Ox-Cart Woman: Self-Sufficiency on Our Farm and What's Left Over

Sharon September 16th, 2009

In Octover he backed his ox into his cart and he and his family filled it up with everything they made or grew all year long that was left over.

He packed a bag of wool he sheared from the sheep in April.

He packed a shawl his wife wove on a loom from the yarn spun at the spinning wheel from sheep sheared in April.

He packed five pairs of mittens his daughter knit from yarn spun at the spinning wheel from sheep sheared in April. 

He packed candles the family made.  He packed linen made from the flax they grew.  H packed shingles he split himself.  He packed birch brooms his son carved with a borrowed kitchen knife. 

He packed potatoes they dug from their garden – but first he counted out potatoes enough to eat all winter and potatoes for seed next spring.

He packed a barrel of apples, honey and honeycombs, turnips and cabbages, a wooden box of maple sugar from the maples they tapped in March when they boiled and boiled and boiled the sap away.

He packed a bag of goose feathers that his children collected from the barnyard geese.

When his cart was full, he waved good-bye to his wife, his daughter and his son and he walked at his ox’s head ten days, over hills, through valleys, by streams, past farms and villages until he came to Portsmouth and Portsmouth Market. – Donald Hall “Ox-Cart Man”

This is Asher’s favorite children’s book, and was one of mine when I was a child.  Hall’s gorgeous language and Barbara Clooney’s folk-art pictures create the impression, not just of a past, but of a different agriculture, and indeed, a different economy than the present one. 
I do not have an ox, or an ox cart, and I travel to market in a Ford Taurus with my children and husband with me, but once year, I take a look at my own resources – the food we grow, produce, forage, preserve – and ask myself “how would my family fare if we had to winter entirely on what we have put aside this year?  Moreover, what would we have that we have made or grown that is left over?

Now obviously, I store a good bit of food that I don’t grow, so this question is somewhat abstract – if one of my harvests fails, I can draw on prior reserves.  Nor do I think that I’m in immediate danger of having to live entirely from the sweat of my (and my spouse’s and a bit of my kids’) brows.  But I ask the question because I think it is an important measure of how we are directing our energies. 

Most people will answer this question very differently than I am – they may be drawing on different resources, not just food production, but what they can salvage, what skills they can sell, what resources they might be a conduit for. An urbanite might look at it differently – but I still it worth asking for an urbanite “could we last a week or three on our garden?”  How about our other resources? 

It would be easy, as we move towards more serious farming, to devote most of our resources to cash enterprises.  This has been the way of modern agriculture – farmers sell food, and then buy food.  When something has to be sacrificed on the altar of “efficiency”, it is the farmer’s self-sufficiency.  Thus we see the gardens – both home and truck – that once characterized farms erased, and replaced with more fields.  The small scale polyculture that once accompanied even fairly large scale grain farming is gone, and now the farmer’s pork and milk come from the store, just like everyone else’s, rather than from the farm.  The erasure of this food from agricultural lands means that many farmers couldn’t feed themselves any better than city dwellers, unless, for example, they liked an unremitting diet of feed corn and soybeans.

I, on the other hand, am striving for more diversity, and greater self-sufficiency, not less.  Our cash enterprises are important – they are essential, in fact – we need to make money from our farm.  But for us, the process is different than the modern one – the cash enterprises are integral, but so is self-sufficiency, as it was for Hall’s New England farmer. 

This is a radically and fundamentally different vision of agriculture – one that begins from the sufficiency of the producer and moves outwards.  It is the agriculture of the generalist, and thus diversified, and perhaps more importantly, creates an economy of small scales.  If self-sufficiency comes before profit, rather than as a side hobby after it, then time must be reserved from cash enterprises to feed one’s household a diverse and tasty diet.  The easiest way, then, to make money, is to make sure that there is something left over from your sufficiency projects – ie, that while you are knitting mittens or making candles or growing potatoes for yourself, you also add enough to sell to pay the taxes and meet other needs. 

