My year in calories: The 2012 Challenge

Last year, our local paper, the Cape Cod Times, did a story about Kevin and me and our flock of turkeys. We made the front page (it was a slow news day), and there was a gigantic picture of Kevin, above the fold, carrying a turkey. There was a smaller picture of me, and the story had an in-depth account of our attempts to get our food first-hand.

For weeks, we were regularly recognized. People would stop us and say, “Hey, aren’t you those people who live off the land?” Most people thought it was interesting, and we had some excellent conversations with strangers. It made for a problem, though, when we went to Stop & Shop. The question become, “Hey, aren’t you those people who are supposed to be living off the land?” They’d peer into our basket to see the chronicle of our failure.

“Paper towels,” Kevin would say. “We’re buying paper towels.”

We never aspired to live off the land; as fans of inter-connectedness, we don’t value self-sufficiency as a goal. And a good thing, too, since we’re way too lazy to put in all the work required. We just wanted to see what kinds of things we could get by hunting, gathering, and growing.

But looking back over the year in first-hand food got me wondering. Just how much sustenance did we have to show for the unconscionable amount of time we spent hunting, gathering, and growing? So I did the math. I made a list of everything we procured, estimated the quantity, and calculated the calories to see what percent of our annual yearly requirements we fulfilled.

I figure Kevin and I, between us, knock back about 5000 calories a day, which comes out to 1.8 million calories a year. How many of those 1.8 million were first-hand?

Let’s start with the big-ticket items. We raised six turkeys and six ducks, and we gleaned one roadkill wild turkey. That’s a total of 48,500 calories (I’ll spare you the calculations). Then there were the eggs, about 25 dozen this year, for another 22,500.

Moving on to the water, we caught about ten striped bass, 25 bluefish, 4 trout, 4 sea bass, and one magnificent tuna. It came to about 170 pounds of actual fish, for 87,000 calories. But that wasn’t all. We got 20 pounds of lobster, 10 Jonah crabs, and a whole mess of shellfish (a gallon of steamers, 15 cups of chopped clams, and about 500 of our own oysters). All of these are pathetically low in calories, and add up to a mere 12,000.

That’s it for “animal,” and we move on to “vegetable” and “mineral,” where the caloric news isn’t nearly as good. Mineral, particularly, comes up wanting. We made pounds and pounds of sea salt, and have not a single calorie to show for it.

On to vegetable. The single biggest line item was our hundred pounds of bland, watery squash. It was a little hard to figure the calories, since it was clear that Sasquash isn’t nearly as calorie-dense as other winter squashes. I guessed at half, about 100 calories per pound, and tallied up 10,000.

The other significant yield was tomatoes. We harvested about 40 pounds of them, for another 3200 calories.

From there, it’s on to leafy greens. We had a lot: collards, kale, mizuna, radicchio, romaine, beet greens, a weird Chinese green, mache, catalogna, and herbs up the wazoo – mint, basil, tarragon, chives, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. This is a wild-ass guess, but I’m estimating we had about 30 pounds, total. Unfortunately, leaves don’t add up that fast. And, although calories vary, I went with a middle-of-the-road hundred calories per pound. That’s a measly 3000.

The rest of our garden yielded:

1 quart of strawberries
5 lbs of rhubarb
10 lbs. of beets
6 lbs. of onions
15 lbs. of cucumbers
a ton of hot peppers (about 6 c., chopped)
15 bell peppers
10 eggplants
6 delicata squash

All this comes to a paltry 8,300 calories.

“Animal” and “vegetable” don’t cover fungi, and we had some of those – five pounds of shiitakes and another five of wild mushrooms, for a total of 1500.

There were some miscellaneous odds and end. A handful of raspberries, a couple tablespoons of honey, ten perfect figs, a few pine nuts, a couple handfuls of wild onions, two asparagus spears, several stunted carrots, and a whole bunch of cattail shoots that we didn’t eat because cattail shoots are not very tasty. I’m saying 1000 for the lot.

