Mid-Scale Grain Gardening in Alaska- Part 1, By Alaskan Gardeners

Food sufficiency is a large part of self sufficiency, so my wife and I pursued mid-scale grain gardening, though our home was in Alaska. Here is our story and how we have done this.

Breakdown of My Article

My article will cover the following:

  • Preamble: Why We All Should Become Increasingly Self-sufficient– The First Steps
  • Definition of Mid-Scale Grain Gardening
  • Crop Operations
  • Reaping and Drying
  • Threshing and Winnowing
  • Scaling Up Harvesting Operations
  • So, What To Do With All This Grain?
  • Disclaimer

Preamble: Why We Should All Become Increasingly Self-sufficient

People’s outlook and actions are largely a product of their experiences, both real and vicarious. My wife and I have spent most of the 23 years prior to 2007 visiting much of the world via sailboat, and our observations have made a big impact on our view of the world.

Trade Deficits

Trade deficits are a reality. In Asia, more than three decades ago, we saw smart, hard-working people whose wages were a pittance by U.S. standards. In Singapore, many international corporations had modern production facilities, some in industrial parks, in total covering many square miles of this city-state. (A roadside view of industrial park after industrial park by taxi, just to get a mental image of the scope of the imported industrialization, took us 45 minutes.) These global corporations were taking advantage of these ambitious, well-educated, low-wage workers to enhance profits in their global trade; later, this trickle of industries exiting the U.S. and Europe to implant in Asia became a steady flow. Even back then, Singapore was the busiest container port in the world.

The accelerating exodus of the developed world’s major corporations left behind consumer societies that produced less goods and more debt each year to exchange for their essential needs. Earlier, I think that it was from the chairman of Sony that I first read the phrase “hollowing out of America” to summarize the process. Little imagination is required to see the end result. What do we make to exchange with China in return for their manufactured goods?

What do we make that oil-producing countries need, in exchange for oil? Our own shale drilling efforts for oil are barely profitable, or are unprofitable, for the drilling companies, yet are priced at the upper affordable level of consumers. If these questions are inadequately answered, then how do we pay for our essential needs? We’re running trade deficits with these countries now, that is, paying for our essential needs with debt. How long can that last?

Exported Technological Advantage

Asia now has the new factories, the jobs filled with trained workers, the technological advantage of ongoing production improvement, the education, the work ethic, and, increasingly, the wages to pay for their future demand. Much, maybe most, of the world’s “high tech” is now manufactured in Asia. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the daily newspaper had several pages in the center of the newspaper teaching Microsoft’s Excel to their readers. These people were willing to work hard to better their standard of living. By contrast, our government now has produced an economic growth rate barely above a recessionary level despite trillions of unpayable debt and unfunded liabilities and with a large portion of the population either without or unwilling or unable to work.

Russian Collapse of Ruble

We were in Russia two years after the collapse of the Ruble, at the depth of their economic collapse. There, we saw first hand what end results of economic collapse can look like. The exchange rate was 620 Rubles to the U.S. Dollar, while we were there. Two years prior, according to our Russian guide, the exchange rate was about two Rubles to the U.S. Dollar. All imported goods were unaffordable to the average Russian.

We had joined a tourist flight from Cyprus to Russia. All of our companions spoke either Russian or Cypriot. All of the signs in Russia were unreadable to English speakers, and very few in Russia spoke English. We were sitting in the Moscow Hotel wondering how we were going to learn about Russia when a Russian lady, who was to became our guide, passed us leading four American tourists and speaking excellent English. Later, we saw her alone in a corner of the main lobby, and she agreed to become our Moscow guide for two days.

So, instead of a fun-focused and organized Moscow tour, we received direct answers from a Moscow resident about life in Russia. We saw sights that Russian residents see.

First Example- Double Lines of People Displaying Items For Sale

As one example, in Moscow, we saw double lines of people, one double line approaching 60 yards long, formed before subway entrances, each line composed of people sitting or standing side-by-side and facing the other line, each person with a little display of items from their homes laid out in front of them, some with crafts, to sell. These people needed more cash to cover necessary expenses. Subway users walked between these lines, sometimes stopping to buy something from these desperate people. Many were older people whose pensions were no longer sufficient to purchase everyday needed expenses, including food.

