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Achieving food independence on the modern homestead: Part 1.

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 1,500 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 ingredient 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% "water, corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oil, and high fructose corn syrup." (The remaining 2% 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 "pseudo-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 which have 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.

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 backyards, 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.

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%? 50%? My rough estimate is that my wife and I are at about 85% 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, 22 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.

Beginning at the beginning: The soil

If we are truly to begin at the beginning, we begin with the soil. We must never be casual about wise use of the soil. Someone has observed that there are more soil scientists today than ever in history, and that we are losing topsoil at a greater rate than ever before in history, the obvious conclusion being that the more soil scientists we have, the more soil we lose. The point is that we should not be cowed by the official prognostications of scientific, governmental, and educational institutions--it is likely that it is amateurs like you and me who will lead the way in discovering (or rediscovering) ways to nurture and protect the soil. In any case, I have become quite pessimistic about stopping the juggernaut which is contemporary American agriculture and the economic engine driving it. The only place I can stop the juggernaut is in my own backyard.

Make no mistake, this question of soil preservation and soil health may be the most important issue of our time. This bit of soil I am steward of is intimately tied into bigger, even global, issues of eroding soils, environmental degradation, economic and social justice, climate change, etc. If you're looking for big issues to tackle, start in your backyard.

Learn all you can about soil ecology, an enormous subject deserving your full attention. A lifetime should suffice. I expect most of my readers are sophisticated enough to have discarded the "N-P-K" mentality--the notion that if we add to the soil the right mix of chemical salts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, crop plants will slurp them up and all will be well. But I suspect that many of us seek "organic," "sustainable" ways to do the same thing--that is, to provide the nutrient chemicals growing plants need, albeit through the addition of composts, rock powders, organic supplements like seaweed and bone meal, etc. It may be that our greatest challenge is to leave chemistry behind as we consider soil health, and think of biology instead. Soil "in good heart," as farmers used to say, is soil that is alive. We should think first of all not of adding any particular chemical needed by plants, but of supporting and nurturing a diverse web of soil life.

Natural soil fertility

A good starting point for thinking about nurturing soil is to contrast natural systems with those used in agriculture. Why is it that--in natural habitats in widely different climatic and geologic conditions--soil fertility increases over the years and millennia, while the practice of agriculture by humans has often meant a loss of fertility, never more so than in the era of industrialized agriculture? Think of a forest, a prairie, a peat bog. Two characteristics stand out: First, everything in the system is recycled. Every creature's waste is another creature's resource, its priceless treasure. Nutrient cycles are closed. Wherever a potential for leakage of nutrients from the system arises, life forms have evolved or migrated in to capture the leachate for their own use and to pass it on for others' use when they die. Every poop that is left behind every animal passing over the soil, every leaf that falls, the lush summer growth mowed down by winter's scythe, every animal or plant or microbe that dies--all are fed on by other creatures with their own specialties--their own particular tastes, if you will--and their residues retained in the system.

If nutrient losses are avoided, over time there must be an accumulation of fertility. Why? Because the ultimate energy powering the whole wonderful, complex process is the sun. If sunlight is continuously added to the equation, and the web of life in the soil has in place strategies to prevent nutrient leaching, of course there must be a net gain--over time a huge net gain--of fertility in the soil. Beautiful! This truly is the miracle of life: the reversal of entropy, the conversion of sunlight and sterile rock into ever more complex life forms.

The last point bears emphasizing. It is often observed that if we take food from a piece of land, we are reducing fertility. This is especially true when we think of a farm that is supplying many other mouths than its own. Doesn't the sale of farm produce imply an export of nutrients off site--i.e., a continuing leak from the closed nutrient circle which longterm has to result in infertility? The answer is that the nutrient cycle is never a completely closed circle--because the energy of sunlight is always being added to the system. It is our challenge to make sure that what we subtract from the soil in the form of food is less than the potential boost to fertility of sunlight--such strategies are the heart of sustainable homestead and farm production.

The other major characteristic of natural fertility accumulation is that the soil is undisturbed. In the absence of disturbance, ever more complex, interdependent webs of life emerge, with implications for the subsequent evolution of the system, but first and foremost a net gain of fertility. (Of course there are disturbances of soil--sometimes major disturbances--in natural ecologies. My point here is that fertility accumulation occurs in the absence of serious disturbance.)

