The year in calories

It’s January 1, and you know what that means. Join the gym, sign up for French lessons, and add up the calories you harvested in 2012.

Last year, at about this time, I added up the calories Kevin and I had harvested in 2011, and came to the sobering realization that, after all that work, we could account for only 11% of our caloric intake with food we got first-hand. I double-checked the math and gave Kevin the news.

“Well, that sucks,” he said.

Which about summed it up. Surely, I though, we could do better. So, for 2012, we set the goal of getting 20.12% of our calories from food we hunt or fish, gather or grow. As of October, we were just a little behind – but we knew November would be big.

And it was. We harvested six turkeys and three pigs (although only one of the pigs was for us). The turkeys averaged about twelve pounds (after processing), which would makes them about 7500 calories each (including the liver, which Kevin turned into pate).

Our pig, Spot, was about 280 pounds at slaughter, and roughly half of that is commercial cuts of pork. Subtract the bone and waste from the cuts, but add in the organs (liver, heart, and kidneys), and I’m estimating that we had 130 pounds of meat and fat. Assuming the meat:fat ratio in ground pork is similar to that of a whole pig, I’ll say each pound of pork had 1200 calories, for a total of 156,000.

Our only other contributors for November and December were oysters, clams, and eggs:

200 oysters = 2000
6 cups chopped clams @200 = 1200
4 dozen eggs @800 = 3200
Six turkeys @7500 = 45000
One pig = 156,000

That’s 207,400 for the two months, combined. Add it to our previous months and our grand total of calories harvested for 2012 is 506,600. Which comes to … drumroll, please … 28% of our calories for the year.

When I did the math, my first thought was, “Whew, at least it’s over 20%.” My second thought was, “Damn, we eat a lot!” My third thought (and then I’ll stop) was, “Not many vegetables …”

And it’s that third thought that is the real lesson for us here. Look at our year’s harvest (rounded to the nearest thousand), and there’s not much in the way of plants:

Animals: 202 (One pig, six turkeys, one duck, one rabbit, one raccoon)
Eggs: 126
Fish: 117 (400 pounds of mostly bluefish and striped bass, lots of clams and oysters)
Plants: 33 (vegetables, fruit, and acorns)
Honey: 28

A mere 6.5% of our take was plants. Okay, we had a bad year in the garden – our attention was diverted to our livestock – but I can’t imagine that vegetable number going up by an order of magnitude. In a good year, we could certainly double it. We could probably even triple it. But it’s still not going to come anywhere near what we can harvest in animals, wild and domestic.

Part of this is our circumstances. We have crappy soil, and very little sunlight. Each year, we try and improve things – with amendment and chainsaw, respectively – but we’ll never have a flat, sunny, fertile half-acre on which to grow food. Part of this is our experience. Each year, we have some successes (figs!) and failures (eight pounds of potatoes from ten pounds of seed – but it was the turkeys’ fault), and we’re still trying to figure out what will grow here, and how to make it grow. Part of it, though, is inherent. Eggs and meat and honey are calorie-dense, and it’s just plain easier to feed yourself animal products.

And so it was animal products, many and varied, that brought us up to our goal of harvesting 20.12% of our calories in 2012. Now that it’s 2013, we need a new goal, and harvesting 20.13% seems a little lame.

Lots of you out there grow, hunt, fish, and forage your own food. How did you do in 2012? And, more importantly, do you have goals for 2013? Specifically, do you have a goal I can shamelessly appropriate, given that I haven’t come up with one of my own?

Think about that, will you? And, in the meantime, Happy New Year. I hope 2013 brings you joy, satisfaction, and lots of good things to eat.

25 people are having a conversation about “The year in calories

  1. My goals deviate a great deal from yours in both purpose and tools. I don’t have the ability to raise livestock except chickens, as I live in the city and my gardening space is small, but I get as much from it as possible. My goals revolve more around eating seasonally and avoiding the supermarket, which i think is where americans lose touch with their food. so that’s my goal each year: to avoid the supermarket. In the summer, this is simple. In the winter its tougher, so I consider summer harvesting the time to prepare.

