We're often asked, "Do you raise all your own food?"
It's a question that's much on our minds as well, and the challenge of manifesting a comprehensive answer lies at the heart of much of the research we do here.
Producing a viable local-based diet involves a series of complex considerations, many of which aren't obvious. Much of what follows is either drawn from or was inspired by David Duhon's One Circle: How to Grow a Complete Diet in Less than 1,000 Square Feet.
A million calories may sound like a lot of food, but it's not. At 2,740 calories per day, that's an energy input barely capable of sustaining a person who's doing a modest amount of physical labor. For example, here's how a given day's caloric expenditures could add up:
A Daily Energy Budget
Cook, eat, do dishes
Tend the garden
Walk the sheep
Sew and mend clothes
Milk the goats
Dig in garden
Even with a three hour nap thrown in, working this schedule on a million caloried diet, you'd run an energy deficit of 400 calories per day. The primary point I'm going for here is that a million calories constitutes a marginal diet.
Based on what we know can be grown on our land at this altitude and longitude, here's an initial sketch of how we might address the challenge of putting together a million calories. To expand these number to community scale amounts, multiply each amount times twenty.
I've not tried to list every edible we've determined that we can produce or harvest within ten miles of Windward, but rather to name examples of the various food categories we'd be working with. In a similar manner, milk is listed even though much of it would be consumed in the form of yogurt or cheese.
In search of local fats
Looking at the readily available options, a question that leaps out at me from the spreadsheet is, "Where to find enough local fats to meet the Million Calorie per Year threshold?" The American diet is rich in the hidden fats which are incorporated into most processed foods, fats which are produced using large amounts of fossil fuels. Where would a sustainable diet drawn from our land base acquire the fats needed to replace fossil-fuel intensive fats?
We've established that our land base can grow adequate amounts of green vegetables and tasty fruits, but kale and apples have no fat content. Wild meats such as deer or rabbit are also very lean‒they can provide protein, but very little in the way of fat. Traditional fat sources such as olive or coconut oil won't grow here, so we have little choice other than to look to rumenants to supply our fat needs, dietary and otherwise.
our sheep busily turning grass into fat
Sheep are good at converting grass into fat, but only some of that fat is edible. In order to waterproof their wool, sheep excrete a waxy compound called lanolin. Lambs, who haven't yet gone through the get-ready-for-winter process, have a low level of lanolin in their fat, which is why lamb-chops and leg-o-lamb are culinary traditions. Mutton is the term used to refer to the meat of sheep who've gone through a winter. Because of the lanolin found in the fat of older sheep, mutton is considerably less palatable. Which isn't to say that mutton fat doesn't still play a role in building sustainability.
At the livestock sale yard it's common for an old ewe to sell for a tenth the price per pound of an eight month old lamb, and over the years we've learned ways to take advantage of that lamb-is-expensive-but-mutton-is-cheap differential.
The first step is to trim away the accessible fat from the carcasse of an older ewe, fat which is then rendered by boiling. When the rendering pot cools, the fat forms a solid layer on top of the water and is collected as slabs. The white lard-like fat is useful for making soap or for fueling an oil lamp. Sheep tallow can also be mixed with beeswax to make candles.
For an excellent article on rendering Click Here.
mutton tallow ready to be rendered
Oil lamps and candles have fallen out of use in the modern age, but for millenia, humans lived in a world that was lit only by fire. Today the dark is held at bay by the complicated and resource-intensive process of manufacturing light bulbs. If any part of that supply chain fails, people will again have to choose between burning something and sitting in the dark. Direct combustion lighting is calorie intensive, and begs the question of how many calories can one afford to divert from food to hygene and illumination uses?
Once the surface fat is cut off, the deep bones are removed and the large pieces are laid out in an oak-fired smoker. The gentle heat renders the remaining solid fat into a liquid which drips down onto coals and burns. The oak smoke covers the surface of the meat with an acidic organic coating that sterilizes the surface and kills any fly eggs that might have been laid during the butchering process. It also imparts a smokey flavor to the meat that counters any lingering waxy taste left by the lanolin.
While adequate amounts of dietary fat is vital, fats suitable for making soap, generating light, and lubricating wood bearings and leather also have an important role to play in creating a sustainability that's not built on a foundation of petroleum derived calories.
"But the cider's getting low"
I recall reading years ago a two-hundred-year old poem in which a farmer pondered his resources as the fall gave way to winter. He took great pleasure in describing at length his well-stocked root cellar, his full woodshed, his hay loft full of forage, and so on; his only concern was that he sensed that "the cider's getting low."
Given the success we had moving our cider production to a new high this fall, I'm gaining an appreciation for that farmer's concerns.
This fall, we gleaned apples from trees that had been allowed to go wild. Some were located at abandoned homesteads, others were in the yard of people who didn't want the apples, and some were just growing wild alongside the road from where someone had tossed out an apple core, and it had taken root.
Eliot gleaning apples
Trees that aren't pruned produce lots of small apples, and the simplest way to store those little apples is in the form of cider. With our newly repaired cider press, and the nifty apple-pulper that Andrew and Lindsay put together using an Insinkerator, we were able to put up five 5-gallon carboys of apple juice remarkably easily. They bubbled away in Bay 5 of the dining hall, and when they stopped giving off carbon dioxide, the hard cider was racked and bottled.
getting ready to rack the cider
A five gallon carboy yielded fifty-some bottles of hard cider at 633ml (21.4 fl oz) per bottle.
We use Sapporo beer bottles because they're made from a heavy, brown glass that's ideal for refilling. They're recycled in Japan, but they're discarded here in the states because it costs too much to ship empty bottles back across the Pacific. We made a deal with a sushi restaurant, and over a couple of month's time, were able to store away more than a thousand bottles for a dime apiece.
a nice stock of bottled cider
An old saying goes that there's nothing more American than apple pie. As we unravel the mystery of producing a viable million-calorie diet based on locally grown foods, it's becoming quite clear that apples have an important role to play.
The rub is that apples fall below the average calorie density needed to meet the million-calorie diet target. Adults can consume between four and six pounds of food a day depending on body weight. That translates into the need to consume foods that average out to some 400 calories per pound. In that apples contain about 200 calories per pound, it's just not possible for a person to eat enough apples to allow them to do meaningful work.
Apples are a good source of dietary fiber, something that we need in order for our digestive systems to function properly, but an apple-only diet would be too much of a good thing.
apple fiber on it's way to the sheep
This is where the cider comes in since it provides the calories without the fiber. In that adults need to consume daily between two and three quarts of liquids, drinking a quart of cider a day would supply a sixth of the calories needed without loading up the digestive track with more fiber.
And then there's the added utility of the alcohol in the fermented cider. Up until the commercial production of aspirin, about a century ago, alcohol was the only analgesic readily available to working people. Many cultures have traditionally incorporated the moderate use of alcohol into their cuisine in the form of table wine or light beer, and cider fits nicely into that niche.
our forest snow-scape
It's easy to imagine that self-reliant farmer two centuries ago sitting before a winter fire with a cup of hard cider in hand, content to rest out the winter without a worry‒except for concerns about the cider running low.