In contrast, human agriculture has too often meant a breaking of the nutrient cycles--creation of holes in the closed loops, through which nutrients are lost--and it has almost always meant regular and repeated disturbance of the soil. These two features of agriculture have never been so prominent as in the present. We seem to assume no need to return all "wastes" to the soil in forms it can use. We think, for instance, that the best thing we can do with our poops is to flush them away to the sea, rather than recapture them as a source of fertility. Manure from high-confinement livestock operations is likewise considered more nuisance than resource. Rather than basing our fertility programs on renewable organic residues, we use chemicals produced from petroleum and natural gas, resources that will soon be in increasingly short supply--chemicals moreover that tend to destroy rather than nurture soil life.

Tillage--disturbance of the soil--when excessive or too frequently repeated, has drastic results. The complex, balanced nets of soil life are destroyed or disrupted, and the humus in the soil is exposed to air, sun, and weather We think of soil erosion in terms of excess rain washing it away, or of wind blowing it away, but serious erosion of topsoil also occurs through oxidation of humus by exposure to excess oxygen. This is not a trivial matter Though we think of the burning of fossil fuels as the primary cause of global climate change, an enormous amount of carbon is also being released to the atmosphere through contemporary agricultural practices--the oxidation of soil carbon through excess tillage.

We as a culture see the soil loss in process. We study it, we document it. We label it "unsustainable." Yet we pay little heed to the naked meaning of the term. "Unsustainable" means quite simply that continuation of current practice will in the long term destroy the very foundation of agriculture, causing the collapse of our economic system as the natural, logical, and completely predictable outcome. It means that as a culture, we will die.

Organic matter

As said earlier, the place you can start to turn the dreary and in the long term deadly process of soil destruction around is in your own backyard. I urge you to return constantly to the two major characteristics of natural soil systems as guides. As luck would have it, those characteristics are also the key to bountiful and healthful harvests.

Get into the habit of utilizing every source of organic matter you can possibly produce, beg, or scrounge. If you have neighbors with cattle, horses, poultry, or rabbits who consider their livestock's manure more nuisance than treasure, offer to haul it away for them. Do you have neighbors who are hauling autumn leaves to the landfill? Offer to save them the trip by dumping them at your place. Maybe there's a local farmer with some spoiled hay he'd let you have for little or nothing. Don't pass up any opportunity to bring more fertility onto your homestead in the form of organic materials.

Fertility patches

You should also think in terms of growing more of your own fertility. All of us know that cover crops are used to boost the organic matter content of soil. Nitrogen-fixers such as legumes (beans, peas, clovers, etc.) can be especially useful. However, if you have the space, it is a good idea to establish some "fertility patches" that are dedicated exclusively to growing fertility for the garden. For example, comfrey and stinging nettles produce foliage with high levels of protein (nitrogen), minerals, and other nutrients. These plants can take any amount of fertilizing you can throw at them (in the case of comfrey, even raw, uncomposted chicken manure!). When cut, they can be used as high-nutrient mulches that break down quickly, releasing their nutrients into the root zone. If used in making a compost heap, they help "ignite" the heap--start its rapid decomposition--because of their high nutrient content. Don't forget pasture as the fertility patch par excellence. If you have any pasture ground whatever, please think of it as a priceless, multiple-use resource. In my case, I have only an acre or so of pasture, maybe less, which I use full-time during the growing season to pasture my poultry. However, from spring to early summer, the grasses and clovers grow so fast that I can take cuttings off various sections and still be able to rotate the birds over them. I use a scythe to cut the grass (long-stem cuttings are vastly superior as mulch to the chopped-up clippings from a power mower), allow it to dry a couple of days, then rake up and use as mulch.

Using organic materials Composting

How should all these organic materials be transformed into fertility? There are a number of options. Classically, a major use for them was making compost. Most of you are probably familiar with the basic "recipe": Assemble layers of nitrogen sources (animal manures, fresh cut grass, weeds, hay) and high-carbon sources (leaves, straw, cornstalks). Technically, the carbon to nitrogen ratio should be about 30:1 and the level of moisture needs to be right--midway between powder dry and sopping wet--but in practice, you will find there is considerable leeway. You will also find that compost making is as much art as science, and you will use your senses to discover the right "formula" for success. A whiff of ammonia? Too much nitrogen-rich material in proportion to carbon. Not heating up? Too much carbon. Smell bad? Too wet. Use a temperature probe? Nah, just put your hand into the pile. Believe me, you won't be able to hold it there more than a few seconds in a properly working compost pile. Temperature dropping? Time to turn the heap, introduce more oxygen and intermix the materials, and spark a new decomposition peak.

