Thursday, June 11, 2009


I speculated recently that if Americans provided just 10% of their own food via gardening and hunting, Monsanto would have a cow. I wondered further: Could any elected official propose such an alarming change in the national status quo? More importantly, Could the average American even pull it off?

Ten percent. Every day. Michael Pollan spent a year and wrote a whole book about making just one meal on his own. It seems unlikely any more casual effort would do the trick.

Yet, of course, millions of Americans routinely fed themselves almost entirely from their own gardens, barns, pastures and woodlots up until about the middle of the last century. Obviously it can be done.

Henry challenged us to try to calculate what a 10% self-sufficient garden or game larder would look like. There are probably 100 or more ways to calculate this, and mine can't be the best. I know some wise-cracker will leave a URL in the comments that has it all tallied up. But for a few minutes' scratching with a pencil, here are my thoughts:

First, what we grow in the yard: Beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, lettuce, strawberries, and blackberries.

What game we commonly eat: Rabbit, dove (also quail and rail), squirrel and deer.

How much of each? A quick count. We have:

  • 40 bean plants
  • 8 tomato plants
  • 40 lettuce plants
  • 2 pepper plants
  • 1 blackberry bush
  • 3 strawberry plants
  • (plus herbs, not counted)
My hawk hunts mostly small birds and rats he eats by himself on the spot. We are not usually hunting "for the pot." But he does get about 30 rabbits a season and maybe 20 table-ready birds, all of which we eat. Rina catches or I scavenge (don't tell) about 5 squirrels for gumbo each season; and we have all the deer products (stew meat, sausage, etc) we want from friends. Even so, we don't eat as much of it as we could.

You need, say, 2000 calories a day. A nice round figure, pun intended.

10% of that is 200 calories, call it the Revolutionary Threshold. We can extrapolate that to 6000 calories a month per patriotic American male.

How much home-grown or self-killed food do you have to eat in a month to join the Revolution?

Here it gets real fuzzy. I found a few sites online that provide rough calculations of caloric value for fruits and veggies. My wife, who does some nutritional counseling in her work in athletics, has a nice computer program that lists same for game meats.

I just now ran around the yard counting fruits and plants and weighing cherry tomatoes, etc., on the hawk's gram scale. Super-duper fuzzy now. But here we go.

  • 100g beans (20 beans) = 25 cal.
  • 100g cherry tomatoes (5 ch.tom.) = 17 cal.
  • 100 grams lettuce (20 leaves) = 13 cal.
  • 100 grams peppers (2 peppers) = 18 cal.
  • 100 grams blackberries (20 berries) = 20 cal.
  • 100 grams strawberries (10 berries) = 70 cal.
So right there you can start your engines. You could, for example, eat 200 blackberries a day and call yourself a Revolutionary Hero.

But say that's not practical. Say it's more berry than you'd care to eat. And since my single bush probably makes only 300 berries in an entire season (which only lasts a couple months), you see it's not even possible with berries alone.

And to calculate how much garden I'd need to provide 1 person 200 calories a day, I have to know how much garden I have. Back to the plants:

  • 40 bean plants X 20 beans per month = 800 beans = 1000 calories a month
  • 8 cherry tomato plants X 100 tomatoes per month = 800 tomatoes = 2,720 calories p/m
  • 40 lettuce plants X 40 leaves per month = 1600 leaves = 1040 calories p/m
  • 2 pepper plants X 2 peppers per month = 4 peppers = 36 calories p/m (WOW)
  • 1 blackberry bush = 300 berries per season = 300 calories
  • I won't go into strawberries; mine sucked wind this year.
Our Revolutionary Hero would need 6000 calories of veggies per month. I'm making (by the above super-fuzzy mathematics) a little over 5000 calories. Another bean bed would put me in the running.

But what about my wife and kids? Count Revolutionary Wife at 4,500 calories per month (10% her normal ration), and Revolutionary Drummer Girls at 5,000 per month combined, and that will require a garden about three and half times the size of our current one.

