Supposedly, the average American household hoards an average of 300,000 objects. That number sounds astounding. But when I did a rough count of the non-food objects in our small kitchen I got to 800 in short order. And I’m an anti-consumer!
When you factor in spaces like garages, basements, closets, sheds, and even rented storage facilities, that 300,000 number starts to seem possible. Add to that all the knick knacks and collectibles people hoard and the numbers really begin to add up.
Yet, despite the incredible amount of stuff found in typical homes, one thing we don’t seem to hoard enough of is food or the means to provide it for ourselves. As a result, food insecurity is a real challenge for a lot of people. And I don’t just mean for the people who lack the financial resources to purchase it.
Most average households only have a few weeks worth of food on hand (if that) at any given time. Calorie intensive foods are often stored in the fridge or freezer. That makes them inherently at risk for spoiling if the power goes out.
Dried goods like pasta, beans, and flour need heat and water to make them edible. In a power outage, that can be a problem for people who rely on electric stoves. Even when you have a stash of recreational firewood, tanks of propane or gas, or other kinds of fuel handy, they won’t last long with regular use. The availability of water for cooking and cleaning can also be an issue if you rely only on city water or a well that can go dry or freeze.
Of course, the assumption is we can always go to the grocery store or a restaurant to get more food. Well, that is… unless your grocery store loses power too. Maybe the credit card machine is down and you have no cash. The store might have been cleared out already by panic buying. Or the roads are impassable.
I could keep going. But you get the point.
It’s thoughts like these, and their increasing frequency in the news and our normal lives, that drive people to become preppers or homesteaders. Unfortunately, even when we do hoard for emergencies, we often do it ineffectively creating waste rather than food security in the process.
As an example, I used to buy meat in bulk whenever it went on sale. My freezer was always stocked with several months worth at any given time. Once though, while I was traveling, the power went out at home. It came back on a few hours later. But my well-stocked, standing fridge/freezer did not turn back on.
I came home to a broken appliance and the stench of rotting meat that had seeped through the leaky door gasket. The smell and clean up were foul, but my emotions after were the worst part.
I’d saved and skimped to go on vacation and returned with just enough money for a gallon of milk and transportation to work. So, there I was two weeks to payday — with no food, no money for groceries, in need of a new appliance, and upset over the loss of all that food wasted, plus the time and money I spent hoarding during sales.
After that, I decided I’d just hoard financial assets instead. Unfortunately, later mistakes also taught me that keeping all my money in savings, investments, and real estate isn’t automatically secure either.
Despite my earlier failed attempts at hoarding, over the last 10 years I’ve learned to hoard in ways that actually add up to being more prepared and resilient in the face of hardship. Most of the ideas we use are inspired by observations about how wildlife survive in winter.
As winter approaches, mammals, birds, and insects “scatter hoard” or “cache” by putting food in several different locations to ensure redundancy in case some locations are compromised. The most common example is the squirrel that stashes acorns in various locations in the ground.
Burying food in the ground, where soil mass provides climate control, is a smart natural food storage strategy. It’s also the logic behind root cellars. Those consistently cool, humid, low light conditions work extremely well to store:
- Naturally cured foods like potatoes, garlic, onions
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut, salt hams, salami, cheese, and wine
- Firm foods with high water content and naturally long shelf-life like fall apples, green tomatoes, cabbage heads, winter turnips, and carrots, and
- High fat, low water content foods like nuts, oil, and ghee.
This is why so many homesteaders have some kind of underground storage for their harvests. Unfortunately, if that area floods, collapses, is broken into by critters, or isn’t planned to withstand climate change conditions, it can easily become a giant waste of food, time, and other resources.
An easy way to scatter hoard without a root cellar is to keep a lot of extra food directly in the soil. Plenty of extra sunchokes and potatoes stay buried in our soil through winter. Like the uneaten acorns left by squirrels if we don’t harvest these things, they eventually grow again and make more food ensuring a continuous harvest.
We also have large quantities of self-sowing seasonal crops including winter greens, turnips, collards, and storage radish that pop up constantly around our landscape.