In summary:

Poultry   48,500
Eggs   22,500
Fish   87,000
Shellfish   12,000
Sasquash   10,000
Tomatoes   3200
Greens   3000
Vegetables   8300
Fungi   1500
Miscellenia   1000

Drumroll, please. That’s 197,000 calories. Call it 198K, to be generous, and to make the math come out to an even 11% of our yearly calories. And, to be clear, we didn’t actually eat them all. We gave things away, we froze things, we bartered. But we also ate some of last year’s frozen things, and got some great stuff in trade (like a quart of our friend Dave’s maple syrup). The point of the exercise is simply to get a glimpse of how hard it is to sustain yourself on what you get first-hand.

It’s really hard.

A few changes would up our percentage considerably. If we raised a pig and managed to shoot a deer, we’d have most of our protein needs taken care of. In the garden, we’d need to be better gardeners overall and to do more with staple crops like beans and potatoes. If we could manage to keep a beehive going, the honey would add up fast. An apple tree would help a lot.

We could also turn that 11% into 12% just by eating a little less overall – something that would help Kevin and me lose our collective extra thirty pounds.

The 11% will never be 100% – we’re not giving up wheat or rice, wine or beer, mangoes or bananas. Cows and goats aren’t on the agenda, so we won’t be making our own yogurt or butter. We will always have chocolate. Even so, I think we can do better next year, and I actually have a goal: 20.12% of our calories from first-hand food. (Yeah, you see where this is going.)

I know a lot of you out there do some of the same things we do. If you’ve ever tried this exercise, or want to give it a go, I’d be very curious to see what kinds of numbers you come up with – despite the fact that yours may make mine look pretty pathetic.

And if anyone else want to shoot for 20.12% in 2012, let me know. We’ll make a game of it. We’ll trade ideas. We’ll offer moral support. C’mon, it’ll be fun.

Happy New Year.

23 people are having a conversation about “My year in calories: The 2012 Challenge

  1. I do truly enjoy your blog.

    As to beer and wine, if you get your honey going, make some mead. Incredibly easy and the nectar of the gods and one of the oldest adult beverages out there.

  2. Since my poor garden here is situated right smack in the middle of the most hostile micro-climate in Bend, I think I grew about .0001% of the calories I consumed.

    Gathering for me is all about the pounds around my waistline. So how do I lose the several new who have gathered there?

  3. I am fascinated by the idea of self sufficiency and am taking baby steps. Around here, the two older fruit trees were proliific this past summer, plenty of figs and plums. The 2 pomegranite trees gave about 9 fruit, not bad for their first year in the ground. The first year grapevines were pretty, but no fruit, either. The avodado looks like it is frost bitten, will have to see if it survives. So I’m no-where near you and quite a bit below Margaret in terms of calories produced vs consumed, I don’t think my calculator goes down that many decimal places.
    This spring I’ll do a garden with the usual tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onions. Perhaps a few chickens later?
    I love to read your blog and wish you all the best blessings for the coming year.

  4. I suspect you did better than 11%. Have you actually tallied the calories you two consume in an average day? Unless one of you has a fairly impressive exercise habit that you’ve never mentioned (or I don’t recall reading about) I’m guessing 5000 calories per day is overestimation. 2000 for an average adult is about what they say to aim for, and neither of you is seriously overweight, so you probably haven’t been overdoing it by that much. Pare back your daily caloric intake estimate to even 4500 and what does that do to your percentage?

    I’ve got the records to run calculations, but frankly I think it would depress me too much. It’s just not how I want to look at our endeavors. At least not this year. Our harvest underwhelmed in 2011. Maybe next year’s harvest tally will make me want to play along.

  5. I am up for any opportunity to nerd out and quantify stuff, or run experiments and test hypotheses. Perhaps we won’t make the goal or 20.12% but it would be interesting for me to understand how much we do provide for our own needs. You may have to construct some simple guidelines, you know, to standardize: e.g. if we barter for something, do we count the calories of what we ate, or what we traded away?

    Count us in.

  6. T
    I think you’ve done really well, many of the thing on your list could be doubled or trebled in calorific value very easily now you’re past the proof-of-concept phase. A pig would be a really good idea – I’d have one if I had the space.

    My question is this: how would you go about working out how many calories there are in a nice plump Doe? The last Doe i shot I shared with the guy I stalk with and it lasted me about about 6 weeks eating no store bought meat and feeding anyone who turned up at the house.

