How long would it reasonably take to get to, say, 75%? What would the space requirements be, assuming no large livestock is involved? What's the very first thing a family should do in order to do this (that doesn't involve taking a class)? I know specifics will create variance; I'm just looking for rough guesstimates and/or anecdotal experience. I'd love to be able to produce whatever we can so we can afford things like local pork or beef and grains for me to grind, but I also want to be realistic about what is actually within our ability to do.
I've been struggling with this on and off for years! The most important thing, I think, is to have a good design with as many parts integrated as possible so the surplus of one part is the input of another part. I tried to raise animals before my system was robust enough to support them, which meant buying a lot of animal feed, which doesn't make sense to me any more. It might make more sense to use that money to buy people food and spend a few more years building up the system so it produces enough surplus to support animals.
For information about growing food in the smallest possible space, this website has good information: http://www.growbiointensive.org/ Their research indicates that about 4000 square feet per person is the minimum to grow a very basic diet (which is still lacking in a few key nutrients) and supply sufficient surplus to produce compost to feed the system, under good conditions and/or with irrigation. This amount of land is not enough to support animals except possibly a very few chickens or rabbits. Aquaculture/aquaponics may be a more efficient system to grow protein and also some aquatic vegetables. I think a combination of rabbits, chickens,maybe some ducks, and fish might be the most efficient if integrated very carefully.
It is difficult in small spaces to produce sufficient calories and some important nutrients (iodine, vitamin B12).
How long will it take to grow as much as you can in the given space depends so much on your climate and also your abilities as a gardener. I think it might be possible to provide all vegetables and a lot of fruit within a couple of years (some fruit bushes bear the year after planting) if you have a green thumb. Learning the skills to grow most calories could take years longer.
I think there are a few people here on the board who grow most of their own food, so I hope they will share how long it took to get there and how much space they need.
That 4,000 sq.ft./person would cover most of our backyard, but we could do it! Sure would be a lot less to mow. I appreciate the link; I think I'll look into that asap. And I appreciate the tip about critters.
I have pursued this goal for years, both on a small (individual and couple) and larger (small community) scale, in several climates including Georgia. There is a hierarchy of "easiness". It is easiest to grow your own salads, and veggies for raw use. It is more of a challenge to grow other veggies, more still to grow sufficient calories, then protein, and then fat. The way I've always gone about it is to discover which sources grow the easiest and most reliably in your climate, and then design a staple diet around these. For Georgia, sweet potatoes quickly rose to the top as a major player. Easy to grow, long-storable, nutritious....and you can eat the greens! Add white potatoes to fill the calorie gap in the summer, and some black-eyed peas and their relatives for a leguminous protein, then corn, winter squash, and the hardy greens and tomatoes. But for protein and fat most homesteaders come around to animals, some or most of the time. Chickens and possibly rabbits can be incorporated even on the scale of a suburban yard, and they will recycle many garden and kitchen scraps back into food. On anything larger than an acre or two, a goat or sheep deserves to be considered. As a ruminant, animals like this can crack down cellulose for their main calorie source while producing meat and possibly milk. You will never have a weed, brush, grass, or "invasive" problem again with one of these!
And always be on the lookout for marginal/peripheral yields. These will vary according to where you are. I've dumpster dived when I've lived in or near a town, for myself and for my poultry. I've trapped animals. Gathered roadkill and the scraps left by hunters. Put a wounded deer out of it's misery. People's standards vary. I spent three years in Bangladesh so I know about hunger. I've made a meal of rat and stray dog and any rattler that showed up. Fat is always a problem. I think that is one reason why a lot of country people always tried to have a pig or two. I've rendered fat from goats, cows, chickens and geese. Geese are good for this and are a pretty easy thing to have on a small homestead.....
The best way is to get some seeds in the ground, start growing things you like to eat. Don't get to excited and turn over the whole yard, you'll just end up with a jungle. Start small and build up the amount of food you produce slowly over a few seasons along with the extra workload.
Alder Burns wrote: On anything larger than an acre or two, a goat or sheep deserves to be considered.
Personally I think herd animals need to be raised in a herd, so a minimum of two goats or sheep. Here with my climate and soil, it takes at least 4 acres to support one goat-like sheep (Jacob), so we might be overstocked with 5 on 20 acres. Managed grazing might fix that, but then there is the expense of fencing. Last winter I fed the sheep by cutting tree branches, and it was a lot of work to provide them a minimum diet, and these are basically non-producing animals. From an efficiency standpoint it's difficult to justify herbivores (besides rabbits) - the amount of food they produce versus the amount of land they require is very low compared to plants* and smaller animals.
*Collards have as much calcium by volume as milk, for instance.
My sheeep and geese are mostly for grass control and fire suppression....a big issue here in CA. In a damper, more forested area, or a drier one bordering on desert, I would agree and not consider ruminants until I had an acre or more. When we lived in Georgia we had 40 acres and only used about 1.5 for gardens, orchard, and grain/legume crops. So we let a few goats and chickens run around on the rest of it, and gathered firewood. It was really too much land for just two or three people.....
I do have to do some work to keep the sheep fed....mostly making bag silage and scything hay on the parts of the yard where they don't have access, so as to feed them through the dry part of the year. But it's either that or run a lawnmower just to cut grass.....
Most immediate payoff will be annual veg, so plant those with a few perennial veg thrown in (asparagus, artichoke, rhubarb, chayote, etc.) to get started. Focus on substantial things like winter squash but also stuff you cook with. If you are comfortable growing tubers and legumes, go for it, but just start with stuff you know how to grow and don't get fancy. Preserve excess if you have it by fermenting which is super easy. Each year add more varieties and more perennials. Add herbs and spices and alliums.
