Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Seven Skinny Cows: Food Planning

The native Americans called the period from the snow’s melting until the first baby rabbits were born and the first flush of greens “The Hungry Time”. The grain and pumpkins had been eaten and the meadows and forests depleted of game by hunters, both human and animal.

Later in the spring fish would be spawning, water-fowl would be returning, birds would be laying eggs and greens, though low in calories, would be abundant.

The people of Kates Store and Pray Church were working on food security throughout the winter, long before the first greens poked their head above ground.

Old fruit trees that had been cursed for the mess they made of lawns were looked at in a different light.

The old timers trained the youngsters on the fine art of pruning fruit trees. Every old timer had a different method but they all seemed to work.

Wood cutters mapped out nut trees as they cruised the woods cutting firewood. In the first, frenzied rush to cut enough wood to keep citizens from freezing, there had been a natural tendency to cut everything within easy reach of the road. The farmers put a quick stop to that. They marked the walnuts, hickory and oak.

Any tree can be burned for heat but only a mature walnut tree can produce ten pounds of nut meats that are 65% fat and 15% protein. Ten pounds of nuts does not sound like much but ignoring them was like leaving money on the table. A few of the citizens who had lived in the south wished there were pecan trees because of their productivity and easy of cracking.

Flat areas with good sunlight were paced off and corners marked with hunks of firewood, the ground being too frozen to drive stakes. Sizes of gardens varied but twenty paces-by-forty paces was a common size.

Seed catalogs from previous years were unearthed and looked at for growing instructions.

Windows and doors and plastic were fabricated into cold frames to get the jump on the season.

Long debates were held over the merits of cabbage versus broccoli and kale while others debated the merits of tomatoes versus cucumbers. In general, the less experienced the gardener the more vehemently they argued their opinion, certainty being inversely related to experience.

The more experienced gardeners quickly came to agreement on the “heavy lifters”. They all planned to put large portions of their gardens into potatoes, brassicas and carrots. Green beans and tomatoes may be delicious but in the final analysis they are mostly water while potatoes, cabbage and carrots can be stored without the effort of canning them.

Milo and Kelly visited the farmers of Kates Store, Pray Church and North Eaton Rapids in turn. Kates Store and North Eaton Rapids had roughly three hundred souls each while Pray Church had about four hundred.

The farmers had little to go on regarding the yields they could expect with no commercial fertilizers and replanting seeds from hybrid plants.

They recalled stories told at Thanksgiving when grandparents spoke of forty bushel of corn to the acre being a good crop and fifty bushel to the acre was exceptional. That compared to the two-hundred plus bushels-to-the-acre they got as a matter of course now days.

Budgeting 2000 Calories per day per person came to about seven bushels of corn per person. Said another way, an acre of corn could produce enough calories to feed almost six people at forty bushel to the acre. Working the math that way, Milo figured he would need to till about 200 acres of ground to ensure there was enough corn to feed the thousand souls in NER, Kates Store and Pray Church.

Families would have gardens and cattle would graze pasture and provide milk, cheese and butter. There would be other sources of calories, but Milo banked on bad luck. He would rather have a surplus than a shortfall. In the back of his mind was the fact that somebody needed to grow the food the 3000 souls in Eaton Rapids needed to eat.

The other concern Milo and Kelly had was that they BURNED corn to run the gassifiers. They did not have enough experience to estimate how much corn they were going to need to till two hundred or more acres.

Each of the three commercial farmers in Kates Store volunteered to grow thirty acres. They nominated the thirty acres that were least likely to have weed problems and were favorably disposed for access to roads. They anticipated that they would be hiring people to hoe or cultivate those crops.

Milo suggested that they put in several, smaller plantings to be closer to the end-users but the farmers rejected the idea. They told him that the losses due to wildlife...birds, raccoon, squirrels and so on...are always highest at the edges of the fields. Planting several, smaller plantings would result in unacceptably high losses.

Farmer Don volunteered to grow twenty of corn, one of edible beans and nine of soybeans. Don would have grown more edible beans but there were just not enough seeds to plant more than one acre. He intended to keep a substantial amount of his harvest for future plantings.

Farmer Ken volunteered for twenty-five of corn and five of sugar beets.

Farmer Earl opted for twenty of corn, five each of oats and five of sunflowers. When Kate asked him why he wanted to grow so many sunflowers he told her “My wife was saying we were going to run out of peanut butter. Seems like everybody is using a lot of it now. We figured that if we grew sunflowers we could make sun-butter and if we had enough of it, maybe it would be something that can be traded to other places for things we need.”

That was in addition to the ten acres each farmer had seeded with winter wheat the previous fall. At Milo’s request they spun seed into standing soybeans before the leaves fell...soybeans that there was no market for.

The rains were favorable and the seed germinated well. In late winter, after a thaw reduced the snow cover to a few inches, Milo spun red clover seed into the young stands of wheat.

Farmer Don had several books by David Kline and Gene Logsdon, a couple of Ohio farmers who were proponents of “Amish farming”. The farmers of Kates Store, having been severed from traditional ways of farming by seventy years of high-input farming were willing to START with the crop rotation of the Ohio Amish.

They would keep what worked and experiment with what needed improvement.

A typical “Amish rotation started with:

A year of hay. Feed the hay through the winter on the field it came from. Move the hay feeders around so the poop was spread across the field.
The farmers of Kates Store were about to find out if their soil had any viable grass seeds in it after more than a decade of growing Round-up Ready crops.

