Sustainable Eating – the idea and practice of creating food production that you can maintain year after year. The idea that we must buy food is a product of urbanization. Sure, people have bartered, traded, and exchanged money for food for a long while but there is a difference between buying a loaf of bread and purchasing your entire months’ worth of food. Most of us are in a position where we must buy food so that we can have three square meals per day.
There are three main reasons why I grow as much of what I consume as possible:
- To have control over what I eat from the types of foods to the chemicals – or lack thereof – that goes into my body.
- I want the assurance that should commercial food networks become disrupted that I can still eat without worry.
- I prefer not to pay corporations for food when I can grow most of what I eat for next to nothing.
To achieve all three of these goals, I must grow a lot of food and be capable of preserving it. I use many methods of preserving food. Those include smoking, dehydrating, canning, freezing, and pickling. Even with the knowledge and experience of preserving food, I must first be able to grow enough food to feed myself throughout the year and into the next year.
Why the Drive for Sustainable Gardening?
Prepping for me is a way of life. It is an extension, of sorts, of how I was brought up. I come from the dirt poor and rural region of Northern California. In my grandfather’s day, you lived off the land – mostly because the nearest town was a day away and the roads where deer trails with potholes. There was always a huge garden, trips to the beach to fish, a smokehouse full of fish, a freezer full of venison, bear, and wild pig. As the times changed the roads got better, the grocery store got nearer, and the garden shrunk. The freezer had fewer selections of game and more ground chuck.
Those roots have prepared me to survive, and I try to be as self-sufficient as I can be. I don’t hunt game anymore, but I could. I live in a rural area where the world seems to catch fire each summer. Prepping for me is not a choice. It is a fact that must be recognized, and that is why I do all that I do here to be self-sufficient.
What Does Sustainable mean for Gardening?
Sustainable gardening is all about the things that enable you to grow food, such as Water, Soil, Weather, Pest control, etc. For me, sustainable gardening begins with managing my land so that I have viable soil for growing. It also means that I must consider the water resources and determine what might impact those over the long term.
As a sustainable gardener, I must address water management each season in the garden. For me, this meant having the well tested and eventually a second well drilled. This was because I inherited a hand-dug well without any cement rings. These wells fill up with sand. The new well allows me to have access to plenty of water so long as we have a wet winter. Otherwise, water becomes a rarity later in the season. This is because the water table drops, and it takes the well longer to recover.
To counter this, I have a gray water system on the house. All the sinks, shower, washer all connect to the gray water system which empties into the lawn via a leach line. In dryer climates, you could install a reservoir that connects to the gutter system on the roof and collects water that way. It is still water rationing, but it works.
I use gardening methods that decrease evaporation of water in the soil, and I maintain the soil so that it has a lot of organic matter in it. This helps to trap water where the plants need it.
The land is an asset that is not so much measured by rising property values, but by the quality of the soil itself and how well that soil is geared for growing crops. To that end, I am a steward of this place, and I work to improve it so that more of it falls within the natural cycles. I grow organically and use compost and mulch to improve the soil quality while working to conserve water in a plant-rich environment. The goal is to renew the nutrients quickly and naturally without adding costly amendments.
By far the most difficult challenge in growing a lot of food. The weather right now is whacky due to climate change. Here, we’ve had crazy wildfires for the past six years, and every other winter is colder, wetter, and full of more snow than the one prior. We have atmospheric rivers, a lake that cannot stay in its shores, and gusty winds that hit the 50-60 MPH mark.
Good soil, a few home remedies, and healthy plants do wonders to protect against pests. The keys are keeping plants healthy, being vigilant for pests, and knowing what to do when you first see emerging pest issues. There are a lot of natural ways to control pests. Neems oil is one, but it can be costly. A spritzer of soapy water and the noon sun kill off a ton of aphids. Ladybugs, praying mantis, assassin bugs, dragonflies, Robber flies, bats, phoebes (birds) – and a host of other beneficial organisms are welcome here. We have plenty of bats which patrol the sky at night and feed on moths and other flying insects. Moth larvae do considerable damage to crops.
