Monday, May 9, 2011

Slick Ad Campaigns That Spread Half-Truths

In the comments section of a recent post, PatriciaLynn posted this link. The link is a graphic that attempts to answer the question of how much land a family of four needs to be self-sufficient. Let me say, from the get-go, that despite the graphic's claims, the family in this scenario is *not* self-sufficient. Obviously, given the very abbreviated nature of the presentation, the producers couldn't account for everything a family might need (like, er, um ... water), but overall they gave a decent of idea of the sorts of things one might want to consider.

Okay, no they didn't. Well, they did - give a decent idea of the sorts of things one might want to consider, but the problem I had with their presentation was the final analysis that seemed so finite. Their claim is that it takes a minimum of two and a half acres (89,000 square feet) to be self-sufficient, according to their figures. The problem is two-fold: one, the family is not self-sufficent, and two, their numbers are all wonky.

The first number is the electricity usage. They say that the average US family uses 1000 kwh/per month, and I won't disagree, as this is actually true. My concern lies in the fact that Americans use a great deal more electricity than anyone else in the world, which means we, more likely than not, use a great deal more than is necessary to live a comfortable and satisfying life. I would suggest that instead of trying to build a power generation system to accommodate all of our current usage, that we, in our pursuit of self-sufficiency, concentrate more fully on the first of the three R's and reduce. Then, when we've halved (or better) our average usage, we start looking at being self-sufficient in our energy production.

The fact that the graphic includes electricity (as a "necessity"??), but not water or waste removal is interesting to me, and says a lot of not so very positive things about our cultural mindset. If one is hooked up to the water company and the sewer system, what's different about being hooked up to grid electricity, and why would the makers of that graphic consider their family "self-sufficient" if they didn't provide a way for the family to get water or to safely dispose of waste (including garbage)?

Just seems to me that their priorities are a bit skewed, but perhaps, solving the issue of generating electricity is easier than trying to figure out how to draw a picture of a humanure composting facility and a lovable loo.

I just wonder why they didn't think about a methane digester, which could, theoretically, kill two birds with one stone and would also add some very beneficial inputs to the gardens they discuss.

I didn't waste much time deciding that their electricity requirements were flawed, which almost made me decide to just discount the rest of what they said, but I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, and so I looked a little further into what they said was "required" for self-sufficiency and came to the discussion of the minimum land requirements.

According to the graphic, to maintain a 2300 calorie per day vegetarian diet for a family of four, almost 77,000 square feet of garden space is necessary. That's just for fruits and vegetables. An additional 12000 square feet of space is needed for wheat production. So, a minimum of two acres (one acre = 40,000 square feet) is needed for garden space to feed a family of four.

First off, I think this number has been proven wrong, as there are enough people out there who are growing a substantial amount of food on less than an eighth of the land this graphic claims is necessary. Certainly the one food group that is not produced on most urban/suburban homesteads is grains, but I've seen figures as high as 80% of the diet being grown on less than a quarter of an acre (less than 10,000 square feet). If grains comprise the other 20% of the small-space homesteader's diet (which is logical), then the graphic is off by 70,000 square feet, already.

Of course, the whole 2300 calories per day seems a little excessive. A moderately active, forty-plus year old woman who weighs between 130 and 140 pounds needs a daily intake of around 1700 calories to maintain that weight. That's maintenance. If there's a desired weight loss, the number of calories will be need to be decreased by about 200 calories. If there's a significant weight loss needed/desired (as would be the case for at least 50% of the American population), the number of calories will be a lot fewer. For my family of five, our average daily caloric need is 2000 calories. Deus Ex Machina needs more. Precious, who is a slender little girl, needs less.

I don't know where they got their number for average calories (what ages and genders are in their family, for instance), but like most of the graphic, it's excessive. While we are at reducing the amount of electricity we use, we'd be much better off as a nation to also reduce the number of calories we believe we need to consume.

With regard to food production, they make some other assumptions that aren't true in practice, either. Specifically, they say, "much more land is required" for growing certain vegetables, "including potatoes and cucumbers." This is true, *if* we're all growing in rows, but potatoes don't have to be grown in rows, and cucumbers don't have to spread along the ground and take up a lot of space. Likewise, trees and bushes can be trained to take up a lot less space than is conventionally accepted. As with so much of life, there's more than one way to accomplish a task, but the graphic seems to imply that "this plant needs this much space", which is doing a great disservice, I think, to those who don't have the space.

The whole discussion about wheat production, I think, is incredibly misleading. While it may be true that the average person eats 1.5 lbs of wheat per week, I think that number represents choice and not necessity. Every where I go, I meet someone who has either a gluten or a dairy sensitivity - or worst case, both. I'm even meeting very young children who have such exotic-sounding diseases like Coeliac, which is not curable, and the only treatment is to avoid - forever - wheat and wheat-based products. In our culture the use of wheat or gluten-containing substances as additives in processed food is so pervasive that the only way to completely avoid gluten is to completely avoid any processed foods - including such innocuous food stuffs as soy sauce and Twizzlers.

