On the scale of human history, our evolution from foraging to farming to the global economy of today is incredibly short. In about 14,000 years (+/-), we've gone from having minimally cultivated forest gardens to growing soybeans in the US to feed pigs in China.
Setting aside the absurdity of transporting beans over 7000 miles and the complications of the current trade war, it's quite a monumental leap from our first primitive gardens to our current food supply systems. What's more incredible is that the three S words listed in the title of this article - seeds, storage (as in food storage), and spice – are at the heart of that history.
Seeds, Storage, and Spices
Planting and saving seeds to produce food set humans free from foraging. The ability to store foods such as dried grains, legumes, and other crops and in the form of domesticated livestock allowed formerly nomadic people to build durable homes and stay put even when the weather wasn't ideal for food production.
As people genetically accustomed to living varied, wandering lives, being homebodies probably got a little boring. So, our predecessors innovated, improved production, increased transportation capacity, started exploring, and trading spices for temperate climate crops, furs for silks, raw wood for elaborate artistry, and so on.
That early trading shaped the history of our lives and our planet. It still underpins our global markets. Of course, we've moved well beyond trading black pepper for oxen. Today, our lives are so dependent on trade that a drone attack on an oil field in Saudi Arabia instantly sends gas prices through the roof in rural North Carolina.
Honestly, most of us self-sufficiency seekers find our current level of global inter-connectivity unnerving. We homestead precisely so we aren't at the mercy of the precariousness of those kind of supply systems.
Reverse-Engineering Our History
In a way, homesteading today is about reverse-engineering some of the progress put in motion by seeds, storage, and spice trading. We're not trying to go back to the dark ages, but we are trying to get back to the basics and focus on what really matters in our lives.
If you have been following this series, you might be wondering why I waited all the way until “S”, in an alphabetical introduction to homesteading, to get to something as basic as seeds, storage of food, and spices. I mean...shouldn't these things -- considered essential by humans throughout history -- rate above kitchen skills and mushroom cultivation?
The truth is, most of us are so completely dependent on the global markets that underpin our lives, that until you've done all that early legwork of raising your own meat such as ducks, getting edible landscapes in place, honing your horticultural skills, becoming a Jack of all trades, and more, then trying to get your head around the idea of providing all of your own sustenance is unimaginable.
Achieving real food sustenance – that which sustains life – is the hardest part of becoming self-sufficient. Food is so readily available and cheap these days, that many homesteaders never even come close to providing this one basic need.
Some of us homesteaders do a whole lot of work that makes it feel as if we are feeding ourselves. We pressure can our vegetables, make jam, ferment salted foods in 5 gallon buckets, store roots in boxes of sand, and feed our chickens with bags of grain. When you add it all up though – the jars for canning, the energy used for the stove top burner, the time taken to put up our salsa and sauce, the processed sugar and pectin in jam, the purchased boxes and hardware store sand, the commercial feed – quite a bit of modern homesteading is really more like re-packaging rather than truly increasing self-sufficiency.
This post is about moving beyond that kind of re-packaging that involves trading one set of purchases for a different kind of purchases. It's about what it really takes to provide food for your family. This level of homesteading isn't for most people because it takes time, land, and know how to do it.
Honestly, not everyone needs to homestead at this level either. We do still live in the age of cheap food and we can still use some fossil-fueled resources to run our homesteads. Yet, for those of us who have the capacity to be all in, the rest of this post is for you.
3 Steps to Greater Self-Sufficiency
If you look back to that history mentioned earlier, you'll find clues to what's needed for the kind of self-sufficiency that leads to real sustenance.
1. You need to grow your own seeds.
2. You need to store a lot of food easily, in various forms, for long periods of time.
3. You need to cultivate spices for trade.
Let's take break this list down step by step.
Step 1: Grow Your Own Seeds
Ancient food independence was based largely on grains and legumes. Early wheat and beans were staples. In some places, corn played a role. Later, thanks to the spice trade, high calorie root vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes became a big part of the sustenance equation.
