A Little Bit Can Go A Long Way

Economist-Farmer Michael Smith gives us a view of how serious the drought conditions are and the impact on the nations agriculture.

Post after post of hydraulic shovels pulling orchards up in California, news of the large almond producers having to cull hundreds of acres at a time to divert water and resources to other parts of their farms. We saw the Midwest run hot and dry all summer and when harvest season arrived, monsoon rains made harvest impossible. 

Even in parts of Canada we are hearing about exceptional drought, heat waves, and Greenland losing surface ice at an alarming rate. Mexico, where about half of our produce comes from, varying by crop is at a 75% drought rate with exception drought now plaguing 25% of the country. Mexico also consumes everything they produce, and as yield decreases so do their exports to us. 

We also have reports from Chile and Argentina of drought conditions so bad that rivers are at an 80 year low. 

All of the productive regions that the United States relies upon to feed our population are in some sort of drought, severe drought, and/or active decline into desertification.

We are now well into a 20 year stretch that recently warranted NOAA to update their models. 

This constant barrage of data points has had journalists and average Joe’s preach the ho-hum pessimism of “were already screwed so why bother”.

Why bother . . . Why bother?

What most folks don’t realize is how little farmable land it takes to feed people. For every quarter acre, we can successfully supply 25 families with fresh produce every week. There are only two times in the year during the very hot and the very cold where we have to shut down deliveries. Its hot, that’s one reason, but we still have pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, and watermelon.

Another reason we stop delivering is time. The fall crop of 120 day cultivars we are babysitting through to get pumpkins by October. This is time intensive. In the future we will not be able to do this and will have to push back to late November (this will be our last year, the water price to have Jack-o-lanterns is too high). Also we have to dedicate time to disc the next field and seed a cover for November forage. We also canned and, in theory could continue to sustain folks in those two off months, if my kid would stop eating all of the pasta, sauce, and pickles we produced and had in dry storage.

If we do the math, one acre of planted assorted fruits, vegetables, herbs, and whatever the farmer fancies, can sustain 100 CSA customers per year. We can also devote another acre for meat and egg production with no more than 1,000 pounds of rumen per acre. Renderable meat production we can process out around 60% of that 1,000 pounds. 

Now, using what we have learned from the above, let’s also throw in proper crop rotation that will help both with plant and animal health, but also sequestration of carbon. To do this, we need a third and final acre to seed a cover crop, such as Rye, Titricale (wheat and rye hybrid), or any number of other organics that help affix nitrogen into the soils. We can also run chickens over a field to help with bugs and nitrogen. Chickens are omnivores and also require feed, so the 1,000 pounds per acre isn’t effected. Just don’t let goats eat chicken feed. You and your boots will thank me later.

Let’s put it all together, from 3 acres we can feed an average family of four every week for arguably 10 months out of the year with fresh produce and around two pounds of fresh meat, eggs, and dairy from rumens. As long as all of the cycles are working properly, those acres can sustain 400 people. We will not be able to 100 percent offset the grocery store with those 3 acres but it is close. With more farms in a region doing the same, the more diversity, so we could theoretically replace grocers. 

Per the quarter acre profit? Per Team New Terra: “Net income from this quarter acre farm could be as high as $10,000, depending on how good you are at ‘scrounging’ the necessary equipment and materials, and how much of the work you do yourself.

Extrapolate, and a 3 acre farm run very lean can net $40,000 per year. If you scale to 9 acres and replicate this on a factor of 3, the net income would be around $120,000 a year. Now you would obviously need to hire a hand or two, but as Temple Grandin puts it:

“Its about making a living, not a killing.”

A net income of after paying temp staff to help in heavy production times could, in theory, net a farm family income of $90,000 per year on the high end, EBITDA. So, why bother? There’s a gold mine here if people are willing to work for it.  Don’t have 3 acres? Start in a back yard, proposition for use of city utility easements, or rent! If we can move the 1 million small Mexican farms into production here, and folks go back to buying from the farmer, we could have food security and start working toward mending our soils to pull GHG out of the air, and stop burning so much diesel to truck tomatoes from Mexico.

Why bother indeed!