My week of eating locally

Since my book A Small Farm Future makes quite a play for local self-reliance, I thought I should at least temporarily try to put my money (or, more pertinently, my produce) where my mouth is by only eating food produced on my farm for a week. I did this in the middle of September last year, when most of the folks in my household were away on a trip and I thought the exercise would be less distracting. I don’t suggest that by doing so I’ve proved anything much in terms of larger arguments about agrarian localism, but I found the exercise interesting nonetheless, so I thought I’d share a few observations about it here.

I made things easy for myself in various ways:

  • Doing it in September, when the produce is abundant
  • Allowing myself a few off-farm luxury items, provided they didn’t significantly meet my major dietary needs: salt, pepper, cinnamon, coffee
  • Living on a diversely productive small farm

But I made things hard for myself in various ways too:

  • Not preparing ahead of time to furnish things that I could have done with forethought
  • Not orienting my farm production over the years to full self-reliance, albeit that we’re moving increasingly in that direction. And therefore…
  • …having to forcibly deny myself various foodstuffs lying temptingly in the larder or on the plates of some of my fellow farm dwellers

So (note to self) here are some things I’d do differently if I try this again:

  • Grow more wheat ahead of time
  • Brew some beer ahead of time
  • Make some kraut ahead of time
  • Buy a cow ahead of time
  • Be sure that everyone around me is following the same regimen

Here are a few notes on some of the foods that I did (and didn’t) eat during my vigil.

Fat and oil: this was simple, because whenever we cook the lamb or mutton that we’ve raised on our grass we pour off the fat into an ice-cube tray (there seems to be a lot more fat in our home-grown meat than in the stuff you get from the shops) and then freeze it. The fat was great for making my food tastier, though I would have preferred vegetable oil for some things. And I probably used more animal fat during the week than I could sustain year-round at our level of productivity. In the absence of a productive sunflower patch and press, the alternative would probably have to be more boiled or baked food. But, seriously, who wants that?

Starchy staples: also simple – the answer was potatoes. And more potatoes. Which actually was fine – I love potatoes. But I did miss snacking on bread, and felt a vague sense of gastric unease through the week, which eased when I reverted to flour-based products. Perhaps I’m kind of a post-Paleo gluten-bothering farm boy, just that little bit more evolutionarily advanced than all those marrow-suckers out hunting deer on their men’s weekends. Or maybe it’s just a bad idea to abruptly change diet. Whatever, I’m planning to upscale my home wheat-growing in future. I did experiment with eating fat hen seeds (Chenopodium album), which apparently Britain’s prehistoric people ate as a staple – kind of a local version of grain amaranth. My gastric jury is out on that one.

Vegetables: super-simple, since I live on a veg farm. Plenty of onions, carrots, chard, lettuce, green beans, sweetcorn, you name it. An advantage of the diet was that I made better use of this bounty than resorting to the bread bin and the cheese tray. But it was a bit harder to snack on, and required more forward planning – which I’m not very good at (see above). And … if only I’d started a couple of jars of kraut a few days before having this madcap idea.

Fruit: I ate a lot of apples. Snacking between meals on fresh apples worked tolerably well, but didn’t quite hit the spot. Stewing apples for breakfast or dessert with a pinch of cinnamon worked better. I also picked wild blackberries from the hedges and sea buckthorn berries – painful, but delicious. The impetus to go out and seek fruit around the farm was one of the unexpected pleasures of the exercise. But it clarified for me that wo/man probably cannot live happily on fruit alone.

Meat: I usually eat meat about once a week, almost always the pork, lamb/mutton or occasionally chicken that we raise on the farm. I ate a little more during my homegrown week – partly perhaps to boost the tastiness. But also because my family are less enthusiastic than me about offal, so it was a good opportunity to clear some hearts, livers, gizzards and kidneys out of the freezer while the folks were away. If you’re going to kill an animal, Small Farm Future says – make it count.

The freezer of course was a useful resource during the week, locally powered by the sun falling on our PV panels, themselves locally produced in… Anyway, I’m drifting from the main point. In a truly low-energy society, I guess meat would likely be shared around more. The freezer as a killer of community?

