The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

How much land do we use to grow our own food?

Map of our homestead

Thanks to google planimeter (and some awesome new maps, updated this April!), I can answer Roland's question about how much land we use to grow our own food.  The map above shows our total footprint on the land (minus our driveway, hunting area, and woodlot, but including the house and barn) --- 1.118 acres.

Here's a breakdown of the purposes to which we put that land:

Vegetable gardens (including strawberries and potatoes):
  • Mule garden (and grapes) --- 0.09529 acres
  • Back garden (and fig) --- 0.03751 acres
  • Front garden (excluding sinkhole) --- 0.09995 acres
Forest garden:
  • West --- 0.07511 acres
  • East --- 0.09024 acres
  • Blueberries and gooseberries --- 0.02000 acres
  • Front berry patch --- 0.02779 acres
  • Back berry patch --- counted in forest garden figures instead because under eventual spread of fruit trees

New barn roofThese numbers only add up to about half the total acreage of our core homestead because they don't include areas like the gully, trailer, barn,  woodshed, water tank, etc.  That said, I have included paths, both for people and for the golf cart.

I did some extra math, which I'll post on our chicken blog next week, and came to the conclusion that we outsource 0.36486 acres of growing land to the producers of our chicken feed, and perhaps that or a little more to the growers of our straw.  Since you get both straw and grain from the same field, I'm not counting the straw figures into our land area.  Nor am I counting the acreage on which the horses who give us our manure graze since manure is considered a waste product of their operation.

Bing mapWe still buy a lot of fruit, but that's because our orchard is young.  I think our current forest garden and berry patches will sate even my frugivorous appetite once everything is mature.  We will probably expand our berries a bit more to fill in gaps, though.

More relevantly, we buy red meat from a friend, and I don't have any data on how much land and grain she uses to produce that meat --- maybe another half acre?  I'm not going to factor in the small amount of dairy products, flour, peanut butter, nuts, cocoa, sugar, and spices we get from the store --- that's beyond my math skills and we could do without if need be.  (Except the chocolate -- can't do without that!)

So, to answer Roland's question, if we grew our own chicken feed but stopped eating everything else from the store, we'd be using just shy of half an acre (0.2 hectares) apiece to feed ourselves.  This is the exact amount of arable land per person Roland estimates the world currently contains.  I'm pretty sure whoever came up with those numbers didn't include steep grazing land in their arable land figures, so Mark could probably get away with adding in his red meat by raising sheep on the hillside.  (Actually, I'm not so sure that any part of our property was included in the arable land estimate.)

Powerline cut
Although this is just a thought problem, it does make me glad that Mark has been fencing me in, which forces me to fill up the gaps in our core homestead area rather than sprawling out across the back forty.  It also makes me ponder whether it might not be more economical (while feeding my control freak tendencies) to hire our helper to turn the quarter of an acre of powerline cut in the floodplain into grain and straw production.  I wonder if this crazy flight of fancy will scare Mark more or less than last year's dream of goats?

Our chicken waterer lets you go out of town for the weekend without worrying about your flock.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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If you had a portable chicken coop, would it be possible to make use of more woodland as foraging areas?

What's the red and blue rectangle in the last photo?

Comment by BeninMA Wed Jun 13 15:02:34 2012

BeninMA --- The rectangle at the bottom is the powerline cut area in the floodplain. Since we can't let tall trees grow there, I figure it's a good spot to expand if we ever want to go beyond our core area.

I've considered a portable chicken coop to enlarge the chicken grazing area, but I think it's simpler to just have multiple coops for them. I do like the flock to sleep close to home so that our dog protects them... :-) They seem to range a lot less of a distance from their coop compared to the hens in Joel Salatin's Eggmobile, which also makes me think that they're getting plenty of insects close to home in the winter, and that moving their home base might not make much of a difference. It's an interesting idea, though, and one we might experiment with if we enlarge the flock.