In short, there seems to be a growing number of people who've given up wheat, out of necessity, and those people are actually living healthier lives than those of us who don't have a debilitating disease. All of which makes me question the "necessity" of having wheat as part of one's diet, and certainly the wisdom of devoting significant growing space to a low-yield, nutritionally and calorie sparse food is questionable, especially when one realizes that there are a lot better foods to give that space to.

When it comes to independence in our food production, we'd be much smarter (and healthier) devoting land to growing nut trees in place of trying to grow enough wheat for our daily bread. And nuts are much more versatile than wheat. They can be eaten raw, sprouted and roasted, made into a nut butter, pressed into a milk-like drink, and even ground into flour. If I had my choice, it would be to grow nuts - almonds and hazelnuts would be my first choices, because those are my favorites (and would have the best chance of surviving my climate), and hazelnuts, for instance, are bushes, not trees, and make a really nice understory for a forest garden or a great privacy hedge.

I found it quite amusing, also, that they included information about raising animals for meat, after providing the figures for a "vegetarian" diet. The problem is that they didn't provide two final numbers - one that shows the amount of land needed for a vegetarian diet, and one that shows the amount of land needed if animals are part of the diet. The amount of land needed if animals are part of the diet is, perhaps, less than that needed for growing vegetables. According to the graphic, the animals only need about 400 square feet for their housing needs, and only 2000 square feet is needed to grow food for them (although I would question whether feed corn is actually the best choice for the animals). Meat, milk and eggs can provide a substantial portion of the required caloric intake. In short, in the space of about 2500 square feet (the average-sized American home), one could raise enough meat, eggs, and milk for an entire year.

I would be remiss if I didn't say a few things about their livestock choices. First, chickens take up a lot less space than pigs, and while three pigs will provide a decent amount of meat, 48 meat chickens take about four months to raise in increments of 12 at a time (and take up less than 50 square feet of space, compared to the 200 square feet for three pigs). From my personal experience, one chicken can provide three meals for a family of five, which means that our forty-eight chickens provide almost as much meat as three pigs. Add rabbits, which take up a LOT less space, and it's possible to have four meals with meat per week in the same amount of space that is required to raise three pigs.

We should also talk about egg production, and I think their numbers are pretty far off the mark. Even in the depths of winter, our eight chickens give us two eggs/day. During the warmer months (from March to November), they average five eggs per day. Our ducks will not lay at all in January and February, but the rest of the year, each of our ducks lays one egg per day every day without fail, just like clockwork. If I were interested in egg production alone, I would choose Khaki Campbell ducks, and with four ducks, I could count on 100 dozen eggs per year (which works out to about two dozen eggs per week - plenty for the average family even if eggs are a staple in the diet).

The other question that I kept pondering was, if this is supposed to be a "self-sufficient" life, where did the pigs come from? And how do their goats continue to lactate without a male? Without closing the circle, that is, having both males and females, the two acre farmstead they represent would not be self-sufficient.

I don't know how to convert their hypothetical numbers to real numbers, but I do konw that, in practice, what they assert is not exactly true, and that by stating that one *needs* a minimum of two-plus acres to be self-sufficient, they are doing a great disservice to those of us who have less land. The biggest irony is that they imply they're representing a truly self-sufficient lifestyle in their numbers, but they've left out some pretty important necessities, and they've made some assumptions that aren't exactly true.

There's one final thing that really bothered Deus Ex Machina, especially, and that is that the chart neglects another source of food that is available to even the average person - even a person living in the middle of a city. A great deal of wonderfully, nutritious food is available through wild foraging. Everything from fruits and nuts to greens can be foraged. If we add hunting and fishing, and for those who live near oceans, seafood (like clams), then there is a whole variety of food stuff that doesn't require any land, and only requires a minimum of energy to find and collect. We could argue that someone who wild forages isn't "self-sufficient", but I wonder how we would describe those who grow 65% of their food on less than an acre, forage another 15%, and purchase the remaining 20%?

If that purchased 20% represents the extra calories needed to meet the 2300 calorie minimum, perhaps we could still grant the urban/suburban homesteader who fits the above description the title of "self-sufficient", because if they no longer have access to that 20% of purchased food, their caloric intake would only be reduced by 460 calories, and at a more realistic 1800 calorie diet, they'd still be surviving ... nay, thriving.

And isn't that, really, what self-sufficiency is all about?


