From Ecology Action
Question: Why should I grow a complete diet, and how much time will it take me to do it?
Answer: Thanks for the good question!
When we at Ecology Action began our work back in the 70s, most people weren’t ready to launch into the idea of growing a complete diet, including grains. This was because at the time, grains were cheap to purchase and people felt it took too much time to incorporate this element into their gardening.
Times changed, however, and in 2008, the price of wheat tripled. Our international mail order catalog, Bountiful Gardens, was inundated with orders for grain seed; the price of commercial grain products, coupled with the decrease in the availability of imported grain, had people worried that they would not be able to continue to get the grains they wanted.
What is causing the changes?
The rising prices and lack of availablity are due in part to the fact that the local farming knowledge-base is being lost, and the U.S. and other countries are outsourcing more and more of their agricultural production to other countries. In the case of the U.S., the number of farmers has dropped to less than two-tenths of one percent of the population. This is happening, in part, because the average farmer is only earning approximately $6,700 net per year from farm production. The problem is, if major food producing countries like the U.S. are passing off the responsibility for their food security to other countries, and we are all in the same boat as far as dwindling availability of fertile farmable land, who is going to be able to pick up the slack?
The U.S. isn't alone in losing its farming population—the demographics of the world are also changing: for example, 90% of the people in China and India becoming urban dwellers. This poses two challenges: 1) farming literacy worldwide is being lost; and 2) more people are moving into the consumer position with fewer providers.
What can we do about this?
So, with all of this in mind, consider that dedicating three 100 sq ft beds to grains could provide you with a 1 lb loaf of bread each week for a year. With an additional 300 sq ft of hullless oats you could enjoy 2 large bowls of oatmeal for every week of the year.
If the 8 hours a day it would take one person to produce a complete diet for a year for a family of four seems daunting, then consider starting small, with the objective of growing 25% of your own grains. Sometimes the perceived obstacles of a large project resolve themselves once you begin, and when you experience the wonderful benefits that result from improved health, vitality, and a sense of empowerment as you create your own food security, you'll see it's worth the effort.
The important thing to remember when growing a complete diet is that the "60/30/10 ratios" are the key to having a sustainable, regenerative system that requires no external inputs. So, if you scale back your grains to 25% of your full need, then proportionally scale back the 30% and the 10% crops as well. For more clarification on what these ratios mean, and how to implement them in your garden, see page 24 of How to Grow More Vegetables, 7th Ed. I also recommend our Booklet 33 - Grow Your Own Grains: Raising, Harvesting and Uses as a good resource for getting started in this process.
Sustainability is the key to success.
In every aspect of a sustainable mini-farm we have to consider how to move away from depletion and toward regeneration and resiliance. There is a tendency for people to want to revert to adding nutrients for replenishing soil from external inputs like seaweed and animal or human waste. In the case of seaweed there is barely enough to meet the current demand, and increasing extraction of that resource only tips the imbalances in another direction.
Most human waste is not captured in a way that could be safely used in a short timeframe, but rather is mixed with industrial wastes and other toxic waste products making it unsuitable at this time as a soil amendment. For more information on the potential for use of human waste I recommend the publication we carry, Future Furtility: Transforming Human Waste into Human Wealth by John Beeby.
While it is fine to make use of animal manure that is already available, it is not optimal to overly depend on it, because ultimately it is more a part of the depletion problem than part of the solution. This is due to the fact that you would have to grow an acre of fodder to feed one cow. The fodder itself contains 1 giga-unit of carbon. Once it goes through the cow the resulting manure only contains 2/3 of a giga-unit of carbon, and once the manure is cured it contains only 1/3 giga unit of carbon. The cause of this carbon loss is the fact that both the metabolism of the cow and the microorganisms in the manure release the carbon as CO2 into the atmosphere and so the carbon isn’t getting into the soil where it is most needed. In addition to the carbon problem, as it grew, the fodder for the cow took up minerals from the soil that are now tied up in the cow’s bones, tissues, milk and meat so many of the minerals don’t get back to the soil either. (For more information about Biointensive gardening and livestock, click here.)
Small is beautiful -- and productive!
The bottom line is begin with growing your own food at the level that feels manageable. It’s better to stay small and adhere to the principles that will sustain you and your garden, both so you experience the abundance you can produce with relatively little effort and the joy that results when we become life-givers.
And remember, just because you're working on a small scale, it doesn't mean you can't have impressive results! A small-farming success story that I like to remind myself of is that of Russian farmers. In 1998 in Russia, 3% of the farmable land was in dachas, or “kitchen gardens,” attached to people’s country homes. The remaining 97% of farmable land was in large-scale, commercial operations. Phenomenally, because of the level of personal involvement that farmers put into the dachas and the various forms of intensive, mix cropping used, the production from the dachas -- only 3% of the land -- ended up almost equaling the yield from all the land farmed under large-scale production in Russia.
What is exciting is that in the process of getting directly involved in healing the soil in our own backyards, or in community gardens, we re-engage a part of our spirit and establish a communication with a larger energy system that can easily help us to understand what is needed to turn the tides of scarcity. To touch and nurture the Earth and each other in the process of working side by side makes any task more joyous, and in the process of creating sustainability in our lives, we begin to heal that place in ourselves that has felt separate, alone, and powerless. The Biointensive system that has proven to be so successful around the world teaches people to first grow soil, then to grow people, then to grow thriving mini-ecosystems.