Preparing for the Worst
July 7, 2008 4:43 AM   Subscribe

What vegetables, fruits, fish and animals would be recommended for a self-sufficient survival farm?

Whether it be climate change, energy shortage, economic collapse, or act of nature; there are many plausible reasons these days to consider alternatives to the western way of living. Perhaps people living in the communes of the 1960-70s were thinking ahead.

If you had a small, 10-20 acre family farm or slightly larger community property what vegetables would you plant, what fruit trees would you cultivate, what fish would you stock in the pond, and what farm animals would you raise to make your environment as self-sufficient as possible for your family and/or community in the face of a calamitous future? What considerations are required to care for all of this?
posted by netbros to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
where are you located? it's hard to give practical suggestions without knowing where this farm will be...
posted by jammy at 4:46 AM on July 7, 2008

Best answer: that said, if you're in the Northeast US, check out Edible Forest Gardens.
posted by jammy at 4:49 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

This AskMe post has great links about starting a backyard fish farm. From the looks of it, you can turn your food waste (via compost) into worms and feed those worms into fish, and then turn those fish into human calories (ah, the anthropocentric food chain). Somewhere it indicated that the average family's vegetable waste can indirectly yield about forty tilapia a year. On a farm I'm sure you could more than double that, plus you'd probably be composting anyway and excess worms are an inevitable byproduct.
posted by farishta at 5:31 AM on July 7, 2008

sorry, I didn't know I needed to check people's profiles...

also, how do I know that netbros is going to stay put? while we're on the subject of location, even more specifics would be helpful in answering this usefully: what's your access to water like?
posted by jammy at 5:34 AM on July 7, 2008

You need the book.
posted by flabdablet at 6:11 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just a protip, in the event of a catastrophic societal collapse, I'm pretty sure any items of value (i.e. food) you have on your land would draw the interest of whatever roving bands of starved armed gangs are in the area, whether they be ex-federal or otherwise, and the efficiency of the particular crop would be the least of your worries.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 6:13 AM on July 7, 2008

Michael Pollan wrote about Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm, which takes as one of its aims operating without waste. Also check out Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.

There's no one answer that will apply in all areas. Your climate, soils, and geography make a big difference as to what and how many plants and animals your land can sustain. In New Hampshire, for instance, there's much more emphasis on pasturage and livestock than on cropland, because we have so little. Self-suffiency on a family scale is possible with the right land, but in a permaculture situation I believe there would still inevitably be trade, though it would be more regionalized than what we have as yet. People in mountainous areas with rocky soil and bumpy topography will (already do, to some extent) trade meats, milk, and cheese for the produce grown in the river valleys.
posted by Miko at 6:23 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Rabbits will happily eat rotting vegetables and are much less unpleasant to have around than chickens. Tastier, too.
posted by Space Coyote at 6:24 AM on July 7, 2008

roving bands of starved armed gangs

Without gas, they're not likely to be roving rapidly in rural areas where they're exposed, in need of food and shelter, and don't know the way. They'd be very much at a disadvantage, and wouldn't last long against a settled, organized and connected community of farmers.

Not that I think that's going to happen. It won't take a sudden apocalyptic event to change the food system - it's already changing, and gradually, as people make choices.
posted by Miko at 6:26 AM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'll second Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. The section titled "Grass" covers the workings of a diverse small farm and the interactions between cows, chickens and pigs and the grassland and woodlot that keeps the farm sustainable. While it doesn't cover fish, it may point you in the direction of some idea of what you're looking for.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:54 AM on July 7, 2008

I've been doing a lot of research on this lately and have had some ideas. I live in the Central Texas region, so most of what I'm going to say is specific to that area.

I'm very excited about Aquaponics. It's the marriage of Aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) and hydroponics. The water rich with fish waste that would normally kill the fish is cycled out of the fish tank and converted into nutrients for the plants. In North America, the fish tends to be Talapia but there are other choices.

Raising chickens is very easy to do and provide a good protein source that doesn't consume as many resources as other animals raised for meat. Chickens are also good at eating bugs and turning dirt over. Many permaculture people will fence off an area and let the chickens graze for weeks or months before they move the chickens and then plant a garden in the area the chickens were in previously.

