Living off the grid does not usually require a lot of land. You work with what you have. Some may even argue that living off the grid is what we were born to do. It can be done where you are right now, using the knowledge of off grid farming.
Before you start an off-grid life, it’s essential that you learn how to grow your own food. You really cannot just plant a seed in the ground and expect to have tomatoes for months. That seed needs proper soil with great drainage, a reliable water source, and some TLC. This article is going to discuss what makes for good soil, how to achieve great soil with minimal weeds, how to irrigate your crops, how to grow fruits and vegetables, grains and herbs, how to store and preserve food, animal husbandry, and then of course the expected costs and anticipated workload. At the end, you will have a basic step-by-step of when, how, and even where to start living off grid.
How to Grow Your Own Food
As a general rule, the steps for growing your own food are:
- Testing the soil’s health
- Using no-till gardening and compost
- Providing plants with irrigation
- Selecting crops
- Storing crops and saving seeds
- Raising livestock
- Growing feed for livestock
- Calculating the workload
Let’s elaborate on each and every of these steps.
Step 1: Testing the Soil’s Health
Before you start your off grid farming, you need to know what kind of soil you have. Without healthy soil, your plants suffer. Good soil will depend on what you want to grow. If you scoop up a bit of soil and have a sticky, malleable ball, then you have clay soil, which is very hard to work with. It is slow to drain and compacts easily, which means it requires a lot of aeration.
If your soil feels and looks granular and crumbly, you have sandy soil. It is very permeable and has great aeration, but it will be dry, infertile, and leach water. If your soil is fluffy and forms a loose ball, you have loam, which is an equal proportion of sand, silt and clay. This soil is ideal because it has the benefits of water and nutrient retention, and proper drainage and aeration. Sandy loam is great for vegetable growing.
You can determine the type of soil you have by scooping about two inches of soil into a mason jar. Fill the rest of the jar with water. Add a teaspoon of dish detergent, which helps separate the different soil particles. Shake the jar, then let it rest for a day. The soil will separate, and you will be able to see the dominant characteristics of your soil based on how thick the different layers are.
Once you know your soil composition, you know whether or not you need to make adjustments in order to get that perfect crop yield. Regardless of the type of soil you have from the get-go, however, there are some basic good farming practices that you should incorporate into your lifestyle. Off-grid living is very demanding work, so you need to be smart about how you spend your time and energy. Work with Mother Nature and let her work for you.
Step 2: Using No-Till Gardening and Compost
The way you set up your garden will make or break your off grid experience. You want to save everything that the earth gives you, and put it back into the earth. No-till gardening is when you let old organic matter decompose on the ground to become the newest layer of topsoil. You then plant directly into this layer. By not tilling the soil, you are not disturbing the worms and microbes, which are hard at work. Any dormant weed seeds that are well below the surface will also stay well below the surface. While the first couple of years you may have a lot of weeds, the longer you practice a no-till gardening method, the more productive your garden will be at keeping weeds in check. This is because plant matter continues to break down, thus adding an additional layer of soil to the weed seeds that continue to get pushed further down.
When you let the organic material continue to settle, you are essentially composting. You can go one step further. Any food scraps, tree debris, egg shells, etc. can go directly into a compost pile. You want to keep an eye on your carbon and nitrogen ratios, as this will influence how fast your compost breaks down, and whether or not it will rot or dry out.
Animal manure is an excellent and critical component and ingredient for compost and off-grid living.
Here is a great guide on composting for beginners:
Step 3: Providing Plants with Irrigation
Plants need water, and the last thing you want to do is water plants all day long. You can use the force of gravity to route water from a nearby stream, or you can go the more industrial route and set up irrigation drip-tape or overhead irrigation. It is best to work with the slope of the land, otherwise you may have to engineer a pump, which, though an option, is also a disaster waiting to happen. A big part of knowing how to grow your food is anticipating problem and challenges – and resolving them before they take place.
Step 4: Selecting Crops
Once you know your soil health and have a healthy farming practice like no-till, you can start planning your fruit and vegetable gardens.
How do you get started? First, look to see what grows well in your area. You can find out by asking other local growers, or looking in the history books to see what traditionally grew in years past. Then, decide what you like to eat. When first starting out, it is imperative that you grow what you like to eat. Otherwise, you will get discouraged. How annoying would it be if you invested a whole growing season and got only Swiss chard and beets, but you do not like Swiss chard and beets so you ended up buying kale at the grocery store?!