We’ve never needed to rely exclusively on this scatter cache of soil-stored foods. But it’s comforting to know that it’s available should the need arise. It also makes our landscape more lush and beautiful.
Climate Controlled Storage
Beavers dam up running water to create ponds. The ponds then become home to thriving aquaculture including fish, insects, birds, and vegetation. However, beavers who eat mostly tree stems, leaves, fruits, and small plants don’t use their pond as a primary food source.
Instead, they use it as a moat around their shelter to keep them safe from land-based and aerial predators. Additionally, they create multiple underwater food storage areas below the freeze line inside the pond.
This natural form of refrigeration is similar to the spring houses or submerged storage areas used by humans before modern refrigeration became widely available. Again, as with root cellars, a single location for cold storage location is prone to flooding, raiding, or other disasters. That’s why beavers often make several pond fridges. Plus, they alter their winter eating to be more seasonally appropriate such as by adding in tree barks and evergreen plants.
We still chill food in a standing fridge and freezer in the house. Now though it’s backed by solar batteries if the grid goes down. We also have a large capacity off-grid chest freezer in a passive solar, insulated storage area outside our home. We keep that topped with ice blocks too in case of cloud cover. And we have an icebox, chilled with frozen water bottles, for ferments. We can also use our spring fed pond for cold storage when needed.
Like beavers, though, we also have plenty of other seasonal eating options.
Some animals and insects also keep their food alive until time to process them making refrigeration or root cellaring unnecessary. For example, moles have been known to cache living earthworms by inflicting non-lethal, paralyzing injuries.
This sounds terrible on the surface. But last year, in the U.S., 9.25 billion chickens were confined to small indoor enclosures for their entire 6-8 week lifespan. Penned pigs and feedlot cattle are also ways humans keep live stock for later processing.
Unfortunately, unless you process your own animals for personal consumption, feedlot confined livestock isn’t a totally secure way to hoard food. It’s subject to rapid spread of diseases. And, as we saw during the start of the pandemic, the complex legal requirements we’ve imposed on meat processing (and cost-barriers for small scale facilities) meant that many pigs and other livestock went unprocessed. They had to be put down and treated like garbage rather than packaged and distributed as food.
Some farmers did offer their unprocessed livestock for direct sale to consumers able to pick them up and process them at home. However, your average American doesn’t have the means to transport or process animals by hand. Many people who regularly eat meat from the grocery store or restaurants are even weirdly squeamish at the idea of killing an animal for food.
One of the first things I learned when we started homesteading was how to process and preserve poultry, pigs, deer, and rabbits using hand tools. Killing and butchering animals is not my favorite part of being a homesteader. I do a lot less of it these days now that we have good soil and a greenhouse to grow food year round. But from a food security perspective, it’s a good skill set to have.
We also keep pet chickens and ducks for eggs and goats for milk. We normally buy feed for them to lighten our workload. However, we also also have the capacity to feed them entirely from our homestead too should the need arise.
Food Plot Access
Many wild creatures are also migratory and plan their travel based on seasonal food availability. For example, there’s a blue heron that spends a few weeks on our pond in spring to fatten up after a lean winter. Then he comes again in summer with his mate to nest in our trees through fall.
Migration isn’t exactly a form of hoarding. However, blue herons also select their feeding and mating grounds based on the availability of multiple ideal locations in close proximity to ensure plentiful food. In other words, herons hoard intelligence about and access to multiple food options.
This too is part of our strategy. We’ve grow food over 5 different garden areas around our property that each have different microclimates and drainage properties. We also know how to identify and prepare the forageable foods around our area.
Finally, we spend most of our grocery budget on local farmers. Supporting them with our purchases increases our chances of having good options if there are supply chain challenges elsewhere.
Natural carnivores like wolves can devour a wide range of live prey. They can also digest up to 95% of the prey they kill, including bones. Wolves efficiently process excess food into lean protein and accessible fats for their bodies to burn when travelling between hunting grounds. One meal can last them up to two weeks before they need to eat again.
