Is growing food expensive?

A little while back, there was an interesting debate on the Columbia Tribune’s food forum over a claim our local food columnist made that “food you grow yourself is almost free“. A reader felt that wasn’t accurate, and brought up a list of gardening expenses (scroll down to post 7 on the thread):

But here I am giving deep consideration to purchasing a $150 grow light from gardeners.com for seed starting. And tools…………….. omg tools are pricey, especially good ones that will last. I have a tiller; it’s even rear tine, though I still find front tine tillers are easier for me to handle and will dig deeper. Have ya priced fertilizer recently?

Below is an edited version of the lengthy response I posted, which I felt would also make a good blog entry on the economics of personal gardening and farming. Any gardeners or farmers are welcome to chip in their thoughts on this complicated issue.

Gardening is expensive? I guess I see it the other way around. A small garden requires very little expense if handled right, whereas the scale of even a small farm requires infrastructure that is not relevant to a garden. For example, I use drip irrigation because it is not practical to stand around with hose all day in my extensive plantings, whereas a small garden can easily be watered by hand or with a simple sprinkler. Real irrigation is expensive; garden hoses are cheap. I use a great deal of straw mulch, which isn’t a big expense for a couple garden beds but is at a farm scale. Gardens can be weeded by hand; most farms need or use some form of mechanical or chemical cultivation, though some (like ours) do still use mostly manual weed control. This costs a great deal of time, which is of course money. Along the same lines, the manual labor required in a household garden is not that bad, whereas the labor required in farming is far more significant and needs to be accounted for in the farm budget (whether helpers’ salaries or the value of your own time).

I think the expense depends largely on how you approach gardening/farming. You can spend $150 on one grow light, but you can buy simple shop light brackets from Orscheln or Westlakes, as well as full-spectrum bulbs to fit them, for far less than that. We use a whole wall of them and they start our plants wonderfully. Regarding tools, yes good ones are expensive, but they’re a one-time cost. And if your budget is tight, you’re virtually guaranteed to find used hoes, shovels, rakes, trowels, and so forth at garage sales for dollars at most and they will last you many years if they aren’t already broken. You don’t need more than a few simple hand tools to garden.Tillers are expensive, but you don’t have to buy them. Try renting one, or finding a neighbor who will loan/rent you one. People who own tillers use them maybe a few times a year; I bet you can find someone who will share. Moreover, you likely don’t need a tiller. Try establishing permanent garden beds, with or without sides, and a little manual cultivation is all you need. Too much tillage can actually damage your soil and set you back; try a broadfork or a hoe instead.

I have no idea what fertilizer costs, as I’ve never bought it in my life. Manure is easy to come by and virtually free. There are horse people all over Boone County who often want someone to take their used manure/bedding off their hands, and I’ve been told that Stephens College will load up your truck from their barns in an instant. To make my point, here is a partial photo of our market garden: It is composed of 45 permanent beds, each 4’x16′ (see full map here, though it’s not up to date). We established these over the last few years, using our tractor to plow the sod under once and then never using equipment again. All the beds are maintained using a broadfork once a year, with annual applications of manure in the fall, when it is spread and turned in by rake and hoe, where it is naturally incorporated by worms and soil biota all winter. We rotate our crops regularly with an appropriate mix to balance the soil’s needs. All weeding is manual; we are organic and use no purchased herbicides or pesticides. The only meaningful one-time expense was the irrigation system, which will need replacing over time as the hoses deteriorate, and the fence, which stays put. The only meaningfull annual expense is straw for mulch, some T-posts and twine for trellising the tomatoes (posts salvaged used) and of course seeds. In three years, using the methods described above, we have taken this borderline poor soil to a point where our MU soil tests indicate no need for additional soil amendments of any kind. You can have your expensive purchased fertilizer and your tiller and so on.
Outside of the garden itself, potting soil and starting flats can also be expensive, though when treated well the flats will also last years and you can often buy lots of small pots at garage sales. Try contacting garden centers about used flats and pots that they don’t want or didn’t sell, especially at the end of the season. There’s no easy way around potting soil, though some folks make their own and save a lot of money doing it. I guess I don’t know anything about plant prices, not having bought any for a long time, but they’d have to be darned high to outweigh the season-long production of a single healthy tomato or pepper plant. You might consider looking into a soil blocker, a nifty little device that creates stand-alone cubes of soil into which you plant the seeds. As long as they’re kept moist, you don’t need traditional planting flats at all. Many small farms are actively moving this way (we’re testing them this year for the first time). See an example at Johnny’s.

Out of this garden we produce most of the produce we eat year round as well as a meaningful amount of market sales (we also have a larger field that is regularly expanding). A small home garden could be a tenth of this and still produce lots of healthy, cheap vegetables.
For many people, starting up a garden can be expensive. But I think that’s more perception than reality. Like a lot of hobbies, there exists a massive industry whose entire existence is based on selling you stuff to make the hobby easier. Even good gardening/seed catalogues are full of cool-sounded gadgets that you just have to have. So I can see where people would feel that it’s expensive. I would suggest looking at it this way: For centuries of American history, the poorest people managed to keep healthy gardens with an incredible variety of produce. Prairie settlers, Depression-era households, Victory Gardens…all managed to grow worthwhile quantities of vegetables for the household using none of today’s fancy and expensive fertilizers, supplements, gadgets, and so on. They used basic hand tools, common sense, and work. So if you want to save money, research or imagine how the old-timers did it, then do it that way. Frankly, that concept is one of the core values of organic farming; the idea that farms and vegetable growing worked perfectly well prior to the WWII chemical revolution that has convinced lots of folks that they have to buy lots of stuff to make plants grow. It’s a fallacy, as human history of basic vegetable production shows.

3 thoughts on “Is growing food expensive?

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s given me so much to think about. I’m going to have to do research on permanent garden beds as they sound like a really good way to go.

  2. Eric,I always appreciate the information on your blog. Do you give farm tours in the spring or summer? I’m itching to grow some things either in my yard or on some land somewhere near here. I’d love to see your setup.

  3. Cat,Permanent beds are great. They really help focus your work on just the soil you actually use, and are of much higher quality. Amy,We will be hosting at least one public on-farm event sometime this year, probably late May-June and again in the fall. Ginny has made it clear that she wants this to happen and she wants to help, for which we’re grateful. We want to hold it when much can be seen and discussed, which is why we’re waiting until the growing season is really underway.For both of you, one post I really need to write up is a review/list of the gardening/farming books we’ve found most useful in developing our methods. I promise I will get to that!