    -I purchase pig/cow shares and they’re in my freezer. I purchase chickens, ducks and turkeys from local farms i have a relationship with.
    -I grow my own vegetables as much as possible, and freeze them or can them. What I can’t grow, I purchase from farmers in season, when cheaper and preserve/freeze/can.
    -I prepare a lot of food at once. I make green sauce and pasta sauce once a year, and then freeze it. Same for salsa, chile, dumplings, etc. I chop all my garlic and freeze into cubes. Same for pesto and ginger. I can ketchup.
    -Milk and eggs need to be bought routinely, they’re bought from the local creamery at the farmers market.
    -this leaves staples: detergents, medicine, oil, etc. I hit the store for these and feel pretty guiltless over it. But I try to avoid going in for food.

    the downside of this is that it relies a lot on my freezer. If i lose the freezer, I’m in trouble, there’s alot invested. the upside is that it forces me to really consider what I have and not waste it, plan very judiciously when I plant, and think very hard about what I buy at the market. And then to USE- just that. Be creative in using what I have. Loopholes exist, of course. I travel. I can’t bring food w me. I go out to eat: can’t find their sources. I go to friends houses: I focus on being a good guest.

    I do it because I truly do believe that supermarkets are the basis of our bad relationship with food sources. too much, out of season, constant supply of perfect foods with no mar of where they came from. I like having an idea of where it comes from and how, and it has little to do with lovacorism. I want to reward people for good farming practices and buying from people I know allows me that.

  2. I can’t even come close to what you guys do, but I will offer this by way of salve: animals have always been able to provide food where there is little to no arable land. Example: they keep an awful lot of goats in the Middle East. Maybe you guys should think about keeping goats.

    According to Nourishing Traditions, studies have found that cultures whose diets are meat-centric have fewer cases of dental caries and much stronger teeth. Another plus for the meat-centric diet.

    Animals are also really good at turning stuff we wouldn’t consider food into stuff we would consider food.

    If I contemplate all the crop failures I’ve had, I would guess that when push comes to shove, Steve and i would starve. However, I have a pretty good guess that if we had chickens and rabbits, the likelihood of our starving to death would not be quite so certain.

    Or maybe I’ll just learn to eat the slugs.

    Your success makes me want to try harder.

  3. Stephen Andrew says:

    Congratulations!!! And I thoroughly enjoyed following along every step of the way, thanks for recording all of it. I failed miserably in my goals this year. I didn’t raise chickens or turkeys as hoped, and my garden was an awe-inspiring failure. Excuses: huge year at work, there was a drought, and I found the best sangria recipe this summer that just kept distracting me. I did have a spectacular tomato season though. Now there are 8 inches of snow on the ground and I have grand plans for next spring/summer… So as all gardeners, I remain (delusional) optimistic! Happy New Year!

  4. Mind boggling amount of math involved in all this. Impressive. I doubled the size of our lettuce garden in the country to 21 feet in length, then protected all the hard work from two groundhog. The amount of lettuce was far more than we could eat, so we left it for the neighbour to enjoy (and cover up with a tarp.) And doubled the amount of basil grown here in NYC in my community plot.

  5. Wandering Mike says:

    Congratulations. I continue to be impressed with your efforts over the past few years. As to getting over the hurdle of raising enough first hand food to cover your caloric needs, I don’t recall how much land you have, but if you have an acre or so for each of you, growing potatoes, corn, wheat, soybeans, pinto beans or barley would get you over the two million calories each per year or so that seems included in your needs. Hey, a lot of those calories can be turned into things like beer, whiskey and vodka too.

  6. My goal for 2013 is just to do more than we did in 2012. There’s no way we can come close to 28% or even 20.12% of our caloric intake. Partly space but also inclination – we have neither in sufficient quantity to meet that goal.

    But in 2012 we moved into a new house with a south-facing backyard and lots of sun all day. Crappy clay instead of actual soil, but we’ll be building some raised beds in the spring. We plan to grow what we like to eat and as much of it as we can fit in the beds: tomatoes, peppers, carrots, onions, strawberries, salad greens, herbs, and one or two of those plants that produce more than one family could ever want to eat (cucumbers, squash), and whatever calls to me from the covers of the seed packets.