Doable, but not actually being done.

But hey! We haven't even killed anything yet!

Meat may be murder, but it's also chock full o'calories. If you round the already-pretty-close caloric values of those above-mentioned lean game meats, you get about 130 calories per each 100 gram serving. If you eat a supper of those 3.5 ounces of game, a side of 20 beans, a salad of 20 lettuce leaves and 5 tomatoes, and you top it off with a handful of berries, you've got your 10% daily intake right there. Welcome to the Revolution!

If it wasn't nearing my bedtime, I'd break down our rabbit-to-deer ratio for those who've read me this far. But it isn't necessary. I think it's clear that if you combine game meat (1 deer a season, a few good rabbit and dove hunts), with an active garden on a normal-sized suburban lot, you can provide 10% of your caloric needs without ever stepping foot in Whole Foods Market or bowing at the foot of Monsanto. If you fish, you're in like Flinn. And if you brew your own beer, brother, you've got it made!


Matt Mullenix said...

Another thought: If providing 200 calories a day for yourself each month seems too complex, why not provide 2000 calories a day three times a month? Feed yourself three times a month and make roll call in the Revolution.

I think there's a self-help book in this. A spot on Oprah.

smartdogs said...

I love this idea and feeding yourself is one place where living on the edge of Midwest farm country is an advantage. We've got a garden a lot like yours. Add in an herb bed, a small orchard (a dozen mixed trees) and an acre of hillside covered in wild raspberry / gooseberry bramble. We added several currant and honeyberry bushes and a few grapevines. Also a flock of 10 laying hens.

Our biggest bit of provender comes from raising a weaner pig and some lambs at a friend's farm. We split the cost of the stock and feed and when she needs a break I go up and care for our shared critters along with her horses, chickens, turkey, dogs, cats and daughter. I also barter dog training for broilers and other goodies.

I'd love to hunt but it will be at least a year until I can shoot again. The brown trout in the creek behind the house are still within my reach though!

Matt Mullenix said...

Great point!

The extra element (or one of them) that makes self-sufficiency possible is a little ironic: having help. A group of like-minded folks, doing for themselves while also sharing resources and working together at larger tasks, can do more than anyone alone.

It doesn't even "take a village." The membership of one suburban street could take themselves pretty much off the grid if they could and would work together. Neighborhood seccession. :-)

Congratulations to you on your efforts!

K said...

"Meat may be murder, but it's also chock full o'calories"

I've been lurking here for a while (great blog, BTW), but that comment made me spit out my coffee whilst laughing!

As for the 10% - I recently bought a house with a large yard (for the city), and can't wait to start gardening, but I'm waiting until next year; I'll be spending this year trying to figure out if some trees need to come down, where the sunny/shady/wet/dry spots are, etc. But eventually, I hope to grow the majority of my own veggies, and, with raspberries, rhubarb and strawberries, some of my own fruit. Too bad I neither hunt nor fish, or know those that do (the dog would like to get to know some hunters too!)

K said...

(Sorry - that sounded a bit bad - the trees might need to come down because they are 80+ years old and starting to rot at the base, not because I'm cutting them down to make a garden!)

Henry Chappell said...

A very impressive analysis, Matt. Many thanks. This motivates me to expand operations a bit, and of course hunt and fish a little more - as if I need an excuse. A couple of well-placed trotlines would get me a lot closer to the 10 percent goal. Jane will eat small game, but she loves catfish.

Matt Mullenix said...

K: Thanks for stopping in and speaking up!

Henry, let us know how your calculations look.

The Revolutionary Wife had some interesting input. First, she said I don't need 2000 calories a day. I just let that one go. But also she reminded me that even though our garden may not be providing 10% of our daily caloric intake, it IS providing, on many days, 100% of our intake of fresh food.

Even on days we eat only a side of beans, or whatnot, we are providing ourselves 1 or 2 of the recommended 5 daily servings of veggies. That's 20-40% right there, and we do that almost every night.

