Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Self-Sufficient Gourmand (On 1/3 Acre!)

I’m pretty confident that you could drop me in most any climate and I could survive. I attended the Air Force’s Combat Survival Training course, learned that many things are quite edible, even if they do taste like crap (most notably: boiled thistle stalk!). It’s tough to “find” table salt in the wild, but ants are surprisingly tasty, full of protein, and practically everywhere (and the scent trails that they leave on fresh greens tastes like Italian dressing… sort of). Food self-sufficiency doesn’t seem that tough. Likewise, people can meet their basic nutritional requirements quite easily through gardening in a very small space—though endless boiled potatoes and roasted turnips doesn’t sound very appetizing. Never the less, the potential for food self-sufficiency is critical for my theory of rhizome society, as it is broadly predicated upon the notion of “minimal self-sufficiency.”

But that’s where I draw the line. I know that I can “get by,” but that doesn’t mean I want to give up fine foods. So what are the prospects of combining food self-sufficiency and a gourmet diet? I laid out the kinds of food I would like to “survive” on—those things that I usually cook at home: a wide assortment of ultra-thin-crust pizzas, Spanish tapas, Mediterranean appetizers, hearty salads, fresh fruit, occasional Thai or Indian curries, etc. Fortunately (and perhaps not coincidentally), the climate constraints that I am dealing with (in this case, Southern Arizona) work fairly well for these food crops. How much land will it take to keep one person “in curry” with these lofty culinary goals? My answer may surprise you: about 1/3 of an acre.

Here are my calculations:

Olive Oil: ¼ cup/person/day (360 calories) = 30 cups/year = 2 gallons/year. @ 2 tons per acre olives yielding 30 gallons/ton = 60 gallons per acre. 2 gallons/year requires 1/30th acre = 1500 square feet.

Flour…sacrilege, I know, but I’m not foregoing my pizza :) ½ cup/person/day (200 calories) = 180 cups per year = 50 lbs/year. @ 17 lbs yield per 100 sqft = 300 square feet.

Eggs: 2 / person/day (150 calories) requires roughly 4 chickens per person. 100% forage on ¼ acre (11,000 square feet), shared with goats.

Goat Cheese (5 oz) OR Yogurt (1 cup)/person/day (500 calories). One goat producing 200 gallons of milk per year = 120 lbs cheese & 400 pints yogurt/year, providing 1 pint yogurt AND 5 oz cheese per day. ½ goat per person provides either one daily. 100% forage on ½ acre per goat requires ¼ acre per person (11,000 square feet) shared with chickens.

2-3 pieces of seasonal fresh fruit and ¼ cup almonds daily (350 calories). Roughly 2000 square feet orchard per person (grapefruit, blood orange, cherries, apricots, almonds, lemons, etc.).

Fresh vegetables & herbs (300 calories): additional 500 square feet of intensive beds per person: culinary & medicinal herbs, artichokes, eggplant, peppers, chilies, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, capers, zucchini, cucumber, onions, garlic, etc.

That totals to 15,300 square feet per person (just over 1/3 acre), providing roughly 1860 calories per day, and allowing me to cook most everything that I like. There is no meat in this diet, as the chickens and goats are viewed more as a “perennial crop,” but they would certainly provide meat on an occasional basis.

So, with the regional and practical limitations on meat and seafood taken into consideration, this 1/3 acre would still allow me to grow enough of the right kinds of food so support one person with my favorite pizzas, tapas, fruit, and salads. Sure, goats don’t divide in half very well—this system is really intended to work on one or two acres supporting 3-6 people, where the labor could be divided more efficiently but remain within a single family unit, thereby not creating external dependencies. At only 800 square feet of intensive garden beds per person, with the remainder coming from livestock on perennial forage and olive/fruit arboriculture, this system would actually be fairly labor-efficient. I’m sure there are some spices and such that wouldn’t be worth the effort to grow (saffron?), there are rainwater harvesting considerations to be incorporated in my chosen climate, and it would be nice to have some cured meats and fish, but this is really intended as a thought experiment: self-sufficiency does not have to reflect a dramatic decrease in standard of living. I’m confident that this would adapt well to other diets and other climates. If I look at the kind of food I want to eat, and the climate I will possibly be in, the “self-sufficient gourmand” is probably realistic. Certainly beats ants and boiled thistle stalk, but that's just my opinion...

Sources & References: the calculations here are based primarily on the tables in John Jeavon’s “Grow More Vegetables,” and assume yields in the middle of the range given. Olive oil calculations are from a UC Davis report, and again use moderate values for yield. Forage estimates for chickens and goats are estimates roughly based on performance of a similar system designed by David Holmgren at his home.


sventastic said...

