Garlic - This is one product in which we come very, very close to genuine self-sufficiency. I bought garlic seed stock in 2007 and have not paid for any more since then. Garlic grows well in our area, and I managed to salvage a decent crop, including viable seed stock even during our incredibly wet year of 2009. Potentially, I could go on indefinitely saving seed from each year's harvest, with no need to purchase garlic ever again. The fly in the ointment has been that so far I have not really managed to keep us in fresh garlic 12 months out of the year. I'm working on bridging the garlic gap with green garlic, garlic chives, and garlic scapes. And we can use the garlic I dehydrate when the last of the harvest begins to go off, though that requires electricity we don't generate ourselves. It's fair to say that garlic is a core product in our lives. We eat a lot of it; I don't really know how to cook without it; and we deeply resent having to pay for it. So self-sufficiency in this food would mean a lot to us. I'd say that we're 70-80% of the way there, and there's a good chance that we can narrow that gap further.
Eggs - On the face of it, we're self-sufficient in eggs. With a backyard flock of just four layers, we have more than all the eggs we can eat. But the devil is in the details. We buy most of the feed for the girls. True, it's milled locally, so potentially we could continue to obtain that input even if TSHTF. It's a long drive though. And the thornier issue is that we don't keep a rooster. Even if we did, our girls are production birds, with all the broodiness selected out of their ancestors. Laying hens are very productive for a good two to three years, but then their output tapers off. With no chicks from our flock, we'll need to buy more birds. I've taken several steps to supply more of the girls' feed from our own resources, and it's my plan to increase these efforts this year and next. Less-than-prime garden produce, our kitchen scraps, weeds, Japanese beetles, and acorns are all part of the girls' diet, free for the taking from our own 2/3 acre homestead. But if I'm honest I have to say these all add up to less than half of what the girls need to lay productively. And without the ability to produce a new generation of hens, we'll never be truly self-sufficient in eggs. I'd say that we're only about 40% self-sufficient in eggs, despite the fact that we never buy them.
Potatoes - We now grow all the potatoes that we eat. When we don't have potatoes from our own harvest, we eat other things. Although it's potentially possible to save seed from one harvest to begin the next year's planting, there are significant limitations to that practice. The major obstacles are late blight and, to a lesser extent, viruses that can carry over from one year into the next in the seed potato. Late blight can destroy a crop of potatoes outright, while the viruses can damage a lineage of potatoes progressively over time, so that yields slowly dwindle year by year. It's certainly possible to save a few potatoes for seed from one year to the next. I've done that. But since we had late blight last year, none of our potatoes can be used for seed this year, and any potato plants that crop up in the garden will need to be destroyed. Late blight makes the whole prospect of self-sufficiency in potatoes kinda dodgy. We could go for years without another outbreak. We could decide to grow only blight resistant varieties, and take our chances with saving seed even in years we know the blight was prevalent. So far, we haven't done that. I've bought seed potatoes every year. Even if blight were taken out of the picture, there are the less obvious viruses that simply reduce yield over time. Given these challenges to genuine self-sufficiency with this crop, I'd say we're only 50% self-sufficient in potatoes. Our prospects for achieving real self-sufficiency over the long term seem low here.
Bread - I can't say that I never, ever buy bread. There's a special loaf made by a local baker who turns up at my farming friend's monthly on-farm markets over the winter months. I buy some of her bread from time to time. But that's about it. All the other bread we eat is made by me, and my baking skills are good enough that we would turn our noses up at the sort of bread supermarkets in our area sell. However, we don't grow wheat, nor even grind our own flour. It's all bought in bulk. Even if I wanted to grow our own wheat, the high-protein "hard" wheat needed for producing good bread does not grow in my region; it requires an entirely different climate. And even if that weren't an issue, we don't have near enough space to grow the amount of wheat we go through in a year. It's true I bake some breads that do not require hard wheat, and potentially those could be made from wheat grown nearby. In other words, we're a long, long way from self-sufficiency with bread. The little bread we buy is hardly an issue. We could give that up without any hardship at all. I also know how to begin and keep a sourdough starter, and have done so in the past. So if I couldn't buy yeast, it wouldn't be the end of bread for us. We even have a rarely used manual grain mill, meaning we could grind our own flour if we had the grain. But we will likely always be dependent on purchased flour or at least purchased grain. And then there's the whole issue of how the bread gets baked. Right now we use an electric oven tied to the grid. We generate no electricity of our own, and even if we did, running an electric oven is extremely costly in terms of energy consumed. Potentially we could build a wood-fired outdoor oven, and that's certainly feasible for the long term. Right now I'd say we're only 25% self-sufficient in bread, despite the fact that I bake virtually all we eat. Having that outdoor oven might add 10-20% efficiency, and a sourdough starter maybe another 5-10%, in my estimation.