I trapped and ate a couple of squirrels during the week, again boosting my meat intake. Since coming to the farm, we’ve planted thousands of trees, including a lot of nut trees. In the last year or so, the squirrels have moved big time into the woodland we’ve generously provided for them, seriously threatening the oaks, hornbeams and beech, while our nut harvest has curiously diminished in the same period. There are interesting underlying issues here about creating wild habitat on the farm, consequently losing crop to the wild creatures moving into the new niche, and then gaining something back by cropping them. I’ve never been that interested in trapping or hunting per se, but – as with most things – I’ve started to get more interested in it as a result of seeing the ecological cycles involved in it right in front of my nose. It’s easier to do this when you’re losing crop, especially to a voracious interloper introduced by human hand from overseas.

Dairy: oh my Lord, I dreamed of butter melting onto warm bread, hot milky coffee and tangy farmhouse cheese (hey, Cheddar is only twenty miles away – that’s nearly local, right?) And I have to confess to an indiscretion here whose details must forever remain a secret between me and my fridge. The use-by date was literally just days away, and wasting food is a crime…

I’ve never raised dairy animals because it’s seemed like too much work in our particular situation of being essentially single household veg growers with other work besides. And don’t say goats – as I just said, I’m a veg grower. But if I were truly gearing myself for food self-reliance I’d embrace dairy, especially within a wider community context.

Nuts: slim pickings on this front (see squirrels, above) and what we did have wasn’t quite ready. But this is definitely a good way to go for the self-reliant farm. Especially if you like eating squirrels – there’s nothing too vegan about nut crops in southern England these days, I’m afraid. Still, while on the subject of nuts, had the harvest and the timing been different, I suppose I could have made some hazel milk for my coffee instead of … [fifth amendment here]

Mushrooms: I’ve cultivated mushrooms from time to time over the years, but never really taken to it. I managed to harvest a couple of wild ones during the week, but the weather was dry and sunny and the fungi had other things on their minds, or whatever intelligence it is that they have down there. Perhaps this suggests a general side-note: there’s plenty of wild food around on the farm if you know where to look and you’re prepared to bide your time.

Beans: there were green beans aplenty, but my modest crop of proteinaceous drying beans wasn’t yet ready. That’s why I ate so much meat. Honest.

Eggs: an egg every day or so from our little flock certainly eased the burden. Served up with a salsa of onions, tomatoes and chillis from the farm, I barely even missed my regular Sunday breakfast croissant. The hens do get some feed bought-in from offsite, so strictly speaking perhaps I shouldn’t have eaten their eggs. Strictly speaking, there’s a lot of things I shouldn’t do…

Alcohol: if I’d planned ahead, perhaps I could have eased my way through the week in a homebrew-assisted haze. But I didn’t. And this lack of forethought was probably the single thing that contributed the most to the healthiness of my homegrown diet.

On the upside, I’d say that it’s surprising how congenial a homegrown diet you can produce without even trying all that hard if you have a small spread available. On the downside, I’d say that it’s surprising how hard it is to break from ingrained dietary habits like cheese and cereals, and how hard it is to focus production on these latter basics unless you’re singularly gearing yourself towards self-reliance. In some ways, the distance that even someone like me who’s well equipped materially and mentally to produce my own subsistence from fully achieving it is something of an eye opener. In my defence, I must point out that the focus of our farm for a good stretch of its existence has of necessity had to be upon proving to other people that it can earn a tolerable income. The challenge I now want to prioritise more strongly lies in proving to ourselves that it can produce a tolerable diet.

47 thoughts on “My week of eating locally

  1. Hi Chris.
    Great post as usual. I would agree that to provide for one’s family , *most* of the essentials aren’t too hard if you have some land and are set up to do so. However, I’ve found that to try and “do it all” is all consuming and pretty much impossible unless you don’t have to make a living, or sleep.
    Like yourself, we grow veg and fruit (and I also grow vegetable seeds), and have chickens and sheep. If we had to get by on what we produced ourselves we could, but it would be pretty mundane at times in the yearly cycle.
    But luckily we don’t, and I don’t think anyone has ever had to produce everything themselves. The small farm future coming will be similar to the agrarian societies in the past, where families produce what what they can on their land and trade or sell excess for what they need. You obviously know this and I don’t need to point this out I guess.
    I too have done this exercise of eating only what I produce and came to the conclusion that I would buy wheat and dairy. They are labour intensive and cheap to buy, relative to what you put in. Maybe if they skyrocket in price it will be reasonable to produce them on our farm.

    • I don’t think we can say that we’re choosing a small farm future if we content ourselves with buying those things (even for our own needs, let alone not growing them for market) that are labor intensive to grow on small farms and cheap to buy from commodity markets.

