Monday, December 11, 2006

Self-sufficient diet, rough draft

Note: see also my post on Self sufficient tropical diet, rough draft

I've been thinking about how much land would be required to give an adequate, roughly paleodiet (no potatoes, cereal grains, or dairy, minimizing annuals domesticated & bred within the last 10,000 years) in a homesteading situation. My first step has been to figure out what the diet would consist of, in terms of proportion of calories from fruit and berries, meat, tubers, vegetables, etc. I've worked up a very rough draft which I'll jot down here. I welcome input, and will post future drafts as I learn more, think more, and crunch more numbers!

As best I can tell, an ideal hunter/gatherer diet consists of about 50-65% meat, and 35-50% plant foods. Assuming we have some need for land efficiency, this seems unrealistic for a self-sufficient homestead, since it does take a lot more land to raise meat than the equivalent calories in plant food. So for now, I'm figuring a minimal level of meat from the "homestead", with, hopefully, supplemental meat available from hunting and trapping. I haven't tried to do a full nutritional analysis of what a "balanced" diet requires; I'm just figuring that with a wide variety of foods most of that will sort itself out. But again, I welcome input into any of this, especially if I'm missing some important macronutritional info!

In the table below, % of diet refers to calorie intake. "Per day" is about how much of the item would be eaten per day on average. "Cals/lb" is my estimate of how many calories per pound this food type provides. The column for "Land" is a rough estimate of how much space, in square feet, would be needed to provide an annual yield sufficient for 2500 calories/day using this category as a monocrop (not integrated with other foods).

% of dietFood typePer dayCals/lbLandNotes
20%Meat5/8 lb8001 acre?Good homestead options seem to be beef, chicken, sheep, and maybe goats. Beef & lamb relatively higher in calories, chicken & goat low. Maybe 12 chickens (young males and old stewing hens)/person annually, plus half a pound of other meat per non-chicken-eating day? And 1/3 of a steer per year or its equivalent. No idea how much land required, which obviously is crucial.
10%Eggs3 eggs75/egg1/4 acre?Chickens or ducks (maybe other possibilities too?) For average 3 eggs/day, would need 4 or 5 fairly productive layers, or more older layers.
20%Protein nuts & seeds2/3 cup29006900Mostly thinking walnut, hazelnut, pine nuts, and sunflower seeds. Could also include hickory, pecan, almonds, pistachios, monkey puzzle, etc. Land requirement based on 1200 pounds/acre yield (I think very conservative, this could be doubled with good water/fertilization) and assuming 33% average kernel yield.
5%Chestnuts1/2 cup9001150Land requirement assumes 2400 lbs/acre (could be more with grafted varieties) and 80% kernel (I can't find any numbers for this, but this seems reasonable). Acorns would be a nice complement to chestnuts, but don't seem realistic for planting and getting a quick return. (Definitely an option for gathering from existing stands, though.)
10%Roots1.25 lbs8001000Ideally mostly low-maintenance perennials, but for now the common crops for which I can find data are: Jerusalem artichoke, beets, carrots, parsnips, camas, wapato, rutabagas, onions, turnips. Assumes a yield of 1 pound per 2 square feet. The calorie content varies widely for different tubers, so these numbers are very fungible depending on the crop make-up.
5%Starchy seeds1/5 cup1600600Amaranth, quinoa, other chenopods. Avoiding cereal grains (grass family). Assumes yield of 5 lbs grain per 100 square ft (could get higher yield, but maybe 5 lbs is a good guess for a low-maintenance patch).
7.5%Fruit2-3 fruits3001000Apples, pears, plums, persimmons, etc. Assumes 50 lbs per tree per year average, and trees and paths taking up a 16' diameter spread per tree.
7.5%Berries2-3 cups2001000Gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes, kiwis, etc. Might include melons in this category? 1000 square feet probably an over-estimate, as vines can make use of vertical space.
2-3%GreensLarge salad, 1 lb70350I haven't yet experimented with weighing different greens to understand how much salad 1 pound of greens actually makes. Assume can get 1 pound greens/square foot.
5%Squash, misc veggies1.25 lbs1001000Other veggies such as squash (including seeds, though maybe they should be included under protein nuts & seeds above, increasing that percentage of diet), shoots (asparagus, Rubus sp., bamboo, etc), tomatoes, peppers, etc. Land requirement assumes can produce 1 lb per 2 square ft.
7-8%Misc2 tbs honey, 10 olives, and 1/2 cup mushrooms 300Miscellaneous calories from things like mushrooms, honey, olives, vegetable oils (processing seeds from grape for example, or surplus walnuts?), and whatever else I haven't thought of yet. I pretty much just totally made up the land requirement number.

