Monday, March 16, 2009

Food Insurance by Harmon Seaver

(This came to me in an email, and the article is terrific, so here it is for you. First, I needed a break from my computer, from the blog, from the winter blahs, from everything so I disappeared for about a month. I've probably lost all the readers who visited here, for which, I am sorry. But I'll be back posting now that foraging season is nearly upon us and spring is springing out all over. I'm refreshed and ready to deliver once more. Enjoy the article! Um, typos are in the original as posted on timebomb.


[Practical Survival magazine Feb-Mar issue 1992]

Food Insurance by Harmon Seaver

Planting a policy against tough times
They're rioting in Africa
They're starving in Spain
There's hurricanes in Florida
and Texas needs rain.
They'r freezing in Siberia
There's strife in Iran
What nature doesn't do to us
Will be done by our fellow man.

Sound familiar? Even if you don't rememeber the Kingston Trio hit of the 60s, its message rings out endlessly on the front page of any daily newspaper.Try another headline which caught my eye recently - "El Nino is back!" Depending upon your locale, and the subsequent bane or blessing dropped in your lap by the last advent of that awesome atmospheric aberration, this declaration might be just enough to shiver your timbers. Or at least give pause to your current plans for next summers's garden.

Not only are we unable to control natural (or man-made) disasters, but we have little luck even predicting them. World-shaking phenomena like El Nino ( killing more than 1,100 pewople and causing an estimated $8.7 million in damage during its appearance) ebb and flow unhindered around the globe. Climatologists are just beginning to correlete the manifold vagaries of thsi global weather abnormality and have yet ot reallky get a handle on it. Predicatability seems unlikely.

Occuring on average four or five years, El Nino might recur in two years or not in ten. Its effect is definitely worldwide; while causing torrential rains and flooding in one area, this bizarre weather pattern concurrently brings devastating drought, famine and forest fires to another. Or opposite effects for the same period in subsequent cycles.

Airborne particulate matter -- volcanic smoke, dust and ash; smoke from industry, forset fires and slash-and-burn agriculture; dust from cleared land; exhaust from cars and aircraft -- can have a decided effect upon our weather, and consequently, our lives. Precisely what, however, is somewhat undecided. Climatologists and others debate whether these minute particles in the upper stratosphere warm our atmosphere by contributing to the "greenhouse effect" -- primarily caused by increasing CO2 levels (up more than 10% since 1850) - or cool the planet by reflecting and blocking incoming sunlight.

This latter scenario seems to hold the most water. Strong archaeological evidence suggests periods of intensified volcanic activity may have nurtured glaciers and triggered ice ages. Around the wrold, there has been a rise in volcanic activity since 1950, compared to the half century previous.

From 1850 to about 1940, particularly the Northern Hemisphere, went through a period of significant warming according to the National Ocenaographoic and Atmospheric Administration.But since 1940 there has been a distinct drop. England's annual goriwng season shrank by nien or ten days betwen 1950 and 1966. Sea ice retuned to Iceland's coasts after more than forty years virtual absence.

The only surety about weather is that it changes, and we have to change with it. When it rains we put on raincoats; when it freezes - longjohns. Likewise our gardening techniques are adapted to various weather patterns and seasons. Raised beds and plastic row covers work wonders in areas with cold wet soils, while irrigation becomes a must in sandy soil and periods of drought. Different types and varieties of crops can hold the key to success in climatic extremes.

In this age of uncertainty, prudent American families find it comforting to stock their larders with months, even years, worth of canned or freeze-dried foods. After all, agrarian societies developed from hunting and gathering tribes because agriculture is not only more energy-efficient, but provides additional security. Modern gardeners practice their art for often these very same reasons -- cost-efficiency and protection of both supply and organic quality.

Crop failures due to events beyond our control do occur however, and food supplies can become erratic or nonexistent given our current climate of social and economic uncertainty.

Even the master gardener, with the most well-developed plot of ground, cannot cope with some of the bizarre aberrations of El Nino, abnormally low temperatures from a nearby Mount St Helens, or the exigencies of war and civil unrest. In reality, most of our common food crops are relatively delicate, compared to wild plants. And if crop failure is extensive enough, those dependent upon commercial food supplies become desperate -- tremendous social upheaval results. The prudent gardener would do well to preapre now for such an eventuality by literally planting against misfortune.

