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.
Seeds and Seedlings
Garden centers are flooded every spring with gardeners buying seedlings. For hobbyist gardeners, this may work well because it allows a quick start with minimal planning. But for the mini-farmer who approaches gardening as a small business, it’s a bad idea.
In my garden this year, I plan to grow 48 broccoli plants. Seedlings from the garden center would cost $18 if discounted, possibly more than $30. Even the most expensive organic broccoli seeds on the market cost less than a dollar for 48 seeds. Growing transplants at home drops their effective cost from $18 to $30 down to $1.
Adding the cost of soil and containers, the cost is still only about $2 for 48 broccoli seedlings. Considering that a mini-farm would require transplants for dozens of crops, from onion sets to tomatoes and lettuce, it quickly becomes apparent that growing from seed saves hundreds of dollars a year. (To learn more about choosing seeds or seedlings read, Should You Plant Seeds or Seedlings?)
The two basic types of seed/plant varieties available are hybrid and open-pollinated. Open-pollinated varieties produce seeds that duplicate the plants that produced them. Hybrid plant varieties produce seeds that are at best unreliable and sometimes sterile and therefore often unusable.
Although hybrids have the disadvantage of not producing good seed, they often have advantages that make them worthwhile, including aspects of “hybrid vigor,” a poorly understood phenomenon in plants where a cross between two varieties can yield far more vigorous and productive offspring than either parent. Using hybridization, then, seed companies are able to deliver varieties that incorporate disease resistance into a particularly good-tasting variety. So why not just use hybrid seeds? Because there’s no such thing as a free lunch. For plants that normally self-pollinate, such as peppers and tomatoes, there’s no measurable increase in vigor in hybrids. The hybrids are just a marketing avenue—buying hybrids raises costs and forces you to buy seeds again next year.
Another reason to save seeds from open-pollinated plant varieties is that, if each year you save seeds from the best-performing plants, you will eventually create varieties with genetic characteristics that work best in your particular soil and climate. That’s a degree of specialization money can’t buy.
Of course, there are cases where hybrid seeds outperform open-pollinated varieties. Hybrid seeds that manifest pest- or disease-resistant traits can be a good choice when those pests or diseases cause ongoing problems. When using hybrid seeds eliminates the need for synthetic pesticides, they’re a good choice. (Learn more in Heirloom Plants vs. New Plant Varieties.)
A number of intensive gardening methods have been well-documented over the past century. What all of these have in common is growing plants much more closely than traditional row methods. This closer spacing significantly decreases the amount of land required to grow a given quantity of food, which in turn reduces requirements for water, fertilizer and mechanization. Because plants are grown close enough together to form a sort of “living mulch,” the plants shade out weeds and retain moisture better, thus decreasing the amount of work required to raise the same amount of food. Intensive gardening techniques make a big difference in the amount of space required to provide a person’s food. Current agribusiness practices require 30,000 square feet (or 3⁄4 acre) per person. Intensive gardening practices can reduce the amount of space required for the same nutritional content to 700 square feet, plus another 700 square feet for crops grown specifically for composting. That’s only 1,400 square feet per person, so a family of three can be supplied in just 4,200 square feet. That’s less than 1⁄10 of an acre. Using traditional farming practices, it isn’t even possible to raise food for a single person in a half-acre lot, but using intensive techniques allows only half of that lot—1⁄4 acre—to provide nearly all the food for a family of four; generate thousands of dollars in income; allow raising small livestock; plus leave space for recreation. Intensive gardening techniques are the key to self-sufficiency on a small lot.
Because growing so many plants in such little space puts heavy demands on the soil, all intensive agriculture methodologies pay particular attention to maintaining soil fertility. Standard agribusiness practices would suggest buying commercial fertilizers from outside the farm. While there are other highly worthwhile reasons for avoiding the use of nonorganic fertilizers (including human health and environmental damage), economics alone make a good case for avoiding synthetic fertilizers. A mini-farm with a properly managed soil-fertility plan can drastically reduce the need to purchase fertilizer, thereby reducing one of the biggest costs associated with farming. A certain amount of fertilizer may always be required, especially at the beginning, but using organic fertilizers and creating compost can ultimately reduce fertilizer requirements to a bare minimum.
The practice of preserving soil fertility consists of growing crops specifically for compost value, growing crops to fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, and composting all crop residues possible (along with the specific compost crops) and practically anything else that isn’t nailed down.
Calorie-Dense Plants: As already noted, vegetables provide only about 10 percent of the average American’s calories. Because of this, a standard vegetable garden may supply excellent produce and rich vitamin content, but the economic value of the vegetables won’t significantly reduce your food bill. The solution is to also grow crops that provide a higher proportion of caloric needs such as fruits, dried beans, grains, and root crops such as potatoes and onions.
Meat: Most Americans obtain at least a portion of their protein from eggs and meat. Agribusiness meats are often produced using practices and substances (such as growth hormones and antibiotics) that worry a lot of people. Certainly, factory-farmed meat is very high in the least healthy fats compared with free-range, grass-fed animals. The problem with meat, in an economic sense, is that each calorie of meat generally requires two to four calories of feed. This sounds, at first, like an inefficient use of resources, but it isn’t as bad as it seems. Most livestock, including poultry, gets a substantial portion of its diet from foraging. Poultry will eat all of the ticks, fleas, spiders, beetles and grasshoppers that can be found, plus dispose of the farmer’s table scraps. If meat is raised on premises, the mini-farmer just has to raise enough food to make up the difference between feed needs and what’s obtained through scraps and foraging.