Fruits and Other Vegetables - It's hard to be precise about this, but I think it's fair to say that we grow more than 50% of all the fruits and vegetables we eat. There's room for improvement, certainly, and we're working on that. Some of the perennial plants we put in over the last few years are nowhere near their maximum productivity. In fact some have yet to produce at all. We don't need to do much else but prune and tend them for those plants to displace purchased food in future years. So at this point we can "coast" to a greater degree of self-sufficiency in fresh fruit and veg over the next few years. A good portion of the fresh produce we still do buy comes from local producers, especially fruit in season and greenhouse salad greens over the winter. But I still buy a lot of onions, herbs during winter time, and the occasional citrus fruit or avocado at the grocery store. We now have both a lemon and lime tree, though neither has produced a crop yet. We have mostly weaned ourselves off fruits and vegetables that just don't grow in our area. Bananas were dropped without fanfare some time ago, and avocados are treated like the treats they are. At this point I think we've done most of the work we can do, both on our mental/dietary habits and the infrastructure needed to be really self-sufficient in produce. There are two concerns over the long-term. Seeds and rootstock. I need to learn more about saving seed and then put it into practice. And learning to graft scion wood onto rootstock would mean more real self-sufficiency over the long haul. The second concern is that right now we have the luxury of supplementing what we grow with lots of purchased carbohydrates, meat, and dairy. In the future our diet might have to rely more heavily on the fruits and vegetables we can grow here. What counts for 30% of our diet right now might have to be 50% or more of our diet in the future. I'll give us 50% self-sufficiency in fresh produce, with an additional 20-30% already in the pipeline. The remaining 20-30% could be covered by a combination of buying from local growers, a few more of our own cold frames, and more skill development on my part.
Heat/energy - We are in the (agonizingly slow) process of having a passive solar thermal heating system installed for our home. This will make us independent of oil so far as heating goes, and it may at some point give us hot water out of the tap. We don't live in the harshest area of the US so far as winters go, but getting through a Pennsylvania winter without heat would be no joke at all. Our zone 6b means the average low wintertime temperature is -5 F, or -21C. We heat our house intermittently from as early as mid-October through mid-December, steadily from at least mid-December through mid-March, and again intermittently from mid-March through at least late April and possibly into May. And our thermostat is never set above 64 F/18 C. So really, there are only about five or six months out of the year when lack of heating would be no big deal for us. Despite the fact that our heat will now be generated "for free," (and the cost of the passive solar system is nothing to sneeze at) we're still completely dependent on the electrical grid. If we lost power, we'd also lose our heat when the pumps no longer moved warm water through our radiant floors. Can we remedy this? Possibly. We're weighing the decision to install PV panels that would supply enough power to run the systems we consider really critical to our lives. Having enough electricity from a grid-independent system to keep the chest freezer and a few pumps running would make me feel pretty secure. Enough homegrown power to run some lights and our computers would be gravy. This is entirely possible - in theory - but the expense would be significant. Right now I'd say we'll be 40% self-sufficient with heating. We've already done plenty of work to improve the energy efficiency of our home. So most of the remaining 60% could only be achieved if we were to shell out for a PV system. Then of course, in the long-term there's the thorny issue of replacing components of either the passive solar or PV systems in a low-energy world.
I could probably carry on further with this sort of evaluation of my life, but I'm sure you get it, and it's probably already gotten a bit tedious. My intention was to explore the real issues of a self-sufficient lifestyle, and to encourage you, dear reader, to think about what challenges you might face on the road to self-sufficiency. So what about you? I know the challenges and resources differ enormously among the readership here. I think it would add a lot to the discussion if you posted about this topic on your own blog, or if you add a comment to this post. I'd be especially interested to see anyone report on other areas they've tackled, such as health care, education, transportation, dairy, etc. Let me know if you do post something along these lines on your blog, and I'll be happy to add a link here. Some general issues you might want to wrestle with:
- How much does our own skill/labor "count" for in terms of self-sufficiency if we must purchase inputs?
- How do you factor in dependence on a locally produced good versus dependence on something produced very far from where you live? Are we more self-sufficient if we can get something from our neighbor, or make a bicycle trip to obtain something locally produced? Why, or why not?
- If you depend upon "infrastructure" (e.g. fruit trees, livestock, PV panels, etc.) that you own, but that will eventually die or wear out, how do you gauge your level of self-sufficiency?