How Much Do I Need to Grow--Sizing Your Plot to Meet Your Food Needs
With a simple search, one can readily find quite endless lists proposing how much food it takes to survive a year for an adult. When evaluating these lists, it's beneficial to keep in mind a few things:
- Are you just "surviving" and playing board games, or, are you working like a Victorian farmer with tools powered by your aching muscles?
- Are you "feeding" your family or "FEEDING" your family, the difference being merely providing side dishes that make the meal enjoyable vs supplying the calories needed to keep them alive?
- 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 your growing season where you are located? Number of frost free days, warmth appropriate for each crop type, and rain are important factors influencing your level of success.
Many articles fail to clarify its "what to plant" list to "feed a family of 4 with 800 square feet" - is it "feed as in supplement what you are buying" or is it "feed as in providing everything you eat." This discussion takes the "everything you eat" focus including calories and eventually protein. So, attempting to determine the quantity of seeds necessary to grow all your food, let's specify a baseline level of 2,200 calories for one adult per day. Keep in mind this is enough for slightly more than just surviving but is only half of what our Victorian-age peasant would have needed to sustain their daily tasks necessary for living. For a more modern reference, after a long & busy farming day, my exercise monitor tells me I've burned 4,500 calories.
Each bolded item found on typical lists will be broken down in how we would cover that particular requirement with the seeds in our basket. In addition to the staple crops to provide the calories (energy) to keep you powered up, there will be other crops you need to crop for trace elements, proper protein ratios, flavor and joy of life. Without the foundation, you won't be needing to plan the dessert.
Some relevant assumptions for this discussions:
- 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, so no coconuts or moringa. Avocados, often mentioned as a great source of fat in vegan diets, don't grow in Michigan. I can't consistently grow sweet potatoes.
- This initial estimate is to give a sense of the scale of the calories it takes to sustain life. Cucumbers, lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, etc are all nice to have, but they are not significant contributors to achieving the required calorie base.
- 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, or send me an email.
- I don't have an endless source of energy, so heating a greenhouse for year-round use is not a reasonable cultivation option. Cold frames and hoop houses for getting plants started and a bit of season extension are feasible, but again, crops typically grown this way are the "nice to have" and not the "provide calories to fuel your body" varieties.
- I'm going to need some diesel to run my 2-wheel tractor with the rotary plow. The tiller and power harrow are really helpful for seed bed preparation. Having some diesel for the 4-wheel tractor to use the front end loader is also an appreciated advantage. I can estimate how much of an oil crop it would take to make the vegetable oil that would make the biodiesel for a sense check.
- Our soil under cultivation has been worked for more than a few years. Crops have been rotated, though perhaps not as perfectly as the Norfolk four-course system that came out since the medieval times. Fenced perimeters, trellises, and critter protection efforts are already established. 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 to 6% as seed.
- Staple crops typically grown by medieval farmers such as wheat, beans, barley, peas, and oats have experienced centuries of crop improvement.
- Compared to the medieval times, the choice and availability of calorie crops has expanded to include corn, potatoes, rice, sorghum, and millet.
- Endless chemicals for fertilizing, weed control, and pest control are no longer available. (We don't use them now anyway.) It also means picking up a few cubic yards of off-farm compost isn't an option. We'll just have to make do with self made...
- Seedstock, obviously the least of my worries!
I will strive to extend the "how to meet the calorie requirements" estimates across the 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 (plot plan) reduces your risk of exposure to pests, weather and other unforeseen challenges. Also, multiple varieties of the same crop type reduces risk, and spreads out the work. With the cooperation of neighboring farms, specialization (with larger plot sizes of few things) will come with trade and barter.
As a seed business, we grow considerably more varieties than one would need for survival. If you search our Great Lakes Staple Seeds site for "progression" you'll find blogs documenting the sequence of harvesting, especially grains and corn. In 2022 we began to harvest fall planted barley June 28th. In previous seasons, that work might have started a week earlier. By early July, the fall planted oats and barley are harvested. By mid-July, most but not all of the fall planted wheats and rye are finishing as the harvest of spring planted barley, oats and wheat started; usually, in early to mid-August, at last, those are finished.
