100% Michigan Grown Staple Crop Seeds that Empower Your Plant-based Lifestyle Goals

How Much Do I Need to Grow--Sizing Your Plot to Meet Your Food Needs


On the internet, one can find quite endless lists of how much food it takes to survive a year for an adult...  to that, you add layers of complexity like:

  • Are you just 'surviving' and playing board games, or, are you working like a Victorian farmer with tools powered by your aching muscles?
  • How many adults and children in your group?
  • Do you owe 'food' to the local landlord/government as was common in the past?
  • What is the growing season where you are located?  You need frost free days, warmth appropriate for each crop type, and rain.   
Internet articles don't distinguish the difference between "feed a family of 4 with 800 square feet" without mentioning that this is 'feed as in supplement what you are buying from the' vs 'feed as in everything you eat'.   This discussion is around 'everything' you eat for calories and eventually include protein. 

So, to attempt to determine the quantity of seeds to grow this food let's start simple:  One adult eating 2,200 calories a day.  That is slightly more that just 'surviving', but it is only half of what our Victorian-age peasant/laborer would have eaten. On a long & busy farming day, my exercise watches tells me I burned 4,500 calories.   Each bolded item found on typical internet lists will be broken down in how we would cover that particular requirement with the seeds in our basket.

Some assumptions:

  • I live in Michigan where the last frost is the end of May and the killing frost might happen late September.  Tropical plants are not going to thrive.  I can't consistently grow sweet potatoes. 
  • This initial estimate is to give a sense of the scale of the calories it takes to live.   Cucumber, lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, etc are all nice to have, but they don't establish the baseline to live.
  • This is a theoretical exercise, don't get too stressed. If you want to add comments and raise questions, jump back to the blog page that covers this discussion.
  • I don't have an endless source of energy, so, year round greenhouse is out of scope.  I would use cold frames and hoop houses for getting plants started and a bit of season extension; but again, those plants are the nice to have, not the provide calories to fuel your body.
  • I'm going to need some diesel to run my 2-wheel tractor with the rotary plow.  Seed bed preparation with the tiller and power harrow are really helpful.  A bit for the 4-wheel tractor to use the front end loader would be nice.
  • The soil has been worked for a few years.  Crops have been rotated, perhaps not as perfectly as the Norfolk four-course system that came out since the medieval times. This is not your grassy, weed-free front yard.
  • Those medieval farmers also had to set aside 25% of their harvest to seed the fields the following year due to their less efficient storage and planting methods.  Modern production uses up 6% as seed.
  • Endless chemicals for fertilizing, weed control and pest control are not available.  We don't use them now.   It also means picking up a few cubic yards of compost is out of scope.  We'll just have to make do with self made...
  • Seeds, obviously the least of my worries!

 

I will strive to break the 'requirements' into many different feasible staple crops.  Yes, it would be much more efficient to grow a single kind of grain in one very large plot.  But, that's putting all your meals in one basket!    Like investing, a diversified portfolio reduces your risk of exposure to pests, weather and the unforeseen.    Also, multiple varieties of the same crop also reduce risk, and spread out the work.   With the cooperation of neighboring farms, specialization (with larger plot sizes of few things) will come with trade and barter. 

I will provide snips from my work-in-progress spreadsheet.   Once I have finished it, and squashed any bugs, and further vetted the 'estimates', I will post it.

I am starting with storable food items using lists typical of various websites.  Once the land required to do this is understood, we can discuss row lengths for fresh eating, but to be honest, most people have more experience with that topic.

 

Grains (400 pounds): This can be wheat, rice, barley, corn, spelt, dinkel, emmer, einkorn, millet, sorghum, and/or quinoa. By the way, to store this quantity, you will need a dozen 5-gallon buckets (remember, this is just for one person). Now we grow and sell the seeds for all of these grains. However, I do not have a way to dehull spelt, dinkel, emmer, or einkorn.  I am experimenting with a few naked einkorn, but to be practical, these ancient grains although very robust and disease resistant, are not were I would start.

