Friday, December 3, 2010

Running the Numbers

Recently I've been leafing through Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre, which I found on the new arrivals shelf at my local library.  I gleaned a few interesting nuggets of information, as I usually do from most gardening books.  But the passage that captured my attention involved using the US Department of Agriculture food pyramid guidelines to project the needed weight in fruits and vegetables for the proverbial average adult's healthy diet.  Now, I have issues aplenty with the USDA and their recommendations.  But still, it seemed an exercise worth considering.

Turns out the average adult should be consuming 456 pounds (201 kg) of vegetables, and 365 pounds (166 kg) of fruit per year to eat a "healthy" diet by the USDA's lights.  Leaving aside the complicating issue of fruit juices and dried fruits, let's just look at those numbers.  That's exactly one pound of fruit, and over a pound of vegetables per person every single day.  I gotta tell you, I don't eat that much fruit and veg.  I know this because I know roughly what we produce ourselves in the backyard, and that we don't buy a whole lot of extra vegetables or fruit.  We don't drink juice other than our own apple cider or grape juice.  I do buy dried fruits - raisins, cherries, apricots, dates, etc.  But these don't make up a major part of our diet.  Other than things like ginger and onions year-round, and some local greens in winter, the odd bag of organic carrots, we just aren't buying that many vegetables either.  Last year, we produced just over 600 pounds of food from our backyard.  Divide that among two adults, and we've got 300 pounds per person last year.  Evidently, we're way below our recommended consumption, even figuring another 100 pounds per person from purchased sources.  Less than half the recommended 821 pounds, total, for each of us.

But Mini Farming then went on to describe how to produce that much yourself, and what sorts of yields could be expected from various perennial plantings.  And this is where the projections began to astound me.  A standard apple tree at maturity can give 300 pounds of apples per year.  Check.  That's roughly what we got this year from our mature apple tree.  A sweet cherry can also deliver 300 pounds per year, and a sour cherry, 150 pounds.  We have one sweet and one sour cherry back there which have only just begun to bear.  Four hundred and fifty pounds of fruit from them in the coming years?  Zoiks!  And then there are the pear trees.  We have one dwarf and possibly one standard.  Since the dwarfs will apparently give 120 pounds of fruit per year at maturity, we're looking at 240 pounds if they're both dwarfs, and 320 pounds if the second one is a standard.  Oh, and we're putting in another apple tree next year.

So just counting on our three varieties of fruit from six trees, we should expect - conservatively speaking - 1230 pounds (558 kg) of fruit per year, eventually.  That doesn't even touch the blueberries, raspberries, black currants, elderberries, potted figs, or our citrus trees, let alone any nuts we might get from our hazels.  Oh, and next year we'll begin a long term project to replace our wooden fence with a hedgerow stocked with edibles.  More than half a ton of fruit from the backyard.  Yes, the numbers are beginning to freak me out a little bit.  Am I going to be able to handle this much food without letting it go to waste?  I'm thinking three things.  One, we can always turn fruit juice into hooch.  (Alcohol is good.)  Two, we need to get a good system of bins together for the root cellar before such harvests start coming in.  And three, we may well be able need to help feed other people from such bounty.

We've got all these trees and plants on 2/3 of an acre, plus raised beds for asparagus, with 2800 square feet of garden space for annuals besides.  That's with at least half the property being essentially useless due to driveway, house, huge detached garage, and massive shade trees around the house.  So really, we're talking all that production on about 1/3 of an acre, more than half of which is off-limits because of the annual garden area.  So maybe really only 1/6 acre available for perrenials.  Turns out, the stocking density we've got is nothing to write home about.

