Start Growing Your Own Food Now, by Piper in Virginia

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It’s now been six years since I heard JWR on one of the big talk radio shows plugging one of his books, How to Survive the End of the World As We Know It. I had never been exposed to this type of rationale before. The more he spoke, the more it made sense to me. Since I’ve been known to get too much forward progress before my mind engages, I took a look at the website you are now reading and asked my consigliore (aka: beloved wife) if I was missing something. She undertook a few days of research and after much talking between us, we then asked another relative to look at the same SurvivalBlog site. That relative agreed with us that “prepping” made a lot of sense to the three of us. As suburbanites, we were limited to stocking up on the three B’s– beans, bullets, and bandages. We also started to look at property out in the country. We purchased a five-acre piece of property and immediately started planting fruit trees, since the time for our local fruit trees to mature is about three to five years. We started building in 2012 and finally moved full time the next year.

I mention the fruit trees because it takes time for them to mature and produce fruit. If you are thinking you will just run out to the local big box store and toss the tree in the ground and next summer you have big perfect fruit, uh, I don’t think so. Even now, four years later, the deer and the bugs have conspired to eat our fruit, and while we have joined in battle we did lose some fruit. I haven’t even mentioned fruit tree diseases.

We have some friends a little south of us who had started a full-time commercial farm utilizing high tunnels. This type of plastic covered structure has been mentioned before on this site. Our friends have constructed three high tunnels; their three tunnels are 30’ X 100’ in size. Using this type of structure, properly designed and constructed, will allow you to grow produce almost year round. With something of that size, you may want to use a professionally designed steel framed structure to be able to withstand the snow load and wind load. However, if you want to do something a bit smaller and are looking to save some money, do a search on Eliot Coleman at Four Season Farm, and you will see several ways to save money on your high tunnel construction. He also has been mentioned before here. His website, books, and Youtube videos are priceless. I used the structure that utilized metal conduit with a rebar insert. You probably won’t be able to grow tomatoes and cucumbers in January, but you will be able to grow many kinds of leafy greens, carrots, turnips, and beets during the winter months. My wife makes a collard and greens salad during winter that people fight over. Yeah, turn your nose if you will. We did too, but now we can’t get enough of it. Having said that, the weather will conspire to ruin your best laid plans. The first winter we were here we didn’t realize a snow forecast for six inches would turn into a crushing 20 inches. When we woke up the next morning, that first high tunnel was squashed. AARRGGHH! So I went out and pushed and pulled and got it to where the wife could work it, if she could work an area three feet high. I now have a 16’ snow rake, and I might have to go out every few hours if there is a heavy snow. Then the voles found out there was a warm area in the winter where they could get lots of leafy vegetables from below. The little guys ate my crops, and I didn’t even get a kiss goodnight. AARRGGHH!

I built a second high tunnel nearby, and this time I put a 3” layer of gravel below our topsoil mix, which was 12-16” deep. I thought I could save more money by using plastic sheeting from the big box store. Yeah, it was looking good. The wife grew some serious leafy greens during the winter. Alas, the plastic wore out in less than a year due to the sun and wind, and I had to replace it a few weeks ago. AARRGGHH! This time I used the good plastic sheeting designed just for high tunnels and cut to the dimensions I requested. I found it on Amazon.

So next I had to rebuild the first squashed high tunnel utilizing a gravel base, with the good plastic on a stronger grid, and using the proper drip tape for irrigation. Search Berry Hill Irrigation for more about drip tape. When these are constructed right and the sun is out, the temperature can get up as high as 90 degrees during the day, even during the winter. You will also need ventilation in case the temperature gets too high. We’ll start the seeds for our summer crop on January 1st and transplant them in late February. This way we will able to harvest some crops by June 1st. Some of our summer crops will produce until Thanksgiving. Start with heirloom seeds and make your own starter soil mix. Place your mix into a hand-held soil blocker. Place the blocks into a plastic tray that holds 50 blocks at a time. Place a seed into each block and keep it moist under sunlight. Hopefully, all of the seeds will germinate, but sometimes they don’t. The blocks that do germinate will then get transplanted into the high tunnel. Many of our gardening supplies come from Johnnie’s Seeds, but if you are on the computer, you already know how to shop for deals. You will also need to start making your own compost in large quantity. Do you have access to manure? Are the animals making the manure eating from a field that is treated with herbicide that kills the weeds? If the treated vegetation goes through the animal to your compost, that may endanger your new plantings.

