Archive for June 24th, 2008

Lights and Gas Move More and More Out of the Range of Ordinary People

Sharon June 24th, 2008

This article is, I think, a disturbing look at the future for most households. 

Electricity and natural gas shutoffs are up at least 15% in several states compared with last year. Totals for some utilities have more than doubled.

“We’re seeing a record number of shutoffs,” says Mark Wolfe, head of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which represents programs that subsidize energy bills.

An NEADA survey this month shows 8% of four-member households earning $33,500 to $55,500 have had their power turned off for non-payment. “It’s hitting people in the suburbs with two cars and two kids,” Wolfe says.

The disconnects are rising as warm-weather power bills increase, some state moratoriums on winter shutoffs expire, and rates are climbing in many states.”

Regular readers have heard me on this subject before, but I think it is important to reiterate – questions of whether the Grid will stay up aren’t the primary issue when it comes to electricity – the question of whether you can pay your bills will be.  With more and more defaulters, utility companies are likely to lobby to end winter shut-off laws in houses without medically fragile people, and they may well succeed.

Meanwhile, the housing bust is accellerating and job losses are rising.  Unless you are very certain of your income, it would be wise to assume that some portion of next year may be spent without power in your house.   If living there without it isn’t pleasant for you, do what you can to make it so. I strongly advice my readers to consider ways of making no (or very low – getting your bill down to something you can actually pay and prevent shutoffs with) power.  Right now, in the very early stages of a Depression, most people are able to work out a deal with the power company, to put it on a credit card.  That will not last forever – the credit will dry up and the ability to get funds will too.  Please, start thinking now about how you will deal with extended utility outages – this is one of those things where your level of suffering is directly related to how much in advance you plan for it.

More on this subject:

More on why, if your house is worth saving, you should lose the utilities before you lose the house itself:

What to do with the energy guzzling appliances afterwards:

Why this doesn’t really have to be so awful: 


How Much Land Do You Need?

Sharon June 24th, 2008

After “Where should I live?” the next most frequently asked question I get is “How much land do I need?”  And just like “Where should I live” is a deeply personal question, shaped as much by who you are, where your family is, what you do for a living, etc… as by any rules of thumb, the same thing is true of “how much land do I need.”  That is, it depends on where the land is, what kind of land it is, how much rain you get, what you want to do with it.  The one absolute truth is that with a few exceptions the answer is almost always “less than you think.”

Now when I went looking for land I did what a lot of people did – I wanted as much as I could afford.  I got 27 acres, and in many ways, that’s far too much.  Now don’t get me wrong – I’m delighted I have it.  It gives me choices that other people don’t have.  But I very quickly realized that 3 intensively managed acres could probably have done me nearly as well and that 1/2 acre could do an astounding amount.  There have been times when the only part of this property we’ve used is about an acre of it.

Ok, so the first set of questions applies to you – let’s say you want some land to grow food on.  What’s your situation?  I’d suggest you ask yourself these questions.  I won’t offer any real answers, just things to think about.

1. How old am I, and how good is my health? 

- I was sitting around at dinner with several young CSA farmers in their 20s, and we all agreed that about 2 acres is the absolute maximum that one young, healthy person can farm by hand on their own.  While I nodded my head, because I think I could do two acres if I had to,  at 35, with young kids, I think an acre or an acre and a half is more like it, if you aren’t using powered tools.  By 50 I suspect my estimate will go down to 1/2 acre or less.  And that’s assuming I’m in good health. 

So comes the question – how old are you? Who else will you have around to help?  How healthy are you?  Are you likely to be restricted by health or by something temporary, like pregnancy and babies?  What else do you have to do?

Now these numbers apply to land that you will garden intensively with minimal or no powered equipment – maybe a lawnmower, but not a tractor.  You can stretch that number by adding things that take less attention that an annual garden – orchards and fruiting or nutting plants, livestock, etc… I’ll move on to that in a second.  I’m also assuming you are starting from scratch – that is, if you move to a property (good luck finding it) with an acre worth of carefully tended, established garden with good soil, I would tend to think that someone over 50 could go on managing it as long as they were physically able.  But starting from scratch, and building soil while growing stuff, that’s more work.  More experienced farmer/gardeners will know the management techniques to do more with less, but also to do more with more.  Again, I’m assuming you are fairly new to this.