In perusing the website of a local orchard we occasionally buy from, I noted that their most recently planted orchard has a stocking density of more than 300 dwarf apple trees per acre.  A little poking around turned up the claim by Gennaro Fazio, director of  an apple rootstock breeding project in Geneva, NY, that an acre of good land can support as many as 485 dwarf apple trees.  That's a mind boggling number of fruit trees.  What does that scale down to?  A tenth-acre backyard with as many as 48 dwarf apple trees.  Say that with a one-third acre working space, like us you're only willing or able to devote half of that to fruit trees.  You could, according to this theory, squeeze 80 dwarf trees into that parcel.  Back garden of only 20 square meters?  That still gives you ample room for two trees.  Fazio also claims that yield and fruit size are the same with standard and dwarf apples, so you're not sacrificing production by choosing a smaller tree.  I find this hard to believe, but even if dwarfs yield half the crop of standard trees, that 20 square meter back garden could give you almost all the fruit one adult needs per year.  That's nothing to sneeze at.

This is good.  It gives me hope for the future.  Not just for myself, but for my immediate environs.  I live in a low density development area, and all the mcmansions sit on what was formerly prime farmland.  The good earth is still there, though now in the custody of folks most often doing nothing better than dousing their grass monocultures with pesticides that kill honey bees, and herbicides that run off into our waterways.  Most of them have a lot more than my 1/6 acre to work with, should they ever wish to do so.

Bottom line is this: any little bit of yard ("garden" for you Brits) you've got can produce more food than you probably suspect.  We need more fruit and nut trees planted on residential lots.  Even on a tenth of an acre, and under far from ideal conditions, you could probably put in two dwarf fruit trees, at a minimum, and still have room for a decent patch of annual vegetables.

As Rob so eloquently said, we can do this.


el said...

Well, MY experience with fruit growing tells me that you can't expect the same harvest every year. A late frost can wipe out one flowering fruit but might make the conditions ideal for another, etc. Having a lot of diversity is fairly key.

But no, indeed, it won't take you long before you're doing your own CSA or giving things away to those in need, Kate. And you don't need a lot of land to do it, either; we're doing all our gardening/orcharding on less than half an acre out here.

Wendy said...

Yes! For more than four years, I've been certain that one does not need the specific conditions the Dervaes have to be successful and productive on a small piece of land - even where I live in Maine.

It does require patience, though, and perserverance ;).

Alcohol is good :). When it looked like we might lose the maple sap, because it had started to ferment and was no longer good for syrup, we turned it into alcohol, and it was good.

Another possibility - perhaps in the future - is taking any produce that might spoil and turning it into fuel (methane or biodiesel).

There is really unlimited potential :).

louisa @ the really good life said...

Some really interesting figures there - thanks for passing them on. We don't eat anywhere near that amount of fruit or veg - especially at this time of year...

We've just ordered some fruit trees for our big-for-a-UK-city/small-by-US-standards garden - six apples, two pears and a cherry. (We don't expect them all to survive/thrive - I almost hope they don't when we think how much fruit that would mean!)

We umm-ed and aah-ed for a long time about what root stock to go for - very dwarf doesn't seem worth it but very large is impractical for us. We worked out that while a big, very vigorous tree would generate a lot of fruit, we'd probably be able to collect more from smaller semi-dwarf or semi-vigorous ones - plus, we'd be able to plant them a bit closer together.

I think the addition of these fruit trees will more than double our haul from our garden in future years - and without half as much day-to-day work as everything else. I can't wait!

Michelle said...

Very well written...and so helpful! Amazing what we can do in such a small amount of space. We're not even close...we're taking baby steps. But we're getting there!

Mrs. J said...

This is such an interesting post. Like you, I'm amazed at how much a small plot of land can produce. My husband and I are slowly working to take advantage of our yard and grow as much of our own food as possible (ultimately we'd like to grow all of our food). Thank you for sharing and working to inspire people to grow more food even with small yards!

Vera said...

Inspirational info! We are establishing a smallholding on thirteen acres in SW France, and our logic is the same as yours in regards to fruit tree planting, hedge laying, etc, and also general lifestyle. You have given me many helful hints, and I am so glad that I have found you.

denimflyz said...