That leaves wheat, barley, corn, rice, millet, sorghum and quinoa. Let's arbitrarily split the weight between grains and discuss them each in turn:

  • 160 lbs of wheat
  • 100 lbs of barley
  • 60 lbs of corn
  • 40 lbs of rice
  • 25 lbs of millet
  • 15 lbs of sorghum

Wheat berries have many uses, ranging from cooking them whole to grinding them into flour.  Depending on the type of wheat, different kinds of flour can be made.   I would split my flour into

  • Hard Red Winter (HRW) is for pan breads and would serve as a general purpose flour after some sifting.
  • Hard Red Spring (HRS) is for hearth breads, rolls, croissants, bagels and pizza crust.
  • Soft Red Winter (SRW) is a useful weak-gluten wheat flour ideal for cookies, crackers, pretzels, pastries and flat breads.
  • Soft White (SW) provides a whiter flour for cakes.  It is also ideally suited to Middle Eastern flat breads which are a nice way to eat those chickpeas.  Ok, I could survive without cake flour.
  • Hard White (HW) for Asian noodles and flat breads.
  • Durum (D) is the hardest wheat with a rich amber color.  The high gluten content makes it ideal for pasta, couscous and Mediterranean breads.

For each of those types of wheat, I might choose two or three varieties.  You might be wondering, why not just plant one big field of the same thing?  That would be very efficient, especially if you had a big farm equipment. Do you want all your eggs in the same basket, ripening at the same time, using the same strain.  Harvesting by hand, I want my crop to be staggered to spread out the work.  Perhaps the high heat will reduce the yield some, but not all.  Perhaps the heavy thunderstorm will lodge those but not these.  It's all about mitigating risk, as, I'm assuming my life depends on this crop.

Assuming a wheat yield of 40 to 1, on average, I should plant a total 4 pounds of seed. I would expect to beat that yield, but it allows for birds, seed for next year, and its just a number.    I wouldn't use more than 100:1 unless you've actually grown and harvested wheat with the same tools/equipment you would be using.  There is a delicate balance between scaling up what one can grow at 'hand/hobby' to something larger, while at the same time, scaling down from what the modern commercial farmer gets.

Barley would be a hulless type which is easier to cook and prepare.  Hulled barley is often used as animal food and malted to make beer.  Those 'calories' are not included in our survival minimum.. but discussed below.

Corn for human consumption has several uses.  One could harvest some varieties in the milky seed stage for roasting as a substitute for sweet corn.  Sweet corn is a particular type of corn that is a nice treat, but doesn't provide the workhorse needs of flint and dent do for the long term storage of staple calories. We note which varieties have this 'dual use' in their descriptions.

The reason for growing corn is corn bread, polenta, Johnny cakes and masa for tortillas.  Of course it can also be used to feed livestock and for distillation.  Those uses are not included in this allotment of 'weight' to grow.

Raw ground corn does not release all of the potential nutrients when people eat it. In particular, a form of Vitamin B is released when the maize undergoes the process of nixtamalization.   It is a simple to perform process that we've done at home here.

Rice... has a hull that can be removed by hand powered equipment if you've planned ahead.

Millet will yield in non-ideal soil & moisture situations.   The Limelight type, looking like bird seed, is highly sought after by the local birds before it is ripe enough to harvest. Either use bags to protect the biggest heads if planting at a low density on poor soil, or, grow in a fertile location and cover with a net. The West African Millet type has fared better.  

Sorghum can provide grain for eating as well as a sugar substitute depending on the variety.

I will add into the mix: 

Buckwheat provide another way to stretch your flour and make excellent pancakes (and waffles).  Although removing the hull from the seed to make buckwheat groats is not possible on the homestead scale, producing flour is very easy as shown here. Soba noodles are another way to consume buckwheat.  

Oats are high in protein as well as calories.  The standard hulled varieties of oats are extremely difficult to dehull at the homestead scale. The hulled type are more productive, so they can serve as feed for chickens or a cover crop.  For human consumption, focus on the 'hullless' or 'hull-less' varieties.  Depending on the variety, they may not be 100% cleaned by winnowing.  I did some experimenting with a method to more quickly clean them up here.

Rye by itself may not be your first choice to eat, but it can be done.  At a minimum, it can blended into your wheat flour products and has the benefit of being more forgiving with soils and temperature. 

 

Let's talk about the columns of the spreadsheet... to be honest, it became way more messy and complex than I had expected.   I decided to show intermediate calculations that are needed on the way to the 'space required', as its the only way to get help from others on vetting the sense of scale.  For example, how much row length of sorghum it takes to make the juice that becomes the syrup that is a substitute to sugar.

Seeds needed, plants and pounds planted give a sense of what kind seed stocks you need on hand.   For example, 4.3 pounds of wheat seed is shown to yield the 170 pounds of wheat needed for our '1 person'.  So, that one ounce packet is not going to feed you unless you spend several year growing it out to reach 4+ pounds of seed on hand.  That would be very useful experience as well!

"Eff" for efficiency is a multiplier for the fact that many kinds of seeds are greatly overplanted and thinned.  Weight per bushel and seeds per pound are required facts and figures that came from the internet.  There will be some variation in those values, from variety to variety and year to year, but close counts. 

Row spacings, both in-row and between rows, are what we ask manual-labor peasant farmers are likely to use without chemical inputs.   This will be there biggest divergence between what "I would assume" and what the industrial age can/could produce.  

The results calculated give how many square feet by seed type.  For example, all the grains shown add up to 40k square feet, which is just about an acre for '1 person' at the basic diet.  That space will go up and down, depending on the split between types of grain.   Sure, there are mathematical solutions that would  minimize the space at the expense of diversity.  

 

Dried Beans (60 pounds): Beans come in a variety of growth habits (bush vs pole), colors and types.  I consider dried peas and other legumes in this food category.  Although we carry a few beans considered tasty when green, the bean becomes a capsule of goodness when it is mature and dried. Sixty pounds of beans will fit into two 5-gallon buckets.  These seeds when mature and dried, store well and are not usually bothered by weevils. 
  • 30 lbs of Common beans
  • 15 lbs of Peas
  • 10 lbs of Lima beans 
  •  5 lbs of Peanuts

Shortening (16 pounds): This can be solid fats like Crisco, ghee, and coconut oil, or 2 ½ gallons of cooking oil.  Besides a concentrated source of calories, oils are helpful for cooking.

We can grow seeds that are high in fats and oils, like oil seed sunflower, soy bean, corn, flax, naked pumpkin and safflower, even okra.  I'm assuming this internet requirement is coming from easy of cooking and dense storable calories.  

Let's assume of the seeds mentioned, you have one that is 20% oil on average.  Your 16 pounds of oil just became 80 pounds of seeds (probably without the shell).  Using your simply device to extract the oil, let's assume its 50% efficient.  Now you need to harvest 160 pounds of dehulled sunflower seeds for example. 

 

some math work to do....

1 kg of sunflower seeds can produce 1/1.398 litre of sunflower oil = 0.71 liter of sunflower oil = 715 ml of sunflower oil under ideal conditions.

1 kg oil = (1/0.9) litre = 1.1 litre 

Seeding rate of 3 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft. or 15 lbs. /acre broadcast.

Small (4 g) packet has about 76 seeds.

I would be looking to minimize the amount of cooking oil needed, instead, get my fats and oils from eating the seeds.   This section is still in-work... and also is an area I have the least experience (making oil from seeds).

Sunflowers seem like the obvious choice, but the birds love them so much.  Peanuts are proving to be very productive, even here in Southeastern Michigan.

 

Powdered Milk (16 pounds): As an ingredient in baking, perhaps a plant based alternative is possible, such as soy milk.  If the intent of this item was for calcium, sprouted seeds or cooked sorghum seeds are a good alternative.

 

Sugar (35 pounds): Another baking supply that we could replace with sorghum syrup.  Sugar beets are an option that we've grown and eaten, but currently do not sell seeds for, mainly due to that the deer find our spring replants so incredibly tasty (beets are biennial in their seed production.)

 

Honey (50 pounds): Another delicious source of calories... that could be replaced by sorghum syrup as a sugar substitute depending on the variety.

85 pounds of sugar+honey seems like a "store the food" person' solution to calories.  Although I'd want some syrup for my pancakes, perhaps less syrup and more pancakes is a more efficient way of eating those calories. 

 

I wonder if it's possible to make corn syrup 'at home'?  After reading Wikipedia, seems feasible, but it is a multi-step process with different enzymes needed at two of the steps.  Sorhum syrup or honey, seems way easier!

Started, but not finished....

 

 

Potato Flakes (40 pounds): Potatoes are definitely an efficient source of staple crop calories.  Due to various certification requirements, we don't sell them.  We do grow them, and save the best potatoes to use as seed potatoes the following spring.  When stored in a proper root cellar, they look like this in early April:

Show the potato calculation for what to plant, how many feet, and how much can be harvested....

As an alternative, many types of stored winter squash can easily last until February and selected types lasting until April.  To hedge your bets, dehydrate/dry some of the squash in the fall to support your hard working body in the spring before the new crops are producing.

Calories in potato flakes vs dried squash

potato flakes:  21 grams (dry) is 80 calories        40 pounds should be 63k cal

fresh winter squash: 1 pound is 154 calories, needs 411 pounds of fresh winter squash

 in-progress

 

 

 

Salt (10 pounds): You should have 10 pounds of salt.

Sorry, can't grow that one.  For us, 1000 feet below Detroit is a salt mine.  Maybe they'll trade for pretty beans?

 

In addition....

What about eggs for baking?

Which leads to chickens, which leads to grain to feed the chickens....

Barley for brewing?