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The Meat and Potatoes of Home Food Production

January 22, 2014

Someone asked me the other day how much of our food we grow.  Good question.  They also wanted to know how much time it took to supply ourselves with the bulk of our food.  All the time, was the answer on that one.  I don’t know how to measure how much we grow though…90%, maybe?  So do I measure that in calories, dollars, quantity?  Meals prepared?  Ugh, I don’t like exploring that meal count thing, it makes me weary.  Almost every step I take has to do with food.



My take on the whole “produce your needs at home” is a meat and potatoes versus condiment scenario in my mind.  I do know I spend 90% of my time growing the bulk of our food, and 10% on condiments.  Some people spend 90% of their time on the condiment part of their food supply and 10% on the meat and potatoes.  In my case I spend very little time on producing things like herbs and medicines.  I know, boring.  I told you I was a meat and potatoes gal.  There is no glamor in growing spuds or making sauerkraut, I know that.  Tell someone you made a tincture out of elderberries, whooee, now you’re talking some homesteading cred.  But you know what, I don’t need bottles of cough syrup, or pints of jam, we just don’t use them.  I do dabble a little bit in salves since we’re always doing some hack job on something, (usually ourselves) and you’ll find the run-of-the-mill culinary herbs in my garden.

root crops for milk cow

potatoes for us, & roots for the milk cow

Besides being limited by time to grow the food, we are all also limited by our land base, and our climate.  If I need a sugar fix and fruit doesn’t cut it, I need to keep bees.  There is no maple syrup tapping in these parts.  Or if there is, that old 90% condiment rule rears its ugly head again.  Do you spend 90% of your time to supply yourself with a condiment, or do you move on to spend more time producing something you might eat everyday like potatoes?

So can you provide enough food for yourself for one year?  Yes, you can.  Your pantry may not look like a homestead pantry from a different climate.  But if you get the idea of the produce section in the grocery store out of your head, you will be able to provide enough food for a year or at least until the next growing season comes around.  It doesn’t all have to be fresh, food preservation is your friend.  Freezing, fermenting, dehydrating, canning, season extension and growing foods that don’t need processing until you eat them become the skill set you use all the time.

I’m just using meat and potatoes as a metaphor obviously, we do have some variety which is dictated by our skills and the seasons.  We are able to grow enough of many vegetables to keep us going through the year.  The list is pretty long really, in no particular order and limited to my memory as I type this…potatoes, onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, beets, rutabagas, turnips, radish, parsnip, chard, mustard greens, lettuce, green and dry beans, corn, peppers, tomato, kohlrabi, tomatillo, cucumbers, summer squash, winter squash, raspberries, blueberries, hardy kiwi, strawberries, apples, pears, & my favorite, prunes.   On the meat front, we can produce easily here:  dairy products from a cow, beef, pork, chicken and eggs.  We could do more, but these animals and our systems to keep them, fit with our land and the predator pressure we have.

To take the condiment thing a little further, in our situation we try to limit our livestock on the 90/10 plan too.  Cattle take the prize there as we can grow at least 90% of their food.  Namely grass or dried grass for winter – hay.  The milk cow skews that from 100% because she gets some grain.  Bringing in 90% of the milk cow’s feed would make her unsustainable, even with all the dairy products and manure she provides.  Cows are expensive if you have to buy the feed.  Period.  Plus that isn’t matching the animal with the land.  Animals that are here for a short time get a pass because they are omnivores and not ruminants and I have to supply them with feed from somewhere else.  And I like bacon and chicken fajitas.   Again, it’s the 90/10 thing.  The cows are here all the time and get most of their sustenance from this land, the pigs and chickens are here for a few months and get 10% of their food from here.

I’m just throwing this post out in the wind to see what kind of discussion it generates because I honestly don’t know how to calculate the percentage of food we grow?  Calories, weight produced, or value.  What do you think?  How would you calculate it?

I do know the value I want from growing our own food was brought home to me this past weekend.  Part of our family birthday celebrations include getting to select what you want for your birthday meal.  It was my daughter’s birthday most recently and she chose steak, home fries and cheesecake.  I can do that meal!

