Monday, February 10, 2014

Economics of Backyard Gardening

I explored the economics of backyard egg-laying chickens and the economics of a milking cow last week. Today, i want to look at the ubiquitous backyard vegetable garden.

"Garden" is such a loose term. It can refer to anything from a few flowers set by the house, to a tomato and pepper plant in a pot, to a raised bed or two, to a 400-square foot plot of mixed results (like our garden last year), to perfectly manicured coifs of flowers and decorative trees, to anything and everything in between.

Yeah....there's no way I'm doing that.
In this piece, I'm going to focus on a garden that is totally dedicated to growing vegetables for a family to eat. Flower gardens are great and all, but for the practical homesteader, a veggie patch gets more return for the money.

There are five major factors to consider when looking at the economics of a garden:

  1. How much food you produce
  2. The relative value of the food you produce
  3. How much money you spend to get it going
  4. How much time it takes to produce
  5. The overall size of the garden

Surprisingly, these factors all distill down to a very simple formula.

I was actually quite shocked to discover it. But, looking at some personal success stories (this and this), as well as other data (in particular, this article) spread across a dozen or so sources, the general consensus was this:

If the plants survive, a garden produces about a dollar of vegetables for every square foot of growing space.

The actual figure is 96 cents. This holds true for a mixed garden, full of tomatoes, peppers, squashes, lettuces, carrots, cucumbers, and the like. Our garden last year, while about 800 square feet total, produce on only half because of all of the weeds and cantaloupe thieves. So the total output was closer to 400 square feet of veggie growth for all of the fruits and veggies we produced.

Wife estimated that we got around 200 cucumbers total, for eating and making pickles. At a quarter a piece, that's about $50. We also got a lot of tomatoes, some huge okra, a bunch of lettuces, sunflowers, green beans, peas, and more stuff. So all in all, I do think it's reasonable that we got about $400 in produce from last year's garden, of which about half of the 800 square feet produced.

The 2013 garden, early in the growing season. Coby Cat was on patrol.

So yeah - a dollar a square foot.

This figure comes from gross dollars after harvest. It does NOT factor in money spent initially (we put in about $200 in soil, and I forget how much in seeds). And of course, it does NOT put a price on time spent. It can be very, very easy to lose money gardening, by buying expensive fertilizers, soils, boards for raising beds, pots, specialty plant strains, insecticides, tools, row covers, tarps, sprinkler systems, etc., etc., etc.

Wife and I did this in 2012 - our raised beds produced little before being completely overrun by weeds, after we dropped well over $200 into soil and cedar boards for a total space of about 60 square feet. We had ONE good tomato plant that year, and some radishes and lettuces that did OK. We MAYBE broke $40, factoring in all of the tomato we got. We did do well with zucchinis before the squash bugs got 'em. I suppose if you counted the cilantro that went wild, and the subsequent coriander we harvested, we could have approached that dollar a square foot mark in the end.

Wife and I are discussing how we're going to manage this year's garden. We have the 800 square feet already, and I've been adding donkey and sheep manure to it, so it will be good and fertile.

I've developed a plan that would expand it out to about 26,000 square feet - just about a half acre.

A proposed 2014 (and beyond) garden site.
Ambitious? Sure is.
Profitable? You betcha.
This half-acre sized garden has the potential to produce about $25,000 in produce. Of course, I don't expect that to happen in the first year, and based on how I want to build it up, it would not be that much available space right off the bat anyway. However, using "the formula," the potential is there. Even using our success rate from last year's garden ($0.50 a sq. ft.), we still have the potential to produce a huge chunk of out total food budget in a year.

Now, like the other economic estimates, this does not factor in time. A garden can take as much or as little time as you want to put in. There's a certain minimum amount of time require to plan, plant, weed, prune, and harvest a garden. But the tilling, weeding, fussing, pruning, and other can turn into a full-time job in and of itself.

Last year, after the initial setup, I think we spent between 15 minutes and an hour each day. Some days, it was nothing at all. On average, for the growing season, it was probably 30 minutes a day. This plan ^^ would take more time than that, obviously. The kids are also more experienced and older, and very willing to help out like last year.

Part of the design is in minimizing labor. The big thing for us is weeds. Finding a way to reduce the amount of time weeding, and preventing the weeds from choking out the veggies, is a huge step toward realistic profitability. Because if 26,000 square feet of garden gets choked out by thistles, and nothing grows, it's all for naught.

And at a potential of $1 a square foot, that's a lot to be lost from weeds.

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