I live in a trashy trailer park and I have an extremly tiny lot. I grow in topsoil bags, and large containers, and I produce 75% of my food for 4 adults. I can most, and still have leftovers to barter for meat for my freezer. I grow herbs to sell at the farmer's market for extra income. It can be done, and I love the challange of doing so. I cold frame in the winter also.
I eat well, do not go without and I am very happy. I glean fruit from my neighbors who have fruit trees as my lot is too tiny to have trees and the owner of the park is a twit who doesn't like my gardening anyway. So I have to resort to bartering for fruit or my neighbors, but there are 3 of us who garden and we share our produce between us, things that one of us does not grow or can't.
You do have issures with weather, and some years are better than others. I am in zone 5 with bitter winters, but last year, I grew spinach in a cold frame and it survived covers with blankets through -30+ below windchills and was my best spinach ever.
You also have to find seeds that do well in your area, but sometimes the next growing season, those same seeds won't do anything because of the spring or summer or whatever comes up as a challange.
Like el said in the first post, it is diversity...

Paula said...

I was very tempted to buy Mini Farming, so all in all, what did you think of it? Say, compared to The Backyard Homestead? It's funny you should mention the Dervaeses, because I just recommended their site this morning to Novella Carpenter, of Farm City fame.

I am waiting (impatiently) for my apple trees (eight semi dwarfs, two of each variety) to go dormant so that I can move them slightly and then wire them up on their espaliers. The day I planted them last winter I had seventeen fruit and nut trees to get into the ground, so the apples didn't get placed properly. Since then, I've lost one Italian plum and one almond tree to something that killed them (which I suspect was bacterial and from an insect bite- the Master Gardener's answer did not make sense for my yard).

Planting trees is the easy part. I'm still trying to figure out when to plant my veg seeds to get stuff to be ready at the optimal time, and not just as soon as they can go in the ground. My cabbage, parsnips, celeriac and beets and turnips were way too early last year. That's the hard part, I think. Also figuring out how to keep them when you don't have a root cellar.

Another book that you might find to be of interest is called The Resilient Gardener, by Carol Deppe. In it she says that gardeners may well be the folks that feed everyone in the future because our current agricultural model is not sustainable (no duh) and that large farms will be a thing of the past. There's a lot of good information in her book, though.

Carlie S said...

i live in your region and would be happy to buy a fruit share from you if you were to start a CSA! i'm impressed with all you do!!

c. said...

I'm in zone 4 US. I have about 1/40th of an acre garden/yard. I have 7 raised beds. 2 pear trees, 2 apricot, 3 plum, 4 apple. All dwarf. One apple and one plum bore fruit last year. I expect this next year to be a bit more as they'll all be old enough to begin bearing.

teekaroo said...

Like someone else said, you can't expect optimum yields for every crop every year. One year's surplus can keep you going for a few years if it's canned, or dried. Diversity of crops is the insurance of having something to eat. I've also heard that the dwarf trees don't live as long as the standard trees, so that's something to consider.

queen of string said...

It makes me want to scream whenever I see the local govt planting anything other than fruit or nut trees. They have such a short term, short sighted view of the world.

simply_complicated said...

great post, thank you for putting it up!

one thing to do with all that extra fruit - barter!
maybe someone with less on the fruit side and more on the veggies/protien/grains in their yard/garden/field is willing to trade some of your yummies for theirs. :)

onestraw said...

Hey Kate,

Great post. Working on mapping out my permi-gardens before they are buried in snow, and I discovered they are *much* smaller than I thought - only 900 sq ft for the orchard, plus another 200 sq ft for the 2 young peach tree guilds. The garden expansion brought me to 1100 sq ft for the canning garden, and I will be doubling the orchard this Spring, but still - it is insane how much you can fit into such little space.