When you "factor in" the really incalculable value of fresh food to daily health, I think even a little gardening goes a long way.

Anonymous said...

Some fuel for your late night fire, see below for the goods on venison:

Steve Bodio said...

Haven't done the math but our garden is about like yours minus berries and plus some cucumber relatives. We get game from the warden and a guide even if we don't draw (NM is all- draw for big game)-- for the past four years we have had a MINIMUM of an elk and an antelope a season (last season two elk and a deer, almost all gone). Add a lamb raised for us by a friend-- close enough-- and small game-- and we get close I suspect.

Anonymous said...

"Could the average American even pull it off?Ten percent. Every day."

not a chance. I think the first step would be getting people used to evenbuying raw ingredients to cook with, instead of pre-prepared meals. For example, buying flour and yeast for bread or even a head of lettuce instead of pre-made salad bags. Even this sounds like a stretch for most...

Matt Mullenix said...

Steve I bet you are more than close. Sounds like you provide 100% of your own meat for much of the year. Plus, I know you provide your own cooking fuel (have seen the woodpile!) and live about as frugally as an Internet-capable Homo sapien can. You and Libby are more like 75-percenters. :-)

Anonymous: Your note and K's make me think that "avergae American" is probably not a very useful category on my part.

Maybe it is more useful to ask if those Americans with enough yard and the ability to hunt (or some contact with local hunters) could this pull this off? That would be almost everyone in the suburban South, for example. But maybe not many in the country's urban centers, where the majority now live.

One thing I am cautious about, an this comes directly by example of Wendell Berry, is attempting to define "a significant number."

There is no way to know how many or what percentages would constitute significance, since all parties will have their own perfectly defensible opinions on it.

Berry's solution is to do what he can toward self-sufficiency and community cohesion, according to his own understandings of their needs, and to set an example for others to do the same if they choose.

"A significant number" of them may already be doing that, who knows? Is the spread of Whole Foods Market, or the Prius, some evidence of a large-scale change in direction? If so, it has not yet gone far enough. It still has too much in common with the status quo. But perhaps the foundations are shifting.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful,,I applaud Matt for his research! I have been doing some bird surveys in the steep terrain of my beloved Driftless area of SW WI and it means wading through your basic deer browse trying not to fall down and getting lots of exercise and your brain intensely involved with listening to bird song. I know it's obvious to all but this time of year,deer eat very well! and we all try to get cattle and chickens and all of our meat animals out in the sun to graze and get those omega 3s, my desire to hunt deer increases with every step I take,,I can't imagine my ear next to the report of a deer rifle, if only a RT could handle them,,Maggie

Anonymous said...

Not to encourage any illegal activities here, but simply for interest's sake, any of you guys read the outrageous(but extremely practical and applicable)book "Survivor Poaching" by Ragnar Benson(not his real name, and with good reason!)? Excellent reference on how to get your meat calories in the country, suburbs, or city!.....L.B.

Steve Bodio said...

Maggie-- maybe you need a Golden eagle!

mdmnm said...


You can do pretty well in the urban west, too, if you hunt; particularly big game. The last dozen years or so I've been getting two elk every three years. Between that, the occasional deer, 50# salmon/year for the last six years (not exactly carbon friendly, what with flying to AK and back), a dozen or so ducks, half a dozen grouse, and the occasional quail or other bit of game the only meat I purchase in a year is a half dozen chickens, one pig (to roast whole for a big party), about 8# shrimp, 1 q. oysters, and last year I bought a tray of pork chops. Upon reflection, I also consume a lot of meat.

The garden end is where I fall down. My yard is too shady to grow much and I won't take the trees out. A few pounds of tomatoes, a few peaches in a good year, and culinary herbs is all I manage. With a more garden friendly yard, 10% would be easy, though.

Matt Mullenix said...

"Upon reflection, I also consume a lot of meat."

That's hilarious. :-)

Heather Houlahan said...

Without a doubt, the most efficient way to get a significant number of calories home-grown on a regular basis is to keep a few laying hens.

Even an urban yard can be adequate.

