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


Be sure to check out the other articles in this season’s series:

Lessons from the Farm, Pt. I – Brooders and Feeding
Lessons from the Farm, Pt. II – Poultry Processing


How much does it cost to start a farm?

Every now and again I like to fact-check and put numbers behind some of the statements I’ve made in previous blog articles. In one such article, I decided to try and back up the claim that conventional agriculture results in hidden costs by figuring out exactly what those costs were, and I found myself shocked by the results (about $25/week in hidden costs).

This time I’ve decided to fact check another statement I made awhile back about the cost involved with starting a farm. In the article “Six Reasons You Shouldn’t Wait to Start Farming,” I asserted that you could get yourself up and running with a 1,000-bird pastured poultry operation and a small 2,000 sqft market garden for under $20K. Here’s what I’d listed:

Poultry processing equipment and portable shed: $5,500
Poultry feed: $4,000
20′ x 100′ hoophouse/greenhouse: $2,500
Basic tool budget (table saws, leatherman, chainsaw, drill, etc.): $2,000
Misc. expenses (brooder, compost carbon, broiler pens, feeders/waterers, seed, rain capture equipment): $2,000
Poultry Stock: $1,000
20 acres rented pasture: $40/acre/year, $800

This comes out to $15,800. So how does that compare to how much I’ve actually spent (keeping in mind that we’ve included an egg and pork operation)? Well, here’s a table of our expenditures starting from April of this year:

Date Type Description/Source Amount
4/3/2013 Capital Acres USA Seminar $700.00
5/28/2013 Capital Lowes $54.56
6/2/2013 Capital Lowes $337.14
6/2/2013 Capital Lowes $48.85
6/10/2013 Capital Lowes $62.96
6/10/2013 Capital Lowes $365.08
6/26/2013 Capital Trailer Hitch $68.68
6/27/2013 Capital Website $37.99
6/29/2013 Capital Books (Amazon) $59.08
6/30/2013 Capital Lowes $80.02
6/30/2013 Capital Website $194.00
7/2/2013 Capital Adv. Auto Parts $7.34
7/8/2013 Capital Utility Trailer $1,500.00
7/29/2013 Capital Farm Equipment (FarmTek) $113.38
7/29/2013 Capital Lowes $27.36
7/29/2013 Operations Meyer Hatchery $130.49
7/29/2013 Capital Southern States $385.33
7/31/2013 Capital Lowes $185.90
8/1/2013 Operations Land Rental $200.00
8/6/2013 Operations Meyer Hatchery $334.94
8/12/2013 Capital Greenhouse Hoop Bender $129.53
8/12/2013 Capital Lowes $90.85
8/12/2013 Operations Seeds $74.74
8/13/2013 Capital Featherman Equipment $4,675.00
8/13/2013 Capital Southern States $50.46
8/15/2013 Operations Sunrise Farms Feed $360.00
8/18/2013 Operations Target $8.94
8/20/2013 Operations Vistaprint $46.97
8/21/2013 Capital FarmTek (Greenhouse, etc.) $639.24
8/23/2013 Capital Home Depot (Greenhouse) $841.59
8/27/2013 Operations Compost Worms $42.90
8/28/2013 Capital Lowes $92.07
8/31/2013 Capital Lowes $73.29
9/1/2013 Operations Land Rental $200.00
9/3/2013 Capital Southern States $27.37
9/5/2013 Operations Check Payment (Straw) $54.50
9/6/2013 Operations Cash Payment (Straw) $200.00
9/10/2013 Operations Acres USA Subscription $29.00
9/11/2013 Operations Southern States $9.45
9/12/2013 Operations Southern States $30.00
9/13/2013 Capital Lowes $535.06
9/18/2013 Capital Lowes $55.12
9/18/2013 Operations Southern States $24.63
9/18/2013 Operations Lowes $18.91
9/19/2013 Operations (t-shirts) $152.84
9/23/2013 Operations State Corporation Commission (llc reinstatement) $225.00
9/24/2013 Operations Constant Contact $255.00
9/27/2013 Operations Fedex (screenprint supplies) $18.94
9/30/2013 Capital Lowes $128.86
10/1/2013 Operations Land Rental $200.00
10/1/2013 Operations Sunrise Farms Feed $90.00
10/2/2013 Operations Southern States $355.67
10/3/2013 Capital Lowes $207.53
10/4/2013 Operations Southern States $217.59
10/7/2013 Operations Cash Payment (Unkn) $100.00
10/7/2013 Capital Lowes $139.50
10/7/2013 Operations State Corporation Commission (name change) $25.00
10/9/2013 Operations Featherman Equipment $366.45
10/10/2013 Capital Cavalier Restaurant Equipment $305.47
10/11/2013 Capital Lowes $285.46
10/12/2013 Capital Staples (Label Maker) $109.28
No Date Capital Misc Lumber & Supplies $1,100.00
Total $17,485.31

