# Can sustainable farming be done in the suburbs in this supernatural post-apocalyptic scenario?

So, here's my situation: my first book revolves around an unknown entity giving modern day humanity an assortment of supernatural powers. Every week a new power is given to everyone on Earth over the age of 13, and they can hold up to 6 at a time. Once they hit 6, they choose which of the ones they have will be replaced by the next week's power. In addition, everyone has a few permanent powers that don't count towards this 6 power limit and cannot be removed.

By the end of the first book, a full year of humans getting powers society can't handle humans having, combined with a few powers seemingly intentionally designed to destroy the world's infrastructure, have knocked the world down to the tech level of your average zombie apocalypse. The entire world's infrastructure (power lines, phone lines, internet, water treatment, etc) is now in ruins due to a previous power, and any attempt to fix it is pointless because now one of the permanent powers that everyone over the age of 13 has is the ability to temporarily disable any technology they want to as long as it's in their line of sight. Which also means that they can't even rely on most modern means of transportation. For more information on how this anti-technology power works, see here. But stated simply, people can still use modern technology if they can get the fuel or electricity to power them, but if anyone who's looking at it wants to, they can temporarily make it useless with just a thought.

That's the bad news. The good news is that everyone over the age of 13, male and female, has the strength of two men, is four times as durable, is immune to disease and aging, and can heal from any injury that doesn't kill them in a week at the longest, all with no added calorie intake except for regrowing lost tissue (these are the permanent powers I mentioned earlier).

So here we come to the main issue: rather than the usual post-apocalyptic plot of the main characters making a pilgrimage to the ultra-rural countryside and hoping to find a place where they can grow food, I want the main character's small suburban hometown to turn into a sort of post-apocalyptic city-state run by a local billionaire who, for his own reasons, stockpiled the necessary supplies to make the town self-sufficient enough to feed and defend themselves.

Is that possible? Is there enough land in the average small suburban town that, if given the tools, seeds and other supplies, people with the powers described above could grow enough food to support the town's pre-collapse population? And if not, what is the fundamental obstacle they'd face which I'd need to create a power to compensate for?

• Have not read question yet, but + for conjunction of "supernatural", "post-apocalyptic" and "suburbs". Sep 16, 2018 at 17:29
• So you can start a fire to cook food as long as you don't look at it? Why not just make the first power permanent and not have to worry about all of the potential contradictions- e.g. keeping food from spoiling by looking at it. Sep 16, 2018 at 19:14
• Water supply is going to be a bigger issue than farmland, if it will grow grass it can conceivably be farmed, but most suburbs are not equipped to supply water without electric pumps. Location is going to matter a lot, many large cities are in temperate climates.
– John
Sep 16, 2018 at 19:15
• I'm not sure I understand what you mean by a "small suburban town". Suburbs that I am familiar with in the USA tend to abut other suburbs with little open space between. "Small" could mean 40k-60k inhabitants in a few square miles, with full urban services (professional fire/police) and land-use regulation, and looking rather urban on the main streets. Are you essentially asking if backyard farming could feed a community like that? Or did you have a different kind of 'suburb' in mind? Sep 16, 2018 at 22:21
• @Hobbamok that’s awesome and would be cool, but it’s only doubled strength (though it may be able to go up to triple for some people). Sep 17, 2018 at 12:43

You might be able to make a living farming in the suburbs, but that will be very difficult and impractical for the following reasons.

Existing infrastructure

problems: farming, water, planting

I assume there are still houses and roads in the suburbs, as well as (no longer useful) power lines and water lines. In order to do any useful amount of farming, you are going to need a large area of land. To get that land, you will have to tear down houses and pull up roads. Even the foundations of the houses have to be destroyed in order for the crops to take up roots. All of the rubble left over has to be cleared. Even if your superhumans are up to the task, it could take weeks or months to clear a large enough space for farming.

Water

With no electricity and a bunch of living EMPs walking around, the water supply will no doubt be unavailable. If you live in a climate with good rainfall and have drought-resistant crops, food production should be fine. You might have to construct irrigation ditches, which superhumans will be able to do. Humans, however, cannot grow roots [citation needed], so you need a way to get water. Modern wells use electricity, but a well with a bucket, a clean stream, or a natural spring will suffice.

Planting

Farming will be super labor-intensive. You don't have planters and harvesters because they don't work anymore, so farming will have to be done by hand or by plow. People will spend most of their time farming, and even though they will be super strong and won't need any extra food, there will be a lot of people and land area limited by point 1, so the agriculture there will be intensive subsistence agriculture.