Doing a "money run" this year. Shooting for 2000# off the gardens, which are just over 2300 sq ft right now, but half the fruit trees aren't producing yet. I think 1000#'s is very doable, 1500 possible, and the 2000 not out of the realm of dreaming. And this will be without stacking the deck and growing nothing but potatoes, tomatoes, and cukes. No - lettuce, kale, carrots, and other things that below in a well rounded garden - we are planting what we eat, but in large enough quantities to store the (yet unbuilt) root cellar.

2000#'s off 1/20th an acre in Zone 5b... Figure I better get serious about this before the shit really starts to hit the fan.

Thanks for doing what you do Kate et all!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Here I am, sitting on 2 acres, with barely a green to show for it. Yeah, most of the 2 acres are covered with woods, but still.

We've discovered that our soil isn't really soil at all. It's sand and rocks, mostly. Which is one reason our garden was a flop this year. We've talked about doing serious amendment -- the kind that requires dump trucks -- in the spring, and this post makes me want to make that call right now. It's phenomenal how much an attentive gardener can raise in a small space.

PS -- I have fruit envy. The peach tree we ordered last spring was DOA.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

I know it really shouldn't surprise us how much food it is possible to grow on a small plot of land. The Chinese, after all, lived for centuries that way--tiny peasant farms.

Of course, they did this by living frugally--not by consuming meat at every meal, and by making every morsel of food count.

For me, the importance of micro-farming is much less about my own food independence: I'm a full-time school teacher, and I have very, very limited time from September through the end of June. But I do think that learning to live a life based on local, seasonal, sustainable agriculture is going to be an environmental necessity in the future. Learning to disentangle myself from cheap, mass-produced, unsustainable agriculture, not by becoming an organic food "boutique" customer, but by living a life closer to what everyone's grandmother once did... that's my own goal.

(And it, too, involves fruit trees.)

eatclosetohome said...

Wow - a kilo of fruit/veg a day? No way do we eat that, either. Though I suppose we might if we were eating more root vegetables and squash instead of wheat.

It's a lovely plan you've got going - we're planting a cider orchard this year, too. :)

Mrs. J said...

My husband and I are trying to take advantage of as much of our yard as possible. I think if we get really good, we might eventually grow all of our own food. Or at least I hope so! Thanks for sharing this inspiration!

Mitzi G Burger said...

This was fascinating to read. I have this hunch that kitchen gardens will come back into vogue. Hopefully the mcmansion dwellers will catch on. I agree that swaps with other growers are a good idea for your excess produce, or donating it for charitable edibles. As for the numbers, if I could eat more leek and asparagus per day, I would! Incidentally, it's stone fruit season in Australia. Bring on the mangos.

Jen Williams said...

What an interesting idea, thinking about the pounds of fruit/veg we eat based on how much we grow. Like other folks, I can't see that we eat anywhere near the USDA recommended amounts. Although, maybe if you include the cider...

Some notes on apple trees - a standard tree can easily produce 800# of fruit if well pruned and thinned and pests are kept under control. We were talking with someone who harvested a ton (literally) of apples off one tree! Our semi-dwarf trees produce probably 240# per tree, and dwarfs range from 20-100# per tree, depending on size. Some of the smallest dwarfs need to be grown on trellises, like grape vines. And the bigger the rootstock, the longer the tree will live, and the less babying it will need. A large dwarf is probably a good size for most home growers - large enough to be freestanding and live a good long time, small enough to fit in a yard/garden and not get so big that you need ladders to take care of it.

Kate said...

El, teekaroo, and I agree with you on the diversity issue. I confess to being a little amused that three commenters seem to think I'm unaware that yields vary from year to year. I suppose there are some readers unfamiliar with gardening/farming who might interpret these figures as a guarantee of some sort. So I suppose I should go through the tiresome exercise of adding a list disclaimers to each post that deals with uncertain outcomes...

Wendy, you have certainly demonstrated what is possible on a small amount of land, in what is an extreme climate by US standards. Keep it up!

