The Urban Homesteader Food Pyramid

I’ve been thinking about self-sufficiency: what that means, and what is truly achievable in a small space, such as our 1/3-acre property.

The key to eating more food from your own backyard, it strikes me, is to have a diet that focuses more on foods that can be grown in your backyard.

Even though we are relatively serious when it comes to the grow it-cook it-eat it philosophy, the vast bulk of the calories we consume still come from somewhere else: our meat, fat, grains and sweeteners travel some distance before arriving at our fork, and I still happily buy pineapples and bananas and the like periodically. And chocolate and coffee are just a given, right?

So if we were to start thinking about getting more and more of our calories from our own land, small as that plot of land is, what would that look like?

This is what I came up with:

This pyramid is a thought exercise based on our diet (which includes animal products), our space limitations and our climactic realities. It isn’t a recommendation for any specific dietary plan nor a suggestion that the diet pictured is the healthiest or best in any way.

It does take into consideration space, which is of course at a premium on a micro-farm. There is an emphasis on expanding beyond the physical boundaries of the backyard to glean berries, harvest wild greens and hunt or fish as your time, location and circumstance allows.

Through intensively managing the growing space in an urban homestead, and though taking advantage of any other wild foods that might be free or low-cost for the picking, I think something sorta close to a self-sufficient diet might be possible in limited space.

But this would require turning the typical diet – even the typical eco-aware diet – on its head. Grains would be gone because they simply aren’t space efficient when compared to starchy root vegetables like the potato.

Animal products would be very possible, but eggs would be by far the easiest way to get animal fat and protein into the diet. Backyard rabbit-keeping and off-farm hunting and trapping would expand meat options.

Personally, if I were to embark on a mini-acrage self sufficiency quest, I would put a lot of energy into researching aquaponics, the hybrid system for growing greenhouse-perfect fruits and vegetables with the waste nutrient of fish raised for seafood.

In aquaponics, the general idea is you feed the scraps to the worms, you feed the worms to the trout (tilapia in warm climates), you feed the fish poop to the plants, and you get to eat both the fish and the plants. I’ve read that in a well-run aquaponics system, greens and strawberries and trout can be harvested all year round from a small-space, closed system. Very exciting stuff.

Sweetener would be honey, that nectar of the bees, of course. Beekeeping at a small scale requires very little space and bees are far more self-sufficient than any other backyard productive animal. Most recipes that call for sugar can be adapted to honey. And besides, without flour, you wouldn’t be doing that much baking anyway.

This is a Food Pyramid that reflects our space and climate and how we might be able to eat, if push came to shove. I don’t mean it to be a suggestion or a proscription at all – your Urban Homesteader Food Pyramid might look very different from ours.

If your diet came only from your backyard, how would it change? What would it look like? Could you do it?

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Comments

  1. Interesting. Lots of thoughts here. On the tail feathers of my first chicken slaughter, I’m looking at the goat and rabbit meat harvesting a little differently (as in more labor intensive) – thinking can woman survive on eggs alone? Bees and aquaponics, those I find more exciting.

    This pyramid is totally doable in its purest form. Life without grains would get boring though.

    • Actually, I think it was Novella Carpenter in “Farm City” who said that she found rabbit slaughter much easier than fowl. There’s no plucking, the skin comes off kind of like a sock, and the gutting is much simplified. If I remember correctly, I think she said it took somewhere around 30 minutes for her to butcher a chicken from start to finish (as a novice, obviously if you do it more regularly you’d be faster), even longer than that for a duck, but rabbits took about 10 minutes.
      Clearly, there are some logistical issues with larger mammals, like goats, but I think the increasing number of mobile abattoirs could address that nicely.

  2. I’m trying to cut out grains and legumes anyway, so your pyramid would work for me. (You don’t list legumes as a source of protein–is that because they would take up too much space?) I would add mushrooms, either wild-harvested or home grown. You can grow a lot of shiitake or other mushrooms in a small space, and once started, they will keep bearing for a long time. I can’t grow much in my present situation–1.3 acres, but heavily wooded. Mushrooms and a few greens, and possibly berries, would be about all. Plus chickens–I hope to have my own eggs at some point. I’m considering rabbits and/or guinea pigs as microlivestock for meat. We are allowed hens, but no goats or other large livestock in this neighborhood.

    If you had the room, you could add nut trees. Depending on your location, you might be able to wild-harvest some nuts. Acorns were an important staple food for many Native Americans, including tribes in Northern California. But they take a fair amount of work to process.