You're a man after my own heart (and gastronomy).
Cheers Jeff!

(I hope to learn to produce my own wine [including many fruit, flower, and herb based ones] and beer at some point).

Rory said...

I am gonna have to work out on of these for South Louisiana, where it has a year round growing season, and almost no need for rainwater collection(beyond human consupmtion). I suspect it may be less than the 0.33 acre you need in AZ.

Anonymous said...

You forget that soil needs to lay fallow once in a while for it to remain productive and reasonably disease free year after year, especially if soil does not freeze to about 18in for a couple of months.
Also if you do not have animals or if you do not grow a lot of green manure (comfrey, legumes) then your soil fertility and yields will significantly decline after first 4-5 years.

Jeff Vail said...

Mixed arboriculture and forage for goats and chickens addresses this problem--incorporating nitrogen-fixing forage such as mesquite, wattle, acacia, etc. while incorporating manure and mulch. For the intensive garden beds, lying fallow, as well as rotation, may be necessary for the industrial agriculture approach of monoculture. The model that I am following is that of John Jeavons & Ecology Action--using polyculture and carbon cropping for much and compost they have maintained gardens in hard-freeze-free zones for over 20 years with doccumented increases in soil fertility, no fallow periods, and minimal pest issues. There are several other examples of methods that simultaneously improve soil fertility, reduce pest issues, and don't require fallow periods--see Fukuoka's "A Natural Way of Farming" for just one example...

Rory: I'd love to hear what you come up with!

rich said...

Hey Jeff

These are the kind of posts that I like; food!

Not sure if you've seen Norris' attempt at this (for a more paleo diet), but it's worth a look.


His inclusion of beef blows the acreage requirement way up, but with a well-developed community, land resources can be pooled for the cattle raising, which is a more efficient way of doing it anyway.



Anonymous said...

Jeavons, et. al., probably know what they are talking about better than me, but 0.33 acres still seem to be very optimistic for truly self sufficient setup, I think one would need a very fertile soil to begin with. I am actually creating a garden from scratch on about .5 acres cleared from pitch pine. I am trying to do it as much as possible in self sufficient way, e.g. growing green manures, etc., instead of purchasing compost/manure. Soil is mostly sandy and it seems that it will take a long time to be truly sufficient. I actually like the challenge since if I can do it in this sand a mile from ocean, then I can probably do it anywhere. Most suburban soil is probably not much better if one considers all the damage done by years of chemicals.

Jeff Vail said...

You make an excellent point about these kinds of yields requiring good soil to begin with. It sounds like your green maure approach will go a long way to achieving that, but as you point out, it won't happen overnight. Also, my numbers rely on a semi-mature forest-garden in place--at least five years, probably closer to ten years before the levels of forage and fruit production are sufficient to support my numbers. Plus, additional space would be needed for things like firewood--in my case I think that mesquite charcoal will be the fuel of choice. It would probably be most prudent--in the environment that I'm envisioning--to plan on closer to an acre per person and five+ years before functional self sufficiency (though by focusing on intensive gardening of crops like potatoes, that could be drastically shortened if necessary). By pusuing an acre per person, there should, eventually, be a sizeable surplus, but that would be useful for barter, or to support greater meat production. I'd love to eventually incorporate pigs into this system but I know next to nothing about designing a pig forage system...I just know that cured pork products like jamon serrano, pancetta, salami, and prosciutto are the ultimate in culinary luxury!

If you're dealing with very sandy soil, you may want to emphasize carbon cropping in addition to the more traditional N-fixing green manures--Jeavon's systemis grounded in dedicating as much as 60% of the crop to growing carbon, essentially growing crops for the compost pile, with food being a secondary consideration. Grain crops are excellent in this regard--corn, for example, produces food, but also copious amounts of carbonaceous matter that, when composted and worked into you garden beds, will grwatly accellerate their transition from sand to soil...

JCamasto said...

I was just going to suggest rounding up to an acre/person, adding a factor of safety - before you mentioned it. More buffer to cover transitions, peaks, valleys, etc..

(An' cuz 'mericuns think in acres...)


Anonymous said...

Hello Jeff,

I'm a fellow Denverite (actually Englewood) and have been following your blog for about year. I'm glad to see your work receiving additional attention recently via theoildrum. Anyway I have a couple questions if you don't mind.