Why prefer this to more profitable models?  Well, there are both aesthetic and ethical considerations, as well as the usual “prepping for tough times” elements.  The practical ones are simple - subsistence labor is mostly untaxed (it isn’t always supposed to be untaxed, but that’s another issue) – to the extent that I meet my needs at home, I do not have to pay extra taxes upon my work, increasing my net.  Moreover, for people with families, subsistence labor is compatible with family life in ways that many forms of cash labor are not – I don’t have to pay for childcare or elder care while I do it.  Moreover, in tough times, subsistence labor reveals its value – it won’t meet all needs, but it can reduce them when cash work is less available or prices are falling.  We are already seeing farmers struggle to be paid enough to justify their labor – in the Great Depression, cash crops failed, but farmers who could keep their land were able to feed their families from subsistence – the subsistence economy is larger, more robust and more vital than the dollar economy.

The aesthetic reasons are simple as well – I think a mix of field and forest, wild and domestic animal, a diverse diet and wide range of plants and insects is more beautiful, more worthy of my time.  Some people may not be able to choose beauty, but I can, and I think it is important.  Ethical is also simple – more creatures live because of me, both live and tame.  The farm can grow more crops, which means it can feed more people even in tough times, when crops fail.  Feeding ourselves means that I depend less on resources that do harm – and reducing my need for cash and my time spent earning it means that I pay fewer taxes to support my war machine and Wall Street bailouts, and I am less tempted to indulge in consumption. 

Now, of course, this is easy for me to say.  I write books and my husband teaches, and if they hardly make us affluent (we would qualify for food stamps in our state, although obviously, we don’t use them), it gives us a leeway in the cash economy (at least for now) not granted to others.  But it is precisely because I can begin from this kind of agriculture, one that starts from the premise that we should meet our needs first, and then go outwards with the extras, that I do it.  I think in the longer term, this model of agriculture has a future, even if it is difficult to enact now, and so I can enact it, and provide something useful to those who cannot know but may later have no choice.

So I inventory, and I evaluate.  Could we feed ourselves?  Keep ourselves warm?  Meet other needs?  How well are we doing at our root project?   More importantly, how would our practices change if we needed to feed ourselves?

As I said,  think this is is a worthwhile effort even for those with small gardens who already know they can’t feed themselves directly.  Ask yourself what of your needs could you meet?  What might you have left over, in various scenarios, to take to market or to add to your cash economy?  Even a small scale gardener with a few beds may be able to produce more culinary herbs than he needs, with some to take to market, and even an urban producer might be able to keep a couple of hives of honeybees, in excess of their needs.  But also figure out the balance – are there needs of your own for food, fertility, fiber that you might be able to fill with a change in practice?  If your practice will have to change eventually, is there a plan for that?

On to our situation.  First, the garden.  Our potato crop was short this year – I’ve not dug the whole, but I think we will come in at under 250 lbs.  The rain and bad weather were tough on them.  This would be a problem, since we are six people, and 250lbs of potatoes would not last us, were they one of our primary staples.  I grew about 6 bushels of flour corn this year, enough to keep us in cornbread for much of the winter, or to feed a portion of our animals.  If we had to do both, we’d struggle.  I grew 2 bushels of high protein sunflower seeds – these will go mostly to the chickens, but we could eat them.  I also grew about a bushel each of buckwheat, oats and amaranth, which would be divided between us and the animals.   

I put up 1 1/3 bushels of dry beans of various kinds, and another half bushel of soybeans. Protein will be short in this diet, but fortunately, we had an enormous crop of turnips and beets – golden mangels produced gorgeously for me.   Winter squash and sweet potatoes did badly, as did the pumpkins, but I’ve got some to add to our winter delight, and a decent supply of carrots and parsnips. Cabbages, kales and collards did well, however, and will probably last us a good while.

In winter in upstate NY, green things will be in short supply – we’ve been in the habit of eating greens several times a day.  Season extension can keep us in fresh greens through December, maybe into January.  Cabbage will last us until February or maybe even into early March.  And then we’ll rely on sprouts to provide us with green nutrition – I saved some seed from broccoli, chard and collards gone to seed this year, and will collect more seeds, including seeds of edible weeds for sprouting.  But I’ll be wishing I’d saved more seed, and that will have to go on next year’s priority list.

