Some thoughts about growing ALL your own food.

Wheat and Rye

Wheat and Rye

 

 

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.

IMG_3833I 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.

IMG_3867The 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:

GRAINS

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)

LEGUMES

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

IMG_3820This 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?”

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9 Responses to Some thoughts about growing ALL your own food.

  1. Pamela Weishaupt says:

    Thanks for writing this. It is very encouraging. I don’t know that you are looking for more beans but wanted to offer in case you would like some. I planted some Greasy Grit green beans last summer (purchased the seeds from Baker’s Creek). I let them dry and will be planting this summer. I would be happy to share some with you if you would like to give them a try. I don’t have lots but enough to share. I also have plenty of Trail of Tears green bean seeds if you would like some. I could bring them to the Farmers Market on Saturday.

  2. Mike Breland says:

    Great thought provoking article. What kind of rice do you grow (Duborskian?) and how do you dehull it?
    I will be growing sunflowers this year, Mammoth and oil, since I can get both sunflower oil and sunflower butter from them, plus the seeds for eating. This gives another source of fairly good protein, easily grown.

    • John Sherck says:

      I grow the Duborskian Rice. I have tried the Blue Bonnet but it did not start setting grain heads
      until fall. Threshing was difficult the first year. I had to beat the grain to remove the hulls. It
      was a lot of work and caused much damage to the kernels. Last summer I had a dehuller built for me
      by Don Brill of Brill Engineering. It is a small, hand crank unit, and worked great. Don has a website
      and he has made the plans and material list available for free. He also has some videos on building a
      unit. I tried sunflowers a few seasons back but I had a tough time keeping the birds off. I also had
      some type of insect that chewed through the hulls and ate the seeds. I would love to start growing them
      again. You should try the Styrian Pumpkins sometime. The hulless seeds are delicious and full of oil.

  3. Jacob Sockolov says:

    John,

    The figures you provide in this post are really eye-opening. It seems like growing millet is something I should look into next season.

    I can’t tell you how strongly I share your sentiment. If neighbors could depend on each other for the things they lack and were willing to share those things they had in abundance, if instead of only consuming we also created something, we would have greater food security, a more fair and just society and a far greater reverence for food and goods in general.

    I think what you’re describing is how things will have to be in the future. As our current food system unravels (the system in which a majority of people consume what a handful of producers create) it will become clear that the communitarian approach is the most humane and sensible alternative.

    I mean this all in the most apolitical sense.

    Great post!

  4. Anthony Meschke says:

    Thanks for the article. I can’t wait to plant the seeds I got from you this spring. I have been studying edible wilds for the last couple years. I have been keeping a list of the local MN ones that I have found. Im sure many of our wild plants are the same. If you would like the list send me an email.
    Thanks,

    Meschke

  5. Princess of Judah says:

    sounds like John needs a wife lol.
    Anyways your article was a real eye opener thank you so much for the numbers. I will be moving to an island off grid in SE AlaskA.
    I will be taking your ideas with me as they are awsome 🙂

  6. Belinda says:

    Years ago I planted earth peas. Was wondering if anyone has some tasty recipe to use them in? I’d actually like to try digging up some of the tubers this year and trying them in a recipe.

  7. Scott says:

    A few years ago, we grew a ~dozen varieties of dry beans. Some got picked for making bean pickles and some fresh eating at the start of the season, then, left to make dry beans for fall harvest. We averaged 1 lb of shelled dry bean per 12 ft. I estimate you did better from the #’s in your table.

    Scott

    • John Sherck says:

      The yields have been variable. The year I wrote the post was an exceptionally good growing season for me (2014). The last 2 seasons (2015 and 2016) have been exceptionally wet years. Torrential downpours in the summer, with plenty of heat and humidity. My overall yields have dropped for some things like the dry beans and especially soybeans. The rice has actually improved yields with all the excess moisture. This is the challenge of growing with a sense of security in the face of weather weirdness. I still believe the best case scenario would be a group, or neighbors with common interests. Going solo puts a lot of risk into your basket.

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