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The Business of Mini-Farming

Examine the ways a flourishing backyard farm could impact your household’s bottom line—and how to make sure your garden pays.

| May/June 2016

  • A flourishing backyard farm may not make you rich, but it will help your finances and improve your quality of life.
    Photo by iStock
  • Mini-farming can eliminate childcare costs or enable a parent to home-school children.
    Photo by iStock
  • Chickens make an economically sound contribution to the mini-farm, as they eat pests, provide compost and offer eggs.
    Photo by iStock
  • Season-extension techniques have been used successfully in Europe for centuries.
    Photo by iStock
  • Many kinds of fruit trees will grow all across the nation.
    Photo by iStock
  • Square-foot gardening is an incredibly simple method of intensive gardening.
    Photo by iStock
  • Starting seedlings takes a bit more time and planning, but it can save hundreds or thousands of dollars a year.
    Photo by iStock
  • To get more value out of your crops, grow hearty foods such as root vegetables, grains and beans in addition to green vegetables.
    Photo by iStock

Many homeowners undertake the task of gardening or small-scale farming as a hobby to get fresh produce and possibly save money over buying food at the supermarket. Unfortunately, the most common gardening methods end up being so expensive that even some enthusiastic garden authors state outright that gardening should be considered, at best, a break-even affair.

Looking at the most common gardening methods, these authors are absolutely correct. Common gardening methods are considerably more expensive than necessary because they were originally designed to benefit from the economies of scale of corporate agribusiness. When home gardeners try to use these methods on a smaller scale, it’s a miracle if they break even over a several-year period, and it is more likely they will lose money.

The Economics of a Mini-Farm

The cost of tillers, watering equipment, large quantities of water, transplants, seeds, fertilizers and insecticides adds up quickly. Balanced against the fact that most home gardeners grow only vegetables, and vegetables make up less than 10 percent of the calories an average person consumes, it quickly becomes apparent that even if the cost of a vegetable garden were zero, the amount of actual money saved in the food bill would be negligible.

For example, if the total economic value of the vegetables collected from the garden in a single season amounted to about $350, even if the vegetables could be produced for free, the economic benefit would amount to only $7 a week when divided over the year.

The solution to this problem is to both cut costs and increase the value of the end product. Using this combination, the economic equation balances in favor of the gardener instead of the garden supply store, and it becomes quite possible to supply all of a family’s food except meat (if you eat it) from a relatively small garden. According to the USDA, the average yearly cost to feed a family of three is $8,140.92—on a low-cost plan. Increase that to a liberal plan and we’re looking at an average cost of more than $12,000 a year. Understanding that food is purchased with after-tax dollars, it becomes clear that home agricultural methods that take a significant chunk out of that figure can make a difference.

The key to making a garden work to your economic benefit is to approach mini-farming as a business. No, it is not a business in the sense of incorporation and taxes, unless some of its production is sold. But think of it as a business in that, by reducing your food expenditures, it can have the same net effect on finances as income from a small business. Like any small business, it could earn money or lose money depending on how it is managed.

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