I put up enough jam to last the winter, particularly if we aren’t eating a lot of bread (no wheat).  Sweet things will be welcome on this diet. Our apple crop was small, but I’ve got applesauce from the summer apples.  Dried apricots, peaches, strawberries and cherries supplement things – not nearly as much fruit as our family would like to consume, but we’ll be ok.  The elderberry crop was very good, and I’ve got a lot of them dried and syruped.  I haven’t yet harvested rose hips, but that will come shortly, so we shouldn’t suffer from scurvy or anything.

The hazelnuts are doing ok, but not providing a huge harvest yet.  But the hickory nuts are extremely plentiful this year, providing needed proteins and fats.  If we can race the squirrels, we’ll do adequately, although there won’t be a huge amount of fats and oils, unless we butcher a lot of the livestock.

We’d be making a major shift in sweetening – we eat more sugar than we should, like most people, and since we did tap our maples, but we only have a few good sized ones in our third-growth woods, we’d be using sweetening very sparingly indeed, unless what was left over could barter us some honey or maple syrup from a neighbor.  This would probably be a high priority.

On to the barnyard.  Here we come to the root conflict – how much of our resources do we devote to feeding the animals, and how much to feeding ourselves?  The farm’s later cash flow depends on us making an increase in our kine ;-) – being able to sell goat kids, eggs, wool, meat.  It would be easy to emphasize this.   The animals also provide us, in many cases, with better nutrition – and in the case of dogs and cats, with necessary nutrition.  In a place where vegetable fats are harder to grow than in warm climates, animal fats provide a useful replacement.  But that means shifting some of the grain over to the animals for the winter.

In the net, our property grows grass better than it grows vegetables – our property is steep and wet, and the grass produces more protein for us, more habitat for wildlife, more fertility in the form of manures, more diversity, and a more manageable workload when we add animals. It would cost us something to overwinter the animals – but it would cost us more in the net, both in cash receipts and in long term food quality and quantity to slaughter all the animals (besides the cost in emotion).  The goats particularly make good use of our forest land, at our scale making light use of our woodland and giving us milk in return.

Moreover, there’s the question of manures, which already provide a lot of our garden fertility.  We could switch to humanure to provide that fertility, and to collecting leaves in the woods and hauling them back to our garden, but the balance would be more difficult, and we must then postulate a society in which one can sell produce fertilized with humanure – possible, even likely if we had to, but we’re not there yet.  Moreover, even though we high temp compost our humanure, I’d rather use ruminant manures for a host of reasons, along with human urine.

The sheep (hypothetical at the moment, but forthcoming) don’t need grain over the winter at all, only hay, and we’ve got that.  But we didn’t put it all up – we bought it from our neighbor.  So it depends on how we handle this – if we have to erase anything we didn’t produce, we can’t winter many animals at all, and might as well eat or sell them.  But we could have easily produced by hand (ok, not “easily” – it would have been a lot of hot, hard work, but we have the land for it, the tools and the ability), so I’m going to allow for the hay.  We have enough to winter our goat herd, plus 5 thrifty sheep, particularly if we breed for later lambing and kidding, so that the grass is lush while the pregnant critters are doing the last two months of growing.  We would not breed again in autumn, since that means that kids will have to grow on hay, rather than on pasture.

So what’s the best balance between feeding them and feeding us?  In this scenario, I think we’d produce only warm-season milk, drying up the goats over the winter, and preserving their milk during the warm weather as cheese.  This is something I haven’t done – we’ve made some cheese, of course, but not on the scale we would in this case.  We would probably not allow the flock size to rise about 6 or 7 does.  They would give less milk with less grain, but not none, and the majority of it would be put aside for cheese.  We’ve intentionally chosen a breed that produces a prodigious amount of milk on fairly small inputs, and also has a fairly small impact on the forests we would graze them in.

The same is roughly true with eggs – instead of expanding our laying flock, what we’d do is try and figure out an optimum number that can be wintered over – less than a dozen, definitely.  These would provide much-needed eggs for dense protein in early spring as the stores began to run out, and the rest of our flock would be eaten in early winter, canned as soup and meat.  In the spring we’d set hens, and raise what we would on food scraps, forage and a small amount of grain, and eat last year’s layers in the fall. 

Sheep flock, again, would be kept small, with just one or two replacement ewes each year, and we’d eat and sell more mutton, along with the lamb, as we culled sheep.  I would add a few rabbits, fed mostly on weeds and hay, along with a few roots, to provide meat for sale (we keep kosher, although if we had to, that would pass), and organs for the cats, who are obligate carnivores, and also urgently needed (we can’t afford food loss) rodent reducers. 

