The January harvest

We’ve got a goal, here, this year. We’re trying to get 20% of our total caloric needs from first-hand food. So, at the end of each month, I’ll be tallying up the harvest.

But, before I give you January’s list, I have a confession. At the end of last year, when I added up our total 2011 take and figured out it was about 11% of our calories, I thought it would make all of you hunters, gatherers, fishermen, and gardeners curious about your own year in food. I thought I’d get comments along the lines of, “What a great way to look at first-hand food, Tamar! I added up our year and it was 47%!” Because my commentariat is uniformly polite and supportive, no one would add, “Ha ha!”

Only Milkweed & Teasel’s Jen, who, I am convinced, is my across-the-pond doppelganger, thought this exercise was even remotely interesting. In a hail-Mary effort to get people other than Jen interested, I even posted the tally on the Huffington Post. Let’s just say there’s no bandwagon forming.

So I have a question: Don’t you want to know? After all the work you do growing tomatoes and keeping chickens and raising livestock and tracking deer and hunting mushrooms and digging clams, don’t you want to know?

It’s not hard to work up a rough estimate of your take. We’re not looking for precision here. You eyeball your pile of potatoes and figure it’s twenty pounds. You take a guess of the average yield of your ducks. You count your chickens, and figure so many eggs per. Then you check the USDA’s calorie database and do the math.

Don’t you want to know?

Well, I want to know. And you’ll just have to bear with me as I do my little empirical exercise every month.

For simplicity’s sake, I count everything we harvest – whether we eat it or not – but nothing we barter for. The point of the exercise is not to track what we eat but to see how well we’d do if we had to rely on what we hunt, gather, or grow.

It’s a good thing we don’t have to rely on it, though, because we’d be mighty sick of eggs.

Here’s January’s haul:

1.5 pounds beets (300 calories)
1 pound parsnips (300)
1 pound beet greens (100)
1 pound collard greens (100)
50 oysters (500)
1 peck of clams (about 4 cups of chopped clam meat, 800)
1 eider (a whole 10 ounces of duck meat, 300)
18 dozen eggs (about 800 calories per, for a whopping 14,400)

On the other side of the equation, I’m still estimating that we need 5000 calories per day (2200 for me, 2800 for Kevin), even though it may be a little high. It makes the calculating easier: about 150,000 calories needed per month.

In January, thanks to our chickens, we harvested a respectable 16,800 calories. Of course, we didn’t eat all those eggs – we gave a lot away – but if the alternative had been going hungry, we would have.

January came in at 11%. Even though our goal is 20%, I don’t expect January to get there. There’s no fishing, there’s almost no garden, and, although there is some hunting I’m a crappy hunter. February and March, and maybe even April, will probably be about the same as January – all eggs, all the time. Come May, though, we’ll start picking up.

So, don’t you want to know?

31 people are having a conversation about “The January harvest

  1. I want to know, I really, really do BUT I have 2 things holding me back;
    1/ I am inherently lazy
    2/ This all sounds too mathmaticy and sciencey for lil old me.

    So unless you are starting a business working our my calorific foragings, then I shall have stand content watching you do all the hard work!

    Good job! x

  2. You need to clam more! And I would recommend a cow or goat for some high calorie dairy products (think butter and cheese). I want to know your numbers; mine however, are so low it is not worthwhile (some chard, tomatoes, and eggs).

  3. Sabine Harvey says:

    Hi Tamar,

    I have been reading your blog for about 6 weeks and I love knowing all this. I am a big numbers person myself. If it makes you feel any better, I am in charge of a vegetable garden at our only Middle School. In 2010 we harvested just over 500 lbs and this past season we came close to 1100 lbs. The garden is about 750 sq ft. I do have a break down per crop, if you are interested! So since I am already keeping track of one garden, perhaps I should add my own garden to it as well. BTW, we live on the Eastern Shore of MD and still have cabbage, kale, brussel sprouts and endive in the garden!! I think we are skipping winter this year

    I am determined to add chickens to the mix this year! (At home, not at school)

    Keep the numbers coming; I love them and will use them as an inspiration.

