How Much Land Do You Need?

Sharon June 24th, 2008

After “Where should I live?” the next most frequently asked question I get is “How much land do I need?”  And just like “Where should I live” is a deeply personal question, shaped as much by who you are, where your family is, what you do for a living, etc… as by any rules of thumb, the same thing is true of “how much land do I need.”  That is, it depends on where the land is, what kind of land it is, how much rain you get, what you want to do with it.  The one absolute truth is that with a few exceptions the answer is almost always “less than you think.”

Now when I went looking for land I did what a lot of people did - I wanted as much as I could afford.  I got 27 acres, and in many ways, that’s far too much.  Now don’t get me wrong - I’m delighted I have it.  It gives me choices that other people don’t have.  But I very quickly realized that 3 intensively managed acres could probably have done me nearly as well and that 1/2 acre could do an astounding amount.  There have been times when the only part of this property we’ve used is about an acre of it.

Ok, so the first set of questions applies to you - let’s say you want some land to grow food on.  What’s your situation?  I’d suggest you ask yourself these questions.  I won’t offer any real answers, just things to think about.

1. How old am I, and how good is my health? 

- I was sitting around at dinner with several young CSA farmers in their 20s, and we all agreed that about 2 acres is the absolute maximum that one young, healthy person can farm by hand on their own.  While I nodded my head, because I think I could do two acres if I had to,  at 35, with young kids, I think an acre or an acre and a half is more like it, if you aren’t using powered tools.  By 50 I suspect my estimate will go down to 1/2 acre or less.  And that’s assuming I’m in good health. 

So comes the question - how old are you? Who else will you have around to help?  How healthy are you?  Are you likely to be restricted by health or by something temporary, like pregnancy and babies?  What else do you have to do?

Now these numbers apply to land that you will garden intensively with minimal or no powered equipment - maybe a lawnmower, but not a tractor.  You can stretch that number by adding things that take less attention that an annual garden - orchards and fruiting or nutting plants, livestock, etc… I’ll move on to that in a second.  I’m also assuming you are starting from scratch - that is, if you move to a property (good luck finding it) with an acre worth of carefully tended, established garden with good soil, I would tend to think that someone over 50 could go on managing it as long as they were physically able.  But starting from scratch, and building soil while growing stuff, that’s more work.  More experienced farmer/gardeners will know the management techniques to do more with less, but also to do more with more.  Again, I’m assuming you are fairly new to this.

I would say that a 2 acre hand-tended garden is the absolute outside of what a young, healthy person should attempt to produce by hand working full time.  A 1 acre hand tended garden is plenty for a family with older kids who can help out, with one partner working full time.  A half acre is probably enough for a healthy older couple or people with young children.  And a quarter acre or less should be the absolute maximum for people with health issues mild enough to let them garden, but enough to constrain them.  And these are limits assuming that you really need the food, and that other things aren’t so pressing - you might actually want less garden than this, I’m talking about outsider rabges.

2. What can I use to expand my limits?  And is there really a compelling reason to try?

Obviously tractors fall into this category, as do rototillers (I don’t actually think the latter are that useful in many cases, but I do mention them), but affording the gas to run them can run into real money, and sometime it might not be available.  Plus, there are real limits in practical terms - yes, I know people with tractors on 3 acres, and if you really are farming them full time, that might even make sense if you can share it with others.  But for isolated ownership, the tractor isn’t going to pay for itself unless you are super-handy and can press into service an older model and maintain it.  Everyone I know with a tractor spends a *lot* of time maintaining the thing - and that’s time you aren’t planting or growing.  I know the lure of the tractor - but I’ve never quite given in to it, and mostly, I’m glad.  Since some of my neighbors have them, I can often enrich one of my neighbors for far less than the yearly amortized cost of a tractor.  Is it a pain?  Yup.  But the world doesn’t need more diesel engines, and I don’t need to spend more time with the internal combustion engine ;-).

So what else is out there?  Well, there are draft animals.  But the thing about those is that your draft horses, jacks, mules, oxen, water buffalo, etc… are going to eat a lot of pasture, probably some grain and a good bit of hay over the winter.  You have to have enough land to justify their presesnce.  Since only 8 of our acres are open (the other 19 are woodlot), we simply don’t have that much land - if I got even light draft ponies, I’d use them mostly to…grow feed for my ponies.

Then there are middle options, animals that can eat pasture or the bugs on it or some combination and harvest a lot of their own food, and then provide something you want, like milk or eggs or meat.  But if you are trying to net a better deal (as opposed to just doing it for a hobby or for a better food supply) think carefully about how much land you are devoting to them, and have a plan for what you’ll do if you can’t afford to buy outside feed.  A big herd of sheep looks great until you have to put all their hay up by hand with a scythe - you might find that you want fewer sheep then.  We do put up hay with our scythe, and both of us really enjoy scything - but we don’t try to do 10 acres, either.  And buying grain for animals that require some supplemental graining (poultry for example) can run into real money.

Still, animals can do a lot of work for you - pigs or waterfowl, for example, can do moderate scale tillage and fertilization, while living on mostly pasture and food wastes.  Penning pigs on a piece of land you plan to garden can really be worth doing.   And well maintained permanent pastures can sequester a lot of carbon as the organic matter builds in the soil.  Peter Bane estimates that Joel Salatin’s pastures sequester as much carbon as a comparable forest. 

But if you have a dry or cold season in your climate, you will need to put up feed for that period.  And animals do involve management - that is, you have to have both the time and the ability to handle them for hoof trimming, birthing, etc…  And if you have livestock or perhaps even pets, and the economy tanks, I hate to say it, but there is a decent chance you will have to kill something at some point.  Some of us are ok with this, some not, but because it is not part of contemporary American culture for most people, it is worth thinking about -  there is no retirement home for extra male animals, and meat is valuable in a poor world,  and sooner or later you will have something sick and dying and not be able to afford the vet.  Decide *now* whether you are prepared to do all the work of management involved, before you add livestock to your dreams. 