Had I known that we were going to make a total shift to our own production (ok, we’re not, but again, hypothetically), I’d have added geese, rather than turkeys this year, since they can produce fat, meat, down and eggs on almost no inputs – we’ve had them before, but the market demand for turkey is greater than for goose.  But turkeys are more demanding and don’t forage as well. 

For needs other than food, we could definitely meet them – we have plenty of woods to provide our fairly modest heating needs.  But that would mean more time in the woods for both Eric and I in winter, and a lot less remunerative labor.  It is a delicate balance, cash and subsistence – for now I am content to get wood from a close neighbor who cuts some of it off our property in trade, carefully, wisely, furthering our forestry goals.  Later…we would do it ourselves.

Fertility would be produced by our animal manures, human urine, and compost.  Much of our fertility is provided this way already.  We’d miss kelp and the occasional application of greensand, especially in containers, but we’d be mostly ok.  Humanures are used on woody plantings, and would continue this way. We could also go some small way to providing our fiber needs  with wool and animal skins, and also our medicinal needs (provided no crisis exceeds them).

The first year would be hardest, in our hypothetical situation, because we did not fully plan for it.  Which is, of course, why I store food and feed for the animals – so that we do not now have to practice the sort of husbandry we would practice in the future.  With our reserve of feed grains, we know that we could feed ourselves through this winter on milk and meat, and move over the growing season to our new necessities.  

We’d eat a lot more meat and a lot fewer staple starches than we’d like the first year, since so many animals would have to be culled.  Sweets would be short, and probably tempers as sugar-habituated parents and children changed tastes. We’d miss fresh fruit. Our new management practices would probably kill some of the animals we’d hoped would survive, as they were forced to shift rapidly to a different style of management. 

Our cash economy would shift radically as well – obviously, we’re a farm – by definition we produce more than we need.  But the priorities of our cash economy would have to change – unable to winter over so many animals, we’d sell more breeding stock and meat, and less milk and eggs.    The medicinal herbs might rise in value, if the situation were dire enough, or they might fall rapidly, and be replaced (beyond our own personal supply) with higher value crops.  We are likely to find our primary barter partners among those who have orchards, honey bees, and sugarbushes, since I won’t deny the pull of sweetening – not just due to addiction, but for preservation, alcohol making and other purposes. 

We would sell few vegetables, but some – because we have so little suitable land, my sense is that actually we might do better growing seed – there are few seed producers in my region, and seed can be a high value crop.  So while we would sell our extra root crops and vegetables, I think our best work would be in saving and growing out local seed so that our neighbors could grow their own. 

Our diet would shift radically, away from many preferred foods, towards less preferred ones – more turnips instead of rice, oatmeal as an occasional treat rather than a standard morning breakfast.  Much less sweet, salt and fat…much more meat (for the first season, and mostly early in it, later much less), and fewer eggs, milk and cheese in winter.  Tamales and hoecake instead of wheat bread.

Our garden would change – more beans, more food for animals, more staple crops.  I suspect we’d still rely primarily on roots.  The “flavoring” crops would get less space – hot peppers and tomatoes would still make an appearance, but their economic value to us would most likely be lower if other people were in the same situation.  The question of how much we are called upon to feed others, and what foods are needed in the marketplace and among our neighbors remains open in this scenario – one can only plan so much.

What I find useful about this exercise is the balancing act – how would my practices of gardening and farming have to change?  What kind of husbandry would I be doing? How easy or hard would it be to make those changes, from the present ways?  What can I do to make that transition easier?  Moreover, it makes me ask “what will I be eating?”  How will my diet change?  Are there changes I can make now – finding new recipes for foods we use less, cutting back on things like salt and sugar that we should be eating less of anyway?  How can I diversify now, add more crops, begin to fill gaps in our self-sufficiency, while also responding to markets as they exist now.

I see, for example, that it might be wise to add geese to our husbandry next spring, and bees as well, and that I should be saving more seed now, whether for winter sprout sandwiches or to trade with the neighbors.  There are tracks I can take now that increase our options later.  In other cases, I will continue my current practice, because they meet our needs for now – giving us milk and goats for sale, and helping other people get access to small goats and meat rabbits.  But I will both recognize the need for transitional tools to shift over, and a concrete plan for that shift.