I would say that a 2 acre hand-tended garden is the absolute outside of what a young, healthy person should attempt to produce by hand working full time.  A 1 acre hand tended garden is plenty for a family with older kids who can help out, with one partner working full time.  A half acre is probably enough for a healthy older couple or people with young children.  And a quarter acre or less should be the absolute maximum for people with health issues mild enough to let them garden, but enough to constrain them.  And these are limits assuming that you really need the food, and that other things aren’t so pressing – you might actually want less garden than this, I’m talking about outsider rabges.

2. What can I use to expand my limits?  And is there really a compelling reason to try?

Obviously tractors fall into this category, as do rototillers (I don’t actually think the latter are that useful in many cases, but I do mention them), but affording the gas to run them can run into real money, and sometime it might not be available.  Plus, there are real limits in practical terms – yes, I know people with tractors on 3 acres, and if you really are farming them full time, that might even make sense if you can share it with others.  But for isolated ownership, the tractor isn’t going to pay for itself unless you are super-handy and can press into service an older model and maintain it.  Everyone I know with a tractor spends a *lot* of time maintaining the thing – and that’s time you aren’t planting or growing.  I know the lure of the tractor – but I’ve never quite given in to it, and mostly, I’m glad.  Since some of my neighbors have them, I can often enrich one of my neighbors for far less than the yearly amortized cost of a tractor.  Is it a pain?  Yup.  But the world doesn’t need more diesel engines, and I don’t need to spend more time with the internal combustion engine ;-) .

So what else is out there?  Well, there are draft animals.  But the thing about those is that your draft horses, jacks, mules, oxen, water buffalo, etc… are going to eat a lot of pasture, probably some grain and a good bit of hay over the winter.  You have to have enough land to justify their presesnce.  Since only 8 of our acres are open (the other 19 are woodlot), we simply don’t have that much land – if I got even light draft ponies, I’d use them mostly to…grow feed for my ponies.

Then there are middle options, animals that can eat pasture or the bugs on it or some combination and harvest a lot of their own food, and then provide something you want, like milk or eggs or meat.  But if you are trying to net a better deal (as opposed to just doing it for a hobby or for a better food supply) think carefully about how much land you are devoting to them, and have a plan for what you’ll do if you can’t afford to buy outside feed.  A big herd of sheep looks great until you have to put all their hay up by hand with a scythe – you might find that you want fewer sheep then.  We do put up hay with our scythe, and both of us really enjoy scything – but we don’t try to do 10 acres, either.  And buying grain for animals that require some supplemental graining (poultry for example) can run into real money.

Still, animals can do a lot of work for you - pigs or waterfowl, for example, can do moderate scale tillage and fertilization, while living on mostly pasture and food wastes.  Penning pigs on a piece of land you plan to garden can really be worth doing.   And well maintained permanent pastures can sequester a lot of carbon as the organic matter builds in the soil.  Peter Bane estimates that Joel Salatin’s pastures sequester as much carbon as a comparable forest. 

But if you have a dry or cold season in your climate, you will need to put up feed for that period.  And animals do involve management – that is, you have to have both the time and the ability to handle them for hoof trimming, birthing, etc…  And if you have livestock or perhaps even pets, and the economy tanks, I hate to say it, but there is a decent chance you will have to kill something at some point.  Some of us are ok with this, some not, but because it is not part of contemporary American culture for most people, it is worth thinking about -  there is no retirement home for extra male animals, and meat is valuable in a poor world,  and sooner or later you will have something sick and dying and not be able to afford the vet.  Decide *now* whether you are prepared to do all the work of management involved, before you add livestock to your dreams. 

The other method of extending your management is with perennial plantings that don’t require as much attention as annual cultivation.  My own experiments with this suggest to me that in the first couple of years, while you are planting and establishing and dealing with pest weeds, etc… perennial agriculture isn’t that much less work, if any, than annual agriculture.  Or rather, it is less work for me, because my husband likes to dig holes, but most people who have to do it themselves won’t find that true ;-) .  We’re just starting to see our orchards and forest garden plantings pay off (the first ones we planted we planted in a drought year on a field we didn’t realize ordinarily floods repeatedly- proof that hurrying doesn’t always save anyone time and that getting to know your land is key!) 

