When Your Farm Is Smaller Than Some Backyards
Why our favorite vegetable farmers think small is beautiful.
Starting a farm can be intimidating. Land is expensive. So are tractors. Rain comes and goes. So do profits.
For those of us who didn't grow up farming-which, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, is 75 percent of young farmers in the U.S.-it can seem downright impossible. So when Gordon and I got into farming, we decided to start small. Very small, actually. We grow on less than half an acre of land. For comparison, the average American farm is 442 acres. All told, though, half an acre is actually a lot of space. It's the equivalent of eight tennis courts, or half a soccer field. It's enough space for us to grow weekly vegetables for 70 CSA families, a handful of restaurants, and ourselves-in total, we grow well over six tons of vegetables, all from a space that's 0.1 percent the size of average.
How do we make such a tiny farm work? We devote every square foot to growing as much food as possible. Our paths are just wide enough for our feet. We plant as densely as possible. As soon as a crop is done and harvested, we clear it and replant the bed the same day. This way, we get three to six crops per bed per year. We keep those beds rolling right through the winter, which means we have vegetables for sale 52 weeks of the year. And we sell those vegetables directly to our customers, which means we're getting the most value out of our crops, cutting out the middlemen.
Farming this way is nothing new. Wherever land is a limited resource, folks have been farming this way for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We're inspired by the small-scale, organic farmers in ancient Japan and China, as well as those in Paris in the 18th century, who were way more efficient and productive than we are, or probably will ever be.
Why are so many people interested in farming on a small scale? It feels approachable. You don't need a huge piece of land, and the start-up costs are way, way lower. It's human-scale, not machine-scale. It's also beautiful and inspiring. And the work is pleasant. We work in a large garden, not a big sterile field. We have the satisfaction of working closely with the soil and focusing on the quality of the food we grow.
Gordon and I do hope to expand our farm in the next few years-maybe to an acre or an acre-and-a-half, at most. Then we'll be a full 0.3 percent of average!