    I’m assuming things are different in your neck of the woods but here Rabbits are easier to shoot in significant numbers, squirrels more delicious but much more labour intensive to shoot.

    Happy new year

  7. Mike — Mead was most definitely on my list, back when I harbored a hope that I could actually keep a hive alive. We’ll see what happens in the spring …

    Margarate — Ah yes, those extra few pounds. I hate those extra few pounds. Kevin and I are trying to lose ours the old-fashioned way — eat less and exercise more.

    Monica — I envy you the climate that lets your grow figs and plums and pomegranates and avocados! If you get even mediocre harvests, you should get some serious calories out of those. Thanks for the kind words.

    Kate — I suspect that what you call a poor harvest I would call an excellent one, knowing the time and skill you devote. Could I convince you to post some of your records? I think comparing notes on how well we do, and what we do to do better, helps all of us. And, as for calories, I suspect we do eat 5000 most days. Although we’re not fat (yet), we’re big and we’re active.

    Jen — Well I sure am glad somebody wants to play along. My rules are simple, and made more for ease of calculation than accuracy. I count what I harvest because it’s much easier than trying to account for what I freeze or can for next year, or what I barter away. Got a deer? Put it on the list. Harvested the tomatoes? Estimate the poundage, even if you made sauce and canned it. I imagine you’ll do much better than I will, given your hunting prowess and your flock of sheep.

    SBW — To figure the calories in an animal, I just estimate the amount of meat, and mulitply by standard-issue calories per pound, per the USDA:

    Venison (ground, which includes both lean and fat) has about 700 calories per pound. As you can see, I’m not going for super-duper accurate, just a reasonable approximation.

    Now, as for “proof of concept.” I wish.

    Amanda — Seemed like it, didn’t it?

  8. Thinking about your spring bees… One of the bee-related things that caught my attention recently is that oak-tree nectar is somehow toxic to honey bee larvae? Have you heard of this? (see: I recall seeing squillions of oaks on the Cape…I wonder if they’re a factor.

    I hope to some day join in your first-hand food challenge! I have such great respect for what you and Kevin take the time to do. My fruit trees are prolific, with each bunch of bananas having lots of hands and weighing in at about 80 lbs, and hundreds and hundreds of mangos on my tree. Last year’s avocados were gorgeous, too. The perspective in this photo is a bit wonky, but most really were similar in size to the greyhound’s head. ( I could already count significant calories of harvest per year, though it’s a shame I can’t survive only on seasonal fruit.

    I am learning from your examples. I’ll join the challenge in 2013. 🙂

  9. Total self-sufficiency is difficult to achieve, and some things are just easier to buy at the store. But I think you should give yourself more credit; maybe you’re more self-sufficient than you think. Calories are one measure, but how about protein, vitamins, or dollars? I mean, a couple sacks of brown rice and a quart of vegetable oil could add up to as many calories as a small deer, a mountain of vegetables, or a dozen bluefish. Maybe more. As much as I love calories, they’re not everything. So give yourselves a bigger pat on your backs. You’re way the hell more than 11% locavores!

  10. I figured out long ago that if we had to live off what we produce from the yard, we’d starve to death.

    Maybe I’ll get better, but I’m nowhere close to living off what I produce.

  11. That is a lot better then the majority of people in the U.S. I am very impressed. I’m a little afraid of the percentage Lee and I would tally up to. We didn’t keep track of the numbers like you did but I’m sure it would be much lower.

  12. When you commented on my blog about this post, think you may have misunderstood me, or I misunderstood you–I COMMEND you on your efforts, and COMMISERATE with you on the bad hunts. I also said that 11% is a lot more than a lot of the rest of us do…including me. If I wasn’t born with rheumatoid arthritis, I’d be right there with you. Alas, the meds of today didn’t exist 45 years ago, and I do well just to stay out of a wheelchair. The damage has long been done.

    But I do stuff from the inside of my home, such as practice blackbelt frugality, to make up for my physical lackings. One very important tip I learned from the More is Less cookbook is to “shorten the shopping list.” This means instead of buying a wide variety of stuff in small quantities, buy large quantities of a few items–in your case, substitute GROWING for buying. I added higher nutritive value to the mix.

