This morning’s breakfast was amazing: pastured eggs from our chickens (cooked in ghee from our A2A2 Jersey cow Blossom), bacon from the kunekune pigs, kraut, warm milk for the kids and decaf cappuccinos for us. Last night’s dinner was also delicious, with liver from the cow we processed on the farm two days ago, green beans and zucchini from the garden and radicchio salad. I am already excited for lunch—BLTs on sourdough spelt/emmer bread that came out of the oven this morning, with fresh tomatoes and radicchio from the garden, homemade mayo from our eggs and a combination of olive and coconut oil. Tomorrow will be vegetable soup with beef cheeks cooked in bone broth.
The incredible part about this gourmet menu is that this is our life every day. I could go on about the soups, grain dishes, traditional Italian pastas, vegetables, eggs, cured meats and ferments that grace our table daily. All of this abundance is grown on four acres of our farm in arid Colorado. In fact, at mealtime we often play a game to try to figure out what we are eating that we didn’t produce on the farm— usually salt, olive oil and grains. What is most remarkable is how easy it all became once we made a fundamental shift in our beliefs around food, farming and nutrition.
When asked, we define ourselves as subsistence farmers. This may be a little tongue-in-cheek, but it is also the simplest description of our goals in agriculture. “Subsistence,” in our minds, is the practice of growing as much of our food as possible, while selling very little. (Our goal is to reach a break-even point economically.)
My wife and I started this journey in our early twenties, with a vague notion of “growing our own food.” On borrowed land, we established a large vegetable garden that grew into a micro-CSA (community-supported agriculture). We also raised sheep—selling the meat—and chickens. While remaining a part-time endeavor, our farm generated a reasonable income.
The problem arose when we more carefully contrasted our diet to our farming practices. We were selling all of the lamb in order to buy other meat, namely pork and beef. We consumed but were not ourselves producing large quantities of raw milk and other dairy products. While our vegetables provided the bulk of our meals, they supplied few calories. We had embarked on a Wise Traditions diet but still purchased the majority of our calories.
This changed five years ago when we managed to purchase our own twenty-acre farm. It is a beautiful piece of land, though only about four acres are suitable for agriculture at the moment. We are happy to leave the rest wild, as we run youth educational programs for our livelihood; the four acres supply our caloric needs.
The shift involved a mental adjustment to imagine how to produce as many of our calories as possible, instead of simply focusing on volume. This meant shifting to animal foods that are rich in fat, along with calorically rich garden staples that can be stored throughout the year. What we have come to realize is that it is possible to produce a large amount of food. We now live in a state of abundance and generosity; at times of excess, we trade and give freely to our community.
We have undertaken to go “whole hog” on this life experiment of growing as much nutrient-dense food as possible. To be honest, this lifestyle requires a lot of time and work. (It also means that we have a certain amount of monotony in our diet; for example, after the harvest of a large animal, we eat a lot of one kind of meat for a while.) Luckily, sitting out under a tree on a summer evening shelling beans or working together making sausage is our idea of a good time.
This article is a “call to subsistence,” hopefully inspiring others to take some level of greater participation in producing the food they eat. Small steps can make a large impact in the pantry and the kitchen. In the following sections, I describe some of the animal and plant foods that, in our experience, can make a huge difference. Many of them can be scaled to smaller spaces.
GOATS: THE PERFECT SUBSISTENCE ANIMAL
When we moved to our new farm and shifted our intention to subsistence farming, goats were the first animal we introduced to the new land. We love goats. They are hardy, productive and very personable animals to work with. We also have large areas of invasive weeds, and goats—less picky than sheep or cows—are ideal to graze in marginal areas. Goats have been immensely helpful in managing our landscape.
We managed to invest in a herd of six weaned does for under two hundred dollars. We raised them, training them to electric fencing. When it was time to breed, we borrowed a buck from some neighbors. The next spring we had a batch of delightful, playful kids racing around. We milked the goats, enjoying raw milk and fresh cheeses, and ate castrated males and females we wanted to cull from the herd. Although it surprises many people, we love goat meat, which is tender, delicately flavored and delicious.
Where neighborhood rules allow it, I believe that a goat is a perfect backyard homestead animal. We have several friends who have raised goats in large backyards, benefiting from the milk, lawn mowing and meat. Goat manure is pretty innocuous and would beneficially fertilize a lawn. While good fencing is always essential with goats, dwarf breeds such as Nigerian Dwarf goats are easier to contain; they still provide all of the benefits of other dairy breeds, just with lower amounts of milk per animal.
