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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Resilient Food Supply Systems

Experiments with food self-sufficiency

The author with an artichoke plant. In Vermont, artichoke seeds need to be planted indoors in late February or early March.
Image Credit: Photos: Martin Holladay, Peter Holladay, and Karyn Patno

GBA has published a lot of articles about resilience — for example, articles pointing out that well-insulated buildings with low levels of air leakage are more resilient than code-minimum buildings. In other words, in the event of a disruption to energy supplies, such a building can ride out a cold spell — even one lasting for weeks — without risking frozen pipes.

A few GBA bloggers, including Alex Wilson and Tristan Roberts, advise anyone concerned about resilience to consider where their food will come from during an emergency.

“Resilience is the ability to bounce back from a disturbance or interruption, whether from an intense storm, flood, drought, wildfire, extended power outage, or shortage of heating or transportation fuel,” Alex Wilson wrote. “Some of these interruptions have their origins in nature (‘acts of God’), while others could be caused by human actions, such as terrorism. … Local food production … can help keep us fed should drought in the West cause crop failures or should diesel shortages limit trucking.”

Wilson also wrote, “If some sort of crisis causes a shortage of diesel fuel, grocery shelves will be depleted in a matter of days.”

For the time being, I’ll put aside any discussion of whether the worries voiced by Wilson make sense. I’ll simply note that back in 1975, I took these worries seriously, and set out to determine whether I could grow all of my own food on a few acres in northern Vermont.

Pondering food self-sufficiency

Here were the elements of my analysis:

You can’t grow everything

Some crops grow well in Vermont; other crops don’t. Anyone aiming for self-sufficiency in Vermont won’t (alas) be using any olive oil. In theory, Vermonters can grow sunflower seeds and press…

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9 Comments

  1. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #1

    Nepali potatoes
    It's not surprising that the potato became a common crop in the Himalaya- they are native to high-altitude Andes. In Quechuan high altitude cultures they are preserved by freeze drying- letting the freeze overnight then sun-dry during the day. (The freeze dried product is called "chuño" en Español.) Meats are preserved in much the same way. ("Jerky" was originally a Quechuan word.)

    Was there any evidence of those freeze drying techniques in Nepal, or was it just the permafrost freezer?

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Dana Dorsett
    Dana,
    I never saw any signs that anyone was freeze-drying potatoes in Nepal. I imagine that freeze-drying sometimes happens by accident, though.

  3. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #3

    The technique was probably discovered by accident.
    High altitude freeze-drying happens pretty much on it's own if the stuff is left out during the right season, and not taken away by scavenging animals. Potatoes are fairly new to Nepal- given a few more centuries and they may do it on purpose too, unless the climate patterns of the Himalaya are somehow too dissimilar to that of the Andes to really work on the right calendar schedule.

    Freeze-dry mummifcation of important members of society is also a Quechuan thing- dressing up the corpse for holidays, parades & special events even decades after their passing. But the process is surely more complicated than drying meat & potatoes.

  4. Michael Iacona | | #4

    resiliency - yes please.
    Martin,

    Thanks for sharing!

    I've been on a mission to increase the resiliency of my surroundings as well. For me an energy efficient house (I'm grateful to GBA for its stores of knowledge) is one of the pieces to the resiliency puzzle. I will heat my house, which is currently under construction, with wood. If I can get my fuel needs down to 1.5 cords, that gives me more time to plant peas or carve a spoon. An efficient house can also give me the option of eliminating the necessity of a chainsaw to keep warm. Trees don't stop growing during a fuel shortage.

    I love the idea of transplanting cabbage into your root cellar in the fall, I look forward to trying it (after I build the cellar).

    You may be right that

    "rural peasants who aim for food self-sufficiency are more likely to face starvation than Americans who depend on a complicated food delivery system that requires large amounts of diesel fuel and electricity."

    but my (and your) carrots taste infinitely better than the ones driven across the country in a diesel truck.

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Yes, everything tastes better
    Michael,
    You're right -- anything fresh from you garden will taste better than store-bought.

  6. User avater
    Tristan Roberts | | #6

    see Venezuela
    Martin, I always love it when you use yourself as a case study. Beautiful photos and stories. Thanks for sharing!

    I'm envious of your cabbage storage. Is the key to that harvesting them at the right time? It seems like when I harvest my cabbage I'm always fighting against splitting, slugs, and general rot issues that makes storage for longer than a few weeks not effective.

    I don't love fear-mongering, but who in Venezuela 10 years ago would have guessed that this would happen?

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-venezuela-food-shortage-20160628-story.html

    The U.S. has a lot of differences from Venezuela, but our resource abundance, and mixed record on conservation, is something we have in common.

    I just read the book "Tribe" by Sebastian Junger and am recommending it. Great look at how adversity brings communities together. Assuming they have some strengths to rally around. People with smarts,. work ethic, and resources like Martin give me a lot of hope for communities in this part of the world.

  7. User avater
    Michael Maines | | #7

    Fun post, Martin. I grow more
    Fun post, Martin. I grow more of my own food every year, but mainly for the health aspects--both eating pure food and the physical labor it takes to grow the food. I just don't like supporting the industrial agriculture system, and try to stay out of grocery stores as much as possible. What I don't grow I mostly buy from local farmers. Financially it doesn't make sense for me to grow everything, so I focus on the foods that taste best when fresh (tomatoes), that provide the best "return on investment" (garlic, asparagus) or that support soil health. It's a better distraction than TV or video games.

    My lifestyle (and yours) can't work for everyone, but everyone can support food supply networks that are good for society, the environment and their own health.

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Tristan Roberts
    Tristan,
    The key to long-term cabbage storage is choosing a variety described as a good storage variety. I've had good success with Bartolo and Ruby Perfection.

  9. User avater
    Gregg Zuman | | #9

    Root cellar! Indeed. I appreciate the reminder. Thanks for posting this insightful piece.

    Regarding rice in VT: http://www.vermontrice.net/ You'd get on quite well with the farmer. He also established Vermont Sail Freight.

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