The Problem With Little Teeny Farms 2: How Many Acres Can Sustain a Family?



April 4, 2010


Welve been bashing the idea of "little teeny farms."

March 28, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms

The reason we are bashing this idea is because it is so much a part of Americans' self-image. This "little teeny farm" idea has completely consumed the American imagination, producing endless problems. The U.S. suburbs are basically a product of the "little teeny farm" fixation implanted in people's heads. This dates from long before the automobile -- indeed, you can trace it back to about 1780 or so. (Oddly enough, before 1780 it doesn't seem to be a problem. In those days, when everyone genuinely was a farmer, they dreamed of having some European-style metropolises.)

July 26, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 3: How the Suburbs Came to Be
July 19, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 2: Downtown

July 12, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village


It pops up again in the various fever dreams of the "sustainability" types, whose solution to all problems, always and everywhere, is some sort of "little teeny farm." For a long time, this was the "twenty acre self-sufficient homestead in the backwoods of Idaho" model. Now they all want to make their suburban 1/8th acre plots into "little teeny farms." There is nothing particularly wrong with this as a hobby, which is to say, a means of amusement, but is it not a method of producing a meaningful quantity of food! They seem to think they are being very creative with this, when in fact they are replaying the same tired fantasies that have formed the core of the suburban ideal for over two hundred years.

March 7, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to Suburban Hell

In short, the "little teeny farm" idea is a terrible way to make farms -- farms should be much larger -- and an even more terrible way to make cities. Which is to say, it isn't good for anything at all.

I hope that by the end of this piece, you will understand the difference between a little teeny farm fantasy and a real, live, working family farm. And, a real, live, working city.

April 19, 2009: Let's Kick Around the "Sustainability" Types

A little teeny farm fantasy involves something between a suburban backyard and about three acres. A real family farm is more like 200 acres, and produces enough food for ten to twenty families.

It would be wonderful if we could have some real family farms (as opposed to an agribusiness goliath) producing food in the manner of the permaculturists and other progressive farmer types. This has nothing to do with the little teeny farm fantasy.

Lastly, I hope we will finally understand the interplay between the farm and the city. The farm is something like 200 acres. The city is a Traditional City, not a suburban 1/4-acre erstaz-farm.

* * *

Some people have been pushing the notion that a family of four can be sustained with a 3000 square foot garden.

Oh really? That's about 50x60 feet. Which is actually a pretty large garden, by hobby garden standards.

Let's think about this.

A square mile has 27.878 million square feet. There are 640 acres in a square mile. Each acre has 43,560 square feet. Thus, 3,000 square feet is 0.0689 acres. This is about the size of a typical "suburban backyard garden," if you use most of the available space.

The highest calories per acre are probably attained with grains, such as wheat or rice. You aren't going to get there with lettuce and asparagus.

One of the highest naturally-obtained grain yields per acre that I know of is Masanobu Fukuoka's farm in Japan. Using all natural techniques, he averaged 1,300 pounds of rice per quarter-acre, which is probably the highest natural rice yield in the world. That's 5,200 pounds per ace. Rice farms in California can do up to 9,000 lbs per acre of rice, with chemical fertilizers, irrigation, GMO seeds, optimal climate and so forth.

For 2007-2008, the average U.S. wheat yield per acre was 41 bushels per acre. A bushel of wheat has 60 pounds. So, that's 2,460 pounds of wheat per acre. That is with every sort of chemical fertilizer, genetically-modified seed, pesticide and so forth. (Single farms using corn can do much better. The record for a single farm in 2002 was 442 bushels of corn per acre.)

The average wheat yield per acre in the U.S. in 1899 was 12.5 bushels, or 750 pounds. This represents professional farmers with refined traditional technique but without chemical fertilizers, GMO seeds and so forth. Clumsy amateur farmers would do well under this.

Since I will assume that the prospective gardener will not be using chemical fertilizers or GMO seeds, let's take the 1899 average. Thus, at 750 pounds/acre and 0.0689 acres, we get 52 pounds of wheat.