Nature has provided a profusion of extremely hardy food plants. Compared to sissified garden and farm crops which needed to be pampered and coddled every step of the way, native food species (especially the perennials, trees and shrubs) are super plants. True many would cringe at the prospect of living all winter on a diet of beans from the Siberian pea shrub, Jerusalem artichoke tubers or duckweeds. But we'd live and we might even come up with some tassty recipes.

Not to suggest that everyone rush out and begin planting their hard won deep humus to shrubs, forgetting the okra, squash and melons. But most of us have some spare dirt, perhaps around the periphery of our yards. Some, like myself, have acres to root around in any way we please.

A hedge, just one form of our rainy-day crop might take, can provide privacy, windbreaks, shade, wildlife cover and feed; or even a secure, stiock-proff fence. All the while growing bigger and sturdier, ready to supply your family with emergency rations should the neeed ever come. Think of it as food insurance.

Can these trees, shrubs and hardy perennials really produce enough feedstock in small-area plantings to provide true alternative resources? Well, here's what Earle Barnhart said in Tree Crops, an article published in the Journal of The New Alchemists: "Tree crops can match row crops in both protein and carbohydrate yield per acre. Modern hybrid-grain crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans only outproduce tree crops such as Persian Walnut, filberts, Chinese chestnuts, honey locust and black walnut if they are highly subsidized with fossil-fuel inputs such as pest protection, weed removal, nutrient enrichment and constant, adequate water."... "large fields benefit from being sheltered; the approximate 5% used for windbreaks is well-compensated by higher productivity from the remainder. Tree products such as acorns and honey-locust pods can match corn and oats pound-for-pound as winter feed supplements for livestock." Or us.

"Other woody plants do even better, such as mesquite. This small deciduous tree, native to our Southwest, is so hardy some folks claim it is related to the coyote -- indestructible.! Cows relish its seedpods, and so did the Indians. Pods, minus the seeds, contain much sycrse, about 8-12% protein and are rich in calcium, iron and phosphorus. Mesquite beans which must be ground for human consumption, contain a whopping 60% protein." In fact the whole tree was of vital importance to early natives of the Southwest. The mesquite gives shade, building material, firewood, food and its fibruous bark can be woven into fabric. The honey mesquite in particular is a favourite of honey bees, hence its name: and both it and the velvet mesquite exhibit exceedingly attractive foilage, often planted as ornamentals.

Like the eastern locust, mesquite is a nitrogen-fixing legume. And also like the locust it has many sharp spines, making it ideal for trimming into a dense man-or livestock-proof hedge. Growing to 20 feet tall, this plant provides security in more ways than one. Prowlers or potential looters can easily be disheartened by such a barrier surrounding a house. Nor would its wealth be evident to the gaze of the average brigand searching for food stocks and other valuables.

Honey and mesquite locust grow well south of northern Oklahoma, southern Colorado, Utah and central Nevada. They both tolerate a wide range of conditions: 100-150 days of frost per year, up to 30 inches of rain (or as little as 6 inches), and they grow in sand, gravel, rocks, loam or clay; with either alkaline, saline, acid or neutral soils.

Mesquites withstand full desert heat, and during drought conditions they reduce their transpiration rate and water useage. Growth declines or halts, and the trees enter a resting mode, which they may maintain without permanent ill effects for long periods. Mature mesquite is also fire-survivable - the tops may burn but dormant buds will survive underground to send up new shoots.

Of course, while the mesquite might even survive a nuclear blast in its native area, sub-zero Minnesota winter would be too much for it. So for colder climes, a better choice would be the Siberian pea shrub. Hardy to -50F degrees, it approaches the mesquite in drought resistance.

If trimmed as a hedge, the Siberian pea shrub grows into a spiny, impenetrable 24-foot-tall buffer covered with nutritious seedpods. The young green pods are eaten as a vegetable, while the mature seeds contain 36% protein and are used in recipes calling for dried beans or peas. If protected from livestock while small, pea shrubs will form an excellent cattle-and-man-proof fence, providing nourishing livestock and wildlife feed and cover - all the while awaiting to serve you with life-sustaining fare in hard times.

Another similar leguminous tree is the honey lcoust, named for the sweetness of its pods and its attractiveness to honey bees. Here again, once shaped into a dense hedge, honey locust makes a formidable fence, provides a generous bounty of tasty, nutritious pods and seeds for both animals and man, and is an attractive addition to any yard.

