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Achieving Food Independence on the Modern Homestead

I wrote this article as a handout for my presentation of the same title at the annual conference of Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, State College, PA, February 4, 2006. It was subsequently published in three installments in Countryside & Small Stock Journal (Sep/Oct 06, Nov/Dec 06, and Jan/Feb 07 issues).

Table of Contents

1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together

1. Industrial Food—Homestead Alternatives

The Industrial Food Supply

We are assured by our politicians, and leaders of the agribusiness and food industries, that the American food supply is the highest quality and the most nutritious in the world; that we Americans enjoy the greatest food choice; and that even so our food is also the cheapest and most convenient. Hmmmm, let’s consider those assertions.

Only a palate numbed to insensibility could really find the average food available in the supermarket or average restaurant—to say nothing of fast food franchise—to be worthy of praise for its aesthetic appeal. Our fruits and vegetables are bred not for flavor but to fit the requirements of uniform maturity date and adaption to mechanical harvest. They are harvested well before peak ripeness to better withstand transport an average of 1500 miles to the consumer. Exotic chemicals—the creation of which has become an exacting, and lucrative, science—trick our senses and mask the basic insipidity of mediocre ingredients. The stark contrast between the supermarket tomato and the home garden tomato is proverbial. But have you tried a supermarket egg side by side with a free-range egg? Eaten naturally soured cream from a farm cow, so thick you have to spoon it onto your peach shortcake? Have you found anything that comes close among the pseudo-foods on display in the refrigerated supermarket case? If we think our food supply is top culinary quality, it is either because we have not been exposed to real, traditional foods, or because we’re simply not paying attention.

As for nutrition? The national diet has actually been declining in nutrition for decades. It is produced in soils of dwindling fertility, and processed to the last degree, laced with food additives and a residue of crop pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics. If “we are what we eat,” our soaring incidence of degenerative disease should come as no surprise. What we should find particularly disturbing is the growing incidence among children of allergies, attention deficit and behavior disorders, obesity—and, most shockingly, degenerative conditions we once thought of as illnesses of age—heart disease, cancer, and adult-onset diabetes.

It is a truism that we enjoy enormous food choice, but that “choice” is largely an illusion. How many people do you know who would choose to eat chicken that had soaked in fecal sludge? Yet that is chicken from high-speed processing plants utilizing robotic kill lines—i.e., all chicken on offer at the supermarket, fast-food restaurants, and in frozen TV dinners. Would you prefer not to consume powdered milk, based on your reading about its dangers? Its addition to skim and nonfat milk is industry standard, meaning everybody does it—but FDA regulations do not require inclusion of “powdered milk” on the label because, get this, it is industry standard, that is, everybody does it. Food choice?

More and more processed foods on offer in the supermarket are not foods in the traditional sense at all, but ersatz imitations whipped up from an extremely narrow ingredients base, many of which have never before been eaten in the evolution of our species. Truly, we have devised a massive laboratory experiment, and we are the guinea pigs. Consider, for example, a package label which tells us the enclosed “food’’ is 98 percent “water, corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oil, and high fructose corn syrup.’’ (The remaining 2 percent of ingredients is the usual incomprehensible list of additives.) Now—pop quiz!—what is the food that is being labeled here? It’s impossible to say, isn’t it? None of us has ever sat at a meal and asked, “Would you pass the hydrogenated vegetable oil and high fructose corn syrup, please’’—and indeed, we would not recognize either ingredient if passed. Reading the label, none of us has a clue what this “food’’ would look like or how we might use it in a meal. Furthermore, however limited our knowledge of biochemistry, isn’t it clear there is absolutely no nutritional value in the contents of that container, other than sheer raw calories (fats and sugars) to burn in the body’s cells, or convert to fat? That, dear reader, is what I mean by “peudo-food.’’ [The label is from a package of Cool Whip, which may be a bit of an extreme example. But if you become a student of supermarket labels, you will find plenty of other foods with the same, or close to the same, base of highly processed ingredients, tricked out through industrial voodoo to have an entirely different “look and feel’’ on the plate.]

Well, at least our food is cheap, we might observe. It is true that Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than almost any other national population. However, “cheap’’ turns out to be an illusion as well, when we consider that food is cheap because the true costs of production are “externalized’’ in terms of environmental pollution, subsidizing of long-distance transport of food, and severe economic exploitation of farmers and agricultural workers. And our “cheap food’’ turns out to be expensive indeed if, as seems likely, it is implicated in the growing incidence of diet-related illnesses.

So in the end, it seems that truly the only positive thing our food supply has to offer is: convenience. That is, the industry offers us not deeply satisfying, nutritious, and wholesome food—but relief from the “drudgery’’ of food preparation—the opportunity to “fuel the machine’’ with least expenditure of time in our busy, high-speed, mobile lives. Like Essau, we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.

I have touched only briefly on the sad facts of the food available to most of us twenty-first-century Americans. I am pessimistic that there is much to be done to change the situation at the macro level. The food supply in America—and increasingly, globally—is largely controlled by four or five agribusiness/food processing mega-corporations with enormous power to control the market and regulatory agencies. Remember that in our economic system, the fundamental duty of those corporations is to make profits for their stockholders—to focus their efforts on anything else would literally be criminal behavior on their part. The flip side of the coin that usually goes unnoted is that they have absolutely no obligation under their public charters to maximize the nutritional value of the foods they purvey.

Small-homestead

Small Homestead

The Homestead Alternatives

If we cannot hope to buy better food in the supermarket, what alternatives are open to us? There are two. For many of us, the opportunity exists to produce at least some of our food in our own back yards, probably more than we might at first think possible. But when I talk about achieving independence from the supermarket, I include also foods purchased or bartered for face-to-face—that is, directly from the producer, who is personally known to us.

Vegetables

Garden

Now, in those terms, taking together foods which you raise in your own backyard and that you buy face-to-face from a known producer, have you at least made a start on homestead food production? If all the food on your table is from the industrial food system, please begin thinking how you might introduce some food production into your backyard (or even back deck), or where you might find local sources for wholesome foods. If you’ve already made a start, what is the percentage of your food that comes from one of these sources? 25 percent? 50 percent? My rough estimate is that my wife and I are at about 85 percent at this time. Now, it is true that I am retired and may have more time available than you. However, my efforts at homestead production since retiring have simply been an extension of a way of life chosen when my wife Ellen and I moved to Boxwood, our homestead, twenty-two years ago: two and a half acres of pretty good dirt in a crossroads rural village within sight of the Blue Ridge in northern Virginia. Our goal in moving to our homestead was to become more food independent, and every year saw an increase in the amount of food on our table which we raised ourselves or purchased from local growers—despite a heavy work schedule and a long commute for me. I write this article to encourage my reader, whatever the current level of your homestead food production, to take this year the next step in food independence.