Guineafowl are similar to chickens (but louder). From what I've read, they are much less interested in the plants in your garden and more interested in the bugs. Apparently you can let them graze through your garden. They'll also hang around with the chickens and act as an alarm if any predators come close.

Rabbits are very easy to raise and breed so quickly and often they can provide a constant protein source that is low in fat, tasty, and light on the resources required to raise them.

Goats need to be fenced off well or they'll tear up your garden, but they are very good for clearing brush and the milk is easier to process in the human body than cows milk.

Don't overlook bee-keeping. Honey is a great source of energy.

You can also be ready to go off-grid with inexpensive wind-turbines (400 watt model for sale at CostCo for $570) and solar panels with banks of batteries to store the charge. I'm still doing the research, but it appears that you might also be able to make your own bio-diesel at home using algae and then processing it for the oils it contains. This might allow you to power an old diesel tractor and then you wouldn't have to rely on work animals such as horses to plow the fields. It wouldn't be a bad idea to have a few horses as a labor backup and for transportation.
posted by lockle at 7:02 AM on July 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Steve Solomon's Gardening When It Counts is a manual dedicated to this proposition. It's worth looking into because the author is not a (total) crackpot and has a good degree of credibility in the gardening world.

In terms of self-sufficiency, do not neglect the woodlot on your farm. You'll need it for firewood, mulch, free leaf litter, and construction material. Also, you can run pigs in it.
posted by stet at 7:04 AM on July 7, 2008

Response by poster: while we're on the subject of location, even more specifics would be helpful in answering this usefully

As previously noted, I am presently in western NC, but for the sake of discussion, let's assume somewhere in the central plains of the USA with abundant water.
posted by netbros at 7:16 AM on July 7, 2008

Great question!

Try to create as many self-sustaining cycles on your farm as possible, with no dead ends. For example:

Raise rabbits. Feed dead vegetables to the rabbits. Rabbit poop is excellent, burn-free compost that can be used right away. Use it to create more vegetables.

Build a vermicomposter so that you can compost meat and animal products. Keep catfish or other breeds (that link to another AskMe post is a great one, but here's a shortcut to the article) in giant rain barrels. The fish eat the mosquito larvae and poop out fertilizer into your reclaimed rainwater. Use your fertilized rainwater to water your vegetables. Make more worms with your leftover vegetables. Feed to the fish. Eat the fish. Compost the fish parts to make more worms for more fish.

Bees are extremely important too, even if you don't gather the honey. No bees = no pollination = no produce = death. (I know there are other pollinators out there, but none are as promiscuous as regular old honeybees). Thus your chances of survival hinges directly on bee population in your area.

Chickens are easier to keep clean than ducks, but duck eggs have more protein and they lay just as many eggs.

Build a solar oven. Install solar panels.

Read "How to grow more" for the diagrams and numbers and planting plans of the kind of produce necessary to sustain families of different sizes that it provides.

The folks over at Path to Freedom explore many options and are very nearly entirely self-sufficient. Study their website.

I can't wait to see what other folks post.
posted by GardenGal at 7:36 AM on July 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

Your three aims for plant selection should be yield, storage capacity, and diversity. Potatoes, cabbage, squash, onions, turnips, and apples usually have good yields, long storage capacity and are good for overwintering. Are you going to depend on having a freezer? If so, you'll be able to expand your diet during the cold months to include things like peaches, strawberries, tomatoes and basil. Of course, most produce can be dried, but it's nice to be able to make peach pie in January. Cucumbers, cabbage and carrots make great pickles. Almost all fruit can be turned into jam. Above all, plant things that you'll like eating, because you'll live to regret it if you don't.

Plant seasonally. You'll be able to use some areas more than once during the year if you pay attention. For example, it's possible to plant spinach in early spring and replace it with cucumbers once the spinach bolts. Setting up a greenhouse or a cold frame will also expand your growing season for veggies that can be transplanted.

Corn offers some of the best per acre yields for grain. Plus it is useful for all kinds of things: It can be milled for flower, eaten whole, dried for storage, fed to livestock, and the cobs can be dried and used as fire fuel.

Fruit trees should be selected based on yield and storage potential. Some varieties of apples can last in storage for up to a year.