18 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2014 3:34 pm

    Calories, weight produced – makes my head hurt.
    I tend to look at it far more simply( maybe too simply?) – on a normal day how much of my meals are produced from something I grow as opposed to being bought from a shop?
    At this stage the answer is ‘not enough’ but Im working on it.
    Its funny though how much you do actually provide for each meal when you sit down and think about it – or in this case write it down.

  2. Victoria permalink
    January 22, 2014 3:39 pm

    I’ve never tried to calculate a percentage; I definitely don’t grow most of our food, although I do a pretty good job of vegetables in the summer months, and will hopefully have fruits covered in the next couple years once more things start bearing heavily. I’m also hoping to work on season extension and food preservation to expand the amount of the year we eat from the garden instead of buying food.

    I don’t raise any animals; I might get some chickens for eggs at some point, but they would probably end up more pets than farm animals. I do try to buy all our meat from local farmers who take good care of their animals.

    I suppose when I think about it, I think about some combination of calories and weight. Cost gets too tricky; are we talking cost of anything at the grocery store? Cost at the farmer’s market? Cost of organic only?

    I can tell you that the space in my (limited) garden is awarded based on the following:

    1) Can I grow it? It gets 2 years as a trial, and if it doesn’t succeed (*cough* melons *cough*) it’s gone.
    2) Does someone in the household eat it? (The rabbits and me in previous years, since my boyfriend is moving in this year eggplant and brussels sprouts have been added to the plan for next spring).
    3) Is better if I grow it instead of buying it at the farmer’s market? Fresh herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, and summer squash all tend to be much better if I just picked them from the garden; a lot of things are good either way.
    4) Is it expensive at the farmer’s market? Fruit tends to be, so the strawberry patch, berry bushes, and fruit trees are all good investments. Salad greens and large amounts of basil also tend to be, so I try to grow all I need of those.
    5) How productive is it for the space? I learned last year that even when its successful, growing popcorn is not a good use of a 4×8 bed in my garden.

  3. January 22, 2014 3:41 pm

    i find this all extremely fascinating. it reminds me of a trip to cape breton about 8 years ago. it was winter and when i went to the grocery store, all that was offered were root vegetables. nothing was shipped in. nothing was fancy. i made some of the best meals i have ever made cooking that way.

  4. January 22, 2014 4:26 pm

    Up until we moved to town we grew most everything we ate. Kept a milk cow, raised lots(!) of pigs, chickens and turkeys. Ate fresh from the garden and orchard all summer, canned or frozen all winter. Grew our own wheat and corn which we ground for flour (best bread you ever ate!) and stored dry beans, and potatoes. Work – oh yes, Healthy – you bet, Miss it – sure do. Roughly I’d say we raised 80% of what we consumed, and traded a lot for other things – traded for honey from a bee keeper, traded milk and eggs for housekeeping help on occassion. Held a lot of church suppers and fed pretty good crowds including our seven with out spending cash. Never saw much cash but lots of good times. Would like to do it again! If a crop failed for some reason – it just wasn’t part of that years diet.

  5. Cordy permalink
    January 22, 2014 4:46 pm

    I find this fascinating! I’m obsessed with “how much food people produce”, because I often get the impression that people with glamorous homesteading blogs/book production machines tell you, as you so delightfully mention, a lot of stuff about the incredible elderberry cordial they put up, and not as much about where the 2k calories per person per day come from (aka… the supermarket.)

    Producing enough food for a family to survive on is no small feat. I personally really enjoy it when people are straight about that, and explain how they tackle the huge job!

  6. January 22, 2014 6:59 pm

    This is what I like: “It was my daughter’s birthday most recently and she chose steak, home fries and cheesecake. I can do that meal!”

    This is my goal: to produce a whole meal from food we raise ourselves. And I am definitely meat and potatoes girl so I’m not talking salad. After we can do that, I want to reliably be able to do that… 90% of the time.

    I really enjoy your posts. Your perspective inspires and encourages me so much!