  2. That’s interesting and inspiring, Chris. Hats off. We’re picking garlic scapes for tea this evening, bulked up with a few thousand calories of shop-bought pasta, and a forager friend popped round earlier with a handful of what turned out to be safflower seeds, white and hard as porcelain (an interesting oilseed, actually). So, taking it a day at a time, we ain’t going to bed hungry tonight.
    But I was thinking of your proposed numbers earlier, and that even the 15 per cent or so farming most likely won’t be eating all their own produce every day, i.e., we’re all in this together.
    Offal here, from pig killings, tends to go into a substantial sausage called hurka, which is a bit like a haggis I guess, but with rice instead of oatmeal (to my surprise, rice has been grown in Hungary for decades, the southern parts of the country on the northern edge of the Mediterranean rice growing area). Pork scratchings are big here too (breakfast cereals not so much). Ditto ceramic barrels of home-made sauerkraut – all tasty stuff. Schnaps, crackle and pop!

  3. Your observation on fat is very relevant and in my view fat is one of the really strong arguments for livestock. If you feed less protein feed and let animals grow bigger the fat ratio increases a lot. In old times lard had almost the same price as pork meat in some places. And of course dairy is also a super fat source.
    Home produced veg oils don’t taste very nice- they simply taste too much for cooking. Exception is olive and palm oil, but I think you are out of the climate range…
    Here on the farm we have vegs, potatoes of course, berries and apples in ample supply, hazelnuts are on their way in the future. Cattle meat and tallow, organs etc. from our small herd and game (boars, roe deer and moose) are abundant in our diet. We do smoke, salt and dry quite a lot of meat and I think those are quite good storage alternatives. But admittedly, the freezer is also used.
    As winter here is long we dry, pickle, ferment, can and preserve quite a lot of vegetables, but the root cellar works well for the root crops. The last potatoes, turnips and beetroots are still good, but cabbage last only into Feb-March. Only spinach is frozen of the vegs. We also have a polytunnel to get earlier harvest both for ourselves and for the market.
    We plan to start milking one of the cows, but time and convenience and the whole mess of separating calf from dame…..We grow hops and barley which my son will make beer from. I make wine fron plums and apples with a touch of aronia, cider from apples. If it were legal, I would distill som of it.
    Grain is the tricky one. Perhaps I will start growing wheat as horticultural crop as bread is my staple food. But threshing, cleaning and the milling is a challenge as discussed here earlier…..

    • Plant sourced oils needn’t be too onerous to raise on the small farm – even at Chris’ latitude. He mentions sunflower… to which one can also add Canola (erucic acid free rape), and… soy. The far northern limits for soy are receding all the time [those pesky plant breeders!!].

      Extruding oil from whole seed is not simple, but at the same time it can be accomplished on a small scale with the benefit that the whole seed is very easily preserved so that making oil on demand (oil not enjoying a long shelf life) is not out of consideration.

      Extruding oil from seed yields two products – the oil and the meal. Soy meal can be safely eaten in the human diet and also makes an excellent protein source for livestock. Soy sauce can make a fine substitute for salt in many dishes – thus taking one ingredient off the ‘must source off farm’ list (though fermenting soy sauce is tricky enough to challenge the neophyte).

      And plant oils offer the benefit of zero cholesterol. [and of course soy also adds the benefit of BNF to the garden situation]

      • Clem, sure, quite a lot of farmers make canola seed oil here in Sweden. But the oils has just too much strange taste and smell for regular cooking, is better suited as a sallad oil. Soy sauce is made with a lot of salt as far as I can remember (I once made organic inspection of soy sauce factory #something in Shanghai), so while it is a nice product it is not making us less dependent on salt. On the saturated fats, I beg to differ. I think the statement that vegetable oils are better than animal fats are not scientifically solid. Things are more complicated than so…

        • In a June 17 comment below Chris suggests an interesting debate is brewing between us Gunnar…

          Time is too constrained for me at the moment, but I would like to come back to vegetable oil pluses and minuses.