  1. Ok, color me stupid, but what are people using 1000KW a month on? I just yoinked my electric bill sitting right here and OK, I'll cop to it. We use that much--in July and August. The hottest months of the year and it averages out to just barely 1000KW a month those months. What on earth are people doing with that much electricity that I'm not?
    My in laws who just visited did complain that the house was too cold and dark though. Hmm...maybe we've gotten used to going without.

  2. You know, the thing that first struck me is - 3 pigs is a LOT of meat! My goodness. If those goats are being bred to stay in milk, then that's 2-4 goats to eat each year, too. Plus the chickens.

    My thoughts were much like yours - 1000 kwh is a ton of electricity. They wouldn't be self-sufficient because they'd be paying off the solar panel loan for decades!

    Other grains take up less space than wheat, I think. Oats, barley, and more unusual grains. People can be allergic to anything, too - I'm deathly allergic to tree nuts. :)

    I think, though, many of us really ARE trying to figure out just how much land is truly enough. I've blogged about it, trying to figure it out. I guess there are too many variables.

  3. In my mind, I keep going back to that statistic of 2,300 calories per day. Dude, I am a slender woman, and I am also a 5'3" woman. Three months at 2,300 calories and I would be HUGE.

    But see there I am assuming "Life As Normal". I did not read the article, so perhaps their calorie intake has a point: what if I had to physically produce all of my own food with all the physical labour attached to it? What if my Canadian home was warmed only through my own efforts, and not through central heating? What if I literally had to chose to share a bed with my teenaged children, just so we could all stay warm?

    Again, did not read the article, so I am commenting like a blind fool. But maybe, once the labour of some futuristic self-sustainability is taken in to account? Plus no central heating (yes, we could all bed down by the stove, but maybe they didn't do that in the hypothetical exercise, maybe they clung to our recent modern ideas of family privacy)....all of a sudden, 2300 calories doesn't seem so far off the mark to me.

    I DO still think their idea of how much SPACE that takes is wrong, mind you....

  4. Irma, they don't address the issue of heat. They talk about solar panels, but that's the only energy inputs that are addressed in the piece. And really, even with as much as work as we do on our little piece of land, and the fact that we heat solely with wood, 2300 calories is a LOT of food for me, too. I'm 5'7".

    Kaye - you make me laugh ;). We haven't had a fire in several weeks, and it's a little chilly in my house too - but not cold enough for the furnace - so I guess not so cold as we might like to pretend ;).

    Doomer - Yeah, I don't think the graphic takes into account the fact that the goats have to be bred EVERY year to keep the milk flowing ... and something has to happen to the babies ;). I think the answer to "how much land" is going to vary, as you said, which is why that graphic bothers me so much, because it seems so definitive, but I think they fail to address a lot pretty important issues.

  5. Yeah. I was pretty gobsmacked by the 1000kw/month. We live in the Middle East where it is already insufferably stinking hot (so we use AC) and our last utility bill showed we used 452kwh for the month. Ok, so we do keep the house at 82-83F. But it's comfortable! And yes, we have a refrigerator. Yes, we have an electric hot water heater (which we just stopped having to turn on since the water comes out of the tap so hot we don't need it! But we used it last month). Yes, we have computers and a toaster and an electric stove/oven. This is our "normal" usage! We've been keeping track for a while now since we would like to be off-grid when we move back to the States and have been wondering what size PV system would allow us to keep using the computers and fridge! I don't need/want a clothes dryer; I don't want TV; I hope to have SDHW; and I could cook with a wood stove and an outdoor wood stove in the summer (or solar cooker); however, I really really want to keep my fridge. I guess that's my measure of humanity--composting toilet? Check. Rain water catchment/cistern? Check. Re-use greywater? Check. But please let me keep the fridge!

  6. Lorna - that's funny! I think I feel that way about my washing machine :), and I'd like to keep our stand-alone freezer, but I'd chuck the fridge in a heart-beat if Deus Ex Machina would agree ;).

  7. You know, I've got a good guess as to why they've stuck with that 1000kw/month figure. No one has mentioned the copy at the very bottom of the page: "One Block Off the Grid makes it easier and more affordable for homeowners to go solar. We negotiate group discounts on panels and installation with local providers and provide you with free advice and support throughout the process."

    As you point out, it's a "slick ad campaign."

  8. Alison - you might also want to note the "sources" for the information they provide. None of it seems to be "in practice" information, but rather "in theory" based on research by organizations like Cornell University,, AGRI View, ADGA, and Yeah, there are no ulterior motives there, eh?

  9. If you are not reproducing the meat animals yourself (not keeping breeders) it also doesn't take into account that you can use the same space. You can time the raising of your flock of meat chickens so that by the time they are out of the brooder box and into chicken tractors they are using the same land that you recently had planted with vegetables that have been harvested.

  10. I like this post - and am embarrassed to admit that I didn't even consider the waste issues (bad Tricia, bad! Think smarter).