A) Several of your posts and comments indicate you are planning on settling in the Southwest (Viva Mesquite, and a comment on theoildrum regarding the Sonora desert). Initially, I would not think the South West would not be the first obvious choice given the climate. I'm curious to your reasons for choosing the area beyond perhaps aesthetic preference. I have come up with a few:

1) Already have land located there
2) Already have friends/family nearby
3) Seeking isolation, perhaps to avoid social/political disruptions and unrest

With regards to 3, many others and even your work on the rhizome societies (Tuscan village model) suggest community is important for a long term sustainability (assuming any significant populations beyond hunter gatherers). Some, such as parts of the permaculture movement, regard individualistic actions as insufficient during and following the transition. So if isolation is part of your reasoning (and if I haven't made to many tenuous assumptions regarding your plans), what do you foresee that requires it and what are your thoughts regarding community? If I recall correctly, you have written that you do not consider yourself a "doomer".

B) Even before I have become peak oil aware over a year ago, I have thought about purchasing land and living more independently. In some of the areas I've considered the climate is drier and obtaining sufficient water resources is a priority. From my understanding most of the western states do not allow, in most cases, the legal collection of rainwater. If you are using a well do you consider wells a sustainable, vernacular technology? How do you plan on meeting your water requirements (one of the "obvious problems")?



P.S. Your plans for Southwest remind me of a movie: "Off the Map".

nulinegvgv said...


Your mention of charcoal reminded me of a recent article on Terra Preta or the charred soils that may have supported larger Amazon populations than previously considered by modern historians. You can catch it here

Black Gold

I know from work to establish a home garden in an effort to provide more of my food, that it not only takes time to establish fertile ground but also a change in thinking and an understanding of what happens when. Anyone working to learn how to grow food is going to make mistakes. You might think you're doing the right thing by getting those eggplants out a bit early- more time to grow. But you're likely to stunt their growth and get few if an eggplant fruits to eat. Sorry for such a literal example but I think it is important to consider not only the time it will take to physically establish food forests and revive dead soil but as the mental time it will take for us humans to flow with the grow.

nulinegvgv said...

Wow, a quick read of my comment above reminds me that I should use the preview feature. Let me rephrase. Be sure to consider not just 2 but all 4 dimensions when planning your own food self sufficiency.

Jeff Vail said...


Good chance that I will relocate--even if it is only to somewhere slighly outside Denver. That said, places I'm considering are Oregon (by my parents), outside Denver (telecommuting is more realistic when you CAN still get to the office...), and Southern Arizona. I love the Tucson area--the climate, the scenery, etc. I lived there for a while, and would be quite happy doing so again. I'm also fascinated by earth-building, solar technologies, and citrus fruits :) But, as you pointed out, there are some serious drawbacks. Water, being the first--I don't think that modern wells are either sustainable or vernacular. My plan would be 100% rainwater dependent (with copious storage). While Colorado and many other states do have legal issues with rainwater collection, it is my understanding that Arizona does not--and at the very least it is tolerated in fact (see Brad Lancaster's excellent work on the subject). There is also the proximity to the Mexican border, which some feel is a real liability, as well as the obvious over-development of both Tucson & Phoenix--another liability if there is a "crash." Some of the factors--for me--in favor are my love of the architectural influences of that area (Native American, Morrocan-via-Spain-via-Mexico, etc.). Also the suitability as a "Temporary Autonomous Zone." The more Arizona is the last place "you want to be post-crash," the more I find it oddly appealing. Also, while Tucson is a large city with its own problems, there is an existing and very interesting "counter-culture" community in the area that (to some degree) could be the right kernel for the right community...

Anyway, rambling answer, but ultimately it comes down to my desire to pursue a course of action that will work in multiple future scenarios: if the economy keeps on truckin', then my investment in a "vacation estate" in the area will pair nicely with my life in Colorado. However, in the extreme opposite scenario, that's where I think I'd want to be as well...

Jeff Vail said...


That's a good point about tera preta and the integration of charcoal into the soil building process. For some reason (maybe because I like barbeque), I've always been interested in the charcoal-making process, but I've generally ignored the value of the residual ash going on the copost heap... I wonder what the right mix of "carbon-cropping" and "charcoal-cropping" would be?

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff --

Just a clarification... residual ash is a great natural fertilizer... but terra preta isn't built on ash, it's built on the charcoal itself. Large pieces of it. It is the long term durability and slow decay of the charcoal that creates the potential for terra preta soil....


Sean said...

For more food ideas this book, from Chelsea Green, will be released in May:
Perennial Vegetables

Permaculture skills will also come in handy, too. Geoff Lawton will tour USA for PDC (Permaculture Design Certification) courses beginning April 30 in High Falls, NY. This will be his final tour for PDC courses for the foreseeable future. There will be three on the west coast and one near NYC.

Example of Jeff's work in Jordan (he has also been busy in Iraq):

There are references to Permaculture designs in AZ in the Toby Hemenway book. patternliteracy.com

I believe Fukuoka claimed 1/4 acre per family. Fish are extremely efficient and setup many multiple use scenarios.