The other method of extending your management is with perennial plantings that don’t require as much attention as annual cultivation.  My own experiments with this suggest to me that in the first couple of years, while you are planting and establishing and dealing with pest weeds, etc… perennial agriculture isn’t that much less work, if any, than annual agriculture.  Or rather, it is less work for me, because my husband likes to dig holes, but most people who have to do it themselves won’t find that true ;-).  We’re just starting to see our orchards and forest garden plantings pay off (the first ones we planted we planted in a drought year on a field we didn’t realize ordinarily floods repeatedly- proof that hurrying doesn’t always save anyone time and that getting to know your land is key!) 

I would generally say that another 1/4 acre of perennial plantings can be added to any estimate *if* you have help with the initial establishment - that is, an older couple who can manage a half acre garden could also manage 3/4 of an acre, with a 1/4 acre orchard, if they had additional assistance in the establishment phase, or could hire some work out.  

I’m no expert on draft animals, but generally speaking, I think if you have less than 10 acres of pasture/hayfield large draft animals won’t make sense - permanent garden plantings without tillage are easier to establish than to maintain horses.  The exception would be if you have a large woodlot, and can use the animals for logging.  A smaller draft pony might work well on a smaller holding, but finding equipment can be challenging.  But sharing draft animals might well make sense. 

A lot of us have more animals right now than our land can strictly support, because we can afford to buy hay or grain.  It makes sense for both those of us with livestock now and those who want it to think hard about what happens if the cost of transporting and buying feed rise beyond their capacities.  Are you prepared to butcher more animals, or keep a smaller flock?  Think about what strategies you might use to extend your land’s capacities - I’m experimenting a bit with growing root crops from seedballs, so that we don’t have to do any tillage on our hayfields.  But we’re still in the experimental stage.  Amaranth for our chickens seems to be a success as well, but we’re still buying some grain.

Water is another huge issue - all of what I’m talking about implies that you have water, and a reliable way of getting it.  If you have to hand-irrigate your garden for it to produce, you will want the most fertile soil with dense plantings that you can manage - you will not be looking to maximize your scale, but to minimize it, after just one day of hauling water.  The same is true of livestock - if you don’t have a reliable water source, think hard about how much hand pumping and hauling you will want to do in February. 

I haven’t included precise discussions of how many animals land can support, simply because it varies so much - and much of what varies is defined by water.  At the same time, water means that some land is suitable only for grazing - either because it is lush and green but too steep and erodable for easy gardening or because it dries up and turns to desert if it is tilled.  Knowing your place is essential, and choosing animals and plantings that can withstand the outer parameters of your soils, climate and water is the best way to succeed, but I can’t help you with that - the people who live near you who engage in food production can.

The other factor is figuring out what you want to accomplish.  A lot of people when they come to their land either want or imagine themselves to have to be completely self-sufficient, and that generally isn’t realistic.  A lot of us who have come at this through homesteading have played around with a lot of things - tried a little bit of this here and a bit of that here, and that’s a great thing - those experiments teach us all storts of stuff.  But people buying land right now may have to focus in on essentials early on. 

The truth is that most of us are never going to move 100% into the informal economy.  It is also true that the things that pay now aren’t necessarily the things that will pay later.  For example, I can buy 50lbs of potatoes for about 12 dollars in my region.  The seed to grow them would cost me more than that - so potatoes don’t “pay” - but I grow them anyway, for three reasons.  The first is that I can save seed, and the costs get spread out over years.  The second is that potatoes are a staple food crop, and while right now I get a greater return growing grapes or tomatoes or herbs on my food dollar investment, in the longer term, if I need to keep eating, potatoes are essential.  The third is that home-grown potatoes are one of those things that just taste better.  So I grow potatoes - but someone with a smaller garden space might choose now to grow other things, ones that cost more at the market and save her more money, while maybe experimenting just a little with potatoes, enough, perhaps for seed and a few to eat.

Right now, we’re in a transitional phase, and it might make more sense to focus on high value items that lower the grocery budget, and purchase staples - but with staples rising rapidly in price as well, we need to have the ability to shift towards meeting our needs for basics.  For example, right now I grow a lot of greens - we love them, eat them nearly constantly and eat a huge variety.  So I grow bok choy, collards, chard, 15 lettuces, arugula, edible chrysanthemum, beet greens, mizuna…and the list goes on.  On the other hand, my property grows all the lambs quarters, chickweed, plantain and dandelion I could possibly need for me.  While I like these things very much, I still grow the others because I like them.  But many of them will go by the wayside if I ever need the garden beds to grow more potatoes, amaranth and corn, and I keep enough seed to make this shift. 

The other issue is fuel - low input grown biofuels for tractors or chainsaws are one possible permutation that one might want, but in cold climates, wood for heating and cooking is even more likely.  In reasonably wet areas like mine, the estimate is that you can take one cord of wood per acre under good management practices - we’ve been taking a couple of cords (as much as we have time to cut ourselves) off of our land each year - in dryer areas this may be much less.  Very small amounts of woodland and brush should be sufficient to make very small hot fires to cook over, but if you require heating, besides reinsulating and getting used to being cold, you will want more wood.

Given my own concerns that the great eastern forest will be deforested by over harvesting in the coming decades, my own personal feeling is that I want private control over woods that can’t be logged - and having much more woodland than we need permits me to share with friends and family while still keeping the harvest contained. 

The place we’re in can argue for both bigger and smaller.  If you can get a reasonable amount of staple grains, gardens don’t actually have to be that big to keep you well fed - a well managed (note that term - well managed matters) 1/4 acre can grow all the fruit, vegetables and eggs and a little meat and fat for a family of four.  Less would be adequate too.  And the truth is that it is much easier to manage a 1/4 acre than a 1/2 acre - in many cases, a well managed 1/8 acre might produce more food than a 1/2 acre that a family is struggling to manage.