  4. We can’t keep chickens where we live and have a pretty large amount of shade. Our calorie count would be small, but I like to think it’s rich in diverting plastic and gas for shipping. We can grow herbs and dry them, we just finished our last carrots & are getting close on the onions. The pesto & garlic is still holding out.

    I have to think of my gardening as high in teaching my kids where food comes from and as a healthy way to use our land…the native creatures sure love my garden. I think for the calorie thing you need more sun, access to fishing or the ability to keep animals of some kind.

    BTW…anything you barter for with stuff you grew or fished should count. It’s the result of your own work in the end!

  5. I am interested, but I know this number is zero right now. For shame!! I took little time planning a winter garden I didn’t plant during finals last year. And chickens are just now being prepared for. I did plant radishes on a whim one day last fall which I dug up later and the dog loved. Doesn’t that count for the dog at least?

  6. Well, OK, now we’re talking! Brooke and Mel, if you’re only doing a few things, I’m not looking to make you feel bad. I don’t think aiming to up your number is a categorical imperative, and I’m not out to convince anyone to do more of this. But there are a lot of people who ARE trying to do more of it and, since I’m quantitative by nature, I’m looking for quantification. And Mel, we’ve had the goat discussion, but we’ve come down against because of the whole milking-twice-a-day thing. And Brooke, a radish-eating dog?

    Janie — If you really want do know, we’ll have to work on you to get over the mathy/sciency phobia. Stick around here for a while, and see if you don’t turn into a hard-assed empiricist.

    Sabine — Now those are my kind of numbers. I’m very glad you’re hanging out here, and I hope you’ll keep me apprised of your tallies. 1100 pounds from 750 square feet is very impressive. We actually have a pretty good-sized garden (500 sq. feet, all told), and get a pathetic yield — partly because our property is a sand heap, and partly because we’re not as skilled or assiduous as we might be. And knock wood on the winter thing — we still have collards in our garden, and I hope to see them make it til spring.

    Karen — The reasons you garden are some of the ones I think are important. As I said, I’m not trying to convince anyone to do more; I’m just trying to get those who aspire to more to do the math. Pesto, carrots, herbs, and onions are real food, and I think watching them grow, and harvesting and cooking them ourselves keep us attuned to the idea that food is plants and animals, and not so much boxes.

  7. I find this VERY interesting. Like Janie, the math is more than I want to do. We DO grow a lot of (Idaho) spuds, of course; carrots, put a lot of home raised veggies up for the freezer, eggs, and our fruit lasts in whole form till about March plus that which is in the freezer. Would have goat meat except this little Bosnian guy found us and takes every wether that hits the ground. Sorry no dairy goats any more. The Boers are much less care intensive. Anyway, we try to spent a minimal amount at the grocery store

  8. No, actually, I don’t want to know for us. At this point, we have only a moderate-sized veggie garden, so I know our harvest is only a tinypercentage of our caloric requirement (especially since my husband has a physically active job and has a higher calorie requirement than average) and it’s just not worth doing the math. On the other hand, since you ARE interested, I’m interested to see your tallies.

  9. How exactly do you calculate your numbers? Do you weigh everything when you harvest it? I just made pumpkin pie from the last of our pumpkins and we still have a lot of strawberries in the freezer. Our garden is 50×50 feet (half of it is in strawberries, rhubarb and asparagus) plus about that size again for growing vine crops plus a 10×38 foot hoop house. So we have a lot of veg, but it seems like a lot of work to calculate the calories from it all. I always figured we just burned off everything we ate from the garden just from the effort it takes to make it grow!

    • Lori — I didn’t see this comment until just now, so I apologize for the delay.

      I calculate using the wing-and-prayer method. So, I’ll weigh one or two squashes, and estimate the number of squashes I get (or count, which is easy to do when you get only eight), and go from there. With things like tomatoes, it’s just an estimate, and I try to be conservative. I’ll figure out about how many tomatoes each plant yielded, and multiply. With fish, it’s easier to keep track. I just note how many fish of what size we get on each trip — the back of an envelope does just fine.

      All told, I figure I overestimate some things and underestimate others, and I just hope it comes out pretty close. My 28% number is probably not off by more than 5% either way.