Alternatives

Even though you could technically farm in the suburbs, it is very impractical. I fail to see why your people wouldn't just move to the farmlands and farm there. Everything is already set up for farming- there are wells (powered by electric pumps, but that can be fixed), livestock, prepared farmland, stockpiles of fertilizer, plenty of seeds, and large land areas. The only thing that would stop people from the classic fleeing to farmland routine is making the move or farming cost-preventative. Either it is too difficult to get there, or the land is ill-suited to growing crops. The key isn't to make suburban farming easier, it's to make rural farming harder.

If your people can't go to the farmland, another good idea is scavenging. Here is what my routine will be for an apocalypse occurs that does not have zombies (if there are zombies, I'll go to rural areas.) When the power goes down, walk to your local supermarket and eat all of the ice cream and frozen foods. Once those are spoiled, eat the fruits and any meat that hasn't gone bad yet. Next to go are the deli items like cheese and preserved meats. Finally, when those are rotten, you eat the canned goods and packaged food like chips, soup, cookies, and peanut butter. Using this strategy, you have food for at least 10 years, which is when some of the aluminum cans will lose integrity and the contents will mold. If you ever run out of the food type you are eating, just walk to another grocery store. After 10 years, some of the cans will still be intact, and hopefully large game (and small game too) will have moved into the area which you can hunt.

Given all of these reasons, you need some good explanation for why farming in rural areas is impossible and neither is scavenging.

• Thanks for the advice. The reason I wanna have them survive in the suburbs is because I like the suburbs as a setting, and like the concept of a quiet suburban town suddenly turned into a sort of post-apocalyptic city-state. The farming technology they could still use as long as they kept anyone away who'd want to sabotage it, so it looks like the main issue I need to work out is water. Sep 16, 2018 at 19:39
• Really? It seems to me that the buildings and roads in the way will be a problem. Do you have a way to deal with that? Sep 16, 2018 at 19:44
• @JasonClyde Just remembered the superpowers, you could probably solve all of these problems with them. Someone can control weather, someone else can make plants grow, and another person has the ability to turn into a bulldozer or a wrecking ball. Sep 16, 2018 at 19:46
• Yeah, ultimately if I put the right power into the picture I could make the undertaking trivial, but ideally I want to keep the powers from being useful enough that survival becomes trivial, so I want to avoid "powers will fix it" intervention unless it becomes absolutely necessary. Sorry I forgot about that part of your answer with the roads and houses, I got distracted when writing that. So the answer is there isn't nearly enough grass and unused land to do the job? Maybe the population will have to drop in the chaos before the billionaire steps in with his solution. Sep 16, 2018 at 19:52
• @JasonClyde I cannot find any information about how large late neolithic farms were or how many people they could support, so I don't know. Sep 16, 2018 at 20:06

# A suburban city; probably not

This basically boils down to a population density metric.

First, how much land does it take to support each person? This questions is addressed here. This answer (to that question) shows that the for the US, 10 acres of farmland feed every person, while worldwide 2.2 acres is sufficient.

Lets say with a mostly vegetarian diet, but land use practices that allow for some land to not be in cultivation (trees, houses, creekbeds etc), we can feed our population on 2.5 acres per person, which is 100 people per square kilometer.

What is the density of your suburb? Most suburbs are significantly higher than this. A populous, built up suburb like Arlington, VA is obviously not going to work, with a population density of 3500 people per km$^2$. A big, old suburb like Aurora, IL will not work either, with a population of 1730 people per km$^3$.

# A suburban county; yes!

Better than an older suburb might be to consider a younger suburban county. Here are some examples of counties in the US that would fit the bill:

• Walton County, GA (88,000 people; 45 miles from Atlanta)
• Johnson County, TX (168,000 people; 25 miles from Fort Worth)
• Fairfield County, OH (146,000 people; 25 miles from Columbus, OH)
• Suburban City + "post apocalypse" setting = few enough peoplel [Even if this apocalypse isn't that bad, the riots and so on will still have killed enough people Sep 17, 2018 at 8:10
• With the math you use for the suburban city, you assume the current mechanized agriculture will still be available after the apocalypse. You will need more farmland if you don't have synthetic fertilizers, automated irrigation, and planting/harvesting machinery. The post you links to also notes that land must be fallow 1/3 of the time, so you will need to triple the farmland just to have those crops growing year-around. Your land needs will be much higher than you have estimated. Sep 17, 2018 at 11:55

It is technically possible, and was actually encouraged during the Second World War in the form of "Victory Gardens". Because of the limitations of size, location and manpower, "Victory Gardens" were generally used for raising vegetables. During this time period, it was also relatively common to raise some chickens in the yard, for a source of protein.

