I was blessed to grow up on a farm and later was fortunate to be able to receive an advanced degree in Agriculture. For the last 15 years my wife and I have been running a small diversified farm where we produce vegetables, fruit, and animal products for local markets and a C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture). During this time we’ve spent several years in several countries doing agricultural mission work, seeing how the rest of the world feeds itself, and doing our part to assist them with that.
Over time we’ve worked hard to turn our own 30-acre farm into a self-sufficient property. My goal has been to see our farm as one that could feed my family and other families far into the future if “the front gate gets shut and locked.” As SurvivalBlog readers are well aware, this seems to be more of a possibility with every passing day. The discussion on growing your own food often arises, and a recurring theme is the advice that you aren’t just going to open a pack of survival seeds and feed your family. I couldn’t agree more, but I often feel like readers get brow-beaten with that advice and can leave the discussion a bit overwhelmed and in the end do nothing to advance their food security.
Growing enough food to feed your family for an extended period of time is a daunting task, but let me assure you that it is doable with a plan, a little land, and the willingness to try. We have to be successful every year in order to stay in business, and that has naturally led us into growing techniques that work. With this article I want to share with you a few key elements of these techniques that I hope will be a big help in your journey towards food security.
Element Number One: The Importance of Timing and Food Storage
Step number one for growing enough food to survive is food storage. Now I know that this seems contradictory, since we are talking about growing food. Why would we store a bunch of food if we are planning on growing it ourselves? The answer is timing. Unless you never buy anything from the grocery store and already grow all your own food, year-round, most people would need to ramp up production tremendously in order to provide all of the food that they need.
Nobody knows when the tractor trailers will stop rolling and the grocery shelves will be empty. It could be any time of the year. The absolute worst time of the year for this to happen would be at the end of summer or the beginning of fall when warm season crops are a distant memory and it may be even too late to start any cool season/winter crops, which are normally started in August/September in our Zone 6. Starting in October, you would have a long winter and at least six months before the earliest spring crops could be harvested, and even longer for the high-calorie crops like potatoes, corn, and other carbohydrate-rich grains. So, even if you are planning on growing enough to feed yourself, six months of food storage is a minimum. A year’s worth is even better, especially for inexperienced growers. You’ll definitely need a little food insurance, as your first year’s crops are probably not going to meet your expectations.
If you are going to be eating year-round from food you produce yourself, it makes sense that you need to be growing just about year round. There is no need to take the extra expense and work to preserve all your food when you can eat most of it fresh. This is entirely possible in most zones, with good planning and the willingness to eat a wider variety of crops than corn, beans, and tomatoes.
The key here is a good plan and a succession of crops that are planted and harvested at the right time. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to buy a cheap monthly planner and to write all my seeding, transplanting, and harvest dates down. Make notes on what varieties you use, what works and what doesn’t. Start with a planting calendar from your local extension agent if you need a place to begin. The point is that every year you tweak your planting schedule on what works best, and after a season or two you’ll be way ahead of the game and planning will get easier with every passing year.
The bulk of our produce is grown from April to October, but we have things growing and eatable, pretty much year round. We do this with some basic season extension techniques, the main one being the use of a greenhouse and unheated high tunnels.
Element Number Two: Season Extension
A key element to growing success is how long it takes you to go from seed to harvest and how much of the year you are able to produce food. The normal three or four month growing season most people enjoy is not enough to produce the food you’ll need for the entire year, especially if you are limited in growing space. For that reason you are going to have to use season extension techniques with a minimum of a small heated greenhouse and a bigger unheated high-tunnel.
The one technique that we use that I consider the most valuable in extending our season and resulting in successful crops is producing our own transplants. Using a transplant rather than direct seeding crops automatically allows you to start the growing season weeks ahead of time. If we can start it in the greenhouse, we do. The only crops that don’t begin as transplants are the large seeded crops, like corn and beans, as well as some of the root crops like carrots. That said, even corn and beans can be transplanted, but they can only stay in pots for about two weeks before they need to be set out, so you aren’t gaining that much. If you have the ability and means to start your own plants from seeds, you are greatly broadening your horizons into the best varieties for survival gardens that you will never see for sale as a transplant in your local nursery or garden center.
Another advantage of producing your own transplants is the fact that you can provide optimum germination conditions for your seeds, which means you need less of them. You also give the plants several weeks head-start free from weed-competition, which is the bane of direct seeded crops. If the weather is not conducive to plant growth you can hold the plants a little longer in a protected environment before planting them out. A trick I use is to use a larger volume container for the first transplants I produce. That way they have plenty of growing space if I need to hold them a week or two later to wait for the weather. The later transplants that go from seed to field in just a few weeks get smaller containers that take less soil, as there won’t likely be a need to hold them longer in the greenhouse.
It doesn’t have to be big, but you do have to have a place to produce transplants. We are a commercial farm, but our greenhouse is only about 14 by 33 feet, and for several years we made due with one half that size. For a small family, an eight by twelve foot greenhouse would be a good start and would be doable in most anyone’s backyard. Of course, go as big as you can afford or have space for, as you’ll find a greenhouse is a useful structure that can be used year around. Our current greenhouse has insulated north and west walls and is a wood frame covered by double-walled poly-panels.
On the north wall we have a bank of 55-gallon water barrels that act as a heat sink, as well as a base for our plant benches. This water bank is made from food-grade poly barrels that are locally available for about eight dollars each. Filled with potable water, this is also an instant water storage system of nearly 1000 gallons of water. This design is very efficient, and we can heat it with a small propane heater. We’ve got a mid-sized storage tank that holds about two years worth of propane at our current usage.
Heating the Greenhouse
I tried a wood stove to heat the greenhouse at one point, but it just doesn’t make sense unless you are living in the greenhouse and can constantly monitor the temperature. An external wood burning boiler on a thermostat would be great, but it doesn’t make economic sense to use a costly unit like that to heat a small greenhouse. It’s better to spend money on improved insulation and be able to use a smaller heater.