I don’t anticipate a situation where I’m suddenly thrown back on my resources – but I do think that there will be a gradual shifting (and that it is conceivable that it might not be gradual) towards a world in which feeding yourself as much as you can first, makes a lot more sense – back to the world of Donald Hall’s Oxcart Man, who took with him to market only what he had that was left over.

Sharon

19 Responses to “Ox-Cart Woman: Self-Sufficiency on Our Farm and What's Left Over”

  1. Julie says:

    Self sufficiency…takes a lot of work and a lot of thought, doesn’t it?
    I too have been thinking along these lines but my situation is so different, only a large lot 1/3 acre, no soil other than what I have created with compost seaweed manure etc. so I am becoming a forager and scrounger as well as a gardener. And I think in an area like mine ( the British Columbia coast) we need to consider more what we can glean from the sea and the land. But as always some cash will be necessary if only to pay property taxes and buy those things you can’t grow, glean, scavenge or borrow (like gas for the car.)It sure can become a full time occupation can’t it?

  2. MEA says:

    I, too, love The Ox-cart Man, a re-read it every year on a list that incluldes the Illiad, muhc of George Eliot, and the Industry of Souls. I like to think those books for grown up are in good company with it.

    I considered my situtation in light of your question.

    We can’t feed even the core household of 4 on the garden for a year — not even until until we could get a crop out of the ground in spring, even sprouting stored bean and lentils and the seed stock.

    (Thanks to brought food, though we’ll get though the winter with the seed stock intact.)

    However, we’d be fine for clothing, light,cooking fuel, water, soap, and entertainment, and we’d could surivve without heat. (My parents have an open hearth, which could keep them warm. I still haven’t a heat source that is compatable with my younger child.)

    I have stores of cloth, and could raise some cash with that and the making of work clothes and children’s clothing. (I don’t expect there to be much demand for adult clothing in the general way.) I also have lots of extra jam and frozen raspberries — a sort of cash crop, and even enough of some seeds that I could sell some and still have enough for the next three years.

    However, what’s alway troubled me about the everything ends and we start selling our extra stuff is this — who is going to have money that is worth anything and is anyone go to have any surplus cash to spend even on necessities?

    MEA, basically screwed.

  3. AnnaMarie says:

    The struggle between cash pay and subsistence pay is one I have daily. My main cash income is from fiber sales over the internet and while we want to have an equal amount in local sales of farm products it’s a long and seemingly slow path we’ve chosen to do so.

    My local area is divided between those who do for themselves and those who are used to grocery stores and Wal Mart even though going to WM is a one hour drive. I can only hope that as time goes by the internet and my sales at large continue for long enough that my local sales catch up and I can balance the two means of income.

    As for being more self sufficient I do hope that we do a little bit more each year but boy howdy did I underestimate the time it takes to balance making money vs. making a living.

  4. KimS says:

    Sharon, would you elaborate on your Amaranth? Do you make Amaranth flour with it? I grew a couple dozen plants, with seeds my sister sent me, and while it is a *beautiful* plant, I’m not sure how to work with it. I realize a couple dozen plants will get me nowhere. I just needed to see how it grew & what to do with it before planting an actual “crop”. (With the size of the seed I’m curious how much you plant to get a bushel of seed.)

    Very introspective, thought provoking piece!

  5. Marina says:

    Sharon, I just finished reading your book “Depletion and Abundance”. This was one of the best reads I’ve ever had. Thank you so much for your kindness and enthusiasm in promoting healthy and self-sufficient lifestyles.

    I am new on this board and haven’t caught up on your archives yet. Perhaps, this was discussed before. Anyway, here is my amateur question.

    If we can race the squirrels, we’ll do adequately,

    This summer I tried to grow tomatoes in my backyard. They did pretty well for the first timer! However, animals managed to eat half of them. My backyard goes into ravine and is surrounded with tall trees (I live in Ontario). We have a lot of wildlife, ie groundhogs, squirrels, rabbits, fox, occasional deer. Those I can identify to my best knowledge on the subject (which is not great!). I was quite disappointed with my first experience. If animals eat half of my tomatoes they will most likely eat most of everything else I will be growing. Is there a way around it? Maybe someone can point me to a good source or give an advice. I would very much appreciate it.

