The Seductive and Misleading Economic Allure of Vegetable Gardening and Small Farming

As someone deeply interested in sustainable farming and gardening, but who also would like a little common sense about the profit motive to be part of the discourse, I used to be baffled by the expectations many small-scale sustainable farmers had about their potential earnings per acre.  Loads of blogs are full of people “farming” as little as 1/4 acre and thinking they can eventually generate a median income off what is no more than a large backyard.

And one of the big reasons they think this way is vegetable farming.  Vegetable farming is seductive because even with a small garden just for family one can garner an immediate savings and often a bit of extra income selling any excess.  Vegetables scale very well.  Additionally, one can leave a vegetable farm for a few days for a trip or break and those scallions won’t get eaten by coyotes (probably).  There are also a number of ways to sustainably, organically grow vegetables with relatively modest labor input.  All these things get people thinking that, say, the right kind of square foot gardening can turn half an acre into enough production that they can live on the income because one can receive dozens of dollars per pound of production and seed is often pretty cheap.

This kind of math fail is absolutely not a part of most sustainable farming conferences or other sustainable networking opportunities.  It is one of the many ways in which genuinely local-regional foodsheds are prevented from being developed because people end up working themselves out on acreage too small to scale up to production levels that would return a median or bigger annual income.  Or they experiment with livestock farming, failing to get the same benefits as if it were vegetables and don’t really understand why it’s not saving money, but losing money.  Farming is hard enough without the pixie dust thinking that people with big vegetable gardens and a produce savings scatter around to earnest folks hoping in a small way to grow a little of their own food.

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2 thoughts on “The Seductive and Misleading Economic Allure of Vegetable Gardening and Small Farming

  1. I think it depends on what one can afford to live on. I was one of those “small farmers” vending at 4 different farmers market from my 1 acre veg plot. My gross per acre was pushing $15k… with 3 year business plan to scale up to 3 acres of regular production while resting/cover cropping 2 acres for a total of 5 acres of veg. Now, my situation is different as I bartered for my rent/lease on the property, no cash exchanged directly, but rather I put in extra labor fixing up on the property, putting up fences, reroofing barns, painting etc etc. That labor has value, and the landlord understood that. We worked out a series of projects that would equate to a years worth of rent. I have very few bills, so living off of what I made at markets was relatively easy. In addition I raised 200 broilers as well… Will this work for everyone, probably not as it was a lot of labor… Some days a lot, some days very little… overall it was about 60 hours a week for $600-800 gross… my target of $8-10/hr. Minus my costs, such as seed, travel to market, greenhouse construction, minor equipment purchases I still made over 10k net per acre… with plans to scale up it would have been a nice income for one person. Sadly, after 18 months the owner decided to put the entire thing into conservation, while looking to sell, and did not want any leasers on the property so he could sell quickly. So I moved on from that small venture to a 165 acre farm now raising angus, poultry, row cropping etc etc.

  2. Pingback: Sustainable Economics– Starting with Chickens Isn’t Sustainable | Food, Farming and Faith in Snohomish County

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