Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Why Are Self-Sufficient Family Farms So Big?

Short answer: horses.

Long answer: there are many factors involved. First of all, for a true "self-sufficient" farm, you need to produce everything you need from the land. That's all food, water, clothing, building supplies, medical supplies, cleaning supplies, heating, lighting, tools, books, recreational activities, etc., along with all of the other necessary to keep them up.

I think most farms are needlessly large and hyper-specialized these days.
Of course, one person (or heck, even one family) cannot reasonable do it all. Taking on blacksmithing, woodworking, animal training, dairying, crop growing, shearing, weaving, looming, tanning, medicine, home building, and general day-to-day repairs, on top of the routines of life with laundering, cooking, cleaning, and normal family life, is a big task.

So self-sufficient farms really DON'T do it all. Instead, they produce extra of whatever, and then sell and/or barter to fill in the gaps. Or, they maintain a separate income source and narrow their focus. But I often encounter situation where advice or "standards" are based on the first camp.

"Oh, you definitely need at least 60 acres to be self-sufficient."
"You can't have sheep and cows on less than 10 acres."
"You have to a barn, and 5 acres for hay, and this for that, and ...."


Look at nearly any family farm of yore, and you'll find a horse.

Horses are great - they pull heavy stuff, run fast, and let people tag along on their backs. In the right circumstances, they absolutely are a necessity. They are needed to pull plows, haul wagons of crops to the market, drag lumber in from the woods, etc., etc. And they require a lot of land. I think it's 2 acres to the horse for graze, plus another for hay, in a well-growing, temperate environment. Shoot on north to zone 4, or almost anywhere in Texas, and it's way more than that.

So there's a minimum of three acres for one beast that only contributes to transportation. But really, what farm only has one horse?

Only one horse? "It's a tradition!"
So right off the top, we're booking ten acres for three horses, in a good climate. 25 in a meh climate.

Then, you need to have enough planting space for food for a family. For most families, this in the 1-2 acre range. But that's ideal growing space, using modern close-planting techniques. In traditional row-crop spacing suited to a horse-drawn plow, or even a modern tractor, you can go ahead and triple that. After all, the horse (and the tractor wheels) need space between the crops to move without damaging them.

16 acres for gardens and horses alone. Vegans of the world, unite!

Ah, but you need clothing! Clothing comes from cotton, wool, and animals skins. You can't tan horses, but you can tan leather. And sheepskin. So tack on 4 acres for wool sheep graze, with another 2 for sheep hay. then add 3 acres of cotton. That should clothe a young, growing family for a year (again, with the cotton spaced for the horse to walk). Up to 25.

We'll talk about cattle later.

OK, it's later.

Cattle need about the same amount of land as horses. For the sake of arguments, we'll say they're about equal. So to keep 2 cows for year-round milk and dairy, plus a bull to ... ya know ... plus 2 calves to raise for slaughter and hides a year, we're talking an extra 15 acres.

So there's animals and a family garden, 40 acres, and absolutely 0 income.

The average, let's say, blacksmithing family is too busy pounding metal, so they will BUY all of their food in exchange for metalworking, selling tools, repairs, etc. So let's take our family crop land and effectively double it, making enough to supply at least one other family with food. That makes it 46 acres, because remember, our horses need room to pull the plow and the wagon for the planting and harvest without damaging anything.

But wait! There's more! You need a house, and a shed, and a barn, and possibly a silo if you have grains to store. Add a few acres for that, plus miscellaneous land plots for roads, paths, ponds or streams, and an orchard or a berry patch for extra summer fruit. Then, there's the forest. To heat the house, and to provide wood for repairs to the house and barns, and to have more wood to build tables and chairs and the like, you'd need at least 10 good acres of forest land. Plenty for growing, with enough to cut every year and have it replenish.

So we're easily at 60 acres, and this family is not truly self-sufficient. They still grow and sell crops for income to provide the extras they cannot produce themselves. i mean, with all this time looking after cows and trekking to and from the forest, how are they going to have the time to sit down and make clocks?

"I'll fix this dang clock right after I feed the horses, shear the sheep, milk the cow, harvest the corn,
smithy myself a new scythe blade, hew the quarry, and fell 4 cords of firewood," said no farmer ever.
So how am I expecting to take my measly 5 acres, which is a twelfth of the typical self-sustaining family farm, and attempt to be self-sufficient?


It comes down to horses. I don't have one.

Samson the Donkey doesn't count!
Seriously, though, it comes down to NOT using large farming implements, and to conscientiously managing resources.

By using wide row, square foot, and bio-intensive gardening techniques, with NO large machinery, you can grow tremendously more crops in a smaller area than traditional plow-and-combine methods. By using the same land for multiple purposes (calf, then pig, then chicken, then garden, then second garden planting), you can consolidate even further. By rotational grazing with multiple species (sheep and dairy cows), the same acreage is better utilized and fertilized.

Plus, I only need to provide food for my family. I have a job outside of the farm. I can buy things like extra hay, tools, clocks, housing, and heating. So my version of self-sufficiency differs from others'.

I am striving first for food independence. By investing in and producing incredibly healthy food for essentially zero ongoing cost, I can then take my income and divert it to other means of self-sufficieny (paying off my house, for example), so that once my bills and outside expenses go to 0, I am still producing all of my own food.

So no - I cannot use this 5.4 acres to do it all. I CAN use it to produce everything my family eats, given that we already have things like a house, a car, tools, and so forth. And while getting that up and running, then stable, I can accelerate getting to Debt-Level-0.

And that will be a place where true self-sufficiency is very, very close.

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