      I do it only because I want to know. It takes all of about 15 minutes each month.

      Good l luck with your garden!

  10. I already know- I’m getting roughly the caloric equivalent of my martini olives out of the yard (maybe not even that much) but I want to do much better this year. The last time i cooked something from the yard was last night and it was a clove of garlic I harvested at the end of last July. If we had to eat off of what we produce we’d starve….but I’m working on it.

  11. Myrna — I think your numbers would be pretty impressive. Potatoes and fruit go a long way, and we’d like to do more of both. Potatoes, I’m sure we’ll manage, but our climate isn’t very fruit-friendly. Still, I’m thinking Asian pears …

    Teresa and Paula — I don’t blame you in the least. The only reason I’m trying to add everything up is that I spend an ungodly amount of time getting various kinds of foods that I feel like I need to justify it by getting a decent proportion of my food. If you’re mainly gardening, just keep gardening!

    Lori — That’s a HUGE garden! I calculate in a very informal way. I know what a pound, or ten pounds, or a quart, of something looks like, and I estimate my take of each crop. I’m definitely going to be off, but I figure I overestimate some and underestimate others and I end up with a decent rough guess overall. And it’s funny you should mention burning the calories of the foods you grow — I also think about it that way. Things I get first hand are “free” in the calorie department.

  12. I love watching you figure out your percentage of calories grown at home! The only reason I haven’t done it is that our garden was pretty much a bust this summer… a couple pounds each of tomatoes, eggplants, and greens doesn’t really make it worth mentioning…

  13. You and Jen from Milkweed and Teasel are the reason I am interested! I just started reading both of you a couple months ago and decided 2012 would be the year I tried to keep track of what we produce, harvest and gather ourselves. My husband is a hunter but I am a vegetarian so all the meat calories go to him…but we also raise chickens so I get my protein from eggs. So far in January all we had was 90 pounds of venison and around 1-2 eggs a day. Unfortunately we don’t have anything left from last year’s harvest except some frozen sweet corn and a few cans of strawberry jam. This tally has made me want to try harder to preserve what we produce so we can get by with more in the winter.

  14. Wow, Tamar, we must be two ggeks cut from the same cloth, but I have taken it a step further to calculate retail value as well.

    This is the first year I have really gotten serious about growing veggies, to the point of digging up substantial swaths of daylilies, phlox and peonies to make more room, for a total of 500 square feet dedicated to veggies. I tried to weigh just about everything that came out of the garden. Over the winter I calculated the yields in both calories and retail dollars. I was somewhat depressed to learn that our harvest would only keep 3 people alive for 9 days at 1500 calories per person per day (so…is that 2% of our total yearly needs?) But I was heartened to find that, compared to retail produce prices, I had grown nearly $800 worth of herbs and veggies, and this was using the pricing for industrial, non-organic, produce at a standard chain grocery (except for the tomatoes, which were too lovely to be desecrated by comparison with the travesties from the grocery). For example, with 130 lbs. of heirloom tomatoes off of 20 plants (some bore prolifically, others never ripened before frost), that would keep us alive for only 2 1/2 days, but would retail for over $400 at one of the upscale groceries.

    Annoyingly enough, there appears to be an inverse relationship between calories provided and retail value, with herbs/boutique peppers/mesclun at one end of the spectrum and potatoes/dry beans at the other end. But with tomatoes, you get the best of both worlds–lots of calories AND retail value substantial enough to justify your heirloom seed buying habit to your husband. 🙂

  15. Accidental Mick says:

    Hu Tamar, My vegtable plot is 40 ft by 30 ft and, as I am on my own, I give away most produce. That means I am not concerned about how much I grow but I do like reading your calculations.

    As an aside, it also means I like growing unusual things. If you would like more fruit, have you thought about Cape Gooseberries (which are not gooseberries and don’t come from South Africa). They do die back in a hard frost but usually regenerate from the roots come spring. The good news is they prefer poor soil. I have just come across Hardy Kiwis and that is my new project for this spring. They will need composting but you might want to look them up too.

  16. Allison — It’s reassuring that at least some of you who aren’t playing along at home are enjoying the spectator sport.