    I started canning last year, too, and put up lots of applesauce from apples we picked at a local orchard and pears from a friend’s tree (free!). I love retrieving the jars from the basement and popping them open for my kids’ breakfast. Hopefully we’ll harvest enough tomatoes and peppers to make some sauce, too.

    So in 2013 I hope to grow more and can more. It would be prudent to not tackle any new plant the same year that we’re expanding our growing beds, but I almost always find something new and interesting-looking at the local greenhouse.

  7. You mention the poor quality soil. recommends raised garden beds, with a base of 8 layers of newspaper (vs. other weed smothering/guarding plastic fabric), then fill with 1/3 each of compost, sand, and hardwood mulch, well blended.

    Amending the soil with livestock compost is “traditional” — but so is composting whatever is available. Cleanings from the wild critters, and especially the fish, will compost quite readily with leaves, cardboard and paper (depending on chemical composition of the papers and cardboard), and table leavings. I believe there is an urban legend of native traditions, of planting a fish next to the corn seeds, for a fruitful harvest (harvest of corn that is, not the fish. The fish, I imagine, is meant to feed the corn, and contribute to the corn harvest. Fish don’t grow after you plant them, at least mine haven’t).

    Perhaps something creative, combining trash wood with fish guts, into an enriched hugelkultur (dirt covered wood stack, for a decade-long drought-resistant, root-warmed growing environment). Enriching the soil should be very doable.


  8. Congrats on reaching your goal!! That is huge. Our big goal this coming year is to make significant progress on our house to make it more livable.

    Happy New Year to you both!!

  9. Accidental Mick says:

    Well done to you both! I think that you are doing yourselves down on the maths. Your stated goal was to harvest 20% of your calories and you “harvested” 3 pigs, not one. The fact that you gave 2 of them away should be irrelevant. 🙂

    It was a lousy summer in England, so cold and wet that hardly anything grew. With all the rain, I lost all of the tomatoes and most of the potatoes to blight. The exception was an experimental couple of rows of a blight-resistant potatoes. They worked but didn’t cook very well so they are out.

    Like you I’m trying to improve the soil but from the other end. When I took the plot on it had been wasteland for 60 years and is heavy cold clay. If only we could swap a couple of lorry loads.

    However, this summer I will be harvesting my first asparagus and globe artichokes, the dwarf fruit trees are well established, the Japanese salad onions are in and thriving as are 2 different types of garlic. The broad beans are looking good for an early harvest.

    This will be my 3rd summer on the plot. The first summer we had a drought, last summer we had floods so by the law of averages………..

    Happy new year to both.

  10. It looks like we’re all a mixed bag of successes and, shall we say, challenges.

    Amanda, I worry about the freezer(s), too. We figure we can ride out up to about 48 hours of power outage — which gives us 48 hours to find a generator, if it likes we’re in for the long haul.

    Paula — Get the chickens! Skip the slugs!

    SA — Gardening is always the triumph of hope over experience. Now, whatever you do, don’t give me that sangria recipe!

    Monica — Doubling is, by any standard, a significant improvement. Enough lettuce for the neighborhood? Wish I could say that.

    W.Mike — We have two acres, but it’s mostly wooded, sloped, and sandy. We’ve carved out some gardening territory, but carving out more would take heroic measures. Which we’re not opposed to, but we need to find a little more spare time!

    Cat — That’s a sensible, prudent, achievable goal: do more. Whatever it is we’re doing, we should all be thinking that way. (I can just hear your jars popping open …)

    Brad — We’re definitely on the same page with raised beds. We built two new ones last year, and we’d certainly add more if we had a little more cleared, sunny space. The fish guts, though, are tough — the critters keep digging them up, and leaving them confined in a barrel to ferment (that’s what they do, isn’t it?) is just so very smelly. But perhaps I should summon the fortitude for it, because I understand it would do wonders for our soil.

    Robin — I’ve tracked your house progress, and I have no doubt that you’ve set a goal you will achieve. It’s a beautiful place you’ve got!