Another quick and nutritionally beneficial payoff can come from learning to harvest a few local wild foods: berries, edible herbaceous and flowering plants, etc. like dandelion, oxalis, blackberry, persimmon, salvia, prickly pear, yucca blossom, whatever grows where you are. If this includes nuts, big win on the fat and/or staple food front depending on type. Consider making flour from wild nuts/seeds. Labor intensive but big calories compared to most wild foods which tend to be more supplemental highly nutritious but insubstantial (salad greens, berries). I use acorns, pecans, bloodweed seeds, mesquite, etc. Acorns abundant most places and can (at least partially) replace conventional flours for baking, breading, etc if you experiment a little with ratios. Also wild nut/seed flour can be used on its own to make flatbread. Nuts store long time especially if frozen.
Plant your fruit and nut trees and berry bushes as soon as good planting time rolls around for your area. These are for the long term but a few may produce a little within a couple years. Learning to can jams and preserves not a bad idea and water bath canning quite easy. Many wild berries and fruits make especially good preserves, syrups, etc. so practice on those until your own fruits mature. Plant trees every year until no more will fit.
Chickens I think are great. Lovely easy eggs with no butchering necessary so not as much struggle or learning curve. Feed them scraps and forage, in small space probably need supplemental feed. Can glean fruit droppings as trees come into production. Mulberries, persimmons, other messy trees especially. Black soldier flies very good supplemental feed. Also consider growing extra for chickens in garden, but worry about this more as you get settled in unless feed costs are major obstacle. Rabbits will be all the meat you ever need and start up is quick, can forage much food for them but must butcher. Eggs very reliable, good fat and proein, very easy so my favorite. Get chicks in spring, maybe second year if overwhelmed with planting first year, or if you have a bit of extra money adult hens or point of lay pullets so you do not have to worry about brooding chicks or wait extra year for them to lay. You can have eggs and/or rabbits within a year or two easily.
Then learn to grow staple crops that store well. Dried legumes, tubers, winter squash, maybe grains. Also store nuts as mentioned above. This will help provide sheer calories and along with preservation by fermenting and canning will round out your lean seasons and years. You could start with these if you want most caloric bang for buck early on but I find people tend to be most successful starting with "normal" familiar annual veg and leaving grains, etc. till later.
Hunting or fishing can be a big win. Aquaculture or raising insects also options. Consider learning to make some jerky or sausage or can meats.
Consider adding layers such as vining fruits and mushrooms once systems are established and you have the time/energy.
Finally consider deficiencies--do you lack fats? Iodine, B12? Purchasing lots of animal feed that you could grow instead? Want to make your own teas or alcoholic beverages? Is there a lean season that you could address by planting something that ripens then? Do you need sweets--honeybees, maple syrup, sugarcane? Do you end up eating at the local Mexican restaurant while your squash rot on the vine because you are bored or worn out or out of new ideas for how to cook or preserve them? And so on.
I would say at a rough guess you could get to producing 75% of your own calories within 3 to 5 years. But you probably won't because you'll find it unexciting, laborious, and fraught with unfamiliar foodstuffs. This is what I have observed and to some degree experienced. Depends a lot on the person and climate.
Theoretically it is possible to do with much less space but my gut and experience says that less than an acre per person is marginal. Depends a lot on climate again and what you like to eat, and if you have access to additional land for wild harvesting or like minded neighbors to trade with for increased variety. Could probably live with much less land if willing to eat mostly grains/legumes but who wants to? One acre gives room for less intensive but more interesting and diverse plantings (like forest gardens) and some room to play around.
Finding people who already know how to do what you want to do saves much time and shortens learning curve on things like beekeeping, wild harvesting edibles, food preservation etc.
When I was growing up, we fed a family of +/- 15 on 15 acres plus the surrounding wildlands.
We kept and ate rabbits, pigeons, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigs, sheep, a milk cow, and her calf. The animals didn't come anywhere near eating the available forage in the pasture.
We harvested fish, birds, deer, and elk from the surrounding wildlands. One of the laws of my family is that we can't kill anything unless we eat it. So occasionally we'd eat sparrows or a squirrel. Takes a lot of sparrows to fill a frying pan! Sometimes the game warden would drop off road-kill for our eating pleasure.
We grew vegetables on about 1 acre. And kept an orchard of about 1/10 acre. We collected and ate weeds, berries, fruits and mushrooms from the woods.
Even though we grew wheat on other parts of the farm, we didn't eat it. We sold the wheat to the mill, who cleaned it really well, then sold us someone else's wheat.
We pretty much didn't eat anything except what we grew/harvested/foraged for ourselves. The most joyful thing I ever do these days, is bottling or freezing vegetables in late summer, or cutting up a deer with my family.
I'm working on accomplishing this now. Still a long ways to go but I have started a lot of things that will have more of a payout later like planting fruit trees, laying mulch, putting up fences for pastures, etc.
One thing I think should be considered is ducks. They can be slightly more work than chickens because their poop is a lot more stinky and they need water deep enough to bathe but as far as food goes, I think they have some advantages over chickens. My ducks lay eggs like clockwork and their eggs are generally twice the size of the chickens. As long as I leave one egg in the nest, they all always lay in the same spot. My chickens will lay in different spots all over the place, everyday is an easter egg hunt with them. I haven't eaten any of my ducks but I'm sure they would provide more meat than my chickens. They do eat a bit more than the chickens do though. Just something so consider.
Also, don't overlook the value of trade. If you find that you are really good at growing one thing or you get more eggs than you can eat, there's usually someone willing to trade something for your excess. Or you could even sell it to offset the cost of what you do have to buy in the store. We sell extra hens and that more than pays for any feed I have to buy now. Eventually I hope to feed my birds 100% of the land and I could put that extra money towards something else...