Can you grow enough fruit and vegetables to be self-sufficient?

Preface. If you want to try to feed yourself, buy John Jeavons excellent book “How to Grow More Vegetables, Ninth Edition: (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land with Less Water Than You Can Imagine”. If you’re really serious, go to http://www.growbiointensive.org/ to find out where you can take a course. When I took it in 2004 Jeavons told us that in our area of Northern California, we could probably get by on half an acre per person because our benign climate allows three crops a year. But we don’t get enough rain to do that, so massive water storage is required as well.

Cities will someday be a bad place to be as energy grows scarce and supply lines break down because trucks don’t have diesel fuel. This is why the younger you are the more you should consider moving to an agricultural area where your muscle power, your own yard, and local food can keep you fed after oil decline.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Wong, J. 2020. Can you really grow enough fruit and veg to be self-sufficient? Newscientist.com.

There’s been a surge in people wanting to grow fruit and vegetables, but the path to self-sufficiency isn’t as easy as some may have you think.

how realistic are the promises that such efforts will help you along your way to self-sufficiency? Let’s do the maths.

If your goal is to feed yourself, it would be hard to find a better crop than potatoes. In terms of calories per unit of land, they are easily the most productive crop that can be grown, at least in the UK. Potatoes grow best in cool, well-drained, loose soil that is about 45° to 55°F (7° to 13°C) with full sun of at least 6 hours of sunlight each day.

Churning out yields of approximately 8.8 pounds on 1.2 square yards (4 kilos per square meter) on farms with these ideal conditions can produce more than three times the calories of wheat. Spuds also happen to be one of the crops with the most balanced nutrition, meaning humans can survive for at least a year eating very little else, according to the International Potato Center in Peru.

Based on an average intake of 2250 calories a day (2000 women, 2500 men), you’ll need to grow 821,250 calories a year. That’s around a tonne of spuds, requiring 2860 square feet / 318 square yards / 0.066 acre / 266 square meters of land. Now multiply by the number of people in your household.

Perhaps by self-sufficiency they don’t mean calorie-wise, but just in terms of fruit and veg requirements? Working on World Health Organization guidelines stating that adults need at least 14 ounces (five 80-gram servings) of fresh produce a day to maintain health would mean each of us requires 320 pounds (146 kilograms) every year. While vegetable yields vary, for a family of four, this would mean a minimum of 292 square metres for lower weight crops like lettuce (.072 acre / 350 square yards) and about 100 square yards (84 square meters / 0.02 acre) for heavier ones like apples.

But let’s not forget, these crops are highly seasonal, and storing them to last the whole year will be tough. Even with some of the world’s best experts at post-harvest storage and vast climate-controlled warehouses, millions of tonnes of food is lost by industrial agriculture each year. A rack in your garage or a fancy chest freezer simply can’t compete.

Is growing your own great exercise, a chance to get fresh air and a welcome distraction in these uncertain times? A resounding yes. Does it teach invaluable lessons about where our food comes from, while giving an edible bonus? 100 per cent. But is it likely to provide beginners with even a passing semblance of self-sufficiency, as the headlines promise? I’m afraid not. So enjoy your garden (if you have one) for all the benefits it provides.

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4 Responses to Can you grow enough fruit and vegetables to be self-sufficient?

  1. The quoted figures for potatoes (0.066 acre per person per year to provide calories) are based on green revolution level industrial intensive yields. You can reproduce these type of yields in the home garden if you have unlimited access to imported compost and irrigation, and unlimited resources to control pests and diseases. It also means having reliable access to virus free seed potatoes, something a home gardener cannot easily manage on their own. If you take away all those advantages potato yield falls by about 90 %. Potato yields in the developing world today are about 10% of those in the optimised industrial systems. Potatoes are a crop that is hyper-responsive to industrialism. It is also prone to crop failures as well for a wide range of reasons, so not a great foundation for self sufficiency. So under more realistic post industrial conditions you need as much as one acre of potatoes per person, though yields will vary considerably year to year. Remember as well that one ton of potatoes you produce will need to be stored successfully so you can eat them throughout the year, something that root crops don’t do nearly as easily as grain crops (though both require a lot of skill to do reliably). Potatoes normally store about 3-6 months once harvested under basic storage conditions you find at home, depending on the climate. To solve the storage and reliability issue for calories it means growing space hogging grain crops in seasonally dry/cold climates and a much wider diversity of tuber crops in continually hot/wet climates. Pre-industrial societies like east asia were recorded as growing 0.3-0.5 acres of rice per person, and derived a lot of their protein from seafood. As for growing your own veggies, that can be done on a much smaller scale with much more modest resources, though much of what people attempt to do these days is merely reproducing industrial intensive methods on a small and inefficient scale, partly because most of the crops they try to grow are offcuts from the industrial system they are accustomed to. If you can adapt your palate then there is a much more suitable range of vegetables that can be grown at home. For example head forming brassicas like broccoli and cabbage are weak inbred cousins of the original leafy kales. They were transformed so they could make a product that is easy to transport and store. Kale has only recently re-entered shops and is usually wilted and horrible even after a carefully refrigerated journey. Home growers try to grow weak broccoli and fail usually, and if they do succeed get one huge lump of vegetable to eat (that they sometimes freeze to cope with). Kale on the other hand grows like a weed and produces continual fresh leaves for years, and a home grower doesnt have the problems of long distance transport ruining quality to worry about. The heritage of vegetable growing we should be tapping into isnt the one of the 18th century (it was already industrialised by then). You need to go back to the medieval potager garden model.

