"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?


Dr24Hours 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?"

Dr24Hours 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.

Dr24Hours said...

that doesn't count as 5 acre self sufficiency!

Holly said...

We have raised pigs for many years but have recently turned to rabbits instead. No, there is no bacon and I do love it but it is not good for us. Pigs can forage but they really tear things up and are best put in a large area if pastured. A feeder pig easily goes through over a fifty pound bag a week when they are larger. If you have a sow and little ones it multiplies the feed costs greatly. Without grain production on your own place it moves self-sufficiency right out the window. Rabbits on the other hand can be fed off a garden easily and grass. They take up very little space and are easily butchered. They can also be put in a lawn tractor in the pasture. We have butchered and smoked our own pork for years. Rabbits just make more sense than a pig. If you look back in history there is little written about rabbits. They were extremely common though.
As for goats. I see you have the little ones. Not sure why people are so fascinated by them but they are super popular. My new Saanen doe will produce 11 pounds of milk in one milking. This is more than your goats combined. One goat to trim hooves on and one goat to worm and feed. Less imprint on the land too. Curious why with the need for less housing space, more milk, and less work, plus, I'm sure less feed because of volume needed, why people want the little breeds. Is it emotional? I have no problem with them just that practicality as I see it is not there for a survival situation when larger volumes of milk are desired. Interesting to know about the potatoes and the milk nutrient combination. I will have to look into that. I have upped greatly my production of potatoes and we will be eating far more this winter. Thanks for the invitation to read.

Aimee said...

Hi Holly! Thanks for visiting! This post is rom 2008, so I've learned a few things along the way. Also, we have never really tried to be 100% self sufficient - or even 80%.

We raise a couple of pigs a year, but we buy weaners, rather than keeping a breeding pair of pigs, for the reasons you cite. We probably wouldn't raise pigs if I didn't have access to almost unlimited free bread and produce through the Gleaner's Pantry. We feed the pigs conventional feed, but supplement with lots of clean bread and veggies, which keeps the food bill down. Also I am trying out letting the pigs glean under the orchard trees in the fall after the unused fruit falls. We have many more pears, apples, and plums than we actually use, and the pigs can eat them. Not only does this feed the pigs, but it keeps disease down in the orchard by not leaving old fruit around to breed fungi and flies. You are right about them being hard on pasture - luckily we have a large sacrifice area that is sandy, gravely and compacted so they can root to their hearts content and actually help by loosening the dirt. And the truth is, I just don't care much for rabbit meat. If I were to depend entirely on smaller animals for meat, I'd choose chickens and turkeys.

My goats are Nubians. They are large goats, and the does can give up to a gallon a day. The amounts I was talking about - a gallon a day from all three - was when the does are raising their own kids on their milk as well. A Nubian can raise twins and still give me something over a quart a day, up to a half gallon if I separate the babies for part of the day. What I usually do is separate the babies (after they are two or three weeks old) at night, and milk in the morning. That way I get about a half gallon from a healthy doe, and the babies can still get enough for themselves throughout the day. That is more than enough for our needs. A Nubian weather makes a pretty good meat animal. At four months old they weigh about fifty pounds. You can wait another four months and have an eighty pound carcass, but I think they taste better young.

I still have not solved the problem of storing cheese for a year at a time. No matter what I do, it molds. I can keep cheese for about six weeks.... then it starts to get gross. I've tried waxing, vacuum sealing, storage in a temperature and humidity controlled wine fridge.... no dice. I've just about decided that cheese is a seasonal product and that's that.

There is always more to learn. For example, I've learned that I can have a decent crop of plant foods through perennials and wild harvest alone - which makes me happy, since I am not a good gardener. My perennials now include the orchard - apples, pears, cherries, plums, hazelnuts, and figs -and rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries, and asparagus, plus herbs like rosemary and mint. Seasonally, I can forage for nettles, dandelions, lamb's quarters, blackberries, mushrooms, etc, all on my own land. Now I'm of course nowhere near self-sufficiency in plant matter - but again, I get a ton of produce from the gleaner's. More than I can use, actually.

The most important resource we have is the soil; over the years I have learned what my land can actually support. For this reason we have slowly divested ourselves of animals that we enjoyed, but didn't really use, like ponies and alpacas, and are left with (at present) six Nubian goats, two pigs, five turkeys, and about fifteen chickens. That's for three and half fenced acres, divided into two grazing fields and one sacrifice area. I also have one and a half acres out front that the goats graze on seasonally, now and then when I can babysit them. I've learned, for example, that we do NOT have enough land to raise even one cow, nit unless I got rid of almost everything else.