After you get the hang of it, and as your taste buds begin to acclimate to the fresh produce you are producing, you should start to experiment. Incorporate new foods into your crop rotation. Not only is this beneficial to your health, but it also keeps your soil balanced. Worse comes to worst, you can always sell it at the market or feed it to your livestock.
Herbs are a must-have because they can spice up your typical foods to make a completely new dish. Not to mention, they are healthy, delicious, and easy to grow. It is a good idea to have a separate herb garden. You can make an herb spiral, which is a strategy for growing many different types of herbs in a little space. The herb spiral is essentially a pile of dirt, with stones that spiral down, thus making a little spiraling ramp. This set up creates many different environments:
- Dry environment (at the top, the water drains all the way down to the ground)
- Wet environment (at the bottom)
- Sunny side
- Shady side
Herb spirals should be strategically located right outside your kitchen so that you are inclined to grab some before cooking a meal. To build an herb spiral, create a pile of dirt about three feet high and six feet in diameter. Then, arrange rocks in a spiral from top to bottom. Let the herb spiral settle for a little while before planting anything in it so that any soil-settling or erosion will not absorb your herb seeds.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruit and nut trees can take years to bear fruit, and therefore should be one of the first things that you plant. They will cast a lot of shade, so plan the location of your trees accordingly.
It is a great idea to set up a berry patch. Berries are perennial plants, which mean that they come back every year. They are great dried, frozen, preserved into jams, jellies and preserves, and eaten as is or in pies. Go crazy here, and you can even set up a you-pick garden, which would bring in extra income that might come in handy.
Vegetables can be broken up into different groups based on the nutrients that they need to survive. You have heavy feeders, light feeders, and heavy givers, and these groups need to be rotated so that your soil is never depleted. Your heavy feeders include crops like:
The heavy feeders should be followed by light feeders:
- swiss chard
- sweet potato
Your light feeders should be followed by a heavy giver:
A lot of times, your heavy givers can be cover crops. Cover crops are crops that cover the land, especially during the winter time, to not only draw depleted nutrients back into the soil, but help prevent soil erosion and compaction. Cover crops can be grown and harvested for livestock.
There are a lot of myths to debunk when it comes to growing grains. First of all, they are very easy to grow. Second, you do not need acres and acres. Third, you do not need any fancy equipment.
Once you have your grain seeds, plant them in a location with plenty of sun, about 6 inches into the ground. Use a seeder to get even distribution (this can look like a mason jar with holes poked in the lid. Once you have a harvestable crop, harvest it with pruning shears or a hedge trimmer (or something similar). Then, remove the seeds from the stalk by beating the stalks with a stick. Finally, you can remove the paper coating from the grain by pouring the grain from one bowl into another in front of a fan.
1000 feet of land will yield about one bushel of wheat, which is enough to make about 60 pounds of grain. I can make about 34 loaves of bread with that.
Step 5: Storing Crops and Saving Seeds
One of the most important parts of off grid living is crop storage and seed saving. It is unlikely that you will be able to eat all of your tomatoes during the summer, and that you will be able to grow more tomatoes during the winter. So, you can your tomatoes as sauce and salsas, and dry tomatoes into chips. When winter comes, you now have tomato sauce and paste for making soups and spaghetti dishes. You can add your dried tomatoes to salads, sandwiches and hummus recipes. There are many different ways to store your crops, but we will cover just a few, to include proper storage environments.
The proper storage environment is typically a cool, dark place in an airtight container. A wine cellar would work just fine, but if you do not have one (which is often the case) just be sure to keep them away from the oven and windows. A pantry would work equally as well.
Always label and date your preserved food.
There are two different ways to can: boiling pot method and pressure method. You can safely preserve tomatoes, fruits, jams, jellies, pickles and other preserves using the boiling pot but pressure canning is THE only safe way to can vegetables, meats, poultry and seafood.
There are precise recipes that you must follow in order to safely can all of your food. If you do not follow these instructions exactly, your food will spoil, or could make you very sick (possibly kill you). They are very easy to follow, and when done right, is a very rewarding and dependable way to preserve food for months (and sometimes years) to come.
You can freeze just about anything: fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, and herbs. There are some recommended tips to follow when it comes to freezing vegetables first. Depending on the vegetable, you may want to skin or blanch before freezing.