The size and manpower constraints eliminate many other possible crops, like grains, and the ability to raise larger livestock, or enough livestock to really make a difference.

Using modern technology, it will be possible to make a Victory Garden and raise some livestock on a typical suburban yard. Soil can be enriched by composting the waste products of the garden, watering can be done through "drip irrigation" in order to carefully metre the amount fo water needed. Soil preparation can include mulching, or laying fabric over the soil to prevent weeds from taking root, and protect the soil from erosion and extremes of temperature.

Livestock will be changed from large animals like cows or goats, in exchange for rabbits or other small livestock. Plants will need to be protected from insects and vermin, which can be done with frames over the plants and fine mesh netting. Planting complimentary plants like marigolds which many insects find distasteful can also help.

This sort of farming does take a lot of work, so you post apocalyptic farmers are not likely to also be spending much time on unrelated ventures.

• Yeah, I heard that about grains. I read this gardening book series’ book of advice for post-apocalyptic farming (I was very pleasantly surprised to learn such a thing exists) and he said the only grain that’s remotely worth the space and time is corn. How would corn do? Sep 17, 2018 at 0:51
• @JasonClyde Corn would take too long to harvest. Because you only have a harvest once a year, you need a lot of corn, which takes up a lot of land. Then you have to store it so it stays fresh until the harvest next year. This is fairly labor -intensive, so you would be better off with some other plant. That said, have you looked into double cropping? Modern farmers don't do it because the machines can't handle more than 1 type of plant in a field at once, but it can increase production in places where subsistence agriculture is predominant. Sep 17, 2018 at 12:01
• @johnlocke - can’t solve the amount of corn or amount of land, but for storage...or food purposes, flint and dent corn (corn grown all the way hard, like grits, hominy, cornflour, polenta) will be easier to store, and one will get more nutrition from it than milk corn, fresh corn on the cob. 5-6 plants can give enough corn for a meal or three, from personal experience, and in a three sisters garden with less gardening than expected. Still may not be enough, but it is something Sep 18, 2018 at 21:25
• @Megha That would seem to solve the storage problem. However, if you mean that you need 5-6 ears of corn worth of kernels for 1-3 meals, and you have to feed 100+ people for one year (until next harvest), that tends to require a lot of corn plants. Doing the math, that's 365 × 5 × 100 ÷ 3, which is 60,833 corn plants. This article says we can do up to 44,000 plants/acre with modern technology. We will use about about 1.3 acres of land for all those plants, which is definitely workable. Sep 18, 2018 at 22:14

Factors to Consider

Using purely organic methods with no industrialization and assuming an optimum growing season it takes about one acre of land per person to sustain a food supply. Dependent upon climate, crop choice, water resources, and pest activity this is a minimum estimate. One would preferably have more than that, but they are limited by the fact that they do not have industrial equipment. Granted I am generalizing quite a bit here, but even then the math doesn't really add up to support a modern population. I'm assuming that a pretty good majority of the population have died and the survivors are clearing out unused land in what used to be the suburbs to grow food, and even then this food is only one of a few sources.

Not That Far Off With Migration Pattern Estimates

Contrary to Hollywood opinion and DOOMSDAY Prepper gospel, the countryside is not usually the best place to go to, nor is it usually the place people tend to flock to in most disasters. Outside of scenarios involving urban warfare, people actually tend to migrate from the countryside towards urban areas instead of vice versa. This is due to a wide range of factors but primarily it is because urban areas are the first to receive aid, the last to lose government, are the most likely place to find employment, and tend to be restored to order first. In places where the state has failed and order has broken down almost completely the countryside is often quickly made dangerous by roving bandits thanks to a low law enforcement and government presence, which means aid is the last to reach there (if at all). Not only are the rural areas usually the poorest, they also don't posses any sort of industry or economy that pays people so they can buy the stuff they can't make themselves. In modern disaster history we have seen that rural areas are the first to go bad, and the last to organize and get better. Even in the most cynical and dire disaster scenarios people still use money (barter economies are mostly a fantasy, in all recorded disasters money or precious metals used as money have been used). You need to go to where money is to make it, and that is usually the city.

