One Year To Food Independence Starts With A Homestead Sabbath

September twenty fifth of this year marked the beginning of the Sh’mittah (or Sabbath) year for Jews and torah observant Christians. According to Leviticus 25:1-5, my family is to let the land have a rest for a year. We are not to “sow our fields nor prune our vineyard.” This is the first year that we will be observing the Sabbath year. We have been trying to work our way to food independence for almost ten years. This is our plan for using this fallow year to plan the final stages to get my family to eating primarily from what we produce. When the Hebrew year ends in September next year, our plan is to be disconnected from Walmart and eating only what we grow except for the things we cannot produce for ourselves. (My husband is NOT willing to give up his morning coffee!)

When we began our homesteading experiment in 2004, we had recently finished building our home on our 23 acres of property, and we had just purchased three old but pregnant miniature Hereford cows. Now, we have four 2-acre rotational grazing fields and two established garden areas. I have planted many perennial herbs and done countless hours of research trying to find the types of perennials I want to establish to begin a food forest here. Our children know how to care for chickens, milk a cow, plant, hoe, and compost in raised beds. Our son is in his first year of college and his sister plans to join him next fall. (While this emptying of my nest has been an emotional battle, the bright side is that it has created a smaller table for me to fill by my own efforts.)

So, this is where we stand: we have meat sources, beef and poultry, as well as wild game. I have lots of fruit established: blueberries, a plum, two pears, two apples (although we have only produced one apple in 5 years), 3 mulberries, a persimmon, scuppernongs, and a very weak fig. I have established herbs in a small garden plot of decaying wooden raised beds that include rosemary, onions, garlic chives, horseradish, “invincible” mint, oregano, lemon balm. Bay and sassafras grow wild here as do dewberries, blackberries, wild grapes and poke salat. This will be our year of final preparations in order to feed my husband and myself beginning in September next year.
First, we are establishing a few rules for our “experiment.” There are some things that we are not yet prepared to do without and cannot do for ourselves. So, we have agreed to purchase a lean list of things semi-annually. Things such as coffee, which my husband can’t live without, and cocoa powder, which I can’t live without, as well as salt, baking soda, olive oil, and toiletries. I am not ready for “alternatives” to toilet paper yet! Now you understand where we are destined to go, I would like to share my one year plan with those who are interested in joining us in this endeavor, either literally or figuratively.

After we lay down the ground rules, we have begun to do a few things which may seem like ‘cheats.’ I have stockpiled some things this year that will help me to survive the first few weeks into the fall of next year. We live on the Gulf Coast, so we only have a very short window of time in which we absolutely cannot grow anything outdoors. According to our religious restrictions, we cannot do any type of growing in soil until September 15, 2015. We will be spending our time doing things that are allowed. We have butchered a calf ourselves and have another fattened and ready to go once we finish this one. That is a meat source to feast on. We have hens for eggs, although they tend to quit producing around this time of year. We have bags of our own home grown fruit in the freezer and some jars of canned fruit also.

We have spent the first couple months of our fallow year planning. December will be our first “work” month, to coin a phrase. In December, I intend to remove the fencing surrounding my two garden areas and replace it with a better structure. I currently use just an excess wire flap that overlaps and hooks back into itself as gates. I have been saving money to purchase some new corner posts and gates to redo the perimeter of both my garden areas. We have a wonderfully prolific wildlife population so fencing is a must, better fencing will be a dream come true. I am also planning to purchase cinder blocks to remake my raised beds. I originally used untreated wood, in order to avoid adding any unwanted chemicals to my soil, and they have all become decayed to the point of needing replacement. I believe the blocks will provide a more cost effective permanent structure in which to grow the basics of our future diet. This will also be the month that I begin menu planning around the food that I will be able to produce for myself. I want to begin eating the way we will have to eat next year. This gives me time to adjust and figure what I will need to do to keep us from getting bored and giving up on this plan. I plan to finish out December by using my mulching mower and bagger attachment to vacuum all my leaves and straw and fill my beds with material for composting that will passively work without me for the next year.

