I. SUBSISTENCE FARMING IN THE GOOD EARTH
What follows is advice to EuroCanadians who wish to move to the countryside to escape their replacement in the cities or who are thinking about basic survival methods in the face of civilizational collapse, due to such factors as extremely high oil and natural gas prices, war everywhere, as well as linguistic, religious, and ethnic tensions within Canada. No civilization lasts forever, and our own is no exception. You will need to reduce your dependence on modern equipment and chemicals, and to minimize the connection with the elaborate webs that constitute modern economics and politics.
Subsistence farming might be defined as having three characteristics. In the first place, as much as possible it involves less-advanced technology; reliance on machinery and chemicals will not be possible without a global economic network to support them, whereas a shovel, a hoe, and a wheelbarrow (with a non-pneumatic tire!) are probably a once-only purchase — and the day will come when even some of these things will not be available. Eventually horses and other draft animals will be a common sight, although it will take a good many years to breed and train sufficient numbers.
Secondly, subsistence farming needs to be water-efficient. Without a municipal water supply or a motorized pump, water for agriculture will no longer be abundant.
Thirdly, subsistence farming entails a largely vegetarian way of life. The growing of crops takes less land than raising animals. The production of vegetables is also less complicated than animal husbandry. With a largely vegetarian diet, of course, there can be a danger of deficiencies in vitamins A and B12, iron, calcium, and fat, all of which can be found in animal food.
It is true, however, that some animals can make good use of less-fertile land, and animal manure can be used to supply humus and to recycle whatever essential elements (N, P, K, etc.) are in the soil. Anyone determined to keep animals for meat may find that chickens are the least troublesome, but they should be raised in a simpler manner than that described by most of the modern books, which are based on maximized (commercialized) production rather than “survivability.” There are also sources of meat other than domesticated animals: fishing, trapping, and hunting would be useful skills.
II. THE MOST PRACTICAL DIET
If you intend to produce your own food, you’ll find that the most practical diet is largely or solely vegetarian, for several reasons. (A largely vegetarian diet is also the most healthful, but that is a separate issue.) In the first place, vegetable production requires far less land than animal production. Even the pasture land for a cow is over 2 acres (1 ha), and more land is needed to produce hay, grain, and other foods for that animal. One could supply the same amount of useable protein from vegetable sources on far less land. Secondly, vegetable production is less complicated. The raising of animals is a tricky business, and one of the principles you should work with is, “The more parts there are to a machine, the more things there are that can go wrong.” The third problem is that of cost: animals get sick, animals need to be fed, animals need to be enclosed, and the bills add up quickly. Finally, vegetable food requires less labor than animal food to produce. Labor is a major consideration; farming is fairly hard work, at least if you haven’t been brought up to such a life, although it’s a “good tired,” as opposed to the irredeemable tiredness of a city job. Wasted labor, in turn, means wasted time — time that might be better spent on other things.
With a largely vegetarian diet, you must beware of deficiencies in vitamins A and B12, iron, calcium, and fat, all of which can be found in animal food. Most of these deficiencies are covered by an occasional taste of meat; daily portions of beef and pork are really not necessary. In any case, there isn’t much point in raising animals when there are several species of edible wild mammals and birds that come to feed on the crops. (Fishing, trapping, and hunting might be essential skills for country living.) Use animal food whenever it’s available, but don’t think of it as a daily necessity. Also try to maximize the variety of plant foods that you eat, both cultivated and wild, since a greater variety of foods will provide a greater range of nutrients.
Vegetable food is more important than animal food, and it is grains in particular that are essential to human diet. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors took various species of grass and converted them into the plants on which human life now depends. Wheat, rice, corn, barley, rye, oats, sorghum, millet — these are the grasses people eat every day, and it is these or other grasses that are fed to the pigs and cows that are killed as other food. A diet of green vegetables would be slow starvation; it is bread and rice that supply the thousands of calories that keep us alive from day to day.
III. FARMING METHODS
Many gardening books mention the virtues of planting early. However, although there are various crops that can be planted as soon as the snow melts, those crops are not going to grow properly until late spring. In the meantime, the insects, birds, and other creatures are going to be attacking those slow-growing crops. Planting early may be useful for a commercial farmer, who can get better prices at the start of a season, but such timing has little importance if you are growing food to feed yourself. It is better to wait until late spring before planting, and find something else to do in the meantime.
Of course, all crops have their ideal planting times. There are some crops, such as peas, which should definitely be grown in cool weather. There are other crops, such as beans and corn, which should never be planted until well after the last spring frost.
A lot of the fancier tricks, such as transplanting, using cold frames, Interplanting, companion planting, succession planting, raised beds, green manures (plants grown solely to be turned under as organic matter) and cover crops (a term roughly synonymous with green manures, but specifically relating to crops that protect the ground after food crops have been harvested), and so on, are often not worthwhile for survival gardening. Cold frames require glass and other materials that may not be readily obtainable. Interplanting and succession planting can simply consume water and nutrients that may already be scarce. Raised beds require labor that might be expended more profitably in other ways. Most green manures and cover crops are hard to turn under with hand tools, although somewhat more practical with a rotary tiller. (This problem is rarely mentioned in gardening books, but the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening refers to it in its entry for “Green Manures.”) If you’re using only hand tools, you’ll find that ordinary composting can serve roughly the same purpose.