But what you can do now may not be what you need/want to do in the longer term - that is, if actual shortages of staple foods arise, you may find that it isn’t as hard as you thought to manage your 1/2 acre.  And if you can sell your surplus produce for cash or barter, that too has virtues.  Some of us may find ourselves with more people living in our houses, expanding both our need for production and our ability to do the producing.  Or we may shift from a one-gardener to a three-gardener situation as jobs are lost. 

So I have three possible answers to the “how much land do I need” and a bunch of caveats.

1. As much as you can afford.  This applies I think best to younger, healthier people (or the parents of young healthier people who imagine they may be joining them), experienced older farmers, etc… who see themselves working towards personal self-sufficiency plus surplus sales in their community.  In some places this may not be very much at all, for some people this may be quite a lot.  The old “God isn’t making any more land” comment really does apply here - bioproductive land is likely to be the basis of our “new” economy in a more direct way than in the past - that is, land is worth what it can produce, and food and warmth are going to be worth a lot. 

In this case, I’d say, manage and maintain your land for future use - grow woods, plant trees, put in perennial plantings, keep pastures down enough to keep them from turning into something else if you will want them, but don’t feel compelled to use every acre.  You are holding land for the future - this is a good thing. Meanwhile, concentrate your efforts on a small, well manage part and work outwards. 

2. Less than you can afford.  If you live in an expensive area, the idea of getting “land” can be intimidating, particularly if you are young and poor and tied there.  So don’t sweat it.  Astounding amounts can be done on small pieces of land. At first it will see hopeless, as though nothing can be accomplished, but every year you will find a bit more space, and have new ideas.  Commit yourself to managing what you have with the greatest intensity - think of yourself as the next Dervaes family. And recognize the power of sharing - Aaron, my co-author “farms” several of his elderly neighbor’s yards.  You don’t have to own it to grow on it.

For those who are older, in ill health or have their lives taken up by other pressures - elderly family members, babies and small children, etc… it is probably more important that you build fertility and intensively manage what you have than that you push yourself by trying to use a lot of land.  With limited resources, you essentially have the choice of building up or out - that is, you can make less do more or you can make more do less - and the former is usually the better choice, particularly since you can then work on adapting the property not only to your present abilities but to your long term situation.  And instead of trying to meet every need, think in terms of a balance between basic needs and reducing your costs.

3. None at all.  Remember, I mentioned that you don’t have to own land - right now is a difficult time to buy property - first time buyers find it hard to get credit and jobs are unstable.  So for some people, buying land will be a bad idea.  It is often possible to rent space, borrow it from friends or family, get an employer, church or community group involved in bringing land into production, etc…  Tons can be done in containers on a balcony.  Getting involved in your food systems is, I think, non-negotiable in the coming years.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean buying land.

 BTW, on that last note, my family is still looking for another family to consider moving to our property - I’ve described the situation we have here:  We have more house than we need, ideally set up for sharing, and we’re still looking for the right people.  We’ve talked to a bunch, but it is always hard for people to relocate and give up what they have - but still, I have to imagine there’s someone out there who wants to share.



27 Responses to “How Much Land Do You Need?”

  1. risa bon 24 Jun 2008 at 10:44 am

    We have 1.2 acre, some of which is a running creek half the year. The house is 1850 square feet, and in a pinch is five bedrooms. We’re in our late-late fifties and finding the going a little tough. But the kids, most of them, are in their twenties and two have threatened to move home when the going gets rough (smiles all around — they do have some enthusiasm for what we do here, and — mirabile dictu, are compatible with us, personality-wise). Next door neighbors have five acres and can’t keep it up — we could go halves with them on productivity, for example, a Dexter cow-calf unit, donkey, and sheep — but only if the young people show up. Interesting times ahead! Our main constraint is water — we have two wells, a 32 footer and a ninty. The ninety holds up when all the other wells in the neighborhood run out — which happened once in the last 15 years, in a drought — and so we had water to share with neighbors. But the gardens were smaller then. Water is an important limiter to think about when planning to farm a small place.

  2. AnnaMarieon 24 Jun 2008 at 11:11 am

    Wow, were you channeling my insomnia last night or what? I’m getting ready to move 2500 miles and make drastic life changes and while we have a general idea of area, up-state Vermont, the land issue has been a source of non-stop discussion between my husband and I. We have been leaning towards the 1/2 to 3/4 acre lots with homes but worried if it was enough. I feel more confident that we are going in the right direction after reading your article.

    Now if I could find 1/2 acre lots with houses that aren’t so dang huge!

  3. WNC Observeron 24 Jun 2008 at 11:30 am


    You apparently are not aware of Hand Tractors, a.k.a. “Walk-Behind tractors”. These are a good solution for small scale gardening/farming, especially where a larger tractor or draft animal is not a practical alternative, and/or cultivation by hand is just too overwhelming or burensome. While many people are not familiar with these, they are in widespread use around the world. Millions upon millions of small farmers make their living working their fields using these.

    One good thing about a hand tractor is that a wide range of attachments and implements are available, just like for a big farm tractor, but downsized just right for small scale agriculture. You can even get a rotary cultivator attachment for these; in fact, many rotary cultivators sold are actually just hand tractors with a rotary cultivator attachment.

    I am even aware of a diesel model made by BCS. The advantage of this is that it might be possible (with a little tinkering) to run it on biodiesel. If you can do that, then you can grow some sunflowers and produce your own fuel. I suggest sunflowers (oilseed, not confectionery varieties) because they are relatively easy to grow, and can be harvested and the seeds removed by hand. Just stretch and attach some chicken wire over a tub or barel and rub the seed heads over it. You can then modify an apple cider press to use as an oilseed press. One might not want to go to all this trouble right now, but it is good to have a plan B in place.

    The other thing I’d suggest for people doing gardening on a large scale: get an azada. An azada is a Brazilian grub hoe. It is a heavy duty, serious tool. It makes a very quick job of digging and cultivating. There must be thousands, if not millions, of people in Brazil who feed themselves and their families using nothing but an azada and a machete. If I had to pick just one garden tool to keep, and to rely upon to keep myself from starving, this would be the one.

