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

Mini Farming

Mini FarmingI've been curious about Brett Markham's Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre mostly because it's been topping the charts in Amazon's Sustainable Living category for about a year (or more).  Mini Farming is another one of those beginner gardening books (with the bonus of a section on chickens and one on preserving), and I'd probably recommend it to new gardeners before I'd send them to Square Foot Gardening.

I appreciated Markham's focus on economics and the inclusion of information on composting and cover crops.  On the other hand, I wasn't so keen on his Solomon-like seed meal fertilizers and had to stop reading for two weeks when I butted up against his nutrition chapter.  (Chapter summary: Potatoes are a vegetable, so look how little space it takes to grow your own!)

In general, I think Markham is one of those farmers who toes the organic line but doesn't spend enough time promoting holistic health of his crops (although I admit that if we were growing enough to sell, chances are we'd lower our standards too).  For someone just starting out, they could do worse than to begin with a relatively mainstream book like this and then slowly branch out into more permaculture techniques once they've gotten their feet wet.  Plus, Markham's cost-benefit analysis may tempt some folks who otherwise wouldn't even consider gardening to try their hand, so this might be the book to give to your in-laws if they think your homesteading bug is crazy.

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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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I was super excited to see Mini Farming come up on the blog as a book of interest. I've had it in my shelf for a while now and had all the best intentions of reading it, but never got around to it.

That being said... I did enjoy the book to a point. I wold agree that it's a good jumping off point for someone just introduced to backyard farming. The author may have spent a bit more pages that I would have liked convincing the reader to go to home farming. We have the book, we are there already. But Anna does make a good point, it could be a good loaner for someone needing convincing. I particularly liked the inclusion of the leaf shredder/wood chipper to grain thresher.

Comment by Heather Mon Nov 5 12:48:53 2012

Could you expound on your reaction re: potatoes? I don't get it. Sure - in the context of nutrition it isn't helpful to group potatoes with vegetables, but why not grow your own?

I am a market grower and one my constant complaints about permaculture books (and to a significant extent the outlook of permaculture practitioners I've worked with) is the complete absence of interest in scaling practices up to a commercially viable level. If permaculture is such a super productive approach to agriculture surely somebody out there is using the practice to grow for market. But I've never heard of any thing like that. It's very frustrating.

Comment by Jules McWyrm Thu Apr 18 13:10:09 2013

Jules --- I probably should have been more clear. I definitely recommend growing your own potatoes (we do); I just think it's unfair to say that you can grow all your own "vegetables" in an ultra-small area if you really mean you're growing your own starches. Fruits and vegetables are high value crops specifically because they take more space and labor than things like grains and potatoes, so lumping them all together is like comparing apples and oranges.

On the other hand, I think you've got a good point about the problems with scaling permaculture up to a market garden level. In my experience, permaculture tends to replace less environmentally friendly techniques (chemical fertilizers and pesticides, for example) with human labor (composting/manure and weeding/mulching). While that works great when you're growing food for your own family, a market gardener is going to be hard pressed to find the time to follow permaculture guidelines (assuming you sleep).

Personally, I think everyone should be growing their own food, so I don't think lack of scalability is a breaking point for permaculture. But I can see how you, as a market gardener, could find it so. :-) I think the solution to scaling permaculture up might be paying for labor, although that, of course, has its own set of problems.

Comment by anna Thu Apr 18 15:59:57 2013


Thanks for the reply. Regarding potatoes I understand and very much agree with your point.

Permaculture's scalability issue gives me considerable pause.

For one thing it makes me skeptical of the productivity claims made by permaculture enthusiasts. Working alone, without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, I can grow a marketable quantity of produce on, say, an acre using traditional agricultural techniques (tilling, planting annual crops in rows, etc). If that isn't possible with permaculture techniques I can't see how permaculture can be considered a more productive system.

I find this point especially galling because much of the permaculture literature I've read - Gaia's Garden, Forest Gardening, Permaculture Handbook - is dismissive or even derisive of traditional agriculture (and here again by 'traditional agriculture' I do not mean high-input chemical-based ag but rather the general practice of tilling plots and planting annual crops in regular patterns).

Scalability poses a philosophical challenge to permaculture as well. As long as we have cities - as long as we have even towns or villages or universities or industry of any kind - not everyone will be able to grow their own food. If permaculture has no prospects of feeding the world then it simply isn't a viable alternative to traditional agriculture. And if it isn't a viable agricultural alternative then what is it?

Anyway ... none of this keeps me from being fascinated by permaculture and keen to learn and practice more of it.

Comment by McWyrm Wed Apr 24 08:37:43 2013
@McWyrm: Your second-to-last paragraph about scalability exactly spells out some doubts I have about permaculture. Well said!
Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Apr 24 18:40:19 2013

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