Second Example- No Goods In Department Stores For Sale

Another example is, from our upper floor window in the Moscow Hotel, there was almost no traffic visible. Large glass windows from department stores facing the street were papered over. There were no goods to sell, because there were few buyers. Our Russian guide didn’t know how she was going to pay for her apartment rent. Bad things do happen; it’s not always just theoretically possible, historical, or something that happens to others. Our end result may be much worse, because Russia had oil and gas to trade to a still prosperous Europe (based on increasing debt, however).

Problems Leading to Event Cascades and Low Standard of Living

I’ve had trouble writing this preamble, struggling against a tendency to flood readers with detailed descriptions of problems. Some of these problems include unpayable debt at all levels, potential global economic contagion of regional distress, demographics with a bulge of retirees expecting pensions that are under-funded, competition for dwindling resources, peak affordable oil, complexity costs of top-heavy governments, currency wars, dollar debasement, 7+ billion people vs global carrying capacity, common tribal values of ethics, and morality gone because of politically correct multiculturalism.

If you’ve done much reading, you know that all of these terms connote increasing impacts, and some of these impacts will cause event cascades. (This is defined as one event triggering other events, and these in turn trigger still other events; therefore, an event cascade may be one similar to the fall of Lehman Brothers triggered by over-leveraged mortgage debt and rising interest rates.) These problems will markedly lower our standard of living, at the minimum. It is a slow motion train wreck.

Negative Change

In systems analysis terms, the flows have been changing negatively for over three decades, but the stock was large, so the resulting depletion of stock has only recently become critical. In physiological terms, the system is trying very hard to maintain homeostasis, but complex systems, like our society and like organisms, have hard limits to adaptability. To combat our impending financial problems, our reserves are about exhausted. With all of these problems, some more immediately pressing than others, it’s hard to be positive and not be faking it, or, the alternative, tuned out.

The difference between the lifestyle we in the U.S. have, and the sustainable lifestyle we can pay for, is too alarmingly great for most realistic observers to find the situation sustainable long term. Since we, individually, can do little about the overall trends, perhaps the best we can do is tend our own little gardens and let the world go by, to strive to be bystanders, not victims, to the impacts of system change. And this brings us to what this article is about.

Reasonable Action– Personal Self-Sufficiency

If you buy this basically negative systemic outlook, one of the reasonable courses of action would be to strive for personal self-sufficiency; this article is about enhancing food self-sufficiency with grain gardening.

The First Steps

Our traveling experiences and the resulting conclusions were strong enough to overcome ambivalence and breach the threshold to motivate us to action when we arrived back home. When we sailed into our home port in Valdez, Alaska in the fall of 2007, we were determined to become in large part self-sufficient and to anticipate the future dilution of the U.S. Dollar’s purchasing power (two of several action themes). At the minimum, these actions will be insurance. While the macro picture seems clear and inevitable, the timing is dependent on unpredictable events.

Food Self-sufficiency Focuses– Protein, Vegetable, and Grain

For purposes of discussion, food self-sufficiency can be subdivided into protein gathering, vegetable gardening, and grain gardening. For Alaskans, protein self-sufficiency is frequently attained, or aided, via wild fish and game harvesting. (Although, this is becoming less the casew, as federal and state authorities in Alaska modify existing laws to redistribute hunting and fishing rights from everybody to Natives and in effect instituting discrimination but politically correct discrimination.) Self-sufficiency efforts for us began in the summer of 2008, when we started clearing land for a large garden. Vegetable self-sufficiency (including root crops, such as potatoes, carrots, and turnips, as well as greens, such as brassicas and spinach) is fairly easy to attain, even with Alaska’s short growing season.

Vegetable and Grain Gardens

We wanted both vegetable and grain gardens. Becoming self-sufficient with home-grown grain faced many challenges. In the locale of my home, in southern interior Alaska, my impression, without weather data verification, is that the growing season is usually shorter than even in northern interior Alaska because the summers are cooler. We started by growing rye, hull-less oats, and the variety of hull-less barley developed by the University of Alaska. Hull-less oats and hull-less barley, after threshing, become a clean grain and hull-less, like wheat. After two years of trials, I concluded that the growing season was too short for rye to mature.