The question becomes, does the industrial corn and soy that goes into the chickens count?

If we are being ruthlessly honest, I think it does.

But if you are feeding the hens scraps, maybe scavenging from restaurants or shops, and/or if you have room for them to free-range and get a lot of their food from the environment, then you are not only home-growing a lot of calories, you are home-growing a lot of high-quality protein and Omega-3 EFAs.

Plus the hens provide fertilizer for the vegetables (once suitably aged). And can help with pest control.

I think we are easily busting the 10% threshold just with eggs, but not if you count the feed input against the home-grown. The goats may be ready to milk next spring, or it may be another year. They are feeding almost exclusively on browse. The garden will be producing soon. Apples, cherries, blueberries, rhubarb, girasoles, black walnuts, hickory, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries -- and more coming -- for permanent plantings.

And a hundred meat chickens scheduled for freezer camp on July 8; they are probably getting 20% of their calories off range.

Deer season starts in November ...

I think we can do it.

Gregg Barrow said...

“Deer season starts in November ...”

This is bringing about a serious shift in paradigms. Soo has been reading and calculating the 10% figure and, she has decided that if would deer hunt, we could easily exceed this. Prior to last year, I don’t think I’ve ever been in the woods or on a lake without a dog or three, and I cannot think of anything more boring then sitting in a deer stand. Growing up in Ontario, I helped build and set up several moose stands (a deer stand on steroids) for friends north of Timmons, and even sat in one for a day hoping to get a picture of some bear that were frequenting the area. I appreciate my friends that are afflicted with buck fever, and I appreciate them even more when they drop by with those seasonal gifts wrapped in butcher paper and twine. But unless we move to a state or county that permits running them with dogs, I can see a chicken coop in our future.

Heather Houlahan said...

Greg, I am totally with you on the weirdness/wrongness of going to the woods without the dogs.

As are my dogs, who become crabby when they see that rifles are part of what would otherwise be exciting preparations.

I'm a little different from most deer hunters, in that I spend significant time sitting quietly by myself in the woods year-round. This is when I am serving as a training subject for another handler's search dog.

The trick is to transcend boredom with awareness. I'm not saying I never get bored, but there are mental disciplines that make a virtue of necessity.

It also helps to have a hunting partner, or several. It's popular to mock the social aspects of deer camp, and for some people it's obvious that "hunting" has little to do with their motivations, but I think it would have been impossible for me to start hunting without mentors/buddies.

It was from them that I learned some unwritten truths, such as "If you are more patient than all the once-a-year fatasses, they will get down out of their stands and start moving around at 11 am -- pushing the deer right past your stand."

That's for our social ecology of deer season; YMMV.

Gregg Barrow said...

“The trick is to transcend boredom with awareness”

Excellent point Heather,

And my “awareness” has recently taken a shift as well.
Following hounds in the past, it has been all about listening and making determinations about track age and difficulty. Basing assumptions on how fast the dog is moving as well as the intensity and type of bark (bawl, chop, time in-between..etc)
Then, like a good SAR handler, taking into account weather and terrain when determining track condition and how well the dog is doing.
More an auditory and mental exercise.

The squirrel hunt that Henry, Matt and I participated in was educational in more ways then one. First, I’ve never hunted with a cur, but just as important was the sign, scrapes and bird kills that Matt and our guide were able to identify. The visual aspect (except for training retrievers, most of my hunting has been at night) took on a whole new meaning for me.

All these years working with police service dogs, I’ve always preached to the “dual certified” and “trailing only” handlers to take advantage of men like Joel Hardin and Jack Kearney. It has been my not so humble and often erroneous opinion that their dog handling skills would benefit from a foundation in man tracking.
Lots of reasons for that, but awareness to the sign around them would increase their faith in the dog’s abilities (a real problem for many handler working a trailing, cadaver, and even drug and accelerant dogs).
All these years of preaching and I never saw the need for this type of awareness in my private life and its passions.
Sad isn’t it :-)

Still learning.