A Realistic Scenario

The suburban dwellers are knocking down empty houses and using parks and whatnot to grow supplementary food. They work jobs for whatever power base exists to buy food produced outside the city by the country dwellers who did not or could not migrate, who tend to trade the food for currency (probably backed by gold or silver) which they use to buy things in the city when they drop off stuff they are selling. The farming occurring in the city is not the primary food source, it is a way to supplement a families diet and lower costs. "Cities" are empty husks of their former selves population wise, no larger than 100,000 people, and that is pushing things.

• A lot of this is fascinating and very surprising to hear. Do you know anywhere I can read or watch more about this? I'm especially interested in the idea that money would still be good after a collapse of infrastructure. Sep 17, 2018 at 2:24
• A fellow who survived the Argentinian financial and social collapse curates a blog that has a wealth of real world survival knowledge on it, along with first hand accounts of many modern survivors of failed states. I'll provide a link here: ferfal.blogspot.com Sep 17, 2018 at 2:40
• Purely my opinion, but I think it's helpful to think of money as having value mainly because we as a society agree that it does. As long as this 'agreement' is upheld money can still be used. Sep 17, 2018 at 6:14
• The real reason barter economies don't exist and you can always find money is because finding somebody who wants what you have is too difficult. If I have a chicken and you have a loaf of bread and you don't want my chicken i'm SOL. If I have a thing whose value represents as equal to one chicken or one loaf of bread that is accepted everywhere, I can buy and you can sell much much easier. In effect, bartering does occur but you will never see an entire economy based on it. People will always devise a currency. Sep 17, 2018 at 6:49
• I’m assuming that significant inflation would happen though, right, due to scarcity of valuable resources, and cash being easy to come by in the immediate chaos after the disaster hits? Sep 17, 2018 at 12:56

Sorry to Disappoint...

You are trying to combine low technology with high-density/high-intensity agriculture. Those things are mutually-exclusive. The more intense the farming activity, the more you need external input (fertilizer for depleted soils, antibiotics for rampant disease, anthelmintics for parasites due to overstocking). Trying to produce enough calories to live on either requires lots of space so you aren't overstressing the immediate ecosystem or lots and lots of intervention. You aren't going to organically farm half an acre, or even a couple acres, and support a family.

A math problem

I'll use sheep as an example because that is what I am personally familiar with.

On REALLY good pasture, I can support, without supplemental feed during the growing season, about 6 sheep per acre. Each of those sheep weigh about 120 pounds. When butchered, I might get 35 pounds of meat after boning (I'm being generous here I think). 1 pound of mutton is about 1335 calories, so each of those 6 sheep is enough to sustain your average adult eating 2,000 calories a day for 23 days. One person will consume all 6 in 132 days... Or almost exactly one third of a year. Even if you could survive on 1,000 calories a day, you wouldn't make it an entire year.

But wait... I said one acre is enough to support 6 sheep during the growing season. In most places your pasture isn't going to grow year-round. It might grow 6 months before drought or cold or whatever causes growth to temporarily stop. That is going to require storing feed (in the form of hay) to get through those times. Your sheep will love to waste your hay (50% will end up on the ground) and hay loses nutrients as it ages (especially when left in stacks, which is what you will do without technology). So... each acre of pasture sheep is going to require another 3 acres of hay. We're up to 4 acres now.

But wait... We just ate all our sheep. We need to make sure we have not only enough to eat, but enough to produce more sheep. My sheep would average 1.75 lambs per bred ewe, so to make sure I had 6 sheep available in perpetuity, I'd need to have 4 bred and producing lambs at all times. Now I have 10 sheep, so I need 1.66 acres of land and about 5 acres of hay... we're up to 6 and a half acres and I still only have 9 months of starvation-level calories.

But wait... expected losses are 20%, so now I need to breed at least one more sheep... By the time it is all said and done, I probably need to raise 10 sheep per person in my household. At any given time some will be bred (5 month gestation period), some will be babies (not big enough to eat... that is going to take many months on pasture), some will die, and some will be candidates for eating. Realistically, I probably need 10 acres to effectively raise enough livestock to sustain a small family. I could augment that by planting fruit trees and grazing my animals between them, but of course that shade will reduce the rate of growth in my pasture grasses so now my 10 acres supports less livestock. I could replace sheep with cows, but now I can only have one animal per acre or two.