    Whitney — Welcome! If you’re seriously interested in getting your own food, you’ve got to keep reading Jen. If things don’t go quite as you planned, you can come here for commiseration and moral support. And I have to say, if there were 90 pounds of venison in my freezer, I’d be a vegetarian for about seven seconds. Good luck with the tally!

    HG — I should put a sign on my front page: Geeks Welcome. I love that you’re calculating retail value! I’ve been tempted to do it myself, and what prevents me is thinking of all the expenses that go into getting our own food. No matter how I slice it, I’m paying more for that tomato. If you’ve got better soil, and better skills (neither of which is a stretch), that may not be true for you. And I’ve also noticed the price/calorie relationship. Herbs may be the most obvious money-saver in our garden. We grow them in a couple of window boxes, and each time I clip some it saves me The $2. or so that a bunch costs at the market.

    Mick — What you know as cape gooseberries we know as ground cherries and they do, indeed, thrive here. We’re not growing any, but I know people who do and say that, if you’re not careful, they’ll take over the yard. They weren’t on my list for this year, but you just put them on. As for the Hardy Kiwis, I read about those last year and got all excited. I talked to my friend Christl, who’s a really accomplished gardener, and she made a really bad face. She said she grew them for a while, and a nastier little fruit she’s never encountered. Now, it could have been her variety, or her specific conditions, and I’d be curious to hear other people’s experience with them. Keep me posted.

  17. We have had kiwi vines for many years. One female and one male. The male grows at an incredible rate and has to be cut back periodically. The female dies back to the snow line every year and has gotten fruit once – that got to be the size of grapes. In Minnesota anyway, not worth growing for fruit. The male is a beautiful vine though that grows over the pergola.

  18. Adding to Hoosier Girl’s comment about the monetary value of homegrown veggies and herbs, there is an equally large value added in quality of life. Those heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil feed the soul better (and are probably more nutritious because they are fresh) than the plastic tomatoes and tiny bit of wilted basil found at the market. Mixed chopped herbs, sauteed with a little olive oil and garlic and tossed with pasta, are not only filling and cheap, but are worth celebrating with company. (If you get the company to bring wine, you REALLY save money and add to your calorie total.)

    As for the kiwi, my mom tried for years to grow them in Central IL’s good rich loam. They would flower and set, then drop the fruit. Every year. They’d stay on just long enough to make sure your heart broke when they fell. The same was true when my Master Gardener friend in SW Michigan grew them. She tried everything in the book for about 15 years before ripping them out. Pretty nice vine, but not for fruit.

  19. 50 feet of kiwi vines. they smell HORRIBLE. like, all the time, but every year they produce 80-100# of kiwi. which aren’t ripe on the vine…. you have to ripen by hand. which I did this week. we’ll be drinking kiwi margaritas all summer, and if you have any ideas what to do with that much kiwi, lemme know.

  20. Tamar
    You’re actually a better hunter than you think. As I remember it you got close enough to take a shot. You’re just not a confident shot. Yet.

    Perhaps an air rifle would help? By the next deer season you’d have lots of practice (and fun) at negligible cost.


  21. Tamar–when it comes to calculating the FULL cost of what you do, don’t forget to include the costs on which you are saving for a gym membership (wheelbarrow full of compost is cheaper and a pitchfork is cheaper), a therapist/psychologist (a year of therapy probably covers the chickens and a really nice gun, but if you are working that hard and always out in nature, who needs a therapist?), and the expensive hobbies that you can’t do because you are gardening/fishing/hunting/foraging (I was an avid rider before kids, and even if you don’t own a horse, lessons, clothes and shows are very expensive; perennials can also be ridiculously expensive).

    Of course, you have the property, the barn, the fishing/clamming/oystering stuff, the boat, the truck etc. to throw into the mix too, which tilts your calculation heavily against the retail value of the produce, whereas I would already have all my heavy infrastructure (truck, root cellar, carriage house, hand tools) regardless of whether I grew a vegetable or not. Now, if I buy a 10 acre country lot north of town, that entirely changes my calculation!

  22. Here are my main stats from last year, I also did stats for 2010, and a total heavy count on the garden for 2011 plus the full canning count etc.

