A recent post commented on how it is next to impossible to grow one’s own food. It’s very hard work, has a difficult and long learning curve, but it can be done. This essay explains how to efficiently grow and store your own food. You can learn from our mistakes. Both my sets of grandparents farmed with a team of mules. We know a couple in a county north of us who farm using with a team of mules; they are able to feed themselves, the mules, and also customers at a farmer’s market.
I’m 73 years old and retired. I grew up in West Tennessee. Both my wife and I have a PhD in biophysical chemistry and have worked in academia and in the pharmaceutical business. Our scientific background in biochemistry is extensive. Now for my experience in farming, I grew up on a Farmall A tractor. My dad worked for the USDA, in the Soil Conservation Service. He used almost all of his vacation time building up the farm. At various times we had horses, turkeys, goats, chickens, pigs, and always cattle. We, at one time or another, grew soybeans, corn, cotton, and always hay. We had a sizable veggie garden. My mom did not work, and she put up much produce each summer. We always had two large freezers full of meat and veggies.
For the last six years, we’ve farmed on a 2.65 acre minifarm and sold veggies at local farmer’s markets. This essay is based on our farming experience and biochemical knowledge.
I’ve found repeatedly that city folk who have never grown or raised any amount of their own food do not really understand very much about agriculture. The anecdotes in Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, demonstrate this all too well. I’d figure that maybe 3% of Americans would recognize an asparagus plant in July.
One may grow enough food for one year for one person in 8000 square feet of good, correctly fertilized, full sun, away from trees, soil. As Ragnar Benson correctly points out in his recent book, Survival End Game, mechanization is essential. Every task that can be mechanized should be. One needs to use efficient irrigation systems that do not require dragging a hose around a half acre. Sprinkler irrigation is to be avoided, especially for those of the cucurbit family, as it will lead to powderey mildew. Carol Deppe’s suggestion to first focus on high calorie content crops that are easily stored is great advice.
I consider these to be absolutely essential books:
The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe. Read this first.
Seed to Seed Suzanne Ashworth. This is the Bible on saving your own seed, which is an essential skill.
Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel (You need a root cellar to benefit from this.)
How to Dry Foods by Deanna DeLong
The Art of Balancing Soil Nutrients William McKibben (There’s more on this subject later in the article.)
Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe. (This is essential to learn how to correctly combine a legume and a grain to give the optimal mix of the eight essential amino acids we humans need to consume. As a general rule a mix of 80% grain and 20% legume, by dry weight, works well.)
More-With-Less Doris Janzen Longacre, Herald Press, Scottsdale PA (If you only have one cookbook for hard times, this is IT! The Mennonite Central Committee of Akron PA commissioned this book. It has a great chapter on making soap with a novel idea I’ve not seen elsewhere about how to best “cure” the soap.)
First, learn about soils. See who grows what in your area. Go to your local Natural Conservation Resources Service office and County Extension office and learn about soil types. Beware of areas that have lots of rocks in the soil. Before you buy any farmland, get a hand auger and sample the soil in a number of locations to a depth of 18”. You need to know the amount of rocks and the thickness of the topsoil. We’ve spent a great many hours picking up rocks from our veggie plots. Oh, did I mention about full sun and trees? Veggies do best in full sun, which means they need to be at least 50’ away from any trees. Trees suck water out of the soil at a fast rate and water will diffuse from your veggie plot to the trees. However, if you have a tree windbreak to the west and north, it will help.
The second thing to consider is your seed. With few exceptions we use non-hybrid seed. Each year we save a LOT of seed, enough to share with our neighbors when The Crunch comes. Each year we grow a different mix of legumes, so that we will have a large variety of legume seed available. The seeds are stored in the root cellar. (There is more about this below.) We also save seed potatoes in the root cellar. We store seeds in glass mason jars with the air pumped out and in the cool dark root cellar. Insects will not be able to grow if the partial pressure of oxygen is too low. Researchers in Iowa have ascertained that the major factor in seed life is the moisture content. We gently dry legume, winter squash, and similar seeds in an Excalibur dehydrator at 90F.
Here are some suggested seed dealers with extensive listings:
- Southern Exposure Seed,
- Seed Savers Exchange,
- Territorial Seeds,
- Seven Springs Farm, and
- Totally Tomatoes.
Prices do, however, vary a lot, so do comparison pricing.
For plants to be started as seedlings (e.g., tomato, eggplant, peppers, cucurbits, and cabbage family) the good folks at the University of Tennessee Agriculture Institute strongly advised us to start all our own seedlings in sterile starting soil, and not to buy them. Do you have a small greenhouse in which to start seedlings? We do. Now, Sweetie Pie is a serious experimentalist and has found that adding a ***AMAZON.amazon.com/Grow-More-7508-Hawaiian-1-5-Pound/dp/B00CJJ0ZT6/ref=sr_1_1?s=lawn-garden&ie=UTF8&qid=1438818297&sr=1-1&keywords=soluble+phosphate+solution***soluble phosphate solution to the seedlings on planting them really jump starts them.
First, only grow pole beans. Why is this so important?