    The nutritional database came in really handy when deciding what foods to buy for more nutritional bang–my husband is allergic to fish, yet we need Omega-3, so how do we get it? Cauliflower, which is high in it, and he likes it. People need Vitamin C, but how do you get it without oranges, tomatoes, and other foods (particularly starchy foods like potatoes)? Chicken liver, believe it or not–it’s higher in Vitamin C than the fruits are, and lower in carbs and sugar.

    Want a cheap multivitamin? Mix your livers (chicken and beef). One type is high in some vitamins, and the other is high in the others, giving you a nearly-complete compliment of what you need every day from just one type of food.

    …and so on. You don’t need a wide variety of leafy greens, for example, to accomplish what just a few will do, so now you have more space to grow things that pack nutritional power. Along with that, you really don’t need a wide variety of ANYTHING–fruits, veggies, meats, etc. to get the nutrition you seek. Primal Toad has a website that occasionally lists so-called “emergency foods” that you could live on without sacrificing nutrition–I happen to think people could live off just these foods and be fine, emergency or no.

    Top 7 foods (
    Top 4 foods (
    Top 2 foods (
    Emergency Pantry (

    These are bought, yes (he lives in a city), but you could grow/hunt/fish them instead, honing down your crop/hunt/fish list and making yourself more efficient in the food-procuring area. For variety, go foraging–it will also help you fill in perceived “gaps” in your food arsenal, and won’t cost you a dime. Think of it as FREE CALORIES!

    Just so there aren’t any more misunderstandings, I applaud you, envy you deeply, and no, I do not even grow .01% of my calories–I live within city limits, and don’t have enough land or personal energy for more. I am, however, conducting an experiment with a small plot to see if “year-round” leafy green crops are indeed really year-round (such as kale, chard, collards, etc.), and am eating the results (which go away when freezing weather hits, so no they aren’t really year-round).

    In the meantime, I have shortened the shopping list considerably (using Primal Toad’s suggestions) to pack more nutritional punch into what food I do eat, saving time, money, cupboard space, and health insurance costs. It’s also helping to keep my arthritis in check (such as it is).

    One last thought: do we really need the entire world’s foods available to us around the calendar? I went shopping at my health food store last Saturday, and I saw strawberries (in January!) for almost $10/lb. (organic)–they were from South America. Who decided having strawberries of any kind here in January was a good thing? I’ve seen lately in other store flyers the berries, the melons, and other typical “summer” foods–they may be in season THERE, but not HERE, so who’s going to pay the out-of-season price (commercial or organic) for a food that’s been shipped thousands of miles to get here? What’s wrong with OUR winter crops during winter?

    Talk about a waste! Meanwhile, people are starving in Africa.

    • Wenchypoo — Sorry for the delay, your comment went to my spam folder. Thanks for stopping by and weighing in. I like your attitude — those of us who are able-bodied tend to take it for granted.

      For a variety of reasons (one of which is that I don’t have to worry about managing a chronic disease), I don’t buy into the primal/paleo thing. I’ve spent the better part of a career writing about (among other things) nutrition, and I’m convinced that if you eat a wide variety of healthful foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish), you don’t have to focus on any specific nutrients. So that’s what I try to do.

      Good luck with your plot! No matter how small your plot or limited your efforts, I think it’s worth it for the satisfaction of getting at least some of your own food.

  13. Flo Zimmerman says:

    We are on board for 20.12!! Great idea, I wonder what our ## was last year, I plan to do better tracking of my produce this year… we did 25 meat chickens last year, that was the best thing yet… (still have a couple roosters in the freezer, last to go…)
    Starting our first beehive this year (eek!) I figure going in with an expectation of failure will lessen the blow… But seriously I love this kind of challenge, although I’ve got a house of 5, (but the kids don’t eat much yet!!)

    Ha! Flo

    • Flo, I like your attitude! Welcome to the 20.12% challenge. And good luck with the bees — it’s been the most difficult thing we’ve undertaken, and we’re starting with a new hive (again) this year. I wish you luck, and please keep me posted.

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