    Marina

  6. Susan in NJ says:

    You have hickory nuts . . . now I’m really envious. Hickory nut cake was the great rare treat of my childhood — all the relatives would gather when one was to be had.

  7. risa b says:

    Yes, this post matters a lot, because you can’t walk at your ox’s head for ten days if you were forced to eat the ox the winter before!

    Could we do this self-feeding thing at our place? The garden, the orchard, the pasture and the wood supply look like a qualified yes, but … no, we couldn’t.

    We’re simply too old to do that much work. And if everyone came back to us that would need what we have to offer, we’d all run out of on-site resources soon rather than late.

    So the only way to a yes answer would be through the neighbors. There are people with lots of acres to our one-point-two — some with hundreds of good arable acres, though they’d have to be persuaded to give up the grass-seed-farmer lifestyle. And there’s plenty of skill here, and many, many horses though not currently bred to the plow, and even some donkeys. And enough water.

    Our concern as a couple, though, is that in getting to know all the neighbors, we’re apprehensive, based on some of the yard signs we see during political season.

    We’re two women.

  8. Emily says:

    I thought I’d raised a pretty “big” garden this year, but calculations showed that I could feed a person for only 23 days. *sigh* More calorie crops next year!

  9. rdheather says:

    Wow! I’m going to have to think on this post for a while. What great food for thought.

    And Marina-a dog will keep the wildlife back some at least. And fencing for the dog might cut down on some unwanted visitors.

  10. dewey says:

    I lose food to animals every year; last year it was rabbits, this year squirrels. If we had to seriously garden for subsistence, I bet it would not take long at all before one of us got up the nerve to start killing them and making stew! Hey, more protein.

  11. NM says:

    Important thoughts. They’re questions I have been wondering about, lately, too. I am struggling with depression and anxiety attacks, thinking, hmm, my nice, normal American lifestyle is killing me. Or at least causing harm to my health — for both of us, really; my husband isn’t at his healthiest, either. But we need the income to pay the bills and taxes … and earning it leaves little time or energy for being self sufficient, as hard as I try. This is something of a quandary. My best friend can’t for the life of her understand why I won’t give up the self-sufficiency work, and take some nice anti-depressants. Which would certainly make me a better-fitting cog in the economy machine. She doesn’t understand why that thought makes me angry, either.
    Ah, well. The fall garden is looking beautiful, and the summer one has produced tomatoes to can and cucumbers to pickle. And I found a perfect cartoon the other day; some poor schmuck is lying on a psychiatrist’s couch in hell, looking depressed, while souls of the damned wander by. The devil is sitting in a chair, looking jovial, and saying, “You say you have a horrible sense of doom and futility? Let’s explore where that might be coming from.”
    I laughed so hard I about fell out of my chair.
    We couldn’t live on what we produce. But damned if I’ll stop trying. As you noted in the column about the collapse of the Russian economy, some food is better than none.

  12. sealander says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this subject also – however since I’ve got less than a tenth of an acre of cultivated land available, it is hard to know what measure of self sufficiency is achievable. I have undertaken a few experiments in the last couple of years to figure out what I could do if I was to find myself out of paid work and needing to produce a significant amount of the household’s needs.

    I’ve found that I can get a good yield of hull-less oats if grown as a winter crop – they also do well in parts of the garden that tend to be so damp and cold that nothing else will grow in winter. These can be processed by hand fairly easily. However since I can readily source organic oats grown in the local region it is not currently worth taking up the space where more expensive vegetables could be produced. I’m going to keep a small patch going each year just to have some locally adapted seed available.
    I’ve found that my chickens are quite happy to eat acorns in winter if they’re crushed for them. All the local parks have English oak trees so a supply is freely available, and this could be used to reduce the amount of grain needed. I haven’t tried processing the acorns for human consumption but it is an option to keep in mind. I also know the location of a number of accessible walnut trees where I forage some nuts each year.

    My fruit tree plantings currently produce enough that we’d have fresh fruit available for at least 5-6 months of the year, and the pear and persimmon produce a surplus that I preserve, but some of this could be sold or bartered.