- It is far easier to spray pythetrins for insect control (approved for organic growers) on the north side of the pole bean row as the larvae feed on the underside of the bean leaves. A backpack sprayer is essential.
- The yield is larger and spread over time. (This is important!!!)
- Many of the pods of bush shelly beans will rot with ground contact.
Now many years of trying different bean cultivars have shown us that different bean cultivars are attacked by Mexican bean beetles at vastly different rates. One year we grew four different bush bean cultivars, all next to each other, all fertilized identically. One cultivar–the coco rubio– drew the bean beetles like a supermagnet and stripped the leaves clean in several days. Guess what? We will not grow this cultivar ever again. Italian canillini bush beans were also a supermagnet for the Mexican bean beetles, and only a meager harvest was obtained. So we choose from our own field trials cultivars that have the best yield and are least attractive to the bean beetles.
As an aside here… we have two species of weeds that are supermagnets for Japanese beetles. We are in the process of identifying these two species. These, usually very destructive pests, leave every other leaf on the farm alone and focus on just these two weeds. Thus, these weeds serve as a “sacrifice crop.” Chinese cabbage works as a great sacrifice crop next to any plants of the cabbage family. The beetles prefer these leaves to the other leaves.
We grow pole beans on 60” high Red Brand horse fence because horse fence has twice the vertical wires of other fences. At chest height we have a run of 1” PVC pipe with two hose outlets every twenty feet for easy watering of veggies between the pole bean fences. We connect the run of PVC pipe with a hose to yard faucets. The system is easy to drain come late fall. With more vertical wires, one has better separation of the vines for more sunlight and carbon dioxide assimilation. Run the pole bean fence west to east to shade the weeds on the north side of the fence. Plant the bean seeds on the south side of the fence. You will have to help the vines find the fence wires, several times a week for a couple of weeks. Place 2’ high chicken wire around the pole bean fence else Bugs Bunny will chomp the vine 3” off the ground for the sweet sap. Keep the bottom of the fence about 6” or so off the ground for easier weeding. It is important to inoculate your bean seed with the bacteria that fixes nitrogen in the root nodules. Different legume species prefer different strains of the root nodule bacteria. Pull up some of your dying bean vines and examine the density of the root nodules. Dr. Albrecht (more below) showed that 1/16 of an ounce per acre of molybdenum was enough to supply the nodule bacteria with this essential micronutrient that is a cofactor for the enzyme that splits the triple bonded nitrogen molecule. No molybdenum, no root nodules, and no nitrogen from the air gets turned into proteins in the beans. Plant seed 1” deep and 5 to 6 inches apart. Water with a soaker hose or drip irrigation system. Do NOT cultivate when dew is on the leaves else you will efficiently transfer soil pathogens to the leaves.
After trying a great many pole green bean cultivars we find that the Rattlesnake pole green beans are the best. Two shelly pole bean cultivars which are less attacked by the Mexican bean beetle and have good yields are Turkey Craw (16 lbs dry beans per 100 feet of row) and Good Mother Stallard. We are growing this cultivar for the first time, and this is an amazing cultivar. Sweetie Pie told me I was going to pick these beans as the leaves are so big and thick she could not locate the beans under them!
For those living in the south, field peas are the legume of choice. Southern field peas make the most edible seed of any legume. My family in the 1930s called them “lifesavers” for a reason. Rabbits seem to leave these legumes alone in contrast to the damage they will do to any sort of bean plant. Our dry pea yield data per 100 feet of row are: Whipporwill (will climb a fence a la pole beans) 19 pounds and Brown Crowder; 24 pounds. Plant seed only after the soil is warm 1” deep and 8-10 inches apart. I suggest growing the Whipporwill field peas on a fence with soaker hose irrigation.
As Carol Deppe correctly points out, field corn is the grain of choice for a number of reasons. We like the heirloom Bloody Butcher dent field corn for two important reasons: it has the best and most prop roots of any corn I’ve ever seen. This reduces wind damage. Secondly the ears are 5 to 6 feet above the ground and too high for the (expletive deleted) raccoons to reach. Around here both coyotes and raccoons will devastate any sweet corn, so we do not bother with it. Plant seeds 1” deep and 8-9 inches apart, only after the soil is warm. Side dress with 23-7-7 enhanced fertilizer. Your corn leaves should be VERY green if they are getting enough nitrogen. Note that corn is wind pollinated and a corn patch best have at least six adjacent rows. One may always tell a newbie veggie gardener as they will have only one row of corn. Our yield per 100 feet of row is around 40 pounds dry shelled corn. Please note that corn is sold by the bushel, NOT by the protein content. Commercial hybrid corn cultivars are selected to have the most bushels per acre. In doing this, the protein content of the dry corn is considerably less than old heirloom corn with lower bushels per acre.
Now it is critical to note that the niacin in corn is unavailable unless the corn is heated with alkali. In MesoAmerica, folks made tortillas with corn meal and wood ash. One may make hominy by slowly boiling corn with alkali. In Little House on the Prairie, hominy was made by putting wood ashes into a small cotton bag and boiling until the skins came off. Both methods make niacin available. Pellagra results from niacin deficiency. In one of Joe Nobody’s novels a community living off mostly corn suffered badly from pellagra.