None of the above techniques is necessarily disadvantageous, but each requires careful experimentation. Many of them, however, were designed for suburban backyards with limited space and unlimited water, or for other environments and situations that cannot be considered primitive subsistence farming. Information on these matters is now mostly lacking or forgotten, unfortunately, and only experimentation would allow the knowledge to be regained. In the meantime, you’ll have to reach your own conclusions on these matters.
If you need to increase production, however, it might be better just to dig up a few more yards of ground, rather than to look for elaborate methods of production. Certainly in the first year of establishing a farm, the simple act of clearing the land and sowing a few seeds will take most of your time and energy, and you can count your success by the number of yards of weedless, well tilled soil.
A plow or rotary tiller is really not necessary, although you might want to consider such a device when breaking new ground. After that first season, nothing more than a spade or shovel is really essential, if you have less than an acre of land. It’s even questionable whether annual spading is worthwhile; for some crops and for some soil, perhaps a rake is all you need.
Actually, for most of agricultural history, farmers used only a “scratch plow,” which penetrated only a few inches into the soil. This was a V-shaped device made from the forked trunk of a tree, with one “leg” of the V about 10 feet (3 m) long, and the other “leg” reduced to about a single foot in length and pointed to act as the “plowshare”; a 3-foot (1 m) handle was fastened on, at a right angle, about a foot from the tip of the V, so the farmer could hold and guide the device as the longer “leg” was pulled along by an animal. Spading is necessary, however, if you are planting in clay soil, or if you are planting potatoes or “root crops” (turnips, carrots, beets), which need loose soil for proper development.
The type of gardening to which I am referring is similar to what is called organic gardening, since survival gardening must often be done in the absence of herbicides or pesticides. Synthetic fertilizers can be useful as a quick means of recovering poor land, if they are available, but one must learn to recycle the elements of the natural world as much as possible. But the comparison with organic gardening goes only so far. Much of what is called organic gardening may be questionable: compost is not a cure for everything that can ail a garden, and I have a few doubts about the distinction that is commonly made between good “organic” phosphate rock and evil “non-organic” superphosphate. Pesticides can be harmful because they can kill more than “pests,” but it is less certain that chemical fertilizers are dangerous. The main problem of chemical fertilizers is not their effect on the vegetables, but rather the excessive amounts that are poured onto the land and thereby into the rivers and oceans; another is that they tend to burn up organic matter (humus) quickly.
I assume that a task must be performed with little or no money, and usually without bringing in materials from distant places. Likewise, if I need a piece of equipment, I know that I may one day have to make it myself, and for that reason I minimize my use of tools that require electricity or gasoline.
IV. HOW MUCH LAND?
The amount of land needed for farming with manual labor would depend on several factors: the type of soil, the climate, the kinds of crops to be grown. The highest-yielding varieties are not necessarily the most disease-resistant, or the most suitable for the climate or the soil, or the easiest to store. The weather also makes a big difference: too little rain can damage a crop, and too much rain can do the same. Unusually cold weather can damage some crops, and unusually hot weather can damage others. Without irrigation — relying solely on rain — the yield is less than if the crops were watered.
But here are some rough figures. Let us use the production of corn (maize) as the basis for our calculations, and for now let us pretend that someone is going to live entirely on maize. “Corn” or “maize” here does not mean the vegetable that is normally eaten as “corn on the cob,” but the types that are mainly used to produce cornmeal; these are sometimes referred to as “grain corn” or “field corn.” Corn is very high-yielding and can be grown easily with hand tools, but it is only practical in areas with long periods of warmth and sunshine; even in most parts of North America it is not easy to grow north of about latitude 45.
A hard-working adult burns about 5,000 kilocalories (“calories”) per day, or 2 million kilocalories per year. With non-mechanized agriculture, the yield of corn is about 2,000 pounds per acre (2,000 kg/ha). The resulting food energy is about 3 million kilocalories per acre (7 million kcal/ha). Under such conditions, then, 1 acre (0.5 ha) of corn would support approximately two people. (Of course, no one would live entirely on corn; these figures are given solely for comparison with those for other crops.)
Potatoes require about 50 percent less land than “grain-corn,” but they are troublesome in terms of insects and diseases. Wheat, on the other hand, requires approximately 50 percent more land than maize to produce the same amount of kilocalories. Beans require about 100 percent more land than corn. “Root crops” such as turnips, carrots, or beets have yields at least 10 times greater than corn, but they also have a much higher water content; their actual yield in kilocalories is slightly less than that of corn.
To determine whether a country can feed itself with manual labor, we need to look at the ratio of population to arable land. With manual labor, as noted, an acre (0.5 ha) of corn-producing land can support only two people. Any country with a larger ratio than that will be undergoing famine. The problem might be relieved to some extent by international aid, but without fossil fuels for transportation such international aid will be negligible. And this ratio is for corn, a high-yield crop; we are also assuming that crops will not be wasted by feeding them to livestock in large amounts.