There is some loss as the wheat is processed into flour. However, let's just use that figure. At 1,700 calories/pound, that's about 88,400 calories of food energy. With four people in the family, that's 22,100 calories per person. At 2,500 calories per day for an adult (could be higher especially if outdoor labor is involved), that's 8.84 days' worth of food per person. I suppose kids will eat a little less.

 So, we can see that your little 3000sf garden certainly will not feed a family for a year. It might feed a family for a week, and that's only if they like plain bread a lot.

Let's say you are an ultimate natural farming master, like Fukuoka. Then, your 3000sf garden would produce about 358 pounds of rice in a year. I'll spare you the math, but it works out to 61 days of food per person per year.

Let's reverse-engineer it. Using the 1899 yield of 750 pounds/acre, how many acres would it take to feed a family of four? Let's make some assumptions:

The family eats a very wheat-intensive diet. The grain is not used to feed livestock. Let's say they average one pound of wheat per person per day. (You could mix with oats, barley, corn, beans and so forth. We will assume that the yield/acre for other grains  and beans are similar.) This would mean 365 pounds of wheat/grains/beans per person. This is supplemented by some other vegetables. We will assume for now that they do not raise any domesticated animals. Thus, a family of four would need 365x4=1,460 pounds of wheat/grains/beans per year (maybe a little less with kids). This is just about two acres of wheat at 750 pounds/acre.

Plus, we want some vegetables and so forth, to provide the additional 800 calories a day to get us up to 2,500 calories/day. Let's add another acre of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini and so forth. Now we're up to three acres. This is without any cows, pigs, chickens or goats -- or horses to pull the plow -- on a strictly vegetarian diet (possibly supplemented by wild game). Since this is the most efficient conversion of sunlight into food, this three acres represents about the minimum possible amount of land.

However, the farm itself might be larger than three acres. We need some space for the house, and maybe a yard. Also, we want some trees and woodlands. If you want to use wood heat, you need at least one acre of woodland for each cord of wood per year. Two acres would be better. Let's add two acres of woodland, although actually more like six acres is more realistic. Now we're up to six acres -- three acres of farmland, an acre for the house, yard, driveway, etc., and two acres of woodland. With six acres of woodland, we are up to ten acres.

The family is "self sufficient," but it doesn't have any surplus to sell. To generate a surplus, the family needs to grow more than it eats. Let's say that each farming family grows enough food for three families. Thus, one-third of the population are farmers. This would mean about nine acres growing food per farm -- assuming that everyone is eating a highly efficient grain-intensive vegetarian diet. Historically, until the introduction of mechanical tractors and trucks, about one-third of a farm was used to graze horses. So, our land needs increase by 50% to 13.5 acres if you want to have a horse to pull the plow. (Fukuoka didn't till the land, so he didn't need a tractor or a horse.) Add some space for the house and woodlands, and we're up to 17 acres or so. This is still before domesticated food animals.

I think we can see that the "grow food in your suburban backyard" idea is a complete fantasy. Realistically, a farming family should have at least twenty acres, and that is a bare minimum.

At present, about 2% of the U.S. population is engaged in farming (I don't know if this includes whole families or just farm workers). They farm about 411 million acres. 2% of the U.S. population is about 6.2 million people. Thus, the acres-per-farmer ratio is about 66 acres/person. The acres-per-person ratio is about 1.33 (411 million acres/309 million U.S. population). Much of this production goes to wasteful livestock feed. Some is exported. However, this also represents very high per-acre yields obtained with chemical fertilizers and GMO seeds. Based on this figure, we get 5.32 acres for a family of four.

In 1900, the average farm in Illinois was 125 acres. In 1850, the U.S. average was about 200 acres.


* * *

What could be possible, and what most of the "little teeny farm" advocates are really talking about, is producing fresh fruits and vegetables. They aren't really talking about producing grains, beans, meats (usually), dairy or oils, which can amount to 80% or more of the typical diet. Can you produce enough lettuce, tomatoes and zucchini in your 3000sf hobby garden to give/sell some of it to your friends and neighbors during the summer and harvest season? With a bit of basil and thyme? Sure, and why not? If you already have a suburban backyard, you might as well grow zucchini or blueberries instead of grass. This is fun. That's what makes backyard gardening a fun hobby. But, there's a difference between having some fresh zucchini in August, and feeding a family for an entire year.