    Mick — Ouch. Bad weather can ruin your whole year. But asparagus makes up for a lot! We planted some 3 years ago, but it was a failure. And you’ve got beans, and artichokes, and fruit, and beans — not so bad.

    • Tamar- bury fish guts under wood ash- keeps the coons from digging them up.

      I learned this trick from my neighbor in Florida who learned it from his mother, who was a 100% native american from the Creek tribe. She was also the person who taught him how to fish, and boy could he fish. He could also garden like hell.

      Come to think of it, most of Florida soil is very, very sandy. His garden soil was black and beautiful, and he did all that with leaves, which he collected by the pick-up truck full. He would drive around during leaf-falling season and throw bags of them in the back of his F-150 and then toss in his garden….

  11. Congratulations on a very successful harvest! Only a smidge under a third of your calories for the year!

    And – oh crap. I knew there was something I meant to do. I will get on with the maths and see how we did. Regardless of our final total (and my poor maths skills) I have really enjoyed being mindful of what were eating in terms of their real calorific contributions. It certainly takes some of the sting out of taking my lambs to the abbatior when I see how many calories are realised in one happy, healthy free range animal. My veg garden was both a literal and metaphorical washout this year. I’m sure glad that I put all those extra pheasants in my freezer before January 1st, it will be a much-needed extra boost to my final tally!

    So, what’s our challenge for 2013?

  12. Richard Mellott says:

    Hi Tamar,
    I wanted to recommend the raising of meat goats, which I’ve been researching for the purpose of making a land purchase pay for itself. They clear the land, can be used where the land is seemingly unproductive. They also can be sold on the market, take up a lot less space than cattle, and produce offspring that can make a small herd a meat and money generating engine.
    Also, the market is one way to make money, and using them to clear brush for others is another money-making proposition- free pasturage, and a cash payment for services, with little expense or liability.
    You can get a portable electric fence, and move them around, clearing and fertilizing the land in sections, following them with chickens and turkeys, in a rotation pattern, a lot like they do on polyface farm, which is mentioned in Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
    Check it out, and check with neighbors to see if they would like their brush cleared, free of charge- a great political move, and a way to carry more animals.

  13. Commendations, Tamar, both on the results, and on the heroic, time-consuming effort it takes to track and analyze them! I’m really intrigued by your situation, because I think it shows a reality that many who dream of self-sufficiency gloss over: it takes space, lots of fertile soil, and meat to feed a person. I was a typical city vegetarian when I jumped on this bandwagon, and after 3 years of intensive gardening on our half-acre (with MUCH still to learn), I’m now eating meat. I haven’t done the calorie count, and I’m not sure yet if we’ll get through the whole winter without bringing in extra produce (though I think this could be doable in the next couple of years), but so far we’re doing–or have the potential of doing–everything but the dairy and grains. Ignoring, of course, the huge outside contributions of sugar, salt, oil, etc, which we especially use for preservation.

    I think there are a variety of things to take away from the wake-up call that those of us who give this a shot experience. 1) To eat a local, sustainable diet means eating local, sustainably produced meat. 2) We can do a lot of valuable food production on small holdings. As the Soviet and Cuban experiences show (and as I think Sharon Astyk points out too), that garden may not produce all of your calories, but it *can* make the difference between starving and not, between immense appetite fatigue and not, between having something to barter and not, between meeting your vitamin and mineral needs and not. Calories ain’t everything! 3) Those of us who grew up believing that everything is possible with enough technology and effort are going to need to understand the value of truly rich, fertile soil and preserve it, and we need to better understand just how vulnerable we are, because if the system that brings us our calories breaks down, replacing it is a LOT harder than all of us just planting more salad greens on the balcony.

    I’m sure there are more lessons here; I just have this gut feeling that your experiences reveal the gap between “with enough hard work, I can do it!” and the physical realities of the real world. Which I’m learning myself, if that makes any sense.

    Oh, and potatoes, root veg and corn can definitely help the calorie count…And I like the challenge of trying to avoid the grocery store. We couldn’t do it, but it would be nice to see a few more people lead the way!

    Happy new year!

