Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Soup kitchen repellant

Our local food bank continues to do a roaring trade, helped along by the efforts of our own students and the veggies for all program, while the papers continue to talk about folks losing their jobs and houses.

All this misery!

How can people protect themselves against job loss and foreclosure and food insecurity?

Aimee and I don't stand in much fear of losing our jobs. Higher education is considered somewhat recession-proof, with students actually returning to college when the business cycle is in a trough.

Even so, one purpose in running a farm is to have a warm place to live and to have food. As I read articles about Americans who have either lost jobs or had their hours cut back, one question might be, does it work? How easy is it to grow your own, and does it put heat in the hearth and food on the table cost-effectively? Now that the harvest is in, let's do the books.

This year we farmed a little over four acres, including our land with a half-acre that neighbors loaned to us for the purpose.

(We let our lease on the 12 acres surrounding lapse -- Aimee needed a new car and I needed airfare to visit my ailing mum, so sending several hundred extra dollars to the absentee landowner in Florida was out of the question. We may take it up again in later years, but thus far we haven't needed the extra land for firewood or agriculture, so although the lease payments preserve future options, they're not strictly part of the farm.)

Most of that four acres was for firewood and sheep grazing. We also brought in several hundred bales of hay and several tons of feed, so any proper calculation of our food balance sheet needs to take this into account.

So what did we grow since this time last year? We enjoy growing food and would probably do so even if we lost money, but it's nice to know whether or not your efforts pass the straight face test, commercially speaking.

Numbers are approximate.

4 cords of split, stacked and dry hardwood firewood
About 250 pounds of potatoes
35 dozen eggs
200 pounds of tomatoes, of which 100 pound canned or frozen
40 pounds storage onions
Assorted salad crops and herbs
Two weaned lambs sold on to another farm at two months
One fat lamb, 45 pounds dressed, already in freezer
One ewe and one older ram culled for mutton, 100 pounds dressed, already in freezer
3 pigs, around 180 pounds each dressed, not quite done

The going rate for cut, stacked and dry hardwood is $250/cord, so $1,000 there. If we credit ourselves $1/pound for potatoes, onions and tomatoes, $1.50 a dozen for the eggs, $50 total for the salads and herbs, $50 apiece for the wains, and $3/pound for meat, this is valued at $540 for veggies, and $2,208 for lambs and meat, so $3,748 total.

In order to grow these crops we input approximately,

150 bales coarse Maine hay @ $3.75/bale (that was robbery and we haven't been back since) = $563
1.5 tons pig pellets @ $250/ton = $375
0.5 ton store oats @ $240/ton = $120
0.5 ton coarse 16% bagged feed @ $10/50 pound = $200

Total for inputs is $1,258

Meaning we netted $2,490 worth of food and fiber for our efforts over the year.

This doesn't count the several tens of dollars of plant starts Aimee sold or gave away earlier this year, or any yarn we may sell from the wool clip. It doesn't make much sense to count the yarn since we sell it or use it so very slowly. The whole clip is still bagged in the barn and we haven't even thought to take it to the mill yet.

Given that we spent probably less than twenty five human-work days total in working the farm this year, this is a pretty good rate of pay and certainly well above minimum wage.

Not too shabby.

Much of this success is due however to the fact that the farm is set up pretty well at this point. If we hadn't put so much money and effort into the barn and fences and equipment, we wouldn't be able to clear this income. But our capital costs are negligible at this point, and the equipment seems to stay in pretty good repair from one year to the next if I tinker a few days each year, which when I have the time is actually a pleasure. This year's big investment was a new chainsaw, although there's a "new" secondhand lawn mower as well. the land is fertile and the input of fertility from pasture and grain via forage legumes, poop and compost is more than is needed to keep growing food on the same land for years to come.


This is valuing our food at pretty low dollar, too. Supermarket prices. Generally speaking food of this high quality comes much more expensively, so, for instance, people pay up to $4 dozen for free range eggs, and Aimee's pesto production alone (110 jars this year!) is worth many more dollars in value added.

This food and firewood should help keep the wolf from our door though.

Proof of concept.

I expect if the so-called Great Recession became the Great Depression, if Aimee and I lost our jobs, we'd lose the farm too, but if we as is more likely we pay it off and farm it into retirement, it should serve us well, keeping us as healthy as we keep it.

I always questioned the wisdom of the detached, urban way of life where everything is a losing trade with the system, and no-one really knows where their food came from.

It works fine until there's a recession.

It's a good deal easier and I think more rewarding to make bargains with Mother Earth instead.

And she cuts a fairer deal in return.

Independence of mind and body is the result. We might do well to remember that Jeffersonian wisdom as we reorganize after this latest economic disaster.

The real strength of a nation is not in nuclear bombs or industrial capital, but in the independent human beings and healthy landscapes the system is meant to create and maintain.

Without which the industrial system is just so much rusting machinery.

That you can't eat.

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