One reason I call this a "hobby" is that it doesn't make a good business. Let's say you want to grow lettuce in your suburban backyard hobby garden, and sell it to your neighbors. Great! Who wouldn't love local, fresh-grown lettuce instead of something from 3000 miles away? Let's say you sell lettuce for $2 a head. If you sold a thousand heads of lettuce, you would have gross revenue of $2000. Think about the labor and expense involved in growing and harvesting and selling (don't forget the selling) a thousand heads of lettuce, from your suburban backyard garden. You better love lettuce. For this, you get $2000 of revenue, per year, before covering your expenses. It probably works out to less than minimum wage. You would only do it "for fun." That's why I call it a hobby.

Some people are into raising chickens in their suburban backyard. I am familiar with this, because I used to live in a house in central Seattle where the next door neighbor raised about six chickens underneath his backyard deck. Also, my local egg lady raises chickens.

How many chickens? Well, how many chickens do you eat? How about one chicken per week for your family? That is not much meat -- especially if you have a real chicken, not a modern mutant chicken bloated by growth hormones. Obviously, you would have to raise 52 chickens per year to provide that much meat. Are you ready to raise 52 chickens in your suburban backyard? My local egg lady raises about 50 chickens for her personal use. (It's hard to sell meat, because it is highly regulated.) But, she lives on a former 19th century chicken farm. She still has the original commercial-size chicken houses. She would laugh if you called it a "backyard." She likes to live in the country so she can have acreage, not a backyard. She does have some extra eggs to sell. I ride there on my bike (singlespeed, naturally) and buy them for $3 per dozen. You can work out how many dozen you would have to sell to get $3,000 in gross revenue.

If you want to raise a half-dozen chickens in your suburban backyard, while your husband is off working at the telecommunications company or law firm or software developer, go right ahead. Kind of like Marie Antoinette and her peasant cottage. If it was good enough for the Queen of France -- and Michelle Obama -- then what are you waiting for? I am all for eccentric hobbies, as long as they aren't too smelly.

I buy about two dozen eggs a month, for a total of $6, and don't raise chickens in my backyard.

Unfortunately, the "sustainability" types are motivated almost entirely by symbolism. They think that with enough symbolic gestures -- six tomato plants, a Prius, organic cotton underwear and a solar oven -- they can "save the world." Let me tell you what: six tomato plants, a Prius, organic cotton underwear and a solar oven doesn't mean jack shit. Which doesn't mean that you can't enjoy it. But it is really no different -- in terms of resource and energy use -- than having none of that at all. If you live in 3500sf in Suburban Hell and commute 35 miles to work in your Prius, and have six tomato plants and resuable shopping bags ... so what. Living in an urban environment, like New York (but nicer), where you don't own a car, and ride trains, and have a small apartment instead of a 1/4-acre ersatz mini-farm -- now that has a real effect.



* * *

Last note on the Prius: The Prius gets about 51 mpg in the city and 48 mpg on the highway. It costs $22,800 in the base model, and is rumored to be a money-loser at that price due to the expensive batteries and electric motors in the vehicle. It has a max horsepower of 134hp, and weighs 3,042 pounds. It seats four.

Batteries are going to be a much bigger problem than people think. The Tesla Roadster runs on 6,000 cellphone batteries. Do you have a cellphone? I do. How often do you have to replace the battery? I replace mine about once a year. Are you ready to replace an additional six thousand batteries per year? To fulfull your "sustainability" fantasies?

The Tata Nano has a 35 horsepower gasoline engine. It weighs 1,300 lbs, and seats four. It costs about $2,000, and is making a profit for Tata at that price. This is right in line with the original Volkswagen Beetle, which weighed about 1,600 lbs and had 28hp. The Nano gets 52mpg in the city and 61mpg on the highway.