  14. Elspeth — Anyone who lists “homebrew” as a goal for 2013 is OK in my book!

    Jen — I’ll be curious to see your total. I’m sure you’ve blown us away, what with all your deer and pheasants. But we need to figure out 2013 — I don’t have a goal, yet, and I need one. Since we’re taking a little break from livestock, I’m thinking I need to focus on the rod and the gun …

    Richard — After having pigs, I’m convinced that animals are the only way brush should be cleared, ever. Meat goats are a possibility for us, but right now we’re so stocked up with pork that we’re going to take a year off from meat animals. Let’s talk a year from now …

    Toni — Well, I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s really hard to grow enough calories to sustain yourself if you’re restricted to plants — even if you have excellent soil. But it sounds like you’re doing a bang-up job. To get through the winter without having to buy produce is a huge accomplishment. Congratulations, and thanks for weighing in.

  15. Hello Tamar,

    I was thinking of you on New Years Eve as I was cutting up two raw chickens … it was my first time and not easy! I think I will write a comedy post and compare my endeavours to you!

    As you may remember, I took up beekeeping to try and regain my sanity, so I was surprised when I discovered, how many beekeepers were frustrated and fed up with it. So, with this in mind I thought it would be interesting to run a Beekeeper Attitude Survey to see how people are feeling about beekeeping.

    Please vote. It will only take a few seconds. I’ll write up some conclusions when I have the results.

    Also, it would be amazingly helpful if you were able to include a link to it in one of your posts.

    Happy New Year.

    Many, many thanks for your input.

    • So, my association with raw chicken is indelibly etched in your consciousness! I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

      I will most certainly take your survey and, if I write about bees any time soon, I’ll see if I can work in a mention. And happy new year right back.

  16. Tamar,
    Have you considered barter for your vegetables. You produce an amazing amount of food. Why not use that to your advantage and let someone with better soil and a lack of oysters produce vegetables. Throw in a little of that home brew and your looking at new friends ,a great dinner and true community. Wishing you and Kevin a prosperous 2013. Thanks for all the posts.

    • Jeannie, one of the best things about growing/raising/fishing/hunting your own food is finding that community you mention. We’ve bartered our eggs, fish, and oysters for all kinds of things, and we find that we are particularly barter-minded in the spring, when the asparagus are coming in.

      I think you’re right, though, that we might pursue bartering to greater effect. We tend to take for granted the things we can get in quantity (mostly seafoods), and forget that they’re not so easy to come by for other people.

      Thanks for an excellent suggestion, and the good wishes — which we return.

  17. I really applaud your efforts to actually quantify your first-hand food. So often we in the local/organic/whatever movement coast on the warm fuzzy feeling we get from buying carrots at the farmers’ market and ignore the reality of our consumption. It would be interesting to see where my family stands.

    I run vegetable CSA, grow vegetables in my backyard, work in my local community garden and belong to an egg co-op that is hoping to expand itself to include meat birds. My one goal of 2012 that I not only acheived but whacked right out of the park was; canning tomatoes. I had long had a dream to grow enough sauce tomatoes to last my family of 4 through the winter. Tomatoes are one of the few canned things I ever buy these days, and I wanted to break the habit. Thanks to the amazing soil at our community garden, I was able to grow 250 lbs + of gorgeous tomatoes. Canning them all was more work than I care for, but looking at all those pretty quart jars in my root cellar is well worth the effort.

    I invite you to join me on one of my goals for 2013. This crop will both address your soil fertility problems and pack a heavier punch than swiss chard or lettuce in the calorie department – dry bush beans. I experimented with some dry beans in 2012 and was really encouraged to try to grow a significant amount next season based on the results. Beans improve your soil every time you grow them, you can even chop up the vines and dig them under after you have harvested. They are easy peasy to grow, they practically mulch themselves, and no annoying bean teepees that fall over every time there’s a stiff breeze. Your lack of sun is a bit of an issue, but a floating row cover could help generate the extra heat needed. They are packed with protein and can be used as a main in your meals. And contrary to what I believed before last year, they are not a pain in the you-know-what to shell! Actually, they provide you with an excuse to put your feet up and sit on the porch in the middle of the busy September preserving season.