    I can’t seem to produce the amount of potatoes I want, but I’ve found there is no problem growing piles of mashua and Jerusalem artichoke tubers so some of these could also replace purchased grain in the chicken’s diet. Since I breed an uncommon variety of chicken, I get good prices when selling surplus birds at present, but it is nearly always to customers from out of town. Should I find myself operating in a more local economy, I’d probably find a ready market among other city dwellers wanting a few layers and I could increase the amount of chicks that are hatched.

    Last summer I focused on seeing how much of a dry bean crop I could produce, and this season I aim to double the crop. It only amounts to maybe a week’s worth of meals at the moment plus my seed for next season but since the quality and flavor of the beans is far superior to the imported beans which are all that is available, I’ll keep growing as many as I can.

  13. sealander, I’m curious about the way you feed acorns to your chooks. How do you go about crushing them? Do you do any processing before or after the crushing? We have an oak tree straddling our property line, and apropos of this post by Sharon, I’m always looking for freely available food for the hens. I’d be most grateful for any further details.

    -Kate

  14. safira says:

    If we had to rely solely on what we can currently produce, we wouldn’t survive for very long. Our garden supplements our diet nicely, but three 4×16 raised beds and a few containers won’t keep us in protein and fats.

    On the other hand, the land that’s currently lawn or flower beds could certainly become productive instead of pretty–I’m moving toward having it productive AS WELL AS pretty, though I’m not ready to eliminate the lawn and flowers completely—and we have room for chickens and/or rabbits on our suburban lot. It would be hard to feed ourselves entirely from our property, though probably not impossible. It would be impossible, I think, with us both working outside the home; doing what we do is challenging enough sometimes. (Then again, if we reached the point where this became a necessity, I imagine at least one of us would be out of the mainstream economy.)

  15. sealander says:

    Kate, I use a very sophisticated technique for acorn crushing – I put a handful on the concrete path and jump on them until they’re broken into small enough pieces for the chickens to eat ;)
    I’ve yet to come up with a more efficient way to do it. Note that raw acorns contain a lot of tannins, so various studies have found that when the chicken’s diet is more than 20% acorn it starts to affect their laying. If you turned the acorn into acorn meal and used one of the traditional methods for leaching out the tannins then you could feed them a lot more, but that is going to be pretty labor intensive.

  16. Lori Scott says:

    What an interesting scenario and what a wonderful thought process to even wonder about how your resources could be put to work. Its a step forward even to consider where we stand with this.

    Also, corn for flour? How do I make this? I thought corn had to go through some involved process involving lye to be able to be made into flour.

  17. Shira says:

    Traditionally, cottagers had a trade or a day job. The cottage, with its garden, fruit trees, chickens and byre, was never self-sufficient in food, fuel and fodder. It also generally involved at least two productive family members, as one person with a day job didn’t have time for all the domestic activities.

    Sharon has a farm the size of a mediaeval full allotment (28-30 acres), which was considered sifficient to be able to support a family by farming, although her land might be considered marginal.

    A mediaeval English village might have only a half dozen villagers with full allotments. The rest had half allotments (14-15 acres) or cottages without farm land. Sharon is well off by 13th century standards.

    Nonetheless, the villages fed the residents and produced a surplus which supported the aristocracy, clergy and towns. This, in a society which had forgotten Roman crop rotation.

    A suburban lot is about the same size as the cottager’s land, just shaped differently. The cottages were generally on long skinny lots, which makes the villages look smaller than they were.

    The cottager’s key to success was maximizing productivity from the small lot and having a good trade, or two good trades.

    We have the benefit of being on the other side of the 17th century agricultural revolution, which produced the population increase which so alarmed Malthus. One of the enabling technologies was the use of turnips and beets to over winter more than just the breeding stock. (I tried feeding beet slices to a modern dairy goat. She wasn’t interested.)

    So, from history it appears a) a small lot can be tremendously productive, b) it can be done by a single adult, but much better by two, and c) plan on having a trade or a day job.

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  18. Sarah says:

    Lori — corn can be ground into flour as-is; that’s what cornmeal is. But if you treat it with lye it releases nutrients (niacin I think?), so if you’re eating corn as your staple grain, you can have malnutrition issues if you don’t treat it.

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