Like wolves, we’ve learned to eliminate waste from our food processing. Fat becomes lard. Bones, skin, and grisly parts get made into collagen rich stock. Bone bits go to the chickens as a calcium source or to the garden as phosphorus. And of course, we know exactly how the sausage is made because we love to make it ourselves!
Fruit and vegetable peels make great broth or vinegar. Those we can’t use go to the chickens, goats, or end up as compost.
We also turn leftovers into new meals so we don’t have to eat the same thing repeatedly. Leftover risotto gets mixed with a little batter and fried into small cakes and served with kimchi. Mashed sweet potatoes become the top for a shepherds pie. Random vegetables get smoothed with goats milk or stock into an elegant bisque.
Bears are adapted to eat whatever is in season — fruits in spring and late summer, fish when available, and bark, leaves, and wild grains when other pickings are slim. They store any excess seasonal eating as winter fat to sustain them through hibernation.
Ducks, like bears, eat a wide variety of seasonal foods including insects, fish, vegetation, and even small mammals and reptiles. Ducks use their varied diets to amass lean muscle in their breasts, fat over their bellies, and extra downy feathers to prepare for their migration and overwintering in lean feeding grounds. Their bodies readily burn that extra fat and muscle as needed. Plus they eat their own feathers when they molt as a stored source of protein.
The ability to adapt to whatever food supply is available isn’t exactly a form of hoarding. However, coupled with the ability to turn whatever they eat into stored fat and protein for later use is a form of hoarding.
Humans, of course, do this too. We eat more than we need and store it as fat. However, unlike bears and ducks we don’t readily shed extra pounds as a food supplement.
That’s because humans aren’t designed to be seasonal gorgers the way migrating or hibernating animals are. We’re instead meant to be clever about finding food and innovative about preserving it. That’s why so much of what we eat year-round fuels our brains.
Rather than storing food as body fat, preserving high calorie foods in stable, consumable forms makes more sense. Butter, hard cheese, rendered lard, pressed oil, dried fruits, canned nut butters, cured or dried meat – these foods are all easy to use when necessary to maintain body weight. These preservation processes also concentrate calories into smaller quantities making them a smarter way to store fat and calories than in our bellies.
I know a lot of homesteaders get excited about canning the green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers from the garden. And if you enjoy canned vegetables, that’s a great way to add interest to your winter diet. But if you have limited food storage, make your calorie space count more like our ancestors did before the recent development of canning.
There are also animals that steal food from others. Bears steal honey from bee hives. Hyena packs work as a team to take downed game from bigger predators like lions. I once had a flock of seagulls snatch a sandwich from my hand.
That raises the question — “Why hoard when you can just steal from someone else?” In nature, the risk of negative consequences such as becoming dinner or wasting time without a successful result are deterrents.
For humans, the risk of being shamed or punished makes certain kinds of stealing unattractive options. But the reality is theft, or at least trickery, is built into our current human lifestyles.
Nearly every day I steal eggs from my chickens and ducks and milk from my goats. But because I train them at a young age to expect me to do this, and I give them a comfortable life in return, they don’t seem to hold a grudge against me for my thieving ways.
But the fact is humans have stolen from natural systems at increasingly destabilizing rates for ages. The consequences of taking more than a necessary share are now catching up to us on a global scale.
Our strategy for countering human excess has been to scale back non-necessary hoarding and waste. We also focus on regenerating the landscape and supporting the wildlife around us.
In terms of being the victims of theft, the main things we hoard relate to our simple lifestyle of doing fun stuff like gardening, cooking with homegrown ingredients, reading, writing, spending time outdoors, and relaxing.
These activities and the tools we use to do them are infinitely valuable to us. But few thieves would risk the mile drive down our dirt road, or getting stuck on our steep (not always passable) driveway, to take my 10 year old kitchenaid mixer, our well-worn instant pot, or a $20 cast iron pan. Simple, humble homestead living — at least so far — has been a sufficient theft deterrent.