A year of grass/clover pasture. The grass came in naturally as the red clover stand thinned.

Plow-down the two year-old pasture/hayfield and a year of corn (maize), a crop that demanded a great deal of nitrogen for high yields and tolerated a rough seed-bed.

A year of spring-planted small grains like oats or barley or perhaps beans.  Unbeknownst to Kelly, Farmer Ken managed to find a fifty pound bag of two-row barley and planned to sneak in a half-acre field of it behind the corn field.

Barley, like many small grains yields roughly fifty times as much grain as the seed planted. Corn, or maize as the rest of the world calls it, is the champ at 600X return while potatoes at at 12X is the laggard.

In the early autumn of the fourth year, winter wheat spun into the standing crop of grain or beans. Mid-winter, an additional planting of Red Clover or alfalfa would be spun into the young wheat to take the cycle back to the starting point. Since Michigan does not have a climate suitable for harvesting alfalfa seed, locally harvested red clover seed would have to suffice.

The only trick, according to Logsdon was the hop-skippity-jump to get into the sequence.

The farmers in the other two areas agreed to similar plans.

The farmers, for their part, started scrounging up horse-drawn equipment. Primarily they were looking for mowing equipment. The vast majority of their land would be left fallow and the best way to control weeds is to mow them or to graze them.

Since there were not enough horses, sheep and cows to provide sufficient mowing power, the weeds would be mowed and baled as hay. Very mediocre hay to be sure, but far better than trying to feed an animal snow. The situation would correct itself in a few years as the farms converted to the H-P-C-SG-W rotation.

Another piece of equipment that was suddenly in high demand were the heads for harvesting clover seed.

The first greens were nettles, dock, and violets, garlic and nodding onions. Families shared recipes and tips for harvesting.

Chickens were allowed to free-range under the watchful eye of a responsible family member. More often than not the family member had a shotgun close at hand. The free protein provided by the wealth of bugs that had been living in the duff beneath the snow was not a bargain if a family lost even a few hens to predators.



  1. People differ widely on how many calories they need for maintainance but I would pretty much garantee that if they are doing a long days hard physical work 2000 won't come close to cutting it. Sure if you are carrying a bunch of extra fat you can fall back on that for a while but eventually it will run out. When I was young and running a 40 cow dairy I lost weight on 7000 calories during haying. I remember reading an article about an interview with an old native alaskan grandmother who said when food got short in late winter everyone spent as much time in bed as possible to save energy.

  2. You are absolutely, 100% right!

    One internet formula for basal metabolic needs is 11.5 * body weight in pounds. That means that a 200 pound person needs about 2300 Calories to sit all day and sleep at night.

    If it were possible to walk 24 hours, that need would increase to about 7500 Calorie.

    Running is different from walking in that walking always keeps at least one foot in contact with the ground at all times. Running results in the body going ballistic at some point in the stride. Basically, the runner is jumping 1600-to-3200 times a mile.

    If it were possible to run for 24 hours, that 200 pound person would burn 23,000 Calories.

    So your observation that 2000 Calories a day is unlikely to be enough is right on the money.

    *There is some debate whether actual body weight or lean body weight is the better basis for basal Calorie needs. If you prefer to use lean body mass then a multiplier of 16 Calories per pound of lean body mass is a decent guestimate.

  3. How much population loss has there been in the Eaton Rapids area? I'm thinking of not only Ebola deaths, but also those due to crime, cold, malnutrition, sewage/ bad water/ sanitation problems, lack of medicine, etc.?

    1. I, as the author with omnipotent powers, dialed in a 30%-40% population loss due to people needing "services" being seduced into moving to urban areas where "services" can be delivered more efficiently.

      A smattering of older people died due to heart disease, stroke, etc.

      So far, the rural areas around Eaton Rapids have been barely been impacted by mortality because of favorable location and mature leadership.

      I really appreciate your comments. I can see that it makes sense to run a few episodes that track the demise of some locals to give the flavor of what mortality might look like in even the most gifted of locations.

      If the base-rate for mortality is approximately 1.3% (77 year life expectancy) then a tripling would be about 4% which would be 12 people a year over a population of 300.

      Mortality rates in the city will likely hit 40%-to-80% that first year. As you point out, it is not just Ebola knocking at the door.

      Even with 80% of the population taken out of the game, the populations originating in the urban/suburban areas will still dwarf rural/small town populations.

  4. Growing food is work. Hoeing, weeding, etc. takes calories, and it's hard for older folks to do that due to age/infirmities. That's going to push the young into harder labor and possibly create 'divisions' in the communities, either perceived or real.

  5. Somewhere recently I was reading an article that was examining death rates in some areas of the UK that showed that winter death rates increased with economic downturns that caused marginal people to not have adequate heat. Sorry I can't provide a spesific site. Also people who experience famine can experience significant permanent down shifting in their metabolism.

  6. One niggle:
    In the paragraph that starts Farmer Don...the second sentence in you start talking about "Dave". But I am guessing ya ment Don??

    I am really enjoying this series. Thank you for doing it.

    1. Great catch.

      There may be a farmer in my neighborhood whose first name starts with "D". However, it is neither Dave nor Don.

      Salt of the earth kind of guy and a great neighbor.