I would generally say that another 1/4 acre of perennial plantings can be added to any estimate *if* you have help with the initial establishment – that is, an older couple who can manage a half acre garden could also manage 3/4 of an acre, with a 1/4 acre orchard, if they had additional assistance in the establishment phase, or could hire some work out.  

I’m no expert on draft animals, but generally speaking, I think if you have less than 10 acres of pasture/hayfield large draft animals won’t make sense – permanent garden plantings without tillage are easier to establish than to maintain horses.  The exception would be if you have a large woodlot, and can use the animals for logging.  A smaller draft pony might work well on a smaller holding, but finding equipment can be challenging.  But sharing draft animals might well make sense. 

A lot of us have more animals right now than our land can strictly support, because we can afford to buy hay or grain.  It makes sense for both those of us with livestock now and those who want it to think hard about what happens if the cost of transporting and buying feed rise beyond their capacities.  Are you prepared to butcher more animals, or keep a smaller flock?  Think about what strategies you might use to extend your land’s capacities – I’m experimenting a bit with growing root crops from seedballs, so that we don’t have to do any tillage on our hayfields.  But we’re still in the experimental stage.  Amaranth for our chickens seems to be a success as well, but we’re still buying some grain.

Water is another huge issue – all of what I’m talking about implies that you have water, and a reliable way of getting it.  If you have to hand-irrigate your garden for it to produce, you will want the most fertile soil with dense plantings that you can manage – you will not be looking to maximize your scale, but to minimize it, after just one day of hauling water.  The same is true of livestock – if you don’t have a reliable water source, think hard about how much hand pumping and hauling you will want to do in February. 

I haven’t included precise discussions of how many animals land can support, simply because it varies so much – and much of what varies is defined by water.  At the same time, water means that some land is suitable only for grazing – either because it is lush and green but too steep and erodable for easy gardening or because it dries up and turns to desert if it is tilled.  Knowing your place is essential, and choosing animals and plantings that can withstand the outer parameters of your soils, climate and water is the best way to succeed, but I can’t help you with that – the people who live near you who engage in food production can.

The other factor is figuring out what you want to accomplish.  A lot of people when they come to their land either want or imagine themselves to have to be completely self-sufficient, and that generally isn’t realistic.  A lot of us who have come at this through homesteading have played around with a lot of things – tried a little bit of this here and a bit of that here, and that’s a great thing – those experiments teach us all storts of stuff.  But people buying land right now may have to focus in on essentials early on. 

The truth is that most of us are never going to move 100% into the informal economy.  It is also true that the things that pay now aren’t necessarily the things that will pay later.  For example, I can buy 50lbs of potatoes for about 12 dollars in my region.  The seed to grow them would cost me more than that – so potatoes don’t “pay” – but I grow them anyway, for three reasons.  The first is that I can save seed, and the costs get spread out over years.  The second is that potatoes are a staple food crop, and while right now I get a greater return growing grapes or tomatoes or herbs on my food dollar investment, in the longer term, if I need to keep eating, potatoes are essential.  The third is that home-grown potatoes are one of those things that just taste better.  So I grow potatoes – but someone with a smaller garden space might choose now to grow other things, ones that cost more at the market and save her more money, while maybe experimenting just a little with potatoes, enough, perhaps for seed and a few to eat.

Right now, we’re in a transitional phase, and it might make more sense to focus on high value items that lower the grocery budget, and purchase staples – but with staples rising rapidly in price as well, we need to have the ability to shift towards meeting our needs for basics.  For example, right now I grow a lot of greens – we love them, eat them nearly constantly and eat a huge variety.  So I grow bok choy, collards, chard, 15 lettuces, arugula, edible chrysanthemum, beet greens, mizuna…and the list goes on.  On the other hand, my property grows all the lambs quarters, chickweed, plantain and dandelion I could possibly need for me.  While I like these things very much, I still grow the others because I like them.  But many of them will go by the wayside if I ever need the garden beds to grow more potatoes, amaranth and corn, and I keep enough seed to make this shift. 