These three trees also are excellent candidates for the poultry yard, dropping their seedpods in late fall and eary winter to provide superb fodder you don't have to haul from the feed store. Many find the mulberry to be outstanding in this regard also. A fast-growing tree, the mature white (or Russian) mulberry can yield 400 pounds of collectible fruit, plus additional amounts taken by birds and squirrels. Dried mulberries are a staple in Afghanistan. Netting is spread on the ground under the trees, and over a 30 day period about 75% of the fruit is caught, which amounts to over five and one half tons per acre. US Dept Agriculture analyzed dried ppulp from Afghan mulberries and found it contaied 70.01% invert sugar, 1.2% sucrose,, 2.59% protein 1.6% fat and no starch.

The Afghans grind their dried berries and almonds, but the Japanese find even more edible produce on the mulberry tree. They eat the tender young shoots and leaves, cooked or raw. While their white mulberry is not native to the United States, it may grow hardy and drought-resistant all across our country. Also, there are US-native species such as the Texas mulberry for the southwestern states, and the red mulberry. These trees are also trimmed for hedges, either alone or with other species.

Many other fruit and nut trees can add significiantly to our larder, and some are very handy -- almost unfailing within their range. Because of size and formidable root systems, trees and shrubs generally have an edge over their punier garden brethren. But there are many perennial herbs, forbs and grasses which do nearly as well, bringing a quicker return on your investment. While most trees take years to become profitable, perennials can provide a substantial harvest their first year.

One of the most remarkable plants is the Jerusalem artichoke. Widely used by early American Indians, thsi native is extremely hardy throughout the country, and generally disease-and-pest-free. It spreads rapidly -- some consider this a problem -- and is marvelously productive. Yield is about 15 tons to the acre, five times more than potatoes, and once planted it is with you forever. And established plot crowds out out all competitiors (it helps to rototill the plot every year or so) and so needs no weeding.

This tall relative of the sunflower can be cut more than once as fodder, and Jerusalem artichokes have also found success as a fuel crop - fermented and distilled into alcohol. Its tubers - relatively high in protein, potassium and B vitamins, are also very high in a form of sugar called levulose. Tubers can be left in the ground for hog pasture, or just dug as needed, since freezing does them no harm. Even tiny slices of the tuber seem to sprout the follwiong spring, assuring an endles supply.

Chickory, dandelion, and winter cress are a trio which should be on everyone's "must" list for early crops, and for forcing in the basement during winter. Some might wince at the thought of actually planting "weeds" in their garden, but when you want hardiness - they don't come much tougher.

Dandelion's leaves have four to five times as much protein, fat, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins as does lettuce; chickory is much the same, and both can be eaten raw or cooked. Roots can also be cooked like turnips or parsnips. Winter cress is even hardier, and sold commerically in some areas. Winter cress contains three times as much vitamin C as in equal amounts of orange juice, and as much vitamin A.

But why bother planting things which may be found wild almost everywhere? Simply because cultivation greatly enhances productivity and ease of harvest. Remember, our ancestors switched from gathering to growing for security and efficiency.

One more addition to our survival garden is comfrey. This lush green plant seems unkillable - as many have found when it spreads to where it isn't wanted. The early leaves are good pot herbs, and quite healthful. Up to 32% protein, with many vitamins, minerals, and a healing drug called allantoin is found in comfrey leaves and roots.

Allantoin is a valuable remedy for external and internal ulcers, and the only common source for the chemical is the fetal-ammoniac sac. Comfrey will grow in wet or dry climate, in the poorest soil. Its roots may reach down 20 feet or more to extract nutrients from subsoil, and comfrey can produce 60 tons per acre of green material. It is also very frost-resistant, being one of the first plants to come out in the spring, and one of the last to die in fall.

For those in dry climates, a necessary adjunct to the mesquite would be the tepary bean, long cultivated by southwestern Indian tribes. Although not a perennial, tepary is a true desert plant, often maturing after only one or two rains. The tepary bean is the most drought and heat-adapted food crop known. Far from being fit only for the palate of some grizzled desert rat, the tepary contains more protein than most commercial beans, and is mild flavoured and better tasting to boot.

Waterlogged? Enjoy the luxury of your own pond? Or even the possibility of making a shallow one? Then you can increase your organic food supply's stability and security onehundredfold. Homesteaders confined to a small city yard can still opt for a pond ala Rodale aquaculture experiments - a 12-foot plastic swimming pool. Work done by the New Alchemy Institute in this vein, with small-scale indoor aquaculture systems, is also worth investingating. Those fortunates who possess adequate land and water may well hold the key to a veritable garden of Eden.