It's so fascinating to me that before tofu, hamburger, and chicken nuggets infiltrated our food system our staple foods were also our seeds. Wheat is not only the grain you eat, but the seed you plant. The same is true for corn and legumes. You also use the potato and sweet potato roots we eat to start new plants.
It seems kind of brilliant that nature would make the most nutrient and calorie dense parts of the most productive crops function as easy to store foods and seeds for new plants. For this reason, it makes sense to start growing and saving your own seeds with these key staple crops.
Roots as Seeds
Sweet potatoes and potatoes are the easiest to start with because you don't have to worry about cross-pollination issues. However, do be careful that the roots you use to start your new plants show no signs of disease.
Also, use good crop rotation for the plants you use as seeds. We all know about the Irish potato famine, which was partially caused by planting potatoes in the same soil for too long. That created a build up of potato pathogens that exploded during a period of severe rain.
Plants from Roots
Potatoes naturally form eyes that can used to start new plants. You just need to cut a 1-2 inch section of the potato with an eye or two on it and plant it at about 8-10 inches deep. Then, cover with two inches of soil until the plant top grows through. Top off the soil each time the plant appears until your soil is mounded above the starting point.
Sweet potatoes produce greens, called slips, that can then re-root and be planted. You can start slips by suspending the sweet potato in water or in moist soil. Then, when the greens grow and form root nodes at the bottom of the greens, plant them in soil and keep them well-watered until they are a few inches tall.
Grain and Legume Seeds
Many edible plants that flower and produce seeds for reproduction require pollination. Just as both parents contribute to the genetic make-up of a child, the plant providing the pollen and the plant pollinated both play a role in the resulting seed used to grow a new plant.
As such, when saving seeds, you need to make sure that flowers are pollinated only by plants with the genetics you want in your next generation of plants. That means, you'll want to grow key plant varieties that work well in your soil and climate. Then, take precautions to prevent cross-pollination with any plants that might muddle the quality of your seeds.
Wheat can cross-pollinate with other weed and some weed grasses at a range of about 200 feet.
Corn is mainly wind pollinated and that pollen can travel for miles. Generally though, a planting buffer of trees around your property, and maintaining a distance of 660 feet from other corn crops, can reduce risks for GMO pollination. Also, timing your corn tasseling for at least 14 days later than your GMO neighbor can help.
Peas and beans are considered self-pollinating and usually only require distances of 10 feet between different varieties to maintain genetic quality.
You can learn more about seed saving from organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange, the Organic Seed Alliance, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
Before I get into step two, do a little math with me for minute. If we each need about 2000 calories a day, 365 days a year, that means we need 730,000 calories a year.
In my garden, each sweet potato plant I grow in 2 square feet of loose, fertile garden soil produces an average of about 2,300 calories of food. Each potato plant produces about 1,700 calories in that same space. Those 2 square feet can also produce 700 calories of dried beans, 500 calories of meal corn, or 50 calories of wheat.
Plus, with good planning, I can plant two and sometimes three rounds of crops in that same space. Technically, if I wanted to live on potatoes and sweet potatoes, I could get 4000 calories out of just 2 square feet of soil space in diameter (and at least that deep).
Really though, no one wants to live on sweet potatoes and potatoes alone. We want more diversity in our diets. Also, some crops fail. In actual practice, I average about 300 calories per square foot of planting area.
Reality Check on Sustenance
So, now back to our math. For every person in your family, you'll need at least 2500 square feet of garden space for sufficient calories. That square footage, though, doesn't include paths or seed saving. It also assumes low calorie things like tomatoes and cucumbers are accent plants, not primary crops.
Most importantly, to get those kind of yields, you must constantly add fertility back to your garden such as by using manure, mixed ingredient compost, and more. That means you'll need extra land for housing and feeding animals and doing your composting to be self-sufficient on garden fertility.
In reality, in my North Carolina climate, sustenance takes me about an acre per person. Depending on your climate and food preferences, you may need more or less land. Be realistic in planning not only for your crop space but also for the fertility management necessary to support continued food growth.
