By Ol’ Tennessee Ridgerunner
This is the fifth in a series about the vital “must-haves” for individuals with a preparedness mindset who are considering an off grid retreat lifestyle. These articles are good for would-be homesteaders contemplating their first rural property purchase, and serve as a refresher for retreat owners who, due to age-related or medical issues, are developing their documentation and inventories in order to showcase their off grid property for sale. Let’s look at vital food production for your retreat.
In a long-term disaster situation with the central electricity grid KO’d, food shortages develop within hours and become more acute as days go by without resupply from a disabled supply chain. The average US family has less than four days of food in house. Once supermarkets and convenience stores have been sold out or looted, survivors will resort to lawlessness and even savagery to secure food supplies. Consequently, you need significant food storage capacity and the ability to grow your own food on your homestead.
Your off grid retreat should have adequate indoor storage areas for stocking non-perishables, as well as provide capacity to store the food you will grow. Store more canned foods, bulk wheat, bulk beans, bulk rice, MREs, and bulk salt and sugar. Learn to can, pickle or preserve food in all its forms, as well as the proper method of packing five and six-gallon food-grade pales to ensure your bulk supplies will have a lengthy shelf life. Your canned and stored foods may not last as long as a catastrophic grid-down event does, so start now to learn and practice useful skills such as gardening, farming, hunting, fishing, trapping and foraging for wild foods.
You can supplement your stored food supplies by hunting and fishing until wild game becomes scarce. As the local game populations thin out, you’ll need to become much more skilled at hunting, trapping and fishing or you may not be able to secure enough game to keep your family fed. Learning to smoke meat can help in long-term preservation of any large game animals you harvest. Still, wise homesteaders know that the provision of food over the long haul requires planting a reasonable size vegetable garden, and harvesting the local edible plants. Wild edibles and medicinal herbs should be identified and inventoried. Find where they grow abundantly, and learn how to can, preserve, prepare and cook your harvest of wild plants.
Before refrigeration, a root cellar was an essential food storage location because of its low temperature, insulation and low humidity provided by the earth. With soil on top to provide temperature control, it keeps food from freezing in the winter and cool in the summer. You can store excess garden produce like onions, carrots, potatoes, turnips, beets, radishes, parsnips, and other vegetables through the winter months. You can also store salted meat, bread, jams, butter, cheese, milk, cream and many other liquids. Consider building one using natural materials already present at your retreat location.
Self-sufficiency demands food production. It’s one of the most important components of off grid living. Techniques like raised bed gardening are efficient, demand less water, and produce more than conventional gardening methods. However, conventional methods have historically proved successful using costly synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to enhance and control a high-yield growing environment. Organic gardening without any synthetic or chemical means of pest control, weeding or fertilization also has its benefits, although yields can be lower and requires more time and labor. Here are some questions that apply to all gardening methods - What is the climate like? Do local records confirm adequate rainfall? Is there sufficient space for a garden? Is the soil condition appropriate and how can it be amended? How long is the growing season? The further south your retreat is located, the longer your growing season will be. Is there adequate southern exposure for gardening? There is no right or wrong way to garden, so use any combination of methods that best suit your priorities.
Before turning the first spade of dirt, research the purchase and storage of certified non-hybrid seeds – there are many good online sources. Heirloom organic or open-pollinated, non-GMO seeds allow a gardener to collect seeds from a crop for future planting, while hybrid seeds do not. Choosing the right seeds is important - you want seed that is untreated, free of pesticides and not genetically modified. What should you grow? For starters, plant beans, wheat, corn, winter squash, potatoes, and consider bee keeping. Honey is a great sweetener with long shelf life, but bees pollinate your crops. They take a while to become productive. Your first honey harvest will be very small, but your second year can produce up to 30 pounds from one hive. Small apple orchards are possible depending on your climate and elevation.
