Technological Challenges of Off-Grid Homestead Living, Part 4: Food

Reader Contribution by Christopher James Marshall
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Read Part 1, Resources, of this series here. Read Part 2, Electricity, here. Read Part 3, Water, here.

Food self-sufficiency is a core aspect of homesteading, producing your own food from crops and livestock and bartering excess for what you can’t produce. Before supermarkets nearly every home had crops and livestock and processed their own food and traded with the neighbors. Homegrown food is fresher and tastier than store-bought—enjoy!

Did you know that it takes about one ton of food per year to feed one person?

My Food Sources

The climate at my off grid mountain homestead necessitates a greenhouse in which to grow vegetables. My location, though, in the middle of the National Forest provides the opportunity for me to forage wild edibles, hunt, and fish.

Since this is my first year on my site and until I get more established, I don’t expect to be able to produce and forage all of my food requirements. So I came here prepared with six months of preserved food and keep that in my root cellar. I have crates of canned and dried foods in these groups: meats, vegetables, fruits, tomatoes/sauces, pasta/rice/oatmeal, coffee/powdered milk/potatoes flakes, beans, and soups. The key to making preserved food more edible is lots of spice and taking vitamins to replace the vitamins lost in the preserving processes. Still, I need to make the drive to the supermarket in the town (50 miles one way) about twice a month for fresh foods. That will change as I develop food sources from the greenhouse, wild game, foraging, and livestock.

In my greenhouse I will grow vegetables in containers. My plan for the first growing season includes: tomato, carrot, radish, onion, lettuce, spinach, dandelion, mint, and strawberry. There are five raised benches, each 2 feet by 5 feet, on which to place the containers. Since I had the soil analyzed, I know I can use it with minimal soil amendments, instead of buying soil. Cold nighttime temperature is the main reason I need a greenhouse, but during the day it can easily get too hot so I will use a vent fan with a thermostat. Water conservation is critical at my site, so I will use drip watering with timers synced to the plant cycles.

A hunting license in Oregon permits one deer per year, which is not much meat and I’m still waiting my turn for a deer tag in my area. I can collect antler and sell it, but haven’t found any yet. Wild hares have no limit and a well-located trap works. My fishing license permits five fish per day, which has added up to a decent supply, because the lakes near my homestead are stocked with trout and salmon making it ridiculously easy to catch the limit within an hour. All of these meats get preserved by smoking or freezing.

The wild edibles I’ve harvested include morel and king boulete mushrooms, onions, and strawberries. Other parts of the Cascade Mountains have many more types of mushrooms and berries. Mushrooms can be sold to buyers for $3 to $12 per pound and at the peak of the season that can add up to hundreds of dollars per day. I can also cut and sell firewood with a permit from the forest service—a lot more work than mushrooms. Another opportunity I’m exploring is propagating local alpine flora from seeds, a.k.a. ‘rock garden’ plants, to sell to collectors. Finally, within the city are homes with heritage fruit and nut trees; with permission, I harvest the fruits and nuts.

Next year I’ll begin raising chickens for eggs and domestic rabbits for meat. I’m also considering goats for milk and cheese. Once I get livestock I’ll also get a dog for protecting the livestock from predators. I think it would be fun to have a donkey too. Chickens and rabbits won’t break my budget for feed, but goats and a donkey would require planning for their needs above what they can forage from the forest grasses. Local ranchers successfully range their cattle, unattended, in the forest during the summer—unlike farm livestock that must be attended to every day. Note that the advantage of large families and/or farm hands is to permit people to get off the farm for a change of pace now and then.

Planning for Crops

First, find out how long your growing season is (number of day from frost-free to first-frost dates), what is your site’s “Plant Hardiness Zone” (average annual minimum temperature range), and “Plant Heat Zone” (average number of days above 86 degrees F). The frost free period and the heat zone will limit the varieties of annual vegetable crops; the hardiness zone and heat zone will limit the varieties of perennial berries, fruits, and nuts, and vegetables.

Second, look up plants in “Master Plant Charts” to match them with the climate on your site. It will also list plant yields so you can determine how much seed and growing space you’ll need to meet your food budget.

Third, have your soil tested to find out what amendments are needed, if any, to improve growth.

After you have the basic plan of crops you will plant, mark your calendar for these events/tasks: soil preparation, planting, sprouting, rotations, successions, and harvest activities.

Planning for Livestock

Learn which animals are practical for you and determine how much forage is available on your pasture. As in permaculture, a pasture can support more than one type of livestock simultaneously, for example cows can share the pasture with chickens.

Healthy pastures grasses are six inches high. Grasses will be shorter in a depleted, over-grazed pasture–if 60% of the grasses are removed all at once, by over-grazing, the effect will stop 50% of the remaining grasses from developing and weeds and other unwanted plants will take over. Hay grows and is harvested from a pasture and it’s called ‘feed’ when you provide it to an animal when forage is not available.

In the final article of this series, I’ll go over how I applied old and new technologies for heat to make my off-grid homestead work. Many more details on off grid living are fully explained in my book, Hut-Topia.

Christopher James Marshall is the author of the do-it-yourself small house book Hut-Topiaand is a modern-day off-grid mountain man. After weathering recessions and lay-offs every decade since the 70s through the “Great Recession,” he became semi-retired by making plans to live sustainably and then built his 500-square-foot off-grid home. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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