  7. January 22, 2014 7:08 pm

    Interesting. I know I don’t produce nearly that much of our food requirements yet. I am starting on it little by little. I do it one thing at a time. Pick something we really like, and use a lot of, and try to produce that thing for ourselves. Initially that has been tomato sauce. It moved into whole tomatoes, ketchup, salsa, and onions. Now I’m working on eggs, garlic, herbs (parsley, basil, cilantro, thyme, and lemon balm mostly), and putting in fruit for the future. Apple trees and strawberries this year. I am not ready to tackle the meat side of things yet and have a couple of friends who raise beef and pork so I have been and will be buying from them. Helps to support a friend, the local food movement that needs help here, and is more cost effective for my situation. I would have to bring in feed and do some serious building of fence and structures along with the many other odds and ends of having livestock. All eventual options but not yet. I’m also toying with the idea of bees. We have the space, want the orchard, and use lots of honey. Worth the initial cost of setting up a beekeeping operation? I don’t know yet. Again it may be more cost effective to work with our local bee man.

    No idea how to figure percentages, meals, or what not. I just put up tomatoes until I don’t want to see or taste another fresh tomato. Then I figure I have enough to last until the tomatoes are ripe again. Because I focus on one thing at a time I know for our family of four that about 18-25 tomato plants seems to be a good number. Everything else is very much a work in progress.

    I sure enjoy your writing about the grazing. It is something that is interesting. Don’t know if I’ll ever be where that is the thing for us but I enjoy following your adventures with it.

  8. snuck permalink
    January 23, 2014 4:48 am

    How much of your needs do you meet from your garden? Well it depends on how you look at it. Do you look at it purely from a sustenance perspective – and is that sustenance physical?

    I’d say you get a lot of your emotional, spiritual, soulful needs met from your garden – it’s clear you have a deep love for it. And as you say – you might get some medicinal needs met but that assumes you have the desire for it.

    And then do you look at your food from a daily nutritional perspective? Well it depends who you are talking to. If you are talking to someone who actually understands that and is asking because it’s of interest to them then why not talk in calories. There’s a raft of difference if you eat steak and three veg every night, but buy the steak in so that the calories from the garden are overshadowed by the meat.

    If you are talking to someone who loves their kitchen garden for what tastes good in season but is less concerned with survival levels of food storage then why not answer “We sure do – we get all manner of fruit in season and you should see the cucumber I picked the other day” and enjoy that conversation for the sheer love of the bounty.

    I aim to fill the gaps between what my local shop provides and what we want on the table – I’m fortunate to live in a very first world environment where I can get unblemished perfect fruit and veggies (if I drive 120km each way) but that doesn’t sit well in my heart/head, so I’m just looking to have fresh, variety, GM free and tasty. That and HUGE bundles of herbs.

  9. January 23, 2014 4:57 am

    Wow. Yup.

    None of us are islands. We produce the final form of a fair portion of each plate but even that relies on outside help. I mean, we buy truckloads of sawdust. We don’t eat the sawdust but we bed our livestock with it, compost that bedding then feed the compost to our garden and pasture. You buy in truckloads of straw. Does that stuff count toward percentages?

    It is more than my lack of ability to grow oranges, coffee and cinnamon. I certainly could plant wheat and harvest the straw but it is more advantageous for for all parties involved if I rely on a neighbor to do that while I’m busy doing something else.

    And we don’t just buy the pig and chicken feed, we buy the pigs and chickens off farm. So…home grown or just home finished? What percentage does that represent?

    Not only do I have trouble understanding if estimated food percentages are supposed to represent weight, calories or dollar value, I question the point of the calculation. Are we trying to brag that we don’t need our community? Because most of what we do, as alternative farmers, is community-based. Seems counter to our own self-interest.

