A huge proportion of the earth’s people groups depend on a starchy staple crop—one dependable source of filling nutrition that was the basis for life itself. Staple crops are distinguished by the fact that they supply carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and can be stored safely for very long periods of time. These plants held special importance to the cultures who grew them, much more so than the vegetables and fruits that added nutrients and flavor to each meal. Meals might be plainer if the tomato crop failed, but if the wheat crop failed… well, there wouldn’t be a meal at all.
You may be able to guess a few of them—I’m sure they’re represented in your pantry as we speak. Wheat and corn are staple grains that are common in the United States, but they aren’t the only ones—not by a long shot! Throughout time and history and culture, the staple crop has taken many forms, including tree nuts, seeds, and pseudo-grains that are relatively uncommon in western diets.
If you’re seeking self-sufficiency, securing a stable staple (say that five times fast!) is an important consideration. But it’s a huge undertaking. To achieve it, you need to be able to plant, grow, harvest, and store enough of your crop to get you through to the next harvest… and also save seed enough to grow your food again the next growing season. But workload aside, for those on this journey, what a thrill it would be to reach that point, awareness that your knowledge and your fields can sustain you!
I haven’t personally reached that milestone yet, but I’m on the way. I’ve spent the past few years on our homestead planting and harvesting test plots of different potential staple crops, seeing which ones grow well, which ones don’t, and discovering just how many options there are out there. This article will focus, therefore, on sharing what I’ve found so far. As I’m discovering, the plant that best grows on a parcel of land is highly personalized to the specific type of land and climate. Rather than telling you how to grow these plants, I want to give you a broad spectrum of options—finding out what’s best for your homestead is really only something you can discover for yourself.
The only way to find that out is to give it a shot. So, that said, here are several staple foods—some familiar, some not—to consider planting experimentally.
Yes, the same ankle-turning, roof-pattering seeds of the oak tree that have the squirrels in a frenzy can be a food source for humans! Several Native American nations have long culinary histories of transforming these bountiful nuts into food. And beyond our own shores, many European and Asian countries have long-standing traditions of using acorns as well—it’s just something of which many of us in the west are unaware.
The acorns from any oak are edible—with processing, that is. You can eat acorns raw, but after experiencing the bitter flavor, I’m not sure you’ll want to do it again. All acorns need to have their bitter, water-soluble tannins leached out to be rendered edible. Once they’ve gone through a hot-leach, cold-leach, or chemical-leaching process, however, the acorn meal that results is sweet, versatile, and full of nutrition. I have written extensively about our homestead’s experiments with gathering, processing, and eating acorns if you’re curious about the potential of this underutilized resource.
Acorns are rather unique in this list, as they are a tree nut that you’ll neither need to sow nor cultivate. If you have oaks on your land or have access to them elsewhere, you merely need to gather them when they are freely given. Oak trees can grow in places unsuitable for traditional agriculture, and, as perennial trees, they will continue to provide for decades. Even if they’re not the sole staple you depend on, they offer an interesting addition to a homestead’s self-sufficiency toolkit.
For those looking for an easy-to-grow, low-maintenance crop, millet may be the answer. Though many of us may have grown up only seeing it used as parakeet food, it’s a delicious human food as well. Millet thrives in dry climates with little care; it has been an important food crop to areas of Africa, India, and East Asian countries for more than 7,000 years.
My experience with growing millet started by accident—some of the seed I had given my ducks had gone uneaten and ended up sprouting. With no attention paid to it, it still grew lush, thick, and in the fall, was loaded with nutty-tasting seed. Since I use millet often in our kitchen, choosing to grow it intentionally is a no-brainer. I’ll be planting a Japanese variety this spring to add to our lineup of food options.
Those in the city may only have seen sorghum in birdseed. Many in more-rural areas may have heard of, or even grown, sorghum as broom corn or for its sweet syrup. But most folks probably don’t know that there are varieties of this grain that are edible and delicious as well. In its native Africa, this plant is an important food crop, and it may become just as important to your acreage as well.
This plant delights in hot weather and grows readily and quickly. It somewhat resembles corn until it reveals its grain-loaded seed head. It’s easy to grow, easy to harvest and thresh, and has a sweet, doughy flavor all its own.
Wheat is so ubiquitous in many diets that I bet most of us haven’t considered growing ourselves. But for those curious about a more self-sufficient life, wheat is a wonderful, easy-to-grow, easy-to-use option. It is a grass, after all, and so it grows with that same, dogged, grass-like persistence. There are many varieties of wheat—both modern and ancient—and several types that grow in different parts of the year. Ask your local university extension which variety is generally grown in your area to save you some of the trial-and-error time.
Our homestead is growing an heirloom variety called Red Fife, as it’s the type that stores best for us, and it’s what we use most in our manual grain mill. On the homestead, small-scale wheat production can be managed using old-fashioned, manual methods. Though the process of cultivating, growing, harvesting, drying, flailing, threshing, and grinding wheat may sound intimidating on paper, the seasonal rhythm can be beautifully woven into your yearly cycle as you learn how to live with growing your own grain. And when you walk out on a sunny morning, scythe in hand, birds singing, you may feel like poetry in motion.
