Over the past few years as we’ve been developing our gardens and our gardening skills and knowledge, we’ve often heard comments about being self-sufficient or self-reliant. Wikipedia defines self-sufficiency as the state of not requiring any outside aid, support, or interaction, for survival. In an essay entitled The Myth of Self Reliance, Toby Hemenway of Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture fame, critiques the notion of self-sufficiency far better than can I. Although he goes beyond food, it was the food part of the essay that I found interesting. Exactly how much of their food can two people grow? It quickly becomes clear that you have to be mostly vegetarian since animals require you to grow food for them in order for them to survive the winter season. The more mouths that have to be fed, the more difficult the task becomes. And it quickly becomes clear that you need to grow vegetables that can keep until the next harvest, either by root cellaring, pickling, drying, canning, or otherwise preserving. And it quickly becomes clear that you need protein and calories so arugula won’t cut it despite the fact that it’s a great green. And cereal grains are problematic if you want bread since cultivation requires mechanization or draft animals which gets you into feeding more mouths. As I’ve often found when it comes to the garden, looking into the past or at current so-called undeveloped countries often provides simple solutions. In this case, it is the past that offers the answer: root vegetables. Ireland had its potatoes (and its famine), Eastern Europe & Russia, potatoes, turnips and beets. In fact, the history of the potato in human food systems is a fascinating one. Root vegetables are easy to grow, have few diseases or pests, have high yields, store easily, are very versatile when consumed, have a lot of calories and nutritional value, and are stick-to-your-ribs-filling. So the core of our food production centers on root vegetables – potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, turnips as well as legumes – peas, beans, and soy. Tomatoes are part of the core production as well – they dry and can very well. Cabbages store well but we’ve not yet grown them. They are on the list for this year. We also grow easy threshing varieties of barley and oats but we had to find a way of stretching the yield which means that bread is out although biscuits made for a single meal do work. A cup of dry barley or oats gives you 4 cups boiled. We use the boiled grains to make kutia/kutya. We have the honey and the hazelnuts to make the kutya. It’s so filling that 1/4 cup suffices for breakfast which really stretches the yield. Sometimes we use the boiled grains to make “burgers”. Not everything is producing fully yet but we have apples, pears, mulberries, and plums that provide preserves, jam, jellies, leathers, purées, dry fruit and juice. For berries, we have wild grapes, seedless table grapes, black currants, red currants, haskap/honeyberries, and seaberries. Of our nut trees – hazel, northern pecan, heartnut and black walnut, the hazel has started to tease us with one tree producing small amounts. Hazel is probably the “best” nut for us. It is easy to propagate by cuttings and layering which is good if you want more trees cheaply. It cracks easily and can produce a cooking oil using a cold-press expeller such as a Piteba. Soy and sunflowers could also be processed to oil this way but both seem to require more cranking force than hazelnuts. Sunflowers also have the added problems of Eastern Goldfinches and insects which bore into the seeds.
Two seasons ago we experimented with sugar beets. The sugar extraction process is complicated but then we found this technique. It produces a sweet, syrup liquid with an “earthy” taste. After a life-time of eating white, refined sugar, anything else is different, even cane sugar. But it works. Toss in perennial herbs – oregano, French tarragon, lovage, anise hyssop, sorel, lemon balm, chives, garlic, horseradish and an easy-to-grow annual – basil and the taste variations are endless. It took a while to figure out the core crops to grow that provide reliable good yields and take us through the winter months but we think that we have the basics in place.