I have this great book by John Seymour called “The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It” that briefly discusses nearly all aspects of self-sustainable living. In it, there is a section that compares a homestead on one acre versus one on 5 acres. Of course, he assumes that each property is ideal, with flat, excellent soil, and full sun all day long. What intrigues me about this is the enormous difference in production, both animal and plant, between just one acre and five acres.
This is what he has to say about one acre:
If you had one acre of good, well-drained land, you might choose to use all of it to grow fruit and vegetables. Myself, I would divide it in half and put half an acre down to grass, on which I would graze a cow and perhaps a goat to give milk during the short periods when the cow would be dry, a sow for breeding, and a dozen chickens. I would admittedly have to buy in food from outside to feed these animals through the winter, but this is preferable to buying in dairy products and meat, which would be the alternative.
My remaining half-acre I would divide into four plots for intenstive vegetable production, devoting a plot each to potatoes, legumes (peas and beans), brassicas (cabbage family), and roots. I would divide the grass half-acre into four plots as well, and rotate the whole holding every year. This means I would be planting a grass plot every year and it would stay grass until I plowed it up four years later. I would not have enough grass to keep the cow outdoors all year. I would have a greenhouse for tomatoes and hives for bees, and I would plant a vegetable patch with extra household vegetables, herbs, and soft fruit.
This is what he has to say about five acres:
If you had five acres of good, well-drained land, you could support a family of, say, six people and have occasional surpluses to sell. Of course, no two five-acre plots are ever the same, but in an ideal situation, I would set aside one of my acres for the house, farm buildings, kitchen garden, and orchard, and the other four acres I would divide into eight half-acre plots. Three of them I would put down to grass every year, and there I would run two cows for dairy produce, four sows, a boar, some sheep, and some geese for meat, and some chickens for eggs. I would keep ducks, rabbits, pigeons, and bees wherever I could fit them in.
Now in the five remaining plots, I would sow wheat, roots, Jerusalem artichokes or potatoes, peas and beans, oats, and barley undersown with grass and clover. I would rotate all eight plots every year so no plot ever grew the same crop two years running, unless it was grass. A grass plot would stay grass for three years before being plowed.
The book also has fantastic artwork which describes his ideas much better than words ever could. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the self-sufficient lifestyle. Ok, enough promotion, now down to business.
While one acre is certainly a lot compared to the average city lot, I believe that a family who has 5 acres or more would be much better able to pull through economic uncertainty, job loss, injury, sudden financial crisis, or natural disaster. Yes, you can still grow a lot of your own food on one acre, and you may or may not be able to raise some farm critters for meat and eggs, but you will still have to spend a lot of your income on feed for the critters, fuel for heating, more shots for your grazing livestock because you won’t be able to rotate them efficiently, and for the rest of the meat and vegetables that you just don’t have room for.
Five acres, while still not ideal, would at least take care of 90% of your fruit and vegetable needs, and might even be enough to feed your minimal herd of livestock year-round. Heating fuel might still be an expense even if you heat with wood, because 5 acres really isn’t enough to give you a yearly supply of wood plus all of your edibles. I have learned a lot about crop rotation, and I don’t think I would follow Seymour’s advice on rotating the grass every fourth year. I have talked with ranchers who keep multiple pastures separated into 2-8 different paddocks, and they simply rotate the grazers through the paddocks. I don’t see why a grass plot should be plowed up and replanted, as grass is something that volunteers very well, creates a root mat that only gets sturdier with age, and can simply be aerated every few years to stay healthy. The fewer seeds one has to buy, the more money one can save for other things.
I also think that while five acres could feed an average family, it could also support a small business or farm. Berry crops, like strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries, currants, and raspberries, would do very well if given three acres of the five. These are premium crops that, if tended well, will yield high values at harvest time. While this leaves less room for fuits, vegetables, and livestock, one could always buy the remainder of yearly supplies with proceeds from the three acre harvest. Another idea for a five acre plot would be to erect multiple greenhouses and go into business as a nursery. Whether it is just for flowers, or includes fruits and vegetables, nurseries are very popular locally. With the advent of the internet, a nursery could also deal with mail orders. Of course, when the economy tanks, so could your business and any extra income you would have had from it.
Personally, I would like 10 acres or more for my family when we finally settle down somewhere. This way, we have some wiggle room for a woodlot, a pond, a small guest house or two, and not all of the land would need to be dedicated to crops. We are huge fans of wilderness, and I’d like my children to still be able to experience wooded romps, wild animal sightings, and wilderness foraging. Ten acres with a small (even seasonal) stream right on the border of a wildlife refuge or national forest? Sign me up! Also, with more land comes more wiggle room for business ventures. If you have enough land to produce your yearly food supply, PLUS some extra… why not try your hand at growing some market crops? We have tossed around some other ideas for a homestead business, too, but that is probably going to be a complete blog post of its own. Maybe the next one…