The Dollars and Non-Cents of Farming

Favorite things overheard recently:

One early spring day one of our neighbors who was out walking her dogs and talking on the phone saw us at work in our garden and said to the person on the other end of the line, “Looks like the farmers market people are out working again.”   And more recently, our mailman who seemed impressed with the gardens wanted to know if we sold our vegetables at Whole Foods.

Deep down, I think we’re somewhat honored to be taken so seriously that we could be mistaken for professional farmers.  But we also laugh heartily at the notion that we are producing enough on our 1/10 acre plot to have enough to sell.  We are amazed at how much time and effort go into growing what we do, yet what we are able to provide for ourselves is a pitiful fraction of what we buy from the “real farmers”.  As much as we like to think we’re being self sufficient, we unfortunately have a LONG way to go.

But the conversation with our neighbors and our march toward farm school (and beyond) has us thinking more concretely about the economics of farming.  So we thought it would be fun to keep an ongoing database of all that we harvest this year, price it according to the going rates we’re seeing at our farmers markets and see how we come out at the end of the season.

We already have $97 in seed costs this year (not including the perennials – asparagus, strawberries and blackberries) $76 dollars in potting materials, and $276 in a fancy new grow light, so we already have quite a hole to climb out of.  There are of course other costs of our current operation which are harder to quantify: watering costs, electricity for the grow light, soil amendments and chicken feed.

Crop Havest Unit Price Total
Asparagus 3.5 lb $4/lb $14
Basil (Genovese) 25 bunches $2/bunch $50
Strawberries 6 pints $4/pint $24
Blackberries 3 pints $4.50/pint $13.50
Tomatoes (Black from Tula/Hillbilly Potato Leaf) 30 lbs. $3/lb $90
Swiss Chard (Fordhook Giant and Rhubarb Red) 25 bunches $3/bunch $75
Kale (Lacinato and Dwarf Blue)
Flageolets 0 0 $0
Summer Squash (Sure Thing Zucchini and Gourmet Gold) 25 lbs. $2/lb. $50
Winter Squash (Gourd Mixture) 12 lbs. $2/lb $24
Sage 5 bunches $2/bunch $10
Mint 3 bunches $2/bunch $6
Corriander Seed 1 lb. $20/lb. $20
Cilantro 6 bunches $2/bunch $12
Beets (Detroit Dark Red and Burpee Golden) 3 lbs. $3/lb. $9
Spinach (Harmony Hybrid) 5 bunches 3/bunch $15
Carrots (Danvers and Dragon) 1 bunch $3/bunch $3
Onions (Red Wethersfield) 5 lbs. $2/lb. $10
Leeks (Giant Musselburgh) 3 lbs. $3/lb. $9
Corn (2 inch Strawberry Popcorn)
Lettuce (Flame and Yugoslavian Red) 8 heads $3/head $24
Whole Chickens 4 birds $18/bird $72
Eggs 2 dozen $5/dozen $10
Eggplant (Casper and Florida High Bush) 7 lbs. $3/lb. $21
Pumpkins 2  pumpkins $10/pumpkin $20
Bell Peppers (Buran) 2 lbs. $6/lb. $12



  • May 16, 2012 at 2:21 pm // Reply

    Thanks for sharing specific numbers. I think it’s helpful to everyone who is thinking about growing on a small to medium scale. We’ll definitely be sharing our Pen and Pepper numbers soon. (So far, it’s all been outlay. But our first deliveries are in early June, so at least we’ll start earning something back.)

    • May 18, 2012 at 10:54 am // Reply

      Hi, Patrick! Pen and Peppers! What a fantastic name! Sounds like you’re growing a fair bit if you’ll be delivering produce soon! We’ve managed to deliver lots of seedlings and fledgling vegetables to our resident squirrels and slugs. They are well fed at least. We plan to keep our tally current and share all the good bits of data we find along the way. Thanks for being in touch!

  • May 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm // Reply

    Couple of rules you need to assimilate into your formula:

    1) You cannot count your labor
    2) Only uncle Sam depreciates – I personally go by Good, Broken, Reusable, and Oh Darn!
    3) There is no magic multiplier to account for quality of product or quality of life – –BUT — it definitely balances the spread sheet
    4) As you get more and more self sufficient – start accounting for the fuel and such you are not spending going to the store
    5) If your output exceeds your use – find a friendly COOP where you can trade your “X” for the “Y” someone else has to trade. OBTW – the country started out this way, so this does work.

    May I also suggest you speak with Sabrina to find out how you can save over your favorite seeds for next year. Of course that most probably will push you towards the heirloom varieties of vegetables. one advantage is these were developed for taste and not for “ship-ability” to the market. Seriously – do you think tomatoes normally taste like plastic and have thick skins???

    Another suggestion – right now do not focus on your CBA – rather focus on the quality of life and life sustaining items you are producing for yourselves.

    Love – Aunt Deborah

    PS: I so wish you were closer. I have a beyond belief bumper crop of peaches coming on.

    • May 18, 2012 at 11:03 am // Reply

      Peaches! Oh, I have visions of peach jam, peach pie, peach gelato. We especially love point number 3 about how quality of life smooths out the balance sheet. That’s the math we’re counting on in both the short and long term, though health insurance is also pretty important to us. :). Your note about heirloom varieties is spot-on: we only grow heirloom seeds that we either mail order from or that we’ve managed to save ourselves. Mom also sometimes mails us a bunch of seeds she’s had success with. It’s wonderful to stay connected by growing sister plants separated by nearly 2,000 miles. Now if we could only figure out how to grow a sister peach tree!! We love you, Aunt Deborah! -love, Dina

  • May 18, 2012 at 2:37 pm // Reply

    Dearest Dina – I will take a picture of all of the peach pits and send it to you. I sincerely doubt if this Southern tree would survive in the climate of Boston…. of course you could build an addition of an “Orangery” (Conservatory).

    Love you dearly – if successful peach jam and peach pie filling will be coming your way. Just promise to reuse the canning jars.

  • June 13, 2012 at 11:12 am // Reply

    Your observations about the REAL costs of “saving money” by growing your own are much needed (and probably intentionally disguised by the commercial entities selling all those seeds, garden supplies, soil ammendments, etc.). This year, I have parsnips, parsley, carrots, onions, garlic, potatoes, squash, beans, and all my perrenial flowers and herbs coming up from seeds or starts saved from last year. I hope to save over corn, fava beans, maybe beets, and whatever else I can coax to go to seed just to increase the margin of savings.

    While I can afford seeds, I cringe at faking myself out about how “self-sufficient” I am by just ignoring the outlay costs. I admire your clear-eyed look at costs.

    In the garden stores, one can now buy CORN and BEAN starts. Can you believe it? Folks will pay $2.89 for a mini-plant that will pop out of the soil on its own in 2 weeks and will yield maybe $100 worth of corn.

    • June 14, 2012 at 10:12 am // Reply

      I don’t know what kind of corn starts they’re selling in South Dakota, but I’d love to see what kind of corn plant could produce $100 of corn! I’d pay $2.89 for a plant like that!

      • June 19, 2012 at 11:20 am // Reply

        OK. Me and numbers are oil and water. I meant $1.00.

  • June 20, 2012 at 12:48 pm // Reply

    Eric on a comment that was made about you cannot count labor , oh contrair you can count it.

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