Monday, October 05, 2009

My Permie Homestead Unified Beliefs, Part 1: Why Food is Central

This is the first part in a series I call "My Permie Homestead Unified Beliefs."  If this is your first time reading my site, please visit the introduction to this series for a little information about why I'm writing this series.

I believe that many issues in life revolve around or are very related to the food we eat and how we acquire it.  Obviously, many creature comforts are important to us because we have come to expect them, such as air conditioning or a nice comfy bed.  But food is important because it is what sustains us, and in many ways defines us.

What we eat says a lot about who we are, and vice versa.  Aside from the obvious "if you eat too much junk food you can get fat" kind of definition, think of all the other ways food might define you.  Where are you from, and what kind of food is prevalent in your area?  Being from Tucson, AZ, I very much enjoy  and eat a lot of Sonoran Mexican cuisine.  And I bet I can handle eating a much hotter salsa than someone from, say, Boston or Minneapolis.  Take this to a broader perspective than just you and I, and you have culture.  The food we eat in a region helps to define the culture of that region.  There is more to the saying "you are what you eat" than most people think.

The food we eat also impacts other portions of our lives, and the lives of others.  Choosing to eat a kiwi fruit that has flown all the way from Chile or New Zealand impacts the livelihood of all the people in the supply chain it to get it to you, the air we all breathe, the energy supply we draw from, and the local farmer growing the apples or oranges that you choose not to eat.

Finally, and probably most importantly, the food we eat is probably the most important aspect of staying alive (besides breathing and drinking water) that we almost never really think about.  Breathing is automatic, and in the United States we are blessed with rather ubiquitous access to clean drinking water, so that leaves food as the most basic need that we must make sure to provide for.  Of course shelter is important as well, but even without an apartment or house to stay in, we can survive relatively intact if we have decent food to eat.  I am a backpacker, and I can definitely say that every trip I have ever taken, I have spent a large portion of my time prepping on the meal planning aspect of my trip.  Sure my sleeping bag and tent are important as well, for comfort or protection against exposure, but if I lost them I would be (in most circumstances) better off than if I lost all of my food.

So what does all of this have to do with permaculture?  Permaculture is indeed much more than just an alternative agricultural system, but it speaks volumes that something so diverse grew out of an original concept aimed at addressing food issues.  And the part of permaculture that is food system design seems to me to be aimed at providing food for people in a way that is healthy for them, their family, the community around them, and the environment as a whole.  It is a system that trends towards self-sustainability.

Once you have your basic need of food covered in a way that you don't have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, it gives you freedom in other areas of your life.  According to a study by the USDA (pdf) the average American household spends 9.4% of their annual income on food.  If instead of having to go to the grocery store to purchase your food, what if you were able to grow half of it at home, freeing up almost 5% of your annual income to put towards something else.  Today's median household income, according to the US Census Bureau (source), is about $45,000.  Freeing up 5% of that means the average American would have in the neighborhood of $2,250 to put into savings, improve their homes, pay for school, or expand their ability to grow more food, giving them the ability to save even more money.  And growing food is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to start on the path to self-sustainability, as well as a very important one.  You can live without electricity and without gasoline for your car, but you cannot live without food to eat.

Jules Dervaes of Pasadena, CA, who many consider to be the original urban homesteader in the US, says that growing your own food is one of the most dangerous things you can do, because you are in danger of becoming truly free.  I agree that the statement is a bit dramatic, but I also completely agree with it.  Imagine starting down the path of growing or raising your own food using permaculture design principles.  Your target might be 10% of your food needs.  Once you have this accomplished, all you have to do is double your production, and now you're up to 20%.  Not too hard right?  Double two more times and you're at 80% of the food you might eat.  This is an astounding accomplishment that most people will never even attempt, let alone achieve.  Now I know that you might argue that you don't have the space to grow that much food, but Jules Dervaes and his family grow nearly 6000 lbs of produce on their Pasadena, CA lot, and on only a 10th of an acre that they cultivate.  If you don't believe me, go to Jules' site,, and research it for yourself.  (If you do believe me, go to his site anyway, it's awesome.)  If you have shown yourself that you have the ability to do something like that, wouldn't you feel empowered to strive for self-sufficiency in other aspects of your life.  Maybe install some solar panels, use the money you save on food to pay off your debts, or start attempting to do other things yourself as well, like building or creating other projects that make you more self-sufficient?  What if you start keeping a few chickens (if local laws allow), or even a couple goats?  What if you had your house paid off, you could grow or raise all of the food you need, you had installed solar panels on your home, and had reliable transportation that you could use for close to free?  Maybe you could retire early, who knows.  It would all crash down around you though, if you didn't have food to eat.  And growing some of your own food is the easiest and fastest way for you to start traveling down that path to self-sufficiency and freedom, which is what permaculture is all about.

Now let's take that last paragraph to an extreme hypothetical.  Let's say you have nothing in life but some land, and the ability to grow food on it.  As long as you can keep growing food, you can build or acquire all of the other things over time, can't you?  You can sell any surplus food you grow to pay your property taxes.  You can barter some of that food to get materials to build a small house.  You can build that small house yourself, as long as you have food providing you the energy to do it.  As long as you have food to sustain you, and a willingness to work towards the other things you want, you will be able to bootstrap yourself into anything.  This is the original concept of homesteading.  Here's 40 acres and a mule, go make a life for yourself.  And that concept, to me, proves that everything comes down to food.  If you start with any other premise, like some land with a house on it, but don't include food into the equation, it breaks down, and you either starve to death, or have to spend 40 years of your life working for someone else so they can live out their dream, instead of you living out yours.  But if you take the first step of producing your own food, you really are taking the first step towards true freedom, and the ability to pursue your dreams.

I know this post is tremendously long, but because I believe food is central to everything, it's important to me to say everything I can to spread the message.  I will try to keep subsequent posts in the "My Permie Homestead Unified Beliefs" series a bit shorter.  But I hope I have convinced you that food is one of the most central things in your life, or if not, I hope I've gotten you thinking about it.  As a parting thought, consider why having a job and making money is called such things as "bringing home the bacon," putting food on the table," feeding the family," or "being the breadwinner."  Language speaks to us in more ways than just what the words say or phrases are taken to mean, and there is a reason that being a provider is almost always equated with producing food in some way.  Thanks as always for reading, and don't forget to check out the next post in this series, when I will be discussing how permaculture can address the crises we may face in the coming decades.

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