Net Producer-Net Consumer Equations for Self-Sufficiency: Getting Out of the Pit

In a recent phone conversation with one of my consulting clients, I was asked why I placed such a large emphasis on living in the country, at a relatively self-sufficient retreat. I’ve already discussed at length the security advantages of isolation from major population centers in the blog, but I realized that I’ve never fully articulated the importance of self-sufficiency, at a fundamental level.

In a societal collapse, where you are in “You’re on Your Own” (YOYO) mode, it will be very important to be a net producer of water, food, and energy. This will mean the difference between being someone that is comfortable and well fed, and someone that is shivering, hungry, and thirsty, in the dark.

If you were to create computer models of a typical suburban home as compared to a small farm, they would probably present two very different pictures:

A typical suburban home is an energy pit. It generates hardly energy other than a bit of garden waste that could be used as compost, or fuel. A farm house on acreage, in contrast, can often be a net producer, especially if the farm includes a wood lot. (Standing timber that is suitable for use as firewood.) Properties with near-surface geothermal heat, coal seams, or natural gas wells are scarce, but not unheard of. I’ve helped several of my clients find such properties. For some further food for thought, see this article by Lester Brown over at The Oil Drum web site: The Oil Intensity of Food

A typical suburban home is a food pit. Just picture how many bags of groceries you tote home each week, month, and year. Compare than with the net volume of food produced by a small farm, or the meat produced by ranch. (For the latter, a ranch that is large enough to produce its own hay and grain is ideal.)

A typical suburban home is also a water pit, dependent on utility-piped water. But with a spring, or with well water and a photovoltaic or wind-powered pump, you can be a water exporter–charitably providing surplus water to your neighbors.

There are are of course some work-arounds for these limitations, such as installing photovoltaic power systems and rainwater catchments cisterns. But it is nearly impossible for a family to be a net producer of water, food, and energy, when living on just a small city lot.

Consider the inherent limitations of life on a “postage stamp” lot:

Limited acreage means that your house will always be a net importer of home heating fuel. Unless you live on acreage where you have a wood lot for firewood, you’ll end up on the wrong side of the production-consumption equation. Photovoltaics are practical for lighting and running some appliances, but the big energy loads like space heating, hot water, and kitchen range cooking exceed what PV panels can produce, unless you are a millionaire. Yes, there are substitute energy sources, but most of those–such as propane-but those-are also “imported.” Hmm… Perhaps it is worth the extra time and effort to find a retreat property that has a natural gas well, a coal seam or that is in a geothermal zone. At least buy a property with a wood lot, so you can heat your home and water with firewood.

Limited acreage and a location inside limits usually means restrictions on raising livestock. You might find a property that has been exempted or “grandfathered”, but without the room required to grow animal feed crops, you will still be a net importer. (You will be forced to buy hay and grain, rather than grow it yourself.)

In many jurisdictions, it is illegal to have a private water well in a neighborhood that is served by a public water utility. This usually has more to do with maintaining a monopoly, rather than any genuine worries about a public health issue. There are of course exceptions, such as older houses with wells, that pre-dated the advent of a water utility. In many jurisdictions, the owners of these wells benefit from grandfather clauses. If buying such a property, make sure that the grandfather clause exemption is transferable. (Otherwise, you will have to cap the water well.)

One of the great ironies of urbanized life in modern-day America is that there has been a great inversion. In 1909, it was dirt poor farmers that lived on acreage, while wealthy people lived on city lots. But now, in 2009, owning acreage is something that most people only dream of, for retirement. In the more populous coastal states, the price per acre of land that is within commuting distance of high-paying jobs has been driven up to astronomical prices.

Have you ever stopped to think why there are large Victorian-style houses falling into disrepair in some Inner City ghettos? This is because at one time, those neighborhoods are where rich people lived. They were nice, safe neighborhoods, and were conveniently close to work, shopping, and schools. But times (and neighborhoods) change. These days, most of the wealthy have long-since moved to suburbs or to the country.

If you decide that you must stay in the suburbs, then I recommend that you at least relocate to a stout masonry house that is on the largest lot that you can afford. When you search through real estate listings, some key phrases to watch for are “creek”, “grandfathered”, “mature fruit trees” (or “orchard”), “secluded”, and “well water.” Another key word to watch for is “adjoins”. It is advantageous to own a property that adjoins park land.

As I’ve often written, I recommend moving to a house on acreage in the country–that is if you can afford it, and your work and family situations allow it. But I’ll close with one admonition: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. There is no point on living on acreage if you have a large mortgage, and no working capital remaining to build up the infrastructure for genuine self-sufficiency. In fact, that would be “the worst of both worlds”, since you would have higher commuting costs, a bigger mortgage, and perhaps even a bigger annual tax bill. Owning non-productive land may be worse than owning no land at all.