield 70 lb grain plus syrup (3-5 gallon)
HULLESS OATS 400 sq foot yield 25 lb grain
WINTER WHEAT 1000 sq foot yield 30 lb grain (I hope to increase to 50 lb)
AMARANTH 200 sq foot yield 10 lb grain
QUINOA 200 sq foot yield 8 lb grain
HULLESS BARLEY 500 sq foot yield 30 lb grain
TOTAL 351 lb of grains, (plus 3-5 gallons sorghum syrup)
SOUP PEAS 400 sq foot yield 16 lb dry peas
PINTO BEANS 1000 sq foot yield 67 lb dry beans
BLACK BEANS 1000 sq foot yield 55 lb dry beans
SOYBEANS 2000 sq foot yield 135 lb dry beans
LIMA BEANS 400 sq foot yield 20 lb dry beans
SCARLET RUNNER 100 sq foot yield 5 lb dry beans
PEANUTS 1500 sq foot yield 25 lb (20lb after removing shells)
TOTAL 323 lb of dry beans
This leaves over 4000 sq foot for growing tomatoes, peppers, greens, squash, cucumbers, onions, garlic, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. This amount of space allocated to traditional garden veggetables would add hundreds of pounds of fresh, root-cellar stored, canned, frozen, or dehydrated food. Add the possibility of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kim-chee, tempeh, and miso. Nearly unlimitless possibilites, all from a little less than ½ acre. If you double the square footage from ½ acre to 1 acre, consider the following. You could simply double the yields of the above annuals, but you’re going to need extra help. On my mini farm, I have another ¼ acre of bed space allocated to perennial vegetables like, Asparagus, Skirret, Chinese Yams, Ground Nuts, Jerusalem Artichokes, and many others. This adds a lot of delicious food and nutrition to the overall plan. You would still have room to add some fruit trees, berries and nuts. The final consideration for growing ALL your own food would be the addition of those plants you do not have to cultivate.There is an abundance of ‘Wild Foods” growing all around us. Mushrooms, berries, greens, etc. I am planning to learn more about harvesting these types of plants this summer!
While I am fully commited to growing an abundance of my own food, I have to confess that I wish I were partnering with like minded neighbors. Raising so many varieties has it’s stressfull moments. Spreading out the risks and work between a number of families and individuals seems to make great sense. Some growing grains, some growing fruit, some growing dry beans, others eggs or dairy products. Oddly, this seems like a familiar idea. Much more could be said about growing All of your own food. Maybe the question should really be, “how do we grow All of Our own food?”