The Great Sunflower Farm Food Experiment

By Cam Mather

Ever notice how everything gets blown out of proportion these days? Everything has to be a big deal. You can’t just cycle across the country like people did 20 years ago, now you’ve got to come up with a cause, and a slogan, and a Mission Statement, and at the very least, an impressive name.

So this year we’re running “The Sunflower Farm CSA” which is an okay name, but I’ve decided I need to turn up the hyperbole on it. So I’ve been experimenting with other names. “The Most Totally Awesome Food Growing Vision” … that sort of thing.

But I think I’ll settle on “The Great Sunflower Farm Food Experiment.” It was an experiment on a number of levels. First off, I was checking to see what it was like to be a market gardener after all these years of giving my food away. It’s a whole different can of worms charging people for your produce. It’s even tougher when you’re growing organically since most people spend much of the year buying conventional produce that looks pretty darn… pretty.

That part of the experiment has gone well. So far the feedback has been great. I was paranoid for the first weeks but have mellowed out a bit as each week we’ve been able to fill each box with cosmetically appealing, and healthy and nutritious produce.

We supplemented our produce with strawberries from John Wise and blueberries from John Wilson (since we don’t grow enough of either of these to share with the CSA.) I also have a friend called John Wordsworth. It seems strange me to that I deal with three people named John “W” on a regular basis, but I digress.

The second aspect of this experiment was to determine if our water would hold out in a drought. It has. This is a huge relief. It was pretty close to the wire and I was almost at the point of having to let some stuff die, but we’ve had a few rains lately and we’re past harvesting some of the stuff that I had been watering, so the pressure off on our water system has eased somewhat.

The third and most questionable part of the experiment for me was wondering if I could grow enough food from our gardens to feed the 11 families who are part of our CSA and have enough left over for our own needs. In terms of what I wrote about in my book, “Thriving During Challenging Times,” this was the most important part of the experiment.

We are all very much plugged into a very industrialized food system. The bulk of our calories come from large-scale farms, which use a huge amount of energy through fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels to till, plant and harvest. I continue to ask myself this very important question; How much of my own food can I grow? I’m a carbo-tarian. Or a wheat-atarian. I love bread. I love pasta. I love cake! We use a lot of flour and although I’ve grown wheat, it was a small trial. The majority of my calories still come from someone else.

So if the zombie apocalypse hits, and the zombies don’t get to my house, but take out the traditional food infrastructure, will I starve? This is a poor analogy because lets face it, the zombies will be after the easy pick’ns like fans at sports events as opposed to wheat farmers who are usually well armed and have combine harvesters to plow through the throngs of zombies when they invade the farm.

Each week I start feeling better and better about my ability to be completely self-sufficient in terms of food production.

We have about 1 acre under cultivation. There are also a number of other areas where I have been building up the soil in preparation to expand the gardens, but right now I am focused on what’s ready to go. And when I see what we’re producing I feel pretty good about our ability to feed ourselves.

A huge aspect of the question of self-sufficiency revolves around what you eat. I know I’ll offend a few of you with this suggestion, but homesteaders who want to derive a large number of their calories from animal protein are going to have to have way more acreage at work. When I see how much hay our neighbors’ cows were eating while they were staying in our paddock, I realized that I would have to start chopping down our forests if I wanted to eat beef. I’d need big hay fields to feed them. Pigs might be a bit better since they seem to eat almost anything and also do a good job of “tilling” the ground like natural tractors. They would still need a lot of feed for many months of the year. Chickens seem to require the least additional land available to support them. They do like to chase down insects and are happy with many of our scraps like potato peels and things. But I’m still buying the bulk of their diet from our local feed store and so in order to be self-sufficient I’d have to set aside a fairly large area set to grow them oats and wheat and grains to get them through the winter.

The reality is that most homesteaders cheat and use outside suppliers for things like animal feed. Well it’s not cheating; it’s just easier to buy it at the feed mill. Many of us “could” grow the hay or grains to feed animals for the whole year; we just choose to let someone else do it for us. (And as I discovered with my wheat growing experiments, there’s a certain economy of scale that the big producers have.)

The easiest way to be completely self-sufficient on a small piece of property would be to be vegan. No animal products at all. This won’t excite many carnivores, but it is a fact.

