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Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Survival Suburban Homestead:  A Prepper's Twist on the Homestead Movement - Part 1, by D.M.T.

As a member of the architectural profession, I am acutely aware of the multitude of sustainable issues emerging within our own society and the civilized world in general.  Urban homesteading is beginning to emerge because many people are beginning to come to the realization that there could be a major economic crash, Natural disaster, etc that could result in a disruption or failure in our food distribution chain emerging as directly applicable to many concerns facing many preppers regarding any failure or crises resulting in a disruption or collapse of the food distribution chain. But, urban homesteading is not the same as preparing for a crash or fall of civilized society.  Urban homesteaders openly farm and garden with marginal concern for crop or property security, but their approach rivals that of some intensive commercial operations and so do their results and unless you’re truly going to be happy living off an immensely deep larder, you better have another plan. 
Homesteading has proven to offer that and it also provides ample opportunity and direct experience at farm life skills, and the rewards of self confidence and self reliance associated with taking control of part of one’s life by being responsible for putting high quality food directly on one’s table, which is something you reap the benefits of almost immediately.
The biggest security concern for the homesteader is the open manner (and inevitably so) in which they often practice these skills amidst a large population surrounding them.  A successful homestead will make itself a beacon to those that are unprepared, and make them highly vulnerable to those that loot and raid, regardless of their reasons why. 
Beyond direct criminal activity, the largest threat to civil suburban social fabric is the failure of municipal utilities and the breakdown of food and water supply, both of which can be implemented locally, but only in so far as localized security permits.  The context of the over-all situation will be the determining factor in assessing when and if to implement those projects and is the key to being able to homestead openly in suburbia. 
For homesteading to be an effective strategy in suburbia, local and regional security will have to be addressed, which is out of this purview of this article.   Until that has been established, alternative methods of survival must be implemented, which will be the focus of this article- what to do in the meantime.    
The Suburban Homestead- Homesteading in insecure times
The ultimate goal of the homestead is that it be self sufficient, meaning that you’re able to grow or raise all the food you and your family need on your own plot.  Clearly in a highly hostile environment only marginal homesteading should be taking place openly, as in these times security is the primary focus, consequently you should be living off of stored supplies, but that doesn’t mean that aspects of homesteading cannot be done covertly and securely.  The more out of sight and less labor intensive the better.  In fact, consolidating your homestead efforts to within the home itself must be considered an absolute prudent security measure, especially that of livestock production.
Something to Cluck About
In basic terms it is unlikely that anyone will be able to grow vegetable crops indoors to fulfill all their nutritional needs, as raising livestock can.  Therefore covert livestock farming inside of your residence should be your primary focus in planning and developing. 
From a nutritional perspective in a homestead environment little surpasses the nutritional value per square foot and time to raise of that of a chicken.  First it’s a food source people are familiar with and like.   It is also relatively small, easily managed, simply housed, has a short growth cycle (about 4 months) and provides a dual source of food; eggs and meat, whose feed can be readily stored in bulk.  A typical laying hen can produce over 200 eggs per year, with each egg providing about 155 calories each, with 12g protein and 10g fat.  That’s real world protein and fat, not third world protein and fat found in corn and beans.  And unlike vegetable crops do not need a tremendous amount of sunlight, space nor water to reach its nutritional potential. 
To understand my emphatic emphasis on chicken, review two studies done on nutrition; the 1944 Ancel Keys Starvation Diet Study in comparison to 1970 Yudkin Low-carbohydrate diet.  In each, the test subjects ate about the same nutritional level, 1,500-1,600 kcal per day, but with differing levels of macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) combinations, which were almost polar opposite of each other, but both were calorically at levels normally considered semi-starvational.  The major difference between them was that in Keys study (high carb, low fat diet) the subjects showed clear signs of being starved, obsessed on food constantly, were excessively lethargic and some developed dangerous psychological disorders to the point of self injury.  In Yudkin’s study (low-carb, high-fat diet) the subjects ate unweighed, unmeasured, unrestricted meals and suffered none of the ill-effects prevalent in Key’s subjects and were considered to be in good health.  The difference was in the volume of fat consumed.  Finding a replenish able source of high quality fat will be essential in a survival situation, as you just can’t get enough from a vegetable sources on a calorie restricted diet. 
In simple terms, moving from a standard American diet, to a strict calorie restricted vegetarian diet is going to make some people crazy and suffer the debilitating effects of a vastly modified diet.  I know I would be one of them- you may be too; just ask yourself does becoming a vegetarian on a calorie restricted diet ‘seem’ appealing to you?  I’m planning accordingly and that means chicken is going on the dinner plate and on the homestead in a significant way, to the point that the gardening efforts are in support of this primary food source, in the terms of chicken feed and then to my supplemental nutritional needs.
Bathtub Chicken
One of the most accommodating spaces to immediately transform into a covert farming space is any spare bathroom, which has a bathtub or shower.  These spaces by their original nature are designed to provide protection against moisture, provide natural light and ventilation, have surface materials designed to be washed down and are fairly durable, which sounds awfully like good (small) livestock farm space to me.  They are also rooms that hold the least amount of personal clutter and storage. 
