Greetings, fellow preppers! In this article we share our experiences of the past two years to help you see the complexities of growing your family’s food. In the long run, food production is crucial to survival. It takes both knowledge and hands-on experience to successfully manage livestock and grow fruits and vegetables. Currently three of us live on our homestead full time with a possibility of about 20 folks ranging from infants to senior citizens if TEOTWAWKI occurs.
Fall is a good season to make plans and prepare for next year’ s growing season. I think this basic information will help you realize just how much effort is entailed in raising sufficient amounts of food with limited or no machinery to assist.
The two basic categories of food production are animals and plants. In addition, we also have a large amount of stored bulk foods for both humans and animals, along with a wide variety of heirloom seeds.
Overall, we try to invest in heirloom breeds, not fancy over-bred versions that are reliant on special diets and medications.
Chickens – Provide eggs and meat. Our bantam hens typically raise a brood of 8-10 chicks once or twice a year if we do not gather their eggs. Right now we have 12 five-week-old and 11 three-month-old chicks. About half of them will be roosters who fight and harass the hens when they mature. We also have several large hens who lay brown eggs. The chickens free range mostly in the orchard and herb/berry garden. They receive whole wheat and oyster shell in the evening. We could easily supplement their protein needs by adding a worm bin in our garden. Another way to reduce the amount of grain needed is to sprout it for several days. This increases the bulk of the grain to three times the original amount and provides additional nutrition. I soak about 2 cups of wheat in a half gallon jar, rinse it several times a day and feed it when the green shoots have their first joint.
Ducks – It has been very satisfying since the ducks came to see empty snail shells scattered around the property. We have established a small pond for the ducks to enjoy. Our four Khaki Campbell ducks used to consistently produce four eggs per day, but then we got rid of the drake because he damaged some of the hens. That was a mistake. Without the drake, the ducks actually started changing into drakes and we ended up with only one duck laying eggs. We purchased six newly hatched ducks and one drake who are now old enough to swim in the pond.
Goats – Currently we have three does and two doelings. We chose to sell this year’s wethers rather than butcher them. Two does are milking full time. We sold one doe with twins because she had two orifices in one teat and it was impossible to milk her with a bucket – the milk sprayed straight out. The goats provide us with more than enough milk for drinking, cheese-making, kefir, yogurt and cooking. The milk also helps feed our dogs and cats. During milking the does are offered a quart of grain that we mix ourselves from bulk oatmeal, wheat flakes and split peas. I also cut greens for them to reduce the amount of grain needed. We planted two small raised beds of alfalfa last year and this year we were able to get three cuttings from them. I used organic sprouting seeds because the FDA recently approved GMO alfalfa without restrictions and we do not use GMO products. We added two more alfalfa beds this year. We also have comfrey, kale and miscellaneous vegetable thinnings. We cut the tops off of our strawberries to reduce slugs and discovered that the goats love strawberry leaves. All the goats have access to minerals with kelp, diatomaceous earth and wormwood added occasionally for parasite control.
Sheep – We purchased five registered Icelandic ewes a few months ago. They also free-range and are given a cup of alfalfa pellets at night, with kelp and herbs added twice a week. They have constant access to minerals. The Icelandic breed is hardy and can be triple purpose: Wool, meat and milk. We are going to breed them this fall to an outstanding ram. We have an experienced shepherd as our mentor to teach us about keeping sheep.
Dogs and cats – The dogs provide predator protection, particularly at night. The cats reduce the rodent population. We feed our dogs beans and rice with eggs, milk and an herbal powder that supplies trace minerals. They receive kefir-soaked oatmeal at other times. Thus, we can get by without commercial dog food and, as an added bonus, our older dog became much stronger and healthier once his diet was improved. The cats are trickier. They require more whole protein so we mix commercial cat food with eggs and milk for them. If times get tough the cats can be on their own with just supplemental milk from the goats. All the animals enjoy whey leftover from cheesemaking.
Here is a list of the fruits and vegetables we are currently growing. An * means that we actually harvested food, feed or seeds from that plant this year.
Fruits: Apples*, aronia*, asparagus(chose not to harvest because it is a new bed), avocado, blackberries*, blueberries*, cherries (birds got every one), citrus, date, figs (birds again), gingko, goumi, grapes, kiwi, medlar*, mulberry*, nectarine, peach, pear, plum*, pomegranates, raspberries*, rhubarb, serviceberry*, silverberry*, strawberries*, and wintergreen*.
Vegetables: Alfalfa*, amaranth*, artichokes, beans, carrots*, celery*, chard*, chick peas*, chives*, corn*, cucumbers*,comfrey*, favas*, French sorrel*, kale*, leeks*, oca, onion*, parsley*, peas*, potatoes*, pumpkins*, shallots*, squash*, stevia*, and sunflowers.
