State of the Farm, 2020: Staples

(Picture from here.)

I was going to write some long eloquent essay on the election but, frankly, it’s too depressing.

The only thing I will say is that in 1984, George Orwell postulated a whole English industry and ministry dedicated to making people believe in untruths that were beneficial to the party and not to them. Here in America, all we needed were 140 character segments.

Suck on that, George.


One of the goals we’ve had going forward with the “farm” is to move from foodstuffs that we have to buy to those we can grow for ourselves. Complete self-sufficiency is not a goal nor would it ever be in the cards. Can’t grow gasoline or pharmaceutical products.

But there are things we can do.

As both my readers might have observed, we’ve had fairly good luck with fruit and greens. Not terrific luck this year, but not completely terrible, either. We had a good crop of apples, Cornelian cherries, persimmons, and peaches. A fairly good crop of greens and squash. Somewhat on the beans. Not so great on basil and tomatoes. Wretched on potatoes.

By this I mean we did alright on non-staple crops and fairly poorly on staple crops. By “non-staple”, I’m speaking of crops that provide nutrients, fiber or flavor but aren’t reliable for purposes of day to day calories. I put fruit in the category because though they supply a lot of sugar, they are relatively nutrient poor. One peach supplies about 60 calories. One potato supplies 160. In addition, fruit are much more difficult to store while staples tend to be more stable over time. After last summer’s quite respectable showing, I had high hopes that this year’s potato crop would do well. We expanded and ended up feeding a lot of rodents. I was discouraged.

But I had not taken into account another staple crop we have: chestnuts.

We’ve been harvesting chestnuts for some time. We have three trees. A mature producer, a younger tree that started really producing this year, and an immature tree that hasn’t produced any so far. This year we had a bumper crops. We are still harvesting the nuts.

Chestnuts require a fair amount of processing. We have to first pull off the outer husks– no mean feat since the spikes on a chestnut will go right through most glove material. Most people wait until the chestnuts do this themselves and drop the exposed nuts on the ground. Of course, that puts us in a scramble for the nuts with the squirrels. Then, we have to get the nuts out of the inner husks. Finally, we need to dry the resulting exposed nuts.

Wendy has developed over the years a good mechanism for getting to the inner nut once it’s been exposed from the outer husk.

This year we have managed to harvest in excess of 50 pounds of nuts. I’m guessing the final dried nuts have lost about 20% of mass so that’s >40 pounds of raw, dried calories.

Chestnut flour is somewhat higher in fat and lower in protein than wheat flour. It has no gluten so cannot substitute for flour in bread making. They can, however, be used to make pasta. I’ve been making a lot of bread this pandemic and I’ve started substituting chestnut flour for regular flour. A 3.5/.5 cup ratio appears to get the flavor benefits of chestnuts without loss of structure. I’m still increasing the ratio. We’ll see where the fail point is.

In addition, I’m looking at the hickory nuts we’re getting. It’s hard to find a hickory nut nutrition profile. I used the pecan for that purpose. Here’s the comparison:

  • Wheat flour/100g: Calories: 339, fat 1.87g, carbo: 72.6g, protein: 13.7g
  • Chestnut flour/100g: Calories: 371, fat 3.67g, carbo 78g, protein 6.55g
  • Pecan/100g: Calories: 691. Fat: 72g. Carbo: 14g. Protein: 9.2g

The problem with hickory nuts (as opposed to pecans) is getting the meat out of the shell. I’m running some experiments on that.

Given the above, our staples have become:

  • Corn
  • Squash
  • Potatoes
  • Beans
  • Chestnuts
  • Hickory nuts (Maybe)

We’re pretty good at growing corn and beans– not this year, so much. We did well on squash. Beans we did fairly well but we had a rabbit problem. We planted a bad variety of corn as an experiment. It was an experiment that failed. When we plant our preferred variety (Bloody Butcher) we get good yield. We have about ten to fifteen pounds of various corn varieties stored.

Given the 40+ pounds of chestnuts we have, 10+ pounds of corn and various beans, etc., we’re not in terrible shape going into winter.

(We did our apcalyptishopping earlier in the year and bought >150 pounds of flour. This will extend that.)

Given the above, how did we do this year regarding staples?

I have to say: not bad. If we go through about 150 pounds of flour/year– the pandemic has given us good insight to our utilization of foodstuffs– we can cut into that by about a third.

Not bad at all.

So what do we do next year?

I want to try potatoes again. I haven’t figured out how to protect them from rodents. One idea I’ve seen is to grow them in tall beds– greater than three feet in height. Of course, if we can let our cat out, that might take care of the problem. Especially if we move the potatoes near the house. We will see.

We’re going back to Bloody Butcher for corn. I want to see if we can get forty or fifty pounds.

Chestnuts, obviously.

We need to industrialize our approach to beans. We get beans but we’ve never planted enough storage beans to actually have enough for the winter. That’s going to take some planting.

I’d like to expand the squash– that’s a problem for several reasons. We do have squash bugs. Also, squash take up significant square footage. (Though we have grown the vines up into interesting places. There’s nothing more interesting than a pumpkin growing in an apple tree.) Also, we need to store them. I’m investigating what it might take to dry a large amount of squash. I’m not sure we can even do it.

If the experiments with hickory nuts pan out, I have some ideas on how to build nut harvesting traps that keep the squirrels at bay. Might work for chestnuts as well.

If we can get >100 pounds of staples, I’ll call it a win.





State of the Farm, 2020: Staples — 6 Comments

  1. I have spent some time as a docent at pioneer farm/museums. One thing that always impresses me is how they intermingle the corn, squash, and beans in the same row, the beans climb the corn and the squash spreads out smothering the weeds. The plants complement each other on what they take out and put back into the soil. I don’t know what to do about rodents and moles. Maybe plant 1 garlic clove alongside each corn stalk? What about onions?

  2. Chestnuts were incredibly important before the blight. They produced tremendous amounts of feed and food, and were widely available.

  3. Swiss alpine villages used to grow walnuts for a similar reason; they ground them up and added them to the dark rye flour for their (nutritious but very brick-like) bread.

  4. Before corn was brought to Europe polenta was made from ground chestnuts. You have to adjust your cooking technique somewhat as they don’t behave in exactly the same way, in particular I have found that with chesnut polenta you need to stop cooking when it thickens as if you go on cooking beyond that point it doesn’t get thicker it gets thinner!

  5. We have had some good luck with the “three sisters” method: corn, squash and beans together. We haven’t done that much with corn in the last few seasons except experiment. This year, the corn and beans part of that equation didn’t work out as described. The three legged stool needs all three legs. But next year I’m agitating for more corn. It is a matter under discussion.

    Regarding chestnut flour. We roast some. I’m not a fan. Chestnuts have a distinct flavor that I find less than ideal when by themselves. I prefer it as flour.

    But when blended in with flour or used by itself in the making of pasta and such, it is terrific. I’ve managed to make bread with 25% corn meal or chestnut flour. That’s not nothing.