Comment by anna Wed Jun 13 15:39:04 2012
I believe they call it a "Flood"plain for a reason...
Comment by Eric in Japan Wed Jun 13 17:35:55 2012
Eric --- Yeah, that's why I'd have to put some thought into the production method down there. Even with the recommended twenty to fifty foot riparian buffer, I'd rather not till an area that floods once or twice a year. So I'm researching no-till grain options....
Comment by anna Wed Jun 13 18:22:45 2012
Thanks for this last post. I found it most interesting
Comment by Kathleen Wed Jun 13 19:24:17 2012
Kathleen --- Glad you enjoyed it! Sometimes I wonder whether folks get anything out of my long-winded analyses of the land. :-)
Comment by anna Wed Jun 13 19:45:31 2012
On second thought, sounds perfect for no-till rice. A nice undersown clover to hold the soil in place- the flood sediment will fertilize it as well....
Comment by Eric in Japan Wed Jun 13 19:46:37 2012
Eric --- I was thinking of rice after you made your comment, but everything I've read says we're too cold for rice unless we want to baby plants along inside before the frost-free date and then transplant them. I don't think I'm willing to do that for a grain!
Comment by anna Wed Jun 13 20:21:08 2012
Ooohhh neat. That's really cool to see.
Comment by Fostermamas Wed Jun 13 21:25:57 2012
I have read of them growing rice as far north as the north east and Minnesota. Especially like wild rice and the likes of it. I used to use a Black rice that came out of the Himalayas in the restaurant. It has a rich dark texture and is very creamy after cooked.
Comment by Olan Wed Jun 13 22:05:44 2012

Anna - I was thinking that expanding the chickens' forage base could reduce your need to buy feed -- But I can see how it would be a pain to implement with the layout of your place.

I've heard of cold-hard rice being done in much colder places than where you are. You could corner the market on artisanal "mountain rice" ;-)

Comment by BeninMA Wed Jun 13 22:22:59 2012

Olan and Ben --- I enjoyed the article Olan emailed me, but even the most cold hardy rice isn't frost hardy. I noticed this paragraph particularly:

"In the South, farmers put their rice right into the ground using machines, or sometimes even distribute the seed by plane, he said. That won't work in Vermont, where the springs are too cold. Instead, Andrus started 50,000 rice plants in a hoop house, which is like a greenhouse with plastic sides, and later transplanted the young seedlings into his paddies."

That said, wild rice is a whole different species and ball game. That's what they harvest in the far north, but when I read up on it, it sounded like it's very dicey to cultivate. (People still harvest it from the wild, thus the name and price tag.)

Ben --- We've slowly but surely been expanding the chickens' wild foods. A lot of the things we think will help the most --- like mulberry and persimmon trees --- take a long time to mature, but we've already seen about a 15% reduction in feed costs with our laying hens just with our rotational pastures.

Fostermamas --- Glad you liked it!

Comment by anna Thu Jun 14 07:01:07 2012

Olan is right, rice can be grown quite far north. Here they grow it in Hokkaido, which is like Wisconsin. And having read your blog for years now, I think you are actually warmer than we are here in the heart of the rice growing region of Japan! We plant in May and harvest in late September to early October.

Maybe you could try a 5x5 meter test plot before you go whole hog (Hey, maybe you should raise some hogs?) on the entire floodplain. I have gone from till to no-till in some spots, but I don't know how to transition from wild to no-till. I don't know how well that would work. I would think you would have a tremendous problem with perennial weeds and trees. Good luck and keep us posted!

Comment by Eric in Japan Thu Jun 14 08:16:44 2012
That's a mighty fine looking barn roof you got there! I'm glad planimeter is back in action - that site was down for a while and it was driving me nuts. Is there any ill effect that you know of from growing food under powerlines? Does the power company have any say in how the cut is managed?
Comment by mitsy Thu Jun 14 12:29:08 2012

Eric --- I'm pretty sure that the rice they're growing in New England comes from northern Japan for that reason. It's still all started inside and transplanted, though, and I have enough labor intensive spring tasks without adding one more....

I've been really enjoying reading about your rice paddy on your blog!

Comment by anna Thu Jun 14 16:45:34 2012

Mitsy --- That's pretty funny that you were going nuts without planimeter. I really enjoy it, but don't use it enough I'd noticed it was down. :-)

My mom is constantly worrying about growing food under a powerline, but her worries don't really make sense since she lives even closer to a powerline than we do and grows her food nearly as close. This isn't one of those huge, high-powered lines that you read about --- it's just a small spur that serves us and a couple of other farms.

The power company can technically come in and manage the powerline, but they're very understaffed for that, so what tends to happen is they ignore it until a bit storm knocks trees onto the line, then they send a crew out to fix it ten days later. (No, we're not bitter. :-) ) As long as people keep the area below it tree-free, they don't seem to care what you do.

Comment by anna Thu Jun 14 16:49:11 2012

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