Last week, I met the team from the True North Community Co-operative in Thunder Bay. The Co-op’s slogan is: “Disrupting Dependence … Rebuilding Resilience.” Brilliant!
Have you thought about becoming less dependent and more self-reliant?! (Since writing this blog in 2014, I have learned more about what it really means to be self-reliant. It’s not the solution because it makes us separate and individuate rather than weave ourselves into the fabric that creates communities.) Just out in the March-April 2014 issue of Small Farm Canada magazine, is the perfect recipe to becoming more self-sufficient. They did a great job of answering a reader’s question: What do I need to know to create a self-sufficient, small-scale farm? In case the link does not stay, the answer is below. Please get your issue – it is filled with great articles!
Why is this important? See my blog 2 previous.
A: There’s something awfully appealing about being self-reliant. But what does it take? The research team here at Small Farm Canada set to work scouring the Internet and scribbling calculations on the back of napkins. After wading through a quagmire of widely varying (and oftentimes contradictory) statistics, we’ve come up with some extremely ballpark figures on how to sustain a family of four for a year. Did we say ballpark? Giant amusement park would be a more accurate analogy. Browse through our numbers and our assumptions, compare them to your own operations, and then tell us how far off the mark we are.
Our reader already has a mix of livestock and crops in mind, but just for fun, let’s crunch a few numbers.
Meat (220 kg/year): If you want half of your family’s recommended servings of meat and alternatives to come from animal sources, you’ll need about 220 kilograms of meat each year. One average beef cow will get you close. Or if bacon is more your thing, four pigs should do you. Prefer poultry? That will take a whopping 200 chickens. (Space for four pastured pigs: 8,700 square feet; one cow: 1 acre; 200 free-run chickens: 2,600 square feet)
Fruits (375 kg/year) and veggies (440 kg/year): Eating nothing but apples and broccoli would get tiresome real quick, but we’ve used these to estimate how much land you’d need to grow enough produce to feed your family, based on average Canadian produce consumption. (Land required for fruit trees: 400 square feet; land required for vegetable gardens: 1.5 acres. You’ll need less land if you focus on space-efficient veggies and use succession planting.)
Dairy (1,050 litres/year): Got milk? One cow should produce more than enough for your family, but cows take up a lot of space and you’ll need to provide a lot of silage and hay to feed them in the winter. And, of course, they need to be bred from time to time, and milk production is not year-round. Consider a goat instead, which can produce three litres of milk a day, enough to meet the needs of your family, without munching its way through quite so much feed. (Paddock and pasture for one goat: 10,890 square feet or ¼ acre)
Eggs (650 eggs/year): The average Canadian eats 14 dozen eggs each year. Find yourself a couple of hens to satisfy your family’s appetite for omelettes, although keep in mind that production will drop off in winter. Bonus: your layers become soup hens when their egg-producing days are behind them. (Chicken coop and run for two hens: 26 square feet)
Grains (300 kg/year): What’s an omelette without a side of toast? Canadians get most of their energy from grain products, so figuring out how to harvest, clean and store the grain will be key. (Land required: 10,667 square feet)
Fertilizer: Your animals will contribute some manure, of course. But if you want to avoid the need to buy additional fertilizer, you can use legume rotations and plough-down crops to enrich your soil. A no-till approach will also enhance your soil health.
Pesticides: Crop rotations and cover crops will also help control weeds, insects and plant diseases, allowing you to slash or eliminate pesticide use.
Animal feed (2,500-5,000 kg/year): Even if your pigs and goat can graze six months of the year, you’ll still need to feed hay and grain. Same goes for chickens. Consumption will only increase in the winter. (Land required for 2,500 kilograms of feed: two acres)
Seeding and breeding: You’ll also need to get good at saving seeds and breeding animals to make sure you’re sustainable year after year. That means expanding your veggie beds and grain fields to include a few rows of seed crops and adding a rooster to your small flock. Boars and bulls are trickier to handle however. Are we bending the rules to suggest bringing these in on an as-needed basis?
Fuel: What about fuel for your tractor or rototiller? Unless your farm includes an oil derrick and refinery, you’ll need to buy your fuel, do everything by hand or add some draft animals—plus more pasture and feed—to the equation.
Our reader isn’t planning on going off-grid, but we thought we’d explore energy needs for those looking to go a step further. Annually, the average Canadian household uses close to 12,000 kWh in electricity. Of course, you’ve also got a barn to consider, so let’s round that up to 20,000 kWh a year. Consider the following options (plus batteries to ensure you’ve still got juice on calm, cloudy days):
Solar: Put your roof to good use and install solar panels. In many parts of Canada, an 18 kW system will produce roughly 20,000 kWh per year. Your panels won’t produce much in the depth of winter, however, so consider scaling back your solar array and adding a wind turbine to your renewable energy mix.
Wind: In the right conditions, a 5kW wind turbine will produce more than 10,000 kWh per year.
Geothermal: If you’ve still got room in your line of credit after installing your solar panels and wind turbine, consider a geothermal system. Not only will it provide heat in the winter, you’ll be able to enjoy A/C come summer — and you can ditch your hot water heater.
Solar hot water: If you don’t go the geothermal route, a solar hot water system can cut down on the fuel you use for hot showers and baths.
Wood: Good with a chainsaw? Consider heating your home with a wood-fired boiler. How many cords of wood you’ll need depends on a number of factors including how far the mercury drops, the size of your house and how much insulation you’ve got in the walls and attic. But if it takes five cords of wood to get you through the clutches of a Canadian winter, you’ll need about a 2.5-acre woodlot and a strong swinging arm.
So what does a self-sufficient farm supporting a family of four look like? According to our wildly unscientific estimates, it’s a seven-acre farm that consists of a 2.5-acre woodlot, four pigs, two chickens and a goat, pastures, an orchard, grain fields and a veggie garden, and a house powered by a mix of wind and solar energy. Of course, you’ll still want some cash for all those other necessities like toothpaste, clothes and your kids’ college tuition, so add on several more acres for cash crops, a market garden or a bigger livestock operation.
All that said, a Swiss Family Robinson dream isn’t realistic, or desirable, for most farmers. By all means, reduce your costs by reducing your reliance on outside inputs, but don’t ignore the benefits of interdependency. If you can produce spectacular chard but fail miserably at root crops, it might just make more sense to focus on your strengths and buy your potatoes from the farmer down the road.