The Folly of “Prepping”

What is the best way to preserve a seed?  I first came across this question in a gardening book, and it’s a trick question.  The answer, of course, is to plant it.

I have thought about that question a lot since one memorable day last summer, when my wife got a call from our neighbor.  Did we want some dry goods?  She had some to share.  And she wasn’t kidding.  In front of her house was a big U-Haul truck full of preserved dry goods–dozens of buckets and barrels of rice, beans, wheat, corn, pasta, coffee, and other foodstuffs.

Prepper Foodstuffs Dry Goods

It had come from a local prepper who just died.  (If you don’t know what a prepper is, you can look it up on the Internet.  Prepping is a big trend down here in the Deep South–people who are seriously preparing for the end of civilization as we know it by stockpiling food, supplies, guns, and ammunition.)  When this prepper died, he left half a dozen storage units full of about $30,000 worth of supplies.  So what was in that U-Haul was only a fraction of what he had stored up for himself.  We happily took whatever we thought we could reasonably use, and passed on the rest to others.

It was all very well contained.  The owner had spared no expense in keeping out moisture and insects.  Yet we found that upon upon closer inspection, we found use-by dates from over ten years ago!

Prepper Foodstuffs Dry Goods

Still, the food was free, so we decided to try it out anyway.  We cooked the pinto beans, but they came out a nasty gray color, and they took almost twice as long to cook as fresh beans would have.  And they didn’t even taste very good.  Some of the other items, such as the sugar and pasta, were edible.  But the lima beans, the cornmeal, and the wheat were all very stale.  The coffee was undrinkable.  I don’t know what kind of existence this prepper had imagined for himself once civilization collapsed, but had he actually had to live on this food, he would have been far less comfortable than he probably imagined.

This experience got me thinking about this whole trend of prepping.  The assumption behind prepping is that an isolated individual (or a small family) can maintain some semblance of civilization–food, shelter, safety, and comfort–alone and virtually unaided, probably while holding off bandits by using the thousands of rounds of ammo that the prepper has stockpiled alongside the foodstuffs.

It’s not a new fantasy, I suppose.  What, after all, is more American than living by your wits on your own little compound deep in the woods, surrounded by a few loyal family members and a huge stockpile of food and ammunition?  Modern-day prepping is Little House on the Prairie with a vengeance.

Prepper Foodstuffs Dry GoodsIf there is one thing I learned from the contents of that U-Haul, it is the basic folly of prepping–of stockpiling food on the assumption that, someday soon, your stockpile will be all you have to live on.  But even the biggest stockpiles run out, so preppers realize that eventually they will have to be able to grow enough food to support themselves and their families.

An essential component of any serious prepper’s stockpile (alongside dry goods, ammunition, fuel, and camping gear) is vegetable seeds.  In that U-Haul, we found no fewer than five “kits” of seeds.  They were bought mail-order from a company that specializes in supplying preppers, and they came with a manual explaining that one kit of seeds could grow enough food to feed a family of four.

As an experienced gardner, I knew that was a lie.  There were not nearly enough staples, such as corn and beans, to plant even a reasonable garden plot.  There were few easily-grown, hardy plants, such as kale, that really would be helpful during a food shortage.  More importantly, the seed kits had been bought several years ago and then locked up in a storage unit.  Just for fun, we tried to plant a few of these seeds.  None of them came up.

This brings me back to where I started: the best way to preserve seeds is to plant them.  But seeds don’t feed people; agriculture does.  Growing enough food to feed a family is more than just sticking seeds into the ground and hoping for the best.  It requires intimate knowledge of the soil, of your local climate, and of the kinds of plants you wish to grow.  In other words, it requires culture.  And real culture only happens in relatively large communities over time.

As an analogy, let’s say that I was convinced that the world would soon lose all of its knowledge of woodworking, and I was determined to preserve woodworking as a craft.  (Which, incidentally, I am.)  I might be tempted to buy as many tools and as much wood as I could, store it away with a few books about woodworking, and wait with baited breath for the woodworking apocalypse.  But a better approach would be to learn as much as I could about woodworking, to actually practice woodworking regularly, and to teach other people to work wood–to get tools, wood, and skills into the hands of as many people as I could.  And that’s exactly what a few people back in the 1970s and 1980s did when they saw that the old ways of working wood were about to die out forever.  They knew intuitively a principle that preppers do not understand: the only way to keep a way of life alive is to practice it, and to teach others to practice it, too.

Feb 2010 - 23

Prepping, on the other hand, assumes that a total withdraw from culture is necessary for survival, and in a twisted way, I think it may actually contribute to the cultural collapse that it fears.  The more people stop contributing to the wellbeing of their society, the more likely that society is to decline.  If you really want to preserve your way of life, first learn all you can about it.  Then find ways to actively pass on your skills and materials to a new generation.



This entry was posted in Gardening, Kids, Musings, Wood and Woodwork and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Folly of “Prepping”

  1. Michael Stout says:

    Excellent. well thought out and written. And true.

  2. Steve,

    I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for this thoughtful take on an unusual social phenomenon.


  3. Living Soils says:

    Thanks for the post. IT actually is hard to find good information about planting from seeds.

  4. Artisanal Facts says:

    If you need seeds, you don’t have enough ammo.

  5. Gav says:

    I think you have managed to encapsulate to a great degree why some people will never have the ability to look further ahead. It can be a bit daunting when you really start to think about what is out out there. It can be more fulfilling than expected too. We are all better off striving to improve and build on what we have.


