Tuesday, April 05, 2016

A little something to consider

The weather here in Piedmont North Carolina has been rather odd for the last several months.  We've had a warm winter that was wetter than normal (Thank you, El Nino) and spring came early and has been a bit drier than normal.

However, there have been outbreaks of seasonal if not overly seasonal weather.  We had an interesting sleet/snowstorm in late January, and tonight we are under a hard freeze warning.  While the date of last frost is around April 28 here, that's for a frost--we're in for a hard freeze, and another, probably colder, one is forecast for Saturday night.

For us, in this day and time, it's a minor inconvenience.  Turn the heat pump on, or for us personally build a late season fire in the wood stove.  Get the warmer coat back out for tomorrow.

But let's consider another scenario.  Let's say a large load of feces has impacted the air circulator.  Things are bad.  Not Mad Max bad, but bad enough.  Deliveries to grocery stores are unpredictable, as is grid power.  While lawlessness is contained to the larger cities, it doesn't mean that the suburbs and exurbs are without problems.  Food has been a concern for the last couple of years.  Everyone with a yard has a garden and tries to raise as much of their own food as possible.

You, as a good prepper, had already been gardening, raising a significant portion of your own food and preserving some of it via drying and canning.  You had a number of books on various methods of agriculture and food preservation among your library.  As a good prepper, you made sure that your efforts didn't stand out in your neighborhood--you made it appear as a hobby, and camouflaged some of your food plots with flowerbed.

When things started to get bad, for you it was a matter of ramping up the size of your garden quickly.  Grass and flowers disappeared and garden appeared.  Small hoop houses, cold frames and the other implements of intensive agriculture sprang up almost overnight.  Your neighbors noticed, and because you had always went out of your way to be friendly and approachable, rather than coming to you with "you need to share" on their lips, they came to ask to help--"Will work for food"--and for help--"Can you help us put in our own gardens?"

Smart prepper that you are, you had extra seed stocks (they are cheap, most store relatively well and you could always use them yourself) and teaching people how to do the intensive, "square foot" style gardening you favored was easy and didn't require years of patient soil building before yields were worthwhile.  Luckily things had gotten bad at the right time of year and slowly enough that most of your neighbors who stayed put in the neighborhood were able to raise and preserve enough food that first summer to pad the meager supplies available from the grocery stores that winter.  Everybody lost weight, but nearly everyone survived.

The next year went even better.  Even though the supplies to the grocery stores were still irregular, gardens were bigger and you and your neighbors were able to add chickens, rabbits and a few cattle to the mix.  Even though no one was well versed on animal husbandry, your library saw you through and that winter you all ate far better than the winter before.  There was even enough for trade.

The next spring, warm weather came early.  Taking advantage of the gift, gardens were planted early.  By early April they were a month ahead of where they would have been a year ago.  Everyone was mentally thinking of what the surplus could be traded for that autumn.

But one sunny day, the wind came up and blew a good stiff breeze from the northwest.  While the temperature warmed, thermometers that had read in the low 70s the day before stayed stubbornly in the 50s, even with a bright sun out.  As the sun went past noon and started to move down the sky, the temperature started to drop, and by dark the temperature was dropping below 50.  Anxious eyes watched as it continued to drop during the early evening.  Buckets, old sheets--anything that could cover a young and tender plant--was gathered as men, women and children worked to cover everything that could be covered.  Silent prayers were offered and more than a few spoken ones.  Even working, the chill in the air was evident.  It wasn't just going to be cold tonight.  "Man, I sure miss the National Weather Service" was said with as much conviction as the prayers.

By midnight, everything that could be used to cover plants was used.  Thermometers stood near 40.  The wind had died down, and those who knew of such things were shaking their heads.  It would be better if the air was still moving, they said.  Frost can't form if the air moves.

Mothers took children in and put them to bed in their clothes, since blankets were all in use.  Covering them in whatever they could find, they made sure the wood stoves or fireplaces stayed stoked.  One of the older men had remembered the stories he had read about "smudge pots", used in the Florida orange groves to ward off cold.  Not the same thing, he said, but it might help.  Fires were burning in the gardens in barrels, grills, old rims and anything else that could hold a fire, trying to ward off the cold.

Sometime around 3:30, the thermometer touched the freezing mark of 32 degrees.  No one noticed it for another 30 minutes--not that it would have mattered.  Everyone just kept doing what they were doing, kept on praying for a miracle and cursing themselves for being stupid and greedy.

By the time the sky had lightened enough for the light to be usable, the temperature had bottomed out at a tiny tick below 29 degrees.  It never got that cold here in April--never.  But it had now, and all that remained was to see how bad the damage was.  As the day warmed and the thermometer rose. fires were allowed to die and the wrappings were removed from the plantings.  At first, there were smiles--it had worked!  They had dodged the bullet!

As the temperatures continued to warm, the damage began to be apparent.  Plants began to wilt as the ice within them melted and the burst cell walls collapsed.  By noon, the full extent of the damage could be seen.  Perhaps 80% of the plantings, so healthy a day before, were now suitable only for compost.

There were a few recriminations, but in reality, no one was to blame.  Everyone had participated in the rush to plant early and take advantage of the weather.  Now, a hurried inventory of the remaining seed stocks showed that there might be enough to replant, but there could be no mistakes, no problems, no bad harvest.  There would be no surplus and no trade.  There would probably be empty bellies at times this winter if they were not very fortunate indeed.

There are a lot of preppers who think that if things get bad, why, they'll just till up the yard, toss out the seeds from that Super Survivalist Survival Seed Bank that they bought 15 years ago for $19.95 and just wait for the magic to happen.  There's a phrase used to describe people like that:  dead from starvation.

If you have never gardened, you need to start gardening now.  If you have gardened but aren't gardening now, you need to restart gardening now.  I'm not too proud to say that in this I have to take my own advice.  We haven't gardened, even in containers, for several years.  We won't this year, but by next year will will restart, even if it is just back to containers.

Long term, there is between 1/2 -3/5 of an acre of pine woods behind our house that are long overdue for harvest.  No professional will harvest them, it's too small a patch to be profitable.  I'm looking at economical (read: cheap) ways to harvest it myself so that I can mill the wood (the trees are as much as 32" at the butt and around 90' tall, so it's a lot of board feet of good Southern Yellow Pine) for use in raised beds and an outbuilding or two.

That much land under intensive cultivation will more than provide enough for two people.  I can probably feed 4 from it, given our growing season and what it can be extended to.  Throw in the current back yard, add some chickens and a couple of pigs, and I'd bet on more like 5 or 6 in pretty good style.  The big concern is water.  I have no water on the property, and the nearest open water is around 1/2 mile.  You can only do so much with rain water capture.  A well is a no-go in this area.  I still have to figure that issue out.

In a long term scenario, food is going to be one of your three most intractable problems (along with security and medical issues).  Better to figure out how to deal with it now when failure means a trip to the grocery store than latter when it may mean starvation.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Yup. Here in WI it's always a gamble. We hit a high of 71 and two nights later it was in the low 20's. Silly me, thinking I was gonna get a head start on some tomatoes. The NWS helpfully informed me the record high for the date was 81, while the record low was six. Ugh.