PIGS: FAT-FUELED LAWN MOWERS
When we saw our first kunekune pig, we fell in love. Kunekunes are a delightful breed from New Zealand. In addition to their slightly-smaller-therefore-cuter size, they are grazers, meaning they eat and grow fat on grass without much rooting. When we acquired our first two kunes, they literally spent the summer mowing our lawn. They tend to deposit all of their excrement in a single corner, making clean-up easy, and they respect fences. A kunekune is a perfect backyard animal, a friendly lawn mower kindly growing bacon on nothing more than grass and kitchen scraps!
Kunekunes, along with some other great homestead breeds, are lard pigs. They grow more slowly than standard hogs but put on incredible amounts of fat. For those of us focusing on calories, this is a gift. Raising kunekunes has eliminated our need to purchase cooking fat. We generally harvest two animals a year, and this provides all of the lard we require for cooking. The one potential issue is that their meat is also very fatty—we find it ideal for mixing with leaner grass-fed beef, goat and wild game. This is a perfect marriage that graces our table regularly.
COWS: MAKING EDIBLE SUNSHINE
The reason we transitioned from goats to cows as a dairy source can be summed up in a single word: butter. The delights of butter, cream and ghee are daily gifts from our lovely Blossom. Cows are a larger investment of money and space, but they are a game-changer for those eating a Wise Traditions diet.
We have small A2A2 Jersey cows deriving from New Zealand genetics, which means they do very well on an exclusively grass diet. We get less milk than with other breeds—only two gallons a day. Many folks marvel that we can go through even this much milk, but the combination of butter-making and pigs makes it easy. We make all of our butter for the year when the grass is growing quickly (primarily in May and June) and at other times of year keep ourselves well supplied with ghee for cooking. Any skimmed milk and buttermilk go to the pigs. In between, our children drink large amounts of raw milk, and we make yogurt, kefir and hard and soft cheeses. My favorite is making kefir with straight cream instead of milk.
On four acres, in an arid climate with mini mal water rights, we raise three to five cows. This includes two milkers and a few calves or steers to sell or eat. Our daily milking in the first hours of the morning is a delight. We enjoy spending time with Blossom and filling a bucket with delicious creamy milk.
Of all the animals I have mentioned so far, the cow is the most significant to add to the family homestead and would be difficult in a more suburban or urban setting. However, the sheer quantity of food coming from a single cow (and yearly calf), plus the immense fertility from manure for the garden, make the cow an easy addition to our life. Also, unlike goats, fencing cows is much easier and much less stressful. And every time we open a jar of ghee, stored for months in our basement, I marvel at the alchemy that transformed sunlight into the miraculous fat that feeds us daily.
POULTRY: THE GATEWAY LIVESTOCK
With more and more municipalities legalizing backyard flocks, poultry is the easiest entry point into subsistence living. While chickens are most common, ducks, geese and turkeys are all easy, producing delicious eggs and different meats to add variety.
Eggs are our “fast food” and a staple in our kitchen. In the spring, when the birds are laying like crazy, eggs feature in every meal, from quiches to custards, boiled eggs, frittatas and more. Our chickens live in mobile houses that move daily in the summer, following the cows onto fresh pasture. In winter, they still move but less often, as we keep them in more protected areas in the colder weather.
Chickens have been the cornerstone of our broth-making, especially before we started raising larger animals. We simmer the carcasses gently for twelve to twenty-four hours, and after straining the delicious broth, pick off the meat for tacos, soups and casseroles. Chickens raised in this way are tougher than supermarket chicken, to be sure, but deeply flavorful.
BUTCHERY: THE KEY TO SUBSISTENCE
I often say that we eat the best food in the world, and if there is anything that has made this possible, it is learning the craft of butchery. I believe that learning some level of small-scale butchery is one of the most powerful tools of the subsistence homestead and is the key to abundance. We harvest and process all of the meat we eat. The journey of learning this potent practice has given us access to a wide variety of nutrient-dense and delicious foods.
