2014: The calorie retrospective

Back in 2012, Kevin and I set a goal of getting 20.12% — OK, call it 20% — of our calories from what we grew, hunted, fished, and gathered. I kept a monthly tally and added it up at the end of the year. It was an interesting exercise.

We did it because, the previous year, we’d spent an inordinate amount of time on procuring our own food, and the calorie total came to an anaemic 11%. After all that effort, 11%! It was demoralizing.

We’ve never aspired to self-sufficiency. In fact, in an interconnected world, I’d go so far as to say aspiring to self-sufficiency is kinda dumb. There are so many wonderful foods out there that other people grow, and that I want to eat, that I see no point in eating turnips all winter just to prove I can.

Besides, even if you’re getting every last calorie first-hand, you’re not self-sufficient; you just rely on a different set of people. Instead of Oscar Mayer, it’s John Deere. You’re wholly dependent on the people who make your equipment, your firearms, your fencing, and your freezers. Oh, and just what are you feeding your animals? Sure, we raised our own pigs, but some other, better, farmer grew the corn and the soy that were the bulk of their diet. Yes, it’s possible to cut your reliance on other people way back, but what on earth is the point?

But still, 11%.

So, in 2012, we went at it with a will. We planted an ambitious garden. We got those pigs. We bought a bigger boat. And we succeeded. The end-of-year tally had our first-hand efforts at 28% of our total caloric needs. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like a triumph. If we had also tallied the time and the money we spent procuring that 28%, the per-calorie cost would undoubtedly have meant that we could, instead, have gotten 28% of our calories from Kobe beef – and that’s taking into account the fact that our time’s not worth all that much. (Boats, though, have a way of running up the tab.)

The 2012 data (I use the term loosely), though, revealed more than just how hard it is to get your own food. A quick look at the which foods provided which calories made it very clear that the path to self-sufficiency, or some facsimile thereof, does not lie through the garden. Calories from vegetables add up very, very slowly. There are crops that can make a meaningful dent in your calorie total – sweet potatoes, corn, beans – but you need a lot of area, and probably some skill, to grow those in quantity. And, of course, if you have fruit or nut trees, those numbers add up fast. For the rest of us, though, it’s animals that move the needle.

We harvested just over a half-million calories that year, and 202,000 of them were meat (One pig, six turkeys, one duck, one rabbit, one very unappetizing raccoon). Another 117,000 were fish (mostly striped bass, bluefish, clams, and oysters). Our laying hens provided 126,000 in the form of eggs. The bees came through with 28,000’s worth of honey. The remainder, a measly 33,000, came from plants. (I should mention that we didn’t eat everything on the list. Some, we put down. Some, we gave away. The point of the exercise was to get a sense of the scale of our food production.)

Kevin and I are a bit behind the 8-ball in the plant department because we have sand for soil, but you could double or triple our production and it’s still not the calories in one pig. Which is not to pooh-pooh the growing of vegetables. They provide nutrition that pork can’t touch, and I’m all in favor of growing as many as you can. They just don’t stack up in the energy department.

We also found that getting those half-million calories was exhausting. Keeping pigs, and turkeys, and laying hens, along with finding time to garden, fish, and hunt, all while working an oyster farm and a journalism gig, left us somewhat overextended. And so, in 2013, we took a break from livestock. No new animals.

This year, a funny thing happened. We weren’t focused on any particular project. We had no goal. But we’ve been doing all this food procurement long enough that it’s become just what we do. At dinner last night, Kevin and I did a back-of-the-envelope tabulation of the food we’ve gotten this year, and it was substantial enough that I thought I’d transfer it from the back of the envelope to the eternal repository that is the Internet.