  4. Heather Grayon 24 Jun 2008 at 11:51 am

    Good post! Have a few thoughts…

    On horse/ox-drawn equipment, if your area has them it might be possible to hire them, same as you do with a neighbor who has a tractor. Maybe just for things like turning the soil, big things like that. We used farm equipment here this year since we were breaking new ground, and borrowed a rototiller from Lyle’s brother Ray. Ages of the veggie growers here: 45, 49/50, and 83.

    We grow mixed annuals and perennials (various berries and fruit trees). Hoping to expand on the perennial types of plants, to cut down on annual planting work. Next year I won’t need the tractor for one of the new plots — and I’m hoping that the type of gardening I’m doing will persuade my FIL that he doesn’t need to use the tractor as much/at all eventually. It’s just the starting part that’s hard, for sure.

    On how much hay/grain to put up, I’m wondering how winter in your area compares to northern Ohio? Did you read Gene Logsdon’s article last year (and linked to from the end of his recent article on bluegrass), on pasturing? Here’s a link to it: A quiet revolution coming to a farm near you. In in there’s a farming family who use windbreaks and the woods on their farm as shelter for their livestock, so they’re putting up less and less in the way of hay for the winter. Of course, you still need to have room to pasture them, so there’s that land requirement, but less work than the modern traditional ways of keeping livestock.

    Excellent points on water availability, managing livestock, sharing tasks, land.

    Our volunteer family from sugaring season has a little veggie plot here and it’s doing pretty well :) I think this year we may have cleared more land than we needed to, but then again, we still have late summer and fall planting to do, and I think enough of the spring/summer plantings will still need to be ripening at the same time, so maybe not.

    At any rate, I’d say we have currently have less than 1/2 an acre per person right now and that seems to be fine. Next year though, I might plant more squashes and pumpkins. You never know what Mother Nature’s going to throw at you, and the extra can go to the food pantry.

    Heather G

  5. Sharonon 24 Jun 2008 at 11:59 am

    WNC Observer, I am familiar with walk behind tractors - the major disadvantage I see in them is the cost. There are some very old ones available out there, but they require massive restoration and the skills to maintain them, and otherwise, the only choice is to buy new, and they aren’t cheap. I think they are probably a great choice for serious small scale farmers, but maybe not as much for subsistence family farmers that are looking mostly to meet their own needs. The situation may also be different in some places. But you are right, I should have mentioned them.

    I’m not familiar with the tool you’ve mentioned, but there are a host of very basic hand tools that can make hand agriculture manageable - we ran our CSA without any powered tools, and found it quite doable. I’ll definitely check out your recommendation, though.

    Heather, I’ve seen the article you mention and some of the Cornell material on overwintering animals with minimal hay. The problem I see for us is twofold - the depth of snow cover in cold, snowy years, and the problem of having animals out on pastures during warmer winters, and stirring up the soil and disturbing perennial pasture. But I think there’s a lot of potential, we just haven’t explored it yet.


  6. Greenpaon 24 Jun 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Wow! Ok, here’s where we’ve got some differences! We’re on 155 acres- and it’s not too big. And I can’t imagine inviting someone else to come live with us! Except family- they’re probably already used to me.

    I’m just not that social a creature, I think. I do admire your intentions there; but having lived in several co-op housing situations- not very interested in doing it again.

    And we just acquired a new walking tractor; diesel; Grillo, not BCS, but with a BCS sickle bar. Expensive- but they’re also reliable- which is remarkably important in agriculture.

  7. Sharonon 24 Jun 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Greenpa, it depends on what your priorities are - my ability to maximize my land’s productivity is somewhat constrained by lack of time. I’m acutely aware of how damned hard it is going to be to feed the state of New York, so yes, I feel obligated to manage it as intensively (in a positive way) as possible, and we don’t have enough time or energy for that right now. We’re fine now that everyone has food - but that’s not forever.


  8. Sharonon 24 Jun 2008 at 1:11 pm

    I should add that it isn’t like I really want any neighbors closer, other than those of my choosing, though ;-).


  9. Taraon 24 Jun 2008 at 1:20 pm

    My husband and I are in our mid to late thirties with no kids and just took on 12 acres. The particular size wasn’t of so much importance to us as the features and location of the property. We’ll only manage what we can manage without killing ourselves, but we, too, have seen the potential of inviting others to come live on the land with us. Our house is quite small - one bedroom only - so any others joining us would either have to build themselves a small house on the property (such as a cob house or small cabin), or help us build a bigger communal house and use the small one as guest quarters or repurpose it in some other way. We have no economic need to share our house, but we would be interested in like-minded folks to help manage the chores and relieve the isolation. This is something we’ve only briefly discussed, so we’re not sure how all the details would play out, or if it would even be viable. Thought-provoking, though.

  10. Sue (coffeepot)on 24 Jun 2008 at 2:08 pm

    Now that is why I like reading here. Great and informative article.

  11. Jenon 24 Jun 2008 at 2:18 pm

    Hey Sharon,
    Give me a year or so and I’ll be there! Just have to finish school first (no, we’re not teens or young students).

    My husband and I have been talking for years about some type of communal living… but communes are so pricey nowadays and it seems like a huge commitment to make without knowing the people beforehand.

    More on topic: your 27 acres doesn’t sound bad. There’s a lot to be done with land that is not being farmed or stripped of it’s resources.