    • Outside of the tropics and areas suitable to olives has any small farmer ever, traditionally or with the advantage of modern, small scale appropriate technology, grown a personal supply of an annual oilseed crop sufficient for regular use as cooking fat? I’ve tried growing oilseed sunflowers for oil, but if I grew a 5 year supply for my family of 8 to cover 100% of our salad oil and cooking fats, I think birds could still eat 95+% of it. Other oilseeds like sesame (which I’ve also tried growing with hopes of growing all my own salad oil) aren’t really susceptible to birds but are extremely labor intensive to harvest, at least for quantities sufficient to press for oil, even just for salad oil, let alone cooking fat. And that’s not even counting the time it takes to press the seeds for oil, which is a step I haven’t been able to get to, since I have yet to grow close to enough oil seeds to get to that point. I think peanuts, even though they take a huge amount of labor to hand pick and dry, might be as efficient to grow on a small scale as sesame or any other oil seed crop I would know how to grow. I’m guessing soy would be especially inefficient on a small scale, given its lower oil content and the relative inefficiency of small scale appropriate presses (in terms of percentage of available oil extracted.) I do have an old pull-type combine, so I probably ought to think more about an oil seed crop I could combine harvest and then press after simply combining and running through a seed cleaner. I suppose some kind of brassica would be an option. But just getting a piece of equipment like my combine out into the field and ready to use and then storing it away after use is a lot of work, and small-scale appropriate combines are only going to get harder and harder to find and to keep running. I’m curious whether there’s potential for American hazelnuts. They grow very well here, and they seem like a crop I might be able to scale up well enough. I met someone in West Virginia that’s developing his own hazelnut processing equipment to mechanize most of the work of cracking and separating nuts from shells (although he’s trying to find European hazelnuts that can withstand blight.) Some kind of community scaled nut processing equipment seems more feasible than other shared equipment (like presses, especially given the shorter shelf life of home pressed oils.) Squirrels and the difficulty of shelling seem like the really big obstacles to nuts as an oil source, but the potential of a perennial crop is really appealing. Camellia oleifera is another potential perennial oil seed crop that grows in temperate climates, but it’s apparently not a good salad oil, which would be my main interest, and I have no idea how labor intensive it would be to harvest. Butter and other animal fats just seem so much more feasible for small farms. Butter from my own two cows generously takes care of all of my family’s (of 8) need for cooking fats (besides some rendered animal fats we also use.) And cream or soured cream can make a salad dressing everyone in my family definitely enjoys, but we don’t really want to give up on oil-based salad dressing or mayonnaise.

      • You’ve probably considered it already, Eric, but hulless ‘Pepito’ pumpkins get a mention in Will Bonsall’s book, specifically for salad oil if memory serves.

        • Thanks, Simon. I haven’t tried growing anything like the Styrian hulless pumpkins, at least not yet. My southeastern US climate is very different from Styria. Disease and insect pressures make it challenging for me to grow any C. pepo squash to full maturity, and my understanding is that the hulless pumpkins are even more challenging than the average C. pepo. I have, however, grown a cushaw (C. argyrosperma) type of squash from Mexico selected particularly for its seeds (Veracruz pepita), and that seems well enough adapted to growing in my location. The seeds aren’t hulless, which might not matter for oil production, but processing the pumpkins for dry, clean seed is a lot of work (which I assume is necessary prior to pressing for oil) besides all the work of growing them, so I don’t know how they’d compare to sesame, for example, in terms of labor cost. Plant oils just all seem very labor costly on a small scale compared to butter and other animal fats. I also wonder whether pumpkin seed oil isn’t more of a flavoring oil than a general purpose salad oil. Pumpkin seed oil is a traditional thing in Austria, but I’m pretty sure it’s only used for flavoring there, not as a general purpose oil, but there are lots of potential variables there that I don’t know about.

          • I hadn’t considered latitude and climate, but yes, processing seed or nuts for oil does seem off-puttingly time-intensive, compared to say, milking. Though I’ve seen fields of pumpkins growing here for oil, the end product is expensive and it seems mostly gets used as a flavouring, cold, or valued for its medicinal value, as it supposedly has beneficial effects on the prostate gland and for increasing hair growth, and is used in cosmetics. The hulless seeds are also sold for use in bread, savoury scones and the like. For cooking, pork fat is still king in Eastern Europe – sold in small and not so small buckets, if you don’t render your own – followed by sunflower oil, if the shop shelves are anything to go by.
            Maybe hickory nuts, or macadamia in a warmer climate, might be less of a challenge to grow than pumpkins?

  4. Years ago I read about a guy that partially buried a pipe, and squirrels started filling it up as a nut cache.

    I have googled this so many times and can’t find it again. We have hazel and walnut, and can’t get a nut for ourselves. If I could trick the squirrels into storing them for me I would be delighted.

        • Bad news I am afraid. Your paper gave me the terms scatter-hoard and larder-hoard, and it turns the invasive grey squirrel most common where I am is a scatter-hoarder. Le sigh.

