Grow Your Own — Part III: Rules for the Experiment

We should define the parameters under which we’ll be carrying out this simulation. You can read about the inspiration and overall idea for this experiment in Part I and the chronological outline in Part II. Here we’ll drill down on exactly what we’ll be doing.

1. We will concentrate our growing efforts on about half an acre for a family of three.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2017 survey, 52 percent of Americans live in a suburban environment while urban and rural locales netted 27 and 21 percent of the population respectively. The US census notes that most houses built between the 1970s and 2010s had lot sizes between about 10,000 and 9,000 ft², or a bit over a fifth of an acre. Of course this varies by region and proximity to dense, urban areas. A drive through any US suburb If overall land was considered on a per-person basis, the US has 7.4 ac for each person (ranging from New Jersey’s 0.5 to Alaska’s 828 ac/person; the median state is Wisconsin, with 6.0 ac/person; source). But because we’re trying to replicate a fairly representative effort to grow and preserve our own food without fossil fuels, these numbers are important.

Our half acre is larger than the average size, but it includes a quarter of an acre on our property and another quarter acre of “shared space.” We are working under the assumption that communities would choose to allow parks and other open areas to be used for growing food in our scenario, and this is well under the acreage available to us in even the densest states. A couple of searches on Zillow of suburbs in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison show that a quarter to a third of suburban lots are over a quarter acre in size. Although difficult to quantify, it seems that in all but the densest urban areas, a household should be able to count on a half acre for itself (just think of all the golf courses!).

2. We will eat primarily what we are able to grow and preserve without fossil fuels.

As we are simulating a gradual collapse of the fossil-fuel infrastructure, we can continue to buy things in bulk that we already do: flour, rice, and oats, as allowed by the study calendar. We won’t buy more than twice what we usually do (i.e., a limit of two 50 lb bags of flour instead of one) to avoid artificially stockpiling beyond what would be feasible.

This study doesn’t mean we won’t eat when we visit friends and family. We may occasionally eat out, too. This is meant to be an experiment, not a punishment. Whenever we eat “off campus” we will record the approximate meal count and record it against extra meals we feed to visitors to our home. In the run of the study, this should have a negligible effect.

3. We can harvest “surplus” foods from neighbors.

Our neighbors have fields of wheat, unused orchards, and dairy herds. In the event that fossil fuels disappeared, the cows would go unmilked and the wheat unharvested. In the course of the study, we will visit neighbors to collect some of this surplus, using only human-powered harvesting methods and the transportation and allowed under our calendar.

4. We can cook and carry out our other tasks as usual.

We have decided to cook using our regular stove, which runs on gas. If needed, we could cook using off-grid solar power, thanks to our solar panels, induction stove, and electric mini-oven, so restricting ourselves to just our electric cooking appliances would not give us any useful information. In other words, without fossil fuels, we could still cook exactly what we do now, but it is just slightly inconvenient. Additionally, as this study is to look only at growing and preserving food, we can still use our car for non-food-related tasks, such as work and travel.

5. We must also curtail fossil-fuel-supplied ancillary purchases.

Just as with foodstuffs themselves, we must limit our purchasing of tools, equipment, or other items used in food production and preservation. As our gas, shipping, and buying power are reduced for food each month, so to will reduce the availability of these other items. For example, we can’t just run out and buy a grain mill in September, when we’re cut off from food purchasing.

Frankly, we stand a better chance of completing this study if we restrict it to one aspect of our existence rather than all of them at once.


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