Thoughts & Essays

Re: Subsistence Farming & America’s “Self-Sufficient” Farmers

Dr. Sarah Traber, a crop and food safety scientist among other accolades, wrote a pretty fascinating thread about the “self sufficiency” of American farmers this morning. You can read it starting here, but the gist is that despite the way American farmers tout their “self-sufficiency” and various other independence-related myths, most of them actually raise only about $200-$300/year worth of the food they eat.

After reading her thread, I was about to be all “Pfft, we did better than that when I was kid!” because we always had a medium-to-large garden when I was growing up. Then I had to think about it for a second, and…

Like, we ate something out of the garden for dinners and sometimes lunches basically every day, mid-summer-ish through mid-fall-ish. Three or four months of the year? When I was very young we still canned a lot of things, so, we ate out of the garden for longer then. Say 6-8 months of the year, maybe?

But all the things we ate were fruits and veggies we would have bought canned or frozen. And those wouldn’t have been any kind of expensive for us. So even if you figure for 6-8 months, like, there’s no way that added up to a lot of savings on the grocery bill. And that’s not even figuring in time spent and expenses of growing the garden, canning stuff, paying for access to u-pick fields (which we did, but not often).

I feel like we probably never hit $500/year in savings. But we did eat a lot of fresh fruits and veggies we grew ourselves, so now I have thoughts about how expensive food is? Our food system is weird.

Also, all things considered, there wasn’t a ton of variety in what we grew, so maybe we weren’t getting a huge range of nutrition? I remember cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, beans and peas. Let’s see… potatoes, and always watermelon and musk melon. Bell peppers a few times. I guess that might cover the basics?

Pumpkins, too, but I don’t remember ever growing fall veggies like other squashes or gourds. We had a pear tree we canned from for years, and I seem to recall apples from my great grandma’s. We’d get various kinds of berries, when we visited u-pick fields.

I tweeted the above as a thread in response to Dr. Traber’s thread, and she pointed out, “that’s a pretty good spread tbh” (and retweeted my thread), so between that and all the other commentary, it looks like we were actually doing all right nutrition-wise. 😆

But all the comments also got me thinking about how difficult it is to grow a garden and how much work goes into feeding yourself.

My great grandparents had a farm where they grew wheat and hay (I think), along with having some livestock and chickens, but they’d retired, sold off or rented out their land, and gotten rid of whatever livestock they had before I came along. My grandparents, I think, had a small farm for awhile, not sure what they grew. But that was also sold off before I came along.

So by the time I was a kid, it was my grandparents and their two youngest, my dad and mom and my younger brother and I, and my dad’s sister and her son, and we all lived right next to each other and had gardens. My aunt had the biggest garden. (I have no idea how large, in my tiny-child memories it seems huge, but as an adult I know it wasn’t massive. “Fairly large” is the best I can do at the moment.) My grandparents had one about half the size, as did my parents.

We all shared the work and produce that came out of them, and I remember getting together with everyone to can stuff at my grandparents’ house. But that was ten of us working three fair-sized gardens to provide what was a pretty decent supplement to our groceries, but still not enough food to feed all of us.

And it was not a small amount of work, either. I’m digging back 30+ years for these memories, so I can’t call them entirely reliable. We weren’t toiling for hours daily under the hot sun in hopes of lasting out the winter or anything like that, but working and harvesting those gardens was a regular activity for five adults and five kids of various ages and usefulness for three seasons of the year. It was enough work that the canning stopped and the gardens started getting smaller and smaller as us kids got older and busier, as my mom went back to work, as my grandparents got old enough to make gardening harder and harder on them. I’m pretty sure the gardens were gone before I was in high school.

We grew a pretty good amount of food, enough to be eating it regularly throughout my childhood, but for all that work and effort, it wasn’t enough to feed all of us exclusively. And we never had chickens or bigger livestock, either, nor were we a hunting family, so we never produced eggs, meat, or dairy.

That was all 30+ years ago, when we were all a lot less busy with life, and doesn’t take into account the cost of supplies we needed. The idea that anyone in this day and age of constant work and hustle could just hare off into the hinterlands and subsist only on gardening and a few cows is a little bit ridiculous. I mean, I know people do it, like homesteaders and whatnot, but they’re doing that fulltime, mostly, and they ain’t getting rich at it.

You hear a lot of people – and not just farmers – bragging up their self-sufficiency and independence these days. Usually conservatives and libertarians, but sometimes the hippies get in on it, too. Usually the bragging is accompanied by a strong tone of “I don’t need no help from the gov’ment so nobody else should have/need any either.”

The next time you hear that, feel free to roll your eyes as hard as possible, because if you put any thought into it at all, even the simplest things, like growing a garden, require an absolute crapton of work and a whole system of infrastructure and assistance to accomplish, and still often fail to produce enough for a family, when they don’t fail entirely.