    As near as I can figure for 2011 we produced/grew or processed these percents

    â– Eggs- 100% of our needs are meet by our Chickens/Ducks/Turkeys
    â– Meat-100% of the meat we eat comes from animals we have raised ourselves, with a few cans of salmon bought this year, not because we needed it but because I wanted it.
    â– Veggies-85% of the veggies we consumed this was grown on our gardens
    â– Milk Products-70% of our yearly needs are meet by my sheep/goats
    â– Fruit -Soft and Hard- 90% of our yearly needs are grown on the farm or wild foraged
    â– Critter Needs- 100 percent of our pasture needs are being meet during spring/summer/fall, currently only 20 percent of our hay needs are being meet for winter.
    â– Grain Needs- 0 Percent being meet on the grains this year..

    Well, we had a great improvement overall in 2011, we also kept track of the stats more carefully, we brought in just over 2000 pds of fruit and veggies from the gardens.

    I will have to sign up for your site by email, I would like to know how your monthly totals go.

  23. Lori & Amanda — Thanks for adding to my personal body of kiwi knowledge. I do like vines, but I only put in time and effort when there’s food on the line. So no kiwi for me. Although, Amanda, I would be willing to show up on your doorstep for a nice kiwi margarita. And as for just getting pwned, you’ll have to explain …

    Jo — Although I don’t have much in the way of a soul, I know exactly what you mean. I talk about it pretty regularly — the satisfaction of feeding yourself and your family food you grew or caught with your own two hands. If that didn’t factor in, we’d give up on this and go back to New York.

    SBW — Funny you should mention that. I haven’t written about it yet, but we did get an air rifle. It’s a big, hairy, 22-calibre one. I’ve got my eye on some small game …

    HG — I think that hits the nail on the head. There are lots of things we save, besides the cost of the food, but there are lots of things we spend, besides the immediate cost of the materials. Sure, we catch a lot of fish, but once you amortize the boat (and the gas, insurance, repair, winter storage, and little mugs with the boat name on them), you’ve got the most expensive bluefish known to man. I envy you your carriage house!

    Farmgal — I’m in awe. That’s a mighty impressive list. I particularly like that you even grow your own animal feed. I will never do that well, but if you ever need some bluefish, you know where to find me!

  24. I absolutely want to know (though I have yet to calculate calories)! And like many of those who chimed in, I’m also interested in how much money I save by growing my own food and how much time it takes me to do it. I lucked out and found a hanging produce scale at a yard sale, and I’ve become obsessed with weighing my harvest. When I refer back to my garden records and find notes about Sweet Meat squash weighing 9 11/16 lbs. I wonder if I’m going too far :).

  25. Knowing the percentage would be of some interest but for me it is more interesting to know what of a particular meal I produced myself and to take notice of what I did not produce. Then I tend to start thinking about either how I can produce the things I didnt or what I can replace them with that I do produce. It seems that the older I get the more I want to produce of what I eat. Currently the goal for me is 100% but I have a way to go still. :):) Thanks for your website and stories.

  26. I’d be so sick of eggs if we had to live off all their calories. I’m kind of afraid what our tally would be. Not nearly enough to make 20 percent.

  27. alright, i’m in. for january and february combined, i’m pretty sure all we’ve harvested is potatoes. let’s call it 30 pounds. it looks like the USDA site measures in grams (which seems weird to me, since we’re in a country that doesn’t use the metric system), but anyway, i calculate that 30 pounds is 13607.771100 grams. (i am writing this all out because i am bad at math so stop me if you see a mistake!) by this calculation, since they say 70 calories in a 100 gram potato, i believe that 30 pounds of potatoes gives us about 9,500 calories. yes? no? i think so.

    • Elspeth! I’m so glad you’re getting into the spirit of the thing. And you’re dead on about the potatoes — a substantial haul! I, too, have wondered why the USDA insists on grams. But they do allow you to do multiples, so you can let them do the calculating for you. Their default amount is 100 grams, so if you put a 4.53 in the little box, it will yield 453 grams, which is a pound. I do it all the time.

      Thanks for playing!

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