Grains: Buckwheat*, flax*, kamut*.
We also have about 20 herbs.
Diversity is the key to success. Depending on weather conditions, pests and diseases, fruits and vegetables may do well one year, then nothing the next.
We have four main growing areas for our plants: A young orchard with about 90 trees, an herb and berry garden , a vegetable garden and a greenhouse my husband built this spring.
PLANT PRODUCTION CHORES
Watering – occurs about six months out of the year in our area, takes 4 to 6 hours per day.
Manure water/Urine bucket – this is dumped on plants for additional nutrients.
Weeding – grass and clover are our ground cover, but constantly invade the plant spaces.
Pruning/Staking/Trellising – dead limbs can be removed at any time, thinning is usually done in dormancy.
Remove pests/diseased leaves and plants – We have sawfly larvae (aka slimy guys) that hatch 3-4 times a summer, along with caterpillar eggs deposited in fruit tree leaves.
Mulch – we do this just before the rainy season so the nutrients can soak in over the winter.
Netting for protection from birds – losing all the cherries this year taught us the need for netting.
Manage greenhouse – what to plant, when, how to arrange plants for the most production space.
Start and tend seedlings – We are trying to grow food year-round, so this is a constant process.
Enrich soil – we add manure, sawdust, and compost.
Manage poultry for insect control in the orchard and herb garden – have to remove the animals before they start eating the crops.
Save seeds – one of my favorite chores. I use lots of plastic containers to keep the seeds until they are totally dry, then I label and put them in plastic bags for the next year.
Manage planting schedule – I spread out my seedlings plantings so I can take better care of each batch.
Harvest fruits and vegetables – this can include canning, drying and freezing.
Clear land for planting/build new raised beds – we keep adding land as we have the time and resources to improve it.
Plant propagation from cuttings and layering – this is to gain experience in starting plants.
A TYPICAL SUMMER DAY
So, with all these plants and animals, how does a typical day look at our homestead? Here is a sample of our daily summer chores for food production. This does not include housework, building projects, emergencies, community involvement, etc.
Each morning we let the chickens out of several coops – the regular coop, the small coop with half-grown chicks, and the little coops that have moms and chicks. Ducks are let out; goats and sheep are turned out to graze and the does are milked. Goat stands are cleaned. Water containers are filled and ground grains are put out for chicks. Whey is also put out in pans in the herb garden for chickens to drink. Cats and dogs are fed. If it is a cheese-making day, I get the milk started early in the morning and work on it along with my other chores.
After breakfast it is time to begin watering. We stagger our watering so that we do not empty out our 1,500 gallon tank, which can refill one time during the day giving us a total of 3,000 gallons. Currently I begin with watering a dozen trees in the orchard for 20 to 30 minutes per set, running four hoses at a time. It takes six days to cover all the trees . While the hoses run, I inspect the trees for pests, remove diseased leaves, leaves with sawfly larvae and webs with caterpillar eggs. Recently I have begun putting a gallon of manure tea on the trees after watering to increase their nutrition. Our trees are young and mostly semi-dwarf. I pull weeds and cut grass which I feed to the ram who is kept in a small paddock.
Then I move to the vegetable garden and do one of four sections. The greenhouse is watered about every third day depending on temperature. Seedlings and new transplants are watered daily, usually with manure tea. Seeds are gathered as they mature. Weeds are tossed over the fence to the ram. Old plants are removed. If it is a planting day, I will do that in the late afternoon; usually I fill the pots with soil the day before.
We take a break in the heat of the day, sometimes down by the creek or catching up on things in the house; often we take a nap.
In the afternoon I am back to watering. The herb/berry garden takes the longest and is divided into five section, one is watered each day. Then the evening round-up begins. Cats are fed, ducks are given food and clean water. Chickens are fed, eggs gathered, nesting hens are checked. The sheep are lured in with alfalfa pellets, then the goats are milked. The ram is taken out and grazed under supervision for about an hour. By dark everyone is secured in a barn or coop. Our new pond is still leaking so if there is water left in the evening, it goes to the pond. Often dinner is after chores. Then we relax with games or movies or reading articles to each other. We go to bed before 10:00 p.m. most nights because chores start again at 7:00 a.m. the next day.
MISCELLANEOUS GARDENING TIPS
I plant by the lunar cycles because the groundwater is affected by the pull of the moon’s gravity. Each month I mark a calendar with the planting dates and whether is is time to plant above or below ground. The basic idea is to plant all things that produce above the ground when the moon is increasing (from the new moon to the full moon) and things which produce below the ground when the moon is decreasing.