Assemble a few simple garden tools, like rakes, hoes, shovels and hand garden tools. If you don’t know how to garden, start learning now. Being able to plant your own garden and raise your own crops could mean the difference between life and death in a long-term grid down scenario.
Many gardening techniques can produce an abundance of food for your family without requiring a lot of land, expensive equipment or constant work. Using the proper permaculture, horticultural, hydroponic or aquaculture methods, a garden can be grown year-round in almost any climate. However, none of these methods should be used as your sole source of food production. Each offers unique advantages that can be combined with conventional gardening techniques to develop a comprehensive food production system, depending on your climate, property size, budget and time constraints. Consider the following food production methods for self-reliance.
An agricultural system designed around replicating a natural ecosystem is permaculture. It’s really a food forest with small fruits, flowers, nut and fruit trees, leafy vegetables and medicinal plants all arranged in a natural, no-till setting that doesn’t attract attention. This Native-American technique works with nature rather than attempting to conquer it. For example, you may have heard of a common planting method called three sisters. It involves planting beans, corn, and squash seeds together so that each seed provides a critical element in the growing process. Beans provide nitrogen, corn is a natural trellis and squash provides cover and discourages pests. You intentionally design an entire edible habitat based on your natural setting, and place plants to methodically balance the water, soil and critters.
Permaculture gardening re-creates nature by using a large variety of plants while incorporating as many different animals as feasible like bees, chickens and goats. You may include aquaculture ponds in permaculture designs depending on the soil, water and space available. This method is not expensive, and can produce a bumper crop, but requires a lot of know-how.
Homesteaders can create an off-grid indoor food production system, with the sun as a power source and aquaponics for a relatively modest investment. It’s an interdependent hybrid system of aquaculture and hydroponic gardening. Vegetables and herbs grow in soil-less containers that are fed with waste water from aquaculture pools. The plants eat bacteria from fish waste and return the water in a pure state. These systems can be large or small and can potentially produce large amounts of fish and vegetables. Very little if any fertilizer or chemicals are needed, just fish food, if you grow properly. Aquaponics can be conducted within most any temperature-controlled structure, in a greenhouse setting or with grow lights.
A solar-powered aquaponic grow room can provide fish, like talapia, trout, catfish, prawns and snails, and veggies for as long as needed, but it takes time to set up and fine tune. Indoor hydroponics requires grow lights, such as LEDs or CFLs plus a large aquarium, a bio filter, pumps, piping, drainage, fertilizer and ventilation. It’s not the cheapest way to produce food, but it’s very effective where weather and other factors limit outdoor food self-sufficiency. A small space can produce great yields for leafy vegetables, herbs, tomatoes, sprouts, etc.
You can garden throughout the winter months if you have a greenhouse with heat from a wood stove or solar panels. Every retreat should have at least a small (10’x12’) economical greenhouse. Improvised and surplus materials (sliding glass doors, spare windows for the walls and clear plastic tarps for the roof, etc) often work well. Cheap greenhouses tend to supply as much produce throughout the year as professionally-built models.
If your retreat is located in a harsh colder climate, a greenhouse is indispensable for food self-sufficiency. However, a greenhouse alone is not adequate for full food production unless it is really large. Normally, a greenhouse is a compliment to other more primary gardening methods. Most veteran gardeners use their greenhouse to duplicate and start seedlings during the winter for spring planting in outdoor gardens. There are great designs and greenhouse starter kits available online.
Skills are required
To be successful, the techniques described here require the right set of skills. Being self-sufficient takes hard work and a significant amount of expertise to enable you to live independently. Become your own handyman so you can repair most everything at your home. Become an avid gardener; learn to hunt, trap and fish effectively, become familiar with livestock that can provide food, useful by-products, function and waste, and learn to preserve your food in all forms.
If you don’t have experience with these homesteading skills, learn and practice them now. More information to help prepare you for retreat living is available at this site and we recommend that you read: Stuff you really ought to know before buying a retreat -parts 1, 2 & 3.