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Gardening & Homesteading

How Much Land Do You Really Need to Be Self Sufficient?

How Much Land Do You Need to Be Self Sufficient?

Most Americans think that miles of machine-planted row crops and crowded feedlots are required to feed everyone—that without large-scale, industrial agriculture, with its chemical inputs and GMOs, we would all starve to death.

Even people who know that organic agriculture is just as productive as industrial agriculture often think you need to have acres of land to grow all your own food. Here’s why this is totally false…

How Much Land is Enough?

As any of the millions of subsistence farmers and smallholders around the world will tell you, depending on the quality of your land and the size of your family, you can grow all the food you need in a very small space.

It simply requires designing a food production system that works with natural processes to make the most of what you have. (See above image of the Russian dacha neighborhoods where everyone’s yard is full of food.)

If you want to develop your land for food production, the following infographic shows just how much land is needed to be self sufficient, including generating all the solar energy you need to run your home.

According to this image, you need a mere 2 acres!

But I think their estimates are actually too high.

Here are two examples of extreme productivity on very little land:

  • Growing Power – On a 2-acre urban lot in Milwaukee, Will Allen grows over a million pounds of food every year, including thousands of fish, and a livestock inventory of chickens, goats, and bees.
  • The Urban Homestead – A family of four produces all their own food and $60,000 a year on just a fifth of an acre.
  • Singing Frogs Farm – Just 3 harvested acres on this farm bring in over $100,000 an acre, using low water methods that sequester carbon and generate topsoil.

Using techniques and principles I’ll discuss after the infographic, you can potentially grow all your food on as little as a quarter of an acre! Most people in the suburbs could start living off their land today!

backyard_farm

Resources for Small Scale Self-Sufficiency

Ultra-Productive Gardening

I first learned about intensive growing strategies as a horticulture student decades ago, when I was an intern getting certified as a Biointensive® Mini-Farming instructor at Ecology Action.

Biointensive mini-farming is an elegant, small-scale agriculture system that makes the bold claim of enabling you to “grow more vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine.”

Ecology Action has been avidly teaching Biointensive mini-farming to smallholders worldwide, with the goal of helping as many people to become food-secure as possible. In fact, Biotensive soil care and gardening techniques work so well that you can grow a complete diet in less than 1000 square feet (not including animal products)!

I love Biointensive gardening because, when combined with holistic land design strategies like Permaculture, you can create a complete homestead that is not only highly productive, but also low maintenance.

Biointensive gardens require a lot of soil preparation work up front, including the infamous “double digging.” But for all your efforts in preparation, your gardens will become extremely drought and weed resistant, and very easy to maintain for years to come.

My favorite book to get started with Biointensive mini-farming is called How to Grow More Vegetables. This resource is a must-have for getting very high yields out of a small garden space.

Planning and Maintaining Your Homestead

In recent years, homesteading and self-sufficiency have become popular—even trendy—and dozens of books have popped up that promise to teach you how to do it all. My two favorite of these are The Backyard Homestead and Your Custom Homestead.

The Backyard Homestead will give you ideas and schematics for setting up all the gardens, coops, etc. you need to meet all your food needs on as little as a tenth of an acre!

There is also tons of organic gardening information, food preservation techniques, animal husbandry knowledge and more in the book. The Backyard Homestead is a great primer to get you started homesteading in a small space.

Your Custom Homestead, on the other hand, takes you through a 21-day process that moves you closer to your homesteading dreams, whether you live in an apartment in the city, or on 100 acres in the middle of nowhere.

This e-book examines different motivations for homesteading, defines exactly what modern-day homesteading means, and then takes you through the prep-work and actual processes of beginning a homesteading lifestyle that will perfectly fit your unique situation.

Getting Off the Grid – Permaculture

Permaculture—short for “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture”—is a very broad discipline covering all aspects of the design and development of a sustainable human settlement. It’s a field so broad that you could spend a lifetime learning and practicing Permaculture design principles. But the average would-be homesteader doesn’t need an entire design philosophy, or even a Permaculture Design Course, to benefit from Permaculture principles on their land.

Gaia’s Garden will break down the Permaculture techniques you can best use in an urban or suburban setting, and help you implement them into your homestead design. From planting fruit trees in multi-level, vertical guilds that increase yields to building renewable energy and greywater systems that fit your family’s needs, this book makes Permaculture accessible to the newbie homesteader.

The plant lists at the end are worth the price of the book alone, and as a certified Permaculture designer and teacher myself, I recommend Gaia’s Garden highly.

If you have a quarter acre or more of good land and a dream of greater self-sufficiency, then I hope these resources will inspire you to start planning your suburban or urban homestead now so you can get started building it this spring!