Louisa, our tree catalogs arrived almost a month ago, and I couldn't resist paging through them either. Seed and rootstock catalogs are the only kind I even open. It is fun to dream, imagine, and garden vicariously through them. Productive trees are indeed a great value for the time and money invested.

Michelle, we're all in the same boat with the baby steps. Just keep going!

Mrs. J, thanks. Like anyone else who begins to explore food production on a small plot of land, I'm making it up as I go along. And yeah, it is amazing.

Vera, so glad you found it useful. Thirteen acres is enormous by comparison to what we've got. And yet, if you want to include animals, the space becomes suddenly smaller, doesn't it?

denimflyz, that's so admirable! I haven't even begun to think about selling anything (other than eggs) that we produce here. Good for you!

Paula, Mini Farming is a far more serious and meaty book than The Backyard Homestead. If I get it out of the library again, maybe I'll do a book review. As for moving hastily planted fruit trees, I've been there. One of our pears produced a little the year after we moved it!

Carlie, thanks for the suggestion. If we ever get to the point where we have too much fruit to deal with, I'll definitely consider a fruit share.

c, very impressive. Wish you had a blog with some pictures and descriptions. I'd like to see that.

QoS, right there with you. Our township community center put in absolutely useless trees all around. Every time I go there I imagine walnuts instead.

SC, barter is a great idea. When we've got a surplus we'll be open to that.

Rob, I hope you'll post about your permi-gardens at some point. I'd love to see what you work out for them. And 2000# of production puts me to shame!

Tamar, you're moving in the right direction in bringing animals in. Manure will help build top soil, though I understand the urge to bring the dump trucks. Know anyone with horses? Sorry to hear about the peach tree. But you know envy is all relative, right? You with the hoop house and oyster beds and hunting license?

Cat, I suppose it shouldn't, though I'm still amazed at what is possible. Don't know much about Chinese peasant subsistence. Any pointers to something I can read online?

Emily, that was my thought too. Staple grains account for a lot of calories in our diet. Only cutting those waaay back would leave room for that much daily fruit/veg consumption. Good luck with the cider orchard.

Mitzi, it's hard for me to tell what's in vogue. But I'm all for people growing their own. It might be one of the last and most direct acts of real democracy we can engage in. Amen to the asparagus. But please! Don't taunt me with those very much non-local to me mangos! That's one food I really, really miss.

Jen, 800# from an apple tree would be mighty impressive. Good points about the longevity of dwarf rootstock trees. I think I'm willing to deal with more frequent replanting as a trade-off for less need for pruning and management. But everyone should make the best decision for their situation.

el said...

Kate, sometimes your responses to comments are a little tough. We of course don't think your a neophyte who needs instruction. We are just trying to help or just being nice.

Kate said...

El, my apologies for being tough. I suppose I was responding to my impression that such comments are glass-half-empty gotcha comments. I'm excited by the ideas I found in my reading, and excited to share them here. These "Yes, but..." comments seem to sidestep the main points of my post, and leave me feeling rather deflated. However, I do trust that your comments were, as you say, kindly meant. I'll try to keep that uppermost in my mind and keep my own sense of deflation out of my responses.

timfromohio said...

The following presentation is geared towards optimal yield on an orchard scale using spindle-type trees (apples), but I wonder if it might also be applied to the backyard orchard?

eatclosetohome said...

Hey, Kate-

I have a similar issue with the "yes, but..." responses on my blog. I finally talked to one woman who I was sure hated me, my writing, and every idea I've ever had - and it turned out it was just the opposite. She so agreed with me that she never bothered to say "Yes! That's it! Exactly!" but she wanted to say she always threw an alternate idea or question out there.

And that's when I realized I do exactly the same thing. *blush* I'm trying to be better about actually voicing the agreements now.

That being said, I follow your work with great enthusiasm and consider you one of my prime teachers.


Alex said...


Check out "Farmers of 40 Centuries". It was written about a century ago but it gives some insight into the Asian growing model.


Kate said...

Alex, thanks for the recommendation. I'll check it out.