I must confess that I have a hard time eating raw greens even though I am well aware of the health benefits. This year I began training myself to eat and enjoy greens by taking a small bite of one type at a time until I developed a taste for it. I began with French sorrel which has a delightful lemony flavor, then added common amaranth (aka pigweed) which has little flavor at all. Then I added tender young comfrey leaves. Parsley, which I enjoy in small amounts, grows year-round in our climate so we are keeping several beds of it around. Currently I am working on chard – again, I started with young tender leaves. Next for me is kale which I started for our winter garden.
We love peas and this year grew several rounds, starting them about every three months with the fall peas getting planted just last week. I am going to see if I can grow them year-round,using the greenhouse in the winter. Our favas also did well this year. We dry them for sprouting or cooking. I save the largest and healthiest seeds for next year’s garden.
I love seed saving. All it takes is letting a few of each type of plant to grow its complete cycle which is two years for things like carrots, celery and parsley. When the seeds have dried on the plant you simply remove them and after drying for a few more days, place them in bags or containers in a dark, dry environment until planting time next year. If the rains come early, the entire plant can be put indoors tied to rafters.
Grains are a staple of life. I have several small raised beds of kamut growing – an ancient wheat. The kernels are much larger than today’s commercial wheat and I enjoy the flavor, plus kaumt seems to agree with my digestive system more than hard red winter wheat (which we have stored). It would take much more than we grow to supply our bread-making needs, but my experiments show that grains can be planted from May through July and still ripen before our long rainy season starts.
Another lesson I learned the hard way here is that I must start seedlings in pots and transplant them after they get several sets of leaves, otherwise the many birds, rodents, and slugs have a feast.
Avoid growing one crop year after year in the same place. We rotate crops and also intermingle different species in the raised beds. Companion planting can actually boost production. Grow different varieties of the same plant. Did you know that the 1845 Irish Potato Famine in Ireland was because most farmers grew only two species of potato which a disease wiped out?
Our soil is mostly clay and our heavy winter rains seem to leach out any nutrients that might be in it. Vegetables that we planted directly in the ground our first year were dismal failures. We built raised beds and put together the best soil we could for the first year out of some topsoil we came up with, but it was not until we had manure from the goats and sawdust from logging some trees that our plants began to thrive. This summer our original compost bins from our compost toilets were a year old and well-decomposed so we filled three new beds with it. I planted kale in those and one old bed. The kale in the compost beds is four times as tall and wide as the little seedlings in the regular raised beds. Our composting toilets cost less than $30 to build and work well for our family. In one bathroom we keep urine separate to apply directly to plants.
All winter I clean off the goat stands and put the droppings around the trees in the orchard, the berry bushes and replenish the raised beds with it. In the summer I half-way fill 5-gallon buckets with goat pellets, add water and use it for manure tea.
A kind neighbor filled our trailer with river silt from his property which we put around the orchard trees. They are young trees and have not been doing well in this soil despite applications of manure.
The high-hoop greenhouse has been a worthwhile investment in our Pacific Northwest climate. The greenhouse is 16 x 24 with a raised bed along the south side and a planting table on the north side. Even though it is unheated, we started tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, peas, carrots(for seed) and various other plants a couple of months sooner than our neighbors were able to. The center is filled with Earthboxes – unique planting containers that have a water reservoir in the bottom. I put about a foot of composted soil in them and plants flourish. Earthboxes and the greenhouse seem to complement each other. Our main concern with the greenhouse is the short livability of the plastic covering – although supposedly good for 8 years, ours already shows signs of near-tear marks after just one season. We plan to use our old glass windows to build a second greenhouse.
Birds are another learning experience. The crows and bluebirds ate every single fig on all of the fig trees. Other birds ate every single cherry and they began picking off the ripe blueberries until I got netting up. While I am writing this, my husband is putting up PVC hoops over the two largest figs which we will cover with netting – I don’t mind sharing with our wild creatures, but they simply cannot take every bit of our food supply.
Blackberries are abundant here. Most people clear them away as noxious weeds – we use goats to clear ours, but I have a large planting of blackberries in the herb/berry garden along a fence line and found that their quick growth provides lots of feed for goats when they need to be confined for some reason. We also enjoy the berries, so this fall we will allow more blackberries to start along our fence lines.
Although this sounds like a lot of work – and it is – my husband and I love our life. We have spent many years at desk jobs battling office politics and worrying about the stock market. Now our stock investments all have fur or feathers a and our rate of return is phenomenal! We dance in the meadow and thank our Creator for our beautiful slice of paradise.