Example harvesting schedule (YMMV according to preferences and climate)

Over the winter: onions, potatoes, winter greens
Early Spring: Chives, onions, cilantro, spinach, baby greens, rhubarb, mint
Spring: Peas, lettuce, strawberries, red orach, swiss chard, mesculin
Summer: Beans, tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini, summer squash, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, peaches, plums, young celery, watermelon, melons
Fall: winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, spinach, baby greens, peas, pumpkins, corn, beets and beet tops

Rotate crops often to avoid exhausting the soil. Beans and peas are nitrogen fixers, so they are useful for replenishing the soil. Plus, you'll almost have to cut down on meat so beans will become a vital source of protein. They aren't a complete solution, however, so consider factoring in fallow land if you are not going to use outside fertilizers.

As far as meat is concerned it might be a good idea to concentrate on animals with multiple purposes. Chickens require little space and give eggs and meat. Sheep don't need as much space as dairy cattle and give wool, milk and meat. Goats are hearty to a variety of conditions and will provide meat and milk. Goats might be a better choice because they can subsist on poorer foods than sheep and need less space. You can keep up to six on a half acre if you supplement their diet with hay, though this will vary with variety.

If you want to be completely self-reliant you'll need to devote some of your acreage to hay and corn to feed your animals. How much each animal will need is completely dependent on the variety. Higher yield usually equals higher energy needs.

Also, if you're going to use their manure to fertilize your fields you'll need to factor in the space and equipment needed to store and distribute the waste.

Are you planning on using modern equipment to take care of tilling/planting/harvesting? If not, you'll need to factor in pasture land for a donkey or other working animal. It might be worth a road trip to Amish country to see how these animals are treated and what amount of pasture land they are given.

Just make sure that you give yourself time to figure out what works for you and your land. Try a lot of different things in order to find the best variety for you. Also, talk to local people and your state farm extension. They are valuable sources of information that might cost you dearly if you have to learn those lessons on your own.
posted by Alison at 7:53 AM on July 7, 2008 [7 favorites]

What considerations are required to care for all of this?

As you're beginning to see from the above recommendations, there will be a LOT of work to be done. Start having kids ASAP - you're going to need as many spare hands as you can get to help with all of the work that this is going to involve.

Also you're going to want to invest significantly in fencing to keep out potential benefactors of your crops/herds/etc.. Dogs make excellent additions to guards but it will be best to have a couple of guys walking the property regularly at night, and you're going to want them to be well-armed / trained, as well as able to communicate to you instantaneously. And if you do get dogs, take safeguards to keep them away from your other animals - and add on their food needs to your production for human consumption.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:13 AM on July 7, 2008

You've gotten great advice on this thread. There's also a lot of good advice at the Homesteading Today forums as well as GardenWeb. I also have nothing but good things to say about the book Gaia's Garden, an exhaustive guide to home-scale permaculture. Gaia's Garden is a "must-have" in my opinion.

For meat, rabbits breed profusely and they can eat grass and garden scraps. Make your rabbit pens portable and you can place them in fallow garden areas to fertilize the soil. You can also use the droppings in vermicomposting. (And there are instructions on the internet on how to build worm composting bins from those cheap plastic bins you can get at Wal-Mart.)

Native food-bearing plants like blackberries and, my favorite, the serviceberry are great in the more wild areas of your property. With serviceberries you may have to place nets over the trees so that you can actually have some berries for yourself as robins love serviceberries.

Learn all about canning, both pressure-canning and water-bath-canning. It is easy, and it's a great way to store food without electricity. The Ball Blue Book is the bible of canning.
posted by Ostara at 8:23 AM on July 7, 2008

Response by poster: Wow! I am frankly flabbergasted by the wealth of information and terrific links shared so far in this thread. AskMe is indeed best of the web. Thank you. Thank you.
posted by netbros at 8:39 AM on July 7, 2008

If you seriously want to prepare for growing and raising all of your own food in case of disaster, you want to get out on the land where you will do this and make as many of your mistakes as you can while you will still have a safety net. Since one of your concerns is climate change, you will need to look at what crops can do well both in the current climate and the expected future climate. You will want to have stored seed for things that will do well in other climates, and plant trees that can handle a wide range of climates.
posted by yohko at 12:42 PM on July 7, 2008

I wanted to second Steve Solomon's Gardening When It Counts. Besides not being a total crackpot on the survivalist subject, Solomon also provides a fantastic amount on information on how to efficiently and effectively raise crops on very little water, complete with easy to grasp diagrams of root structures, and suggestions on types of food to grow.