The other issue is fuel – low input grown biofuels for tractors or chainsaws are one possible permutation that one might want, but in cold climates, wood for heating and cooking is even more likely.  In reasonably wet areas like mine, the estimate is that you can take one cord of wood per acre under good management practices – we’ve been taking a couple of cords (as much as we have time to cut ourselves) off of our land each year – in dryer areas this may be much less.  Very small amounts of woodland and brush should be sufficient to make very small hot fires to cook over, but if you require heating, besides reinsulating and getting used to being cold, you will want more wood.

Given my own concerns that the great eastern forest will be deforested by over harvesting in the coming decades, my own personal feeling is that I want private control over woods that can’t be logged – and having much more woodland than we need permits me to share with friends and family while still keeping the harvest contained. 

The place we’re in can argue for both bigger and smaller.  If you can get a reasonable amount of staple grains, gardens don’t actually have to be that big to keep you well fed – a well managed (note that term – well managed matters) 1/4 acre can grow all the fruit, vegetables and eggs and a little meat and fat for a family of four.  Less would be adequate too.  And the truth is that it is much easier to manage a 1/4 acre than a 1/2 acre – in many cases, a well managed 1/8 acre might produce more food than a 1/2 acre that a family is struggling to manage.

But what you can do now may not be what you need/want to do in the longer term – that is, if actual shortages of staple foods arise, you may find that it isn’t as hard as you thought to manage your 1/2 acre.  And if you can sell your surplus produce for cash or barter, that too has virtues.  Some of us may find ourselves with more people living in our houses, expanding both our need for production and our ability to do the producing.  Or we may shift from a one-gardener to a three-gardener situation as jobs are lost. 

So I have three possible answers to the “how much land do I need” and a bunch of caveats.

1. As much as you can afford.  This applies I think best to younger, healthier people (or the parents of young healthier people who imagine they may be joining them), experienced older farmers, etc… who see themselves working towards personal self-sufficiency plus surplus sales in their community.  In some places this may not be very much at all, for some people this may be quite a lot.  The old “God isn’t making any more land” comment really does apply here – bioproductive land is likely to be the basis of our “new” economy in a more direct way than in the past – that is, land is worth what it can produce, and food and warmth are going to be worth a lot. 

In this case, I’d say, manage and maintain your land for future use – grow woods, plant trees, put in perennial plantings, keep pastures down enough to keep them from turning into something else if you will want them, but don’t feel compelled to use every acre.  You are holding land for the future – this is a good thing. Meanwhile, concentrate your efforts on a small, well manage part and work outwards. 

2. Less than you can afford.  If you live in an expensive area, the idea of getting “land” can be intimidating, particularly if you are young and poor and tied there.  So don’t sweat it.  Astounding amounts can be done on small pieces of land. At first it will see hopeless, as though nothing can be accomplished, but every year you will find a bit more space, and have new ideas.  Commit yourself to managing what you have with the greatest intensity – think of yourself as the next Dervaes family. And recognize the power of sharing – Aaron, my co-author “farms” several of his elderly neighbor’s yards.  You don’t have to own it to grow on it.

For those who are older, in ill health or have their lives taken up by other pressures – elderly family members, babies and small children, etc… it is probably more important that you build fertility and intensively manage what you have than that you push yourself by trying to use a lot of land.  With limited resources, you essentially have the choice of building up or out – that is, you can make less do more or you can make more do less – and the former is usually the better choice, particularly since you can then work on adapting the property not only to your present abilities but to your long term situation.  And instead of trying to meet every need, think in terms of a balance between basic needs and reducing your costs.

3. None at all.  Remember, I mentioned that you don’t have to own land – right now is a difficult time to buy property - first time buyers find it hard to get credit and jobs are unstable.  So for some people, buying land will be a bad idea.  It is often possible to rent space, borrow it from friends or family, get an employer, church or community group involved in bringing land into production, etc…  Tons can be done in containers on a balcony.  Getting involved in your food systems is, I think, non-negotiable in the coming years.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean buying land.

 BTW, on that last note, my family is still looking for another family to consider moving to our property – I’ve described the situation we have here:  We have more house than we need, ideally set up for sharing, and we’re still looking for the right people.  We’ve talked to a bunch, but it is always hard for people to relocate and give up what they have – but still, I have to imagine there’s someone out there who wants to share.