But waitaminnit!

You ask how we get (or used to get before inflation anyways) all this cheap meat at the supermarket if it takes that much space. Well, that is where technology comes into play. Once a steer is big enough we ship it to a feed lot. These guys are packed in with very little space, and feed (hay, sileage, grain, supplements) are trucked in from external sources, and the cattle stand around and eat and get fat until they go to slaughter. That works because in our society we have the ability to transport the inputs, we have a lot of pharmaceuticals to keep the animals alive in an environment which breeds disease and parasites, and we have a way to transport the meat around the country after slaughter. This is a little bit of an oversimplification of the process, but you get the idea. Without semi trucks full of feed and syringes full of medication, the practices we use to feed our modern society don't work.

There is a reason why, before technology was what it is, herds of sheep or cattle were taken to graze huge areas of land (the "open range"). In fact, this practice still exists. It simply isn't feasible to raise enough animals on small acreage in a sustainable fashion. Without a greater ecosystem, which includes ample farmland as well as perhaps the ability to hunt, fish, and gather, your people aren't going to live much past the immediate food supply.

• Good example of working through the maths, but getting the majority of calories from meat is really inefficient - primarily vegetarian diet will give a far better human calories / land area result. Read The Martian for a good breakdown of the maths, noting that the techniques were just for the bare minimum calories while rapidly exhausting the soil and Watney was relying on rations and supplements for proteins, vitamins etc. Aug 29 at 22:35

Sure, indoor hydroponics.

If your billionaire stockpiled everything that was needed ahead of time, you should be pretty set here. Being indoors, it is shielded from the sight of those wishing you harm. Being hydroponics, it removes a great number of the constraints on the growing efficiency of land. You wouldn't even require a lot of extra power if done properly (concentrate the sun with mirrors/light pipes) and moving the water necessary could even be done by hand, eliminating most technology anyways.

And since your billionaire was such a good thinker, he even stockpiled lasers with fiber optic light pipes which possess the capability to blind, even through eyelids. These can be arranged in a manner at key defensive locations in a way which makes them impossible to see until the beam has already burned out the retina, thereby preventing them from being seen and disabled. Since the lasers are not located where the fiber is, their technology defeating powers outlined in your other post are rendered useless here. Whether you mop up the survivors then and there or let them heal in a week doesn't matter much, you're well protected.

Sure, they could put something opaque over their faces as they are attacking, but this gives you a much better advantage when defending (aka they can't see you so you can use technology and they can't). Making optical filters in this society sounds pretty far fetched unless some other billionaire stockpiled the resources ahead of time, so even shielding in the particular wavelengths of our lasers would be difficult (aka no miracle defensive glasses).

You're safe until blind teleporting is a power and you're overrun by hundreds of people stuck in walls/floors until one lucky one gets in to your hydroponic area...

• No, all living things are immune to the anti-tech blast, as is any non living matter that is inside or goes inside them. Sep 17, 2018 at 11:39
• Yeah, edited that out of my response after rereading your other article. Sorry about that. Sep 17, 2018 at 12:17
• No worries. Interesting answer! Sep 17, 2018 at 19:29

# Not Enough Nitrogen and Land

The Haber process, which produces nitrogen-rich fertilizer, is really the reason why we have enough food to go around today. No industrial farming happens without that, and no industrial farming means famine!

Even if people do turn their little half acre suburban lots into farmland, there will not be enough to go around. A person needs to take anywhere from 5 to 10 acres of land to feed themselves for a year. This depends, of course, on which land you considering and what their diet is. The average suburban lot is well below the 5 acre minimum, which means that suburban gardens, not matter how successful, will not feed a modern population.

# Making it Work With Superpowers

This situation can work with certain super powers. This is very much cheating on the whole "post-apocalypse" genre and essentially re-creates society using superhumans instead of machines.

One of these powers involves nitrogen fixation (which could be the basis of flora-kinesis like Poison Ivy). People will need to actively opt for that power.

Another set is super strength and speed (or flight). This could form a transportation network for goods produced by those, well, "farmers." Get these "truckers" to carry goods in backpacks, wheelbarrows, or even modified car chassis, and you now have human powered transportation networks.

Combined, these can essentially re-create modern farming and rail/truck networks. This does require some coordination and a general sense of society. That goes against many of the typical themes of a post-apocalypse wasteland, which is all about how society collapses. Brushing genre conventions aside, we now we have an (arguably) green farming and transportation economy!