  12. Anion 24 Jun 2008 at 3:01 pm

    good post-

    I’d second the thought about “it depends” on so many factors in terms of how much land you need. I have way more land than I actually use, but much of it is wetland so not “useable” for farming. We do in truth need lots less land area than we imagine,especially if we create fertile soil and grow intensively. Sometimes I see gardens with those huge spaces between rows and I wonder why-guess it’s the tractor model or something. Growing in beds is a very productive use of space but is labor intensive. The soil quality is so important though. This year I’ve expanded to a part of my former pasture- used black plastic mulch to kill off the sod- and didn’t realize how much of it had been disturbed to put in the septic system and a drain- so that area is so very unfertile and the plants there are really struggling- have lost most to insects and predators and whatnot- as opposed to everything growing elsewhere in my fertile soils- so will need to build this area up and deal with replanting all the cukes elsewhere……

    re: livestock- I’ve got visiting draft horses(Belgians) for a few weeks- cannot believe how much they eat- unreal- I am used to poultry, goats, sheep and even a Jersey cow- yikes- could never support draft horses on my pasture.

    re: tractors- I just pay a neighbor to do any tillage, etc that I need done- am trying to not need to till anymore- may be there finally. Tractors are a money pit…….

    I am really interested in what people can do in terms of growing food on the basic house lot- have been thinking of writing about this and/or starting a business consulting on this topic- there are so many possibilities but most people don’t see them, believing they need “LAND” as in 40 acres or something,but really, unless they want to graze the above referenced Belgians, they don’t…

  13. homebrewlibrarianon 24 Jun 2008 at 3:49 pm

    Just yesterday I was listening to two 50something men talk about how [insert large number here] of acres was not enough. But for them, the acreage wasn’t sufficient to be far enough away from neighbors. One of them had no interest in doing any food production or living a self sustaining lifestyle, just wanted the extra space. The other wants to live off the land (to a point) but feels squeezed by property sales all around the land he was thinking of (80 acres owned by a friend of his).

    I should also point out that while these men would work long and hard should the need arise, they both have physical limitations from age and early-in-their-lives abuse to their bodies. They’d kill themselves if they tried to work the land they think they needed. It boggles my mind that they think they have no use for neighbors!

    I’m at the other end of the spectrum from their views in both the size of land needed and my opinion of close neighbors. I’m working on developing up, ala Dervaes, the small urban lot I live on with five others. Just started the process this year so it will be a few years before the land is that productive but that’s the direction I’m headed. I’ve also been meeting and talking with the close by neighbors. Never know what we can do for each other! It’s a short block with only three buildings with folks living in them but I at least recognize all my neighbors.

    The lot I live on is probably the most amount of land I could sustain given that I work full time elsewhere. And sustain it with hand tools. I can’t fathom wanting a large chunk of land that’s essentially a woodlot and then wanting to create large tracts of open space for grain or grass cropping. I’d prefer to rent somewhat nearby cleared land for that sort of need. And even that would be a stretch. I guess I’m more modest in my needs.

    Sharon, I appreciate the discussion about animals. I’m hoping that if and/or when the borscht hits the windmill, my two cats will have long shuffled off this mortal coil. While I’d have no trouble raising chickens, goats or rabbits for food, my cats are different story altogether. They’ve never worked a day of their lives because they’ve always lived indoors. Fending for themselves is beyond their skill set at this point (they’re 9 years old). They are pets and will always be. While I enjoy having cats around as pets, the luxury of having them is going to diminish so after these guys it will be farm cats at most. But by then I hope to have chickens!

    Kerri in AK

  14. Cathyon 24 Jun 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Consider the ZONING before you sign any papers for anything other than Agriculturally zoned property. First of all, you won’t find those 3 acre or smaller lots in the AG zone. Those lots will be relegated to some kind of “Residential Zone” even if they are way out in the boonies. Check the local zoning ordinance to see if the kind of things you want to do are permitted.

    For example, I live ‘way out in the country on three acres in a Rural Residential Zone, surrounded by thousands of acres of publicly owned forested land. But according to the zoning rules, I can’t build an additional home or an apartment over a free-standing garage (one family home to a parcel) for a family member or employee, I can’t add a mother-in-law apartment to my existing home, no woodstoves permitted outside, no wind power or solar panels permitted. No gardens in the front yard (even if the backyard is shady and the front is sunny) — and certainly no accessory buildings (garages, barns, etc) are allowed other than in the “backyard”. No keeping of farm animals — even small ones such as goats, sheep or a horse for pleasure riding. Dogs are limited to three.

    Zoning laws are bound to change in the future when hard times hit and families need to move in, grow food, and stay warm together. But for right now, if you want to do any of the things listed above, check the ZONING before you buy!

  15. Hughon 24 Jun 2008 at 4:09 pm

    The amount of land it is possible for you to cultivate also depends on the type of soil you have. I have been chopping a vegetable garden out of solid clay and it has been a huge amount of effort. With a lighter soil I could manage a much greater area. Also, the clay is usually too wet or too dry for digging, hoeing and so on, so digging and planting all end up being done in a rush when conditions finally come right.

    I second the vote for the heavy digging hoe.

  16. Kation 24 Jun 2008 at 4:39 pm

    We have .14 acres (I THINK that figures into 7/25 as a fraction) that we own. I’ve got a 3×8 planter bed in the back yard for the first time; 2 chicken-wire potato-barrels that still haven’t sprouted (though I planted the potatoes weeks ago, I think they may have molded or something); a small bean-patch that runs about 6 feet along the side of my house; another 8 foot strawberry patch with 12 strawberry plants in it that may or may not send out runners (don’t know what kind of strawberries they are); 2 rhubarb that produce more than we eat a year; a chive plant that also produces more chives than I can eat in a year; 2 big black plastc half-barrels, one of which as 2 zucchini growing in it, the other has 2 tomato seedlings that STILL aren’t more than about 3 inches tall, started from seed; and lots & lots of weed in the back that’s either chick-weed or lambs-quarters (not sure). Also the ubiquitous dandilions that the hubby wants to pesticide into non-existence and I’ve only tried cooking once. Oh, and one small-ish compost bin alongside our storage shed. And, I DO wish our lot was just a bit bigger (.25 would be perfect!), mainly for the ability it would give me to have a small stand of trees (more for “greenbelt purposes” than for wood-supply or fruit, which doesn’t grow well -or at all- around here anyway) and the ability to add onto our home enough for a woodstove without compromizing what little space we DO have.

