The Time It Takes, by SwampFox

I work as a truck driver. That means I spend a lot of long, boring hours driving from state to state. I have a regular route, covering the same roads each day. On good days, not much happens that is new or exciting, and to pay attention to my job I need a bit of entertainment in the background. So I listen to a lot of audiobooks. A handful of these have been survivalist fiction or preparedness-oriented. I have discovered that many authors and readers may possess some unrealistic ideas about what a prepared life looks like, or what life might be like in a world without rule-of-law or without basic services.

In many of these fictional writings, the protagonists are described as everyday suburban people: City job, decent house, a couple of kids, and the American Dream. When the crisis comes, they go home and figure things out. Maybe they have some food on hand and a couple of firearms, and with a few trips to the local hardware store they manage to scrape by. The neighborhood comes together and plants subsistence gardens and develops a mutual defense plan. But real life is just not like that!  It takes logistics, planning, budgeting, organizing…

First, most people have no idea how much food it takes to survive, and what production of that quantity looks like. Part of that is because lots of people eat out and do not cook every meal at home. As an example, how many pounds of potatoes do you think you and your family would eat in a year? Five 10lb bags? Ten? Twenty? If you want 300 pounds of potatoes, you will need a space at least 50 feet long by 5 feet wide. Maybe more. That is just one crop. Do you like tomatoes, beans, and squash? What about carrots, celery, grain, or even meat? Just barely getting by for a family of four takes a lot of production space.

Second, crop production takes good soil. “Dirt” and soil are not the same thing, and most suburban neighborhoods just have dirt. When I worked in construction, land developers would buy a farm on the city outskirts. The first thing they do is to scrape off all the fertile topsoil. They have huge sifting machines that pull the rocks, sticks, and debris out of the topsoil, and then the sifted topsoil is sold by the truckload. But then, cheap, worthless, infertile red dirt and rocks are brought in, and sometimes even crushed concrete is packed underground to make the new subdivision level. Most subdivisions built in the last 50 years are created in this manner, and once houses are built approximately 2-3 inches of topsoil is sprinkled on top. Just enough to grow grass. Do you think a garden is possible there? Even if a subdivision was not created that way, not all soil is created equal. I grew up in a city subdivision, and I watched my father improve the backyard soil for my entire childhood. He started with clay, and years’ worth of leaf mold, manure, and sand made the soil barely usable. Even with all that labor, the garden was never as fertile as a garden placed on good soil. What is your land like? Can you take the time to improve it so you can grow what you need? Do you know how to do this?

Third, you must know your land intimately. This does not happen in one year or even in five years. Many farmers grew up on their land and have lived with it all their lives, and each year still brings something new. Each location is different and has unique challenges. My father has 70 years of gardening experience in 4 different states, and he is still learning. We have been working on our retreat property for nearly 10 years, and each season of each year brings new surprises. This year, insect pests we expected to show up in June waited an extra month and surprised us in July. Do you know which pests show up under certain weather conditions? Do you know what conditions help crops to thrive, and what conditions make them fail? Are you able to deal with the sudden appearance of 100 lbs of tomatoes, and package them for the future without wasting them? Do you look at your land and crops every day, to catch the sudden appearance of pests or disease? Do you know when frost is a risk in the summer and fall, and do you know how to protect plants against a surprise frost to extend your production season? Can you read the signs in the weather to predict sudden torrential rains, or a freak hailstorm? Even if you can do these things in one location, if you have recently moved you will be relearning such skills.