The Prius has hundreds of pounds of expensive rare earth minerals and non-ferrous metals, like lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper. These require huge mining and smelting operations, like the bad guys in the movie Avatar. (I've spent much of the last six years researching mining companies like these, so I have an idea of how that metal is obtained. Although mining company execs genuinely try to make the process as harmless as possible, it is not a pretty thing.) The Nano is made almost completely of iron and aluminum, two of the most common minerals in the earth's crust.

No batteries required.

We would be better off riding trains than using cars. But, if you have to have a car, and you want an eco-friendly one, take a Nano instead of a Prius.

* * *

Now that I've spent the last couple thousand words kicking sand in the face of the "sustainability" types and the "little teeny farm" fantasists, let me say a few words in their favor.

I think that a number of the recent group of let's-grow-tomatoes-in-the-backyard types are genuinely motivated by concerns/visions of economic collapse. They don't necessarily say this, or even think it, but it is inherent in their personal vision.

This is not entirely irrational. Indeed, given that Dmitry Orlov, for example, witnessed firsthand the period during the 1990s when urban Russian people sustained themselves with tiny neighborhood gardens, you might say it could be very relevant.

Let's think about this: What are the characteristics of a collapse period?

1) You have to deal with what you have at the time of collapse. You aren't going to be making any trains, or new buildings, or what have you -- just scavenging among the existing infrastructure.

2) Likewise, people generally aren't going to be moving here and there (unless things get so bad that they become refugees), but sticking with their existing house in their existing city, at least at first.

3) All kinds of transportation could become unavailable or unusable.

"Collapse" is actually quite common. If you look at all the major developed countries in the world during the 20th century -- Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, the U.S. -- we see that most all of them had some period of economic collapse, in this case mostly due to World War II and also the post-Soviet Union period.

At least 500,000 -- possibly as many as eight million -- Germans died of starvation in the 1945-1949 period after World War II. We don't like to think about that much.

Crimes and Mercies: the Fate of German Civilians under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950

Let's say there was an "economic collapse." The exact details or causes hardly matter. The basic characteristics are that you no longer have a job, and you can no longer easily buy things in the stores that come from thousands of miles away. In this case, for simple survival purposes, you might have to try to grow some food somehow. In practice, you can often obtain grains in some fashion, because grains are easy to transport. We send bags of grain to starving people in Rwanda for example. However, we don't send them ripe tomatoes. So, the survival farmer might get their grain somehow (not too difficult if you are near the water where ships can dock), but they need to provide their own vegetables. (If they were really left to their own devices to produce all caloric intake, most urban residents would simply perish.)

It might be nice if a lot of people had at least a little experience with producing food.

These "collapse" periods don't last forever. About five or ten years, maybe. After that period, either there is some recovery of the previous arrangement, so you can use the old existing stuff, or you start creating a new arrangement, and thus you start building things. For example, if, after five or ten years, you had no expectation that automobiles would ever be available again, except for a couple local warlords driving around in their G-Wagons, then you would go about arranging your activities so that you didn't need an automobile. On a large scale, this could be a no-car Traditional City.

I suppose some people would claim that all such "new arrangements" would be impossible, for some reason like fossil fuels are not available or what have you. This is nonsense. The fact of the matter is, people have time and energy and problems to solve, so they solve them. Why do you think people built trains in the first place? Because they wanted to get from Point A to Point B overland, in a way that was less laborious than a horse-drawn wagon on a dirt road. And they did it with their bare hands, without fossil fuels (the early trains burned wood), because they had time and energy and problems to solve.

Existing structures would be used at first, but over time, you have to go to where you can make a living, as an agriculturalist perhaps or as some sort of urban craft/profession/service provider. So, you will go to that new place, and if existing structures are not appropriate, then you will make some new ones. Detroit, for example, is full of once-beautiful existing structures, but they have been abandoned because nobody can make a living in Detroit, so they have gone somewhere else. Even at a price of near-zero, nobody wants them. In the same way, many suburban houses may eventually be abandoned (especially if automobile transport becomes a rarity) for the simple reason that there is no longer any reason to live in a particular suburb.