An ideal application for this space is that of a battery chicken coop (a series of stacked cages) over the bathtub.  Within this volume it is possible to design a variety of coops for meat, egg and chick production in a highly intensive and sanitary manner.   A combination of 10 laying hens (eggs production), coop space for a cock, a trio of hens (chick production), hatchery for the chicks and broiler grow out space for 16 broilers (meat production), would produce approximately 5 eggs a day and a broiler chicken in a pot each week. 
While the family garage may ultimately serve as a better location for this operation, I doubt most garages are in a state of current use that would allow for immediate transformation into chicken production and the fact that most operational homesteads only operate with a single cock and a trio of hens and thus would be putting the coop before the chickens. This though, should be your ambition, as at that point you will be able to produce all the caloric nutrient needs of your family right in the garage.  It is unlikely though that you will need the volume of a two car garage to do so, and it is for this reason that I recommend that the chicken coop be isolated (finished and self enclosed) to the rest of the garage, leaving the free space for storage or other uses.
In all likelihood, if you live in a suburb that zoning does not allow livestock to be housed there, you can locate a nearby live poultry merchant and purchase the chicken and ‘temporarily’ house them at your residence- ‘for consumption’, if you feel times are getting shaky.  For those that are less risk adverse, have been known to openly violate zoning ordinances and to farm poultry until they are directly warned by authorities not to.  In most cases, they do so in the open will little consideration at doing so covertly, often with little or no hassle from neighbors or authorities.  The key to this is to be low-key about your activities, dutiful in maintaining sanitation practices, and respectful of your neighbors regarding positioning of the chicken coops and the scale and size of the operation.                 
The Achilles Heel of Chicken   
Chicken feed is inexpensive and can be stored in bulk, but the Achilles heel to this is you’ll eventually run out of stored feed and you’ll have to grow it or specifically find adequate substitutes and ideally those that don’t appear like a food source for people.  One of my favorite is a maggotry (a form of carcass composting) because it’s almost unheard of in the western hemisphere and solves multiple issues of waste disposal and pest eradication, while contributing greatly to feed supplementation.   
Maggotry in particular will be a benefit as it is a direct protein food source and  consists of little more than a bait bucket of rotting meat (spoiled vegetables, dead animals, chicken entrails- that’s you’ve butchered, etc ) that entices the neighboring fly population to spray their eggs on.  By stacking one bucket with a large screened bottom and containing the bait inside, onto another you’ve created the basic system.  When the eggs hatch and the maggots have fully fed and desire to pupate they tend to burrow into the ground, and in this case, will travel to the bucket below. 
A nice addition to this system is including a fly trap.  By cutting the top 1/3 of a 5-gallon water bottle off and inverting it back into the remaining bottle and duct taping it in place, you then can place this whole contraption on top of the maggot bucket.  After the parent flies have sprayed the bait with their eggs, they have a tendency to always go from a dark space (the bait bucket) towards light (the water bottle).  Once inside the water bottle they will not normally go back into the bait bin (due to the inverted funnel) and thus end up dying in the water bottle, awaiting collection.  In essence it’s a form of fly population control and breeding restriction combined.                
The maggotry can be as open or covert an operation as you wish (clearly an outdoor operation).  The beauty of it is that it doesn’t have to be a continuous operation though.  In fact, limiting it, I’ve found to have many benefits, the first is that the general foul smell is limited to a brief period and limited area and second that my ‘supply’ of rot is able to accumulate to a sizable portion prior to utilization for a larger maggot harvest.  A production run may only last a little over a  week, as that is typically the length of time for flies to find the rot, mate, lay eggs and for the maggots to grow to nearly full sized larvae.  The maggots can be fed immediately to the chickens or the surplus maggots can then be stored by blanching and drying until needed.  No refrigeration is required.
As a side note, the same smell of decay that attracted the flies will attract other animals and rodents as well.  Capturing them and integrating them into the rot bait rotation is relatively self sustaining process.  Keep in mind that rodent populations boom normally in the wake of catastrophic events.  Reducing their population is always a wise task, and integrating them into your food supply system even better one.  While I’m sure that I could consume the occasional raccoon, possum, rat or mouse I’d rather utilize them as rot bait, so that isn’t a delicacy I ever have to try.
[JWR Adds: Needless to say, consult your local ordinances before considering establishing a maggotry. If cycled properly, no flies will hatch and fly out of your maggotry. The life cycle is interrupted and a "full kill" (typically by incineration) is done before each fly hatch, and a new maggot batch is started. I must preemptively state that before you write to complain about this gentleman's maggotry suggestion keep in mind that this advice is given with the assumption that proper cycling and properly-timed full kills are accomplished.]
Container Gardening
One of the fastest ways to transform your home into a homestead is by containerized gardening.  Stocking up on several bags of peat, top soil, manure, potting mix etc, takes up surprising little room in a storage shed, is rather inexpensive and will be on hand and ready when you are, as are a large number of commercial nursery pots, their associative carrying trays and watering pans. 