So, my very rough conclusion thus far is that for each 2500 calorie diet, you need a bit over a quarter acre (13,300 square feet) for plant food production in a monocrop system, plus 1.25 acres to support 12 chickens for eating, 1/3 of a steer, and 5-6 laying hens (see comments below for my calculations on that). Grand total: about 1.5 acres per person.

The next main research thrust needs to be into how much land you need to support free-range, almost fully pasture-fed animals on a rotational system. (Chickens, of course, will get supplemental feed from kitchen scraps, maggot farm, etc. I also expect it'll prove economical to grow some patches of grains and other vegetation purely for the chickens to pick through or to cut and store as feed for livestock through the winter.) I've read a lot of Joel Salatin's work on integrated livestock systems, but can't remember any details of the numbers.

Another aspect to think about more is how much space can be saved by growing crops under trees, so that it's not 1000 square feet for fruit trees and another 1000 square feet for berries, but rather 1000 square feet of fruit trees with berries growing underneath them, plus maybe another 500 square feet of berries growing in the open, for a total of 1500 square feet instead of 2000. This, of course, is how we're already planning and planting in our food forest plantings on an urban lot...but without mature trees to experiment with, we can't get data from our own experience for what final yields to expect in such an integrated system.


Anonymous said...

No offense, but the percentage of meat here seems absolutely ridiculous. Maybe 25 - 30%. Chimpanzees eat a ridiculously small amount of meat, and humans are not going to differ much from this. Human beings can live as vegetarians their entire lives and be healthy. What this means is that even if one believes one needs meat (I'm not engaging in vegetarian propaganda here, after all), it's a relatively small amount. And frankly, you can probably get enough just by eating insects, who are healthier meat anyway.

FarmerScrub said...

Hi there,

Thanks for your comment! I'm taking the "ideal" meat percentage of 50-65% from the analyses I've seen of modern hunter-gatherer tribes. Loren Cordain has done a lot of work on this; is a good read. In this study, Cordain and others analyzed 229 hunter-gatherer groups in Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, and concluded that "Our analysis showed that whenever and wherever it was ecologically possible, hunter-gatherers consumed high amounts (45–65% of energy) of animal food. Most (73%) of the worldwide hunter-gatherer societies derived >50% (≥56–65% of energy) of their subsistence from animal foods, whereas only 14% of these societies derived >50% (≥56–65% of energy) of their subsistence from gathered plant foods."

Another interesting tidbit from the same paper: "For worldwide hunter-gatherers, the most plausible ... percentages of total energy from the macronutrients would be 19–35% for protein, 22–40% for
carbohydrate, and 28–58% for fat". That gives me ballparks to compare my dietary plan against.

One criticism I've seen of Cordain's methodology is that the Ethnographic Atlas may be biased towards plant foods because most ethnographers were males who talked mostly to indigenous males, who were the meat-providers, thus underestimating the amount of food provided by women. I haven't seen much data/detailed analysis to back this criticism up, but it's certainly possible.

Another interesting page is which cites Kelly (1995) (which I assume to be The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways by Robert Kelly.) It claims roughly the same results: "Groups depending on plants for more than 40% of their diet total 36, only 29% of the total sample of 123 groups". I'm not sure what Kelly bases his analysis on, as I haven't seen his book.

I've seen mention of the low percentage of meat consumption by chimpanzees--about 4-7%. However, I haven't seen any analysis of what that means in terms of human diets.

I should clarify that the 50-65% really refers to animal foods, not just meat. So that would include fish and insects. Maybe even eggs?

From what I've read, I have a hard time believing that a purely vegetarian diet can be healthy in the long run...although maybe a vegetarian diet carefully modeled on a paleodiet, but substituting high-protein and fat nuts for meat would be roughly equivalent and equally healthy? The grain- and legume-based modern vegetarian diet seems pretty far off from a healthy diet, though. And I haven't seen any examples of 100% plant-based human cultures, past or present, which suggests that that is not an optimal diet.

I agree with you that humans can probably have a reasonably healthy diet with a fairly small amount of animal food...hence my target of only 20% animal foods on the homestead. (Or 30% if you include eggs.) I think that insects are a difficult crop to harvest, since the energy is small per insect...unless you're blessed with swarms of locusts, or nests of termites/etc which you can reliably harvest, for 20% you'll need other animal sources. My impression so far is that raising insects for food doesn't make much sense on a homestead, since I haven't found any ways to integrate them into nutrient/waste cycles. All the information I've found on raising insects presumes inputs of grains, or other industrial or agricultural feeds. (The only exception I've thought of is termites in dead wood, but I haven't found anything about how to encourage an infestation of wood and then manage the population. There's much more accessible information on mushroom management, another prime use for dead wood.)

One last note--it seems pretty well accepted in the anthropological literature than human groups follow an optimal foraging pattern, in which they focus on the foods with the highest caloric returns vs calories expended. This usually seems to be animal foods, but depending on the environment and the situation, plant foods can definitely move to the top of the list, and of course some plants are always fairly highly ranked anyway. Along with the evidence of widely varying patterns of plant:animal food ratios amongst different people, I think we can agree that there are plenty of different diets that will work out. I'm not too worried about figuring out the "perfect" diet, just in having rough goals to plan for when designing a homestead and figuring in hunting & gathering supplements.

Liam said...


just a note from back when we used to keep chickens (we fed them a mininmal ammount each day, most of their food was scavenged). Pretty quickly - as soon as they were of egg laying age - they would be laying one egg a day, and by a year old would be on about 1 1/2 to 2 eggs a day, before dropping back to 1. After a few months of laying back at one we would eat them as they were still young enough to have young and tasty meat for roasting. We started off with around 12 chickens and reared young every couple of months to sustian the right number of layers. Pretty soon (without really trying) we had far more birds than we needed (and eggs) - on very low effort and cost.

Also - we trained them to roost in low trees, but lay in ground boxes - so they would be protected at night even if we weren't around to put them to bed.

Terry said...

The latest issue of Mother Earth News had a great article called 21st Century Homesteading by Harvey Ussery. I highly recommend it as he has been practicing the things you're talking about for many years and his homestead has become a model.
Second, just because we evolved from hunter/gather evolutionarily doesn't mean that is the best diet now. My personal theory is that as we evolve our consciousness our bodies crave and make efficient use of less dense food.
Anyway, just sharing thoughts.
Good luck on your project

FarmerScrub said...

Ran Prieur emailed me with a couple of comments: cattails supposedly produce ten times the starch per acre as potatoes, and in a serious crash, there will be plenty of opportunity to hunt deer, a "weedy species", without the limitation of game wardens. I definitely envision some sort of water resources on an ideal homestead, for fish aquaculture and aquatic plants such as cattails. I haven't yet tried analyzing numbers for food output/acre. And I know very little at this point about deer and elk populations; it's good to hear that they may be an abundant source of food for us!

Liam, thanks for sharing your experience with chickens. I'm especially excited to hear about your success training the chickens to maintain themselves in trees overnight! Did you have any problems with raccoons? One of the first things fledgling chicken owners here in the city get is the "protect against raccoons!" warning. I'm also intrigued by the numbers you gave for eggs--do you mean that each chicken laid up to 2 eggs a day in their prime? I've been under the impression than 1 per day per chicken is the limit, but I occasionally hear reports of multiple eggs in a day from a chicken...


Thanks for the heads-up about Harvey Ussery's article! When I was actively reading the Running on Empty 2 peak oil list, I found his posts to be full of useful tips and wisdom, and his website is a great resource too. I'll have to take a look at the Mother Earth News issue the next time I'm at a store. And, thanks for your theory on diet evolving along with consciousness; that's an interesting idea!

Kevin Carson said...

Sacrificing potatoes and cereal grains really cuts down on the efficiency of calorie production. Jeavons, doing the biointensive thing, managed to reduce the space requirement to 4000 sq. ft.; but that meant dedicating about 80% of the space either to starchy roots and tubers, or high-carb cereals and legumes.

And when you add in meat, the inefficiency of protein conversion greatly adds to the space requirements. It takes a lot more space to feed protein sources higher up the food chain, than it does to get the protein from vegetables directly.

FarmerScrub said...

Hi Kevin,

I agree that no potatoes/grains/legumes means more land required for food. If we were planning to eke out a living long-term in an urban area on little land, I'd probably settle for using those as staples simply to be able to make ends meet. However, we're planning for larger acreage where space isn't as constraining a factor, which allows us to focus on health in the diet and minimizing work rather than maximizing space efficiency.

Ditto on meat protein vs eating lower on the food chain--I agree that raising your own meat is space inefficient, but for our purposes the health of eating as omnivores is the focus. The more I hear, the more I suspect we'll be able to meet all our meat needs/desires through hunting and fishing, which could make raising our own meat superfluous. In the long run, if hunting really is viable, we'd probably drop the livestock except for the lowest-maintenance, most useful animals for the homestead (such as chickens?)

Thanks for your input!


FarmerScrub said...

Update on land required for chickens and larger meat animals. Chickens: assume that layers need 80 pounds of feed per year, and raising a broiler (young male) to harvesting age requires 10 pounds of feed. To maintain 5 layers year round it would take 400 pounds of feed. 10 broilers for eating would be another 100 pounds. (I wanted to keep the math simple, so figure that the 12 chickens/year for eating is comprised of 10 broilers and 2 or more older layers each year.)

Getting 2000 pounds of grain or soybeans per acre seems fairly conservative, so the 500 pounds of required feed for layers plus broilers would require 1/4 acre to grow.

Of course, on the actual homestead the chickens will have access to bugs and we won't be growing huge monocrops of grain for them--they'll be an integrated part of the whole system. So the 1/4 acre estimate should be a conservative upper limit on how much land is required to support the chicken component of my rough draft diet.

For larger meat animals, I've got very rough numbers based on figures from Joel Salatin at

He says his farm went from fewer than 50 cattle days per acre to 400, with 70 being the county average. This means that one acre can feed 50 cattle for one day per year, or could feed one cattle for 50 days per year. To keep the math simple, assume we could improve the pasture quality of the land and incorporate a sheep/cattle/chicken rotation for optimum pasture usage to get the equivalent of 122 cattle days per year. That would mean the 1/3 cattle per year to be eaten would require 1 acre.

So a grand rough total for the rough draft of the diet would be: 1 acre for cattle/sheep meat plus 1/4 acre for laying and broiler chickens plus 1/4 acre for other directly eaten food = 1.5 acres required per person. Voila!

Anonymous said...

Being an extreme carnivore I can say that a) you can't get protein from veggies that is totally usable by the human body as you need all the aminos together at once (the beans and rice protein theory combo is wrong) and b) you definately want to use the milk from the cows 'cuz you need them to give birth to provide you with new sources of protein and why the heck not share in the bounty of milk as it has so much goodness and life in it. Ditto for cows blood which I believe the masai drink straight from the cow (I mean aren't we talking about the end of life as we know it and teh need for food?). BTW I have been to Jeavons farm in Wilits and it is awesome to see but having been a vegetarian for 16 years I was still totally unhealty (even eating all the "right" foods) I was up and down with both my weight and emotional life. Now that I eat meat and i'd say it's about 75% of my diet (seriously!) I am a size 4 and I am calm and focused. plus my husband has Crohn's so asture raised meat raw milk & bone broths have saved his life so we can't/won't give it up.
Folks you need fat for your brain to work properly. Do remember that Salatin is in the valley where EVERYTHING grows so lovely and Jeavons has a nice round gut which tells me that he's eating way too many carbs and not digesting properly so the calorie crop thing isn't nescessarily a great use of space per se if you aren't actually as healthy as you think. Go Farmer Scrub and do your thing with much luck and success and please ignore the naysayers until they try it for themselves

Roxann said...