Eventual Success with Hull-less Barley and Hull-less Oats

Even with eventual success in growing hull-less barley and hull-less oats, the equipment for mid-scale grain harvesting (mid-scale is defined below) for retail purchase did not exist. I had to fabricate my own solutions. Much of what I learned was via the Internet, and I feel indebted. Aided by ideas from others, I have been able to assemble a relatively low-cost integrated system of solutions to grain harvesting in Alaska, or anywhere that grain will grow. The primary justification for this article is to share this information. It is “pay back” time, a time for me to share my experience with “others”, as there were previously “others” who shared their knowledge for me to utilize. Considering the growing evidence of threats to our lifestyle, I think that a lot of people may be interested in this type of information, my public good deed.

Tomorrow, I will get into crop operations, so come back. We have much to cover.

See Also:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been part one of a four part entry for Round 74 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

First Prize:

  1. A $3000 gift certificate towards a Sol-Ark Solar Generator from Veteran owned Portable Solar LLC. The only EMP Hardened Solar Generator System available to the public.
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Third Prize:

  1. A Royal Berkey water filter, courtesy of Directive 21 (a $275 value),
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Round 74 ends on January 31st, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.


  1. Looking forward to the remaining parts. I lived in central Alaska when I was young and returned during my 40s but only for a short while. I am a major follower of all things Alaska and have great respect for the hearty folks who live there.

  2. Having lived in southern interior Alaska (I still own a home near there), Barley is about the only grain crop anyone has ever had any margin of success growing. It seems a bit better up near Delta Junction, but not much. Some oat varieties might be harvestable, but you can forget about pretty much all other grains.

    That said, there are a couple of commercial farms in the Susitna and Matanuska River Valleys that grow a large selection of vegetable crops, including potatoes. We’ve U-Picked some of those farms with good results, and reasonably decent prices. I’ve done well in Anchorage growing cabbage and all the rhubarb one can stand to eat. Without much effort, I was able to produce cabbage heads quite a bit larger than 12″ diameter.

    For the average Schmo, growing grain crops on arable land in Alaska is not practical. The required effort for cultivating such a subsistence crop precludes having a career of any sort either close enough to commute to, or time enough to pay for the mortgage. We did the math, and concluded it would be far more practical and far less expensive to ship a few tons of grain up from the Palouse, put it in dry storage somewhere secure and reasonably convenient, and invest the difference in things far less risky. It all boils down to making $100k+ a year and stockpiling what we need for the rest of our lives, or clearing $30k a year if the crop comes in, and the potential to grow more every year as long as everything is just right. In a SHTF situation, defending a connex box ought to be far easier than 50 acres of almost ready to harvest crops.

    You can grow enough potatoes to feed your family for a year in the backyard garden up there, if you are smart about it. I met a lot of folks who did, and no one who grew barley anywhere near me.

  3. The line that really jumped out at me was the line about older people selling in the vendor lines because their pensions no longer were enough to meet their basic needs. That is happening to many folks here. Pensions are not increasing with the cost of living – not even the phoney cost of living figures we are told are real. Our medical costs with prescriptions are roughly the same as our total income. How is that supposed to work?? Well I’m selling on ebay which may be our version of the Russian vendor lines.

