My wife’s late grandfather always maintained ownership of about 100 acres of farmland near his home in central Ohio. Everyone wondered why he bothered. The land did not bring in much in terms of lease income, although it was paid off and the income offset any taxes so the holding cost was only the opportunity cost of deploying the sale price elsewhere. He kept the land because, as a child who had lived through the Depression, he always wanted the ability to “put calories on the table.” Not food on the table per se, but calories.
There is a slight, but very important difference between the two terms. Most gardens, mine up to this point in my nascent gardening career, put food on the table but sorely lack in replacing any appreciable amount of calories. I still get the bulk of my calories from foodstuffs that I purchase and, when looking at carbohydrates in particular, I purchase those calories from relatively conventional channels.
Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times deals with this exact issue. There may come a time when gardeners are forced to sustain themselves, their families, and quite possibly the larger community without the benefit of many modern conveinences like synthetic fertilizer, irrigation, or modern “terminator” seeds that are unable to be used from generation to generation. Deppe’s goal is to provide the wisdom to move a step beyond that and toward a more resilient—hence the title—form of small scale agriculture that is truly sustainable in all senses of the word.
Focusing on five key crops—potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs—that are the lynchpins of self-reliance in terms of food. With these five crops an individual can hope to put enough calories on the table to break free or survive without conventional agriculture. Considering the precarious nature of our modern systems in the face of global climate change, energy insecurity, and a generally piss poor economic climate it is imperative that anyone wishing to be prepared for calamity heed Deppe’s wisdom.
Of the five crops mentioned above the only one I see consistently in the gardens around my neighborhood is squash. People here in eastern Iowa love their squash. It’s like a ritual every year for bundles of squash to appear on desks at work with notes attached announcing “Take one! Please!” However, I know of almost no one who grows corn or potatoes and only a few who grow beans, mostly the fresh green kind as opposed to dry varieties.
The tone of the book is one of the things that I enjoy the most. It is not a diatribe against the evils of modern, industrial agriculture or the current corrupt capitalist system. Her intent, as she says, is “to suggest a gentle, moderated response” to the possibility of hard times to come. It is not that it is likely that “mega hard times” will afflict us, from a statistical standpoint, but learning the tools and pathways to be increasingly self-sufficient is a low-cost way to mitigate some of that risk.
I do quibble with a few things that are stated in the book. In particular, I find value in compost. Her contention is that once a garden gets to be the size of an acre or more, compost is a futile exercise. However, the fertility of soils can be greatly impacted at a micro level even in a contiguous acre and compost is one tool in ensuring adequate soil fertility. I realize that this is a small difference of opinion, but I think it merits pointing out because on the scale that most of us will garden compost is a vital tool—if not the religion that Deppe claims it has become to some gardeners.
The other quibble that I have is with her regionalism. She is very upfront about the focus of her efforts being geared toward the climate in the Pacific Northwest, but for a great swath of this country those conditions are nowhere near our local climate. I guess that is why I have the Iowa State University extension to answer all of my questions about growing food in Iowa.
Plus, I do not know if I agree with her belief that ducks are superior to chickens. Why? I just love watching the strange behavior of chickens. It fascinates me. Ducks tend to bore me.
In the end, this book is part of a tool kit for future resilience and sustainability. Just like learning to do more things yourself instead of depending on large supply chains is about resilience in the face a disruption. One last note, buy this book in paper form as opposed to an e-reader. Think about it for a moment. What good is a book for hard times when it is on a device that may not have power? You cannot run out of juice with a paperback.