On the other hand, a farm that integrates animals and allows you to build up soil through animal manure is a very good working model as well. I would suggest if you want to eat beef you find yourself a farm with a hundred acres of hay fields.

I still like a bit of cheese and some dairy products and I’m pretty happy that our “Ladies” in the hen house are providing us with eggs. They are doing a marvelous job of recycling grains from the feed mill and table scraps and grasshoppers into high quality protein. Quite honestly I’m not sure I’d be able to get as much physical work done everyday if I didn’t start with a big plate of scrambled eggs and home-fried potatoes and onions and toast (from wheat grown by someone else). Oh and coffee. But hey, if we have many more July’s like this year I’m sure I’ll be able to grow coffee here in Canada soon.

I haven’t worked through the whole calorie thing yet… how many calories you need, how many you can produce from your acre or however large your garden is. But I do know that when I see how much we’ve produced this summer on an acre it would provide us with a pretty good start. We’d just eat a pretty boring diet with a lot of potatoes and frozen corn and peas and tomato soup and oats and things.

All these vegetables will need salt. On icy days sometimes the snowplow drops some pretty big chunks of salt on the road. So if I get out there right away I could probably scoop up a pretty good supply of salt. Does that count in my quest for self-sufficiency? And will there be snowplows during the zombie apocalypse? Of course there will! I can’t think of a better way to take out an approaching mass of zombies on the road than with a snowplow.

5 Responses to “The Great Sunflower Farm Food Experiment”

  • Connie Murray:

    Its always good to be prepared for the impending Zombie Apocalypse! I haven’t tried growing wheat but have grown corn but not eaten it because “something” (possibly a squirrel) always tears it down. Also have had some success with potatoes (Irish white type not sweet potatoes). I find the potatoes grow way better in dry, sandy soil than heavily composed soil. You could probably survive for decades on potatoes alone — fried, mashed, steamed, etc. So far my sweet potatoes have produced lush vines but little in the way of edible tubers. If I had to get salt I could go to the ocean, get some water and boil it down till nothing was left but salt. For my hens, I specially order organic feed but supplement their diet with leftovers from our table. They are ravenous omnivores. But I doubt I could ever be completely self-sufficient — what would life be like without Twinkies!

  • Cathy:

    If I remember correctly, you have 150 acres. As you expand your garden areas, put temporary movable fencing around those areas and put a tractored hen house inside there. I suspect your wasteing money buying feed and feeding your chicken three season of the year unneccessarily because of your sentemental attachment to your “ladies.” If you must buy feed out of guilt, throw cracked corn on the ground when you visit them, to say hi and steal their eggs. They will till the area and keep it weed free. All you have to do is move the fence after they have retired to the hen house.

    Check and see if the road salt has added chemicals to prevent caking before you forage for it. You can also buy blocks and #50bags of salt at the feed store and stock pile the bags. There are also salt beds all over the world. Take a road trip “in your spare time” and harvest your own. I have bagged some in Utah, Eastern Washington, and Arizona.
    Or do as Lewis & Clark the next time you go to the ocean and make your own or cut out the money middle man and barter homemade BC bay salt for garlic.

  • Another great post with lots of good info to guide me on my homesteading path! I had actually wondered whether Sunflower Farm had animals – I haven’t heard mention of any besides the “ladies”. I enjoy hearing your perspective on the pros and cons of various self-sufficiency ventures.

    Just skimmed through an article in Mother Earth News on their 2012 Homesteaders of the year http://www.motherearthnews.com/modern-homesteading/living-the-good-life-zm0z12aszkon.aspx that has a wide range of homesteading lifestyles. The Mathers were nominated, but not in the top 7 – click through from the top 7 article to read of several more homesteaders.

  • Neil B. Orleans:

    Hi Cam,
    Brett L. Markham, in his book “Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre” states that you can grow 85% of a year’s worth of food on 700 square feet of garden (“raised and intensively planted). He provides ideas regarding planting methods, weeding, and preserving the harvest. He lives in the North East U.S. His facts and figures are from personal experience and years worth of meticulous notes.

    Thanks Linda for the info on Coltsfoot ash. I never heard of it before but will be looking it up.

    Thanks for your garlic, Cam and Michelle. It’s been great for pickling this year!!!

  • FYI Coltsfoot ash may be used as a salt substitute. The herb also has a few medicinal uses. It often grows at the edge of a forest.

    Linda

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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