Learn techniques for sustainable living

By Philip Brewer on 11 August 2008 8 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

In the long run, we'll all be living sustainable lifestyles.  Many of us are already moving that way--positioning ourselves to live more sustainably--at a pace of our own choosing, rather than waiting until circumstances force our hand.  Some who are further along are trying not only to live more sustainably, but also to pass on what they're learning.

I was on vacation this past week in St. Croix.  Along with snorkeling along the reef, resting in the shade of the cabana (enjoying the trade winds), and (very frugally) drinking duty-free rum, I went to see the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farming Institute's Creque Dam Farm.

It's a fascinating place.  Along with operating an actual working farm, VISFI's mission is a combination of research into sustainable farming techniques, outreach to make what they learn available to the community, and education in the form of classes, workshops, internships, and apprenticeships.

Eggs from Creque Dam Farm chickensThey're precise about what they mean by sustainability.  In particular, they're not really striving for self-sufficiency (although they are self-sufficient in many areas, with solar power, their own well, fruit trees, vegetable crops, chickens and rabbits).  

Things that they don't produce themselves they try to acquire locally.  When that isn't practical, they try to acquire them from sustainable sources.  And, although they're very serious about sustainability, they don't seem to insist on purity--they understand that different students and interns are coming to sustainability at their own pace.  (So, things like peanut butter and mac and cheese are on the menu.)

I've talked about self-sufficiency and self-reliance before--about the trade-offs involved and the need to be clear about what you're trying to achieve--so I was pleased to find the folks at VISFI are thinking clearly.

I had shown up in the late morning, because that's when my brother was free to drive me up to the farm.  They were fixing an early lunch and kindly invited us to join them.  After a fascinating conversation about the many activities at the farm, they took us to see the chickens and rabbits, then gave us a brief tour of the orchards and fields closest to the community center.

If you want to learn more about sustainable farming, or want to learn the skills involved, you might want to consider an internship or apprenticeship at VISFI.  They seem to have the right combination of a serious attitude about their mission (without which there's not always anything to learn) and a laid-back attitude about accomplishing it in the near-term (without which a place can be hard to live at for long enough to learn it).

I know of other places for learning techniques of sustainable living, but this is the only one I've visited.  Anyone else with first-hand experience at any of the others?

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Guest's picture

I was surprised to find out how easy it is to grow squash. My dad likes to garden, and I remember him spending hours every day working the garden when I was a kid, so I assumed that gardening takes a long time. I guess for a large garden, it does.
However, this year my wife and I decided to plant some yellow crookneck squash. We only have about 5 plants, and every night for the past 3 weeks we have enough squash for dinner (family of 4). Lots of new blossoms still on the plants, too, so I guess they'll last for a couple more weeks at least. Since we're on a water meter, we planted them around the base of our cherry tree so they don't require too much extra watering.


Philip Brewer's picture

No mater where you live (as long as its not tundra or bare desert) there's something that'll grow easily and produce huge amounts of food for little effort.

One of the things that VISFI is emphasizing is permanent crops, such as fruit trees, that produce food even in years when you're too busy to tend them or too poor to buy fertilizer.  Another thing that they're working on is planting multiple crops in the same space--crops that, because of their differing sizes and differing needs for sun and nutrients, can grow in a shared space and provide almost as much yield as they would have if they'd been given their own space.

But you're right--the first thing a gardener needs to learn is what the easy-to-grown, high-yield foods are for their area.  (It's also something a non-gardener should learn, because those tend to be the foods that your neighbors have more of than they can use, and are therefore pleased to share.)

Guest's picture

That farm sounds like a cool place! What an awesome experience. I do think that learning to live sustainably is a personal progression at your own pace, but I'm glad that it's become so popular.


Fred Lee's picture

Sustainable food production seems to be the way to go. It makes perfect sense to support your local economy and to treat the environment and your source of food with some degree of respect. All stereotypes about vegan-hippies aside, there are just a huge number of benefits to a more responsible approach to food production, especially in lieu of all the recent health related problems that can all be traced back to our food (i.e., tomatoes, lettuce and spinach, not to mention beef and chicken).

At some point we as consumers need to get past the idea of cheap, plentiful comestibles (which are less nutritious and contribute to obesity) and embrace a more long term, common sense approach to eating. The benefits are far-reaching: we get safer, healthier food, it supports our communities, and it is much easier on your environment, which will benefit us and future generations. Regardless of your political position, these are all positive attributes.

Thanks for the interesting article. We've travelled to Domenica and Carriacou and they both seem to suppport small scale, sustainable farms, but more out of necessity. It's just the way things are done because they don't have technology or the need to produce things on a large scale.

Guest's picture

One thing I've been wondering as I house hunt is 'how much land would I need to feed my family on a farm?'. It depends on the climate, I suppose.

The first smallest quote I could find quickly was 2.5 acres, but that was from 1986. Seems like there there should be a more recent and smaller value out there somewhere.

“With the right mixture of farm crops and small animals, 2 1/2 acres can supply the nutritional needs for a family of seven. And under the right conditions, our system can also produce a cash income.”

From 1986 -- http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM10...

Philip Brewer's picture

Anyone interested in growing enough food to feed a family should check out the book Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon--it's on exactly that topic.

According to Solomon, during WWII the British government gave 2700 sq ft allotments of land outside of town for families to grow their own food.  He figures that much land could provide about one-third of a family's calories, and he goes on to suggest that if you added about 500 sq ft of potatoes to that space, you could probably get enough calories to provide a minimum diet for two people.

Having said all though, it's important to observe that actually producing 100% of your own food is really hard--especially if you need to.  (The sorts of bad times that require growing all your own food tend to be the same sorts that make fertilizer and irrigation water hard to come by as well.)  Much more practical is to produce a large fraction of your food--say one-third to one-half--and then buy or trade for the rest.  If you could grow enough to provide, say 1000 calories per person per day, that would see you through months of hard times, maybe years.  (Although you'd be hungry all the time, and would be very limited in the amount of hard, physical work you could do, the fact is that you could live on 1000 calories of nutritious food per day virtually forever.)

Guest's picture

We recently purchased 3.75 acres with a small 900 sq foot house in a smaller community an hour from where we currently live - since we telecommute now, it makes sense to us to relocate to a less expensive area with land and rent our city house.

We've been mad gardeners for years, so we're very excited to have about a full 1.5 acres to garden. We've invited 2 couples/neighbors to community garden with us, and we're all excited about it. I also can and preserve lots of fruits, veggies, and jams - another mad hobby.

I've had family make fun of me as if I were a hippie or freak (which I'm not), but I've always enjoyed homemade items and local food. It tastes better!

We've engineered a terrific rainbarrel water collection system to reduce water consumption/costs, and will have approx ten 55-gallon rainbarrels that we'll use for drip irrigation. Towards August, we may have to resort to city water - but we live in SW Washington and we get a fair amount of rain, so it probably won't be too bad.

While I hate the high fuel and food prices just as much as everyone else, I see the longterm benefits and I'm betting there will be many changes. I'm hopeful we'll all be less wasteful (the average U.S. family wastes or disposes of 14% of their food a year), and we'll grow and produce more food locally. That's already hugely popular here in the `green' Pacific NW, and with any luck, it will spread everywhere!

Thanks for the great post!

Guest's picture

Even if you have no garden at all it's possible to grow some food: think balconies, windowsills, apartment rooftops or community gardens. They are all examples of small urban gardens.