Monday, April 29, 2019

Mini-farm Prepping

First year with our backyard mini-farm
In today's uncertain world many people have come to recognize the need for self-sufficiency in producing their own food and securing their own water supply, or to at minimum grow enough food to meaningfully reduce the amount of money spent at the supermarket.

The widely misunderstood "problem" is that most people don't have the ability to move to a rural property of sufficient size that they they think is needed to achieve food and water self-sufficiency.

Well, it is time to dispel the incorrect assumption that an acre or more of land is needed to attain food and water self-sufficiency. Land suitable for growing crops IS needed, but it doesn't take an acre or more.

In fact, TOTAL self-sufficiency is possible on only a quarter acre or less.

It takes a lot of work, and the quarter acre or less does have to be "suitable" for growing crops.  By suitable I mean that it needs to get sufficient direct sunlight, it needs adequate soil quality for the crops intended and it needs a source of water.

I turned my backyard into a self-sustainable "mini-farm" in the course of one year with the knowledge gained from "Mini-Farming: Self-Sufficiency On 1/4 Acre" -- the excellent best-selling book featured at the top of the right side-bar. The book was written by Brett L. Markham, an engineer who was raised on a farm and so grew up learning about farming, and then reached a point in his life where he decided to exit the rat race of the day-to-day 40-hour work week and make a living off a modest piece of property, feeding himself and his family and earning enough selling excess produce to pay the bills, all on a quarter acre.

I didn't have a quarter acre when I launched into my backyard project. In fact, I only had an 80 foot by 45 foot grow area. But I still managed to develop that small piece of land into a food production monster, one that grew sufficient food and provided sufficient water to come close to feeding myself and my girlfriend and our chickens all year long should the need arise. Also, at the time I had a good paying job, so I didn't need to grow "excess" produce for sale -- just what we needed to survive in case of an extended emergency.

How did I do it?

As explained in detail in "Mini-Farming: Self-Sufficiency On 1/4 Acre", the key to significant crop production on a small piece of land is raised planters. There are numerous benefits in using raised planters. The book explains how the French pioneered this method of crop raising in response to a serious problem -- that problem being, that as generation after generation of descendants in old France inherited smaller and smaller portions of a once large farm, it became necessary for those descendants to find ways to grow more food on increasingly smaller plots of land. Raised planters were the answer.

In the picture below, you can see in the background behind me where I used twine to create the grid that would later be used for placement of the raised planters. Several months later, after a lot of digging and hauling in purchased soil, the raised planters were more or less ready and my first crops planted.

Me holding our dog CJ (Cool Joe) in our backyard with twine marking out the grid for future raised planters
That first year I still had a lot to learn about growing my selected crops. I made a lot of mistakes. I wasted my time and space growing wheat and rye.  I tried to mix good soil in with the "bad" clay that my backyard growing area consisted of.  Bad idea.  But I persisted, I continued to study and accumulate information on how to grow my selected crops -- the soil, nutrition, direct sunlight and water requirements. It was a lot to learn, but I was driven by an urgent need to become self-sufficient and so I pushed myself hard. I got it done with much sweat and physical exhaustion. And it paid off, big time.

For the next five years, until I moved to my current rural property with the intent to expand my self-sufficiency operation, that backyard produced an amazing amount of high nutrition, preservable food, much of which I am still eating years later. 

Here are what I believe to be the important points in how to become self-sufficient at least in terms of providing food and water for survival on a small piece of land:

Direct sunlight: A small growing area can produce an amazing amount of nutritious produce, but only if it gets sufficient direct sunlight. My backyard was perfectly positioned, with the sun passing directly overhead from one end to the other, without significant blockage from trees or other structures. That wasn't true however when I first set out on my project. The first thing I had to do was cut down a number of trees in the backyard that blocked sunlight. Also, you can see from the photos that much of my yard was surrounded by arborvitae that had grown over 30 - 40 feet tall. I had to climb up on a ladder with my limb loppers and chain saw to cut that arborvitae down to fifteen feet -- a major effort. But I got it done and hauled all the cut vegetation out to the street and loaded it into a 30-foot rented dumpster. Hard work, but when your goal is to become self-sufficient, sweat and physical labor comes with the territory. One way or another, you have to make sure that your plot of land gets adequate sunlight.