  10. Beth in Ky permalink
    January 23, 2014 7:38 am

    Wow! This is one of those posts where the comments are as good as the post!!! It would be really hard to put a #% on what is produced here, at least 80%??? What about the dried beans I can??? Pintos, northern, kidney, October, split pea, & blackeyed pea. Would take a lot of space to grow these, but I count them into the big picture because I am saving 70 to 90% on the cost of buying it from the store(in metal cans). We each as individuals have a “goal” we are working toward. For one person that may be 2 dozen half pints of jam. For someone else it may be 1000 jars of assorted fruit, veg, meat, etc. Both may be very satisfied with the effort they have put in in a year. What makes me satisfied??? This may be odd, I’m an odd chick,,, but when I shop I rarely, rarely put anything in the bottom of the cart. I only use the kid-seat part. This usually is plenty. This would not work with the Bulk size of toilet paper, lol, but that I buy 2 or 3 times a year anyway. It’s not just the pride in producing your own food, or the cost savings (though that’s a biggie for me) it’s also hauling all those tin cans of food to the truck, into the house, and disposing of them when empty!!! EEEEKK! We do not have recycling for food cans here, so I am very mindful when using food from a can that the tin is going to a big stinking-mountain-of-a-landfill somewhere. And have to be hauled 100s of miles to get there. Beth in Ky.

  11. Bee permalink
    January 23, 2014 10:22 am

    Let’s see:
    Beef, 100% comes from our cows, born and raised on the place. We do buy winter hay, because our place was essentially abandoned for 50 years and we don’t have the pastures in good enough shape to raise it. I’m not sure if we could raise all our hay, but we might get to point where we could rotationally graze year round. We also feed some grain in the form of middlings (what’s left after the grain is ground) that is ground locally and some of which is grown locally, and bring in kelp, minerals and salt.
    Milk and everything that goes with it, same as beef. I make butter, cream cheese, cottage cheese and am moving on to mozzarella. Cream, sour cream, buttermilk and yogurt also come from our milk cow. When she’s dry I practically go into withdrawal, and I am seriously considering another milk cow rather than the beef cow we have now. A Jersey/Angus calf makes good eating, and I wouldn’t need a high producer. Excess milk would fatten the pigs, cutting down on outside food for them.
    Pigs, born and raised here — we sell the excess. Their primary diet is middlings, but they also get kitchen scraps, meat scraps and offal from butchering, orchard thinnings and windfalls. Hubby is a bacon eater and we rarely have enough bacon to last until the next hog butchering time, so we do buy some bacon. I make fresh sausage out of all kinds of meat, though — duck, goose, venison, turkey, beef, mutton and pork.
    Sheep are home grown and eat winter hay but otherwise get their food from grazing.
    Chickens, like pigs, get a little of everything. Normally I have enough chickens to supply our egg needs year-round, but I lost half the flock to an unknown virulent bug this year, so I’m buying some eggs until I can build up the flock again.
    I’m still building gardens, especially the soil, so do better with the summer garden for fresh food. We have plenty of apples, pears, plums and blackberries for fruit, an occasional good year for apricots and an asparagus patch that is God-knows how old and needs to be renovated. Every year we get the orchards in a little better shape and expand the gardening space. My daughter and son-in-law are building their new house right now (we all live on the ranch), hubby is limited in what he can do physically because of multiple back surgeries, and I supplement our income by writing and consulting. With seven people in the family, raising most of our own food is doable if everybody is pitching in. Since right now there’s mostly me in the gardening part of the food activity, we aren’t there yet. I do better in some areas than others — for example, I raise 100 percent of the summer squash we eat, daughter canned 100% of the applesauce, and I stocked up all the pickles we’d need for a year. Didn’t get any corn raised this year, though — it’s such a space eater that I concentrated on other stuff.
    With kids in the family, herbals such as horehound cough syrup are a staple in my medicine cabinet. I also make veterinary products and most of my own cleaning staples. I render lard and beef tallow and we usually do our own butchering. I could live without coffee and bananas, and I can purchase locally-grown citrus, olive oil, raw honey and similar stuff you wouldn’t find in many areas of the country. Chocolate, now… that’s another story.
    In the days when I had a full-time bricks-and-mortar job as opposed to writing, which I can tuck into odd nooks and crannies of time (especially since I don’t watch television!) my food-raising was a lot more limited. It’s always a process and a journey. Nita, how long did it take you to get to point where you are now? Or did you always (as an example) raise roots for the house cow? I know Hangdog works off the place, but did you ever combine outside labor with raising food and how did you split the time between the two activities?