Now, let’s not forget identity theft as a method of hoarding. That happens in the wild too!
Many types of cuckoo birds deposit their eggs in other birds nests so their offspring will be raised by other unsuspecting mothers. (Hence the term cuckold.) This isn’t exactly a form of hoarding food either. But pawning your offspring off onto other mothers leaves you more time to spend on other lucrative forms of hoarding. For cuckoos, they get to gorge on more caterpillars than nest-bound mamas and don’t have to share with their young.
Like the Cuckoo, some humans also outsource childcare, freeing them up to hoard more food and other luxury goods. For example, in modern times, some men outsourced much of the childcare responsibilities to women so they could go earn money. Although that dynamic is changing, the long-term consequence is that many moms have been economically undervalued and less able to hoard in general.
The term “free market” relative to the human economy has come to mean something that’s not free at all. In fact, free market principles costs us all in terms of global pollution, environmental damage, and countless other social costs too numerous to detail here.
But there are some truly “free” markets that do benefit the majority of occupants and reduce the need for hoarding through mutually beneficial collaboration. Soil is a perfect example.
Plants put carbon exudates, produced through photosynthesis, into the soil to benefit microlife. Microlife convert raw materials from the air and decaying organic matter into usable food for plants. For example the air is 78% nitrogen. However, to be used by plants, it must be chemically altered into a different format and then delivered to the root zone by bacteria and fungi.
Of course, soil only works as a free market if there are sufficient plants and a large number of microlife to process nutrients. That’s why one of the most important things I hoard on our homestead is well-planted, healthy soil.
Additionally, I whole-heartedly believe in the gift economy. When I’m done using something or have too much abundance, I try to find it a new home and give it away. The net result of that kind of free market is that I end up hoarding a lot of good will from people in my community.
Hoarding behaviors exist throughout nature as a practical way to ensure continuity in complex ecosystems. Even theft behaviors play a role in preventing certain species from becoming too numerous. But there is one kind of natural hoarding that can cause failure of entire natural systems without any meaningful natural purpose.
Invasive species that get transplanted from one location to another can often disrupt entire ecosystems through their excessive hoarding habits. For example, kudzu was brought to the southern U.S. as a sustainable cattle feed alternative and to prevent erosion.
Unfortunately, kudzu’s ability to store massive amounts of nutrients in root rhizomes gave it an unnatural advantage over native or naturalized species that operated on free market principles. By hoarding more than the plant needed to live, kudzu deprived other species in the ecosystem of access to the “just in time” food stores they previously relied on.
Natural Hoarding Prevention
Normally, species that hoard more than they need on a regular basis deplete the system and eventually become victims of their own excessive behavior. Their actions alter the environmental conditions they depend on in ways that ensure their certain extinction.
For example, they run out of food. Other life forms that they exploited leave. They contract population decimating diseases from overcrowding. Or new predators arrive, attracted by the extravagant activities of the invasive species.
Humans, of course, aren’t limited to behaving like invasive species in our direct communities where we live. We can also go into areas where we don’t live, extract materials in ways that destabilize those other natural systems, and never have to see the direct natural consequences of our excessive hoarding.
Sadly, the reality of our present is that past human hoarding has now caught up with us on a global level. Whether by global pandemics, diseases caused by commercial pollution seeping throughout our everyday lives, or the climate collapse unfolding faster than the scientific community predicted — it’s becoming impossible to ignore the natural limits of our comfortable existence on earth.
The challenge we face today is to find ways to hoard what we really need for living well, without causing devastating natural consequences. I certainly don’t have the answers. But the one thing I’ve learned as an Epicurean homesteader is that most of what I used to think I had to hoard was a waste of time, money, and resources that didn’t make my life better.
But, just for the record, I will hoard an entire loaf of Matt’s bread all to myself. That’s why he started making four loaf batches so that our friends and family get some too. And that leads us to my final thought on hoarding.
Never hoard alone! Encourage others to do appropriate hoarding and to skip the harmful, unnecessary hoarding so we can all enjoy our limited time here on earth.