We started with chickens and turkeys, which initially went into bone broth and stews. Although we see lots of folks in our area raising chickens, there is a point when no one is willing to process their birds due to sentimental attachment. I find that chickens are actually the simplest first foray into animal processing, and it is how I got started. Learning to harvest the feet, livers, hearts and fat are great ways to begin to add nutrient-dense foods to the diet. Fresh liver is my children’s favorite, as well as the feet we add to broth. With a couple of friends and a little practice, processing five birds is a short morning’s work. We have processed hundreds of layers over our thirteen years of homesteading.
Sheep and goats were the next port of call. These animals are manageable for a couple of folks to do together, and the meat is delicious. With our goats, we harvested every scrap of bone for broth, while the meat went into delicious stews. We also made jerky for snacks.
Harvesting our kunekune pigs changed our whole diet. Suddenly, we had luscious leaf lard for flaky crusts and long-fermented sourdough biscuits. I have also gone down the rabbit hole of curing pork, so now we eat slabs of bacon (christened “steak-on” by a friend), coppa, lomo and salami. We work organs into paté or eat them fresh, while our sausages feature beautiful herbs from the garden. The fatty pork mixed with our leaner grass-fed beef or wild game adds succulence to a variety of dishes.
THE GARDEN: FOCUSING ON CALORIE-DENSE FOODS
When we shifted our mindset to growing calories, our relationship to the garden and preserving changed. Previously, we grew lots of greens, and we vinegar-pickled jars and jars of vegetables. At present, while we still grow beautiful greens, we also have several beds of dry beans, potatoes, garlic and onions. We grow corn for popcorn and polenta, and naked seed squash for seeds that we turn into pepitas for snacking on throughout the winter. We freeze much of the harvest—especially green beans, peas, zucchini and celery—for hearty soups throughout the winter, and we can tomato sauce. In addition, we now ferment more vegetables, leaving them in the basement to add to meals throughout the year.
During the summer, we eat a more vegetable-heavy diet (though still dressed with butter, cream and bacon), while in winter, we shift to hearty soups, stews and roasts. We eat herbs fresh all summer and dry them for use in winter.
FORAGING: FOOD FOR FREE
My entree to subsistence living was through teaching primitive skills. Identifying edible plants, foraging and hunting were skills that I taught before I began growing food. We still supplement a certain amount of our diet with wild foods harvested on the landscape, both plant and animal.
There are several that have had a large impact on our diet. The first is wild greens. Without a greenhouse, our garden is a little slow to start at our high elevation. Hardy and robust wild greens are one of the first things that we eat after the long winter. There are so many different greens that grow in many different regions, and one can add them to any dish that uses cooked greens. We add lambs quarters, nettles and orache to spanakopita, green soups, eggs and green pasta.
Foraging for mushrooms and wild fruits adds adventure to our summer and produces dramatic results on the table. Porcini are our favorite mushrooms. We harvest saskatoons, chokecherries and many feral fruits to freeze, dehydrate and flavor mead, creating treats in winter.
Wild game is food that is available to many, even without access to land for farming. Pursuing big game is exciting and romantic and results in the most meat; however, I am a fan of small game. The quantity is less overwhelming (particularly if you don’t have a chest freezer), and small game provides more variety—from upland birds to waterfowl to squirrels to rabbits. Some of the more “edgy” meats yield surprising results in the kitchen. I have served raccoon to folks who now claim it is the best meat in the world! The primary consideration with wild foods is care in cooking, so that their inherent deliciousness is honored. Many of the best restaurants in the world actively seek wild foods, acknowledging the powerful culinary potential of these foods that are free to all.
OUR MAIN IMPORTS
We don’t produce all of our food. For a variety of reasons, including time and sentimental attachment to certain global flavors, we buy a portion of our food. For example, we buy spelt, einkorn and khorasan for our sourdough baking. Olive oil and vinegar dress our salads and many vegetables. Some products, such as coconut milk and spices, allow our menu to reflect flavors from around the world. We also balance the shortfalls in our harvest with root crops from local farmer friends.
HEALTHY AND CONNECTED
Devoting our life to a subsistence lifestyle has given our family access to nutrient-dense foods, engaged our children and community and inspired generosity as we share the harvest with friends and family. It keeps us healthy and connected to our landscape. I advise anyone interested in delving deep into food, nutrition and health to grow some vegetables, learn simple butchery and keep a grazing pig in the backyard. In other words, take little steps day by day to ensure your health and that of future generations.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2020