Step 2: Store Food Easily
Now, let's get back to this idea of storing food easily for self-sufficiency. I've personally got two freezers full of meat and vegetables sitting in my solar powered shipping container. Nothing about that kind of food storage is self-sufficient. I am completely dependent on my freezers working and the solar batteries that cost a fortune (and will eventually have to be replaced) holding power even when the sun doesn't shine.
Thankfully, that's not what I count on for my sustenance!
Electricity-Free Food Storage
I've also got a few hundred pounds of cured hams, dried beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and grains in outbuildings that require no electricity for food security. Besides that, I've got a diverse array of perennial foods from fruit trees and shrubs, sunchokes, wild greens, asparagus, herbs, and more to harvest from year round.
For perspective, our edible landscape areas provide us about 500 calories per square foot, a bit more than our annual garden does. Perennials take longer to establish. But, they require less work after the first few years and also help feed livestock.
Those livestock then also add calories by way of eggs, meat, and milk to our daily diets. That ultimately adds up to greater per food productivity in perennial food systems.
Fruits of our Labor
Sustenance the way our ancient predecessors provided it looked much like this too. There were long storing foods such as those intensively farmed staple crops covered earlier. However, they also depended on wild-foraged and hunted foods, seasonally grown foods, and a continuous harvest of perennial and livestock-based foods to achieve complete sustenance.
When you think about food storage, don't focus on what you harvest all at once and do a whole lot of processing to make safe for long storage. Instead, give more weight to those things which are easy to harvest, prepare, and store like dried grains, beans, and earthen stored root crops (e.g. in a root cellar). Also plan for a continuous harvest of diverse low-maintenance crops and livestock yields year round to fill in the gaps.
Step 3: Growing Spice
Now those first two items will get you a good deal closer to total sustenance as a homesteader. But there's one more historical lesson to consider.
There were times in our human history when spices were valued more than just about anything. Spices still number among the most expensive commodities in the world – especially those that require hand-cultivation like vanilla and saffron.
You can absolutely grow your own spices so that you are not dependent on external sources. If you live in really warm regions, spices like cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, turmeric, galangal, allspice, annato, coffee, chocolate, and more are possible.
If you live in a temperate climate you can grow those things in a sunny space in your house or a greenhouse. Plus, you can also easily grow garlic, chicory, and horseradish roots; seed crops like mustard, fenugreek, fennel, dill, saffron, caraway, cumin, celery, coriander, lavender, poppy; and leaves from evergreens like rosemary, bay laurel, or tea.
Really though, this idea of spice trading is not just meant to encourage you to grow spices. It's a metaphor for producing something that has high value in trade. It can be actual spices, high demand crops, or critical skills that are hard to come by in your area.
I am not a doomer who believes the world is about to end. However, I do believe that the world will change quickly in my lifetime due to a climate crises of our own making. Frankly, we must radically alter the way live to become less carbon-dependent. Or, the natural disruptions resulting from catastrophic climate change will make the supply systems we rely on less and less reliable and lead worldwide devastation along the way.
As such, the global goods and services that people depend on now will become less accessible in the future. Being able to offer those valuable services or goods locally not only strengthens community resilience, it gives you trading power to help you achieve sustenance.
If providing your own sustenance is part of your homesteading goals, grow as many of those seed crops as you can. Store food easily in as many non-fossil fuel dependent ways as possible. Cultivate high value crops or skill. Then, you'll be in a much better position to provide sustenance to your family in a less certain future.
As a bonus, doing this also reduces your carbon footprint and makes you part of the solution. Self-sufficiency is not just about meeting our personal needs, it's also about saving our shared planet so we can all have a future worth living.
Tasha Greer spent several years homesteading and gardening in a suburban home in Maryland before moving to a nearly 10-acre rural paradise in North Carolina in 2014. Together with her partner Matt Miles, she raises goats, poultry, worms, and maintains an extensive edible landscape. For an up to date list of Tasha's current works visit her here.
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