    If my hubby would allow me, I know we could put in a good sized garden in our front yard, and next year he’s going to give me another 3×8 planter bed in the back, just adjacent to the one he built me this year. I’m thinking that where we planned on putting a garage may work out better as a bicycle maintenance shop for the neighbourhood and maybe a small rabbit hutch for meat and furs. We’ll see how that all works out in the next few years.

    A lot CAN be done on small acreage, but it requires a big effort and a partner who’s willing to give up that “All American” front yard for some food production. Oh, and we’re ALSO gardening over at the inlaw’s house (my hubby’s parents), with a 10×10 greenhouse and plans for another, and a 30×60″ garden bed. We’ve had little success over there in the 4 or 5 years we’ve been gardening there so far, but this year it looks like we may actually get a decent amount of food out of it, though STILL not enough to get us through a winter without grocery shopping for fruits & veggies.

    I’m another that has no interest in having a farm, I prefer a garden with enough produce to fill (some of) my family’s needs, and maybe a bit leftover to share. My inlaw’s live just outside the city limits on about 1-1/2 acres, away from the city central with a few older family members still close, but nobody young. (Both their daughter and her kids, and my hubby and I live about 10 minutes away.) I prefer to have neighbours close where we can help each other in time of need. My next-door-neighbours on the left of us have been great help in the gardening efforts, and the encouragement. 2 of the neighbours across the street are friends, and one neighbour 2 doors down on the otherside, and a number of others just around the block from us. I think a close neighbourhood will be as important as a family farm, in the coming future. And, for that matter, all the kids around will be ready farm-hands, should they be needed.

    I’m still trying to convince my SIL (she’s got 2 boys, 6 and 4, and a newborn little girl) and MIL that the garden there at the FIL’s house is not just for fun or a whim. FIL is as convinced as I am as to the importance, and my hubby is darned near as convinced. The MIL tolerates it, and the SIL makes fun of our attempts and efforts, though she’ll have no problems mooching food off the FIL and MIL this winter. (All the while eatting it, she’ll probably be grumbling about how much better she thinks store-bought food is, than what we’ve grown, knowing her.) She’s gonna be dead weight one of these days, I’m afraid. But, what can ya do when they’re family?!?!

    *shrug* The struggles and triumphs go hand in hand, it seems.

    One thing that struck me this fall, while looking at an old book on the Middle Ages (volunteering at the school lib. to gain experience for a lib. assistant position at the local public lib. branch), was the set-up of the merchants homes. It struck me as astonishingly similar to the condos that are being put up just across the road from my subdivision. INSIDE the same subdivision, but MY side is individual homes on lots about the same size as mine. The other side of the subdivision is going to be filled with these 4-plex condos: housing above garage. The garage is little larger than a 1 car, mainly 1 car with storage. The laundry is situated downstairs, there is also a man-door that opens alongside the garage door. The rest of the apartment is above the garage, with 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, and a good size kitchen/living area, as well as a tiny deck. The condos each have a back yard that is approx 20×30 feet, and fenced in. The illustration in the book showed how the downstairs part of the merchant homes were often outfitted as workshops & storefronts, with the “help” and the “journeymen and apprentices” sleeping on the floor of the workshop, after hours. The rest of the family and a main servant or 2 would sleep upstairs in the bedchambers and living area, of course. But, what really stuck out at me was the manner in which the downstairs workshop opened out right onto the street, with a counter and window that could be opened for business and closed up after hours. The condos could easily be retro-fitted in the same manner, giving that part of our subdivision more of a “small town main-street” type purpose, work below and residences above. Even the roof-lines are at angles and pitches, unlike your usual flat-topped, 1 story strip malls these days.

    Should we, as a subdivision/community decide, we could retrofit our lives for a main-street type section of the subdivision with workshops and apartments over there, and “farming” over on this side. Something to consider.

    Sorry this got comment got so long, but a lot of thoughts I wanted to throw out there for the sake of thinking about reuse of subdivisions and the personal efforts we’re making to maximize our property for food production.

  17. AppleJackCreekon 24 Jun 2008 at 4:44 pm

    I have 6 acres that has turned out to be just perfect for us. As it wasn’t purchased with the kind of future in mind that I now see coming … I feel tremendously blessed. The whole decision to move here fits the Quaker definition of “a Leading”, and boy, am I grateful for it.

    We are working hard on infrastructure now, while our bodies can do the work and while our pocketbooks can afford the expense of fence posts and woven wire (we are 37 and 40, with kids 12, 6 and 4). There are fenced pastures for sheep on about 4 of our acres (they eat the grass, provide wool and meat, and in a pinch could be convinced to provide at least some milk), a creek with very little water but lovely trees (think woodlot and natural land area - entirely ignored by us except for the kids to play in and for harvesting rose hips!), and I just fenced in a garden of raised beds on the acre or thereabouts that is dedicated to house and garden.

    We too have clay soil under a thin layer of topsoil - the topsoil grows awesome pasture grass, but would be useless for gardening much of anything. We are using the Square Foot Gardening method with raised beds, and so far, so good! Hugh, this might be something for you to contemplate too with your clay soil (the book is worth buying!). I bought excellent growing mix from Canadian Tire (peat and vermiculite) to fill the beds with, which means that what is underneath matters much less. And, there was no digging!

    I purposely made the garden area large enough to include more than I think we’ll need … because if we end up with the brother-in-law-on-the-couch (we are the refuge of choice for at least 4 additional adults), we’ll need to grow more. Also, if we need to grow some of our critter’s feed (poultry grain mostly) there’s space set aside for that. If you’re putting up fence, just do it once. :)

    I am seriously considering a donkey for riding/carting because we are just that much too far from most people that it could be handy … and they eat less than horses and are managed much the same as the sheep, so they’d fit in around here. Haven’t quite decided though.

    We just keep going one step at a time towards the uncertain future, following the Theory of Anyway and future proofing wherever we can.

