Monday, January 11, 2010
Posted by Kate at 10:16 AM
I sort of threw down the gauntlet to my readers on the cusp of 2010. I'm curious to see how much food we can produce on our little property, and I invited others to find out and document how much food their backyards and back gardens, or balconies, or whatever, could produce. I'm far from an expert on this topic - maximizing food production in limited spaces. I wish I were, but I'm relatively new myself to serious attempts at feeding myself from my own property.
Still, having nudged people to play along at home, I feel somewhat obligated to offer some ideas to help out. I'm not going to do one monster length post on all the possibilities. I figured I would take the ideas one or two at a time and see if we can get conversations going about each of them. One thing that is much on my mind at the moment is the honey bee, because we're planning to start with them ourselves this year. I know this isn't for everyone, but as livestock go, honey bees are really quite special in a number of ways.
A bee hive takes up very, very little space; less space than you would need to allocate to just about any other livestock. Maybe you could keep a few quail in complete confinement in the same total area as a bee hive. But a hive's footprint on the ground is minuscule; you could put one on an apartment balcony. And if you did that, you wouldn't have to worry about mice, skunks, or bears that more rural beekeepers contend with. Bees also don't compete with humans or other livestock for the same feed. While the cost of equipment is undeniably high when starting up with bees, there are no pangs of conscience when it comes to feeding them. As far as stacking benefits (i.e. what else do they do for you other than produce food?) honey bees obviously help with the pollination of fruits and vegetables in the garden. Frequently overlooked is the soil amendment value of bee manure. Each colony can be expected to deposit 100 pounds (45 kg) of nitrogen-rich manure in a 120 foot (40 m) radius around the hive, each year. Over the years, that adds up to a lot of free organic nitrogen, a critical plant nutrient. Free fertilizer I don't have to shovel!! Bees are also very different from most other livestock in that they do not need daily tending. You can take a vacation away from home (provided you time it right) without getting a sitter for your bees. That's simply not true with most animals. Bees take care of themselves pretty well.
Additionally, there's no need to slaughter your bees in order to harvest. Granted, a great many bees will die natural deaths over the course of the year. But most people can handle a dead insect or several, and a strong colony will take care of most of their own mortuary duties. Some beekeepers will kill an underperforming queen, but this is a choice that other beekeepers will argue against. So if you're not up to the task of dispatching an animal, even a sick or injured one, bees may be the livestock for you.
Now as for the harvest, one can't count on any surplus honey at all the first year, as the colony needs to establish itself and build its strength. But after that, a healthy colony can easily produce twenty pounds of extra honey that you can harvest each year. Some backyard beekeepers see 50 or even 100 pounds of honey per healthy, established hive in good years! (Does it strike any of you as interesting that 100 pounds of honey per hive per year is outstanding, while 100 pounds of manure is a given?)
I can't think of ANY other way of producing as much high-quality food in a given area while still maintaining humane conditions for livestock. Obviously, yield will depend on many variables, as it does with all types of food production. Some studies show that city bees are exposed to fewer pesticides than bees in suburban or agricultural areas. So if you're a city dweller dealing with very limited space for food production, you may want to consider beekeeping. At this time of year you have almost no time left to mull the decision if you want to start this year. But a year of reading and learning about beekeeping is an excellent plan before getting started. In many areas you can find low-cost introductory beekeeping classes through Agricultural Extension offices or local beekeeping associations.
I would only caution an aspiring beekeeper not to underestimate the initial investment costs for equipment. The start up costs for bees are very high compared to some other livestock, as the housing and equipment for bees are so particular. Chickens can be housed in any number of ways and the housing can be made from easily found scrap materials. No equipment is needed for harvesting eggs (beyond a basket if you happen to have a large flock). Unfortunately, with so many diseases prevalent among honey bees, used hive boxes are not a good idea because they can be a vector for disease. Unless you know and absolutely trust the practices of the beekeeper selling such equipment, it's usually a better route to buy or build new hive boxes.
I'll be discussing both honey bees and techniques for producing food in limited spaces quite a bit this year. Stay tuned.