What if, for example, you lived in San Francisco's East Bay, and for some reason gasoline became unavilable? At first, you would probably sit and wait with crossed fingers that gasoline becomes available again. Then, after time, maybe it becomes clear that gasoline will never be available again at a price that justifies the daily use of personal automobiles. Then what? Maybe the BART train is still running, because people still need to move, so they figure out a way to keep it running, because it is a heck of a lot easier to maintain one line of rail track than it is to maintain thousands of miles of paved road and hundreds of thousands of personal automobiles. Then, the areas that are within a couple miles of the BART station (and maybe on the water) become very desirable, and those areas that are accessible only by car become less desirable. Eventually, people abandon their houses in the distant suburbs and pile into the existing houses near the BART station, until there are fifteen people per house. This is rather uncomfortable, so they start building some new houses near the BART station. Thus the new arrangement emerges.

I think that many of these "little teeny farm" types are really talking about collapse. I, on the other hand, am talking about the arrangement that follows collapse. Of course, you don't have to have a collapse. You could just have a voluntary transition to a new arrangement.

Dmitry Orlov has some good points about a "voluntary transition to a new arrangement." This is common on a personal level. You don't like your job organizing the marketing of household soap products, so you get into the television business. Or, you don't like living in Chicago, so you move to Miami. Happens all the time.

However, this flexibility doesn't translate to the civilizational level. So many people and entities are enjoying and profiting from the existing arrangement, that often nobody can change the arrangement, even if the arrangement as a whole is disintegrating. We see this with the U.S. healthcare system, for example. Nobody thinks this is a good system. A move to the sort of single-payer system common in other developed countries would be a logical choice. (Not necessarily the best choice, but logical considering that there are many examples of acceptable results with this system.) However, it is very difficult to actually transition to that new arrangement, because of all the interests that profit from the existing arrangement. Instead, with the Obama healthcare bill, we have in some sense a futher intensification and entrenchement of the existing system. The same old thing, just more of it.

Thus, on the large scale, it is quite common that systems simply continue as they are until they collapse. Only after the collapse, when all the entrenched interests have gone extinct, are people free to establish a new arrangement.

On the other hand, it doesn't have to be this way. We replaced kerosene lamps with electric lights, without having a kerosene-lamp collapse.

Within the context of collapse, a lot of what the "little teeny farm" and "self-sufficiency" types say is quite relevant, so maybe they are serving a purpose here whose importance will become apparent later on.

Maybe Michelle Obama knows something?



Other comments in this series:

March 28, 2010: The Problem With Little Teeny Farms

March 14, 2010: The Traditional City: Bringing It All Together
March 7, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to Suburban Hell
February 21, 2010: Toledo, Spain or Toledo, Ohio?
January 31, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to New York 2: The Bad and the Ugly
January 24, 2010: Let's Take a Trip to New York City
January 10, 2010: We Could All Be Wizards
December 27, 2009: What a Real Train System Looks Like
December 13, 2009: Life Without Cars: 2009 Edition
November 22, 2009: What Comes After Heroic Materialism?
November 15, 2009: Let's Kick Around Carfree.com
November 8, 2009: The Future Stinks

October 18, 2009: Let's Take Another Trip to Venice
October 10, 2009: Place and Non-Place
September 28, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to Barcelona
September 20, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity 2: It's All In Your Head

September 13, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity

July 26, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 3: How the Suburbs Came to Be
July 19, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village 2: Downtown
July 12, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to an American Village
May 3, 2009: A Bazillion Windmills
April 19, 2009: Let's Kick Around the "Sustainability" Types

March 3, 2009: Let's Visit Some More Villages
February 15, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to the French Village
February 1, 2009: Let's Take a Trip to the English Village
January 25, 2009: How to Buy Gold on the Comex (scroll down)
January 4, 2009: Currency Management for Little Countries
(scroll down)
December 28, 2008: Currencies are Causes, not Effects (scroll down)
December 21, 2008: Life Without Cars
August 10, 2008: Visions of Future Cities

July 20, 2008: The Traditional City vs. the "Radiant City"
December 2, 2007: Let's Take a Trip to Tokyo
October 7, 2007: Let's Take a Trip to Venice
June 17, 2007: Recipe for Florence
July 9, 2007: No Growth Economics
March 26, 2006: The Eco-Metropolis