Quick Fix: How many farms would it take to feed your town?

Much of the push in sustainable agriculture centers around getting more farmers in the fields. The logic holds that smaller farms are easier to manage in an ecologically responsible manner, but smaller farms mean that we’ll need more of them to feed the population. These small farms would preferably take the place of the large factory farms now dotting the landscape. But I’ve always wondered… exactly how many of these small farms would we need?

Mark Shepard’s “Restoration Agriculture” got me thinking about that question in earnest. In this book, Shepard conservatively calculates that a mature, multi-tiered permaculture farming operation could produce 5.97 million human food calories (i.e. calories actually ingested by humans rather than diverted to animal feed, bio-fuels, etc.) per acre, per year. I decided to use this estimate to determine how many farms like mine would be needed to feed the town of Earlysville, VA, where we’re located.

Earlysville’s population is about 5,520 people. If each of them eats 2,000 calories per day on average, that’s 5,520 x 2,000 = 11,040,000 calories per day. Multiply that by 365, and we have Earlysville consuming 4,029,600,000 calories per year.

Once the permaculture infrastructure is mature, we’ll have about 20 productive acres (26 total acres minus 2 acres for homes and buildings, minus 3 acres for riparian buffer, minus another acre of generally unusable land). If we multiply that 20 by Shepard’s calorie production estimate, then our farm can produce 20 x 5.97 million = 119.4 million calories per year.

Finally, we divide Earlysville’s annual consumption of 4.0296 billion calories by the 119.4 million calories the 20 acre farm can produce, and we see that we need 34 twenty-acre farms to feed Earlysville.

Depending on where you’re coming from, that might seem like a lot of farms and farmers for such a small town. But it’s really not that bad when you crunch the numbers a little more. Assuming each farm employed two people (it really doesn’t take more than that to manage 20 acres), the town’s farming population would be just 1.2% of the population, which is actually lower than the current nationwide percentage.

Each farm would need to feed about 162 people. If each person purchased just $100/month in meat and produce from the farm, we’d gross close to $197,000 a year. Without conventional farming’s massive debt service, input costs, and labor/machinery costs associated with planting, harvesting, and protecting hundreds of acres of monoculture crops – this near $200K gross would allow the two farmers on each farm to enjoy a comfortable middle-class living once overhead, purchasing, maintenance, rent, etc. costs were removed from the total.

These numbers are conservative and well-grounded, but they’re still just theoretical. Our farm will be a real-world test case over the next several years to explore the very exciting possibility that a.) farming could again become a financially rewarding enterprise without b.) spiking prices on consumers or c.) destroying the environment.

So ask yourself… how many small farms would it take to feed your town?

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms


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