There are many birdhouses around the property in which all types of birds nest. One of my favorites to watch are the nuthatches, which patrol the shrubs and trees for insects. Pest control is really about understanding what’s there and what you can do about it. There are predatory red mites that prey on the spider mites.
It is also about knowing when you have to sacrifice a plant to save the others. A garbage can with a bag, and a pair of pruners is all that you need to remove infested plants and much of the infestation. By putting the plant in the garbage can directly you help contain the pests. If you drug the plant through the garden, you would be spreading the pests all over the place. Another good trick is companion planting as some plants have natural pest control properties. Paper wasps are another creature that I adore. They will spend all day combing through the leaves of most plants hunting for caterpillars. Cutworms – the larvae of the cabbage white butterfly – can decimate a healthy plant in no times. Paper wasps and yellow jackets eat cutworms and other moth/butterfly larvae except for the large butterfly larvae which are often protected by their host plants.
Sustainable gardening is really about being able to supply plants with all that they need to produce a good harvest and to do that for the long-term. That means managing the soil, water, and other requirements. All of this is one half of Sustainable Eating. You also need to be able to preserve the excess yield.
There is a social movement that involves sustainable eating. It has a lot to do with the relationship between how food is grown and the impact of growing food on the environment as well as how food production stacks up to feeding a growing population worldwide. At the end of 2018, there were 7.6 billion people in the world. In 2017, 821 million people faced hunger, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. This is important because part of the issue is the way that corporate farming produces food, not only here in the U.S. but around the world.
Mass production of food damages the environment and that is something that is putting everyone at risk. In the U.S. we hold 10 percent of the world’s arable land – land fit for growing food. In the twenty years between 1992 and 2012, the U.S. lost 31 million acres of arable land to development and expanding cities. That is a trend that will likely increase as the U.S. population expands. What that means for all of us is higher food prices and more substantial impacts on growing from natural disasters such as drought, hurricanes, floods, etc.
This blog focuses more on the personal side of sustainable eating which is something that moves from the social level to the prepper level. Many of us are concerned about food system stability and the big What-If. For me, this is something that I live. Last summer (2018) the nearest large town was completely evacuated due to the Mendocino Complex wildfire that included both the River fire and Ranch fire. We thought this was the worst fire in California history, but just a few months later the Camp Fire wiped out the entire town of Paradise destroying over 18,000 homes and buildings and killing 85 plus people with many still missing. The whole town burned and with it went all the stores. Thousands of people were displaced, and they added strain to an already stressed system for basic resources – water, food, shelter. This was the big What-If, and here, it has been happening every Summer/Fall since 2014 – The Rocky Fire, Valley Fire, Tubbs Fire, Sulfur Fire, River Fire, Ranch Fire, The Mendocino Complex fire, The Carr Fire, the Camp Fire. Each of these fires disrupts the local systems so that it becomes harder to find food, water, and shelter. These are not specifically why I grow most of my food, but I am thankful that I do because it is one less thing to worry about in a sea full of worrying events.
Grow What You Eat
Sustainable eating is not just about having food but having the right kinds of food so that in the face of adversity your body has the tools to not only survive but also to thrive. We can have the most substantial stash of MRE’s, but if we cannot physically stand up to the dangers we face, those MRE’s will do us little good.
I grow a variety of vegetables, and I focus on foods and combinations of foods that make complete proteins – Beans, nuts, seeds, greens, fruit, etc. The local area is a natural growing zone for walnuts and almonds. For seeds, I grow a fence full of sunflowers. Legumes are a good source for most amino acids, but when mixed with rice they make a complete protein. Rice is easy to buy and store for the long-term. Roots, such as potatoes and carrots are an excellent source of complex carbs.
Sustainable eating is also about growing and eating the foods that you need. Not just the foods that you love.