64 Comments

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  • I agree with Greg here. The term self sufficient surely means you do not depend on the outside world for your food and energy requirements! Three pigs and a bunch of chickens surely require at least ten times the amount of land to grow the food to then feed the animals compared to if we used that land to grow a plant based diet. Sourcing the animal feed from else where is hardly self sufficiency. I am wondering when this holistic view of the total amount of land required to put the calories on the table will come into the ideas surrounding self-sufficiency??? It’s about time we all realised the funcional of animals on a farm from an ecological view point. The bottom line is we must start to take into account the square footage required to grow the animal feed when comparing the area of land needed to be self sufficient. When we do it becomes obvious that a plant-based diet is ten times more efficient in the area of land required to grow the same amount of calories, its as simple as that…

  • Are you really self sustaining if you buy fertilizer and need to run the tap to water your garden? I think you kidding yourself. There is a reason that our earliest civilisations sprouted up from areas near water and/or good rainfall. It can be done but there are thousands of factors to consider. Chickens. Pretty much essential on any homestead especially as mobile fertilizer factories but keep two things in mind. They need to be fed and they are omnivores. They eat anything and everything including all your plants. Now you need to think about plants to feed the chickens. Finally, they can fly and sometimes very well!

  • Waterplants are of great interest to me. Has anyone tried raising these for food ?? Have two fish tanks being created for rising of edible plants as well as for plant filtered, o2 rich; sun blessed drinking water. Looking for any info on water/aquarium plants or food.
    sutherbyg at yahoo com THANK YOU Garey

  • Sprouting anyone ?? A huge amount of food can be grown on a counter top or table. Magical food with roots and all !! Little or no extra light; you can do this is a rental, or even in a back pack.

  • self sufficiency means less tax revenue for the government. They would never let this fly or teach these principles in their schools.

  • Why does everyone think that you need to have these plants be exclusive from each other? I grow 4 crops in the same bed. At the least you can grow 3 crops together. I produce enough fruit and veggies for my family of 5 off of a less than a quarter acre. We can everything we don’t eat during harvest season and I have pasta sauce and canned apples from last year still.

    • Some plants you should actually grow together. They complement each other. Assuming you no longer buy fertilizer you will need to know how to source natural fertilizer. Chicken poo being the best.

  • I have a garden. I have read John Jeavons’s book. It is a pipe dream to think you can grow enough food on so little land. Although his system requires that you generate enough compostable plants, he admits his system only “cuts down” on the outside soil amendments that you will need. I have watched all his videos and he veritably drenches his vegetable beds and compost piles with water, so much for drought resistance. Growing his vegetables very close together is the “intensive” part of his system. The intensive composting, plant placement and watering really makes this system unsustainable. I do double-dig my beds, though. My vegetables like that. But with the global population heading for 9 billion in 2050 and 12 billion by 2100, we aren’t going to feed everyone on a subsistence level. Modern farming methods and biotechnology are the only way to feed so many people. Have you hugged a farmer recently?

    • Becoming a bit more self-sufficient, to the extent one is interested and able, is a good thing on many levels. Double dug beds are just one way of getting more food out of a small space. Permaculture techniques, vertical gardening, and other methods can help you produce even more, if you are so inclined. The addition of livestock in a permaculture system can also help with nutrient cycling and other homestead needs.

      There are lots of people who have mastered relative self-sufficiency on a small plot of land. Can (or should) we all be self-sufficient? No, but just because you have not done it yourself does not mean it can’t be done.

      I studied personally under Jeavons, and the productivity on his farm institute in California is something to behold! Also the Urban Homestead in LA is an mind-boggling example of what is possible in a tiny space. Will Allen’s Growing Power urban farm in Milwaukee is another example of outrageous food output in a very small space.

      The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) has found that small and medium farms using agroecological and regenerative/permaculture methods are not only some of the most productive food systems, but the only ones that are genuinely sustainable, can sequester carbon, regenerate ecosystems and take us into a post-fossil fuel world.

      According to the UNFAO, industrial farming only provides 30% of the world’s food currently, and in the full cost accounting (inputs, petrol, carbon and methane pollution, etc.) it actually does it very inefficiently: 30 calories in for just one calorie out. Finally, industrial ag and biotech is producing mostly inedible commodities like livestock feed, ethanol and corn syrup, and not actually “feeding the world” at all. Though the propaganda would have everyone believing otherwise, the data doesn’t actually support industrial ag as the way forward at all.

      The science is there that regenerative farming can indeed “feed the world” (though the very concept is specious; hunger has never been about food shortages). Bless the pioneering regenerative farmers that will take us there.

    • Trust me. The world population won’t reach 9 Billion. Within 2 – 5 years it will be below 1 billion. We have hit the limits and collapse isn’t coming any more. It’s arrived. Of course your TV will tell everything is fine. Like the chicken running around with its head cut off is just fine. It’s frightening how much we have forgotten pre the industrial electrical age. We should be frantically re-educating ourselves back to the ways of old instead of pursuing this pipe dream that any of this so called civilisation is sustainable. because it isn’t.

    • Raising animals humanely for meat will take a bit more space than this infographic shows, but the books mentioned are great references to get started. Chickens for eggs are probably the simplest way to get started and they take very little room at all. Good luck!

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