If you're going to keep chickens, it would be great to rotate them through your garden. My plans are to first plant some things like buckwheat, sunflowers and flax in my fallow plot, then follow through with chickens when those things go to seed. the chickens will eat bugs, weed seeds, and fertilize. I have apprx. 1 acre I'm working with now to incorporate this system, but 1/4 of it will always be planted in cover and 1/4 will always have chickens on it, 1/4 will be planted in crops for the livestock as supplement, and 1/4 will be in garden production.

Anonymous said...

Self-sufficiency is fine, an fiddling with calories may be fun. But what about inputs? Manure, soil amendments, seed, and breeding stock? Every farm needs new genes every once in a while.
Where are you planning on getting roosters, bulls, rams etc?
Where will you find new seed to prevent inbreeding and associated loss of production?

FarmerScrub said...

The most recent "anonymous" commented:

"But what about inputs? Manure, soil amendments, seed, and breeding stock?"

Permaculture design aims to reduce up-front and ultimately eliminate nutrient and organic inputs, so we shouldn't need long-term manure & soil amendments unless we design poorly. We will try to close cycles so that existing nutrients stay on the land; capture inflows of nutrients and store them; and plant nitrogen-fixing plants to replenish the nitrogen we do unavoidably lose.

"Every farm needs new genes every once in a while."

I don't see why...could you explain further?

"Where are you planning on getting roosters, bulls, rams etc?"

I think we should be able to set up a sustainable breeding population of chickens. Currently we keep several different breeds of chickens (in the city though, which may not give us the best idea of how they'll do in a rural setting). We plan to decide on a single breed of chicken based on our current experiments and on input from neighbors and agricultural information wherever we land. We'll buy 25-50 chickens and let them breed themselves, so that over time we'll naturally develop a variety suited to our land.

I don't expect to follow the same path for large livestock; we may find we have to buy in young animals and raise them to slaughtering size, depending on how much acreage we have to work with and how many join our tribe. If we only need to kill three bovines a year for our meat needs, I don't think a full-blown breeding program would make sense at our scale. However, I personally want to move more towards hunting wild game than depending on our own animals, so we may not even have to keep larger livestock after an initial establishing period during which we learn the local land, practice hunting, etc.

"Where will you find new seed to prevent inbreeding and associated loss of production?"

I haven't read much on seed saving and breeding, but I don't think we need many individuals of any given species to maintain a breeding population. At the scale of our tribe, we should be able to sensibly grow enough individuals of any useful plant to maintain a vigorous genetic stock. I plan to grow mostly perennials which have received little or no breeding attention in the past, so we don't have as much risk of losing carefully selected characteristics as we would with annual vegetables.

Thanks for sharing your concerns!

Anonymous said...

Here are some quick search results for seed saving:

Bottom line is make friends with like minded farmer who live close, but not too close to avoid inbreeding and unintentional crosses and have a source of seed if your garden has a catastrophic event (deer, flood, frost).


Sarah said...

How did you train them to roost in low trees? That sounds like a really good way to integrate them into existing partially wooded areas.

John D. Wheeler said...

LOL, @Sarah, for my Easter Egger chickens, no training was necessary, it was completely their own idea to roost in the trees -- and not all that low either. There is nothing quite like going out early in the morning and hearing clucking 10 feet over your head.

I am curious as to why you didn't include three of the best sources of meat for small homesteads: ducks, rabbits, and aquaculture. Okay, I see in the comments you don't have productivity figures for aquaculture, and you mention ducks for eggs but not meat. But you obviously are aware of all three from your other posts.

Norris said...

Not including ducks in the description for meat was just an oversight; they could be integrated in the same way as chickens for both meat and eggs. I definitely think aquaculture has a lot of potential, but as you noted, I couldn't find hard numbers for productivity.

I wrote a post about sustainable and humane rabbit keeping, which explains some of my hesitations there.