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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