The benefits of container gardening are multi-fold from a growing stand point; a strong measure of control over soil conditions (pre-purchased potting soil), vastly reduces the risk of plant diseases, pests, weed control, water usage, plant management ability, tight space utilization, transportability of the plants, extendibility of the grow out season (move them indoors) and requires a minimal amount of specialized tools and equipment, typically only a few hand tools.   As importantly, almost all ages and sexes can participate, not just strong bodied farm hands (think delegation). 
The most important benefit is that they can be started, indoors and away from prying eyes and moved about as needed, indoors or out.  This will be critical until regional security stabilizes.  
Nursery trays stacked up vertically on racks, in book case fashion, or in nursery bleachers takes up little room and the majority of your starter crops can get all the sunlight they need from a few windows.  Utilizing the same principals seedling grow pots will take up more volume, but by selecting crops that would minimize grow out volume, will produce more plants per window space.  In this regard small root vegetable crops like garlic, carrots and onions are an excellent choice, as are leafy greens. 
It will be important to divide window allocation between plant nursery operations, seedling grow out space, and high value plant grow out space (plants that would attract attention outdoors, like tomatoes.   One of the major benefits of having a plant nursery and seedling grow out system established is that new seedlings can immediately replace harvested outdoor vegetables and a system of rapid successive planting can be enacted, but also by having crops in succession you don’t noticeably transform a given area, by leaving freshly turned soil or by having a mass planting, thus calling attention to it.
Into the Open
 The majority of the outdoor crops should be small, low profile and lacking readily identifiable silhouettes and are nutritionally dense; root vegetables, such as potatoes, garlic, onions and carrots, are ideal which also can be readily grown in quantities throughout a suburban yard without drawing attention, and when harvested can be combined to make nourishing soups, stews and stocks or dried for storage.  The planting of these crops should avoid neat rows, regular patterns or formal concentrations.  They should be grown in the same manner and spaces that weeds would emerge from; along the side of the house, fence lines, shrub lines, former flower beds, pots etc…  basically anywhere they would be concealed and not looking like a crop.
In this regard, potatoes should make up the bulk of your root crop as it will be the largest producer and nutritionally dense food source and can be started indoors and transported outdoors after the seedlings have grown to about a foot in size.  Medium trash cans and open top barrels work well as containers for potatoes, but various methods should be employed so as not to call attention to the uniformity of cultivation, and hide the fact that it is a crop.   
For the most part, the large open expanses of lawn will have to go fallow, until localized security measures are reasonably in place, and is why I would stay away from planting grain crops, as they take up a tremendous amount of space, are difficult to conceal and are immediately recognizable as acts of cultivation, which will draw further scrutiny and unwanted attention.  I would also refrain from utilizing any portion of the front or side yards that are visible from the street.  Even if the plants are well camouflaged and positioned, you can still tip off their location or more importantly your efforts by showcasing your labor efforts- people with no food, don’t normally carry watering cans about.  
The Value of Good Herbs
A shadowing relationship to any garden crop is the inclusion of culinary herbs and spices that will enhance the flavors and seasoning of the staple foods.  Planning for, and doing so in appreciable volume will make the difference between choking down a meal and actually enjoying the nutritional value, especially if it’s a frequently reoccurring element.
Most people would not recognize growing herbs, as a valued food source, so in a time of crisis these can be grown rather openly and in volume, as long as they are situated to appear as weed over growth, to which many readily appear.  By mix planting root vegetables and herbs together it is possible to break up the massing of any single crop and effectively camouflage the overall activity.  Furthermore having large single groupings of Rosemary, Thyme, Marjoram, Sage, Oregano, Cilantro and Parsley, clustered in recesses, nooks, corners etc, will appear as major weed outcroppings and will likely go undetected. 
it sounds sad, but you can really learn something of value by observing the worst kept yard in your neighborhood, where at the fringes of maintenance weeds encroach and start to work at the seams of what’s being ignored.  The key is to learn and to apply those elements intentionally with food sources.  
Minimizing the Transition
The emphasis of the Homestead Movement is adopting a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle and by combining that with some of the best elements of the Survivalist movement you have an integrated life style that you can enjoy the benefits today and live a very similar one in times of deep drama.  Planning a homestead for survival is vastly more complicated than just growing food or setting up a garden, it requires a real understanding of the context in which you may have to survive.  Anticipating what that context is to be like, evaluating what you have at your disposal and understanding how those elements could work for you, will leave you in a vastly better position to not only survive, but thrive.

1 comment:

  1. Let's please not neglect perennials. It is very expensive in terms of time and effort, and risky in terms of the consequences of a crop failure, to rely solely on the planting of annual crops like vegetables. Instead, plant trees, bushes and vines that keep growing and producing year after year. They are sometimes more difficult to get started, or may not produce in significant quantities for a couple of years, but once they've reached that stage they almost go on autopilot. Also, once firmly established the resistance to drought is much higher.

    Nice article on the subject at Survival Blog: