Gather together a group of preparedness minded folks and the conversation invariably turns to pulling up stakes and moving to the country to create a self-reliant home and life. But, for many, moving is not an option. Work, family, kids, health, personal responsibilities are all valid reasons keeping people in their present location.
It may not be what we want, but it is where we are right now. We don’t have to postpone our path to self-reliance or preparing for a crisis, though, we can start where we are, with what we have.
Even though a vast country property might be ideal, a large suburban lot can be just as productive. It can be a place to learn and practice, make mistakes; a place to build skills and confidence and learn how to live a life not reliant on a consumeristic society.
When I moved to my property 15 years ago I did so with the idea that I would make it a productive mini farm, with all the pieces of a traditional farm, only smaller. Through the years we have worked and built, reevaluated and rethought what this farm can produce. It’s a creative process that relies on the calculated rotation of livestock and produce for maximum production.
This is what I’d like to share, in hopes of inspiring other city-dwelling pack mates to put their property to maximum use while life’s circumstances keeps them in town.
A Note to Clarify: This article is primarily about how I survive in suburbia managing my property to produce food for a two-person household. I won’t be talking about alternative energy, heat, water, OPSEC, guns, ammo, or security, although those are all important topics.
Ok, let me give you a visual to set the stage…
I live outside of a mid-sized town (about 30,000 people) in Southern California. The homes in my area are zoned for all livestock, except horses. The City allows us 33 animal units per home, which is calculated based on a value given to each species. For example, a sheep is 3 units and hogs are 6 units, while chickens and rabbits are ½ a unit each. I can create a mix of animals as long as I don’t go over 33 units.
My property is 1/3-acre, about 85’ wide and 100’ deep. It is all flat and useable. The house fronts to the west, and sits about 30’ from the street, so I have a large front yard with good west and south exposure. Our climate is Mediterranean and the growing season is almost year-round. With small hoop houses, I can grow 365-days, when needed.
The barn is the hub of activity. It is 12’x24’, runs east to west and houses most of our livestock on a rotational basis. To the west is the chicken coop portion (6’x12’) with an outside run that is 8’x12’. The center of the barn is an open space for feed, tack, and supplies.
On the south wall of the center section hangs three rabbit cages, for two does and a buck. The cages have corrugated galvanized roofing that attaches to the front bottom of each cage and extends through the barn wall at an angle. We lovingly refer to this as the “poop chute”. On the outside of the barn, below the “poop chute” is a collection bin.
The idea is — the droppings roll down into the collection bin, to be used in the garden or compost pile. Litters of meat rabbits are grown out in an 8’ growing cage that is mounted to the wall below the doe and buck cages. When not in use the growing cage is removed and stored in the barn rafters.
The section to the east gets the most activity as we rotate in and out market lambs, pigs, meat chickens, and meat ducks, throughout the year. From the east side, I have the ability to erect an outside corral of different sizes using livestock panels and gates.
There are three 4’x12’ and nine 4’x8’ raised vegetable beds, a squash patch, a 3’x20’ berry patch, dwarf and espaliered fruit trees, trellised grape vines, a dedicated herb garden, and medicinal and perennial herbs interplanted in the flower beds.
The 10’x12’ greenhouse is where plant life begins, whether from seeds, cuttings, divisions or bulbs. Since we have such a long growing season the greenhouse is primarily used to start seeds, store tools, and supplies, rather than growing vegetables during the winter. It’s also my quiet hang out.
The front yard is part of the farm as well. Planter beds have blueberries, herbs, flowers, and one very young pomegranate tree.
So—how do we make all this work? How does this small piece of land produce food for its family?
Carefully, thoughtfully, deliberately, rotationally and with a whole lot of humor and flexibility.
Our life revolves around junior livestock shows, eight months of the year to be exact, so meat production on the farm has to intertwine around that schedule.
Here’s how we do it…
For most of January, the farm is preparing for new livestock and the growing season. The barn is cleaned and outside corrals put up. Feed and feeder lambs are purchased. Fruit trees, berries, and grapes are pruned, fertilized and mulched. Cool weather seeds are direct sown, while many other seeds are started in the greenhouse.
In February, the show season begins, every weekend for the next two months. Succession planting of cool weather crops begins, and more seeds are started in the greenhouse. Outside vegetable beds are tilled and mulched, and bean poles and pea fencing is put in place.
Depending on the rainfall, we are already pulling weeds and mulching garden paths by mid-March. Directly sown seed planting continues, as does seed starting in the greenhouse.