  3. This is brilliant. It really makes us think.

    Could I do it? Absolutely. But what is missing from my tiny homestead in Los Angeles is protein. That would be a challenge here. (I think it would get very boring to live on chicken alone in the meat category) Also, I think pooling resources with neighbors would be the way to go. Trading honey for eggs, etc (which is what I do now).

    I think I would really, really miss home baked bread. That would be tough.

  4. queenofstring says:

    I am growing edamame here for the first time this year ( pacific northwest) so you could add soya to your list if it works! We are trying to be self sufficient in a couple of things in our first big growing year and continue to improve on that year on year. We definitely dont have enough room to feed 5 of us, even if we adopted the 18ft of boulevard the council say must be grass!

  5. Corn and quinoa are relatively easy to grow, if you have the space. They could add some welcome variety. I agree with Judith that legumes could be an easy way to add in some protein.

    • Amaranth might work, too.

    • Absolutely but “having the space” is exactly what’s at issue. I love grains and corn and whatnot, but I think in a very space constrained, urban self-sufficiency type scenario, it makes little sense to focus on those crops when they are so much more efficiently grown by those with greater acreage.

  6. My family would not survive on a diet of only things we can grow. We could certainly grow a lot more than we currently do, and I’m learning a lot about that. But, in the end, we live in an apartment with a small balcony (and big windowsills) in Chicago. We choose not to try to be self-sufficient, in all honesty. We think it’s really neat when others do, and we learn a lot from them, but it’s not the path for us for now.

  7. This is a really useful pyramid. I often think about this diet-from-my-backyard-if-necessary scenario, but I’ve never tried to really work out the details. Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener has lots of useful things to say about this, of course: squash, beans, corn, potatoes, eggs as the manageable, practical, calorically dense enough to survive diet. Corn is that much harder here on the coast in BC, our season is just that tiny bit shorter than Oregon, where Deppe is. But I grow enough potatoes for us, we’re good with eggs and chicken, we fish and crab. I’m attempting more beans and squash this year. But I haven’t totally given up on grains. I eye the neighbour’s unused lawn, and contemplate areas like a potential strip that runs the whole length of our property; apparently a 3 or 4×50 or 100 ft strip could grow a reasonable amount of wheat or barley or oats that could give some grain, some cover crop, some hay substitute for the chickens. Not ready to take on that project yet, mind you, but I don’t think we have to totally do without.

    Fascinating to contemplate!

  8. I think about this subject a lot as well. For many reasons of course, but especially because the food tastes so much better.
    This year I am attempting to grow a little more of our caloric staples. In the previous years I have had more of a side dish garden. Abundant for sure, but this year I am seeing what is possible for us on a small scale. I am growing lots of potatoes and other roots and lots of dried beans. Whenever plants come out I toss in some more bean seeds which has the added benefit of improving the soil. We have had chickens for a few years and one of our hens is broody. To use her instincts to our advantage we have provided her with a dozen fertilized eggs for her to raise. The hens will stay as layers and the roosters will go into the freezer. The chicks are due to hatch in a few days! Raising our own meat is a first and I’m excited for this new adventure in self-sufficiency .
    I don’t know if it’s possible to be totally self-sufficient on my 1/9 acre. Each year my goal is to improve the efficiency of what I do and to do the best I can in my space and community and we will see what happens.
    By the way, yesterday’s father’s day post was so sweet. Made me cry as I thought of my awesome husband. Thanks for all you offer.

  9. I’ve found this to be absolutely true in our suburban nanofarm: “Grains would be gone because they simply aren’t space efficient.”

    We concentrate a lot on root vegetables (potatoes and sunchokes, in particular) and squash/pumpkin varieties.

    We also harvest maple syrup as a sweetner, and an interesting article, extolling the virtues and health benefits appeared recently in the local big “city” paper’s food section. It was pretty interesting, and neat to have that external validation of something we just knew – intuitively.

  10. Vestpocket Farmer says:

    A thought on grains—never underestimate the power of guerilla gardening. :-)

    Also, you can double crop a ten by sixteen foot winter wheat bed (the size an old OG article said would provide flour for a family of four for a year) by running young poultry or even baby goats over it early in the spring; excellent, high protein grass. Just don’t overgraze it, and it will still provide you with grain heads in late summer or early autumn.

    • Hey Vesty – I’d need some serious evidence that 160 square feet of wheat could provide enough grain to keep a family of four in flour for a year. I’ve seen numbers in the 4-8 pounds yield per 100 square feet for wheat. Lets say you are super grower (and, since our climate sucks for wheat, this is a long-shot) you get double the high number. Thats still only about 25 pounds of wheat, far less than my family would use in a year if we were using wheat as a staple food.

