CAN WE GROW ENOUGH TO EAT?
by Little Owl
[photo Man vyi via Wikimedia Commons]
[published: July 11, 2011 (3:00AM)]
Can we grow enough to eat? If you had asked me this question a month ago I would have said no. If you asked me two weeks ago I’d have said I’m not sure, and if you ask me today, I will say Yes, I think we can.
The ongoing procurement of food is the thing I worry about most in a post collapse world. Just to feed my family of four, I estimate we need to produce 4 million calories a year, possibly a bit more if you take into account the increase in physical activity that we’ll be doing. Of course, those calories need to be eked out over the whole year, so about half our years’ food will have to stored or preserved in some way so we can eat through the winter and spring’s hungry gap.
4 million calories is a lot of food. I have spent many hours pondering the logistics of this, and have always come up with a blank. I knew I could certainly grow a percentage of the food we need, in fact I already do, but the prospect of growing it all is daunting and I wasn’t sure it was possible without either paid help or using a tractor.
My change of heart happened about 2 weeks ago. I was reading something and a sentence caught my attention. “To be successful you need to ask the right question”. This one statement can be applied to any subject matter or any situation and it has played on my mind ever since. I’ve realized that the question I’ve been asking myself about food production is “how can I grow all the food we need”. And as I’ve asked myself that question over and over, I’ve been mentally listing the foods we do eat and trying to work out how could I grow them.
What I’ve suddenly realized is that that is the wrong question. A great deal of the food we eat is shipped in because it’s grown elsewhere. A perfect example is wheat. We rely heavily on wheat. Every day we eat bread, twice a week I’ll bake cakes and biscuits. On a daily bases I use it in pastry and sauces. Wheat will grow here, but not easily. The trouble is that the birds take it all. There are no crops growing around here, it’s all livestock, and so if a grain crop is sown, every bird for miles around, descends on it and it’s gone. I happened to visit a woman I know who grows organic wheat about 100km south of here. She explained to me that the reason she can grow a good crop is because her farm is surrounded by hundreds of acres of wheat grown on the neighbouring farms. There is enough grain for all the birds to eat their fill and it doesn’t make a dent on the final harvest. Each farm only loses a tiny percentage of their crop.
What this made me realize is that the question I should asking myself is “what food can I grow easily here”. (I think the most important word in that question is ‘easily’). The answer to that question includes a lot of foods that we currently eat now and then but don’t rely on regularly. This must change. Whilst I’ve never expected to grow bananas here, what this means is that we will have to change our diet quite significantly, at least in the medium term. As for wheat, I need to find a replacement carbohydrate to make some sort of bread or cookies with. I’m sure we will be able to trade or buy wheat but I’m not sure if we’ll be able to afford it, or if we would be prepared (or able) to buy it for an exorbitant price.
Initially I panicked at the thought of radically changing our diet, but now, after 2 weeks of reading and planning I’m feeling quite good about it. I know I can grow potatoes very easily here. My soil is moisture retentive and I get great yields. One kilo of potatoes supplies 860 calories, so that’s a start, but if we rely on potatoes alone, that’s a hell of a lot of spuds!
I can also grow beans and corn. I haven’t tried pumpkins yet but I grow great zucchini so I’m sure I can grow squashes. I’m planning on large crops of these. Silverbeet (Swiss chard) also grows like a weed all year round, so that’s worth having.
I’ve read recently about people who starve even though there is food around. Apparently it is normally the very young and the very old. It happens when someone is given a food they are unfamiliar with and don’t like. Even though it may be nutritious and calorie dense, they refuse to eat it. Their hunger pangs disappear after a while and they start to starve, and no amount of coaxing can persuade them to eat the food stuff they are refusing. Of course an adult can be reasoned with and will eat to stay alive but a young child doesn’t fully understand and can literally starve to death. The only way to break this is to offer the child something they do want to eat, and this may not be possible in a post collapse world.
This worries me. I have young children and they love rice (which will be unobtainable too), pasta, bread, pancakes etc. One of my children has never been keen on apples. It’s taken 2 years to get him to pick up an apple voluntarily and eat it. Even now he only eats about 5 bites of it before putting it down. He has only started eating it because we have boxes of apples lying all over the house and his older brother adores them and eats about 5 a day, and so he’s copying him.
On all things to do with Peak Oil preparation where I’ve made provision for change, I have continued with our oil-fuelled way, and intend to for as long as possible, I’ve simply tried to prepare for the moment when we are forced to change. A perfect example of this is our cars. We both use our cars, and will continue to do so for as long as possible but when we need to, we have bikes ready for us to use. I love my electric hand whisk, and although I have a manual one, I’m not going to use it until I have to. I’m happy with this.
But this approach will not work with food. I can’t continue with the diet we love until one day it is no longer available, and then just present my children with a whole different array of unfamiliar foodstuffs. They are too young to deal with it. What I have realized is that I need to introduce the new foods now, and gradually phase out the other stuff. So perhaps I’ll start by only having bread available 3 days a week and in between times we’ll have something different (although I don’t know what this will be – does anyone have any suggestions?).