The wife is now taking a Master Gardener class. She wants to become even more knowledgeable at growing food. We have been to several different farming conferences during the past few years, because we wanted to learn sustainable farming and use very little corporately-made fertilizers and pesticides. This means we must constantly learn from experienced people. I’m a city boy, but I’m studying hard to be a redneck. So we moved from a 60% failure rate the first year to a 40% failure rate this last year. So, when the wife asked her teachers about growing failures, they said they regularly had a 10% to 40% failure rate every year. This goes wrong, that goes wrong, you get a late frost, the worms or beetles or whatever goes crazy, and that’s just the way it is. Welcome to farming. I suppose we could use a Monsanto product that may or may not help with the success rate, but we have chosen not to go that route. Now she has learned that we also have to consider different micro-climates within our five acres. What? What’s a micro-climate? I finally figured out the drip tape thing, and now I have to worry about micro-climates? I’ll get back to you on that.

I am also experimenting with hydroponics and aquaponics, using solar power to run the pumps. Both experiments grow produce without using soil. I have fewer bugs to deal with, but I can’t grow just anything. Again, there are many examples on Youtube. We are also trying IBCs (300-gallon bulk containers) by making sure they are clean, cutting them in half, and using them in areas where it would not be useful or prudent to plant in the ground. By filling the IBCs with soil up to 24” deep, we basically had a dozen 40” X 48” raised pots with drainage. We had success in the IBCs with sweet potatoes and cabbage but not with the white potatoes. We found the IBCs in the local Craigslist ads but needed to be sure they had not been filled with something nasty, like anti-freeze or plutonium.

Our property is fortunate to have abundant wild blackberries, and we have canned or bottled (wink-wink) many different blackberry products. We also recently turned the end of season vegetables into chow-chow. Next year, we’ll look at adding chickens, goats, or sheep to the mix, along with more high tunnels. We completely understand that we will not be able to thrive with just vegetables. We also have the aforementioned ton of beans to go along with the bullets and bandages. We are using electric dehydrators to dry and preserve many foods. One project for this winter is to build a solar dehydrator.

For those of you who read this blog daily, you know there are a hundred details to work on every day, and if you still have your daily job, like I do, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. By the way, if you need more time in your day, I think you would be wise to cancel your cable/satellite subscription. Half of each program is taken up by ads. You’ll save $100 a month; think what you can purchase with that. YMMV. You’ll also have more time to plan/dig/plant, especially during daylight savings time. We haven’t had cable for six years and haven’t missed it yet. Yeah, I know you miss your sports. I’ve been there, done that. I get on the computer at the end of the day and watch the highlights. If you aren’t already growing produce, you will not survive just by throwing the seeds in the ground. I’m sure there are many farming conferences that will be conducting classes during the winter months. Please start now, if the SHTF and you have not started; otherwise, your failures will doom your family to a cold and hungry death. If you are a part of a group that will locate out of town, start your plans to start your own produce by next spring. If you aren’t part of a group, find a group, and be prepared to work your butt off to learn how to feed yourself. There is usually room in a group for someone with the right mindset and talents. I know it can be daunting to find someone with which to share your tin-foil hat ideas. I found a great mentor in the area about general location set-up and firearms. I found another to help us with growing. I now have another to help with Ham radio. You can’t do it all yourself. There are many of this community that would love to show you how things work. They might not show you everything, but they will help you with some things. You won’t find them sitting at home. You will need to get involved with other groups of people. Try the church you are hopefully already going to. Try a local Master Gardener’s class. Try the local shooting range.

I remember that when we started out in 2009, the end looked so far away, but we bought the first pound of beans and the first box of .22 ammo and just kept at it. Now we know we will never be done; we will never have everything we need. We’re merely better prepared than we were six years ago. If you are just starting out on your prepping journey now, you are a little behind. However, if you will start right now and start networking with others right now, you will feel way better about the future. Now, unplug the TV and get to work.

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