      • Vestpocket Farmer says:

        I hope to provide you with such evidence…maybe next year. :-)

        Firstly, one would want to take an approach that at least gives a nod to the Fukuoka-Bonfils method—prepared bed, underseeded with a nitrogen producing plant, very close spacing, week it like any other garden bed.
        http://www.green4v4.eu/content/fukuoka-bonfils-grain-cultivation-method
        Also, finding the correct variety can be a challenge, even though the Pacific North Wet did used to be a known grain producing area (settlers era….). If I recall correctly, that old OG article expected the 10×16 plot to provide about a loaf a week (or, about 52 pounds of wheat), but don’t quote me; I’ve been bottle feeding baby goats every couple three hours around the clock for the last several days and am running on three of my original eight brain cylinders. Besides, I’m not a big bread eater and would have to convert that loaf a week into cups of white sauce and chocolate cakes. :-D Or maybe fresh ground whole wheat and honey doughnuts with orange glaze for Sunday brunch….TOTALLY worth growing and grinding your own for that!

        Secondly, many people would argue that grains should not be a *staple* in any case but rather a supplement, a change of diet or even just a comfort food for those of us raised with it. I would personally not give the storage space to grains that I would to root vegetables.

        Being primarily a secondary vegetarian, my focus would be to raise grain for juvenile livestock so I’d probably want even more space than you think you would! And we’re back to guerilla gardening… ;-)

      • Vestpocket Farmer says:

        Wait—what? Four to eight pounds per 100 square feet?
        –0-o–
        That’s got to be dryland, conventional farming yields. The low end there is only 29 bushels an acre, unless my math is off, and that’s barely survivable for a farmer unless he’s got a boutique crop. No wonder the banks own the farmers. >:-( Anyway; the expectation is that the Fukuoka-Bonfils method is exponentially more productive, if not designed for modern ag machinery… Good discussion and interesting numbers here
        http://www.permies.com/t/1568/permaculture/Fukuoka-Bonfils-winter-wheat-method

        Now you’re making me itch. I think I’ll go dig out the bag of about forty-eight different wheat varieties I received from the National Germplasm Repository and do some speculatin’ on whether or not I can get a patch in by the end of the month…..because I’m not doing anything else…. :-P

  11. I love that you mention gleaning as a way to harvest fresh local food. Here in Portland there is an over abundance of fruit and nut trees that are left unpicked. I started volunteering for an organization a few years ago that picks fruit and nuts from trees (owners sign up). The volunteers get half and the rest goes to the food bank. Last year I harvested enough apples, pears, plums, kiwi berries and walnuts to eat, bake with and preserve for the whole year! I still have apple butter and walnuts in the freezer. (Portland Fruit Tree Project)
    I also have taken up fishing as a way to have low cost, local food that I had something to do with attaining. With just a little research on ODFW’s website I found numerous lakes and ponds within 20 miles of my house and the stocking schedule so I know the best time to go. Just the other day I learned to clean my fish and had three fresh catfish on the grill within a few hours of being caught. Such a wonderful feeling!
    I have a little side yard space at my apartment that I fill to the brim with vegetables, but unless I want to eat chard and snap peas every day right now I still need to supplement my veggies from the farmer’s market. I LOVE your blog and have learned so much, thank you! I am also just about to go find some brussel sprouts starts so that I too can eat them at Thanksgiving!

    • Erin – in Portland, if you start your brussels sprouts anytime in the next 2-3 weeks from seed, your timing should be great. Thanks for reading!

    • Thanks for the tip on the Portland Fruit Tree Project – currently looking up volunteer opportunities now.

      Great article Erica. I have TONS to learn (and a day job to quit) before I could ever consider being self-sufficient but I love learning more about it! So far I’ve added a plant a year to our garden – except this year it was hens! Slow and steady :)

  12. This chart lists yield of storage crops per 100 square feet of planted area. Winter squash, potatoes and onions yield 5-10 times what various grain crops and beans yielded. Interesting stuff. http://www.cityfarmer.org/albie.html

    • The problem with this chart is that they don’t list calories per square foot. Beans have a much higher calorie density per pound, so although you yield fewer pounds, the number of calories generated per area is actually more than, say, squash. I’ll try to get my shit together enough this week to post some tables (generated from Jeavons) of calories/square foot – that’s really the metric you want to know.

  13. I’m working on it! Every year, turning more lawn into growing areas. And I think if we devoted more room to beans for drying (I’m doing twice as much this year as last), increased our mushroom growing/harvesting (we are just starting with that this year), increased the quinoa growth (tried to this year), and got chickens for eggs (plan to!), we could have our protein needs met. Wheat would be the main problem, with the amount of bread we bake. And I have not tried growing my own yet. Perhaps next year.

    I noticed the same things others did on absent items from your list. Nut tress/bushes, mushrooms, quinoa & amaranth (both can provide a pretty decent harvest in a small space), and beans and legumes for drying could all add some protein.

  14. I love that you’re thinking about this! We have (at the moment) enough acreage to produce a bit more of our own food, but your pyramid looks remarkably similar to what I figured we could produce locally. We grow a lot of potatoes and a lot of winter squashes. We do our own poultry and pigs (the latter provide our main source of cooking fat).

    One thing for people to consider with chickens for meat is it probably makes more sense have dual purpose birds and butcher them as needed. Young birds are roasters, older birds are stewers. You eat a lot more stewed chicken that way, but don’t have to process a whole bunch of chickens at one time.

    Oh, and don’t forget maple syrup for sweeteners! You can make syrup from big leaf maples, which grow abundantly in the PNW. Not quite as sweet as sugar maple syrup, but still very tasty.

    • What’s your yield on the maple syrup? I’ve always heard that the reason sugaring isn’t generally done here is because the trees need a good hard freeze prior to the spring thaw for a the sap to flow well. But maybe it’s really cultural reasons, that high sugar trees aren’t native here and the practice just never got going. One of the houses I grew up in had a sugar maple (not big leaf), so I’ve always wondered if it could be done here.

  15. We grow sunchokes for the “privacy fencing” they provide, but I’ve heard of drying the roots and making flour from them (among other ways to cook them). I wonder how hard it would be to bake with sunchoke flour. We have room for some corn, but it would probably have to choose corn for cornmeal or sweet corn, but not both. Protein might be difficult. We think we have room for chickens in accordance with city code, but we aren’t absolutely sure yet. Husband is very allergic to rabbit fur, so that would probably prohibit meat rabbits. Can’t have anything larger where we live right now. Hunting and fishing would be oru main way to procure protein.

    Sweeteners could be a problem, too. I don’t think we can get a bee hive past the codes inspector.

  16. If you haven’t read Carol Deppe’s Resilient Gardener yet: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! There’s also a great series of audio interviews with her by a ‘prepper’ who’s actually a real nice guy and lets her do all the talking. I’ve catalogued them here (great for listening while weeding): http://digthisdigthat.blogspot.com/search/label/Carol%20Deppe

    Interestingly, a post-soviet agricultural census in Russia found that the vast majority of vegetables, fruits, and potatoes were grown by households rather than commercial farms, as well as about a third of the meat and a quarter of the grain. So, your sense is keen! However, I believe it is key never to conceive of the urban homestead as totally disconnected to the larger foodshed. The items you choose to focus on here are the perfect things to grow, but drawing the line in a sensible place probably includes supporting those production technologies that offer big returns to (sustainable) economies of scale, including local grain farmers and pasture-based meat.

    As always, great thinking. And great graphics! What program are you using?

  17. Perversely, most beekeepers end up using lots of sugar to keep their colonies strong when there is no nectar available. Beekeeping without any sugar input is challenging, here in the PNW. Not impossible, but resulting in drastically lower honey surplus and possibly also higher hive mortality.

  18. I have been thinking about how a girl could live on a micro farm for a couple of years. I often wonder how pioneers did this. We buy some items in bulk. We are working to grow other items.

    __Instead of thinking of “meat” we think “protein”. Included in the protein list are eggs, dry beans and other plants that we try just for the protein they provide. Fava beans are a new favorite. Garbanzo beans get some space but in the cold wet PNW they are iffy. The problem with eggs is feed for hens. As of now we are still buying feed. Aquaponics is the latest experiment. We are thinking crawdads and maybe perch. So far it is a lot of work. We would like to find a fish that would eat a fast growing water-plant that can be grown on-site. Fishing local lakes give us a much needed break from micro farm life.
    __The bees we raise are Mason Bees so there is no honey though fruit is abundant from their work.
    __If we grow grain (sweet dream on such a small space) it will likely be corn, barley or oats. This year we have added a test patch of corn near our sweet corn patch. We have no idea if it is worth growing for either ourselves or for our hens but we have to try.
    __The number one lesson we have learned from trying to live off of our micro-farm is to eat seasonally. It does not have the same meaning in the PNW as it has in California. Here it is June 18 and my strawberries have not fully colored out.
    Deb……still buying pasta, coffee, feed, CHOCOLATE, cereal, oil and popcorn. (in this economy, even buying less and less I am spending too much)