So far, life has been rather routine, lambs get fed, seeds are planted, hens lay eggs, and so on. But, that’s all about to change.
By April, life gets a bit more interesting and busy. That’s when we breed the does and bring in a few turkey chicks, which are brooded in the garage. By the time the chicks feather out and can live in the barn the weather is nice enough that the lambs don’t need (or want) to be in the barn.
The show schedule has also slowed to two weekends a month. Half the lamb space in the barn becomes a growing pen for the turkeys. A week or so before the does kindle we set up the 8’ growing cage on the wall below the does.
The chicken coop is cleaned and all bedding is moved to either the garden or the compost pile (also read – can I keep chickens in my backyard). Nesting boxes are refilled with shavings from the turkey brooding pen. By month end the entire garden has been planted with the first wave of crops.
In May the garden is really taking off and we are seeing the fruits of our labors. Harvesting spring crops is regular now. Winter squash and pumpkins started in the greenhouse are planted in the squash patch.
The doe’s, bred in April, kindle. The turkeys are growing fast and the lambs get a reprieve from the hectic show schedule. Life takes on a rhythm of planting, harvesting, mulching, watering, and weeding until June when the first berries and early summer fruits are ready to pick. The kits are moved to the growing cage.
July is a big month because of the State Fair. All the lambs attend the fair, but only two return home to be shown at the county fair. The others are sold. July’s heat means we must be diligent with watering, weeding, and mulching. The first tomatoes come in July, along with mid-season berries and the last of early summer fruits. Harvesting and replanting is weekly now. Food preservation begins in earnest this month.
Everything we’ve done so far all culminates in August. The garden is bursting, animals are growing, food preservation is non-stop, and just to make things a bit more interesting we throw in the county fair—a week away from home, in the hottest month so far.
The rabbits, turkeys, and the back-up market lamb, not being shown at the fair, are all processed for the freezer before we leave. At the end of the wee,k we come home with an empty trailer. All fair animals have been sold at auction.
By the end of the month, the barn is empty, except for the laying hens and breeding rabbits. We get to take a deep breath, for a little while, at least. The week after school starts 25 meat chicks arrive.
The hot weather in September means I can brood chicks in the garage without using the heat lamp much, saving on my electric bill. When they are ready they’ll take over the entire sheep pen in the barn. If the weather cools enough, the does will be bred again so the litter can be butchered over Christmas break. Some of the garden is slowing down, while some of it seems to be rejuvenated.
Summer squashes are bountiful, in stark contrast to the dying bean, pea and cucumber vines. We continue planting root crops, but the weather is too hot for lettuce greens. Late summer fruits and berries are picked and canned or frozen.
The chicken coop bedding is cleaned out and composted or used as mulch in the garden. The bedding from the sheep trailer becomes bedding for the nesting boxes.
October is a month of contradictions. While we harvest vegetables, potatoes, squash, pumpkins, late berries and a variety of fall fruits, much of the garden is finishing its growing season. We may get a few more plantings of short term crops like beets, radishes and carrots, but we’ll have to wait for the weather to cool before planting cool weather vegetables.
A winter hog arrives early in the month and will be raised in the outside sheep corral through the temperate fall months. By the time the weather gets colder the meat birds will be gone and the hog can have an indoor and outdoor space.
We don’t get freezing weather so raising hogs in the fall is much better than the heat of the summer when the barn is full of other animals. Kits are moved to the growing cage.
Much of the garden comes to an end in November and is replaced with cool weather vegetables and leafy greens. The meat chickens are processed around Thanksgiving. Some of the smaller ones are kept whole, but the rest will be cut in half, giving me chicken each week for about 50-weeks. The hog gets the whole west end of the barn, now. The meat rabbits are growing fast.
In December, we plant a variety of peas for an early spring harvest. Spinach and some hearty lettuces can also handle the cooler temperatures. Over the Christmas break, we butcher the meat rabbits.
The hog will be dropped at the butcher in January as we head north to buy another group of feeder lambs. The only animals left are the laying hens and the breeding rabbits. We get a break for a few weeks, before the whole cycle starts again.
In the course of a year my 1/3-acre suburban lot has produced 4-6 market lambs (1 for the freezer), 3 turkeys, over 30 meat rabbits, 25 meat chickens, one hog, hundreds of eggs and countless pounds of fruits and vegetables; proof that it doesn’t take a large farm to grow and raise your own food.