Now it is time to reap one of the major benefits of country living—the ability to grow food that is so much healthier and more flavorful than anything you can buy at the store. Learning how to grow nutrient-rich food takes a little extra effort, but it really isn’t too complicated. It all starts with the soil.
- Feed the Soil
- Stewarding Plants
- Stewarding Animals
- Choosing Genetics
- Assessing Food Quality
- Bridging the Hungry Gap
- What About Purchased Food?
Feed the Soil
Whatever type of food you raise, it all starts with the soil.
Think about it for a moment. Your vegetables and fruit trees can only put valuable nutrients into produce if they can pull minerals up from the soil via their roots. Likewise, the grass and other plants that feed your livestock and in turn feed your family also depend on the soil for nutrients.
Therefore, if you want to grow nutrient-rich food, the soil needs to be the focus of your farm.
There are many components that go into stewarding soil:
- Preventing erosion.
- Minimizing compaction.
- Balancing pH.
- Remineralizing depleted soil.
- Adding organic mater.
The best way to keep soil improvement from becoming overwhelming and expensive is to test your soil for an accurate picture of its needs. The type of testing you need will depend on your application. For a backyard gardener, your testing can be as simple as a visual inspection and maybe a cheap home test kit for pH and NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). If your animals show signs of nutrient deficiency, however, more advanced lab testing is probably in order.
Once you have your test results, first make a record of them for future reference. Then take note of the greatest limiting factors. For example, if your plants or animals are showing symptoms of nutrient deficiency, stop and ask yourself why. Do your test results suggest that mineral amendments are truly required, or will you see the greatest impact from correcting the pH to increase nutrient availability?
Once you have selected one or two key improvements to focus on this year, you are ready to make the necessary corrections. Your method will depend largely on your application. For example, mulching is a great way to boost organic matter levels in a garden, but cover cropping might be more efficient in the field.
As you work to improve your soil, be sure to reevaluate its condition annually. This will keep you on the right track and give you a chance to adjust your program as necessary.
Once the needs of your soil are met, you will still want to steward the plants themselves to ensure that their nutrition is maximized. Obviously the specifics will depend on the plant.
In the garden and orchard, pay attention to practices that prevent diseases, such as raising your own seedlings and pruning fruit trees. Also, keep the moisture supply relatively stable to improve produce quality. This task will become easier as the amount of organic matter in your soil increases.
In the field, rotating crops is important not only to avoid depleting nutrients but also to prevent the buildup of diseases and insect pests. Adding cover crops to the mix can maximize soil health, as can growing annual forages instead of cash crops from time to time.
In the pasture, your task is to meet the nutritional needs of your livestock while preventing desirable plants from being grazed out of existence. A rotational grazing system to give pastures time to rest is usually involved.
The best food comes from happy, healthy animals.
Consider these tips for minimizing livestock stress:
- Do not overcrowd animals.
- Handle animals quietly and calmly.
- Protect your animals from predators.
- Provide access to clean water at all times.
- Make sure all nutritional needs are met.
- Give animals a way to get out of the mud in wet weather.
- Provide simple shelter from hot sun and cold rains as appropriate.
Also, animals will reach peak health and happiness if allowed to follow their natural instincts. Chickens need something to peck and scratch, while goats are happiest with trees and brush to climb and browse. Likewise, herd animals appreciate living with members of their own species.
When the nutritional value of food from heirloom and heritage genetics is compared with that of modern hybrids and industrial breeds, the results generally favor the former. Turkey red wheat, for instance, has a gluten structure that is easier to digest than that of modern hybrids. Likewise, the protein and beta carotene content of milk from old-fashioned dual-purpose breeds is higher than that of the Holstein.
Obviously, then, to grow nutrient-rich food, you will want to favor heirloom plants and heritage livestock breeds—within reason. But even more important is local adaptation. If a plant or animal cannot thrive in your environment, it will not produce top-notch food. For example, if you are concerned about summer heat, don’t choose Galloway cattle just because they are heritage livestock—consider Devons or another heat-tolerant heritage breed instead.
Local adaptation is particularly overlooked in the vegetable garden, but it makes a huge difference. Each plant variety has particular preferences when it comes to temperature, frequency of watering, and similar factors.
Assessing Food Quality
So how do you know if you are truly producing nutrient-rich food? There is certainly a place for formal testing, such as protein and butterfat tests for milk. But in most cases sending the homegrown lettuce destined for the kitchen table to a lab is a little excessive.
One test that can easily be performed at home with the purchase of the right equipment is the brix test. The brix test measures the total dissolved solids in a solution. Obviously there are limitations to this type of testing, but it can be a quick and dirty way to get a handle on nutrient levels in milk and produce. Meat producers can also test the brix levels of pasture plants to get a feel for what their livestock are eating.
But the easiest way to evaluate the quality of the food you are producing is simply to use your five senses. Nutrient-rich food has vibrant color. Quality milk, for instance, has a yellowish color rather than being chalky white. But more importantly, it tastes sweet but complex—like nothing you can get at the store. A good way to test the nutrient density of vegetables is to offer them to a young child. Children know quality produce when they taste it.
Bridging the Hungry Gap
One of the most difficult parts of learning how to grow nutrient-rich food is providing a year-round supply for your family. The period from midwinter through mid-spring is known to gardeners around the country as the “Hungry Gap,” and with good reason. Nothing is growing, and the livestock probably are not performing at their peak, either.
There are three main ways to bridge the Hungry Gap:
- Preserve the harvest during times of abundance.
- Extend the growing season outdoors.
- Move production into a climate-controlled environment.
Preserving the harvest is a time-honored method of making the most of the glut of high-production months. And these days, preservation does not mean slaving over a batch of hot canning jars. Nearly everything can be frozen, from diced tomatoes to fresh eggs to a side of beef. A variety of dehydration options opens up additional opportunities.
In the garden, there are many ways to extend the growing season. Some crops, such as carrots, overwinter well when protected by straw. Many cool-season vegetables perform well in a cold frame if planted in late summer or early fall. Season extension is harder with livestock. You can theoretically put a light out in the coop to trick the chickens into laying more, but such tactics may have long-term negative effects on the health of your chickens. A better tactic would be to choose genetics suited to cold-weather production, such as a densely feathered heavy-breed layer.
As for moving production to a climate-controlled environment, this should be done with care. A heated barn or greenhouse is not terribly cost-effective. However, since you presumably are already heating your house, why not take advantage of that heat? Indoor container gardening will give you another source of produce, and it will help you fight off the winter doldrums, too.
What About Purchased Food?
Your vision may not include a plan to grow all of your own food, and that’s okay. Becoming truly self-sufficient when it comes to food is hard work and not something that everyone enjoys. The good news is that even if you plan to buy part of your food, you can still seek out nutrient-rich options.
First, note that the methods of assessing quality that we have already discussed still apply. Food should look, smell, and taste delicious, without the need for artificial flavorings. If it doesn’t pass the five senses test, don’t eat it! (Likewise, brix testing can be informative.)
Second, pay attention to the source. If you can find a trusted local farmer with a clean operation, that is probably your best bet. But if that is not an option, don’t despair. These days, online shopping gives you access to quality food you never could have found in the supermarket. Just do your research. Look up each brand before purchase and see who owns it, where they are located, and what their philosophy is. Also check online databases to find their recall history. As the demand for clean, nutritious food increases, more options are becoming available.
Learning how to grow and source nutrient-rich food takes time, but it is very rewarding. Be patient, and soon you will be bringing in bumper crops that you will be eager to share.