  12. January 23, 2014 11:40 am

    I have no idea either and it doesn’t bother me. I know as far as veg is concerned, we just about have it sorted. The things we add are citrus fruits, bananas occasionally, ginger, and mushrooms because we haven’t got around to finding them in the forests this last year. It is nice to look at a plate and think well we grew most of that, expect maybe a bit of oil, salt and pepper. The meat aspect still needs working on though. Amazing the variety of meals I can make though from a fairly basic palette.

  13. Bev permalink
    January 23, 2014 4:02 pm

    Great Post! The keyword is value. First and most important on the list is knowing just where your food is coming from. Also the good health you derive from providing yur own food. You are doing most of the labor. Sure it uses up your time. Factor in how much you would pay out for that labor when you pay the price for purchased goods. For 50 years we have listened to some of our family and friends (?) nicely criticizing us. Why do you bother, just buy it. The funny part is when they come to visit us for a few days. “Oh, the food tastes so good!” Yum, I want that birthday menu, too.

  14. January 24, 2014 8:40 am

    I’m pondering the same questions myself. How do you put a value on the work you do in a kitchen garden? Of course I can count hours spent and assign that time a minimum wage, record and cost other inputs, then weigh and record the outputs… My guess is that I would end up with very expensive vegetables! Once I did a similar exercise with the hens and clearly it was cheaper, in cash terms, to buy a dozen organically produced eggs at the supermarket. But that’s purely in cash terms, what about value – the worth? How much do poultry droppings contribute to the soil and hence to subsequent crops; by what factor do the hens’ scratching and churning speed up composting? What’s the de-stressing value of watching the antics of half-a-dozen hens for ten minutes? How improved is the nutritional value of ‘home-grown’ eggs over organic store bought?

    As to what percentage of one’s total diet is produced… I decided I have to stick to educated guestimates. As a general rule I produce enough apples, black currants, and raspberries but could improve on gooseberries. I do well on onions, shallots, leeks but need more garlic; I fail to produce enough carrots and root vegetables so have to budget for the purchase of those. Brassicas are poor some years and good others; peas and beans nearly enough; squashes could do better – but let’s not mention the gluts of courgettes! Mostly there are enough eggs. No meat production as yet. What dairy products I make (yoghurt, quark, soft cheese) are made from bought-in milk. And so on – but from which review I get a sense of the budget for purchases.

    I concluded that the effort involved in answering the question in detail far outweighs the value of knowing the detail! Perhaps the only true way to place a ‘cash value’ on one’s home-grown produce is to find out what others would pay for it – full market testing. For myself, I can’t see a way to place an accurate ‘worth’ on the activity because it’s more to do with a way of life.

    Interesting point to discuss though.

  15. January 24, 2014 9:37 am

    You can grow for calories, finances or nutrition. Raw calories in our current food system (for better or worse) tend to be cheap and easy to store. Wild foraged foods can supply lots of nutrients. So I focus on growing for finances: what can I grow/preserve (that I will eat!) that is cheaper than buying it. That means a lot of vegetables and fruits for me, plus some high-calorie crops like squash and sweet potatoes. Meat and grains and beans I can buy cheaper than doing it myself.

  16. Karen permalink
    January 24, 2014 12:22 pm

    Dear Matron, Math has never been my strong suit. I envy your accounting capabilities. Though I work towards filling my pantry with homegrown goodness, my perspective is that there are also benefits to growing your own that go beyond weights and measures… a sentiment has been echoed in many of the other comments. We do it for our families, we do it for our communities, we do it because industrial agriculture’s only interest is to line their own pockets, we do it for health and, last but not least, we do it for our sanity… (At least I do!) 🙂 Great question.

  17. Ben Hewitt permalink
    January 24, 2014 5:11 pm

    Hilarious comment about elderberry syrup, especially since we just made a big batch! But if I had to choose between that at ‘taters, it’d be ‘taters every time!

    • January 24, 2014 6:30 pm

      Cough, cough. I guess we don’t get colds or coughs often enough to get me to fight the birds for the berries. I did find a pretty feral purple elderberry (nigra) tree last year. Not very productive though compared to our natives that grow like weeds here, Sambucus caerulea.

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