  4. Around 2013 I read the book “Survivors” and that kicked me off into re-starting my gardening ventures and the quest to learn how to can my harvests.
    In 2014 I cleared the weeds from an old garden area at one of my rental properties in Anchorage.
    I hand dug an existing 4ft. X 20 ft. raised bed and part of a 30 X 60 flat area. Note to self, if I make any more raised beds make them 3 feet wide. My arms are not that long. I also started to play with container gardening along the south side of my home. I had three battles to fight one the weather the second weeds and the third slugs. The slug problem was so bad in 2015 that I would go on search and destroy missions to hunt them. My neighbor’s ducks were well fed that year with a head or slime count of over 300 of the slimy bastards. I found that after the first two or three the dirt sticking to my fingers made picking them out of the dirt better. I also laid cardboard squares and the outer guard leaves of my cabbage plants on the ground for the slimy munchers to hide under during the day. If it should hit the fan I would try to get a few ducks to do this job.
    By 2015 my wife bought me the largest roto-tiller Sears sells. It is a monster to control but I could, if necessary, till the 1/3-acre property that I have with no problem well now with my age and arthritis some problem.
    In 2015 I planted Blue Lakes Bush String Beans and Yellow wax beans in the raised bed and the weather co-operated I was able to get 3 pickings and canned either fresh pack or pickled 20-pint jars of beans. I also had Carrots, Turnups, Red Beets, Head Lettuce Zucchini Cabbage and Cauliflower in my flat garden. The slugs loved the lettuce.
    In the container alongside of my home I grew Sugar Peas (Edible Pod Peas) in 3 small Rubbermaid totes. These did quite well and I got 4 pickings for meals and a few I snacked on whenever I walked by. Leaf Lettuce, Tomato’s in 5 gal. buckets, green Bell peppers, Egg Plant, Zucchini in large round plastic tubs, Red Beets, Carrots, Spinach and Dill. They all did well except the Zucchini which did Great. I missed 2 and when I discovered them they were over 2 feet long. We split these in half, scooped out the seeds and put fried hamburger and marinara sauce on them and baked them with provolone cheese.
    I was cooking some Red Beets to make pickled Red beets and the wife came running out of the bathroom where she was taking a bath, I looked at her and said not now honey I have a pot of Red Beets cooking on the stove. She yelled earthquake, it was then that I felt it. I looked at her and said, “If you are going outside you might want to put at least a jacket on it’s chilly outside”, as I went to the kitchen to check the pots. Being Pennsylvania Dutch, we love pickled Red Beet Eggs. For some reason carrots here taste sweeter than imported from outside (California) carrots. The people at the Extension Service say it is because of our soil. I fresh Pack them for soups, stews and cooking as well as pickling them.

    20016 was a repeat of 2015 but a larger garden area for Yukon Gold and Red potatoes and the addition of more totes along the house for container potatoes. A 3-pound bag of seed potatoes grew enough for potatoes once or twice a week to last us until March. The weather co-operated again and I planted more Wax beans in a different area and more Blue Lake Beans. I still have green and Yellow beans for stews and “Ham & String Beans. Boil the meat off of a ham bone, throw into the stock some cubed potato’s and 3 Qts. of mixed Green and Yellow string beans I like vinegar on mine my wife puts butter on hers (Don’t put both you will get sick). The Zucchini, Cauliflower, cabbage and everything else did great. I did a garden pickle mix of about 15 pints. The cabbage I turned into “Pepper Cabbage” AKA Freezer Slaw

    Pepper cabbage
    A simple recipe as a side dish for the Holidays to go with almost any meal but especially a greasy one like fried fish, turkey or a beef roast is called “Pepper Cabbage” AKA “Freezer Slaw” (it can be frozen for up to a year and it will taste as fresh as the day it was made.
    Shred 1 head of cabbage
    Toss with 1 Table spoon of salt and set aside
    in a sauce pan combine 2 cups of sugar Or Splenda
    1 cup Apple Cider vinegar
    1/4 cup water
    1 Table spoon Mustard Seed
    1 Table spoon Celery seed
    bring to a boil for 1 Minute and then let cool completely
    While this happens dice
    1 Green Bell Pepper
    1 Red Bell Pepper
    Shred 1 or 2 Carrots
    When mixture is completely cool to room temp.
    Rinse shredded cabbage and drain thoroughly and in a large bowl combine everything and set in refrigerator overnight (it lets everything combine and tastes better)
    serve or put up in 1-pint Tupperware containers and freeze.
    NOTE: This can be taken on picnics and you don’t have to keep it cool it won’t spoil like coleslaw.
    I made close to 5 gallons of this we all like it.
    I tried sweet corn but it was a bust.
    The Zucchini got to a point where my wife forbade me from brining any more into the house. I snuck some in and fermented some in quart jars and they were good I did this to some pickles we tried to grow this year also.

