"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The self-sufficiency game (love you, Dad)

Years ago, when my Dad lived with me in my old house in the city, we used to play a game called "can you be self sufficient on five acres?" Or more realistically, "how close to self sufficiency can you get with five acres?" The rules were fluid, but they assumed our regional climate. We were only trying to get total food self-sufficiency, not clothing or energy, although if by-products of food production turned out useful for those purposes, it would be a plus. 

Now, I can play the game on my own real-life five acre spread - though I stress, this is still just a thought exercise. One thing I would need if I were really trying for self-sufficiency is a lot more hands. And energy. And knowledge. 

First, the plant side. Our biggest concern was always the staple crop. Wheat is out of the question in this climate, and like other cereal grasses, too demanding of space, time and processing. I wavered for a while on corn, thinking if thousands of Mexican families can eke out a living on an acre of corn, it must be possible, but again; too demanding. Too hard on the land and way too hard on me to process it all into nixtamal. So that leaves potatoes. I once read that a family of five can live on the potatoes produced by an acre of land, and potatoes grow very well here, all different varieties. And common opinion to the contrary, potatoes are very nutritious. Potatoes and milk provide all the nutrients nessecary for life, not that you'd want to live that way for long. Just ask the Irish. 

Next, the orchard. Currently I have eleven fruit trees: three each apple and pear, two plums, and two cherries. These can provide me with fresh cider, hard cider, fresh fruit, dried fruit, frozen fruit.... The trimmings from pruning each year are also useful. They can be used to smoke my ham and salami. Or I can feed them to the goats. More on that later. I'd like to add more trees, a couple of walnuts and a whole row of hazelnut bushes. Nuts are not only delicious and highly storable, they can also be a source of a highly necessary commodity: oil. I've never pressed oil from nuts, but for the purposes of this game I'm going to pretend it can be done with a motorized apple press, because I already have one of those. Oh yeah, and nut butter. Even the shells are useful as mulch and slug-protector for the garden.

Then, of course, the vegetable garden. This is where my fantasy breaks down a little, because I am really a terrible gardener. In the old days, this is where Dad would shine. He had the whole garden plot all laid out. A quarter acre is enough to produce all the tomatoes, chiles, beans, squash, onions, garlic, zucchini, broccoli, beets, carrots, and herbs you need, if you have the energy to do french intensive gardening. I'll just take his word for it. 

So with my apple press, home-brewing equipment, dehydrator, extra freezer, and hundreds of canning jars, I could theoretically process all this for the winter. On to the animals.
Right now, we have about an acre and a half fenced in for the goats. This is more than enough for the three does we have. They are all over their heads in biomass. I think we could easily double the number of goats without stressing the land much. One buck, the rest does. Boy kids are for eating, girl kids are for periodically replacing my milkers. Three does lactating at any given time is ideal, because I can't milk more than that by hand. That would give me a gallon a day, easily.  I'll have to learn how to make hard cheese for storing, not just fresh cheese for eating right away. Of course, the goats need supplemental hay in the winter, and a certain amount of grain for the lactating does. If I can't manage enough land left over for cutting hay, this may need to be an input. But right now, on my real land, I have plenty of space for the garden, potatoes included, and there's still about an acre of just grass. And it grows like wildfire. I bet we could cut it three times in a year and store it.

My current flock of twenty laying hens plus two roosters seems about right to me. Only two of my hens are broody hens, and I'd need that number to be a little higher so they can reproduce at a rate that allows me to eat a chicken every couple of weeks. I'd just eat all the roosters that hatch once they get to a decent size. I don't know of any way to store excess eggs, so I'll make a little hole in the rules and pretend I can trade the to my neighbors for something we need. Salt. 
Once again, though, chickens need grain, and I don't have any.

Pigs. I don't like pigs much, but I think we gotta have them. If I'm pretending we are totally self sufficient, then we need a breeding pair. That would give us a tremendous surplus of pork, and I'd need to build a pretty big smokehouse. I have a serious knowledge deficit here, but oh, the ham, the bacon, the salami, the coppa, the sopressata... , okay, dad, okay... the bratwurst, the summer sausage, the breakfast sausage,the lard. Pigs don't need much space, we already have a pen that will hold them, and they can be let out to forage with the goats. 

Another animal I'm not crazy about, but which I think is absolutely necessary: bees. We need sweetener, and honey is the only option I can think of. Plus, of course, bees will improve the yield of my fruit trees and vegetable garden. I think three or four hives... but I'm going to make Homero learn beekeeping. That's fair. I'm the cheesemaker, after all.
The animals altogether produce a lovely lovely compost pile for the garden. The garden produces feed for the animals as well as us, with stalks and leaves and things we don't eat, plus of course our kitchen waste, which is great for pigs and chickens. A nice circular arrangement.
I think probably our diet would be heavy on the animal products and light on the vegetable products, which wouldn't bother my dad at all, but might bother me after a while. I'll have to bend the rules some more and get a cross-state trade going with a wheat farmer. He can have my extra piglets. How's one piglet for a fifty pound sack of wheat sound?


Eugene said...

you'll need to pay attention to animal husbandry too if you want to last more than a couple of years.

Aimee said...

I'm not sure what you're talking about. I have done buttloads of self education on goats, chickens, and pigs. I know what kind of shelter they need, what kind and how much feed they need at different points in their life cycle, normal vital signs, signs of various illnesses, poisonous plants and how to recognize them (see latest post), how to tell when a goat's in estrus and who to breed her to, signs of labor and how to recognize obstetrical emergencies, care of newborns, necessary vaccinations and the timing thereof, how to draw blood and send of blood or stool samples.....let's see, how and how often to trim their hooves... Is this the kind of thing you mean by "animal husbandry?"

Eugene said...

no. I mean making sure the next several generating are genetically viable and not inbred.

Aimee said...

Oh well that's easy enough. I'm not keeping any bucks, just does. And I can get a different buck every time.

Eugene said...

that doesn't count as 5 acre self sufficiency!