Water: What happens if the worst-case scenario comes true -- due to economic breakdown the trucks stop running, the electrical grid breaks down and the public water system either stops working or becomes contaminated due to lack of maintenance? The answer is that you need to have your own water supply, and not just a little water, a LOT. Figure one gallon per day per person as a basic need and that doesn't include the water that will be needed to keep your crops adequately irrigated. My answer to this pressing problem was to build a 2000-gallon rain capture water tank, as shown in the picture below. That tank is four feet tall, four feet wide and sixteen feet long. Due to the fact that in my part of the country (Pacific Northwest) we regularly get 48 inches of rainfall on average, a 48-inch tall water tank fills up every winter just by capturing the runoff from the sheet metal roof that I built to cover the tank. Actually, the roof is 6-feet by 19-feet, with a foot of overhang on each side, which provides more rain capture surface area than needed to fill the tank based on 48-inches per year of rainfall.  Every winter I had to disconnect the downspout once the tank completely filled, which it generally did after only a few months once winter set in. If you live in an area where less than 48 inches of rain falls per year, then you will need to adjust your tank dimensions and rain runoff capture area to fill the tank you build. For example, if you live in an area that gets only 24 inches of rainfall per year on average, then you could still use a tank with the same dimensions as mine, but your roof would have to be double the size to capture sufficient runoff to fill the tank. Alternatively, while your tap water is still working, you can top off your water tank with the hose and be assured that you have a significant amount of water storage to survive a very long emergency. I will write more about how I build custom water tanks like the one pictured below in another post. If you intend to build your own water tank, be sure to read my post and learn from my mistakes!

Soil: With any crop you grow, soil quality is critical. In general, soil quality is something that must be developed over time by adding regular nutrients and organic material. "Mini-Farming: Self-Sufficiency On 1/4 Acre" does an excellent job of explaining how to improve your soil quality over time. But for the first year, what are you going to do to insure adequate soil quality? The soil in my backyard was nothing but clay -- wet and sticky during the wet winter and spring months, hard as rock during the warmer summer months -- containing many vital minerals required by crops, but otherwise totally unsuitable for growing anything but weeds and grass. My solution for the first year was to buy several bulk loads (15 cubic yards per load) of quality organic topsoil from a local distributor, then to wheelbarrow that soil one load at a time into my backyard and fill up all 1200 square feet of raised planters. Hard work -- but it made me stronger and I was able to grow some very good crops my first year. Second and succeeding years were much easier since I had the "base" soil in place, and I just needed to add compost from that point on.

Composting station in upper left corner
Composting: Learning how to compost and being religious about building your compost pile is vital to self-sustainability and growing nutritious crops without the aid of store-bought chemical or organic fertilizers. I ended up building a "composting station" (shown above), a six foot by eight food shed. All weeds picked, all vegetation remaining after harvest is completed, all suitable kitchen scraps, all fall leaves -- basically everything possible -- was piled up in the composting station first on one side, then "turned" on a weekly or bi-weekly basis during the summer and fall months. To "turn" the compost -- which is critical to making sure the pile is uniformly aerated and composted -- I would use a shovel and/or pitchfork to basically toss the compost pile from one side of the composting station to the other, then back again next time and so on. This worked out perfect and I created highly nutritious compost. But you're going to need more than just the left-over crop residue (leaves, stems, stalks, etc) from the crops you grow to produce high-quality compost. You're going to need nitrogen-rich material to mix in with the vegetation -- you're going to need chicken or other "farm animal" manure.

Backyard chickens custom made chicken coup and pen
Backyard chickens: Our small "flock" (six chickens maximum per city ordinance) was critical to our ability to build up our compost pile and provide the nutrients that our crops required. A side benefit was that we were able to go 6-to-8 month stretches starting in spring and going until late fall where we never needed to buy eggs, a primary source of protein and other nutrients vital to human health. If you're going to do backyard chickens, you first need to build a coup for your chickens to roost and lay eggs in. The picture above is how I did it. The coup is just a simple 4 x 4 square foot"box" built from 2 x 4 Douglas Fir and cedar chip plywood, readily available at your local lumber yard or home improvement stores. I've never had training as a carpenter and have never worked in the construction field, but I knew the importance of the coup being a) level and b) solid. There are a lot of do-it-yourself books on how to build chicken coups, you can even buy one ready-made to assemble. But I wanted to do it my own way.  I sat down one night and laid out my design on paper, calculated the materials I would need to build the coup, got a load delivered by Home Depot and set about building my coup. Note that it doesn't yet have a sheet metal roof, but I later built one that extends to cover the small "free range" area -- a small "chicken yard" where the chickens could get outside the coup and peck and scratch. That area was only six feet by eight feet, but it was enough to keep the chickens happy. Also note that not all chicken breeds are going to be happy and healthy in a relatively small enclosure like this. We opted for barred rock chickens, which among many favorable attributes included the ability to live happily in a fairly contained area like the one I built. The end result was a lot of fun owning and caring for chickens, fresh eggs daily and loads of chicken manure which we were able to mix in to our compost pile to produce extremely high-nitrogen, organic fertilizer for our crops.

The crops you grow: If your goal is to grow crops that will provide high amounts of nutrition and that are preservable for long-term storage, then you're going to need to focus on just a few key crops. Sure, you can grow cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes and many other crops -- but can you survive and maintain health and energy by eating only vegetables, herbs and spices? No, you can't. What is needed to insure survival on the food you raise is to focus on high nutrition, easily preserved crops. After much research on the subject, I ended up opting for the following main crops:

We did grow our fair share of tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, spices and other "extras", but the majority of space was dedicated to growing our "staple" crops, the ones that we knew we could survive on in the event of an extended emergency. Painted Mountain corn especially.  If you have a sufficient quantity of the "main crops" listed above, then you have all the nutrition that you need for long term survival.  All of those crops are easily preserved for long term food storage (with a little effort).

Crop rotation, pest management, companion crops: As you can read in "Mini-Farming: Self-Sufficiency On 1/4 Acre", these three facets of growing quality crops are all interrelated. Crop rotation is essential not only for pest management, but to maintain and build the quality of your soil. It is an extensive subject, one that deserves a dedicated study, but there are plenty of books and online posts on how to address these three concerns. If you want to become self-sufficient growing your own crops, you'll need to become highly knowledgeable on all three subjects.

Seed preservation: Here I am, eight years later and I'm still growing crops from the first seed and bulbs that I purchased. Without the knowledge and ability to preserve one's own seed for planting in the next growing season there can be no real self-sustainability. It is important to study and learn everything possible about the crops that you intend to grow, focusing on crops and varieties that grow well in your climate, and learning how to produce and preserve seed. Did you know, for example, that carrots and onions "go to seed" in their second year? In other words, if you plant an onion seed (or bulb), it will produce an onion the first year and if left in the ground and properly cared for it will "go to seed" the next growing season. I always set aside a portion of my grow area to plant onions and carrots that are specifically intended to produce seed -- I can't imagine trying to live off my own food supply during a SHTF scenario or other emergency without these two food essentials! But that's just me...

Food quality storage containers: Growing large amounts of food for long term storage calls for better storage containers than zip lock plastic bags or mason jars. You're probably going to need 5-gallon food quality buckets with air-tight lids, in fact you WILL need a number of these unless you have a better way to store your dehydrated/dried produce. Mason jars are great for herbs, spices, dehydrated tomatoes, garlic, onions and other vegetables. But for corn kernels or grains, you're going to probably want something larger -- 5-gallon and 2.5 gallon buckets with air tight lids is what works for me.

Learn to dehydrate: To preserve vegetables and fruits for long term storage -- 10 years or more -- knowing how and having the means to dehydrate your food is essential. Before the age of refrigeration, freezers and chemical preservatives our forefathers knew the importance of dehydrating and other preservation methods as it was key to survival. Think about it -- if you grow a bunch of really delicious tomatoes, what are you going to do? Eat them all before they rot? Or preserve them through dehydration so that you can continue to enjoy the nutrition and flavor of those tomatoes for an extended period beyond the harvest season? You'll need a good dehydrator, or I've even read that you can use an oven for dehydrating though I've never tried it. One of my projects for this summer is to build an outdoor wood-fired dehydrator so that even should the electricity go off, I'll still be able to dehydrate and preserve my produce for long term storage.

Beekeeping in a backyard mini-farm
Beekeeping: Honey is a great source of vital nutrients and it tastes great too. While it does take a certain amount of investment of time and money to get going with beekeeping, the experience is highly rewarding and you will be able to produce a very valuable and highly sought-after product. Beekeeping also has the advantage of producing beeswax, propolis and other "bee products" that can be used for a variety of useful applications. In the event of a total breakdown in our highly fragile global economy, the skills one possesses will possibly become a critical factor to survival and long-term sustainability. Beekeeping has been a skill practiced through the ages simply because honey (and beeswax) is a highly valued commodity. Best of all, honey is self-preserving, no special effort needed. Put it into mason jars or food quality buckets and the honey will stay "good as new" and edible for many years -- practically forever!

In summary, if you have decided to use your backyard or other small piece of land to develop a "mini-farm' for the purpose of self-sustainability, you have your work cut out for you! What I can absolutely say from experience is that all the hard work and effort required to build up your mini-farm and to become knowledgeable in operating it is a highly worthwhile endeavor. You'll be stronger as a result of all the physical labor, you'll eat better by growing your own produce, and you will have the pride and security of knowing that in the event of some major emergency (that we all see coming) you will be, if not totally self-sufficient, then at least mostly self-sufficient and you'll have taken big strides toward that worthy goal.  You will possess the knowledge and the skill that you gain along the way, which can be expanded to a larger piece of land when the opportunity arises.  Certainly you will have learned skills that you can teach to other people when hard times force those around you to reevaluate their own food and water security.

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