Indeed, the compost heap has come to be thought of as the very heart of organic gardening. But you know something? I don't compost. There--I've said it and I'm glad! Even though Sir Albert Howard or Robert Rodale would turn over in their graves to hear me say it, here is one committed organic gardener who no longer makes compost heaps. Now, I recommend them to all you younger go-getters who want to turn trash into treasure--but I'm getting older every day, and more defeated by the sheer labor required in classical composting. I'm looking for an easier way out. I suggest three for your consideration.


If you're not familiar with vermicomposting, please make it your next research project. Earthworms transform almost any organic materials into--well, like any of us, into poop. Earthworm poop ("castings") is one of the most potent natural fertilizers you can use, not only because of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in forms easily used by plants, but because it carries a huge load of beneficial microbes which boost the numbers and diversity of soil life. Vermicomposting is not difficult, it is mainly a question of the scale at which you wish to work. You can buy or make small earthworm bins to process your kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, etc. In my own case, I recently decided to go for the (black) gold, and installed close to 300 square feet of earthworm bins, 16 inches deep. I am using them to compost all the pony poop I can get from a neighbor who raises and boards horses; and in the future the bins will be the major source of added fertility in my gardens.

A few things to note about vermicomposting: The worms used are not the "night crawler" types that burrow deep into soil and deposit their castings at the soil surface. Have you ever dug into a heap of aged manure? The small red earthworms you uncovered are the type used in vermicomposting. They specialize in such a high-organic, nutrient-dense environment, and actually do not long survive in soil itself. They are called "red wrigglers" or "manure worms." Eisenia foetida is the species most often used. It is most common to use a protected container or bin for vermiculture. It's not impossible to set up an outdoor vermicomposting operation, but it must be designed to exclude moles--who love earthworms!--and curiosity seekers like your neighbor's dog. The exact way to set up the bedding and food source for the worms depends on the materials used. For example, they convert pony poop to castings in short order. They also convert coarser, more high-carbon materials like leaves or straw, but the process takes much longer. Please note that the addition of some materials to the worm bin in effect creates a compost heap, which heats up. For example, manure mixed with straw will certainly heat. The high heat will kill your composting worms (as will some of the gases given off in a rapid decomposition). The solution is either to allow the heap to work awhile and cool off before adding worms, or add the heat-generating material to one part only of an established bin, so the worms have plenty of room to retreat from the new material and "nibble" around the edges until heat has gone down sufficiently.


A second way a lazy gardener such as myself might use organic materials--especially those that would take longer to break down in the worm bins, such as straw and leaves--is to mulch. Spreading mulches is easier than turning compost heaps. And make no mistake, all that organic matter ends up incorporated into the soil as surely as if it had been laboriously turned into compost: The microbes, soil-burrowing earthworms (remember them?), and other soil life in the contact zone between mulch and soil decompose them into humus over time. All gardeners who have used mulches have seen how their garden "eats" them! You lay down a nice thick layer of mulch, only to discover later in the season that it has disappeared, and it's time to add more.

Layer composting

We can combine mulching and composting in a way that has been called sheet mulching, or layer composting, or even "lasagna gardening." The idea is that we lay down the materials we might use to make a compost heap in layers, and allow the decomposition process to proceed in place, rather than turning them in a compost heap. The order of the layering is not arbitrary--the more volatile, leachable layers (e.g., aged manures) are laid down first and covered by the coarser, drier material which protects from drying. More about this approach to composting below.

Minimize tillage

We have spoken about the need to incorporate all the organic material we can get our hands on into our gardens. None of this material is lost--its breakdown into the soil creates humus, the final residue of raw organic matter. As humus content of the soil increases, it becomes darker, looser, more retentive of water, and more supportive of all forms of soil life. If our garden soil is increasing in humus, we are imitating natural systems: We are building topsoil rather than destroying it. We have a good thing going. Why stop the process? Why set the clock back to zero? That is in fact what we do when we disrupt the web of life that has established in the top layer of soil, when we disturb the soil--that is, when we till.