Fruit: A number of fruits can be grown in most parts of the country: apples, grapes, blackberries, pears and cherries, to name few. Dwarf fruit tree varieties often produce substantial amounts of fruit in only three years, and they take up comparatively little space. Grapes native to North America, such as the Concord grape, are hardy throughout the continental United States, and some varieties, such as muscadine grapes, grow prolifically in the South and offer unique health benefits. Strawberries are easy to grow and attractive to youngsters. Fruits can easily be preserved, and many can also be stored whole for a few months using root cellaring.
Market Crops: Especially if you adopt organic growing methods, you can get top wholesale-dollar for crops delivered to restaurants, food cooperatives, farmers markets and so forth. According to John Jeavon’s research described in The Complete Biointensive Mini-Farm, a U.S. mini-farmer could expect to earn $2,079 in income from the space required to feed one person, in addition to actually feeding the person. Assuming a family of three and correcting for USDA reported rises in the value of food, that amounts to about $10,000 a year, using a six-month growing season.
Mel Bartholomew, in his 1985 book, Ca$h from Square Foot Gardening, estimated $5,000 a year income during a six-month growing season from a mere 1,500 square feet of properly managed garden. This equates to $8,064 in today’s market. A mini-farm that sets aside only 2,100 square feet for market crops could gross an average of $11,289 per year. (It’s worth noticing that two authorities arrived at very similar numbers for expected income from vegetable sales—about $5 a square foot.)
Extend the Season
Many people don’t realize that most of Europe, where greenhouses, cold frames and other season extenders have been used for generations, lies north of most of the United States. Maine, for example, is at the same latitude as southern France. The difference in climate has to do with ocean currents, not latitude, and latitude is the biggest factor in determining the success of growing protected plants because it determines the amount of sunlight available. In essence, anything that can be done in southern France can be done throughout the continental United States.
Extending the season allows for earlier starts and later endings to the growing season, netting more food. The secret lies in working with nature, not against it. Any attempt to build a superinsulated, heated tropical environment suitable for growing bananas in Minnesota in January is going to be prohibitively expensive. A simple unheated hoop house covered with plastic is fairly inexpensive and will work extremely well with crops selected for the climate.
The Economic Equation
This information is based on math presented in Mini Farmingby Brett L. Markham, from which this article is adapted, but has been updated with more recent figures. It’s only an example, but shows the economic impact mini-farming can make on a household’s bottom line. —Editors
According to the Social Security Administration, as of 2014, the median U.S. nonfarm wage earner makes $28,851. Assuming a roughly 25 percent tax rate, this person takes home around $21,638. Nationwide, the cost of childcare is $300 to $1,564 a month—on average, $11,666 a year. Assuming a school-age child, this means the average worker has $9,972.46 post-tax income.
Though there are other justifications for adopting mini-farming, it may make economic sense for one member of a working couple to become a mini-farmer if the net economic impact of the mini-farm can replace the income from the job. Obviously, for those in highly paid careers, mini-farming may not be a good economic decision. But mini-farming can have a sufficient net economic impact that most standard occupations can be replaced. Mini-farming is also sufficiently time-efficient that it could be used to remove the need for a second job.
According to Census Bureau statistics from 2014, the average household size in the United States is 2.54 people. Let’s round that up to three for ease. According to statistics from the USDA, the cost of feeding a family of three with two adults and one child with a low-cost plan amounts to $8,140.92 per year (this cost would likely go up if the family were committed to eating organic). A mini-farm that supplied 85 percent of those needs would produce a yearly economic benefit of roughly $7,000 per year.
This means the mini-farmer has produced about 70 percent of the take-home pay she would have earned at a job, in much less time, without commuting and without paying for childcare. If the farm also dedicated 2,100 square feet and five hours a week to market crops, it could earn an additional $10,000 during a standard growing season. The mini-farmer also gains back more than 1,500 hours a year that can be used to improve quality of life in many ways; gains a much healthier diet; gets regular exercise; and gains a measure of independence from the normal employment system. It’s impossible to attach a dollar value to that.
For families who want to have a parent stay at home with a child, mini-farming may make it possible—and make money in the process, by having whichever parent who earns the least money from regular employment go into mini-farming. For healthy people on a fixed income, it’s a no-brainer.
More About Intensive Gardening
Several intensive gardening methods can be studied then combined and modified to suit your individual needs. To learn more, try these resources.
The Backyard Homestead: Produce All the Food You Need on Just a Quarter Acre! edited by Carleen Madigan
Bioshelter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farmby Darrell Frey
Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1⁄4 Acreby Brett L. Markham
“Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space” by Jessica Kellner for Mother Earth Living
“Intensive Gardening: Grow More Food in Less Space (with the Least Work!)” by Linda A. Gilkeson for Mother Earth News
This article was adapted from the excellent book Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1⁄4 Acre by Brett L. Markham. This comprehensive guide describes in detail how to accomplish each method discussed in this article.