  19. I’ve been thinking along these same lines, to the point of working up spreadsheets with yields and macronutrient content to figure out how to grow the most of a reasonably balanced diet in the smallest possible area. (Really should type this up). The tables in Jeavon’s book “How to Grow More Vegetables” have been really useful for this exercise, even though they’re down in Northern California so the yields on many foods must be adjusted to account for our PNW climate. One tricky concept, which you mention in your post, is caloric density per pound vs. caloric density per square foot yield. The problem with root vegetables is that, while they yield a high number of calories per square foot, their caloric density per pound is low, so you have to eat a huge amount of them per day to meet your basic calories needs. A pound of beans has the same calories as 6 pounds potatoes, for instance. While it can be done — prior to the famine the Irish were eating 5-8 lbs of potatoes daily — that’s a lot of roots to eat and store. In my calculations I’ve tried to balance the two types of foods, because as much as I like beets and parsnips, 5 lbs a day is an awful lot. Several legumes, flint corn, and quinoa all yield calories/square foot in the same range as many vegetables and tree fruit, so I’m comfortable including them in my thought experiments.

    Another issue with eliminating legumes is maintaining soil fertility in the long run. I’m not sure it can be done without significant rotations of nitrogen fixers, unless you switch over to a perennial permaculture system. You can use cover crops (which often also double as animal feed), but if you’re going to allocate space to cover crops, why not just generate some human food too?

    Anyway, here’s what my Urban Homesteader food pyramid would look like:
    - Nuts (hazelnuts the most realistic in a PNW urban setting)
    - Fruit and honey
    - Animal products (I’d argue that fat, not protein, is the most important macronutrient provided by eggs, rabbits, etc. You can grow plenty of plant-based protein, but good fat sources are notably lacking. But that’s a whole ‘nother essay.)
    - Vegetables
    - High calorie density foods (beans, corn, quinoa)
    - Root vegetables

    Thanks for the discussion, great food for thought!

    • Vestpocket Farmer says:

      Hardly any fat available from rabbit—search on “rabbit starvation”. What you want for fat is a nice, rolly polly lard type hog….like a pot belly pig. :-) Small space consideration, low freak-out personalities so fairly easy to house and handle (YMMV!), grows and fattens on just about anything.

      Of course, here in the PNW, salmon is an obvious answer, too.

      Also, there is at least one variety of olive tree that will grow and produce in this area.

  20. Man do you seem to tap right into the ‘mulling’ of stuff that bounces about in this head of mine. So could I provide enough food for my family? I still have a ton to learn and there are some things that stay put as obstacles. 1- is that we rent, and even though it’s 5 acres, most of it is protected wetlands. Along with that, even though our landlord has been incredible about the fact that our original herd of 5 goats has grown to 8 with a guard Llama, and we now have 3 chicks we are raising, there are limits to where I can spread out. The owner, wants the lawn, so I mow a lot and of course it’s where the most sun is. 2- is that our goats are rescues and we are truly torn about becoming part of the ” problem” if we start to milk. 3- we both know we don’t have the ability to slaughter our own meat. Now, could I if I had too? Yes, and I guess that’s the trap, that can keep me from becoming truly self reliant. So what i’m doing is learning and trying to grow stuff I have never grown before,potato’s are one of those, and I’m trying to learn as much as I can about freezing. I’m aware that the slope is steep and I think that if I can learn to freeze what I have grown, then it buy’s me time to learn, how to can. Oh and I’m going to start to dry, stuff. How I wish, I where farther along on this journey, but I’m not, so I read your blog and the amazing responses from all the people who know more than me, and dream! Oh and we are doing our first CSA this year and our first box is this Thursday WOOT! Oh one more thing! If we could figure out a way to NOT name every animal we might be able to get around the slaughter thing. As I write this I must tell you that ‘ Fiddle’ our wonderful 8 week old Barred Rock has started to crow! Our response? Run to the library to get every book we could on roosters! We are doomed……………..

  21. Gretchen says:

    I don’t know if it’s possible but I’ve wondered if for the space challenged minifarmer who wants to grow grains….go vertical? Would it be possible to grow a Wall-O-Weat? It might make a good shade to the south side of a house through the really hot days of summer producing both grains and straw which has so many uses. It might make harvesting easier…could you use some kind of sheeting material below to gather? The reverse side could possibly host low light veggies..mushrooms..small livestock treats.,you know the kind of weeds they think are gourmet and can’t be prevented from growing anywhere. I could for sure see it as a huge windsail =))) I would be the one tromping around two counties away asking locals if they had seen a garden fly by.

    It’s probably a crazy idea but I do wonder.

    I just found your blog yesterday and absolutely love it..so much useful information. Thank you so much for posting your experiences.

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