          • Yup. My understanding is that they might larder-hoard a bit, but mostly scatter.

            Eating the squirrels probably remains the best option. Or getting pine martens in to do it for you.

          • But then, digging around tree roots too much isn’t great, either.

            I wonder if a layer of relatively durable fabric with a deep layer of woodchips on top might work. Squirrels would “bury” the nuts in the woodchips; in mid-October you lift the fabric and sort out the nuts from the chips. I think if I were doing this I’d want to use something like a series of one metre square tarps or that heavy woven weed exclusion stuff (yuck, plastic, but at least it would get re-used) with handles at each corner. Labour-intensive for sure, but so is picking nuts any other way.

          • A well trained eat terrior as a spotter and a . 22 rifle loaded with subsonic hollow point ammunition , we stroll they the pecan orchards in fall and shoot 2 to 3 hundred a day they are fat and taisty .

    • My god what a wonderful feeling that would be! It’s a shame it wouldn’t work for fruits, because that’s where my frustrations lie. At this point, I just accept that anything not enclosed in chicken wire is going to disappear long before I have a chance to pick it.

      • Yes, we have netted some fruit trees, but don’t have too much of a problem. And we have a friend who put a whole hazel branch inside a cloth bag.

      • The thing that angers me about the squirrels on my next door neighbour’s apple tree is that they’ll grab an underripe apple, bite it, drop the apple on the ground and go to the next one — if nobody is around to chase them off they’ll get through the entire crop in a morning. I guess they go back later and eat the half-rotted apples or something, but at the time it just looks like such a massive waste.

  5. Well done — an important exercise, to be sure.

    I saw an observation somewhere (I don’t remember where) that most people have twenty or thirty meals that they eat regularly. The suggestion was that one way to make dietary changes is to take the meals that are already in your regular rotation and swap them, one at a time, for meals that are congruent with your dietary goals.

    That might work for someone who does have some livestock and/or dairy to hand (or for someone who is entirely vegan, though getting enough fat could still be difficult), but I don’t have livestock, I haven’t yet grown grains (watch this space, though: quinoa this year, and I want to put some winter wheat in come autumn, but we’ll see), and in any case I do not have access to enough land to feed my household. I can manage the occasional complete meal — beans and salsa on baked potatoes, or a veggie winter squash, pea or bean soup — but it would be entirely unrealistic for me to aim to swap all of my meals with the resources I have to hand. It doesn’t help that I also dislike most brassicas.

    Instead, I try to grow things I can’t buy, or can’t buy in the same quality I can grow. I try to ensure we eat something allotment grown or locally foraged every week, and in that I’ve been successful over the past year; in summer and autumn it is much more frequent and I aim for every day, even if it’s just some salad leaves, and I hope to gradually extend that season on both sides. We were functionally self-sufficient in winter squash last year (I did buy one, but I gave away more, and we ate squash once a week for five months which is about as much squash as anyone could want), and in French beans; I only rarely buy berries now, or certain herbs, or dried or tinned beans. This coming year I’m hoping to additionally be self-sufficient in garlic and tomatoes; the garlic looks like we might pull it off, the tomatoes are doubtful. And I’m planning a lot more wine, after the success of last year’s blackberry wine; the elderflower wine is bubbling away as we speak (in fairness, I do buy the sugar for it. I have some sugar beet seeds, but only enough to try growing them, not really enough to supply all my jam, jelly, wine and chutney needs), and I’m planning black raspberry, blackberry (again), and elderberry in due course. If I can manage enough garlic and tomatoes then I could easily up the “use ingredients you grew or foraged” frequency to twice a week even in the hungry gap, I think: we eat these pretty frequently.

    My intention with adding grains to this mix is not to increase the proportion of my diet that I supply from land I can cultivate, but to increase the variety available to me (important for nutrition as well as resilience) and to learn the corresponding skills for growing and also preserving those crops.

  6. Fascinating.

    I was wandering through a Polish Village and trying to work out what this Chard/Beetroot with a huge root was when I realised it was Sugar Beet.

    Not though I suspect for Jam maing

  7. Thanks for the comments. I’ll try to respond soon. Rather a lot on my plate just at the moment, if you’ll pardon the pun…

  8. Since beer from outside the farm gate was not local enough, did the same standard apply to the source of water?

  9. So, thanks as ever for a fine harvest of comments, speaking to people’s geographic locations and life projects in any number of interesting ways. A few brief responses.

    My squirrel remarks seemed to have piqued some interest, not only here but also elsewhere on social media in relation to meat eating ethics. Perhaps I’ll come back to the latter point another time. To squirrel management specifics, one of the problems here with the introduced greys is that they eat most of the nuts long before they’re mature enough for human use (unlike the now vanished native reds, I’m told), so even if it were easy to recapture their larder it would still involve a big loss. The recapturing methods discussed here are interesting, but sound like a lot of work to me compared to human harvesting of nuts (tarpaulin + shaking) and of squirrels (cage trap checked daily on a pleasant amble through the farm). There’s also the issue of bark stripping/tree killing.

    Interesting comments and suggestions from Sal & Kathryn regarding what to aim at in terms of self-reliance. I agree that it’s best to focus on priorities and not get too hung up about completism, but there’s always a case for taking the next step, provided it doesn’t get too overwhelming work-wise. Ultimately, much depends upon the ease of buying the alternatives to self-production, which I suspect in the future will get harder.

    An interesting debate brewing between Gunnar & Clem regarding animal or vegetable oil (to complete the set, mineral oil is another critical component in all this, of course…) The historic agriculture here in the UK around this has been animal-based, and currently the vegetable alternatives tend to be industrial rather than smallholder crops, but I’m all in favour of experimentation and it’d be interesting to see smallholder oilseed developments here. Perhaps the same point could be made about John’s sugar beet example.

    To Steve’s point about water, I’m not going to tie myself in knots justifying my parameters, which ultimately are always going to be arbitrary. On the one hand, I did say that the self-limitation was to ‘major dietary needs’ which I think implicitly would include the calories in beer but not the water in it. On the other, if you can’t access water then everything else is academic. It wouldn’t be hard in principle for us to attain water self-reliance here, but in practice… Well, improving our self-reliance in it is the next major project on the list, so perhaps I’ll write some more about that at some point.

  10. We have a deliberately mixed small holding (sometimes there is an implied criticism that smallholders ‘do a bit of everything’) because we do want to provide as much of our own food as possible for several reasons. And we very nearly do. But ‘self-sufficiency’ is not necessarily our over-riding objective; I think the concept is open to critique. I get a lot of satisfaction from sharing (produce, tools, skills and labour) from within the network of smallholders I mix with. I don’t feel that I have to be able to accomplish every last thing, do-or-die, myself. Home grown and eating locally are not the same thing but both are of value.

    • Hear hear! I think trying to provide all your own food for a week (or even a day) is a worthwhile endeavour, but… I’m not going to dig my potatoes with a fork forged from metal I mined and smelted myself.

      One word that Chris used in his book that I have found helpful in my own thinking is autonomy. It’s not the same thing as self-sufficiency, but I suspect that there will come a point where for many people, being able to grow at least some of your own food increases your autonomy substantially. Maybe that’s even true now for some of us.

      An interesting (to me, at least) tangent: can I grow enough vitamin C to avoid scurvy for an entire year? Yes, and probably in very little space if I have enough seed. Can I grow enough B12 to sustain myself? Probably not without livestock, unless I am very lucky with fermentation. What are the other deficiency conditions we might consider “historical” but would be wise to consider in our farming choices?

      A strength of a local rather than totally self-reliant model is that if my land has a bit more magnesium and yours has a bit more boron (or whatever) and we grow different things and trade them, we both get the trace elements. My background awareness is that some soils are already depleted of some minerals, making nutritional deficiencies more likely. I’m not sure how that might combine with rising temperatures, do plants have difficulty absorbing e.g. iron when under heat stress?

      • Interesting…
        “…autonomy. It’s not the same thing as self-sufficiency.”

        It strikes me that what you are saying here is that we can define ‘autonomy’ as the capacity to choose who we share with.

        • Yes, I think that’s a useful definition.

          If I can be self-sufficient in nutrition, I can choose whether and how to engage in food markets, whether those are local and direct or international and financialised. If there is something I don’t want to support, my other option is boredom rather than starvation. People who produce none of their own nutrition have to purchase whatever food is available to them, regardless of where it comes from, how it was produced, and how much it costs. And in order to be able to make those purchases, they also have to accept whatever work such markets offer them, regardless of the ethics, working conditions and so on. Organising unions and strikes etc with other workers helps as long as there isn’t a labour surplus, but…well, guess what happens if we have a huge population? (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to engage in solidarity measures with other workers, but I do think these are less immediately effective now than they have been during periods of labour shortage).

          Now, as I’ve said, I don’t even come close to producing all my own food. But if I have to choose between no strawberries, strawberries grown myself, and strawberries grown in polytunnels and picked by exploited workers, I’m much happier to grow my own than the other two options. Growing my own beans and squashes means I can eat varieties I couldn’t otherwise buy at all. Growing my own potatoes similarly gives me more options.

          I think we are so accustomed to thinking about consumer choice as “you can have whatever you want, as long as enough other people want it that it’s worth selling at Tesco” that we forget that there are other options for the food we consume. Growing even a tiny bit of your own food introduces a different set of options. (And a different set of constraints: my beans are slow to get going this year and I lost my first sowing to miserable weather; the manure I collected in May has aminopyralid contamination; but my peas absolutely loved the cold and are doing super well.) And those options don’t revolve around having a job that pays money as a single point of failure, so while they can be more labour intensive, and precarious in ways we aren’t accustomed to, they are also more resilient. (I almost never sow all my seed in one sowing, and that means I had some beans left over to resow. They’ll catch up soon, I hope.)

          I am wittering on a bit, but I think what I am getting at might be something like autonomy as a function of optionality at multiple levels. And that autonomy puts people in a much better position to engage in mutually beneficial trade with a wider community, both local and further afield. When people have autonomy in those interactions, the community can be based on healthy mutual interdependence rather than exploitation; and that mutual interdependence then feeds into more options and further autonomy for individuals. How? Well, maybe I just want to grow a few spuds and spend the rest of my time writing music, or teaching, or learning and practising medicine, or repairing machinery; in a community where enough people grow their own food, plus a little to trade, it becomes possible for some people to grow less than they need and specialise into other work.

          Why aren’t we there now? Financialised markets, Ricardian rent-seeking, and the idea that money begets money (it doesn’t: when someone “earns” money for doing nothing, some of that money is actually from the exploited labour of others). But in a world where we are mostly compelled to participate in financialised markets to meet our basic needs, maybe the only way out is to take back some autonomy by providing for our basic needs in some other way. We are taught that the only way to support workers is to buy what they produce under exploitative conditions, but I think there’s a strong argument for other strategies, and increasing our own autonomy from exploitative systems must be part of these.

          That will look different for me (I’m mostly supported financially by my spouse who works in the city, but buying farmland we can live on currently looks like an impossible dream) than it does for someone at the beginning of a career, or someone with inherited property, or someone with caring responsibilities, or someone who relies on our soup kitchen at church.

          • I have known a couple of people (here in Northeast Kansas USA) who have grown nearly all of their food on borrowed land. Paid back to the owners in produce, usually. This is an option on the rural fringes where the real estate parcels are large, but people live more or less suburban lifestyle. Maybe less common where you are…

    • I agree that complete self-reliance isn’t a desirable (or possible) goal, but this then prompts further questions about who else one relies on, why, how much, and via what mechanisms. Kathryn and Philip both seem to have thought about these questions and come up with their own plausible logics, which is great and is ultimately the purpose of exercises like this.

      We do need to think about these questions structurally as well as individually, which is something I’ll be coming on to discuss shortly in this blog cycle. Routine structural answers to these questions currently would go something like:

      Who else do you rely on?
      The government, private markets.

      Because it’s easiest, cheapest and most efficient.

      How much?
      Almost completely.

      Via what mechanisms?
      Money, periodic voting and occasional acts of random generosity.

      I think the time will soon be upon us when those answers will no longer be plausible.

      Meanwhile, given that there’s 1.6 acres of farmland available per person globally, I think there’s a good case for those of us who have that amount of land or more available personally to ask ourselves if we’re producing all our needs from our allotment of land. I’m not suggesting that the only valid answer to that question is ‘yes’, but if the answer is ‘no’ I think it’s worth asking why not, and pondering how plausible the standard modern answers to that question are.

      Concepts of autonomy can certainly be helpful in all this. My discussion of it in my book was largely political – i.e. when do people throw in their lot (or get forced to throw in their lot) with centralized states and monetized markets, and when do they choose or get forced to seek other (more autonomous) forms of welfare? Eric’s point about choosing who we share with captures this well – how do we choose and what are the wider implications of these choices?

      • We do need to think about these questions structurally as well as individually

        My, somewhat gloomy, thoughts –

        My guess is that a structural, or collective, consideration of the best method to maximize family or small group autonomy in the context of generalized market failures will not happen. The fact that the global market will fail has been foreseen for many decades, yet no collective preparation for the inevitable has ever been made. Our waiting until the market economy goes into freefall will be waiting too long.

        Those people who eventually do produce enough calories to support their bodies will be living on small farms. Their neighboring small farmers will be the people they share with. That sharing will make for a more varied and interesting diet, since nobody can raise the variety of food choices we crave (especially those of us who have been spoiled by a globalized food industry).

        I think the important thing will be to produce enough of something that it can support one’s daily caloric requirements, even if living on that thing alone would be undesireable (insert image of van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” here). Local bartering and perhaps very local neighborhood markets will provide the variety.

        Back to structure (after the failure of the industrial market economy): in those places where the local population manages to produce sufficient calories to keep itself alive, social and political structures will evolve over time. Some of those possible structures will less desirable than others. In the best case, it will be up to the participants to create the structure they prefer. In the worst, it will be imposed on them by a neighboring population or outside force. In any case, the living will envy the dead only rarely.

        • You are correct and timely

          Stores are now warning of shortages for a plethora of reasons . Well the reasons don’t matter when the stores are empty , the just in time delivery system is becoming a nightmare the idea that food will always come from somewhere when your own crop is lost to frost flood drought or tempest is reliant to too many variables that are now becoming unstable , to the thinking mind blaming shortages on a ship stuck in a canal or drivers giving up jobs and going home seems to make out that people are morons

      • Efficiency and resilience are often at odds with one another, I think! And “cheap” in financial terms is not always even very efficient when you consider the externalities that monetary values don’t capture.

  11. Get Chris how are your crops doing ?
    A farmer friend in Cheshire expects to loose at least 50% of his potato crop to the weekend frost .

  12. I’m late to this interesting post and exercise. We provide most of what we eat and drink on our farm, with some of the same exceptions Chris notes. Dairy, wheat, rice, coffee (hey, it is a dietary staple, right?) being the ones that most readily come to mind. We definitely eat a lot more meat than Chris.

    But on the topic of cooking fats (Clem and Gunnar) I often come back to the excellent book “The Food of France” by Waverly Root. In this work he divides the cuisine of that country into regions based on the fats used. Those fats, determined by climate and geography, in turn shape the food cooked. I think the small farm ‘table’ future will be largely shaped by similar forces. Lard, goose and duck fat, in the more marginal lands, tallow and butter from dairy and beef cattle in the richer pastures, olive oil from the warmer climes. The availability of the particular fat shaping the expectation of flavor for the people using it. Which kind of gets to Clem and Gunnar’s discussion of the flavor of seed oils produced in small quantities. If that is what is available, the cuisine will be shaped to those flavors.

    Our luxury of instant access clouds our palate. We have too much choice. Rein that in a bit and who knows what we will find flavorful.

    I think I’ll go make some headcheese.

    • It would be interesting to look at other regions through the lens of which cooking fats are produced locally! Goose and duck fat are very much more expensive here than beef dripping or lard or even butter, but I suspect that doesn’t reflect a small farm production paradigm.

      But then there are fatty foods themselves, where the fat isn’t reserved or separated out but just eaten as part of the food. I’d far rather eat sunflower seeds than press them for sunflower oil, and I love both cheese (easy enough to produce locally in the UK) and avocados (…not so much). And eggs, of course. This might be less convenient for cooking purposes, but if labour is scarce it seems to me that it would be easier to eat the pumpkin/sunflower/flax/sesame/whatever seeds whole. At that point the taste is also quite acceptable.

      (I do cook with beef dripping a lot. Lovely stuff.)

      • Very few people use tallow in the US, Kathryn. In fact years ago we had to “fight” with our processor to save some of the fat so we could render our own. They just didn’t understand that concept. That situation has changed over the past 20 years as more people have small homesteads. But, you are right, for the right dish, it is lovely, as you say. Potatoes roasted in tallow and all is right with the world.

    • The locality element of Brian’s comment seems spot on from here. Having lived in a few different geographies myself I can attest to the regional influences on cuisine, though I’d not whittled that down to fat sources.

      In many parts of the US there are communities that still have threads of ancestral cuisine influences that trace to European, African, or Asian origins. Many of these communities (particularly in the northern reaches of the Midwest) are populated by folks who came from regions with comparable climates and thus were well prepared to fit their experiences and familiarities with their new surroundings. And some of this cuisine tradition has been passed down through the families.

      Some folks don’t own a skillet…. and for others, if it ain’t fried, it ain’t food… and then we have Jack Sprat and his wife…

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