The plots of the earliest harvested fall planted grain can be immediately followed by soil preparation and the planting of short season varieties of corn and soybeans. Also, those same shorter season varieties when planted early, will finish in time to prepare the soil for fall planted grains.
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.
The weights below are from a range of internet sources about what ONE ADULT should have stored for a year of eating. When I converted the weights into calories, the total was around 3,800 calories. However, many of items lose a lot of calories when cooked, which is why this list was expected to provide 2,200 calories per adult per day. Well, it's a start.
There are several methods for converting between plot size and yield. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
Acreage--Find data on the yield for farms in your area. For example, 180 bushels of corn per acre, corn is 56 pounds per bushel, and 43,560 sq ft in an acre giving 0.23 pounds of corn per square foot of plot. This is about as easy as it can be. You don't know: type of corn, variety, suitable for your area, row spacing, or plant spacing.
Row Feet--A few nice bulletins from Victory Gardens often provide so many pounds of X in a 100 foot row. Using row spacing to compute plot size. May not find 'farm' crop data. If you keep garden records, you'll gain this knowledge. For example, we harvested 1 pound of assorted dry beans per 11 ft of row.
Geek--Do all of the calculations from the principle of 1 seed produces X seeds at harvest. For example, 1 stalk of corn making 1 ear with 800 seeds planted 1 ft apart in rows spaced 3 feet. 1800 seeds per pound, results in 0.15 pounds per square foot. For determining how many seeds to have for planting, assuming an overplant factor, for example, I like to plant 2 seeds per 'spot' and thin to choose the stronger looking seedling. I try to finish that task before the plants are more than 8 inches tall. The thinning's go to the geese as treats. One year we made silage out of them.
As an engineer, I have chosen 'geek' and will provide snips of the spreadsheet. To provide a double-check of the calculations, we will begin to record harvest per 10 foot test strip in 2023.
And now for the details... these categories came from internet planning sites: Grains, Beans, Shortening, Powered Milk, Sugar, Honey, Potato Flakes, and Salt. Under each of those categories, I broke out a list of what we could grow to fill that requirement.
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 where 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. I have not yet done any home malting, yet.
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.
- 30 lbs of Common beans
- 15 lbs of Peas
- 10 lbs of Lima beans
- 5 lbs of Peanuts
Shortening/Oil (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. If I were to plan on lard or goose fat, I'd have to calculate how much grain those animals would need to eat in their lifetime, and include that in the 'planting plan'.
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.
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
I've read that 5 pounds of fresh potatoes will make 0.7 pounds of dried potato flakes. Seems like dried would be a good way to store some to safely store them for backup food for times of little.
I've read that the Romans used onions as a calorie crop for soldiers. I do love onion soup.
Potatoes, we grow them, but don't sell them due to extra rules to be certified to sell root groups (same for garlic). Potatoes, turnips and rutabagas are definitely in the plan. Being starches, I plan to subtract these 'calories' from the grain category.
(this snip needs to be updated)
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?
What about eggs for baking?
Which leads to chickens, which leads to grain to feed the chickens....
Barley for brewing?
One year while raising meat chickens, we tracked how much we food we bought and the resulting chicken harvest. As I recall, roughly 4.5 pounds of chicken food per pound of chicken going into the freezer.
So, if you wanted one 6 pound chickens a week for a year for one person:
1 birds * 6 pounds each * 52 weeks * 4.5 lbs grain is 1400 pounds of ~corn
At 0.2 lbs grain per sq foot, you'll need 7,000 sq ft of a ~corn plot for your chicken meals (about 0.2 acres)
Straight corn wouldn't be the best feed, but it's just an estimate. By the way, those 52 chickens are not going to wander around your yard eating bugs and weed seeds. Don't forget that meat 'birds' are more efficient at gaining weight that regular chickens.
This is something I want to investigate. Since oil production must already be mastered, additional land could be used to grow oil as a fuel source. I'd like to take a hands on workshop on this topic.
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