January and February will be very cold for us, so I don’t want to do very much outside. I absolutely love mushrooms. They are a part of my diet that I cannot justify buying during this experiment. One excellent thing that I have learned during my research phase has been that certain types of mushrooms do not grow in soil, but rather on wood. Since I am restricted from growing in soil this year, this is good to know. As part of this phase, I plan to order a mushroom growing kit for some shiitakes and other wood growing ‘shrooms! I am very excited about finding a food source that I can grow during the Sabbath year without having to install an expensive hydroponic system. I will also spend much of January and February doing more research and planning on paper. I want to draw a garden map with a rotational guide for the annuals and begin to lay out where I would like to put perennials. I want to find sources for some of the exotic perennial vegetables that I want to try. I will need to order seed as well. Since we use wood heat, I will also continue my soil building by adding ashes to my beds as needed throughout these cold months.

March, April, and May will be difficult for me. Where I live, we begin planting in February so by this time of year, all of my neighboring farmers will be planting in high gear. We will probably visit the U-pick farm at the end of May to keep me out of the psych ward. This will be another one of my beginning ‘cheats.’ I will pick and can produce from the U-pick to use while I am waiting for my produce to come in during the fall. (For those who are wondering, it does not violate the scripture to pick from the U-pick, nor would it be a problem for us to forage from the wild.) We will also be spending this time to begin our wood pile for next winter and finishing our solar power project. We have been slowly converting ourselves over to solar power and plan to have enough money to get ourselves almost completely off grid, with the exception of air conditioning. These projects should keep us very busy in the spring.

Throughout the summer, I will be learning to forage more from the wild. I will also be putting the finishing touches on my garden beds and area. The scripture for the Sabbatical year can seem a little contradictory in that it tells you not to harvest from the land but that you can eat whatever the land produces. This is understood to mean that you can eat the blueberries as they are ready to eat, but you cannot can or freeze them. We are to trust in God to provide our needs as we have need. So, I plan to use the month of June to learn more about seasonal eating and to continue developing menu plans and recipes that are seasonal in nature. My thoughts are that, as I develop meals using what is available, I will photograph the plate and file it with the recipes in my computer to make my own sort of personal cookbook. I guess you could say that much of May, June, and July will be spent working on this endeavor. I want to spend my time also scouring the woods around my home for “foragables.” I want to take extensive notes about frost dates, when things are blooming and fruiting in the wild. I want to record everything I can and organize a month by month notebook to use as a guide for when the ‘plan’ becomes ‘life’.

August will be the last month to prepare. When the Sabbatical year ends, we have three weeks with three religious celebrations. We will celebrate the new year, then a week later we will have another special holiday spent fasting and we finish off our fall feasts with a weeklong camping type event that really lasts for about 10-11 days. So, my plan is to spend August doing any final preparations on the beds to have them ready. September 15th is the first day on which I can plant. I intend to have everything in hand to be out in the garden at sun-up on the fifteenth and fill my beds with a wide assortment of lettuces, some turnips, potatoes, and fall peas and beans. I may even try sprouting some okra seed in

August on paper towels to try and transplant them in September. We can usually keep okra alive here until mid-December. I am hoping I can get it started on paper towels inside in August and maybe have a few servings of okra to eat before frost kills the plants. If we get everything planted on schedule, when we return from our final religious celebration, we should be able to begin eating the “thinnings” from our greens. Persimmons will be coming in at that time, so I should be able to harvest those. We have also done quite a bit of study on using acorns for food. I will plan to harvest those in September and begin the leaching process. I have already accumulated several recipes to try and have ideas for a few to develop on my own.

It looks like my Sabbatical year will be very busy. According to my thinking, I should be able to have some fruit and greens smoothies, lots of green salads and cooked greens, mushrooms, acorn breads, eggs, and beef to keep us fed until spring. Of course we will also be hunting and fishing to fill the cupboards and freezer. It is a very exciting proposition that I am looking forward to. I hope you will join me and let’s share our accomplishments together.


Note: This article was an entry in our October – December 2014 writing contest. Click here to find out about our current writing contest.

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  • Aayla says:

    Nice article. Glad to hear you are keeping Smittah. I am, too. How I prepared is different, so maybe I’ll share that in a day or two. This may sound strange to people at first, but while the ground is resting, so are we. True that we will work on tools, restructure and repair beds, and do some repurposing, cleaning out sheds, etc. We’ll be busy, alright, but not dependent on the weather, etc. Wishing you the best and a happy return at the end of Smittah.

  • Kim says:

    I applaud your planning for the Sh’mittah year. I’ve considered the ramifications of it myself. My husband is of the opinion that it applies to Israel only, but secretly I have my own opinion…. I would love to know how this journey progresses for you. I have been studying the plants that grow naturally (read: weeds) in our area. It is amazing how many are not only edible, but very healthy- probably more so than the crops I carefully baby along. We are well supplied with food if we will only look for it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and plans!

