Learning The Questions
This next contribution in our new Resilience Spotlight series, featuring stories from Peak Prosperity readers, comes from reader themccarthyfarm. It’s details how asking the right questions will lead to the right answers, even for those with limited resources.
In the fall of 2003 I happened to pick up a copy of Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over and that set our lives on a whole new path. Years before we, my wife Jen and I, had consciously made the decision to work toward more free time not more money. That put us in a good position to move toward resilience. I believe, the things needed to be truly resilient take time and can’t be bought.
The subprime lending program had given us the opportunity to buy rental properties even though our income was pretty small. We were really careful making sure the houses could pay for themselves and give us a profit as well. We weren’t getting rich but we had a steady income that didn’t rely on me or Jen going to work every day. We lived fugally and with the rental income and our real jobs, being ski instructors, we could pay the bills and still put money in the bank.
Could Richard be right? I spent the next year reading book and studying oil, the economy and debt. The more I read the more I was convinced that Richard was right; we were in big trouble. What do we do about it? We settled on three main points we would need to achieve:
- A house that would keep our family comfortable and warm without fossil fuels or money.
- To be able to provide a good share, if not all, of our own food with out the need for long haul trucks or money.
- A strong community that was preparing for economic shock.
In 2005 we traded in one of our rental properties for 10 acres of land. It was located just 25 miles from where we were living. From the property it’s a two mile bike ride to the grocery store and the hardware store and less than that to the ranch supply store.
I spent another year figuring out how we could build a house that didn’t need fuel (money) to keep it warm and comfortable. At some point I came across the concept of Passive Annual Heat Storage (John Hiat). There are no moving parts or computer chips to make it work. It’s all about heat mass in the ground around the house and it only adds a little to the cost of construction. I don’t have time to go into it all now but it is amazing.
In the summer of 2006 we started building and we moved in November of 2007. Our average annual utility costs (gas, electric, water and sewer) are $300 total. We burn about ¾ of a cord of free wood each year.
We started a garden before we started the house and what we found was we didn’t even know what the questions were let alone the answers. Having a garden is a great thing. Growing your own food is quite another thing.
We live at 5,600 feet just above the 40th latitude. Our average last freeze is June 6th and first freeze is the first of September. With a greenhouse we have a 4 month normal growing season. I find it nice to eat for at least 11 months out of the year but I really prefer 12 months of eating. So that leaves us 8 month short on the food production time frame. How do you grow enough food to be able to eat year round? Can you grow food even in winter?
Cold is not the limiting factor when it comes to growing in winter. The real limiting factor is the number of hours of sunlight each day. Here, around the 40th latitude, we don’t get enough hours of sun from about Thanksgiving until the middle of February. You can’t overcome this issue without a lot of money (fuel) but you can grow in the cold. By the end of February certain things can be growing quite well.
Growing spinach, chard, kale and cilantro is a great place to start winter growing. If you keep the frost off, I mean actual frost, it can freeze but no white stuff, you can eat it year round. But what you really need to do if you want to live on more than green leaves is specialize in foods that can be stored.
What foods store well? How do you store them?
We have found that beans are a great garden product. Green beans can be canned or frozen. Dry beans can be stored in jars in a cupboard in your kitchen and you can plant them again next year.
Potatoes store well as long as you store them in a cool, dark place as do carrots, beets, cabbage and squash. Where is a cool, dark place that is big enough to store several hundred pounds of food? How do you build a root cellar?
What is the right temperature and humidity for storing potatoes? Carrots? Squash? Apples?
How do you keep the cellar the right temperature and humidity?
Corn is a great thing to grow in your garden. It is so wonderful when you get the first new ears and they are so sweet and tender. But as soon as the first freeze comes it’s all over. How do I store corn? How do you make corn meal? Corn flour?
There are in fact three different kinds of corn and you need to plant the right kind for how you want to use it. We are still, after 10 years, working on our corn growing. There are so many questions with corn. Why is our corn meal so different than the stuff from the store? How do you make pop corn? What is the best way to get dry corn of the cob? What does lime have to do with it? Can I grow enough corn to feed my chickens?
Ah, there we have a whole new question: Can I grow chickens or turkeys or ducks without giant tractors and diesel trucks? If you don’t live in the grain belt it will be a challenge.
We raise sheep, pigs and turkeys along with our chickens. Sheep are the most efficient. They take grass that humans can’t eat and turn it into food we can. They can eat native plants year round. We raise Barbados Black Belly hair sheep because they shed hair so we don’t need to sheer them and they are better at keeping themselves alive than regular domestic sheep.
With all that said, we could probably live on the food we produce but we don’t. The really hard part is changing our eating habits to match what we grow. The time it takes to prepare and cook home ground food is usually much longer than store bought food. We also tend to like all the sweet and salty stuff too. But I feel okay with cheating and buying food now and then, know we could do pretty well on what we produce ourselves.
We live in a small mountain valley in Utah. Lots of people have a good amount of food storage in their house. It’s a fairly small community (30,000) that will pull together during a crisis. But it is the same as other places; everyone is planning for business as usual, “we just need to get back to growing the economy and all will be fine”.
I feel like we still have a long way to go on the resilient community front. My wife tells me that people are changing around us and I just need to be more patient.
How do I convince my neighbor that I’m not crazy for putting solar panels on my house and he should do it too? I don’t know the answer but I was very excited when the truck showed up to install them on his roof.
I know there are still a lot of question I don’t even know about yet but I am working on being patient and doing what I can right now. I am working on being calmer about the future and just waiting for the next question to pop up.
You can check us out at Themccarthyfarm.com
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Great Piece. Richard Heinberg does great work and was a very early voice in Peak Oil. He was up front and center in a documentary that was also early in the game: "A Farm for the Future"- a nice introduction to permaculture, peak energy, and our growing crisis. (Curiously, the BBC now keeps that piece more guarded than it used to but I think you can still find it on YouTube) I assume your Utah winters have a quite a bit more light than the Northwest so a decent greenhouse and passive solar should work well. Have you considered using low grade geothermal like the designs featured in the man behind "Citrus in the Snow" (northern plains of Nebraska)? Its a genius design. Have you cultivated any perennial edibles? Eric Toensmeier has done some great work in that area as well.
Enjoyed your post and have just started stocking our new farm in Devon in SW England. We've started with growing vegetables, whilst we read up on everything else and move our lives down from London, some 250 miles away.
Whilst reading your post I immediately thought of Sepp Holzer's book – Permaculture. Sepp is a leading European permaculturist who farms at around 3,000ft in the Austrian Alps. I am still reading the book but it is packed with what appear to me to be brilliant and easily implementable ideas to help bump your yields and steal a march on Winter!
The book is available on Kindle and is full of practical tips – this man is growing grapes and exotic fruits at the same height as people go skiing! He has a design for storage cellars built into hillsides etc etc.
Well worth perusal!
In effect the Passive Annual Heat Storage System is geothermal. It collects heat in the ground in summer and uses it in winter but it has no moving parts. It will work fine anywhere the summer temperatures are 70 degrees or higher. My house is a modified version and dose use solar but the system doesn't need sun.
I think Elliot Coleman's book is good for learning about winter growing.
The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses
Apr 15, 2009