  2. Kevin M. says:

    You would also need to move your potatoes every year to a new location.

    I don’t know where you are in California but you might be able to grow a Carob tree or a Prosopis tree. As a bonus when the neighbors are hungry there is a good chance they won’t know the fruits are edible.

    At 6 years of age, a budded Carob tree in California should yield about 5 lbs (2.25 kg). At 12 years, the crop should be 100 lbs (45 kg). Productivity increases steadily up to 25 or 30 years when the yield may average 200 lbs (90 kg). In Israel individual trees have produced 450 to 550 lbs (204-227 kg) 18 years after grafting.

  3. Susan Butler says:

    You can grow enough food, but it’s a lot of work, both the growing and the preserving. And it can’t be just vegetables. Even adding significant potatoes, squash and beans is a protein-poor diet, and you’re more vulnerable to bad weather than you are with animals. A couple of milk cows, bred on an alternating schedule; chickens for meat and eggs; some corn and oats grown for the livestock, a few hogs, and a woodlot for heat and hot water if you’re off grid, are needed. This takes 5 or 6 people to do, so a large family works well. As much work goes into canning, drying, cellaring, cheese-making, and making meat or fruit preserves as goes into the growing. Now it’s starting to sound like the economy of a small town. That’s how it used to be done in frontier days and is still done by the Amish and their like.

  4. I too took the course with John Jeavon’s some years ago and I read his book more than once, but today I find it rather useless, since I now have learned much more about diet:
    “Barry Groves: Homo Carnivorus What We Are Designed to Eat” ( https://youtu.be/qn5zdWucv6I )
    “Part 1 – Hominid dietary evolution” ( https://youtu.be/zE-ZG8K6iio )
    http://highsteaks.com/the-fat-of-the-land-not-by-bread-alone-vilhjalmur-stefansson.pdf

    Today, my main diet consists of animal products, mostly red meat, eggs animal fat, butter, milk and hazelnuts. In fact, today I do not need fruit, vegetables and cereals.

    From a practical point of view, gardeners or farmers can only exist in well protected environments. If food becomes scarce, then fields, gardens and warehouse will be looted and farmers and gardeners will be tortured and killed, if they are not protected by warriors. Thus farmers and gardeners always need a symbiosis with warriors, while warriors can obviously survive on hunting and/or on cannibalism alone. With a diet of just meat and fat, they will even become much stronger, smarter and superior to warriors trying to survive on vegan or vegetarian diets. This is is a really frightening truth.
    By the way, at least in German, there is at least one fairy tale dealing with cannibalism and fattening a captive human being with a carbon hydrate rich diet, with the objective of cannibalism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hansel_and_Gretel . Thus there seem to have been such hard times and episodes in German history.
    The Russian sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin has written the book “Hunger As a Factor in Human Affairs” has written a book on hunger where he also mentions several reports on cannibalism.
    A vegan or vegetarian way to deal with the a scarcity of foods is what the Nazis did: As Christian Gerlach explains in his book “Krieg, Ernährung, Völkermord. Forschungen zur deutschen Vernichtungspolitik”, the main objective of the German mass killings in WW2 was to prevent a famine, resulting in a revolution in Germany. Thus their racist ideology was NOT the reason for the mass killings, but it was just a tool, helping to select those who should be killed to reduce the food consumption. The Nazi Government was very well aware of the fact that the main reason for the revolutions in Russia in 1917, in Germany in 1918, as well as in France in 1789, was the scarcity and the price of food. They feared that, a famine would result in a revolution ending the Nazi rule in Germany. Indeed, with their mass killings and cruel politics they succeeded in preventing such a famine driven revolution.
    To better understand the problem: In February of 1940, when the British Navy blocked the sea lanes, the German ministry of agriculture calculated, that Germany would have to surrender within just two years because of food shortages, if they would not find a solution.
    This, as well as the German shortage of oil (as explained in http://www.eiaonline.com/history/bloodforoil.htm ), seemed to have been main drivers for the aggressive and cruel German politics. There is much to be learned from this history.

    Today I think, the best solution to prevent famines, cannibalism and murdering “superfluous” eaters, and wars on food and fertile soils, is to restore and optimize soil life (see for example http://www.soilfoodweb.com ) and to extend and optimize the use of grasslands with cattle and other animals, as Allan Savory ( https://savory.global ) and many others are showing and teaching.
    As it seems, today almost any soil can be made fertile, almost everywhere in the world, without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Combine this with well managed cattle, sheep, poultry and other animals, and you get a good and healthy food supply with very little inputs of energy and other resources.