    I’d like to see if I can grow enough beans to last us until spring. I haven’t gone quite as far as tottting up all the calories yet, so that’s usually how I measure, the highly unscientific method of how long a supply lasts our family. Add that to all those tomatoes and…minestrone for months, maybe? Who knows.

    • Emily — That is an idea I can get behind. Dry bush beans. We did pole beans last year, and I got a grand total of two pounds of beans from four huge tepees. I chose the high-rise beans because I wanted to plant them amidst the squash vine foliage, in the hopes that they’d grow higher than the vines and the two could co-exist. Which they did. But I got two pounds of beans and something like eight squashes. So, if there’s an alternative, I’m all ears.

      If you happen to come back and read this, let me know what varieties you tried. And thanks for a most excellent suggestion.

      • Hi Tamar –

        So, full disclosure, the dry beans I grew last year were entirely a happy accident. I got too busy in late summer to harvest the all the amazing snap beans I had been growing, and let one whole patch get too large and woody for fresh consumption. They were called “Provider”, gorgeous long straight pods that were pefect for pickling. Since they had been such great snap beans, I figured I’d shell and save some for seed. Once I got started shelling the dry, overgrown, green beans, they just looked so much like food that I couldn’t throw the rest of them in the compost. So I let them dry on top of my washing machine for a few weeks until they were good and rattley and put them in a quart jar in my cupboard. I wasn’t really looking forward to trying them, I figured they would be mealy or have tough skins, so we ate all the other store bought beans we had throughout the fall. Come December, I had to make a soup and they were all that was left, so I cooked them up – and they were amazing. Creamy, toothsome, wonderful. Since then we’ve had a few more meals out of them. I figure, if beans that aren’t even meant for dying worked out so well, imagine the possibilties with actual dry beans!

        I’d say that last year’s patch was about 13 square feet, and I had already taken a first harvest from that area, so I would have had a lot more had I also let the first cut dry up. Vesey’s says you need about 200g seed fo that size patch, and as I mentioned before it yeilded about 4 cups dry. This year I’m really excited to try:

        Hutterite Soup – Pretty much based on the name alone. My Terra Edibles seed catalogue says they are prolific, pale green, and obviously suitable for soup. Plus they will bring me closer to my secret dream of becoming an Anabaptist (minus all the religion and “husband is the head of the household” business, is that allowed?)

        Jacob’s Cattle – Also available from Terra Edibles, similar to a kidney bean. They seem to be a big favourite in the dry bean growing world.

        Blue Jay – They are both a snap and a dry bean, are an extremely rare heirloom and they’re pretty! Navy blue and white tortiseshell markings. I’m ordering them from The Cottage Gardener Seeds.

        As for pole vs. bush beans, I grow both, but I’m a big fan of bush beans because:

        – They are very prolific. This seems counterintuitive, you’d think more vine would equal more beans. And while I haven’t done a pound for pound comparison, it seems like the bush beans have already started producing beans while the pole beans are still busy growing vines.

        – They require no work, beyond planting, havesting, and maybe a little light weeding when they are babies.

        – The no teepees or trellises means you don’t have to shade out other plants, which could be a big plus in your low sunlight situation.

        To increase your yeild for next season you may want to get some garden inoculant, it’s a powder that coats then beans while you plant them and helps them convert nitrogen. Plus, and this will draw the ire of all the ‘Three Sisters’ advocates out there, I have found that beans interplanted with other crops, like squash, tend to do poorly in comparison to those planted on their own. I think the squash benefit from the beans, but not the other way around. If you had rich, amazing soil, you could get a good crop of beans planted in this manner, but I wouldn’t risk it in weak soils.

        There’s my super long-winded reply – there’s really no other kind with me. Good luck and happy growing!

        Emily Wilson

  18. It occurred to me that since from what I recall trees grow well in your area that planing nut trees might work for you?

    • I think it’s possible it would work quite well, and we looked into a couple of possibilities last year. There are two problems — lack of sun and lack of soil nutrients (we live on sand, basically). We’re working on the first one with a chainsaw and the second one with amendments, but it’s slow going. But I would love hazelnuts!

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