Gene Lodgson writes about cultivating his “pancake patch” in several of his articles and books. For more information, you can read his good write-up on small-scale wheat cultivation in his book, Homesteading: How to Find New Independence on the Land.
Native to the Andes, these starchy tubers are far more versatile and diverse than the white-fleshed Idaho potatoes most of us grew up with. Look into the traditions of the Incans that first domesticated these nutritious spuds and you’ll see a wealth of knowledge and cultivars that come in every color of the rainbow.
Potatoes are the fourth-largest food crop in the world. With the large amount of pesticides, and the potential for GMO tampering, that can be found in storebought potatoes, the best bet for a potato-loving homestead is to grow your own.
Our homestead has had great success with growing and storing Kennebec White potatoes. On our land in the Ozarks, we harvest them in the early fall, then replant next year’s crop in late fall. This way, we’re able to overwinter potatoes safely in the ground (while we feast on the bulk of the harvest) so that they can grow as soon as they like.
Like potatoes, corn is a far more diverse and fascinating plant than the bundles of sweetcorn found on roadsides or the endless fields of GMO corn in the Midwest would suggest. The native cultures of the southwest United States, as well as the many indigenous cultures of Mexico, domesticated, refined, and thrived on the diverse forms of this generous grass. The fact that it’s native to North America gives you the tip-off that, for most American growers, it wants to grow in your soil.
As the old saying goes: sweetcorn should only really be picked when the pot on the stove is already boiling and ready for it. Flint, Flour, and Dent corn, on the other hand, are where corn shines as a stable staple. They may not be the sweetest corn to eat fresh, but they can be grown to maturity, dried, and used for flour, cornmeal, hominy, and many other uses.
In the era of modern agribusiness, however, the long-term sustainability of growing corn as your staple only really stands if you can grow and save pure, non-GMO seed from your crop for next year. And, as corn is wind-pollinated, that’s only possible if you live in an area where there is no large-scale corn production. For those who are blessed to still be able to grow untainted corn, Baker Creek Seeds is a wonderful resource for finding pure seed. As far as I know, they’re the only seed company that routinely tests their seeds for GMO contamination, and they offer dozens of rare varieties that may be the perfect fit for your homestead’s food plot.
If you have trouble with growing wheat, try growing rye. I’ve grown it for both grain and as a cover crop, and have to admit, I may never grow it as a cover crop again—because it just won’t die! That annoying hardiness is a blessing, however, for those looking to cultivate a stalwart grain that can handle rough terrain.
Rye was likely domesticated in ancient Turkey and is an important crop to Eastern and Central Europe. It grows well in poor soil, even thriving on clay or drought-stricken spaces of land. It can overwinter like a champ, putting up a huge surge of growth once thaw hits.
You may only know this plant as a tall, plumed weed. But this estimable plant was once the staple food of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. For those in the modern world who know Amaranth as a food, it’s a goldmine. Able to grow in most climates, withstand drought, and able to reach maturity even in a short growing season, these tiny seeds are a huge hope for food security.
And they are itty-bitty seeds, looking a bit like miniature quinoa, but hidden in every diminutive orb is the potential for growing an entire pound of high-protein grain. The leaves are also deliciously edible, offering a nutrient-rich alternative to spinach once the weather heats up. As far as looks go, Amaranth is a lovely addition to the edible landscape—the Red Garnet Amaranth that’s in my garden this year is a delightfully shocking crimson-red.
If you’re unable to find any of these grains from your favorite seed supplier, try ordering them as food for a somewhat sideways way of acquiring grain. I’ve ordered whole grain rye, wheat, and sorghum from the Azure Standard for food, but also planted them with great success. Bob’s Red Mill also offers one-pound bags of many of the unusual grains I mentioned.
In the case of millet and barley, you may have a harder time finding whole seeds. Barley is often pearled for human consumption—a process that kills the seed’s ability to sprout. You may have success with barley labeled “pot barley,” however, as those grains have a much higher chance of being left whole. Hulled millet also won’t sprout—you might have success ordering millet from the cover-crop section of a seed catalog.
This is a very incomplete list, as I’ve only written in detail about plants I’ve grown myself. But you may find other staple crops work better on your specific plot—also consider rice, quinoa, chestnuts, chinquapin, barley, spelt, triticale, soy, oats, teff, old wheat varieties like farro, einkorn, and Kamut (Khorasan), and many others. I hope that those omissions merely whet your curiosity, however.
In the quest for self-sufficiency, many of us modern wayfarers have to dig deep to find answers, and sometimes try ideas and foods that we’ve never heard of before. I’d wager that many of us didn’t grow up in communities or families that produced the bulk of their own food. In the absence of that cultural background, however, there’s a huge opportunity to rediscover ways of sustaining ourselves. We just have to give it a try.
About the Author: First, Wren was an environmental educator and language teacher living in the city. Then, she and her husband decided to escape from the confines of city life and its dependence, and move their family to 12 acres of land in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing their dream of a self-sufficient, permaculture-based, off-grid homestead, one step at a time. She can be typically found armpit-deep in brush foraging, cooking on cast iron, talking to her ducks and chickens, pumping yet another bucket of water from the well, and, in quiet moments, sketching art around the homestead.