It's funny how life takes shape, how we end up on paths that we never intended, but which come to feel deeply right to us nevertheless. When I began this blog, it was mostly about figuring out how to pay off the mortgage as quickly as possible, with a vaguely defined notion of financial independence at the end of that road. Any technique that saved money, which could then be put towards an extra principle payment, was worth considering. We started changing our habits, and kept changing them, and bit by bit those changes added up to a pretty radical lifestyle overhaul.
Along the way though, other things began to motivate me. I'd always considered myself an "environmentalist," even when my behaviors weren't particularly worthy of the name. "Green" and frugal go together quite often, so it was easy for that to become more of a priority in my life. And then the whole issue of social justice came in - using our fair share of the world's remaining resources and doing as little damage as possible. Self-sufficient lifestyles have also always had my admiration. My frugal journey became heavily flavored with homesteading elements, such that I now feel justified (albeit a little shy) in calling our suburban residential lot a homestead, or at least a budding homestead.
Then there's the elephant in the living room. I believe that we are headed into a future of increasingly expensive and scarce energy. I believe that more people in my country will have to do more for themselves than we have recently been accustomed to, that many things we now take for granted will become luxuries few can afford. There are plenty of people who discuss these things with more knowledge and eloquence than I can. Read them. But there's a little piece of the puzzle that I might - just might - have a corner on. Not that I've figured it all out, but I think I have a chance of helping to answer an important question.
Our property technically exists in a suburb, even though it doesn't look like what you think of as a typical suburb. For one thing, our house is 130 years old, and in a tiny little neighborhood of similarly aged homes surrounded by much newer development. Our lot is 2/3 of an acre. By comparison, those newer developments consist of larger parcels. Like I said, not a typical suburb. In this part of Pennsylvania, recent zoning codes were written with low-density development in mind. So new construction happened on lots of at least an acre, and often more than that. Our own parcel was established decades ago, and left with less land. The average suburbanite across the US would think our property large, but in our area it's significantly smaller than average.
So here's the question in my mind: I want to know how much food this 2/3 acre residential parcel can produce. We harvested 600 pounds of fruit and vegetables, plus 458 chicken eggs in 2009. Not only has it been a bad year for crops, but we had a backyard flock for only 8 months out of 12. We also had no yields at all from half a dozen perennial species that are planted but not yet in production. I wasn't particularly diligent about succession planting, season extension, or efficient use of the garden space we already have cleared. Nor have we yet used all the available space on our property that could be turned to food production. How much will we harvest in two, five, or ten years as our fruit trees, berries, and grapes begin to produce, as our experience grows, and we make more efficient use of the available space? I'll take a wild guess and say I think 1200 pounds sounds completely achievable to me. As a more ambitious goal, I would aim for a 2000 pound tally or even more. That would be in addition to eggs and, I hope soon, honey. Admittedly, those yields take for granted the good precipitation and high quality soils of our area, as well as the fact that one able-bodied adult makes this food production a very high priority, with occasional help from a second healthy able adult. But I anticipate that my experience is going to be of most interest to those in my area anyway, so these pre-conditions aren't much of an issue.
This question of how much food can be produced from a suburban backyard isn't just a personal lark for me. I'll admit, I'm curious and I will derive great satisfaction each year that we show an increase in our harvest tally. But I believe that the answers I collect over the next few years are going to be very important sooner or later. Those of us looking to a future beyond peak oil know that food production and perhaps more importantly, food distribution, are going to be a huge crisis. We need to begin feeding ourselves more locally, and not just as a trendy lifestyle choice. Locavorism is going to become a given, not an option. If my community doesn't know what's possible on our residential lots, then we will be poorly equipped to make plans for our own needs.
There are small scale farmers doing what they can with parcels of 5, 10, or 20 acres. There are urban farmers maxing out production in tiny spaces. And there are many hobby gardeners with modest vegetable plots. There are some consciously working towards sustainable food security, and others gaining gardening skills without any such goal in mind. But very little of the prime farmland that was converted into suburban sprawl is being used as well as it will one day need to be used. There's also an important difference between urban spaces occupied largely by renters, and the suburbs largely occupied by homeowners - however heavily mortgaged those properties may be. It's not the size of their properties. Homeowners, broadly speaking, are more fixed in their residences than renters, and likely to become only more so. That means there's a better return on investment for the expense and effort of planting perennial food plants such as asparagus, fruit trees, nut trees, and berries, among many others. These plants give yields for years and even decades, but not immediately. If you don't think you'll be in the same place two years from now, only a Johnny Appleseed altruism will motivate you to plant these crops. And those perennial crops are going to be important to us one day.
I've already got one year of data showing harvest quantities on my property. I'm in a position to continue documenting how much food can be produced on a small piece of residential land in zone 6a by able-bodied adults with no background in farming. And that's exactly what I'm going to do as our perennials come "on-line." I'm going to push hard to make those numbers as high as possible while still maintaining good soil fertility in a sustainable system. I believe the answers I come up with will be extremely important for my area.
But my findings won't necessarily be relevant to a property in Mississippi, or the Pacific northwest, or New Zealand. They won't say much about what might be achievable for an elderly person living alone, nor for a family with four children of an age to pitch in. Your area is going to need answers just as much as any other. So why not join me in documenting what is possible in your area, with your abilities, on your property?
The varnishing point
5 hours ago