Our list this year is anchored by two firsts: Kevin caught his first bluefin tuna (140 pounds, yielding 56 pounds of meat), and Kevin and I both shot our first deer. After those, the biggest contributors are non-tuna fish (500 pounds of it, about 200 of which are filets), eggs, and the meat chickens we sent to the Cone of Silence last month (which averaged 8 pounds, dressed — about five pounds of meat). We didn’t have honey this year (the norm, for us), and the only meaningful plant crop was tomatoes. We also got some cucumbers, raspberries, and shiitake mushrooms, as well as herbs in quantity, but those don’t add up to much. So, the grand total:

Bluefin tuna: 56 pounds at 650 calories/pound = 36,400.
Venison: 70 pounds at 700 calories/pound = 49,000.
Fish: 200 pounds at 500 calories/pound = 100,000.
Oysters and clams: a lot of them = 10,000.
Meat chickens: 13 birds x 5 pounds, at 640 calories/pound = 41,600.
Eggs: about 1000, at 75 calories each = 75,000.
Tomatoes: 30 pounds at 80 calories/pound = 2,400.

TOTAL: 314,400.

That’s just over 17% of the 1.8 million calories (give or take) that Kevin and I eat every year. Not as good as our 28% high-water mark, but significantly better than that demoralizing 11%. What’re remarkable to me about it is that we weren’t really trying. We were just fishing. And hunting. And raising a few chickens.

The reason I started Starving, and the reason it’s held my interest all these years, is that finding new ways to get good things to eat has kept me on the steep part of the learning curve, a place I like to be. Some of the things we do are complicated and varied enough that the learning curve stays steep for a very long time. We’re pretty good at catching some fish, in some spots. Other fish, in other spots, are maddeningly elusive. Some things are simpler. Once you’ve raised chickens a couple of times, you pretty much get the hang of it. That’s not to say we’re expert – far from it – but we know enough to take it in stride. This was our first year with meat chickens, but we’ve had turkeys, ducks, and laying hens, so how hard could it be?

What’s happened, over the years, is that we’ve gotten accustomed to growing, raising, and catching food, to walking outside to get eggs out of the coop or downstairs to get venison out of the freezer. It’s lost its sense of adventure as it’s become standard operating procedure, but trading some of the adventure for a little bit of mastery has satisfactions of its own.

I know a lot of you who visit here do some of the same things we do. If you do the end-of-year tallying exercise, I’d love to hear what your year was like.

11 people are having a conversation about “2014: The calorie retrospective

  1. First off- congratulations on your deer!! That was a big deal for you, I know. And congratulations to Kevin on his first tuna.

    I didn’t tally in calories (because I really hate counting calories, which is probably why I look like I do), but I think I got more out of the garden this year than I ever have before. I got nine pounds of dried beans this year compared to last year’s four pounds, so that was good. I got ten pints of red cabbage (German style) this year which was new for me. I got something like eight quarts of red pepper-tomato soup, which was new this year. Also new this year were nine half-pints of baba ganoush and nine half-pints of sweet Italian peppers, and we made really good cornichons this year instead of insipid pickles. Oh- and we have more home made salsa verde than I have ever made before, but that’s because I discovered green enchiladas this year. I also grew in excess of fifty-five pounds of onions, and have enough canned tomato sauce and frozen pesto to keep us in weekly pizzas for a year, and roughly thirty packages of frozen green beans. I also have a lot of frozen, shredded zucchini for making into zucchini bread (nine three-cup packages which will make thirty-six loaves), and I chopped and froze eight quart bags of green and red bell peppers. This was just the stuff I put away- we ate out of the garden all summer long. We also still have eighteen eggs left from when the girls were laying; only Lola has continued to lay every day, and even she has slowed down to once every other day now.

    But as far as making up most of our calories goes, we are very far from it. I agree with you that striving for self-sufficiency is a pretty ridiculous goal (unless you’re an old hand at it and have many acres on which to do it, like Nita at Throwback From Trapper Creek- she is my hero), especially when you factor in feed. But I think it makes sense to try to do as much as you can- I’d like to get rabbits this year, and I hope to start fishing more regularly next year. I would hunt if I had a gun and someone to show me the ropes and take me, especially for elk, which I love, but the likelihood of that ever happening is pretty slim to nil. I’m working on getting more from cheaper things, like making scrapple- that was kind of a revelation.

    Ok- this was longer than I expected….again, congratulations on the deer.

    • Paula, that’s quite a haul. Our garden’s output is so pathetic that I can barely imagine growing all that food, let alone taking the time to process it and put it down for the winter. So my hat’s off to you.

      Hunting, as you note, is a tough thing to begin to do. We’ve learned a lot about fishing from other fishermen, but the hunting dynamic is different. It’s hard for an experienced hunter to take a novice (at least for deer — it’s different for birds), because it’s pretty much a solo activity. And one of the things I learned when Kevin and I went down to Virginia to hunt where the deer are everywhere, is that you don’t learn much about deer when you don’t see any. When there are a lot, you get to watch them and get a sense of how, and why, they move, and what spooks them and what doesn’t.

      But you’ve got your hands full even without that. I hope you have a moment to be proud of yourself.

  2. Enjoyed this post. Not a topic I had considered before. I do appreciate a meal when I can tick off all the items as coming directly from us, but I’ve never taken a year view.

    Given the time a garden takes, and the in-expense of one of our local organic CSAs, I believe I will be taking advantage of someone else’s labor for my vegetables. What I’m finding this has done is caused me to aware of is waste. I don’t want to waste a single item I receive, so I cook … every night. And my husband is thrilled by this.

    It’s not clear to me if the novelty may wear off, but so far so good. I’m also considering the CSA for canning as well, since they offer bulk tomatoes, etc., in the summer.

    Once our two pigs are in the freezer (most likely next month), I know we will feel a sense of success at feeding ourselves. Our pigs are a direct inspiration from your blog. I’ve enjoyed having them tremendously and look forward to raising them again in a few years.

    Kudos to you,


    Thanks as always for your posts.

  3. Rebecca – Congratulations on a freezer full of pork! I hope your pig-raising experience was as good as ours. We, also, are thinking about another round — maybe in the spring.

    I’m with you on your point about novelty. I want to do this only as long as it doesn’t feel like just another chore.

    PQ — I got a deer! And there is a story, and I do promise to tell it, but it may be in another (remunerative) venue — I promise to let you know if and when.

  4. “we’ve been doing all this food procurement long enough that it’s become just what we do.”

    That little sentence is oh-so critical. You were on the very steep uphill part of the learning and now that you’ve got some of that under your belt it becomes easier. Congrats on that achievement, of surviving and surmounting that part of the learning curve. Also congrats on your deer and Kevin’s magnificent fish!

  5. I enjoy reading about your yearly tally. I’m always impressed. Especially impressed in watching the evolution you’ve gone through in procuring your own food from the early days of this blog, where you could just barely scrounging something to eat, to what you can produce for your table today. I’m especially thrilled with addition of tuna and venison to your larders this year.

  6. Walter — Yeah, it’s been a long time coming! But it does feel good to be less of a bumbler. And we’re eating very well.

    Rick — Thanks! You’ve always been so supportive, and you always have something nice to say. I’m very glad you’ve been along for the ride.

  7. Tamar,

    Congratulations on getting your first deer, its been a long time in coming.

    So whats next for your first?


  8. I loved hearing about your living off the land. I’m terrified to try homesteading. Just curious why you chose to tally calories? Nutritional content would seem to be more rewarding.

    • Dee, one of the best things about trying the various activities that constitute homesteading is that, if you screw up, no one dies on the table. So, your kale crop fails. Just roll up your sleeves and dive in!

      The reason I use calories is that they’re the great equalizer. Different foods have different nutritional benefits, and tallying them up would be an incredibly difficult undertaking. There’s also lots of disagreements about which nutrients we need, and how much. Calories, though, are straightforward — all foods have them, and we all need about 2000 every day. It also puts our efforts in perspective. Being able to say we got 15%, or 25%, or 35% of our calories first-hand gives us a benchmark that makes sense to us. So that’s why I choose calories.

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