It's a great book for the average gardener, survivalist or no.
posted by nerdcore at 1:05 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're talking self-sufficiency, you might want to investigate insect husbandry. They're great, nutritious food, and in the case of bees they'd be very useful not only in providing honey but also in pollinating your other crops.
posted by mullingitover at 3:41 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

As someone who has been gardening for years, and who has also contemplated this idea half-seriously, I would put the majority of your early effort into foods that are:

1) EASY to grow -- require little fertlizer or human help, grow in all sorts of weather and preferably in multiple seasons
2) STORE well -- so you can count on having some around all year long, to ward off famine
3) have a lot of CALORIES for you, preferably starches

The number one food that satisfies all three requirements? POTATOES! They'll even grow in the winter in some climates. The 18th Century Irish peasant diet was practically all potatoes and milk (and a few greens), and they did pretty well.

Other key foods that satisfy some, but not all, of those three requirements:

- Apples -- if you make sure to plant multiple varieties, you can have fresh ones ripening from July through November, and they store well on their own in a cool place. Or, of course, they will keep in pressure-canned jars as delicious applesauce. They'll grow in pretty much any climate except the very hottest ones -- but even here in Los Angeles, I've been harvesting and eating my backyard trees' sweet/tart 'Anna' apples starting this week. My three trees (none is older than four years old, so not mature ones) are probably going to give me 20 great edible apples and 10 runty or mushy ones that I would eat if I absolutely had to.

- Corn -- for all the great reasons another poster enumerated above. However, corn does deplete the soil quickly, so plant it with pole beans, which then climb the stalks as their supports and add back in nitrogen. And speaking of pole beans...

- Beans -- unlike most vegetables, they have lots of protein, which would be crucial for you if your chicken flock got wiped out or if you're vegetarian. They're also easy to grow and are good for the soil. You can grow shelling beans, where you dump the seed pod and keep the insides to dry out, to be reused in soups or what have you. Or you can grow your classic string beans and eat them fresh or can them in jars or pickle them with some garlic and wasabi.

Any fruits and vegetables you could raise beyond these would be wonderful, but they'd probably not be your mainstay crops. I mean, I love tomatoes and am currently growing 12 varieties, but survival food they are not. If the zombies attack, I'd rather have a cellar full of potatoes than heirloom Cherokee Purples, y'know?
posted by Asparagirl at 4:39 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Be careful on relying on maize for your primary grain. To maximize the nutrition of maize it needs to be nixtamlized/processed or you end up with pellagra and B vitamin defeciencies. Other grains to consider include amaranth. Start researching alternative crops and successful multi-harvest crops like potatoes which can be grown in large quantities in barrels which is how some farmers at the markets seem to have so much, so early in heavy winter areas.

Consider growing medicinal plants; start thinking pharmacology; some basic ways to make aspirin and a multitude of other things that make life a lot safer and pleasant. Take up brewing as another form of grain storage -- those are a lot of carbs. Bees are great idea and you might want to study the economic structures of how monasteries were suffecient and not so sufficient during the centuries.

So little time and so much Apocalypse.
posted by jadepearl at 5:33 PM on July 7, 2008

One more thing -- the plants I mentioned above are for the generic midwestern USA situation you posited. But if you were in a desert or tropical climate, then coconuts (from coconut palms), dates (from date palms), and figs (from fig trees) would definitely be high up there on that easy/storage/caloric list too. Next time you're at a grocery store, check out how much fat is in one small can of coconut milk!
posted by Asparagirl at 5:49 PM on July 7, 2008

I look to the fine writers of The Backwoods Home magazine. Way practical and up to date. Like mother earth news before they went all glossy and coporate
posted by Redhush at 7:07 PM on July 7, 2008

Seconding the permaculture stuff. If you're in W. NC, go take a course at Earthaven before you leave.
posted by salvia at 8:31 AM on July 8, 2008

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