  18. Shaneon 24 Jun 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Hi Sharon

    That was a brilliant article that really brought it all together.

    We are on two relatively fertile acres for a immediate family of three, with a potential family of ten, plus potential refugees should they ever make it that far out. We are very glad we didnt buy any more than that after seeing neighbors try to do the same on 30 acres and ending up with a raging mess when the subtropical growth got away from them in a wet season (plus the spectre of a lingering mortgage). I am talking with a lot of neighbors about helping them use their huge spaces collectively, so you quickly realise that you don’t need to own the deed to a bit of land to grow food on it. A community street food/nut tree planting project is in the planning stages as well.

    One thing I have conciously done is put a large area (about a quarter acre) under ornamental gardens with heavy mulching brought in. In the short term it is low maintainence (no watering, just occasional light weeding) and it may provide a small income if I can get a small mail order nursery or stand at the local markets organised once the stocks have filled out. The strategic purpose of this garden is that it is ready to go if we ever need to rapidly increase our food production. Soil is partly improved and there is no sod to break up, just some wimpy flowers to rip out, and a wheelbarrow full of sweet potato runners and six months later- hey presto- a glut of sustaining carbohydrates on hand.

    Apart from this there is around 400 sq m (~4000 sq ft?) of a vegetable garden divided into summer and winter sides. It is relatively unintensive with wide spacing and long rotations, and around five months per year under green manure (which does fantastic things to the soil at least in our climate- manures just burn away in the heat). The chickens in their pen in this garden may be a liability in the long run as they need a concentrated grain diet to be worth while, though we are trialling grain crops to feed them.

    Beyond that it a larger acre with half of it planted to an orchard, with the rows in between turned over to robust root and seed crops. I would encourage people with a bit of time and space to start experimenting to see which staple crops grow well in your area without irrigation and fuss. You needn’t be self sufficient on them today- they are a strategic resource to scale up as things progress. Roots are great but generally need wetter conditions. In our variable Australian climate we have to have back up crops on standby for the dry years, and dry-storable crops to get us through prolonged dry spells. The muscovy ducks in this area (sharing the other half acre with a mouldy old pet horse that I hope dies soon) have been the best livestock by far because of their capacity to forage for a lot of their own food. They are very hardy and easy to handle, and lay enough eggs and produce enough meat to make them very worthwhile. Good to see you counterbalance the enthusiasm for getting lots of animals in your recent post in this one. It is very easy for people to get in over their head, driven by the cute factor and visions of gentle and contented flocks. They can very easily turn into ravenous, expensive, diseased or time sucking flocks if you over-extend yourself.

    One thing I am conciously seeking out are living larder crops. We are lucky in the subtropics to have a range of perennial root crops that can be planted for other purposes as an emergency food source. Arrowroot and Cassava are good examples and are quick growing, long lasting, trouble free (if not utterly delicious, though I am making an effort to learn how to cook with them before I have to). The other thing I would encourage people to consider is the balance of fruit and nut trees. A small number of fruit trees will inundate you with perishable crops that demand instant attention to pick and preserve. Nut trees on the other hand give a crop that can just be roughly dried down and then stored for later use. Most regions have a tough nut tree variety or two, so if you have a lot of land to plant out go for seed raised nuts to keep your costs and labor down (even consider growing them direct in their final position to cut down on the amount of labour per tree if the space is large).

    We are lucky we need very little heat for warmth in this climate (could get by with none at all and not grumble too much) so we dont really need our own wood lots. There are plenty of stands of Eucalypts close by and we already gather a useful amount of wood from these. Pretty soon a solar cooker might be a good idea (though making a biogas fermenter might be a better choice? Or even a more efficient controlled burning stove?).

    Good quality hand tools are definitely a great investment at the moment, not least because they make tackling long periods of garden labour infinitely easier. The payback on your physical health is very fast if you consider the damage you can do through overexertion. Hoes are definitely at the top of the list- good quality sharp ones, that you regularly resharpen by hand as needed, with long handles to prevent stooping. A good fork for aerating soil, strong with a long handle, is also essential (Im getting a broadfork soon- will let you know what I think). A small hand sickle is also on my top tools list- the kama sold by green harvest in Australia is the easiest to use for small slashing jobs (but if you do this all day a machete or scythe may be better depending on the plants being hacked down). Spades are not that useful I reckon- they take too much of a toll on the body. You can do the same jobs with a fork (aeration) and a hoe (hilling up) with much less effort. Unless you need to fill a wheel barrow etc try and work without them.

    Shane in Australia

  19. Susanon 24 Jun 2008 at 11:47 pm

    Shane in Australia, whereabouts in Australia?
    Susan and Stephen in Australia would like to make contact with you!

    This post was great Sharon, just what we have been talking about the last few days.
    We have 3 & 1/2 acres, degraded soil but it comes good with work, hot sun.

    We are 45 and 60, and putting much work into infrastructure while we have health, strength and money. Hey there’s a few of us around.

  20. Nitaon 25 Jun 2008 at 9:46 am

    I’m with greenpa on this one. Our place 180 acres isn’t big enough either. Original homestead papers for the proving up on this land by my grandfather show that after 7 years he had 2 horses, 3 head of cattle, plus various chickens and ducks. He also grew oats for hay and grain.
    I imagine that if times get tough, that would be our acceptable level of livestock also. I would have to liquidate our beef herd, and I think I would keep one of my 1/2 dairy cows for milk instead of my purebred dairy cow. I also would not be growing any grain as my grandfather did.
    While he had the arduous task of homesteading here, those times were full of hope and if you could work hard you were rewarded. These days are different.
    I still have my tractor, which we rarely use except for haymaking activities. That would all go away without the # of animals we have now. I till the gardens once or twice in prep for planting
    in the spring, the rest is done by hand or hoe. We are spending our energy gardening and trialing varieties that produce here year-round or items we can store without any kind of processing.
    We would have to conserve gasoline for firewood cutting. Since we heat and cook with wood, that would be our best use of any gasoline we could get our hands on or be able to afford. We use electricity now for cooking in the summer, but could easily stop that if the electricity get cost prohibitive.
    Our biggest concern really would be guarding our resources, trees and livestock etc. We already have a constant battle with people wildcrafting herbs and mushrooms, poaching deer, and stealing metal.
    None of our neighbors are even remotely interested at this time in learning how to take care of themselves, preferring the quiet country life for sleeping only.
    But, my situation is unique, if I didn’t have property I would look for at least 20 acres that contain water, woodlot and some cleared ground, since we have the skills to take care of that much.