I’m sure that amaranth grows well here, so yesterday I bought a bag of it and this afternoon I’m going to try cooking some. Apparently if you steam it, it puffs up and makes a great breakfast cereal. Since we love porridge, I’ll try some as an alternative.
Whenever anyone on Collapsenet mentions self sufficiency, there always seems to be a rash of comments saying that we all need to rely on community, and that self sufficiency is not the answer. Well I have to say that I disagree.
I’m convinced that community will be essential in the long term, and that without the support and a place within a strong community, we will all find long term survival difficult if not impossible, but not initially.
What worries me about community, or lack of it, is that the most dangerous time will be the first year or two after collapse. In Collapse + 5 years, I’m sure we will find hundreds of active communities with communal crops, and with each person finding a niche for themselves. Hopefully we’ll have a local dentist, seamstress, farrier, shearer etc. I envisage communal production of staple crops like wheat. But that’s in the year Collapse+5.
But what will your community look like in Collapse+4 weeks, or +6 months? Do you really think it will be organized enough in food production to support you? I don’t.
My community is devoid of food crops. There is a lot of livestock around and a number of orchards but that’s it. There aren’t even any animal fodder crops. What’s even more worrying is that no one seems even to have vegetable gardens.
In the South Island of New Zealand, rural subdivisions have to be in excess of 10 acres per lot. Thousands of acres of good agricultural land have been divided up in recent years. I live on one of these subdivisions. All around me are lots that each have a fancy McMansion on it, with a long driveway and practically nothing else. Generally the people who buy these lots go over budget on their houses and have little or no credit left with which to develop their land. They all work in Christchurch and commute in and out every day.
I was visiting someone recently for a coffee and we got onto the subject of vegetable gardens. She said (and I quote) “we have an enormous vegetable garden”. I love vegetable gardens and so I asked to see it. The “enormous” garden was 6 raised beds about 3ft by 6ft. There was more path than bed. Every bed was weedy and there were no winter crops in at all. And this was an “enormous vegetable garden”?
The bottom line is that there is very little to eat where I live. The livestock won’t last long and anyway, you can’t live on just meat. There are no native bush areas at all here as it all used to be an old swampy riverbed and the first settlers in the 1850’s cleared it all. Now it is all grass with giant conifer shelter belts between fields. And that’s it.
I’m sure that given time we could form a productive community, but at the moment we are a community of almost 100% consumption. Now when collapse happens, what will people eat? Well, after the livestock has gone, nothing.
And this is my concern. What will we eat if we throw our lot in with the community on day one and expect it to support us? With the best will in the world, our community is not able to support us even for a week. If I walk up to my local school to join a gathering of hungry frightened people, what will I get from it? No matter how clever we are, we can’t produce food enough for all out of thin air. We can the plantains and dandelions that grow in abundance, but how many our children will starve in the process?
And again with the best will in the world, how will my community start to grow crops when they have no seeds, no ploughs, and no relevant skills. I’m not surrounded by country folk. I’m surrounded by city folk who aspire to “rural” living. My friend has just had her third lounge added to her 450 sq metre house. Who needs 3 sitting rooms?
What I have realized is that I can’t rely on my community to feed my family in the immediate aftermath of collapse. I will join in wholeheartedly to help us get organized and to start growing crops. I actually grew up in very wealthy farming country, and almost everyone I went to school with were the children of successful farmers. I grew up in arable land and on any walk would pass at least a dozen different crops. I’m no expert by any means but I am familiar with the farming year and practices.
The great self sufficiency writer John Seymour wrote that complete self sufficiency is almost impossible to sustain. But he was talking about not only food production but also manufacturing your own cloth and making your clothes, crafting your own tools and crockery. I’m not planning on going this far. When I talk about self sufficiency I really mean taking responsibility for growing enough food to feed my family and animals.
So what’s my plan? Well, it is to be self sufficient in food for at least the first few years. I’m not hoarding food, partly because I don’t have the space, but also I don’t have the funds. I’m going to grow our food, and produce as many calories as possible.
In my opinion, the most critical time for food will be Collapse+1day, right up to Collapse+3 years. And I’m quite sure that will be universal, unless you have the good fortune to live near the Amish. I would expect some sort of community cohesion and co-operation to have evolved sufficiently by then.
Obviously I may be overwhelmed by my hungry neighbours and to insure against the possibility of having my crops stolen, I have started to plant out various shrubs and trees around my land that are edible (and tasty) but which the average person wouldn’t recognize as food. Hopefully, particularly if we keep quiet about them, these foodstuffs will go unnoticed.
That first winter will be a grim time for most people I think. You only have to miss a few balanced meals before you start to suffer from malnutrition, and then you are more prone to disease and illness. I’ve just started to make a list of meals I can make from what I can grow, and hopefully within the next week or so I’ll have a good range of meals that I can start to introduce to my family. I’m still stuck on the bread substitute though, so if you have any ideas or recipes I’d be very interested in hearing them.