In the early twenty-first century, the world as a whole has nearly 5 people to each hectare of arable land. Conversely, less than a third of the world’s 200-odd countries actually pass that test, and many of those are countries that have relatively low population density only because they have been ravaged by war or other forms of political turmoil. The Arabian Peninsula, most of eastern Asia, and most of the Pacific islands are far too crowded. Even the UK scores badly at 11:1. There might be serious conflicts between the haves and the have-nots, and isolationism might be a common response.
V. WHAT TO GROW
Survival gardening means the production of a large number of calories with a small amount of labor and a small amount of risk, and perhaps with not much land. With these factors in mind, one could say that there are not so many crops worthy of attention. There is no such thing as a perfect type of food to grow, because there are advantages and disadvantages to every type.
Reliance on a single crop would be dangerous, and variety is essential. We never know exactly what will happen, and no rules are absolute. What you’ll probably need are grains, beans, and a few root vegetables and green vegetables.
Especially if you’re new to farming, think about what the Iroquois call the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. These three crops are easy to grow, and they require no watering if you keep the plants well separated. Corn and beans, eaten together, provide excellent protein.
During your first year you may want a small patch of green vegetables and so on for vitamins and minerals, although you could probably do fairly well using wild plants for the same purpose. For your garden, concentrate on the corn, beans, and squash. When you’ve mastered those three crops, think about using some others as partial substitutes. The ideal crops to grow depend partly on where you’re living, but the list might be somewhat as follows. For your basic calories and protein, you might want to add wheat or another small grain to your corn, and beans. Other crops might include chard, kale (or some other brassica), onions, tomatoes, and peppers.
All of these crops really form two basic categories: “major” crops, which are mainly grains and legumes; and “minor” crops, which are “vegetables” in the narrower sense of the word.
There are many herbs that have value as flavoring or as medicine: some are perennial, others are annual but self-seed so readily that they are best left in one spot and treated as if they were perennials, while still others need to be replaced each spring as ordinary annuals. Which herbs to grow depend on your soil and your climate; around latitude 45 in North America, the list might include thyme, chives, mint, savory, parsley, and caraway, but in another part of the continent the list would be quite different.
The types of crops to grow would be those which (1) are trouble-free, (2) provide a large amount of carbohydrates per unit of land, (3) provide protein, and (4) supply adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Most crops don’t meet the first two requirements as well as we might wish. In terms of carbohydrates, the big ones are potatoes and grains. Potatoes provide remarkable amounts of carbohydrates, but they are disease-prone, and the Colorado potato beetle certainly puts them in the dubious category. Field corn is high in carbohydrates, but you’ll need to keep an eye on birds and animals. Beans rate fairly well in terms of calories, and they are the best vegetable source of protein, while they are usually not hard to grow. Winter (not summer) squashes are also high in calories. Parsnips rate high in calories, whereas carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and beets are somewhat lower on the scale.
Some crops are grown more for flavoring than anything else; it would be hard to do without onions or garlic, and tomatoes are always nice, but tomatoes certainly don’t fit into the “trouble free” category.
For vitamins and minerals, you’d want to include a few of the “leafy” vegetables; chard is trouble-free, and beets (a close relative) also provide greens. The brassicas — cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, kohlrabi, turnips, rutabagas — are great for vitamins and minerals, but they can have trouble with pests and diseases; curly kale is generally the most problem-free.
V. GARDEN PLANS
Some food plants are essential parts of your diet, others are not. You don’t eat grains and peppers in the same quantities. Your garden should be laid out in two main areas: one for the “major” crops and another for the “minor” crops. The major crops provide most of the carbohydrate, protein, and perhaps oil in your diet, as well as vitamins and minerals. The minor crops provide other vitamins and minerals, and their varied flavors add pleasure to our meals. The area for minor crops is what is sometimes called the “kitchen garden”– a small plot, close to the house.
About 90 percent of the cultivated land should be devoted to major crops. Major crops are grown differently from minor crops. Grains are generally broadcast, although corn and sorghum should be planted in rows; it’s also possible to broadcast beans. All of the major crops are grown without irrigation, even on the day of seeding, whereas minor crops (vegetables) may be more sensitive to a lack of irrigation.
The other 10 percent of the land will be devoted to minor crops. Vegetables (in the narrower sense of the word) don’t make up much of the human diet, whether we are vegetarians or omnivores. For a typical vegetable, an adequate planting for one person might be something like 20 feet (6 m). If we multiply that figure by 3 feet (1 m) for an average row width, and multiply that by about 10 for the number of kinds of vegetables, we get a figure of 600 square feet (50 m2) per person. That’s only a very rough figure, but it gives the general idea. Some people might prefer more vegetables in their diet, some might prefer less. Some people might like a real variety of vegetables, whereas others would be content with a smaller number. Perhaps the main reason for variation is digestibility — I once tried to live on rutabagas, and I gave up after the first day!
A third area you may want is for perennials: fruits and certain herbs, such as those mentioned above. This is the only piece of ground on which you will not be practicing crop rotation, so it must be separate from everything else.