  21. Elizabethon 25 Jun 2008 at 3:32 pm

    We have 7 acres outside of town and 1/4 acre closer, but still not in, town. When we were looking for property, we mostly looked at 20-25 acre parcels, but those that would could afford were entirely wooded with scrubby trees (most folks here timber forests before selling them) and very steep. For the same price, we got our 7 acres, which is a mostly level hilltop with a 4.5 acres hayfield and 2.5 acres of hemlock, poplar, cherry, and oak. I am extremely happy with our choice, since we were immediately able to plant a small orchard and many perrenial fruits in the field and begin building our future home. If we had bought a larger piece of land at a price we could afford, it would have taken us years to clear brush, dig stumps, and terrace the land for gardening. Our 7 acres can support a few small goats, a flock of chickens, an orchard, plenty of nut trees, and a really big garden. Of course, I would love to have my neighbor’s hay field, too, but this will have to do!

  22. Elizabethon 25 Jun 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Oh! And I meant to add that we still have a pretty big garden on the 1/4 acre. There would be room for a few dwarf fruit trees, but there’s a lot of landscaping that was done by my husband’s grandma and that I don’t have the heart to tear out.
    I’m considering getting a few hens too!

  23. Shaneon 25 Jun 2008 at 7:09 pm

    Hey Susan

    I am in the Sunshine coast hinterland, and making new contacts is always welcome. Even if you are outside of visiting distance we can always share seeds and experiences by post. My email is void_genesis at hotmail if you want to get in touch.


  24. lydiaon 27 Jun 2008 at 4:44 pm

    I am in my fifth year of making my tiny 3K square foot city lot into a paradise. There was nothing here but a tiny house and lawn when I bought it. I busted up all the sod and planted roses and flowers and a 444 square foot vege garden in the front yard. Planted four apple trees, put in a green house, wood shed, woodstove and tool shed. Every year I amend soil in the raised beds and garden beds. I compost all food scraps, dryer lint, cat hair and whatever else will rot. Today I went 2 miles away to a cabinet shop and acquired 14 huge bags of clean wood sawdust. Makes great mulch and soil additions. The best part, it was free except for the cost of gas. They have to pay to get rid of it, so it is a win/win.

    Now, your age thing-yes, makes a lot of difference. I started at 47, and am now 53. I am tired more these days doing the same amount of work, even though I am in good health and like to do physical work. I have no one else to help, so I bust my hump all the time. But do I need large amount of land ? A nice blue sky dream, but not practical. No spouse or kids to help. The dogs just think I am crazy and offer no help at all……

  25. Nobodyspecialon 27 Jun 2008 at 8:27 pm

    I doubt a couple of acres would cut food production for a small family. One needs grow a balance of various crops, including fruits, vegitables and an assortment of foods that be stored long term without refrigeration. This includes beets, potatoes, dried beads and grains. Extra food must be planted to accomidate bad harvest cause by bad weather, pests, or disease. Relying on a single season of crops is a disaster in the making. Additional land is also required to support an wood lot for fuel as well as construction material (Fence posts, building repair). A substainal wood lot is absolutely essential in north regions such as Maine and vermont.

    I would also be concerned about living in a nieghborhood where all the other neighbors have the same sized property. In which case, neighbors with bad luck, or just not willing to participate in agraculture, may choose to liberate your crops for there own consumption.

    Unless you are able to afford to buy sufficient land, or can find a lot that is adjacent to a large undeveloped land that you could take advantage of, I wouldn’t not try to homestead on a small lot consisting of a few acres. You best option, would be to relocate to a urban region where you can take advantage of mass transit, and gov’t services. In the event of a major crisis, The gov’t is far more likely to provide services in urban regions than in rural or suburban locations.

  26. Greg Kon 28 Jun 2008 at 1:35 pm

    I don’ t know what to say to those wanting a large lot, except if your rich you can probably afford it. Homesteading and food production for “peak oil” or other disasters is a huge undertaking, because you are planning for other unknown self sufficient contingencies and it’s almost impossible to plan for them all.

    As far as supporting yourself on a small amount of land. Apparently many can support or at least augment their life with a small amount of land. In Cuba supposedly the people use a lot of small gardening for food growth. It’s not ideal, because it’s always good to have backups.

    Also many who try to do a hobby farm fail, because they fail to work hard enough or don’t know what to do at what point of the season. So they bit off more than they can chew. If your looking to be off grid, that is off the artificial grid, without many fertilizers and soil amendments, then you are looking at a very difficult task. If your hoping to be sufficient and rely on just what you grow and are afraid of others, then you definately would need redundancy and some kind of emergency backup. Some things like a flood could wipe out your ability to farm or garden for years. So you still need a social network with others or a government that will help or something in the event you run into trouble.

    Self sufficiency requires a lot of work and a lot of money if your trying to maintain all the old technology.

    To me redundancy is a big thing, that is having duplicates of what you’d need or backup plans for failure scenarios. Obviously more skills and even outside jobs or ability to store and trade what is needed for future problems is a key. Also being in an urban area could mean gangs trying to take your food by stealth or with force. So there’s not blanket solution. We can only live as peacefully as we can with all men.

  27. Maxon 29 Jun 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Your estimate of strength falling with age is not necessarily true. I’m just as strong at 55 as i was at 25- maybe stronger. Weight training and some form of high cardio workout 4 times a week will extend your peak lifetime far beyond your pessimistic view.


Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply