There is a saying among fishermen, “lures are designed to catch fishermen; not fish.” Indeed, I’ve caught more and bigger fish on a cane pole with dough balls or earthworms than any fancy and glittering store bought doodads or expensive fishing rigs. This theory can be applied to most anything; for instance, take self-sufficiency. I’ve read innumerable books and articles and watched thousands of hours of videos on the subject only to find most of these are designed to just sell books and videos. While I have Champaign tastes on a beer budget, my lifetime moderate income has kept me within restrained animal husbandry and gardening ventures and often forced me into the old New England adage of make do; or do without. I’m also fortunate to have inherited some Yankee ingenuity from my Great Depression era parents, who knew how to turn the mundane into the extraordinary. So much of what I’ve read and seen has been adapted to my unique situation. Having less than an acre of land to experiment with has necessitated very restricted modifications of book and video inspired grandiose ideas to a very, often very small scale. This is most often for the good, but has on occasion proved detrimental to success.
At any rate, my autodidact agrarian education has allowed me some measure of expertise in both husbandry and gardening. The most important thing learned is that nothing substitutes for experience. Books and videos are theoretical knowledge at best, and that’s with the assumption that the author or presenter has some expertise. Today anyone with a camera or a word processor can become a self-qualified “expert” in virtually any subject; so it is a case of buyer beware. Even the best qualified and most experienced husbandry man or agrarian doesn’t always include all that is needed to be successful. The subject is most often presented in the best light in order not to discourage the neophyte. So the following paragraphs will detail some of my experiences in pursuing a self-sufficient lifestyle sans the sugar coating.
GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out)
The media, (books, magazines, videos) present the self-sufficient lifestyle as relatively effortless. Just blithely scatter seeds on the soil and like Jack’s Beanstalk, a veritable a cornucopia will magically appear on the Thanksgiving table feast. Rarely are the trials and tribulations of agriculture presented; and when it is, it is trivialized. This year, 2018, for example, was one of the wettest in memory; weeds abounded to the point I could not sufficiently keep up. So the garden failed because of weed competition, as well as, saturated soil. As regards husbandry, the media advises that rabbit and quail are among the most efficient meat producers for the small scale and backyard gardener. That is, they are the most efficient protein producers available. What is not stated is that in order to get high quality protein, you must provide high quality protein in the form of feeds. Insufficient protein percentages will not only result in little meat and egg production but over time be detrimental to rabbit and quail health and longevity. My experience proves to me that rabbits need a 17% protein feed; quail require a whopping 28% protein feed. Such feed currently sells for $19.99 to $20.99 for 50# bags. Keep in mind this is not a medicated or organic feed, which could cost upwards of 35 -50% more. Yikes!
Let’s now consider the honeybees! The cost of a 3# package of honeybees is now going for $135.00. While the cost of equipment can last a long time, the cost of supplemental feeding, organic treatments, replacement queens, when needed all add to the costs. These aspects of beekeeping are usually trivialized and glossed over. The same for sales of the honey produced. When I started beekeeping all those many years ago, the vision of $$$ made at local farmer’s markets were dancing around in my head. The truth is that most, if not all of these farmer’s markets, at least here in New England, require you to have liability insurance, without which you cannot enter. The cost of this insurance for a backyard small-holder is prohibitive so the best market available is your local parish church.
Another subject often neglected is the aspect of dispatching and butchering. In fact, this is the most distasteful aspect of raising animals for meat. That is why, it must be stressed, most especially to children, that these are not pets no matter how cute and cuddly they may be. For more reasoning and older children it can be a good life lesson. Incredibly many city and suburban raised kids today think that meat comes from the grocers and have little to no concept as to the real nature of meat production, whether said production is commercial or small scale. It used to be when I was a boy that a rabbit’s foot or a rabbit fur hand muff for girls was ubiquitous. Today it is regarded as barbaric yet very few would give up their steaks and chicken, or consider it barbaric… but once again I’m off on a tangent.
A great aspect of small scale and backyard production is the fact that unless you have acreage, you will be able to do little more than supplement the lauder. The fact is that to actually feed your family and complete their nutrition you would need approximately 2 acres for each member of the family. This is to say nothing of storage, which would need to fairly extensive and vermin-proof. This I’ve never seen in a back-to-land, small-holder, backyard farmer books, articles or videos. I came by this through thorough research in Ag University websites and technical papers.
Finally, a subject which seemingly everyone can agree on is compost! That is, unless you’ve made and utilized a compost pile. For the most part, compost making is quite simple, theoretically speaking, however, compost can and does often get out of balance and can result in either a stinking mess, but is more likely a compost pile too high in nitrogen. The stink factor is overcome by judicious blending of varied materials to maintain a balance of brown and green input items. The problem of excess nitrogen is a harder nut to crack because blending of brown and green substances is easier said than done. To lessen the proportion of nitrogen in a pile you must supplement with other soil nutrients like potassium and potash, preferably in the form of organic supplements. Wood chips can also be added as they require nitrogen in order to decompose thus taking our some excess nitrogen. All of this, however, requires constant monitoring of the pile for its chemical components… a job that requires sample to be sent to the State University Ag Lab. Generally this is a free service of the State; however, it is time consuming.
The intention of this article is not to burst the bubble of so many of you agrarian novices, but to give you a realistic vision of self-sufficiency. So in summary, I think it is clearly worthwhile to maintain a self-sufficient garden, if, however, you expect to have the results often claimed in the media you will be sadly, sometimes brutally disappointed. Remember, there was a reason why in the 1930’s and 1940’s folks left the farms in favor of city life and work. At the time, it was more rewarding to do so. Now in view of the de-industrialization of the West and the exporting of industrial and manufacturing jobs, self-sufficiency will prove necessary for the contemporary family but not for those with sugar plum visions of a Big Rock Candy Mountain type of illusion.
Richard of Danbury, D.S.G