  6. jayedcoins says:

    Bingo, what a great post.

  7. mbholden says:

    I spent most of my life within a mile of “ground zero” for Detroit. At first I was scared, but then embraced it. I don’t want to live through a nuclear war/holocaust. I think the “preppers” will be far more dangerous than the enemy.

  8. Ben says:

    Preppers come in all shapes and sizes. The reasonable ones expect there to be a few months to a year of disruption and violence followed by a resurgence of civilization. And yes, that guys beans and coffee were nasty by your standards, but they would keep you from starvation. The basic tenant of prepping is to be prepared for a disaster, which throuought history has happened. So when the next hurricane, earthquake, tornado, EMP, nuclear bomb, asteroid, etc happens (and it will eventually) if the prepper isn’t killed outright, they and their family and friends have a much better chance of surviving until civilization can re-assert itself especially over the typical hand to mouth, don’t plan for tomorrow American consumer mentality.
    This prepper was probably taken advantage of, since his seeds didn’t sprout, but most seeds can be stored in a cool dry place (heck, they sprouted pomegranate seeds from Pharos tomb in Egypt.) Seeds are designed to sprout unless they have been irradiated they usually do.

  9. John says:

    I always enjoy reading your entries. You are so thoughtful about “big picture” subjects and really help connect them in practical ways. You inspire me and I am so thankful for you being my brother.

  10. Ken says:

    I just discovered your excellent site & read your fascinating piece about ‘prepping’ and confess I did not know these prepper dinosaurs existed! In my youth, we occasionally heard about an oddball character who built a nuclear shelter, filled it with food and installed sophisticated air and water purifiers. If I recall correctly their aim was usually to survive the impending nuclear holocaust. Once the radiation, nuclear winter and myriad other nastinesses had passed, they would emerge to repopulate the planet with the other surviving members of the nuclear shelter fraternity. I do not think I have heard about such people for at least 40 years. They seem to have been quiet for a very long time. Domestic prepping morphed into a lucrative commercial industry when large companies were asked what would happen if disaster suddenly took out their Head Office, the computers & systems and most of the Head Office employees. They paid large sums to “Disaster Recovery” companies and invested lots of manpower in writing manuals on how to quickly train a bunch of 10 year olds to get the company back up and running within 7 days of a disaster. All of these plans to cheat Armageddon had one microscopic flaw in common. They were all complete cr@p rubbish.

    It is not possible to define the scale of the unforeseen disaster or its effects. Any cunning plan developed to outmanoeuvre the poorly defined catastrophe cannot be fully tested without the disaster itself. Your valiant attempts to consume the ancient beans and coffee of the deceased prepper provide valuable lessons which should help improve the efforts of those who fill his shoes.

    1) Economics and Market Forces
    The $30,000 value you placed on the stored items reduces to zero if the beans, coffee and most of the other stuff cannot be consumed. If this is typical of a prepper food spend, I suggest the money would be better spent by preppers enjoying themselves before the disaster and simply write off the post-apocalypse age like age rest of us. Whether one’s enjoyment comes from classical music recordings, computer games, quality furnishings, hard drugs or wild women, $30000 should buy enough to satisfy anyone’s appetite!
    Preppers may now understand there is no need to waste money on expensive containers. The food will be awful so they may as well use the cheapest, most useless packaging they can find.

    2) Establishing Expectations
    A prepper who is clearly sincere in their desire for survival should understand that coffee will be undrinkable, beans will cook grey and most food will be ‘off’ in one way or another. The prepper and his/her family should practice consuming this substandard food on a daily basis before they are caught by catastrophe. They may become accustomed to the food – in which case they will greatly improve their survival prospects. They may die of food poisoning before the disaster – but at least there will still be undertakers around to deal with things. The third alternative is that they decide the game is not worth the candle and, as above, invest their excess cash in enjoying life now.

    3) Guns and Ammunition
    Your blog will help preppers make enormous savings on their arms budget. They will not need to defend themselves against poorly prepped survivors trying to steal valuable food. It will be much easier to be neighbourly and simply offer a free meal in the certain knowledge the guests will not return for more. My guess is that one reliable gun per shelter and one bullet for each person surviving on the food there, should be about right. Faced with a choice of undrinkable coffee with grey beans (after 2 hours to cooking) and a host of other stale, unhealthy foods, the gun and one shell per person would, I suspect, quickly become the preferred alternative.

    4) The Prepping Supply Industry
    You may not have fully appreciated the importance of the commercial organisations set up to supply preppers. Firstly, these enterprises are simply performing their own version of prepping. By selling inadequate ‘seed kits’ (probably at inflated prices) the supplier is laying in a store of cash which is invaluable for the survival of himself and his family until the undefined disaster. His customers may discover the seeds do not provide the claimed quantity or quality of food – but not until long after the purchase dates and well past any warranty period. A disgruntled customer can still complain but if civilisation has been obliterated, the vendor and all means of communication will have disappeared with it. He can maybe share his gripes with other surviving preppers. If any semblance of civilisation has survived then preppers can go to shops for food!

    My retirement is filled with many activities which have to be prioritised as there are never enough hours in a day. If ‘prepping’ ever makes it on to my agenda, it will be way down on my list – probably even lower in priority than pulling out my own teeth!

    • Thanks for the detailed reply.

      Re: the companies that supply preppers, I’m sure some companies are just as serious about the impending apocalypse as their customers. Still—and perhaps I’m too cynical—I suspect that many companies just see a lot of easy money. Fear sells, and many unscrupulous businessmen know that.

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