Growing Enough to Survive
How much food do you need? For most adult males, the goal is 2,000 calories per day. It is a challenge to tell you that you must grow this much of that or that much of this to produce enough food to sustain your caloric intake for X number of days or months. In fact, trying to figure all of that out amounts to a major headache.
What I did was to take a hard look at the groceries that I bought. I set about creating a garden that made the local grocery store obsolete – at least as much as I could make it obsolete. Our diets changed but not in such a way that we are unsatisfied with food. One of the first things that we changed was to cut out all processed carbs (and food for that matter.) The processed carbs were replaced with homegrown potatoes, carrots, stalky vegetables such as broccoli, beans, and peas. Balance this out with meaty fruits – tomatoes, tomatillo, eggplant, etc., and a lot of leafy greens. I grow:
- Onions, garlic, leeks, and chives
- Roots – potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, radish, fennel, and celery. I am working growing ginger and sweet potatoes, but for right now it is too cold here and the growing season is not long enough.
- Leafy Greens – Collard greens, kale, spinach, lettuce, native greens, chard, mustard (mild and hot.)
- Fruit – Tomatoes, tomatillos, squash – summer and winter – pumpkins, ground cherries, strawberries, blackberries, apples, persimmons, grapes, and a poor attempt at a peach.
- Nuts – Walnuts, Sunflowers, pumpkin.
- Legumes – yard-long beans, snap beans, peas, pole beans, fava beans, dry beans.
- Herbs – rosemary, cilantro, basil, thyme, parsley, sage, oregano, marjoram, echinacea, calendula, and many others.
I look at my diet, and what my diet is supposed to be and that is what I grow. In addition to gardening, I have chickens for eggs. I am toying with the idea of a few goats, but they can be a headache. The goal is to provide dairy for cheese production and milk. From all this, I can produce more than enough food to survive for the rest of the year and start storing for next year too. The excess I share with my family and neighbors and the local food bank.
Around here there are three main types of food preservation – canning, dehydrating, and freezing. I prefer to can food as it is the most stable with loss of power. My second favorite is to dry food, which is also stable during a power failure. Freezing is good, but there must always be power to the freezer, or you risk losing all your hard work. These are all skills that people should learn and there are articles here on how to preserve food. I highly recommend taking a food safety course either through the local junior college or through your local agricultural department.
Food Storage Systems
There is a food vault here in addition to the pantry and freezers. My pantry is a five-year food plan that is organized by the FIFO method. I organize each year’s harvest based on what we removed from the pantry. Harvests are divided by need. A portion goes to fill this year’s food needs, and a part goes back into the five-year plan. Not everything that I grow will last for five years. The high acid foods tend to be the least stable and should be consumed over the next 12-months from their canning date. A portion of what is grown we use fresh, and we also freeze ready-made meals, such as casseroles and lasagna. We can, dehydrate, and freeze fruit – applesauce, jams, preserves, juices, etc.
It is essential to look at what you eat, how you eat, and what you need to eat before you set up a food storage system. Living for a year on MRE’s is probably going to kill you. You also have to think about water, water storage, and purification. You cannot grow a large garden without water. Some gardening methods use less water such as dry gardening, but a plan in place for water is essential.
Sustainable eating is a tricky dance between caring for the land, growing food, and knowing how to preserve what you harvest. It is also a bit about being able to plan for adverse conditions and making what you do a way of life. This is a lot of work, especially when you are just starting. The good news is that the work decreases as the years pass because if you care for your garden soil, it will become richer as it ages and you will grow more food by doing less work.
Sustainable eating is very much a pro-environmental quest and it begins with being responsible for the quality of your land and being brave enough to buck some of societies norms so that you decrease your dependence on those social systems and instead, build, nurture and rely on the systems you create to grow food that is healthy, abundant, and sustainable.
David Stillwell is a lifelong naturalist with a background in healthcare and biology who lives in the heart of wildfire territory in Northern California. Prepping for him is a way of life and necessary on a daily basis. He focuses on food production and agriculture and grows 80% of what he consumes.