Tillage has become one of the most characteristic elements of agriculture. It should be one of the least. One of the biggest challenges for the sustainable gardener is to find a way to produce and harvest crops while minimizing soil disturbance. One way of doing that which we've already mentioned is mulching. In addition to being "eaten" by soil life and becoming humus, mulches shade the soil, keep it moist, and moderate soil temperature--cooler in summer, warmer in winter. All these conditions boost activity of soil microbes, earthworms, and other soil life--and as well are conducive to healthy, stress-flee plant growth. (One drawback is that mulches may also boost the slug population. At the same time, they encourage ground beetles, which feed on slugs.)

Another way to minimize tillage is the use of cover crops. For crops with a smaller footprint on the bed--such as trellised tomatoes, caged peppers, pole beans, perhaps broccoli--I like to sow a thick cover of Dutch white clover on the bed when setting out transplants. Dutch white comes up really fast, and makes a tight cover smothering almost all weed growth. Because it is low-growing, it doesn't get in the way of plant care or harvest. In addition, of course, it sets nitrogen in the soil, which is used by crop plants. This year, I will be experimenting with establishing a bed of permanent Dutch white cover, then simply planting right through the cover when setting out large transplants like brocolli, kale, etc. It will be interesting to discover how many of my preferred crops I can grow without ever killing an established cover.

When it is necessary to loosen the soil, I recommend the broadfork--like the scythe, one of those hand tools that makes balanced, overall use of the body. Its use is rhythmic, meditative, and enjoyable. (In developed garden soil, that is. It is less appropriate for working new ground.) Unlike a power tiller, the broadfork loosens the soil at depth (12 inches), but without inverting or "blenderizing" the soil layers or the "crumb" structure you've worked so hard to attain.

Of course, I will never be able to avoid all soil disruption. For example, I cannot imagine a way to harvest sweet potatoes without a deep and thorough digging--i.e. disturbance--of the bed. My goal is to make such radical disruption of the soil food web the exception rather than the rule, trusting that the undisturbed soil life in adjacent beds will help reconstitute the web of soil life in the disturbed site.

A strategy for developing new ground without tilling

I can imagine many of my hearers objecting: Maybe it is possible in an established garden with good tilth to forego all tillage, but you have to till in order to make a start in new ground. Maybe not. Alternative strategies present themselves, particularly attractive because I am as said a lazy gardener--a gardener who has many times attacked an established sod with a power tiller. No thanks! How about this as a strategy? Remember our reference to sheet composting above? You might first spread lime, rock powders, or any other soil amendments needed--just scatter it over the existing sod. Then lay down a tight, growth-suppressing cover such as cardboard or newspaper, and cover with compost, if available, or animal manures--preferably well aged, but raw if necessary--then cover with an additional layer of coarser materials such as leaves and/or straw. Water well to ensure that the lower layers are moist. You have now created a barrier to the growth of any existing sod plants through the sheet mulch. Given the conditions conducive to soil life in place, decomposition of the compost/mulch materials begins immediately, setting up feedback loops in which the decomposition encourages multiplication of soil microbes, and expanding microbe numbers speed up decomposition.

The next step in the process depends on the needs of the gardener. If the area must be used for cropping in the current season, she could start robust seedlings and transplant right through the compost mulch. I can even imagine strategies for getting some small-seeded crops started in the mulch, but as a practical matter that might be rather difficult to pull off. If the area can be dedicated for a full season solely to soil improvement, I would allow the compost mulch to settle, then sow a cover crop. Rye or any of the other grain grasses might be good choices, or field peas, or cowpeas. Alfalfa might be the best option, both because of its deep thick taproot and because it fixes nitrogen. Generosity with the water might be essential to get the cover started, but once established it would do wonders to both break down the sheet mulch and to start the process of loosening the soil. If you ever try this, be sure to remember what the soil was like when you started. After a full year of the program I've sketched, the soil will still have a long way to go, but the changes will be profound, and totally obvious.

Next issue: Part II: The garden year; orchards and woodlot management; and rethinking the lawn.

Copyright Harvey Ussery, February 4, 2006. Individuals are granted permission to copy this document for themselves and other individuals under these conditions: The document must be attributed; it must be copied in its entirety, including this copyright notice; and no charge may be made, other than the costs of copying, if any. No publication of this document may be made in any print or electronic media, whether or not for sale, without written permission of the author.


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Author:Ussery, Harvey
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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