    20017-The summer of 2017 our normal summer came. 20015 and 20016 we had nice warm days with lots of sun and over 10 days where the temperature hit 70 degrees or more. 20017 we had a cold wet summer with maybe 4 days in the low 70’s. That coupled with my knees going bad with arthritis where I couldn’t stand much to weed the garden or hunt slugs we didn’t get much from the garden while my container garden, which is sheltered and on the south of my home did better. We added pickle plants this year and I managed to put up 5 pints of Bread and Butter pickles.
    This fall we had a bay window installed in the living room of our home and I am listening to Christmas Carols, drinking cocoa and looking out at a cow moose eating the berries off of our Mountain Ash and dreaming with trepidation the 2018 summer growing season. Will my knees hold up, will my wife allow me to use the area of the bay window to start my plants in March? I know the weeds and slugs will be bad this year so maybe I will get some duck’s this year but the down ide is the neighbors cat that free roams. Those super sonic pellet rifles are loud as crap and I live trapped the bastard twice and took it to animal control so now it’s trap shy. It cost them $75.00 each time to get it out of the pound.

    Things that I have grown here with no problem: Potatoes, Turnups (Moose LOVE them), Carrots, Radishes, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Broccoli, Red Beets, lettuce both leaf and head, Spinach, Pickles, Zucchini.
    Items that take a little effort String Beans, Egg Plant, Tomatoes Bell Peppers, strawberries.
    A LOT of effort Sweet Corn. The ground doesn’t get warm enough naturally.
    People with greenhouses grow other things but this is what I have grown.
    I won’t mention Rhubarb (over 70 pounds a year) and Raspberries (they are like weeds).

  5. If America would get back to the quality they once reigned supreme over the world our whole economy would be re-invigorated . Chinese work cheap and it still shows in the end . Make something again like the 1947 John Deere model B I had . When the engine rod,crank,piston pin bearings were worn you took out one of the factory installed shims to restore the clearances and ran it another 40 years .

  6. I have been experimenting with hull-less oats for several years in Kodiak, growing them in raised beds. Some years they mature fully, other years not. The straw is certainly a valuable garden addition, while unripe or ripe grain can be a good chicken feed. Hand threshing the grain is a pain.
    My garden supplies a lot of our vegetables, very expensive otherwise at the store. Still have kale, leeks, chard, and various herbs now outside. Later in the winter the deer may eat them if the snow ices over.
    Permaculture practices have helped; growing comfrey for high nitro mulch (and sticky leaves that don’t blow away in our ferocious winds)for garlic.
    All the cold winter veggies are useful, and berry hedges. Porches, south or west sides of the house, are good heat traps to grow tender plants in summer like tomatoes and zucchini.
    A lot of folks have built hoop houses through the FDA’s program, these have greatly increased local yields. They have been visible, and more people tend to want to garden to keep up with neighbors.
    It does not seem possible to be fully self-sufficient here, but if whole populations grow more food,even just the easy ones like rhubarb, chard, raspberries, garlic,potatoes and the cold weather greens, we would be much more robustly supplied.

  7. I grew sunshine hull less barley on the Kenai a few years – but I discovered my soil needs more work for a better crop. I had good success with a black hullless variety that is drought tollerant and tolerates poor soil The experiment continues…

  8. I did some quick calculating based on reported crop yield for Oats, Barley and potatoes in Alaska. Using USDA 2015 crop production report (page 79 of 101), Univ of Missouri Extension crop weights tables, and nutritiondata.self.com website, I calculated that one acre will yield about 2.6 million calories of barley, 2.5 million calories of oats, or 8 million calories of potatoes on average for Alaska. Per pound, potatoes yield about 20% of the general nutrition of the grains, also being lower in iron and much higher in Vitamin C.

    For the amount of effort put into cultivation and harvest, it would seem, at least in Alaska, that potatoes would be a much better choice than grains for a main subsistence crop. With the yield necessary for self sustainment requiring considerably less growing area, the utilization of the difference in area for other crops would be much more feasible, and result in a much more diverse and complete nutrient source for similar growing space. Perhaps this is a big reason why the vast majority of subsistence farmers in Alaska grow potatoes and not grains as their primary crop. For those who are stuck doing most of the cultivation and harvesting without the aid of expensive mechanical equipment, the economics get real simple real quick.

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