Standard procedure for setting up a new household in some part of China involves digging a pit to mine clay needed for adobe blocks used in homebuilding. Afterwards, this pit is filled with water, and fish stocked therein. Pigs and chickens are usually penned beside or over the pond, and their manure used to fertilize the water, creating an algae bloom which feeds the herbivorous fish.

Subsequently, highly fertile water from this pond irrigates a garden which feeds the family --and the livestock -- so energy flows circularly, thus efficiently. A variant practice involves two ponds, each used alternately as fishpond-garden-fishpond. Or even with a third pond used for a rice paddy.

Whatever your aquatic possibilities or proclivities, pond culture opens a window of opportunity unparalleled in dry-land gardening. Even a shallow pond or paddy growing only cattails represents a backup food supply unequalled by any known farm crop. Here again, American Indians made wide use of this plant -- eating young cattail shoots, rootlets, flour made from its root stock, and even its pollen.

The Cattail Research Center at Syracuse University found yields of 140 tons of rhizomes per acre is possible -- with 30% starch content, this converts to 32 tons of dry flour. Rather incredible. If you do not favor the prospect of cattail flour three times a day, think how many hogs can be fed on 140 tons of starchy rhizomes.

Open your window of options a little more by deepening the pond. Wild rice, while not really a perennial, acts like one by automatically reseeding itself each year. With more protein and slightly higher fat-content than domestic rice, wild rice played a substantial role in filling dietary requirements of those American Indians blessed with it. Hardy up to northern Cnaada, freezing even to the floor of the pond will not harm it. However, yearly cultivation of the pond bottom or flowing water are necessary to control the spread of other aquatics. A strong erosional and/or depositional force of water current is nature's plow.

Rice will grow in as little as 2 inches of water or as deep as 2-3 feet, but will not tolerate large fluctuations, especially increases. Slowly decreasing water levels, all the way to the wet mud, are fine. Soil can be sand, gravel or mud. However, deep, oozy sediments of great organic content, where there is no current to stir up and oxygenate the substrata, will be too anaerobic to grow rice. Such environs suit cattails fine, however.

Deepen the hole a bit more, or at least one end of it, and fish farming becomes possible. At least 8 feet of depth is needed for overwintering in cold climates, unless there is an adequate flow of water to stop ice from forming solid all the way down. Warm-season-only fish crops require much less depth, of course, with three feet being quite efficient. Aeration is another possibility, but this adds complication, and we're talking about foolproof food here.

Another energy give-and-take can occur by "planting" duckweeds on your pond's surface. These tiny water plants are super durable, even living in the far north. Under good conditions they can double their biomass in three days to one week. Raked from a pond surface and fed to pigs and chickens - or people - duckweeds provide amazing amounts of food. And, of course, ducks forage their own. Duck potatoes, of the arrowhead family, are another aquatic edible, once a staple food, by Indian tribes and waterfowl alike.

The list could go on and on, but my point is made. The orthodox forms of agriculture we are most accustomed to are not the only ones - nor are they the most efficient or reliable. The idea of a traditional American farm as the ultimate in productivity and advanced technique holds little water in reality. Nor are customary food crops able to provide us with true nutritional security, however much we enjoy their taste.

Our agricultural system, our flagging economy - indeed, the whole entity - appears more fragile every day. We think of America as a corncopia of plenty, but how many of us realize that no city in our land has more than a three-day supply of food on hand at any given time?

El Nino is coming - El Chichon is rumbling.

Start today to plant a hedge against misfortune.


Moxie said...

Welcome back!!! Blog without obligation.....I feel it keeps things fresh and more real! Bring on Spring...that's what I keep saying....the winter blahs need blasted outa here!!!

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, we missed you!

Reading today's post, I was reminded of a book I checked out of the library recently, _Edible Forest Gardens_ (2 volume set), by Dave Jacke, Eric Toensmeier.

I love the idea of using native plants to set up a forest garden. Once established, the plants would require relatively little care, I wouldn't be tearing up the land every year, and most people wouldn't even recognize it as a garden. Stealth food!


Patricia said...

Hi Moxie,

Thanks! The break did me good. A lot of doom and gloom was just getting to me and I had to go outside and remind myself of the real world, where live real people and living plants and the land.

Hey Anon, thank you. I saw that title in our library's catalog, but it was out. Next time! I love the ideas in the article I posted--great ideas for very survival oriented plantings. Food that will keep on giving, wild hedges, weeds, even the duckweed. I'll have to look into duckweed, we have about 10 ducks on our pond.