  • Janelle says:

    Sh’mittah year – this has been heavy on my mind. I struggle because I was not able to have a garden last year, and I am very much itching to get going again. I will be planning and preparing this year too – building new raised beds and relocating my garden, working on rain-water storage and making plans to add new plants and trees for the following year. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts!

  • Richard Barrett says:

    I have heard about the land having a Sabbath but to do it and to read about someone doing the specifics is very interesting. I know that your land will be more productive for it. The soil has a time to have weeds that draw nutrients from deeper depths which the usuall plants can not. Because your land has a covering as in the Garden of Eden, The fungi will be less damaged with less walking.

  • Terry says:

    While we keep a slightly different calendar than you, and we see sh’mitta as mandatory only once we live in the Land, I applaud your decision to keep the land Sabbath. There is a promise that the land will produce enough in the 6th year to provide until you can harvest again. A friend told me of a family he knows who have been doing so for some years now, and they said that not only does the land produce in abundance in the 6th year, but in all other years as well. They attribute it to the keeping of Sh’mitta. Congratulations on the steps you’re taking.

  • I want to live in the country and have country costs, here in WI. I live in an apartment because old hags get cheap rent. I hate it. I’m retired and constantly looking for health info. I’m looking for a place where I can homestead. I’m a hunter and a gardener. I always used wood stoves at Ma’s house, a shack in woods with good people to talk to. Now I have lots of info, but that’s all… Jeff

  • Ellen Williams says:

    I would like to share a couple of websites for people who might be interested in aquaponics but think it’s too expensive. To me, hydroponics doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re trying to grow things as organically as possible. Aquaponics doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers and the methodology is constantly being improved upon. Leaders in the field include Tim Mann and Susanne Friend in Hawaii and Randy Campbell in Tennessee. Their approach is unique and much more economical than the others. Tim and Susanne’s website is friendlyaquaponics.com, and Randy’s is perpetualfood.com.

  • Marilyn says:

    Thanks for your article. I remember my Dad talking about “letting the land rest,” as he and others of his generation called it. I want to learn more about this.

  • Connie says:

    I am keeping Schmittah this year, also. It was great to hear someone else’s plan for this time. I imagine s/he lives in a more moderate climate than we do. Here in zone 3 we cannot plant anything in the fall – so our year of rest actually extends until next April/May and we’ll have 1.5 years without our garden fix! We’ve been talking about moving for a couple of years so this seems a perfect time to do so – if only we knew where to go. In the meantime, while we look around, my plan is to fix things here. The first thing to fix is the soil in our 42 raised beds. We’ve been pulling and discarding all the weeds and spent plants, which I now understand is a no-no, instead of letting it break back down into the soil. We’ve been collecting/making compost for several years with kitchen waste (it’s very slow up here in the north) and I want to sprinkle that, such as it is, in the beds. Then I want to sprinkle some aged manure on top of that. Finally, I want to layer all of the pine needles that we’ve been collecting for 17 years on top. This is a “Back to Eden” style of gardening that I want to make the switch to, and this is the perfect year for that. My beds are rather full so I’m thinking that we’ll stretch bird netting over the pine needles and nail that into the wood to make sure they stay in place and the lawn looks neat. (Our raised beds were cut out of the lawn!) We need to do the same thing with the raised beds in the greenhouse, but because they were under cover all winter they are dry as a bone and I will have to water them first. We planted a few young fruit trees a couple of years ago; they need to be tended to now that the snow has finally melted. I suspect that the plums are dead; if so they’ll be pulled out. Otherwise, I want to put a ring of wood chips around each of the fruit trees and perhaps add some guild vegetation in there. Oh, wait; can’t add those this year. I’d like to transplant half of the strawberries from their bed into the one next to it, but I suspect that would be violating the land-rest rule so I’ll have to do more thinking about that. I have spent a lot of time learning about Rain Gutter Grow Systems and Hydroponics and Aquaponics, thinking that we could practice those things this year – but since we don’t know if we’re moving and also because it’s cold up here, we probably will not. I’m discovering that the Schmittah year works similar to the Sabbath – when you discipline yourself to do it all kinds of things fall into place! Love it! I’m itching to get my hands in the dirt, but I’ll have to content myself with looking at other people’s garden pictures. It’s not like I don’t have plenty of unfinished projects in the house to do. This is my time, if only I could quit procrastinating… I guess I will live vicariously this year through my local CSA!

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