A major theme at my property has been the availability of materials. I recall listening to one novel where the protagonist used a pre-computer pickup truck to make a couple of trips to Home Depot for the supplies to build a greenhouse. I laughed out loud, because for me it takes at least a couple of heavy truckloads to create even a small outbuilding. Concrete, 2×4 lumber, large numbers of sheet metal pieces, and buckets of various fasteners. I finally built a wall of shelves in my shop just for all the various sizes of nails, screws, and bolts. Do you have the space for that? Do you have the money? It is really depressing when a cartload of nails, screws, and bolts rings up to $2,000 at checkout at the hardware store. I have been thankful that when I see an eight-foot-long 2×4 is $5 at the store. But years ago, I purchased a partial truckload of them at $2 each and stored them for later. When I have the time for a project, buying materials and storing them ahead of time ends up saving a lot of time. I have been repeatedly thankful to have a stash of lumber, a wall of fasteners, spools of wire, a shelf of tape, and car parts on hand. But getting to that point requires an intense investment of cash, time, and willpower to organize and inventory. Even when I think I am prepared, some new problem with a tractor or some new project makes me realize that I am not nearly self-sufficient.

Running a small family takes the skills of a brigade quartermaster and the foresight of a prophet. Building a barn to keep the materials in takes time. Building the racks in the barn for lumber storage takes time. Just getting the lumber off the truck, sorting it, and putting it away could be half a day’s work at least. Knowing what prices may go up due to foreign entanglements and wars, or being aware of coming shortages requires knowledge of the news and the economy. All these things must happen with limited money, limited time, and limited physical strength.

Progress assumes that there is not some minor crisis developing simultaneously. A broken truck, a broken tractor, a sick family member, an out-of-state funeral, or anything else can delay a project for days or weeks. Delays snowball until the amount of work seems overwhelming. Nearly ten years into working on my property, I still have a binder of lists of projects I need to accomplish. Some of those tasks are 7 or 8 years behind schedule, and plans can change dramatically in that time. I have planned an irrigation system running out to the garden for several years. My main goal is to avoid having 300 feet of hose lying in the grass. I had the route of the permanently-buried pipes planned out, but then another project changed that route completely. The route change meant a change in materials, and re-evaluating if I had purchased enough materials for the project. Even when you plan things well, you must have the flexibility to implement last-minute changes. Have you spent the time required to make sure you have everything on hand?

Another frequent trope in survival fiction is the concept of bugging out. But where do you bug out to? Every journey needs a destination. I have met people who have the idea that they will go to a family member’s farm property. That sounds nice on the surface. However, most farms are a delicately balanced miniature ecosystem. A certain number of animals produce a required quantity of manure. There is enough prepared garden space to produce a certain crop yield.

Even the septic system has a capacity that should not be exceeded. Alter any of those variables, and the system may become unbalanced. Of course, that assumes that one’s farmer friends or relatives are interested in taking you in. Not all will be. If my extended family shows up at my door, the answer is likely be “No.” In truth, I like eating and providing for those who are already here far better than I like my extended family. I will not have much sympathy for the people who partied and vacationed all during the good times while I worked. I know I will not be alone in those feelings. Are you taking care of yourself, or are you relying on the charity of others? Have you thought ahead about what your hard boundaries will be when people show up to impose on your kindness or take from what you have earned and saved? Have you taken the time to add like-minded friends into your life? Have you cut out people from your life who are not worth your time and trouble?

If you are planning on doing any of this in a situation where the rule-of-law has degraded, how far ahead have you thought about defense? Have you adequately protected vital areas of your home from gunfire? Do you have enough ammunition? Are your firearms sighted in, and have you taken enough time to practice? Have you used your weapons long enough and frequently enough to know their weak points? Unlike in novels, you will not be picking up something at the store in the last minute, or picking things up from a fallen enemy. You will be stuck with what you have on hand, for better or worse. You get most of the required experience from your daily living, comfortably carrying your preferred pieces of equipment and using them as needed.

What does this reality look like for me? I know I have two lifetimes of work to complete, and only half a lifetime in which to do it. I have experienced attempts at preparedness in three different states, and on my current property for nearly 10 years. Am I ready? No. I am not sure I will ever be truly ready. However, I have invested large amounts of time toward the goal, and I know that the work my family and I have done will keep us safer and better fed than those who have done nothing. This is real life, not a novel, and a “happily ever after” ending is unlikely unless you take the time required. There are no shortcuts.