Food in Uncertain Times: How to Grow and Store the 5 Crops You Need to Survive
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MG: In an era with unpredictable climate conditions -- hurricanes, floods, droughts, etc -- what, in your opinion, is the most widespread condition today's gardeners face? Why do you think this is?
CD: The unpredictability itself is the greatest problem. This summer, for example, is the coldest summer I have ever experienced in Oregon in 30 years. By mid-August there had been only one week all summer that had any days above 90°. Many days in June and July didn't even make it to 80°. Meanwhile, much of the East Coast had a record-breakingly hot summer.
For the last fifty years, the weather patterns have generally been unusually stable. Our modern gardening and agricultural practices actually depend upon that stability. Our farms and gardens have become good-time farms and gardens. They are likely to fail just when we need them most. We now need gardens and farms that survive and thrive in the face of greater unpredictability.
Wild erratic weather is typical of climate change, and is much more important to gardeners and farmers than a fraction of a degree's change in average global climate. However, humanity has made it through the transition from relative stability to instability in climate before, for example, in our adjustment to the erratic weather of the Little Ice Age. There are agricultural patterns and methods we have developed in the past when we needed them that we can relearn and expand upon today.
MG: Gardening for resilience, as you discuss, also means choosing your crop varieties for optimum self-reliance and hardiness. What's the most fantastic quality of each of the five crops you talk about in your book -- potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs?
CD: Potatoes are a great source of both carbohydrates and protein. They have protein levels comparable to the most protein-rich grains by the time you adjust for water. They yield more carbohydrate per square foot than anything we can grow in temperate climates. They yield more protein per square foot than anything we can grow except beans. They have good levels of vitamin C and significant amounts of calcium and other minerals. They are the easiest of all staple crops to grow. They yield much more carbohydrate and protein than anything else per unit labor. Small grains take fine seed beds, meaning tillers, tractors, or draft animals.
Anyone with a shovel can grow potatoes. And potatoes can be grown on rough land, land just converted from lawn or pasture or patch of weeds. Grains usually require special grinding equipment. Anyone who can build a fire can cook potatoes. Potatoes grow well in places too cold or wet for grains. Potatoes are far more impervious to nasty weather than grains. Cool or cold or wet stormy weather that can harm, delay, or even destroy, corn, squash, and other summer crops are likely to make the potatoes grow more happily than ever. So growing both potatoes and other crops provides a balance that provides resilience. Potatoes yield well on limited fertility, too. And in most areas of the country, they can be grown unirrigated, even where all other summer crops require irrigation.
People these days tend to remember the Irish Potato Famine, when late blight destroyed the entire Irish potato crop. But we should also remember that the potato was one of the major saviors of Europeans during the Little Ice Age, a crop that was central to their adjustment to the erratic weather associated with climate change, a crop that yielded year in year out, decade in decade out before there were any problems. European populations suffered famines and disease epidemics because their grain crops couldn't handle the colder, wetter, stormier, less predictable weather. After incorporating potatoes into their repertoire, European populations thrived and expanded, erratic weather, Little Ice Age, or no.