Pat said...


Thanks! This inspiring and helpful to me, as I am now making similar plans for my 1/9 acre lot. I live in a small town in eastern AZ and my tastes are quite like yours. Plan to barter with neighbors for such things as olives and citrus.

Agree with you about SE AZ - I was looking down there myself recently. Just beautiful. But am reluctant to give up the advantages of living in a small community.


Jerry McManus said...

I was glad to see the comment above that fish should be considered, especially in a multiple use scenario. Aquaculture seems to have great potential for providing a protein rich diet as well as providing nutrient rich water for food crops. I've seen designs for 'closed loop' systems that trickle water from the fish ponds through gravel beds growing veggies that then drain back into the ponds. I could easily see something similar being done with rice paddies, which traditionally provide habitat for catfish in Japan. Additional consideration could be given to fish ponds as rainwater storage and also as 'thermal mass' systems for regulating temperature in passive solar building designs. And don't forget the sheer aesthetic pleasure of living near (or on) a small body of still water.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone tried improving sandy soil with charcoal? (Search internet on 'Terra Preta')

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

You have an interesting site and I enjoy your contributions to TOD.

As a Permaculture Designer/Geologist, and long-time gardener, I have had difficulty matching John Jevons yields...maybe I am just too lazy. Generally, I get about half of the yields listed in "Grow More Vegetables".

You don't mention humanure, but my experience is that nothing builds good soil faster than humanure.

the Contrary Goddess said...

As subsistence farmers, I'd love to hear from more people who are actually doing it. I have observed many times over than people are overly optimistic on anything they haven't actually done, and so often overly pessimistic when they are first starting trying to do something (because they fail in many early attempts).

Shane said...

Ive actually just started a downsize in subtropical australia six months ago, probably comparable in climate to somewhere north a bit of florida in the usa. We have two acres, half an orchard and goose run (half planted).

I started over summer in our vegetable garden (400m2) with a green manure. The soil was fairly fertile light clay to start and three months of green manure did improve the soil texture a lot (plus a bit of dolomite/gypsum....all australian soils are deficient in calcium and magnesium). The improvement in soil texture was noticeable but not enough to grow many vegetables particularly well. I have since trucked in a load of manure and seed meals (ala gardening when it counts) to get things off to a better start before the cool season is lost.

So in summary green manure seems useful for maintaining fertility but I wouldnt rely on it to bring average soil up to scratch, let alone sandy soil, unless I had a spare decade up my sleeve. Legumes that are key to green manures working are greedy for calcium and magnesium to do their nitrogen fixing job.

And I agree whole heartedly on peoples comments that practice is far more valuable than theory, and that you should expect it to take several years to get things set up. With peak oil closing in there isnt much time to lose....

Anonymous said...

jeff ,

We were able to grow our own food, including Olive oil , wine , vinegar, grains, veges but it took more than 1/3 acre.

We ate corn and beans for our basic food.

jeavons was into wheat and potatoes.

I feel corn is a better choice.

Anonymous said...

Re charcoal (Terra preta) I have started to do this in sand (I live on a sand dune without topsoil). This is hard work for me. I have made 50kg of coal which will be enough for only 3-4 square metres. The coal must be crushed. I am not sure how small the largest particles should be to be effective. Any ideas? I mixed in the coal down to a depth of 25cm. I will still apply mulch and compost as usual, which gives good results already.

Dora Renee' Wilkerson said...

I loved your post on The Self-sufficient Gourmand. I'll leave a little post on it on my blog in the next few days.

Thanks for posting it and loved reading it.

Dora Renee' Wilkerson

Zanouba said...

Very interesting thought process! Just how many olive trees would you need on that sliver of land?

Jeff Vail said...

I'm not sure how many olive trees would be needed... modern olive growing seems to favor very dense plantings of trees that are pruned to stay quite small (on the order of 500+/acre, or less than an area 9' square). I think that the older method, planting olives with more space and allowing them to grow larger may be preferable in my envisioned environment, but I don't have any data to back it up--I used data from UC Davis that assumed high-density planting, but I don't know exactly how fast the yield declines as density is decreased.

Adam said...

I have often thought similar kind of thoughts (real food independence with a varied and flavorful diet) and I have tended towards a 1/4 acre greenhouse with hydroponics. Perhaps the greenhouse assumption is based on the shorter growing season here in the northeast. But I enjoyed your article immensely, and look forward to reading more of your blog.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff hi my question is were can i grow or buy land to grow my own olive trees thank you please help

Anonymous said...

i would love to grow my own olive orchard i have a lot of backround about olive growing but i need help to find land as were to grow my trees

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