Fermenting food is another way to preserve food. You can easily chop up a bunch of vegetables, add a little bit of salt and spices, and stick it in a fermenting crock. A couple weeks later, you will have fresh kimchi or sauerkraut. You can then preserve this by canning using one of the above canning methods. Again, there are specific recipes you can follow for making delicious fermented foods. They are also very healthy for you, as they provide loads of probiotics.
Drying is an excellent way of preserving food. You can dry in the sun, but it is helpful to have a food dehydrator. There are so many things you can dry: fruit (think fruit leather!) potatoes, beets, sweet potatoes, herbs, and meat. Many food dehydrators come with a recipe book that explains the appropriate temperature and drying time.
It is best to opt for a combination of different preserving methods, that way you are not surviving off of a bunch of canned green beans. Canned green beans are delicious, but so are beet and sweet potato chips.
The best way to save seeds is to wash them and dry them, then store them in a cool dark place in a sealed, dated, and labeled jar. Some seeds require stratification before planting again, in which case, you can freeze them. If you get in the habit of saving your seeds, not only are you saving money, but you are also truly depending on yourself for survival.
Step 6: Raising Livestock
This might seem like a daunting task, especially if you are new to living off grid. Luckily, animals are pretty darn good at taking care of themselves, if given the proper environment. In fact, they can end up taking care of you and your garden, if you let them. Here is a list of livestock:
While it might be tempting to have ALL the livestock, it is a good idea to start small and with animals that you enjoy eating (yes, that might sound horrible). One of the beauties of living off grid is that you are not alone. We as human beings require human socialization. Find out what other farmers are raising near you. If there are plenty of local cattle ranchers, consider raising turkeys, sheep and pigs. Then you can work together and have a larger supply of meat.
It is very important to do thorough research on the personalities and needs of different animals. Goats, for instance, will eat anything in sight. Sheep, however, also provide delicious milk for cheese, are also edible, and do not eat everything in sight. Not to mention, you can get different breeds, some of which are better for their wool, milk, and meat.
Chickens are extremely easy to care for. Once they have a coop and a piece of land, they are set. They love to free range, and they will provide you with an egg a day. They need fresh water, a good and reliable source of calcium and protein, shelter (to include shade), and a place to take a dust bath. Chicken poop is an incredible crop fertilizer. You can even engineer a chicken tractor, which is a moveable enclosure that allows the chickens to graze exactly where you want them too. They poop on the land, and eat the bugs and the grass. When you move them along, you now have a perfect plot of land to grow in: no bugs, great fertilizer, and grass is all but gone.
Watch the following video for a great example of raising chickens off the grid, using solar power:
Step 7: Growing Feed for Livestock
It is a good idea to think about how you can feed your livestock from your own land. Animals do require certain nutrients, just like we do, in order to survive and be healthy. An easy way to have a dependable source of livestock feed is to grow cover crops during the winter, like rye, wheat, and oats.
A lot of people will grow extra vegetables just for their livestock. Animals love vegetables, and when it is time to butcher them, you know that they have eaten plenty of fruits and vegetables rather than grains, preservatives, and chemicals. Chickens love bugs and fresh greens, but pigs will eat canned vegetables.
If you have goats, save the brush from your lawn. Give your animals safe table scraps. Start a worm compost. Animals that free range will find sustenance from the land around them.
Step 8: Calculating the Workload
Don’t be deterred by the anticipated workload. The first couple of years will be hectic, difficult, and full of mistakes and failures. You will work hard, but remember that the work is seasonal. The spring and summer months will be busier than the fall and winter. Your harvest and food preserving weeks will be busier than your maintenance weeks. There will be a lot of physical labor and planning involved, but if you employ your animals, read and talk to others, have faith, and ask for help, the rewards far exceed the effort. You can only harvest what you seed.
Off grid farming is in the very heart and center of the off-grid lifestyle. Once you decide to live a clean and eco-friendly life, independent of power lines and infrastructures, growing your own food and raising your own livestock are a logical decision.
Hopefully, I was able to provide with you with a complete guide on how to grow food on your own. You should feel more confident and prepared to start off-grid farming.
Naturally, farming is not the only information you need to know when going off the grid. My blog offers several in-depth looks on such important topics as how to prepare for off-grid living and how much it costs to live off the grid. Also, if you’re looking for some free water for your farming needs, make sure you check out the articles on rainwater harvesting and whether or not it is legal to collect rainwater.
These and many other topics are also explained in great detail in my complete guide on off grid living.
Best of luck in your new life, my friends!