Self-sufficiency in under an acre?

This mini-farm business is going to be fun no matter what happens, but ideally – and unrealistically – I’d eventually like to make it a real working farm, capable of providing the majority of our vegetable intake and even sustaining us through the winter with cold-cover crops and veggies preserved during the summer. At the very least, I’d like to make a significant move towards taking us off the food grid and reducing our carbon footprint. Some discouraging comments I received in response to a metafilter question I posed about farm design have pushed me towards trying to amass actual numbers and facts to figure out if my dream is even theoretically possible.

The first step was to find out how many vegetables the average US person consumes in a year. I turned to my gardening Bible, How to Grow More Vegetables, for the numbers I’ve been working with. More Vegetables provides not only the average US veggie consumption, but also the possible yield per 100 square feet and the seed rate needed. All the numbers I needed to completely indulge my obsessive spreadsheet-making tendencies for at least three days. :)

The numbers were not all that similar to our habitual diets: for instance they had the average person eating about 13 pounds of watermelon per year, plus another 10-odd pounds of cantaloupes… but we’re really not fond of either of those and eat 0 pounds. That kind of discrepancy. And another key factor is missing from my calculations: whether the “average food consumption per year” really equals the amount that a mostly vegetarian diet would consume. Are those numbers based on those Americans who eat mostly meat and processed foods? If I planted all the recommended square footage of all the plants listed, would that really be enough to sustain us through a year, or only if we were also dependent on storebought foods, pizzas, etc.?

Regardless, I had to start somewhere. Let’s assume that the planting rate listed will provide an adequate percentage of each vegetable variety per person per year. Let’s also assume a 0% loss (ha ha ha), the best possible soil, and a biointensive planting regimen (which is what I plan).

The results: if we plant only the vegetables that we’ll use, we’ll need 1971 square feet. Add to that enough wheat to produce (supposedly) a 1lb. loaf of bread a week, that number rises to 6192.45 sf. If we add in the fruiting trees, bushes, and canes, then it’s 6688.2 sf. And don’t forget we’ll need paths about 2’6″ wide to accomodate a wheelbarrow, so add another 33% for a total of 8895 sf.

It sounds like a heck of a lot until you realize that it’s really only about a 1/4 of an acre. Can a small family survive on what a 1/4 acre produces?


1) I don’t know if that’s actually enough to feed us for a year.
2) our soil and siting are NOT the best.
3) Even in my most optimistic calculations I don’t believe that one person can manage that many vegetables all on her own.

But with 5,000 sf cleared (next Tuesday if the durn snow will melt!) I can make a good start.

8 Responses to “Self-sufficiency in under an acre?”

  1. debbie swickard Says:

    Honey, we fed a family of six (plus 3 cousins who were often there at mealtime) all summer and winter long on a garden that was probably less than 4000 sq ft. Granted, it wasn’t sufficient to supply all the food we consumed. We didn’t grow potatoes because they just wouldn’t grow in our soil. We grew sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes, green beans, lima beans, cucumbers, onions, cantalope, and red respberries (the berry bushes were planted along the edge of the garden). We ate the fresh veggies all summer long and ate all winter on what we canned. Mom would put up no less than 120-150 quarts of green beans, 200 pints of corn, 100 quarts of stewed tomatoes, 20 or 30 pints of lima beans (we didn’t like lima beans so much), 50 or 60 quarts of tomatoe juice, it was astonishing how much food we canned when you consider how much we consumed all summer, too. (I kid you not, EVERY NIGHT during the summer, mom cooked no less than 7 DOZEN ears of corn, a 3 quart pot of green beans, and a 2 quart bowl of sliced cucumbers and onions as well as a dinner plate with 2 or 3 big tomatoes all sliced. We ate well, we ate till we were full, and we ate healthy on a garden nowhere near the size that you are worried will feed a family of three. don’t forget, too, that you will likely not eat as much during the winter because you won’t be as active – appetite tends to go down unless you go out sledriding and iceskating each night, like we did. 😀 You will do fine with the size of garden that you have. Granted, we still had to buy some groceries, but our food bill was SIGNIFICANTLY less than what our neighbors spent. I’m not sure that being totally self sustaining is possible because I don’t think you can ever remove yourself completely from the food grid (sugar, chocolate, milk, butter, etc), but you will make a far greater impact on reducing your carbon footprint than you might think. Good luck!!!

  2. diana Says:

    Hey Debbie, what a pick-me-up, thank you! You wouldn’t believe the kind of negative comments I received when I asked for advice on layout, like a simple “you can’t possibly do that so don’t try”. Snort.

    Those numbers of jars are FANTASTIC. Uh… I think I have maybe 100 total? I had no idea I’d need that many. So… um…. come across any more canning jars lately? :)

  3. gina Says:

    Hi Diana – I’ve been following your blog for a while and I’m super excited that you’re starting this serious gardening project this year. That’s my passion! I’m still pretty knew (I started back in 2007) but It’s been such fun learning. This year I’m planning to focus more on growing stuff we’ll eat, too.

    I don’t know if you’re on twitter but there is a great community of gardeners there and I’ve found it a great resource to get answers to gardening questions really quickly. If you have an account, look me up. I’m

    Are you growing your stuff from seed? If so, it’s time to get some of that stuff going now.

    Good Luck!

  4. diana Says:

    Hi Gina! Glad you commented! I’m so eager to get started that I’m actually dreaming about plants, but at the same time I’m really nervous about whether I can actually do this single-handed. At least I’ll be able to document the process along the way!

  5. Luke Says:

    You are the hardcore! We’ve getting ready to build some small square foot gardens in the next week or two. No way we would have enough space for this, but we are going to try to grow the things that are expensive, and that suffer from taste at local places (like tomatoes!)

  6. diana Says:

    Luke, that sounds like a great plan! Some of the stuff i’m growing is probably costing me more than at the store – like lettuce.
    A cherry tomato is a fabulous bang for your buck. Since a cup of cherry tomatoes is like $3, but a single plant produces *tons* of fruit. Unless you adore them, one or two is plenty for a whole family!

  7. Amber Says:

    Well… goose poop on the shoes of those who are being negative. Sign me up for harvest season! (Should be safe from your snow by then.) I’ve never canned anything more difficult than jam- but I can help you pick and peel 600 tomatoes? (And help eat your homemade cheeses?) I’m good at picking beans too…. and I can help Sofia eat all the sugar-snaps before they even make it to the house. (‘Cause sugar-snaps don’t belong in the house. *nods* Not my rule! Just how it’s done.) *wink*

  8. diana Says:

    Oh would you, darling? Come over anytime, stay for as long as you want, and KEEP THOSE SNAP PEAS OUT OF MY HOUSE! 😀

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