So thus far, I’m off by a little less than $2,000, but there are a few caveats that both nudge the numbers up and down.

Factors that nudge the numbers up:

  • This does not include feed for 1,000 broilers, though it does include feed for 150+ laying hens that are about 6 weeks old. This additional feed outlay will run about $3,800.
  • The cost of only 80 broilers (plus 150+ laying hens) is accounted for. We’d need to purchase just over 900 more, which will run about $950. Subtract from that the $300 we paid for our laying flock and we’re looking at an additional $600.

And there are several items in my list that bring the numbers down:

  • Our list includes a $700 charge for attending the Polyface IDS seminar.
  • Food and equipment we purchased for a special event we did later in the month is included, to the tune of about $300.
  • We’ve listed expenses for Kickstarter rewards, which runs to about $250.

So, if we start with $17,485, add to that the increasing factors of $4,400, then subtract the decreasing factors of $1,250, we arrive at:

Chris’ Original Estimate: $15,800
Amount Chris Actually Spent: $20,635

This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that I was off by a whopping 30%. The good news is that I wasn’t off by orders of magnitude – I originally said that the farm operation could be had for under $20K, but it turns out it can be had for ABOUT $20K. This is much better than me having to eat crow because, whoops, it actually set me back $50K or $100K.

So the next logical question is: what happened that caused my estimate to be off? I think this can be nailed down to a few distinct categories:

1. Support Equipment

The biggest single item I didn’t account for in the original estimate was a $1,500 utility trailer I picked up on Craigslist. I didn’t include it because it was initially planned to just be used for hauling pigs, but since I wound up using it to haul lumber, feed, and other supplies, I decided to include it as something I’d missed. I’d be willing to argue that having at least one utility trailer is an absolute necessity. I also underestimated the cost of the four chicken transport crates I bought, which ran $85 apiece.

2. Composting

Composting is one of those things that seems like it’ll be next to free, but it really isn’t when you’re setting yourself up to fertilize your entire farm. I wound up spending a couple hundred dollars on straw bales (our bins are made of straw to provide more “middle” to our piles), about $40+ on red hybrid compost worms, and then the big ticket item of $750 for the wood chipper to make our own carbon.

3. Marketing

This was the most egregious one I missed in my first estimate. Producing without marketing is, of course, like winking at a beautiful woman in the dark, so you’ll need to set aside a decent budget for this. We paid about $250 for our website, about the same for an email marketing package, plus business cards, brochures, flyers, samples and giveaways, etc. All together these probably ran close to $1,000.

4. Supplies

There was a hodgepodge of supplies I hadn’t included in my original estimate. Among them were replacement chainsaw blades, gasoline, pine shavings for the brooders, ice/hoses/manifolds for processing, freezers, coolers, a label maker, a scale, replacement feeders, etc. These costs added up to over $1,000 I’m sure.

So there you have it; my estimate certainly wasn’t sharpshooter accurate, but it was at least inside the ballpark. I’ll happily amend my earlier statement to read, “you can have a 1,000 bird operation with a 2,000 sqft market garden operation for just over $20K.”

Happy farming!

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms