From Cubicle Nerd to Cucumber Vendor: Learning Small Scale Farming in Mid-life

This is a guest post from Jim Dunlap (Wyoming) about his experience as a new farmer in Virginia and is part of our Wed pm/Sat pm TOD: Campfire series, where we will post articles more related to personal, local and social responses to our resource and environmental predicaments.

Like many posters on The Oil Drum (TOD) I find the subject of how we are going to feed ourselves in our future world of constrained energy supplies and climate change fascinating and complex. Partly by design and partly by happenstance I am living a version of the kind of life some believe will become not only the norm but required of large numbers of people in our future world. This post is an attempt to describe some of my experiences growing food on an 11 acre farm during 2008. Earlier TOD discussions, involving such posters as Jason Bradford, Wisdom from Pakistan and others on carrying capacity, minimum food requirements, production possibilities and other aspects of small scale agriculture, led me to think that a description of the effort and results of one farmer, at the small end of the farming spectrum, would be interesting information for many on TOD and might generate meaningful discussion. So here goes.


In a way you could describe my operation as an experiment. I am a retired engineer with a pension, some investments, no debt and a spouse with a full time career. I think working at meaningful and productive tasks is an obligation that lasts a lifetime and following my retirement from a highly stressful career I was looking for something to motivate me that was more relaxing. I think there is a lot that can be learned about future possibilities if we try sample solutions and see how hard they are to execute and whether they can satisfy reasonable objectives. What happens if the economy crumbles to the point that significant numbers of the populace are required to return to the land and grow food for the rest of us, in a resource constrained world? What percentage of the population will need to return to farming? Can citizens similar to myself make a go of it? What is the learning curve? What works and what just does not? Hopefully the information I present here will let others make judgments about what they could accomplish if put in similar circumstances.

The beginning
I started this experiment in 2007 so this is the end of my 2nd year. I am well into planning for year 3 and am strongly leaning towards evolving my operation into one which I could claim is “professional” in that a farmer could make a minimal living income from it. The real point that success needs to be measured at is where this scale of farming generates enough results that it is a sound choice for others. Not just a survival mode, but rather a reasonable family and financial choice for a segment of society that will contribute to the overall success of everyone else. If we don’t figure out how to create such possibilities, as we wind down our “living beyond the worlds means”, we will indeed find ourselves in that survival mode. My life experiences have taught me that Murphy was right (everything that can go wrong will go wrong – unless you plan for it). I am trying to plan for it.

I am not asking the question “Can this type of farming be profitable?” as the answer to that is clearly “Yes”. There are many profitable small scale organic farms. But those farms are not being operated by people like me. I am not an expert organic vegetable farmer, they are. The question that I think I am trying to answer lies along the line of “Can a middle class middle aged cubicle nerd stand up, snap off the computer, walk out the door and successfully return to the land? Or will he fail, and a lot of us thereby starve?” It has been interesting so far! For reference, I am in my mid-50’s, very fit and a life long workaholic. While my interest lies in determining if the cubicle nerd can adapt to this lifestyle that question does exactly fit me. My life experiences (work history, living conditions, skill sets and inclinations) are such that this activity is far easier for me to adapt to then all but a small percentage of the population. That being said, I think that what I learn and the issues that I run into will be relevant to many who might be interested in the subject or choose to try such an occupation.

Having a solid foundation in science I want to caveat what I present here. What follows is not a scientific work in any way. There is data, yes, but not rigorous data. Some is approximated and, in analytical terms, there are serious holes in it. But I am not trying to scientifically prove anything. This is just an example of what I have done and learned. If it generates a lot of interest and suggestions I will likely plan on a repeat posting in another year with more data and thoughts.

What are we talking about?
Many discussions of farming and production results often get sidetracked, to some extent, because the different posters are talking apples and oranges.
Not all soil is equal, not all areas receive the same amount of rainfall, sunshine, wind, frost free conditions, etc. What one farmer can accomplish at his location cannot necessarily be replicated at another farm. And a good farmer can grow rings around a bad one on the same piece of ground. This is true for farms quite close to each other and especially true for those separated by great distances. You cannot grow rice where I live now and you cannot grow most of the vegetables I produce in the land of my birth (Wyoming). Industrial grain farming or cattle operations are so different from what I do that it is almost impossible to compare them in any meaningful way. Before I started my current farming activities I was far more knowledgeable of cattle operations than any other type of agriculture. I will go into a fairly detailed description of my place in order to allow those reading this post to take into account the specific local conditions at my farm when they compare my experiences with theirs.

Description of 2008 on Wyoming’s Farm

Methods of farming
I farm organically and use no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers. I use natural soil amendments, composted manures and vegetable matter, green manures, etc. Pest control is primarily conducted through companion planting, designed to ward off bad insects and attract beneficial insects, and crop rotations designed to disrupt pest cycles. On rare occasions I have used OMRI certified materials to treat severe pest problems or have purchased beneficial insects (lady bugs) and loosed them on the pests. Weed control is via cultivation, mulching and crop rotation. I chose to use organic methods because I think that we have far more to learn about what can be accomplished in small scale farming by using organic methods than there is to learn using chemical based methods. In the future I believe that it is conceivable that widespread use of pesticides and herbicides will not be available to the non-industrial farmer. Such things being reserved for those involved in growing massive amounts of product via monocropping. While I believe that, in the future, farmers growing food for sale will likely be first in priority for fuels, I expect that the large industrial farms will first among equals on that account as well.

My farm receives some 40 inches of moisture a year that is fairly evenly distributed with no month averaging less than 2+ inches and the max month being less than 4 inches. Spring can often be very wet, making planting with heavy machinery (not an issue of mine) problematic. If the soil gets really wet it takes a significant period of time to dry out. During drought conditions the ground becomes rocklike hard and heavy rains mostly run off until the ground re-hydrates to an appropriate amount. While winter, spring and fall rains often tend to be slow and steady, summer rains are often violent and fast. We receive minimal snow during the winter with an average season totaling about 20 inches. The last 3 years, however, have seen less than 10 inches of snow. This area of the United States has fairly hot and humid summers. Mid-summer highs are commonly above 90 degrees F and occasionally reach 100 F. Last frost averages 24 April and first frost averages 24 October. This gives us 183 days of growing season, not counting what can be added via the use of high tunnels and row covers.

My farm (a giant 11 acres) is located in Northern Virginia in an area called the Piedmont at about 39 degrees latitude. My land is on the foothills of the easternmost ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and mostly slopes gently to the east. The soils here are loam or silt-loam, which have a natural pH between 5 and 6. The land here can be very rocky and, even though this property has been farmed since the 1780’s, I still harvest my share of rocks. I have a large spring fed pond that I use for irrigation purposes and, in even the driest of times, I will not want for water. Not all farmers in this area have that advantage. Using well water for irrigation is not possible for many farmers in this region as wells often do not have significant capacity, due to the lack of underground aquifers and the high cost of drilling as deep as 750 feet through granite. In this area most “agricultural” land is not being used for agriculture at all, but rather to provide a nice place for all the pet horses to run around. There are a few cattle and other livestock operations in the area, but they are dwindling over time as development pressures (taxes and greed) overwhelm them.

As mentioned above, the natural soil pH here is too low for ideal growing conditions and frequent liming is required. My primary liming material is ashes from burned hard wood trees. As I heat my house mostly with wood from the surrounding forests I wanted to use the ashes in a productive way and wood ash is a good liming material that also has many micronutrients in it. However, using wood ash requires great care as a small amount can dramatically raise pH and the effects are not predictable. I also use calcium carbonate from a nearby quarry for liming. The bottom land soil type on the farm is often deficient in boron and requires supplements. Other than liming and boron requirements I have not yet needed to add anything beyond what arrives naturally via the composts and manures. I have never purchased prepared organic fertilizers or potting mixes preferring to manufacture my own on site.

Next year I am going to experiment with the use of commercial organic fertilizers in order to compare its effect on production to the methods I have been using to date. I am pretty sure that I will see significant improvement. Those who are more expert at building high quality compost might find that commercial organic fertilizers are not worth the extra expense. I only know one farmer who is generating all composts/fertilizers on site and they achieve excellent results. This farm has 180 acres to utilize and very expensive and large equipment to turn over the windrows of compost they are making. They manufacture about 250-300 tons of compost a year. They are very knowledgeable and committed. And they have put a lot of money into the effort. I am not sure that they have saved any money over just purchasing the inputs, but they are very self-sufficient. There are equipment issues to take into account that effect any judgments one might make about their decisions.

In 2007 I trucked in about 40 yards of a compost made from horse manure and bedding material that I used during the 2008 year. I purchased greensand, rock phosphate, blood meal, sand and peat moss for use in making my potting mix. I understand that a highly efficient and very knowledgeable farmer could probably/possibly, take this farm and run it without bringing in outside inputs. But I am just not there yet.

I am currently growing on 5400 feet of 4 foot wide raised beds. This sounds like a lot but it is actually only ½ acre of actual planted square footage. In normal farming terms one would say that I am growing on about an acre as everyone counts the aisles between the beds and a border around the actual area one is growing on when they state their acreage. Like I said, I am working on the small end of the scale. I wanted to give an exact amount as I think that this will allow those reading to be able to make more accurate comparisons to their own data. The beds are broken up into 4 separate gardens located in sort of a semi-circle around the pond. These gardens are on 3 different types of soils. A complication that I am not yet expert enough to take into account when making farming decisions.

I also have a small number of peach, cherry, and pear trees that I harvest the fruit from for sale at the markets. I have a total of 40 trees, but most are young and not yet in production. I have about 150 feet of blackberry bushes in production. For 2009 we are adding in another acre of gardens and will add about 100 feet of blackberry bushes. We will replace any fruit trees which do not survive the winter or the deer. All the garden areas are enclosed by deer fencing and electric wire as deer predation in this area is severe due to their out of control population and it is not possible to vegetable farm on any scale without fencing the deer out. Even home gardeners have to have deer fence in our area (an interesting issue for those contemplating suburban gardening). I also have to deal with significant populations of ground hogs, raccoons and rabbits. We have 2 bee hives that we started this spring and they are doing well. Barring problems, we should be able to start harvesting honey in 2009.

My tractor is a BCS 853 two-wheeled (walk behind) tractor with an 11 hp diesel engine. Tractor implements consist of a tiller, rotary plow and flail mower. I use an Earthway seeder when appropriate and hand seed as well. All transplanting is done by hand. I have various hand tools for cultivating and other farm work. I have a Pacer irrigation pump and sand filter which pressurizes a trickle irrigation network that reaches all growing areas as well as many of the fruit trees. There is also a catchments system I installed that collects rain water from a large equipment building and funnels it into a 1550 gal storage tank. This water is used to irrigate the remaining trees and berry bushes. I have an old garden tractor with no mower deck that I use to pull a utility wagon. I use a push mulching mower to mow between my raised beds, a weed eater for obvious reasons and a riding mower to mow areas around the fields. I use a 1994 Chevy 4X4 pickup around the farm and for transporting my produce to farmers markets. I have a 10 by 20 foot greenhouse that I use to grow transplants for the gardens and potted plants for sale at the markets. I heat the greenhouse via a kerosene heater (yes I know that this is sub-optimal but I already owned it and am being cheap) and supplement it on very cold nights with electric heat. The greenhouse is portable (depending on your definition of portable) and I set it up in front of an equipment shed on an asphalt pad. At this location there is excellent wind protection provided by the building and the black asphalt helps with heat retention during cold periods.

I really need more greenhouse space and figure on adding 10x20 feet next year. Through barter and just neighborly relationships with nearby farmers I have access to a large variety of tractors (34-100 hp) and implements. I have little need for this equipment except on the occasions when I need to plow, disk or bushhog large areas. The fuel for use of borrowed equipment is included in the below energy use descriptions. For 2009 I plan to add dual wheels to the BCS tractor for more traction, extra wheel weights, axle extensions, a bed shaper, a plastic mulch/drip tape layer, a root digger and a cultivator toolbar. Though I do not have any high tunnels I do make use of cloches/low tunnels (hoop supported) or just row covers placed right on top of the plants.

Hours worked

While the year is not yet finished I believe that I can say with a fair degree of accuracy that I will have worked at least 3000 hours at various tasks that are part and parcel of running the farm. I am not counting hours that are typical home maintenance like house painting or mowing the lawn. December and January are the lightest months in terms of work load and are when most of the “office” work of planning and ordering are performed. Outside work during Dec/Jan mostly consists of fencing, building/modifying farm buildings/equipment, maintenance of equipment, trimming trees and the like. Late January I start the first trays of seedlings and the tasks associated with growing crops slowly build. Starting about the first of March I began working 7 days a week and this lasted until the first week of Nov. By sometime in mid April all days average about 10 hours and during periods of May-Sept there are many weeks of 80 hours. Market days can be as long as 14 hours. For those of you not familiar with this type of farming the above workload is not unusual and I know small scale mixed vegetable farmers (less than 50 acres) who work much harder than I do. The farm needs more work put into it, but I am in my mid-50’s and don’t seem to have the energy that I used too. There is no hired help used on my farm operation though the wife keeps asking for money. I’m holding out so far. She contributes a small amount of time to the operation as she has a more than full time off-farm job. Her total contribution would be about 300 hours/yr. This gives a farm total of 3300 hours for the year.

Production results
Unlike some operations I do not count bushels or weigh everything. I know that I should as it would be very helpful, over the long haul, in judging the productivity of the various gardens/beds/farm, but I never seem to have the time or inclination to perform this additional task. I grew 23 different vegetables this year and for many of them I grew multiple varieties; for example, 9 kinds of tomatoes, 5 of beans, 3 of summer squash, 3 of winter squash, etc. In terms of gross sales tomatoes were naturally first as they are for almost all farmers who sell at farmers markets (I sold at 3 different markets each week). To arrive at the amount of produce I grew I based my estimate on the weight of the different vegetables I sold and the prices per pound that I charged, an estimate of waste (that which ended up in the compost pile or ground hog stomach), donations to the hungry, what we consumed/canned, and what was left in the field at the end of the year. I arrive at a number of 6500 lbs of produce and about 500 lbs of fruit. Using data from an old TOD post by WisdomfromPakistan I calculate that I grew approximately 1 million calories of vegetables and fruit. This works out to the equivalent in calories of enough food to feed one person for 500 days at 2000 calories per day for the average human. I note that a farmer working as hard as I do would starve on 2000 calories a day.

Produce Type cal/lb lbs calories
Vegetables 145 6500 942,500
Fruit 272 500 136,200
Total cal 1,078,700

The above results are in line with the data that WisdomfromPakistan provided in his post and spreadsheets. According to his data 1 acre is needed to provide a balanced diet for one person for 1 year. Counting the area of my vegetable beds and the land occupied by the producing fruit trees and berry bushes I am using approximately 5/8 of an acre of actual ground and about 1.25 acres of total ground to provide 1.4 yearly diet equivalents. While I did not grown any grains I did grow a very diverse set of crops including some 100 lbs of dry beans. With canning and preserving one could possibly have survived a year on what I grew. Earlier this year Jason Bradford indicated that the normal yearly consumption of fruit and vegetables was about 700 lbs per person. This would indicate that I grew enough fruit and vegetables to provide the yearly requirements for 10 people.

Planning Complexities
I would note that growing a large mix of vegetables for sale at farmers markets or through a CSA is a very complex undertaking. The planning requirements came as something of a shock to me. This is one area that will severely tax the beginner if they are not working with a mentor or directly for a farmer who is kind enough to teach them the ins and outs of such planning. I tried creating a number of spread sheets to help with my planning and work schedules and, even after 2 years, I am very unsatisfied with the results. I would recommend that a beginner to this type of farming purchase a set of the spread sheets for sale which have been created by one of the very experienced market farming/CSA operations. Among the items one must take into account in their planning are: crop rotations, bed preparation for the next crop, bed clean up and preparation for the following crop for 23 vegetables, greenhouse starts times for the thousands of transplants, tilling/cultivation requirements, multiple plantings of specific crops (beans 9 times, radishes 10+ times, tomatoes 4 times, squash 4 times, cucumbers 4 times, etc), harvest goals, seed requirements, crop rotations, cover crops, etc. The knowledge of biology and plant physiology that some farmers possess is staggering. Even after two years of practice and having consumed many books on the various farming subjects it is not hard for many of my acquaintances to be talking way above my head when discussing the intricacies of growing and taking care of 20-30 different kinds of vegetables at the same time.


I am not providing information on gross sales as I do not consider it particularly meaningful to this discussion. The mix of what you grow and where your markets are determine the gross sales. I live near some of the better farmers markets in the country so prices are good for the farmer around here. Expenses are somewhat higher as well of course. I am within commuting distance to Washington DC. This results in land prices which are exorbitant and taxes are very high. Hiring help is complicated by rents being far too high for any farm worker to afford. This leads to creative arrangements. I am paying for this as I go. I used a minimal amount of savings to get started and am basically expanding as the revenues come in. After two years I am fairly close to breaking even and expect to have paid for all of my equipment and covered expenses by the end of 2009. This is pretty good I think and it allows me to stick to the idea of seeing if it is possible for rank beginners to start in this business. If one started out by purchasing $50K worth of farming equipment it would sort of defeat the scenario of the future we are testing. I don’t see the future world being one in which a beginning farmer will be able to obtain large amounts of credit to buy equipment. Start small, borrow nothing, pay as you go. That is the idea at this point. I do admit that a 30-40 hp tractor with a set of implements is pretty attractive. But not yet. Maybe a year from now.

Energy use
The primary expense of this farming operation is fuel. In 2008 I estimate (I am guessing on the last 6 weeks of the year and adding to actual numbers through 17 Nov) that I will have consumed 950 gallons of gasoline, diesel and kerosene combined. The primary use of this fuel was in traveling to and from the farmers markets and secondarily to drive into the nearby towns for supplies and parts. I estimate that 750 gallons of the total were used by the truck. I have no way to account for the fuel usage of the delivery trucks which bring me the products I order via e-mail or telephone. Early in the year I walk more around the farm and carry the things I need. Later in the season I am tired and I use my little tractor and wagon to zip around in and haul my tools more frequently. This uses extra fuel. As we make ice, use some fluorescents as grow lights, refrigerate picked produce, run tools, air compressors, use well water, use the computer and office equipment, etc as part of the farming operation we are clearly consuming a fair amount of electricity. A comparison of electric bills, from before we were farming to now, indicates that the farming is using about $30/month of electricity.

A significant increase in efficient use of fuel could be obtained by restructuring the farmers market part of the operation. If I could gain entry into one of the very large weekend markets further into the city I could replace both of my current weekend markets with the new market and actually sell more produce. It takes time to work your way into these markets. I am in much better markets this year than last and hopefully I can continue to work my way up the ladder so to speak. But the savings would not result in cutting fuel use in half as the inner city markets are much further away. Another way to cut my fuel usage would be to replace my mid-week market with a small CSA operation. One of my friends has done this successfully. However, depending on how the CSA is operated and where the drop off location is in relation to the customer residences a CSA probably results in increased overall fuel usage rather than less. CSA members are required to drive to a pickup location once a week to collect their vegetable shares. One of my goals for 2009 is to significantly reduce fuel usage in comparison to the amount of produce I market. On a gal per lb of produce basis over the course of 2008 the ratio was approximately 1 gal to 7.4 lbs of product.

Yield per gallon of fuel

Fuel (gal) Lbs of Produce lbs/gal
950 7000 7.4

Accounting for all energy inputs related to my farming operation could, of course, become very complicated depending on how one counts inputs. Should I count the fuel use of the delivery vehicles which bring me supplies and equipment? The fuel used in making those supplies and equipment? I think those are valid concerns and I would be very interested to know the answers. But I don’t have the time or knowledge to figure these numbers out by myself.


At this point in my little experiment I can still say that it is possible to take middle-aged, middle class people out of the office and recreate agriculture operations. But it is going to be HARD, both physically and mentally. There is a huge amount to learn and this takes up a lot of the non-daylight hours. The physical part of the work is far beyond that ever experienced by most people in our society. It eliminates most spare time (winter only) and leisure activities, unless you count reading books on farming as leisure time. Even the young are going to be tired, sore, beat up, frustrated and many other things. I was raised in a country where hard physical work was the norm and I experienced my share of it. I knew what I was getting into. None of this is a surprise to me. I don’t doubt that large numbers of folks my age could do this if they had to. However the issue is probably more along the lines that we need people to choose to do this in significant numbers long before they have no choice. Farming on this scale is probably more suited for those younger than 50. The learning curve is steep and in addition to gardening/farming skills one needs to be a mechanic, a construction worker, an accountant and a few other things as well.

On the plus side, I am making a profit even at the scale I am at, but it is in between $1-2/hr at this point. I am expanding by 1 acre of gardens for 2009 and can add in as much as 2 more acres beyond that if I choose. I can also add at least 40 more fruit trees and 400 ft of berry bushes before I run out of room for crops. At that point I would have used up what I own unless I started plowing up lawn (we’ll wait on that until times get a little rougher). I think that my expansion for 2009 will require me to hire outside help. If I can not find someone living locally I do have the option of rooming help in my house as it is a large farm house and our children are long into adulthood. With increased acreage in production and hired help there is the possibility of a more meaningful income. As time goes on my skills and my soil should improve. Productivity should increase significantly.

I also have tremendous advantages over many who might contemplate living this lifestyle (or be required to). I own my property outright with no debt. It is an actual farm and not a converted xurban lawn. I have a 30x30 ft shop with 14 ft ceilings and commercial size door; a large equipment shed (combine size- 24 ft wide opening), a double stall non-attached garage that is 23x26 ft, four enclosed rooms that are 23x12 ft with concrete floors, a smoke house, a spring house, a strong year around spring, a creek which flows except during drought, a large pond, good soils, I have a huge pile of tools and access to affluent markets, via neighbors I have access to a wide variety of tractors and all possible types of implements. If I choose the CSA route I have neighbors within sight that want to be members and can probably fill all the shares that I could produce product for.

I am looking forward to your input and questions.


Related articles noted by Wyoming can be found here:

This is wonderful, thank you. It's astonishing (and inspiring) to me that you are doing this all yourself.

I don't understand this part:"There is no hired help used on my farm operation though the wife keeps asking for money. I’m holding out so far."

The wording is tripping me up:do you mean she is asking if you want money to hire outside help?


No it is a joke. A poor one she says. I put her to work, but I don't pay her anything other than my company. Which is, of course, "priceless".

Now I understand, I was coming at it the other way. Cute. "Keep those costs down!"

It took me a couple of reads to catch that little joke too. Really enjoyed your post, it was good having an engineers honest assessment of such a project. I tend to find calling this 'practice' for what the future may bring a little fanciful as the situation most believe would send folks back to the small farm would upturn the cities so horribly that any kind of order being maintained in lands accessible to the large population centers seems a remote possibility. But I could well be wrong.

What you have truly highlighted is that it takes the dedicated work of an admitted workaholic to make a small scale food growing profitable and that is only profitable from and energy in energy out of the immediate crop standpoint. The energy input that allowed you to begin your operation free and clear was substantial, and of course would not have been possible without the greater economy generating a large surplus (at least in the short term).

What really impressed me about your operation was the necessity of irrigation in an area getting 40 inches of rain a year. Intense cultivation requires more input than most imagine. Enjoy your 'easy' months, I've noticed the energy level nearing 60 isn't close to what it was at 50.

One thing that I would recommend would be to add a small free range or chicken tractored poultry setup to your farm. The chickens can make use of greenery and spoiled fruit/vegetables and get rid of a lot of garden bugs.
Today meat is a much more expensive part of the diet than vegetables, so growing your own meat chickens (and maybe a few egg chickens) could be very beneficial to the farming and to your pocket book. There is a good market for free range organic meat chickens. If you look around you can probably find someone not too far from you that can do the processing of the chickens for you.
One or two of the new mineature beef cattle could also supply manure and beef (And they are a lot of fun to raise). (Do a Google on "Lowline Angus")
There are many reasons why the old farms all included livestock in their operations.


Great advice. There are some restrictions on the land I own (minimal covenants) that would make it difficult to have chickens on a commercial scale. I used to have a few for generating our own eggs and this would be a virtual requirement in any future that resembles the one we are "practicing" for. I constantly get requests to add in enough chickens that I could bring eggs to the market for sale and am thinking about the best way to have a small operation for that purpose.

I am familiar with the chicken tractored poultry set up you mention. Or at least a version of it where the chicken house is built on a wagon like frame that you can pull around to different areas of the property. I know several farmers who have such setups and they work really well. An interesting side note on these movable wagons is a strange quirk of local code. These "wagons" are considered "buildings" and subject to code and restrictions on where they can be "parked". Hard to believe but I know of one farmer who is getting harassed by county authorities and neighbors over the issue.

In this county there are many ordinances/covenants that impact where and how you can conduct agricultural operations and even gardening. Many HOA's have restrictions that would make it very difficult for people to have gardens on their own property due to strict limits on fences and such. In tough times many such restrictions will be ignored of course, but in the meantime they impair the ability of folks to be more self sufficient. I have this fantasy that we pass a state law that supercedes such restrictions on the use of private property when it concerns growing food or supplementing our energy supply.

I have not looked into the miniature beef cattle. I did have a few cattle on my place for years to include the first year of the vegetable growing. I decided not to have animals of that size on a place this small. They are very destructive and requiem more time than I wanted to devote to them. You are quite correct on the need for mixed animal/vegetable production on small farms to maintain fertility and profitability. Unfortunately my operation, I think, is just too small to make it work other than with chickens or maybe just a hand full of hogs. In a manner of speaking I mimic the mixed operation when I bring to the property the composted manure from my neighbors operation or if I purchase the organic fertilizers made from composted chicken waste.



You might find this site to have an interesting variety of designs and information. I'm planning on doing this on a small scale next spring.

I would note that growing a large mix of vegetables for sale at farmers markets or through a CSA is a very complex undertaking.

Here is where a fundamental tenet of modern economics will still hold value going forward - comparative advantage. I don't think any one farm or even group of farms can grow EVERYTHING needed - we will still have specialization and benefit from local trade/barter. If I specialize in garlic and chickens, I can trade for squash and potatoes and be 'better' off, because I became more expert at the garlic. Of course there is then the issue of risk-adjusted return and shortfall risk - e.g. what if I have a virus specific to garlic - I am wiped out. So I expect those that go down this path will create a 'portfolio' of staples, and trade/barter for the rest.

Specialization, in the globalization has gone too far for 2 reasons:
1)the import substitution policies of Washington Consensus have caused many (most?) countries to be dependent on trade with others for what have become essential goods and

2)the plethora of 'choices' has not added (I could argue has detracted from) happiness/utility. How many flavors of chicken sausage or toothpaste are really necessary?

Thanks again for efforting this essay Wyoming...


You touch on a very important topic for the future. If a small farmers does NOT grow an excess that he can trade and barter for goods he does not grow or manufacture himself then the system will not work. None of us are self sufficient unless we are living like the natives did on the Great Plains or in the Amazon. All of our farmer ancestors had a civilization behind them making things that the excess farm products were traded for. Everything from plows to hand tools to rifles.

How do we recreate that infrastructure. We not only need new farmers but blacksmiths. And host of other skills. In my location we are so far from having the critical mass of such skills that it is most difficult to imagine how to even get there.

I have talked with a few of the small local farmers a little about creating a CSA that was supported by a number of us small farmers. then we could each get a little of that economy of scale you speak of and thereby be a little more profitable. There just does not seem to be of us in the area yet to try that either.

Finding farm labor is a really big issue also. One almost has to have a bunkhouse or some such lodging on the farm to be able to find workers. It is far too expensive locally for farm workers to obtain outside lodging. There are some immigrants in the area who will work on farms when they cannot find construction jobs. They normally have some kind of communal living arrangements that allow them to live very cheaply. Farming is not their first choice due to the very low wages, but they are good workers. Almost all farmers I know have a low opinion of the work ethic of the summer high school and college students. But that tends to be all that is available.

The above labor issue is one that will be essential to work out for the future. As farm "families" will probably not consist of large numbers of children like they did for our ancestors (some of my ancestors have 10-13 children) we will have a labor issue to solve. Lots of "hired" men/women will be required.




Every fundamental tenet of modern economics will hold value on the way down, except for the exponential growth crap. These tenets (division of labour, comparable advantage, invisible hands, visible fists, public choice etc. etc.) are universally valid for all humans at all times.

Unfortunately most of the 'return to the soil' community don't understand these tenets. However, in an age of growing scarcity these basic principles will be even more important than they are today. The irony is that our societies can afford luxuries such as Jack-of-all-trades organic farming models precisely because so much wealth has been generated in the conventional economy.

There is a toytown dimension to many of these projects that always sets my bullshit detector running.

These tenets (division of labour, comparable advantage, invisible hands, visible fists, public choice etc. etc.) are universally valid for all humans at all times.

With exception of invisible hand, I don't disagree with your list, but you forgot:

rational actor, pareto-optimality, utility maximizing, perfect substitutes, environment is WITHIN the human system not vice versa....the majority of economic tenets will not hold, except those, like many you list, that will be 're-defined' once energy limits and biological constraints are fused into the lexicon. I agree that 'supply and demand' at its core will of course always be germaine - just like it is in a population of elk and wolves, but the ASSUMPTIONS that follow these micro-economic traits rooted in biology are what will morph into something else.

Carolus what is thust of walrasian welfare economics without the 'exponential growth crap'? other than a ginormous toytown dimension? What if all financial markers went away - would Wyomings 'projects' continue to set your bullshit detector off?


Actually I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Georgescu-Roegenist with a Hayekian trying to get out. So replace 'every' by a weaselly 'most' or 'many'.

It's just this obsession with fruit and vegetables that gets my gander up, I reckon.

I dislike fruit myself - mostly sugar and some vitamins. But vegetables are key. I am trying to get a nutrition professor to write a guest post for this series on how American diets increase our consumptive behavior via 'cravings' that we attempt to satiate using non-food means.

Selma Hayek?


Nate I think your browser needs adjustment look above Selma Hayek for the guy I think Carolus Obscurus means. (*see here below*)

I could be wrong though as that Selma does look a bit less like a vegetable than that Fred guy. And of course that hair of his does give him a rather fruity pineapple aspect as well:)

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This is quite relevant and fascinating thank you for posting it. Corn subsidies dramatically influence the markets for farmers. There is a documentary called "King Corn" that elaborates on this (I haven't seen it but read a review).
For anyone who is curious about why we are fat the answer appears to be fructose so corn syrup and sucrose is apparently 50% fructose so sugar makes us fat and helps us to get diabetes and liver damage which affects moods etc.

Quality food production translates to high brix high nutritionally dense whole foods. These foods don't rot in 2 days in the fridge. The great joy of growing your own food is the dramatic improvement in quality. My garlic is well so much better than any of the stuff at the supermarket that many people are surprised. But then we've been trained to think that junk is normal.

I may do a post on farming for a complete diet sometime. Veggies and fruits are only about 5-10% of the calories people received.

The reasons fruits and vegetables are favored by small scale farmers is that they maximize the $ returned on land.

For example, wheat might sell for $1 per pound but only yield 0.1 lbs per sq ft. Tomatoes might sell for $2 per lb and yield at 2 lbs per sq ft.

If you don't have a lot of land but are willing to invest a lot of time which would your grow?

As I wrote in the shape of food to come, my thoughts are,

Oil is not going to just run dry one day, but simply become scarce, it'll go where it's needed, and thus likely still be used on farms.

As for biofuels, they can't be made in enough volume to keep us tooling around in SUVs (we could manage at best a single barrel of fuel each annually), but can be enough for (say) 5-10% of the population to be farmers with tractors (rather than the 2% or so today).

So we won't be able to fuel as much machinery as we do today. But where is the machinery most useful? That's in grains and tubers cropping, not so much in fruit and vegetable cropping.

Thus in a fossil fuel scarce future, we'll still see 1,000-hectare farms growing grain and combine harvesters, but we'll see more small-scale farming of fruit and vegetables. And this was the Cuban experience. That daft documentary made a big deal of the urban gardens, but didn't mention that out in the countryside the big machines are still burning diesel like mad, and providing the bulk of the people's calories.

So I think small-scale farmers will continue to favour fruit and vegies, and leave the grains/beans and perhaps the tubers to big farms with machinery.

Oil is not going to just run dry one day, but simply become scarce,

I wouldn't bet on it being that simple. Oil extraction and refining now depends on hugely complex globalised hi-tech. And this is only going to get worse. In the event of a collapse of the global/industrial/capitalist financial/economic system, the physical systems for supplying oil could grind to an absolute halt. And never be restartable again. Indeed they could just rust away, beyond our funds to replace.

We were small-scale, certified organic growers in the early 1980's. Our main crops were tomatoes, as you mention, and strawberries. A couple of points:

1. Although we were making "day" wages, they were insufficient to really cover our financial needs without an outside job (which we didn't have). After a few years we had to make the choice to either "grow" the business or shut down.

Because of our climate and local market, we grew out the tomato plants in five gallon grow bags in our little 14'x18' greenhouse and actually set out plants that were in bloom when home gardeners were just starting their seeds. Our choice was to either greatly expand our greenhouse space or shut down.

It made more sense to shut down when we looked that the economics.

2. It is important to understand your local market as well as the competition in other locals. Early tomatoes were great sellers...until home gardens started to produce (This is a rural area and lots of people put in a few tomatoes.). At that point, sales died. We did participate in a farmer's market 60 miles from us for a year. However, the climate in that area is much milder than ours in the mountains. When we could only bring snap peas, the local growers in that area had a full range of vegetables for sale.

3. Strawberry picking is, obviously, labor intensive. We produced enough so that it was hard for us to keep up. Therefore, we tried hiring a couple of local kids. They did pick but not selectively enough so we ended throwing away a lot of almost ripe fruit. After a while we went back to picking ourselves.

I certainly do not regret that period and we learned a lot about moderate-scale organic production. However, given what we know now about growing and selling, it is clear that we were naive about our income prospects given very limited finances for the operation.


Reply to Todd regarding strawberries on small farm.

Fella down the road I knew well had gotten a small farm for his family to make some money. He was an 'operating engineer' but nonunion however he worked for a very large 'land development' guy who was also a farmer on the side.

Well he put a bunch of that farm into strawberries. Remember that this part of Ky used to raise a lot of strawberries ,in fact as a teenager visiting my kin here they used to make a bit picking those many fields of strawberries.

So he did and next spring had a very nice crop. Got a decent price too and asked me to install a PC so they could manage the large number of sales.

All was ok but at the end he had to sell at cheaper prices since the market was not that big. Big but not enough.

Next year his kids didn't want to spend the time. His wife was running out of patience. He was pissed so he plowed it all up.

It just didn't work out with the local market. Did for 2 years and then died.

He then of course , left his wife and moved off. Haven't seen him in a while. The farm is still there but idle.His kids went off to get bigger jobs elsewhere. They just didn't have what it took to stick to it and with the 'glammar' of Ipods,yada, called to them to strongly I hear.

So it goes. What once worked didn't cut it. He tried some Mexicans. That didn't work for they 'cherry picked' he said.

I was saddened to see my friend leave. I loved his strawberries so I resurrected my patch.

If you want it almost gotta do it yourself.

Moral? Modern life. Modern culture.



I'm are always doing some kind of experiment, must be my tech background, even as a grower. Anyway, I saw a picture in a hydroponic book at that time showing strawberries being grown in vertical grow bags suspended from overhead "joists." I said, "Ah, ha. No more bending down!"

So, I contacted a company that made grow bags and asked whether I could just buy rolls of uncut bag material (6" diameter). They said Ok. I also happened to have a number of treated 4x4's and a lot 2x6" so I set up a grow area where I could "plant" about 2,500 plants in 6' long grow bags. The plants were fed hydroponically using fish emulsion to keep it organic. The growing medium was peat moss and vermiculite with a few ammendments. I even wrote an article for a back to the land paper here entitled, "It's In the Bag."

Did it work? Not from our perspective. I had trouble getting good moisture and nutrient distribution in the bags. The bags were white and tended to "cook" the berries. Now, I could have experimented with different growing media and put up shade cloth. It obviously was a viable concept that a few more years of work would have made it a real money maker for us. But, there is a time when you have to move on.

Sorry abut your friend.


The irony is that our societies can afford luxuries such as Jack-of-all-trades organic farming models precisely because so much wealth has been generated in the conventional economy.

Hey, I resemble that remark! It's an important observation. The gallons gas/pounds veggies is telling.

But the experiment here is can a 50 something engineer make the transition to farmer work. Certainly not in a year. I had exactly this discussion with a good friend, also a Master Gardener and landscaper. She had tried to imagine which of the people she knows could make such a transition and couldn't think of more than a very small handful. I too have a fairly good set up - no debt, a 10' clear three car garage and shop, chicken coops, sheds, multiple wells. Home and shop superinsulated passive solar. Still, there is no way I could pay my way with vegetables and fruits - even when I get my entire 2+ acres into production. [And that is as much as I could possibly work myself.] The information load - planning, scheduling, preservation - is astounding.

I can only play at this experiment myself because of external wealth provided by society. Sobering.

cfm in Gray, ME

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
--Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long


Reality is a harsh mistress: just try putting this recommendation into practice.

Heinlein's aphorism is as witty as it is false.

Without specialization, no civilization.

Poppycock! I can do all but about four of the things on that list, and I see no reason why I shouldn't be able to master those in time. I have a good handful of friends who can say the same (but I probably have a higher-than-average number of friends who are likewise autodidactic polymaths). A good self-sufficient farmer is also a doctor, a veterinarian, an accountant, a mechanic, a cook, a poet, a carpenter, a blacksmith, and a musician, among other things. In any case, there is no harm and plenty of good in aspiring to have as many useful skills as possible. Argue for your limitations, and they will be yours.

Hey Carolus we gots the specialization up the ass and nigh unto Afghanistan, so when do we get that thing, 'civilization'? As well, about Heinlein, he was a specialist who plagiarized a generation to butter his bread, you GROK?

I don't know Chris... I think there is some underlying truth in this. I'm currently snowed in and my husband just yelled at our twin 4-year old boys "don't rough-house! We can't get you to the emergency room." I was thinking "wish I knew how to set a broken bone."
Of those things about I can do most-- I cannot program a computer. But I have comforted the dying and I've got 3 new books on stone masonry because I want to start building stone walls.

Specialization is for some of us- but has never been for me (despite the fact that I have a number of advanced degrees in science). Perhaps there is some genetic drive to be generalists or specialists. I suspect there is a gene for those 5% who are always early adaptors.

You had me until the last -- dying is not my idea of fun.

I tell you three times; the future is more complex than you can imagine.

Dinna frash thyself Billy I think he crossed that last bit off the list at the last moment, though considering what that complex future might hold maybe we will change our attitude about what's fun. Sorry to be so dour but we have been snowbound for four days and haven't completed shopping for the last of the old fashioned Christmases we will likely have as mindless consumers.

His surgical treatment re-energized Heinlein, and he wrote five novels from 1980 until he died in his sleep from emphysema and heart failure on May 8, 1988. Wikipedia

Maybe I grew up reading too much Heinlein, but that is probably what leaves me receptive to what is offered here. As for the list, I can do all but the sonnet to some decent degree, and for that I substitute a mean Haiku. Technically, I can only guess and hope at the dying point.

I agree on both counts, some specialization is needed, but that specialization has gone berserk. (doctor, it's my left toe. oh, I'm a right toe specialist -- you'll have to see somebody else.)

Not only local barter and markets, but also joint enterprises. My daughter lives on a communal farm in W Va. There's enough people to have some specialization even there. But they also do a lot of bartering with neighbors. Another advantage of the commune is that they share of lot of facilities, and therefore consume a teeny fraction of the resources that the same number would living in suburb or even a city. It's a good way of life, though maybe not to everyone's liking. But then again, the future we have to adjust to is not going to be to everyone's liking.

Jason's article (and others like it) are highly germane.

I would not agree with the argument that being able to grow 30 different kinds of vegetables is overly generalized.

On the other hand, I would argue that only knowing how to grow one kind of vegetable is over specialized.

Maybe I missed something, but I don't disagree. I would argue that knowing how to grow umpteen different vegetables, raise turkeys, build and run greenhouses, build ponds, stock them with fish, plus build houses and cabinets, etc, is not too generalized. Like my kid brother, who's no kid, does. (I can kill a plant by simply looking at it.)

Yeah, I was just backing up what you said.

Been reading TOD for about 8mos, first time poster. I read TOD at least a few times a day for all the great information here.

Thank you so much for this article. It is a real inspiration for those who are about to attempt what you are doing. I'm also an IT cubicle monkey (I'm in my 30s, ISP network engineer) and want to make the same changeover in the next year or two. I've got the money saved up to buy 40 acres in the spring. After that, the journey really begins.

I think the TOD campfire is a great idea, and I look forward to reading more in this series. Thanks again!

--wob (Denver, CO)


I wish you the best.

I don't know if you have already picked a location in the Denver area for your land choice or not. If you have not finalized where you will build your operation there are a number of books and on-line resources that would be very helpful in making your choice of where to live and what type of ag operation you want to pursue.


Make sure you understand the nature of the soils you will be buying, as that is one of the greatest drivers of how well you will do as an organic farmer (unless you can bring in truckloads of good loamy soil as an option). Are they deep and rich? Or shallow and heavy? Deep heavy soils can be enriched with red clover, buckwheat, etc, so that is not an automatically disqualifying characteristic.


Thank you for your fascinating article. You are clearly in the top centile of the IQ distribution.

However, that doesn't mean that you can clearly distinguish between profit and turnover.

You write:

I also have tremendous advantages over many who might contemplate living this lifestyle (or be required to). I own my property outright with no debt.

My question is:

if you were to lease this farm at going rates, what would your profit/loss amount to?

There is also the problem of scaling up: if the day comes when the masses are forced to return to the soil, the price of agricultural land will soar.

What you have proposed is a viable solution only for a tiny minority of wealthy, healthy, high-IQ people who are sheltered from the economic realities faced by the majority populace. It is also incompatible with the division of labour principle, and in particular with the essential separation between brainpower and brawnpower.

A great experiment, but economically unsustainable.

It depends on what you mean by "economically unsustainable." If you mean for millions of newly unemployed, yes, that's likely true. If you mean for the few people with the resources and foresight to follow his path, it does seem like he's on his way to be economically sustainable and he's likely better off by owning land and learning the skills he is than many other alternatives I can think of.

For the newly unemployed (and likely never to be employed in the same way ever again), we will definitely have to find answers that scale up.

Do you have any proposals?

Hi, aangel, you write:

[Wyoming]'s likely better off by owning land and learning the skills he is than many other alternatives I can think of.

Definitely wrong.

After scaling up, Wyoming is likely to be better off being employed as an agronomist giving advice and instructions to farm labourers. So are the farm labourers, since brawnpower without brainpower is next to useless.

That's my first suggestion (more coming time permitting).

I'll soon be proposing to our local Health Unit that it sponsor a Master Gardener who could do periodic rounds of home gardens in our small town of 23,000. Each gardener would commit to giving a portion of his/her produce to the local food bank.


Land rent is high- beyond what commodity prices support right now ($100-$250/per acre). It is also very competitive to get land and there doesn't appear to be any loyalty to the renters. I.e. you could lose your land in a heartbeat.

Funny- my husband is an agronomist and has left the field (of wage earners) to farm and do just what Wyoming is doing. We grow vegetables, have a farmers market stand, are putting in pasture to grow grass fed beef.

There are many future scenarios that will play out in the weeks, months, and years to come. For the time being, I'm pleased to be among those gaining first hand experience in food self sufficiency.

This hits on one of the advantages of vegetable farming and selling in farmers markets and other local outlets.

One can sometimes obtain different lease rates because they are leasing land parcels that are too small to be useful for commodity purposes. Within driving distance of the DC farmers markets there are vegetable farmers making a living on 25-50 acre parcels that rent for mid-$100 per acre.

And, as Jason mentioned, the sales per unit of land are much higher for this type of farming than they are for commodity farming. This is one of the main reasons that Industrial or Factory farming is called such. It has to operate on industrial scale to make a profit as the margins are so small per unit.

Definitely wrong.

My, I should make sure I run all my opinions by you seems you have the only true and correct answer to everything.



Leasing land is a big issue as you point out. In the area where I now live it is almost out of the question. Land costs locally are astronomical. This, however, is an artificial price. Land values are based upon us being within commuting distance of the DC metro area. Big salaries in the area result in high land values for development purposes. A problem that exists in many parts of the country. But not all of them.

There are a few local vegetable farming operations that I know of that are leasing land where the lease amount is functionally being subsidized by older farmers who are semi-retired. At one location there are 3 separate farm lease operations active in addition to the one conducted by the owner. Now this is obviously unusual, but it shows what is possible. Not to mention the quality of character of the owner who will lease his land below cost in order to support the type of farming he values.

Other options in this area are where there are large properties owned by very wealthy individuals and corporations that have the land in easements which do not allow development (there is a big tax break for doing this). I know of one case where a very nice vegetable farming operation is run off of "leased" land that is under such easement.

What I am trying to say is that arrangements can be made if people make the choice to do so. A great number of our farmer ancestors did not "own" the land they lived on all their lives. They still were productive and a valuable part of society.

I also know of several farm operations that are quite distant from here that are operated by young people who learned to farm on the operations described above. They learned the trade and then moved to a less expensive part of the county and started up operations there. They own their land (well them and the bank) and are making a go of it.

One has to keep a separation between what the US looks like now and what it might look like in the future. If times get really tough there is a huge amount of farmable land within 50 miles of me that is owned by fairly wealthy people that could easily be converted to farming. In such circumstances the current economics would no longer be valid and would be replaced by something hopefully more sustainable.


This also makes me wonder whether the enterprise becomes much more profitable/doable once people are willing to pay a lot more than they presently do on food. Cheap oil (used for production) has made us accustomed to very low food prices (never mind that the nutritional value per dollar is less).

Being a woman, I did have a reaction to the (non)joke about your wife asking for money. Yeah, old story. How much of what I do is the underpinning of my husband's ability to bring in "the big bucks"? How many additional years of productive income depend on my insistence that he ingest the occasional fruit or vegetable? Honestly I would have a very hard time with it if I couldn't consider his income mine as well.

I thought the joke was funny. I'm a man working part-time while my woman works full-time, so I do all the housework. I cook everything from scratch, do all the cleaning and cooking and gardening and so on.

It'd be nice if she paid me cash for this, but that's not going to happen.

In both the article authour's case and my own, what's revealed by the "it'd be nice to be paid" is the fact that a large part of the useful work done in our society never appears on economic balance sheets. If four new mothers take turns babysitting each-other's children, it doesn't get counted; if each pays the other's eldest daughter or son $10 to do it, suddenly $40 is added to the GDP. If I put my washing in the dryer and use 5kWh of energy to dry my clothes, $1 is added to the GDP; if I hang the washing out to dry in the sun, nothing is added.

Much of what we do we're never paid cash for, yet it's useful work, and society simply couldn't exist without it. A lot of traditional farming and family businesses are based on unpaid labour from spouses and children and elderly relatives and so on.

Presumably as the food situation gets worse and people producing it are more successful than others the expansion of farm lands will make it necessary to use the labor of farmhands. I guess farmhands would be the people who don't own the land but work for wages.

The people making the decisions will still be the ones with the brains. The others will be digging.

Kunstler's book World Made by Hand has an Ivy League educated farmer who controls many acres but does not do much labor with his own hands (he has a village of people living on his farm for that).

Also my own grandfather had a farm (in Sweden)and employed a few farmhands to help. I met them when I was a kid and visited. One lived in a little cottage on the borders of the farm and kept pigeons and rabbits for his own family's consumption.

Too bad that farm is gone now as I would like it!!

I suspect that many, many people will be willing to work just to be fed and have shelter soon.

Kunstler's book World Made by Hand has an Ivy League educated farmer who controls many acres but does not do much labor with his own hands (he has a village of people living on his farm for that).

"controls many acres" - controls how? By "ownership"? By an army of hired controllers?
In my reckoning the only people who will have much control after the breakdown of the corporatised life-support system will be (1) those with useful skills to contribute (such as agronomists, farmers and pre-trained farm workers), (2) those with muscles to do the work, and (3) a minority who have guns (very much a minority in uk) and know how to use them sensibly. Mere "owners" and "brains" will be begging at the feet of those others (along with mere armed thugs). Sure, in the future scenario there may sometimes be local "mafia" bosses, but they will be as dependent on the dogworkers as the latter are on them.
But for the most part I anticipate a shortage of population (after the crash) and more land than controllers to control it and so everyone will be able to obtain their own land virtually free of charge. Everyone will be too busy trying to merely survive, without having time to engage in conflicts over control of easily available land.

I'm sure your criticism is a bit harsh. And I am sure the enterprise will be successful and sustainable (given enough labour - fossil or animal).

However, you have hit the nail on the head: a viable solution for a tiny minority.

In the 1850ies, more or less 80% of humanity worked on the land, producing the food and fibers 100% needed to survive. Our culture was rich in arts and sciences.
Nowadays, 4% of humanity work the land. If the only way to survive is farming, 95% of humanity is surplus, too much, better off dead.
(I am using rhetoric license here : going way over the top in order to make a point)
What we should be aware of is that most job descriptions are absolute codswollop when it comes to putting food on the table.
I live next to a 30 story building, filled with bureaucrats, up to 50 a story. Lets say 1200 people. They're well paid, they've all got spouses in well paid (and similar) jobs. They've got cars to commute home in, suburban homes, two kids, piano an karate lessons.
The only way they touch food is through cellophane.
They earn their living from pushing paper.
And they do not have farms, and never will.
Maybe, a few lucky ones will get to work on a farm.

Another gripe : you were talking about intelligence.
Apparently, you are familiar with the gaussian bell-curve distribution of intelligence. Some are stupid, most are as smart as they are stupid, some are really smart.
A question of value is posed here : is a stupid person worth less than a smart person?
For me, the answer is no. Lots of people have mentally impaired siblings, most of those people would not consider them sub-human. Gaussian distributions exist for too many distinct human traits, such that we cannot define a clear boundary of humanity. We can define the center quite well, as we are mostly part of the center, but the boundaries are too diffuse to define. If you meet someone you don't understand, that person could just as well be much smarter as much dumber than you.
It is evident, that in times of crisis, smart individuals with good access to resources will survive better than stupid individuals with bad access. Knowing this doesn't absolve us from taking care of our less fortunate brethren.


My point about IQ concerned the problem of the optimal division of labour in a small-farm environment, not hi-falutin' ultimate ethical values.

It just doesn't make economic sense for a highly intelligent person to be employed as a farm labourer -- and that includes self-employed labourers. Of course, economics isn't everything -- in the same sense that money isn't everything, especially if you have enough of it already.

As far as I can tell, everybody involved in organic farming is pretty well-heeled. It's as though you really have to be rich to afford to live like the poor.

I don't know of any organic farmer who is well-healed except for some of those growing wine grapes. Everyone else I am familiar with lives a life of financial poverty but is otherwise extremely rich.

What I've seen matches Jason's observations. Perhaps Carolus is confusing organic farmers with the hobby farmers who live in the city during the week, come out to the countryside on weekends in the SUVs, and grow mostly nettles and wild blackberry patches on their "farms" with perhaps a lonely and unexercised horse slumping around in a corner somewhere.

At a certain point, any job makes economic sense to anybody.
At 47, holding a nice fat university diploma, I had to work for 10 dollars an hour. You feed the kids, you cannot afford to pay any of your debts, including gas and electricity, and you sweat yourself to death doing it. (I was lucky to find a better job).
IQ doesn't have much to do with it : if you have to, you'll sell your muscle. And muscle doesn't pay good, except when grievous body harm is involved.

isn't it well-heeled?


I don't know where you get the idea that everyone in organic farming is well off. It sure does not fit my experience at all. By white collar professional standards I am solidly middle class in income and assets. But I spent 30 years getting there and my wife has a full time career off farm to keep us that way. I am not making anything like a living from the farming at this point. But one can of course. I would say that ALL of the farmers that I know are making blue collar wages or less. None of them are really well off financially. Some have large assets in land, but the only way to access that is to sell out.

Sorry, but I really have to disagree with the rest of your post. Unless I am misunderstanding your meaning.

The purpose (or obligation) of a high intelligence is not to generate the most money. That is a little common don't you think.

The purpose of life is to live it productively. But productivity can be measured in much better ways than economic growth. This civilization, if we are going to call it that, is in critical need of those with intelligence to stop making places like Wall Street a long term stop and to spend time actually trying to do something of real value. By having folks like Jason working on these issues you have a much better chance of a future than if he is not. In my little way I hope to help. But, if you think that hard work and getting your hands dirty is a beneath someone of intelligence then I think your values are suspect and I am not sure you are going to appreciate the future much.


I think that the comment about the best use of intelligence was that... Well, after you've been doing this for a little while, you will *know* many things about gardening in your specific climate. You'll know how much labor needs to be done, when it needs done, what material resources need to be applied, etcetera. It would be more productive for you to plan out and serve as foreman on 100 acres of small farms/gardens, each acre "worked" by someone of strong back and moderate/low IQ, than for each person to go it individually. By so doing, you'd get more food per acre and more food per man hour. This doesn't mean that the laborers are "worth" less than you in that instance, it is just a case of specialization. It doesn't mean that getting your hands dirty is "beneath" you, it just means that there is a better use of your time in that situation.

Intelligence is a commodity, it has a value, just as muscle is a commodity, it also has a value. Each task that is performed has specific requirements of both muscle and intelligence. The ditch digger must be strong, but has no need of IQ. The engineer needs a high IQ, but no muscle. The mechanic needs moderate muscle and moderate IQ, that's just how it is.

I agree that FAR too much of the productive capacity of the human race is currently devoted to non-productive activities, too many bean counters, not enough beans.

Incidentally, most of the organic growers I know are relatively well off financially. Most of them that I know are upper middle income bracket with 1 partner working in corporate AM and the other gardening. Either that or their organic gardening is a sideline to their other business (the buffalo farmer with the tire shop, or the mechanic shop with the organic hay lots)

The mechanized farmers have the harder road, they have crushing debt loads and ride the ragged edge of solvency every day, the payoff is that when times are good, they do quite nicely. most of them have put several children through college and consistently have nice equipment and new trucks, that is a measure of the material success they have had.

Well you know, it doesn't take IQ, it takes backbone. I lived much the same for the last 30 years. Been through quite a few upturns and downturns. Maine, as a rule, never does well. Sometimes a little better but mostly on the low end of the scale. Knowing how to survive and prosper under those conditions is no mean feat. I do, my neighbors do, the folks in the nearest city do. No one person has the exact answer, what worked for me and my skill set, and my ability to learn skills is not quite the way other folks around me do it. Prosper probably needs definition. I do keep my eyes open on how those around me are doing it. I suspect mine is different than yours. I really don't think that has much to do with the $$ economy. I just lost $117,000, and it means little to my way of life and my ability to prosper.

Still thinking profit and loss? I'm thinking eating, having water, and keeping warm.

It's dead on zero degrees here, yup I do stay up a little later on the real cold nights to keep the fire fed. Last load will take us to the start of warming in the morning. This is firewood, I cut and split, feeding a chimney I built. Kept us warm for the last 30 years. Old plott dog is cooking his brain by the wood stove.

I suspect, by your tone, the BAU is the only way you and your loved ones will survive.

I, and many others here have taken responsibility for our lives and those we love and care for. This is not something to denigrate, and I am very glad to see posts like this on TOD.

Old, cranky, geezer, and I am enthralled with learning new things, and different ways of doing them, there isn't a day goes by, I don't learn something new. Thought is one thing, backbone another, you can do just fine if you have both. I think you might need some attention to the backbone part, Carolus.

Thank you for sharing Wyoming.

Don in Maine

Carolus Obscurus wrote: It is also incompatible with the division of labour principle, and in particular with the essential separation between brainpower and brawnpower.

I wonder if it was an American that wrote this? I'm not dragging out the patriotism card, rather, Americans in general are so thoroughly egalitarian in culture and thought (if not always in deed) it is hard to imagine them positing such an idea. Ah. Note the British spelling of labour. I sense a little old-world aristocracy in the air.

So what is this essential separation which supposes that engineers are unable to turn a wrench and a laborer is incapable of generating a new idea?

So what is this essential separation which supposes that engineers are unable to turn a wrench and a laborer is incapable of generating a new idea?

Probably it's simply that an engineer is doing the writing.

It's funny how whenever anyone proposes a "natural" division of society, they always place themselves on the top.

Goes back to Plato and his Republic... "Philosophers should rule!" said the philosopher. Hmmm.

I am heading in the same direction,but a different way.I have 2.9 acres,terraced hillside,with a spring on the top.[like you no water worries]I have cocentrated on trees,not veggies.I have 140,mostly Asian pear,and apple,as well as kiwi vines.I have close to 1/4th acre dedicated to berries,[blueberries,and raspberries]One major component,that I started this year is bees.....As of my latest count ,I have 34 living hives.As of today.Winterkill is always a worry.One thing I have discovered with bees,is as a living organism,each hive goes thru fluctuations that can be fatal if not addressed. I still have no evidence of Varroa mites,or of CCD [colony collapse disorder]I am shooting for 100 to 200 hives ,a "sideline" operation by today's standards.I am hoping to continue establishing more "outyards"where I run 20 to 30 hives.I want to break into the pollination biz ,but on a local way,here in the Willamette valley,and Hood river Ore.I think this is a viable plan,as honey is a wonderful commodity.[stores well,high density,universally loved,as a natural sweetener.]Combined with fruit trees,berries,and kiwis...I am aiming at more specialty markets than trying to compete with local folks who been doing the veggi thing forever. I am getting a 20x32 greenhouse up,and want another....plant starts are a commodity that sell well.My plan is to keep as flexible as possible,and try to develop and sell small, 1 person harvestible size croploads.I have 5 farmers markets within a ten mile range,as well as Portland metro,so if I grow it,I think I can sell it.
Luck to you


Wow. I like what you have done.

Best of luck to you too.


Is it possible that when taking your swarms to different farms for pollination, your bees might pick up Varroa mites or CCD and bring it back to your "hive central"?


I identify very closely with your post. You could replace your moniker with "Vermont", and you'd virtually have my story. I too have a small organic vegetable operation, and particularly relate to the amount of work involved. This year I added an apartment to the barn, and I am currently seeking a full-time employee. What I cannot pay in $ I can cost-effectively provide in the form of food and decent living accommodations.

As far as farm logistics, I have found that project management software such as microsoft project works better than a spreadsheets With it, I can define tasks, assign responsibilities for tasks, develop dependencies between tasks, print production calendars and to-do lists, etc. The software is not perfect and somewhat difficult to learn, but is the best tool I have found to date for this sort of thing.


Your approach to the labor issue is similar to what many of the farmers in my area do. We have a large farmhouse and our best option is to have live-in hired labor if we cannot find someone who can commute to the farm from where they live. I would like to share hired labor with another farmer who can provide housing, but that is also hard to find. We are reluctant to have someone live in the house with us for the obvious reasons. But if we could find the right person it would be fine with us. We would just have to know them pretty well.

I am not that familiar with Project but it is a good idea. I am right now in the process of going to a higher level of complexity in my spreadsheets. Tying them together so that they cross populate data and such. I was thinking of the best way to have the task lists pop out automatically. One annoyance I have with Excel is the limit on column numbers. I want to represent the entire 365 day year and the limit is 297. So I compress the front and back ends of the year to weeks and the rest is by the day.


I have a big excel spreadsheet for planning with data from one worksheet used in other ones. I start by setting production goals for various crops and this gets translated into everything from seeds required, greenhouse space and timing, land requirements, etc.

We should swap. I don't know Project but it does sound like it was made for this sort of stuff. Perhaps Vermont can help us out?

I would guess that yours is probably much better than mine at this point if you are automatically populating the various sheets. I do not have all those capabilities worked up yet that you describe.

I notice that you seem to start from what you want to produce and then work back to the land requirements. That is what I am trying to do now. Is this because you are primarily trying to fill CSA requirements? For me it is an attempt to adapt what I am learning in the markets in terms of what sells at what scale.

I know that some of the spreadsheets that are offered for sale start with laying out the fields with what they are going to grow and then plugging that data in and working out to seed requirements, etc. That only works if you have settled on how much land you are going to use and it is the same amount each year. Maybe that is where one gets to after a few years but it does not work for me yet.

As long as one's operation is growing in size then it is necessary to start with production goals. I think.

If you would like to collaborate on this I would be happy to put effort into it. One thing that I am struggling with is the generation of task lists via spreadsheet. It seems awkward. Maybe Project does that much better.


Some of the things you describe such calculating seed requirements, estimating greenhouse space, etc. are better handled by a spreadsheet. Managing something from an operational standpoint, where you have tasks, resources, milestones, etc. is better handled by a tool like project. I have used it to handle large software development projects, residential construction projects, and my farm operation. When you boil it all down, the functional constructs are remarkably similar. Essentially, I treat a season on the farm like a project, and build tasks, subtasks, time estimates, resource requirements, available human resources, etc. from there. I can then see where I have resource bottlenecks and other potential conflicts. In addition, I can easily make scheduling changes...if my estimated last frost date slides out by a week, I just plug in the actual last date, and all of the tasks that were dependent on it automatically adjust as needed. I can then see if I have problems with my resource allocation. It's a powerful tool.

This is probably more detail than most people care to see within this forum, but if you'd like more detail, I'd be happy to share some of the templates I've developed.


Do you then use spreadsheets as well for the seed calculations and such?

BTW are there inexpensive versions of Project out there. Or cut down ones like there are for Xcell. I am thinking about the cost factors. If small scale beginning farmers are going to be able to use this type of technology it has to be affordable and a lot of the software is very expensive. I have mine from my former life. In my farmer world I would have to question the expense of buying it.


You can usually find older versions of software on EBay that are quite reasonable. Nothing wrong with older versions, say 4 years. You can usually find it "new in box". It may not have all the latest features, but will still do the job.


My daughter, the college student, bought a student version of the software. Paul_the_Engineer (below) is right...I think the best place to go is ebay for a good price. Be careful with software versions though...the product has been around a long time, and features have changed quite a bit over time. If you would like I can email you some output from my system so that you can get a better feel for the product before committing to a purchase.


I would really appreciate that.

Perhaps something to do with the task lists?

My e-mail address is:

Thanks in advance.


You might want to look into the open source solution as well...

MS Project alternative:

Twiddlebits is a reasonable alternative for simple projects as well.

  • It's not free, but at $40 it isn't expensive like MS Project either.

    Curious what kind of calculations you are trying to do? I understand the problem of the large number of columns or rows for 365 days in a year.

    MS Project is ideal for handling time lines and you can also track resources. The time lines show the duration of tasks and what tasks need to proceed others, with appropriate lead and lag times entered in.

    Relational databases like MS Access make it easy to pull data from various tables into narrowly defined pages/views, plus they can perform calculations. The drawback is that databases are harder to learn to use. You have to learn how to break out or "normalize" data into different tables and tie them together with keys. This can get complicated for things like transactions between businesses, but should be simpler for planning a farm.


    Mostly the calculations are simple and are preformed to determine the total seeds needed, number of transplants required, etc.

    The real issue is that by the time the plan is finished there are many thousands of tasks that are scheduled over the course of the year.

    I want to be able to click on a line in the schedule for a date and be able to print out the tasks for the day/week in one action. Now I have to write them down or spend a lot of time getting what I need.

    I am just trying to cut down on paperwork time.

    It could be that very experienced farmers no longer need this kind of help, but for new farmers I think it is pretty important. I also have the idea that if this was a robust capability that was not expensive it could be given to beginning farmers to help them start out.



    I can’t over emphasize the value of MS Project as a planning tool. You can add as much detail as you want, and “roll up” various related tasks into groupings.

    The most important feature is the ability to link tasks, showing that Task A needs to be done before Task B, etc. For instance, if you need to start seeds X days before the last frost date (LFD), you can enter the LFD and enter appropriate times for various plants, each having their own time line.

    Adding too much detail makes any program difficult to navigate. If things get too complicated, you might consider having a general overall schedule and separate sub schedules.

    Project is not difficult to learn, but I highly recommend getting a good “how to book”. Check for references.

    You will probably want to keep using Excel for calculations.

    Has anyone used software specifically for garden planning?

    I'm spending most of today doing research for the Ten Thousand Garden Project and here is what I've turned up so far. I have not tried any of these.

    Plan Garden 2.0
    See the tour here:

    Vegetable Gardeners' Almanac and Planning Software (might be UK only but it does look comprehensive)

    Crop Planner

    Clyde's Garden Planner (not software, but looks interesting)


    Seeds of Change Garden Planner and Journal


    Gardenate -- Garden Calendar for Australia, UK and New Zealand

    There are a number of ornamental garden planners, too (listed here so people don't spend time researching them):
    Better Homes and Gardens "Plan a Garden"

    Lowe's Garden Planner

    Garden Composer

    BBC Virtual Garden (in 3D)

    Take a look at a company called : FarmWorks..

    "Farm Works" so you don't have to" is their motto.

    I worked with it a lot. Mostly its for doing GIS,Soil Sample Mapping,and large scale but might be adaptable. Integrates a lot of other technical data into its layout.

    Its an amazing tool but the Big Boz here? Not savvy enough. And the hired hands mostly despise 'technical' tools. They tried and succeeded in breaking the GPS systems as fast as I repaired them. Too f**king stupid to do otherwise. They would jerk the antennas til it tried to steer them into the woods and then bitch that is was no good.Finally the owner,my friend, gave up and actually believed them instead of me BUT the real reason was that he himself pretty much despised the ideas because he himself was somewhat educationally deprived. So to speak.

    Yet...high tech could do wonders for big ag. And allow it to be done wisely and more efficiently. Could easily adapt to more eco-friendly ag as well IMO.

    I love planting and running a tractor with a good GPS system. Even 'autosteer'. I used a 300 hp Ford with a 15 ft bushog on my front 25 acres just to test it out. Did a perfect job of saving fuel and time.

    It laid a tracking map on top of the acreage and then one could tell how the hired hands did the job. Imagine it took them twice as long and they made a lot of useless offtrack passes. They didn't know it was recording the whole thing. Our GPS had a big LCD monitor and the OS was Linux at that!!!

    SO tech farming could produce a lot of benefits if used correctly.

    Soil sampling that I did was GIS planned and executed. But the big guy..said "oh this can't be right" and disregarded the output. But the output was correct. Right on the money. It could tell where cattle had been fed out years and years ago.The nutrients were still there and recorded.

    Amazing stuff. Yet not reaching its potential IMO.

    Couple the GPS with the yield monitor on the combine and you get some very nice high tech maps that you overlay with the soil samples and you can tell volumes about what is happening.

    Moisture,nutrients,bad areas...on and on .


    @Airdale & @Clayton: Thanks, I'll check both of them out. We're looking for something we can just plug into.

    Another one worth checking out (IMHO) is:

    Crop Planning Software

    I've written it as part of a SARE grant. It's free, open source and recently entered a "public beta" test. I used it all summer was quite happy with it, if I may say so. You can download at the website, and there are examples and screenshots too. It's targeted specifically at veggie (or diversified annual crop) farmers, not necessarily gardeners.

    Currently, you can enter and maintain data in a simple database, from which you can create plantings. The data on the crops and varieties are automatically filled in for the plantings. Many calculations are performed automatically, too. Best of all, you can export PDFs of weekly planting lists with just a click of the button. And all of your data can be sorted and filtered really easily.

    There's still a lot to do and lot of things it doesn't yet do. I'm currently working on the next version to include help with seed ordering and I really want to attach "task lists" to plantings; these could then be included in the weekly printouts and used to generate a "labor budget" across the growing season (based on an estimate of the amount of time to complete each task). Of course, with a dedicated application, you're trading the flexibility of a spreadsheet for bulletproof convenience.

    I'm really curious to know what folks think of it. Also what you think of it compared to the other options on that list.


    Hi, Clayton. I download it and took it for a whirl; what I asked it to do it did with no fuss or bugs. Unfortunately I'm not a farmer so I don't know if it helps with the hardest bits.

    Jason and Wyo, there's a Windows and Mac to download it and send back some feedback?


    I am looking at it now. It will take me awhile to see what I think.

    Thanks very much for the work you have done here.


    Thanks for all the links.

    By any chance you happen to know where I could find a well-sized garden calendar (listing approximate sowing and harvesting times) for a variety of vegetables?

    I'd love to get started in the garden, but having to wade through endless descriptions and jotting down which needs to be sown in march versus april vs may (under glass or otherwise) is a bit of a drag, knowing that someone out there has probably done it already ;)


    There are a couple of ways to work this issue.

    First I would get on the web and have Johnny's Selected Seeds and High Mowing Organic Seeds send you their catalogs. These catalogs are virtual gardening books. For each vegetable variety they list the time of year to start transplants or direct sow, germination temps, harvest expectations, seeding rates, you name it. You almost don't need anything else.

    Second, one of the best books for this kind of information is Square Foot Gardening by Bartholomew. Used at Amazon.

    Third, your state should have an ag department at one of the local universities which has done most of this work for you. In Va it is Virginia Tech. They publish charts which indicate when your last and first frost dates are and planting times based upon them.

    See the charts at this location.



    Your approach to the labor issue is similar to what many of the farmers in my area do. We have a large farmhouse and our best option is to have live-in hired labor if we cannot find someone who can commute to the farm from where they live. I would like to share hired labor with another farmer who can provide housing, but that is also hard to find. We are reluctant to have someone live in the house with us for the obvious reasons. But if we could find the right person it would be fine with us. We would just have to know them pretty well.

    I am not that familiar with Project but it is a good idea. I am right now in the process of going to a higher level of complexity in my spreadsheets. Tying them together so that they cross populate data and such. I was thinking of the best way to have the task lists pop out automatically. One annoyance I have with Excel is the limit on column numbers. I want to represent the entire 365 day year and the limit is 297. So I compress the front and back ends of the year to weeks and the rest is by the day.


    Sir Vermont,

    I was at the local historical museum a couple months back and met a 90 year old man who had lived through the Depression. At 14 he and his siblings drew straws to see who would leave the farm-- he and a brother drew the short straws. After walking 80 miles, sleeping in culverts, starving, he found "employment" on a farm with 17 milk cows. He earned room and food. He worked there two years and was given one set of coveralls. He was grateful to be fed and sheltered for 2 years.

    This is in Minnesota- now a fairly wealthy state.

    My point- Perhaps someone will soon be happy to have good, abundant food and a comfortable place to live.

    Something I wonder might happen: more people like you folks who already have your farms going, but with more land than you can work alone, taking on partners. I.e., rather than taking on employees, taking on partners and building a sort of small community.

    The idea popped into my head from my research into intentional communities, CSAs, trying to get my family - both of them (mine and my wife's) - to get off their arses, and this post/thread.



    I think that some of the farm transfer programs that existi in many states are a version of what you describe. In these programs a young farmer (normally a couple) is matched up with an older farmer who wants to transfer the farming operation to the next generation. I understand that normally these are situations where there are no heirs.

    I do think that the partner concept is valid and would actually consider it if the circumstances were right. But I imagine that finding that partner would be very difficult.

    Another thing that young farmers could do would be to band together and work as a team. That would allow them to leverage from a greater amount of resources.

    Thanks, wyo, I saw that stuff further down after I posted. Took a quick look last night. What I'm thinking about now is more a synthesis of the re-localization/intentional community/transfer program ideas. If we're going to need more farming, then we will need more people doing it, not just ceding from one person to the next, so maybe an approach is using the LandTrust idea as a foundation for re-localizing. Those that can input cash, significant skills, or labor over time can be added to the land trust. There would need to be limits, of course, dependent on what the land can produce.

    Converting entire neighborhoods, towns or even cities to LandTrusts might be a way to go. People need to feel invested. Making them not just neighbors, but partners...? Those who can't get along/cooperate/aren't interested can be laborers, itinerant or otherwise.

    Change of topic:

    You discuss above farming for profit, essentially, using organic, but not natural, methods. To my way of thinking, this is a form of BAU. Call it BAU Green, if you will: You describe a good deal of hard work. You need FF energy inputs. You till (CO2/methane release, destruction of natural soil building process).

    Have you considered natural farming/permaculture? I keep coming across people who make natural farming and/or permaculture (they're merging into the same thing, with Fukuoka's methods having been assimilated into permaculture) work without the long hours, but the same production (Bill Mollison: Global Gardener series; Fukuoka: The Natural Way of Farming - available here: (Not having to till is part of the reason for reduced hours, of course, but so is not having as much waste to deal with, etc.)

    Is what you are doing sustainable for 6.7 billion+? I don't think so without major changes in energy use/production and socio-politico-ecological change. Even then, who wants to work so many hours doing back-breaking work? Some don't mind, but most don't like the idea, and we are dealing with generations trained to believe there is leisure at the end of their workaholic rainbow.

    If you know of any farmers trying the permaculture/natural farming thing, please encourage them to post.

    Thank you for an excellent post. You may be setting an example for some percentage of us to follow, and, regardless, have certainly made the agricultural element of the Perfect Storm a living, breathing reality for many of us.



    Just to make sure my definition of "profit" in the context of these discussions is clear. What I mean is not the current definition of middle class wages but more blue collar wages (say family income of $40K or so). But this is not actually the issue either. If one is going to choose this kind of life today then off-farm income is pretty essential. The vast majority of all farmer families (industrial or not) depend in the current structure on off farm income. I don't see the future structured quite that way. On farm income based upon specialized non-farming skills would be the replacement for the off farm income of today. See how a lot of the Amish/Mennonite communities work this issue. There is a lot that we can learn from them (or copy).

    What we cannot have in the future (and we may get anyway) is true subsistence farming. You grow enough to feed your family most of the time and suffer the rest of the time. Civilization does not survive that situation.

    Permaculture. I know no one who is farming this way. I know very little about it and do not know if there are commercial farms using this methodology or not. I may be in complete ignorance here, but I thought that permaculture was primarily a very advanced gardening technique used on very small plots of land and designed for true subsistence level living. I am probably dead wrong.


    I thought that permaculture was primarily a very advanced gardening technique used on very small plots of land and designed for true subsistence level living. I am probably dead wrong.

    Yup. :) Fukuoka describes in his book growing fields of grain. He did a spring then a fall crop, rotating rice and barley with clover as a cover in between two or three times a year for nitrogen.

    The Fukuoka book is free. You might check it out. Even if you changed nothing but going to no-till, it would save you a lot of time, work, physical wear and tear and go a long ways (no tractor for tilling and no turning of the soil) towards making your farm a carbon sink.

    A simple overview:

    Some nice detail (but Fukuoka would disagree with him about tilling at all):


    Here was my 2¢ worth, from my April, 2007 ELP article. I have frequently mentioned one of the truly dreadful threats posed by Peak Oil and/or the Greater Depression--what Sharon Astyk calls the "Brother-in-law on the sofa syndrome," i.e., incoming unemployed in-laws (and incoming unemployed adult children). If you have a small garden/farm, you can take an incoming liability and turn him to a productive asset, i.e., a farmworker.

    While we will desperately need engineers and many other technically qualified graduates, we are seeing wave upon wave of college graduates entering the work force with degrees that very poorly prepare them for work in a post-Peak Oil environment. We may ultimately see college graduates competing with illegal immigrants for agricultural jobs.

    Perhaps the best education investment that many young people could make is a two year associate degree in some kind of repair/maintenance area, perhaps with summer jobs in the agricultural sector.

    I would especially recommend that you consider buying, perhaps with a joint venture group, a small farm, either currently organic, or that can be converted to an organic farm. In the short term, if nothing else you could lease it out to an organic farmer. Longer term, you might consider building or moving a prefab, small energy efficient house to the farm. If nothing else, this plan may provide a place of work for your unemployed college graduate.

    I think that “Tiny Houses” will become more popular, as larger homes are no longer viable. Where there are jobs nearby, many McMansions could be subdivided, but absent local job centers, I expect large swaths of American suburbia to be essentially abandoned. As Jim Kunstler warned, American suburbs represent the “Worst misallocation of resources in the history of the world.”

    Very small (250 square feet or so), highly energy efficient, perhaps prefabricated housing makes a lot of sense, and this may become a growth sector.

    I should confess that I in no way have a green thumb, but others certainly do, and there are some very encouraging case histories of Americans doing quite well with their own “Victory Gardens” so to speak, such as this case history: “Berkeley: Urban farmers produce nearly all their food with a sustainable garden in their backyard.”

    BTW, very good article.


    You write:

    [W]e are seeing wave upon wave of college graduates entering the work force with degrees that very poorly prepare them for work in a post-Peak Oil environment.

    I would formulate that more radically:

    [W]e are seeing wave upon wave of college graduates entering the work force with degrees that very poorly prepare them for work in any environment.

    However, we live in a democratic age in which politicians who do not pander to their voters' vanity have no hope in hell of being elected. Hence such junk policies such as 'No Child Left Behind', based on the misconception that all children are equally educable provided you pour enough money into the education system.

    Your proposals are, of course, plain common sense. Hence not much of a hope that they will ever be implemented.

    Your thinking seems to be stuck in a systemic straight jacket. You talk as though the government has to save us and it all has to happen within the economic and political spectrum as defined today. Which is indicative that you don't fully understand how dire the situation is. The economy is broken, it cannot save itself or those depending upon it.

    I think it was Jeremy Bentham that indicated it was the selfishness of the Bee that brought about a common good to all. If there is a chance of anything being saved, it will be due to individuals looking after their own interests, trying to save themselves. The blundering governments and tinkering economist will be the biggest threat to all.

    ELP is not a proposal nor does it need government implementation, it is a guide on how to survive the collapse for individuals.

    Burgundy, I think you wrongly find fault with Carolus here. Sure the ELP is intended to be just a guide for individuals. The trouble is, especially in the uk, that the corporatised system massively constrains, undermines and destroys local initiatives which is how we got in this horrendous mess in the first place. And part of the problem is we can only get well started on the relocalisation once the globalised support/oppression system has collapsed and put us in a desperate survival crisis.

    Hence in absence of government support with implementation we are effed. Just now the Wasteminster regime has forced the closure of a load of local post offices and health centres against intense local opposition. Meanwhile it's still pumping millions into globalisation projects also intensely opposed by mere people.

    This article underscores the problems ahead. The comment on ash having an unpredictable fertilising effect is a reality check to those who say that tera preta or carbon soils will save us. It seems impossible to get away from the need for several liquid fuelled machines or trucked-in inputs. That approach may expire within a decade or whenever $200 oil arrives. I would like to hear of one organic farm that adequately both makes its own compost and liquid fuels. However I wonder if a single ride-on small tractor could do several jobs such as plowing and mowing.

    Another looming issue I see is property taxes on land close enough to farmers markets. It seems to be necessary to have off-farm income. While self-funded retirees may have that income many will lack either knowledge or youthful vigour. For all of these reasons I find this story charming but not a pointer to the future. Same goes for geothermal/wavepower/charcoal will save us type stories. We need something major to get us out of trouble.

    I would like to hear of one organic farm that adequately both makes its own compost and liquid fuels.

    I've been asking that question for years. I'm still waiting for an answer.


    It is quite common anymore for the small vegetable farms to be working off biodiesel. Mostof us sell our products in the local farmers markets and to restaurants in the "city" vice in our slightly more rural area. Many of the farms have made arrangements with the restaurans to pick up their sued vegetable oil and it is taken back to the farms and processed into bio-diesel. I personally am not doing this, but I know operations that are.

    One operation that I know of generated 1000 gallons of diesel this year using this exchanged method. Their energy equation would look better than mine obviously.


    I've been asking that question for years. I'm still waiting for an answer.

    But perhaps it's the wrong question. $200 a barrel oil does not mean that a farm must be entirely self sufficient to be a viable operation - that's a false requirement. I'm assuming that society will maintain some level of interdependence. Most believe that we are looking at a future where petroleum products get very expensive - not that they will be completely unavailable. Therefore, $200 a barrel oil means that a farm operation must have a business model that can be sustained at that high price (and beyond), with equivalent high prices for other farm inputs. One very significant mechanism for achieving much higher efficiency is Wyoming's use of a walk behind tractor. Having both a conventional Kubota and a walk-behind, I am astounded at the amount of work I get from the walk-behind relative to the big tractor, and the miniscule amount of fuel it uses. Granted, the tilling takes three times longer and you're a lot more tired, but if oil is $200 a barrel it's a fair trade-off. I'm also betting that there will be a fair number of humans around to share the labor. A second mechanism for achieving much higher efficiency (which Wyoming is not doing) is to grow vegetables that are in season, or whose seasons can be extended using only passive measures such as unheated greenhouses and row covers. Using these and other methods, combined with increased availability of human labor, I think that it is entirely conceivable that a farm could be a going concern at $200 oil.


    The high tunnel and row cover issue is very important. It changes the dynamics of small scale ag tremendously in a favorable direction.

    I am used small amounts of row covers/low tunnels and plan to dramatically increase their use next year.

    One of my neighbors is so skilled at the use of high tunnels with low tunnels in them and other variations that he manages to have vegetables for sale year around in our climate. That might not be possible in Vermont of course.

    But think how it changes the dynamics of how much food can be produced and the potential profitability of the small farm.


    I have a troybuilt tiller converted to propane.And a 1000gal tank for the truck an the tiller,and the generator.I want another 1000gal tank ,full.Then I think I am good for 5-8 years.

    I am astounded at the amount of work I get from the walk-behind relative to the big tractor, and the miniscule amount of fuel it uses.

    I recall that Swaziland spent a lot of money developing a cheap walk-behind tractor for the local peasant farmers.

    Much to their consternation, the small tractor didn't sell, but there was a healthy market for the big double-wheel John Deeres.

    It turned out that farmers didn't plough their own fields. They got contractors to do it. And the contractors wanted the biggest, fastest, most powerful tractors with floodlights so they could plough as many fields as possible working up to 20 hours a day in the ploughing season.

    The moral of the story: Don't be prescriptive about farming. The best agricultural practice is very dependent on local conditions.

    This is a good question. I don't think most small organic farms specializing in veggies (or anything else) are internalizing most of their energy and fertilizer inputs. It might be more important to look at the landscape and broader community scale however. Vegetables are fertilizer demanding. Inputs could include local leaves and food scraps and humanure and wood ash, etc. produced by a compost specialist. Power could come from a local biofuel co-op, electrification of equipment and more manual labor.

    My farm is thinking about these issues and trying to work through them but I would not say much has been "solved" because this is truly a systemic/social dilemma.

    I suspect there will always be the need for some fuel but these little "tractors" use no fossil fuel, make little tractors, can plow, disc, mow, etc, etc, and have a history of success over thousands of years and there's a model for most operations:

    Great discussion BTW. Thanks Wyoming!


    You have a slight misunderstanding.

    The ash is used for "liming" not fertilization. Different things. The micro nutrients in the ash that contribute to healthy plant growth are a positive side issue. Liming is done to change the ph of the soil to a range that is more suitable for optimum plant growth. The soil on my farm needs to have the ph raised periodically. In some parts of the US, notably the west, it is common to have to lower the ph.

    Using the ash, which is generated on site, saves me having to truck in the crushed limestone. To lower the ph one uses sulfur based products. I get the firewood from which the ash comes via barter with my farmer neighbors. I clear up the trees which have blown down on their pasture fences thus saving them the work of doing it themselves. I get the wood. Fair trade and much better than having the fuel truck show up on a periodic basis.

    The biochar issue (tera preta) is separate and very interesting. There is a lot to learn yet about how well it will work. Virginia Tech has been running trials with it for a few years and the results are astounding to date. Are there downsides? TO be determined. However, if this process can dramatically improve the productivity of farms like mine it will go a long way to making what I am doing as sustainable as possible. But once again we need to make sure what we are talking about. Biochar is NOT fertilizer. I am not an expert on the physical mechanism of how it works, but the beneficial effect seems to be more due to the length of time it holds the carbon compounds in the soil (hundreds of years) and the positive effect this has on the effective use of the fertilizer that is applied (via whatever form).

    Perhaps someone who has more expertise in this could add a comment.


    Wood ashes do contain a significant amount of potassium and phosphorous and also trace elements. Potassium, named for "pot ash" was originally obtained form ashes. Relying only on wood ashes for fertilizer would likely result in over liming.


    Understood. I am using the ashes for liming. I use compost, and will also being using commerical organic fertilizer made from chicken waste and fish emulsion in 2009, for fertilizer.

    I soil test on a regular basis and watch the Ph carefully. Our soil in this area requires a lot of liming compared to a lot of other locations.

    I do have very good P, K and trace element levels. Except for Boron. That goes down pretty fast and requires supplementing.

    Wyoming thank you for a fine article, thoughtful and very well done.

    I come from the part of the world you are familiar with, the southwestern corner of Wyoming and eastern corner of Idaho. I've spent time in the east, and also in the south and I liked it there, especially, the rain, the heat, and the abundance of hardwoods that we lack in the west. But, alas, there were no public lands and so I was unable to roam to my hearts content, as I have done since childhood in the west. So, although I loved the big muddy rivers of the Carolinas and the rolling green hills of West Virginia, I returned to my home, and my roots, although, somehow, I wound up a bit south of the piney rocky mountains of the Wind River Range. Here I am in the middle of the high desert of the Colorado Plateau smack in the middle of south central Utah. My little homestead sits at nearly an even 7,000 feet elevation, maybe we get 4 inches of rainfall a year, the winters are cold and windy, and my growing season last year began with our last frost on June 16th, and ended with a fall frost on September 1st. Agricultural endeavours of any kind can be difficult. Here, we grow open range beef cows, and some Alfalfa to feed them between their time on summer ranges in the high country and winter ranges on the deserts during the winter months.

    I am envious of your opportunity for becoming a real farmer where you can grow abundant vegetables right from the start. I've always had a kitchen garden and grew some carrots, lettuce, chard, maybe beans, and some corn. Four years ago, I came to the conclusion that hobby gardening would no longer do and began efforts to grow a serious garden given the limitations of my environment. The first issue was the soil, it's river bottom, which means, clay silt, as hard, or harder than concrete through the summer months, and incapable of growing much of anything other than Sagebrush. I've kept chickens, goats, cows, horses and mules, for years, and so, I began using the abundant organic fertilizer I have around this place, working it into the ground, spring and late fall, in an effort to make the soil good enough that it would grow a real crop. This past season, I almost had a respectable garden, although it was cut short by an early and untimely fall frost. But, I learned a lot. No more messing with tomatoes, or peppers. I'll stick with beans, beets, kales, potatoes, turnips, and corn. I've planted a bunch of Jerusalem Artichokes this fall and I'll see how they do. They're supposed to be hardy and can be harvested during the winter months. My goal for my vegetable gardening is to simply grow enough produce for myself and my two daughters and their three children if they wind up living here on my place. I think the goal is attainable.

    I've built up a little metal working business that helps a lot with the bills. I make spurs for cowboys, from scratch, and with inexpensive and low quality tools. I can make $300 per week, although, I expect, my cash business will turn into more of a barter business as the present economy fades. I couldn't make a living as a farmer here, unless I got into the cow business, and that's a very expensive proposition these days.

    I'm 64 years old, and the work of this place, fences, cutting hay, moving sprinklers in my fields, and all of the rest that goes with a small operation, sometimes wears me out. But, then, what else do I have to do?

    I began with nothing, just a 20 acre Alfalfa field. What I have I built myself. My house is about 700 square feet, made of logs and heated with a wood stove. I have a well out back (265 feet depth for about 8 gallons of water per minute). My irrigation water for my fields comes from the creek that runs out back (we have a pond upstream a mile and a half that feeds a system of buried pipe and so we have the luxury of a pressurized irrigation system courtesy of a development grant from the US Department of Agriculture). I have a good barn for hay storage, a chicken coop, and my metal shop.

    I want to be a Blacksmith, but am mystified by the art of Blacksmithing. I plan to attend a Blacksmiths School if I can swing it.

    I'm fortunate to have what I have. Best from the Fremont


    Ahh, a homeboy!

    I know what you mean about the differences in the land.

    You might want to read up some on high tunnels and such. If you had a sizable high tunnel and used cloches (low tunnels) inside them you would be able to significantly extend your growing season. There are a lot of vegetables that can work well in short growing seasons if you give them a little help. If you had a small greenhouse (maybe attached to the house) that you could start transplants in that would dramatically improve your possibilities and yields. All commercial growers start as many vegetables as transplants as they can. I will start planting my first ones the last week of Jan.

    I would recommend getting a soil test done to find out what nutrients your soil needs and what your Ph is. Just fixing those items can make a big difference in yields. Another item is if you have enough land to rotate your gardening area. This would allow you to cover crop the land every other year and this would also improve your yields and raise the organic matter in the soil.

    Best of luck.



    Brasstown, NC used to have one of the best blacksmithing schools that I was aware of. Very very good. Otherwise find another that knows what he is doing and sit by his side or be his striker.

    It has to be learned by doing. Try to migrate to charcoal instead of coal,if you have pine trees to make it.



    Thank you for your reply. I don't know of a single blacksmith around here. There are a few Farriers, but no Blacksmith's as such. We did have a fine old knife maker who passed away a few years ago. So, I've found a school in Santa Fe,New Mexico... Turley Forge. The east is too far for me to go. They offer a 6 day introductory course and a three week beginner's course. The whole deal is kind of pricey, after paying tuition and board and room, but, I figure it'd get me started on the right foot. I've got a nice young mule I'll sell that ought to get me back to even. He's out of a Tennessee Walking Mare and a good Jack out of Missouri. He's tall and fine boned, lots of withers, a horses head, and looks like he'll float across the country. But on the other hand I might keep him. Best from the Fremont


    Check Abana's website. American Blacksmiths and Artist.

    They should show blacksmiths as members in your area.

    They are a top notch club/outfit. I have been to some of their Show/Get togothers and they were amazing the work being performed.

    I saw guys making horseshoes in unbelievable short periods of time.

    This was at the Horse Park in Ky but they have these all over.

    Got to get hooked into the websites. Like MagicHammer and so on.

    Lots of good videos of HowTos..

    Get a forge. Get an anvil...Work the metal son. Work it. It will teach you. All can be gotten on Ebay and CraigsList. Costly these days. But I picked up a very very nice Peter Wright 105english pounds last summer. I know of a few more but want to get me another forge. Can be had but you need to see it onsite else you get crooked out.

    Craigslist is best then. No Ebay nonsense. How I got three Honda Trail 90s was on Craigslist. Have to travel a bit.

    Airdale-there is nothing like the smell of coke burning in the morning

    It seems impossible to get away from the need for several liquid fuelled machines or trucked-in inputs.

    Or else unpaid labour.

    This is why subsistence farmers around the world have half a dozen kids. Johnny (6) feeds the chooks, Jane (11) works the water pump, John (12) hitches up the ox to the plough and his twin Jeff (12) shovels the ox manure into a cart and then heaves it over to the vegie garden.

    They're also backup main workers. After all, if it's just you and your spouse, if one of gets sick for a couple of weeks, then maybe your cow starves to death or gets ill from not being milked, or your crop goes unwatered and dies, or goes to seed.

    So how about a small ride-on tractor powered by wood gas? Then you can make your char as a byproduct of fueling your tractor. I think there's an even chance we'll watch civilization collapse around us if we wait for a deus et machina solution.

    I'd turn the finance questions around. After years of gardening in our backyard, we moved up to 11 acres as well. But we're one of those dreaded hobby farmers who drive our station wagon out on weekends. The goal, for us, is to slowly get this land to half pay for itself out of our food budget, in our spare time. The other benefits are recreation, storage, emergency lodging, etc. And, yes, Westexas' in-law point is valuable. My sister, who isn't well employed, has always thought it would be cool to live in a converted barn loft, which I now happen to have just in case.

    I also look at "our farm" as partially an experiment in terra-preta, Fukuoka, nitrogen-fixing, woodgas/low energy, and permaculture agriculture. I think the world could use more of that kind of experiment, and I'm willing to invest some of my spare time and money working on it. I'll save the "productive" division of labor for my day job.



    An excellent posting. I can live vicariously through you while avoiding all the physical labor. :-)

    One thing that seemed directly relevent to The Oil Drum subject matter is that you grew around a million calories using around 950 gallons of gasoline, diesel, and kerosene. We often hear of how modern industrial society is "eating" petroleum in that it takes ten calories of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food. I was hoping that your operation would prove to be more efficient than that, but the I did the calculation. At about 30,000 calories, give or take, in a gallon of liquid hydrocarbons, it seems your operation is consuming nearly 30 calories of fossil fuels to produce a single calorie of food!

    Oy! Maybe when Y2K comes again, I'll just hide in the basement and quietly starve to death.

    Utopia in Decay

    Kevin Cherkauer

    At about 30,000 calories, give or take, in a gallon of liquid hydrocarbons, it seems your operation is consuming nearly 30 calories of fossil fuels to produce a single calorie of food!

    Good math work there, Kevin. Another nail in the coffin.


    We need to be careful, as I say in the article above, not to be comparing apples to oranges. The calorie comparisons are falling into that trap. The figures given are comparing industrial agriculture to small scale vegetable growing. Not the same type of activity at all.

    If you want to compare my efficiency to a well established and very knowledgable organic farming operation that would be more relevant. I would lose.

    What I am working towards is what can be done practically and what cannot. The idea is to learn what works and what does not.

    By far most of the fuel used by my operation was in delivery to farmers markets a significant distance from where I live. If I had been growing for deliverey to the residents of the local town I would have used just a fraction of that amount.



    Despite my cynicism, I think you are making an invaluable contribution to society. What makes me shudder is the fact that even pretty smart and well-heeled people like yourself find the organic going so tough.

    So what hope is there for Joe Six Pack?

    ...find the organic going so tough....

    Carolus, are you conflating the term "organic" with the concept of "small-farm"? I don't think there would be any significant difference in this story at the two or three year mark if Wyoming were spreading every kinds of fertilizer and pesticide available.

    Or do you just mean the going is tough for all us smart and well-heeled organics? :-)

    cfm, two heeled organic in Gray, ME

    There is no hope for Joe Six Pack other than in the fields of Piracy, Thuggery, or, .....I guess that's about it. If the world turns really bad, then most of the Joe Six Packs will starve to death cuddled next to their ATV, fully cammo'd out, with their trusty M1a at their side. They ran out of ammo and gas at about the same moment; ammo gone from too many long distance shots from the seat of their cammo'd out 4 wheeler, and gas gone because the gas is gone. The last big hunt; without the beer. Best from the Fremont


    After doing this for a couple of years I have a strong appreciation for those who went before us. Up until the advent of industrial agriculture after WWII almost all farming was "organic". Some of these farmers were extremely gifted at what they were doing. Just as good as those of today. And they had it all in their heads. No computers and very few books to work from. You had to be smart about it and know what you were doing.

    It is not an accident that very large numbers of the engineers who helped build our county after WWII were the smart kids off the farms (my father for example). They were encouraged to leave and jump into the big money to be made in the new economy.

    But don't worry about Joe. Joe will make do and he will make the transition with less stress than those who have known only the suburban white collar world. Joe has lots of skills that will come in handy. In many respects Joe is the last man standing with the basic skill sets and the toughness to get things done. A lot of other people are going to have to learn a whole new type of existence. I don't worry about Joe. I worry about the folks in the buildings downtown. They have limited skills and an exaggerated view of their importance in the scheme of things.


    I'm not sure about that.

    I was talking to my Hungarian friend, they call the fall of the SU and the communist bloc and all the drama afterwards the "Transition." I spoke to him of seeing a Transition in Western society as possible - that is, faith in our driving philosophies and resources to keep them going disappear, so that central government and corporations are unable to do much useful, things become more local and there's some civil strife. Not Mad Max but messy.

    He said, "if you believe there'll be a Transition, what we found was that white collar workers like your woman do much better than blue collar workers like you."

    Basically, everyone drops in wealth during a transition. So the rich become middle-classed, the middle-classed become working class, and the working class become impoverished or do unpaid labour.

    I wouldn't know, really. A lot depends on the causes and nature of the transition, I think. But that's the perspective of someone who's lived through a transition. Joe Condo does alright, Joe Lawnmower gets poorer but eats, Joe Sixpack is in the crap.

    Kiashu - In your fourth paragraph you rightly critique the preceding one with "A lot depends on the causes and nature of the transition".
    But I'd go further and say that everything depends on the causes and nature; one sort of transition can be entirely different from another. In some previous transitions, such as the French and Russsian revolutions, the "wealthiest" people ended up dead. My own expectation is that deflation will devastate debtors and commodity investors, then hyperinflation will devastate cash savers, de-corporatisation will wipe out most techno-illiterate "middle class". And sudden breakdown will leave the vast majority of contentedly conforming sheep sunk in terminal starvation without a lifeline. And again, all or many of those Neo-Aristoes will be dragged from their Palaces and killed. I wouldn't rate Bernanke's life-expectancy very high.

    Grand post from Wyo.

    I did a similar calc. to Kevin but alloted half or a bit more of the fossil fuel use to distribution of the produce (see above, etc.) and therefore came to a result similar, close to, the reported 10/1 calorie in - out ratio of big agri, provided the food is eaten on the spot or picked up on foot etc. Actually pretty good I thought.

    Being more precise etc. isn’t really possible here and probably not useful anyway.

    This raises the question of territorial organization in general - the typical long lasting medieval village around me (Switzerland, France) was of course optimized to shorten traveling with a densely populated small town/village in the center of a ‘hub’ arrangement.

    Wyo shows us roughly how many he could feed for how long.

    Wyo is rich, rich beyond measure for most in the world. (This is not snark, and Wyo is obviously aware of his good luck.)

    Wyo possesses LAND.

    Right. Boof, Corulus et al are rightly skeptical of this as a 'solution' for the masses. It's not. Having walked in Wyoming's shoes myself (add Maui to Vermont and Wyoming!), my conclusion is that the norms of western 'civilization' are done for.

    Like Wyo, I'm an engineer by education and training. I helped start up and later sold out my share of a small IT consultancy in Chicago. I bought my property in NE Maui free and clear and have no debt. The land price vis a vis agricultural usage here is silly (as per DC) but one pays for the lifestyle and climate here. Our house is tiny and doesn't need AC or heating (constant 70-80 temp and 60"-80" rainfall due to NE Trade Winds). 2.4 acres, Ag Zoning, close to small town and ocean. PIMSA is my work in progress (Pacific Island Multi Species Agro Forest). I'm drawing on BioIntensive, Permaculture, No Till - you name, my experience to date tells me no system or philosophy is perfect and you've got to be adaptable and creative.

    Although the specifics for a small farm operation here in the tropics are different, the general issues and challenges Wyo outlines are spot on in my two years experience. The complexity of it has really surprised me. I now really 'get' what Pollan/Satalin refer to when they talk about the A students moving out of the farm community, with the remaining D students only capable of industrial/mono Ag work.

    A critical point for me in terms of location is not just the survival thing but the overall lifestyle and community culture. Hawaii is blessed with Aloha. Don't confuse the Hawaiian Islands in general with Honolulu (like comparing Manhattan to upstate NY (and completely unsustainable)). The people in general are not so far removed the land/ocean. The mix is diverse and balanced and there is no nutty right wing persecution/fear ethos, gun culture or "religulosity" out here. People talk about isolation but in some ways that's good. The potential for renewable is of of course huge but will require political leadership. The recreational options are wonderful and free if you're into the ocean & water activities. Food & Fuel Security is THE issue.

    Like some others that Wyo's post has drawn out I'm a longtime reader, first time poster. I've drawn on a childhood in Ireland/England close to farm life and have the luxury of setting this thing up full time without the need for external income. I have the educational and work ethic advantages to make this happen. I have a wonderfully adaptable or resourceful wife. We live a veggy/fish diet - all this makes me blessed for this endeavor. SO, when I think about the people I've got to know over the past 20 years living in small town UK (nr Manchester), suburban US (Dayton & Cleveland, OH) and urban US (downtown Chicago) I'm dreadfully apprehensive about the future for most. Pulling this thing off requires huge advantage and is in no way going to happen naturally or transitionally for most families. If I had a job and/or mortgage payment, I'm sure I would just be fingers crossed, placing my hope in some new political order and technological fix (i.e. denial).

    Thanks for chiming in, mauiorganics. Please keep posting.

    Yes, organic farming cannot feed the World and industrial farming is destroying its own resource base. From here on in the bottleneck will just keep constricting, reducing the number that can get through as time progresses. Economic collapse, climate change and energy descent will further crush agricultural output. I also doubt there is any sustainable solution for the masses.


    I was reading Noizette's comment just below yours and got to thinking about this some more.

    Of the gasoline I used about 750 of the 950 gallons was the truck. The truck is used 99% for off farm work. traveling to and from the farmers markets and to town for supplies, trips to other farms for one reason or another, etc.

    So one could say that on-farm energy use of fuel was about 200 gallons. Most of that by far was for my little tractor that pulls the wagon I haul stuff in and the various mowers I use to cut around the beds, etc. The 2-wheeled tractor uses almost nothing. It has likely consumed less than 10 gallons the entire year. Most of the diesel use was putting fuel in borrowed tractors from the neighbors. If I borrow a tractor I put at least 5 gallons of fuel in it no matter what. Good neighbor policy.

    I do not know how the calculations you mentioned for industrial ag are performed. But do they include the guys pickup when he goes to town for supplies, and all that?

    It is very hard to quantify energy inputs. How much energy did it take to manufacture the million dollars of equipment or more that is found on a 2000 acre grain operation? Is that being counted? You see the problem.

    Apples and oranges.

    I will try hard next year to get better numbers on this aspect and then we can compare the results.


    very nice post wyoming

    i too have retired to 'gardening', which needs to provide most of our food for me to stay retired. i am not selling anything but trying to get as much self-sufficiency going as is possible re our upcoming crises. the physical labor & always something else to do is constant; which requires a major mindset change. i started out w/ no machines & at u'r age + & a bad back i learned to appreciate machines & FF in a New way & got some.

    re u'r major use of petro for transportation i have found it worthwhile, especially expecting higher prices & shortages, to have great mileage truck/car[i went w/ old vw diesels] + several different size trailers to go with these & still am keeping a powerful truck for when needed. these are older & insurance is cheap; & since prices are down & i need to haul a lot of manure in the upcoming months for a new patch of ground i even conserved $ on one & left it uninsured .

    also when u are driving slow as u say hiking moved u to, u'll have a good excuse w/ a fulled loaded vehicle & trailer.

    good luck with u'r adventure & thanks for u'r work & sharing.

    Hello Wyoming,

    How far are you from market?

    I was thinking that you could use an electrical vehicle (EV) pickup truck. If you use solar to heat your home, you could cut down on the fossil fuels you use and then use electricity to fill up your pickup truck. Electrical usage would be about 2 to 3 cents a mile plus about A nickel a mile for pack depreciation. You have enough area for solar hot water and solar heating. The nickel a mile would have to be compared to the cost of operating an internal combustion engined truck.

    Or if there are similar farmers in his area, they could take turns.

    For example, a smallscale farmer might have a ute with a 1,000lb capacity, and drives to the farmer's market once a week with at most 200lbs. And another four farmers do the same.

    It'd be much better for those five farmers to co-operate, each week one ute tools around and picks up everyone's produce, carrying the full 1,000lbs, and goes off to sell the stuff.

    One ute carrying 1,000lbs uses less fuel than five utes carrying 200lbs, even if there's some extra driving for the pickups. This saves everyone money.

    But that's a social thing, you have to have the right kinds of farmers near you - obviously if your vegie farm is surrounded by cattle country it doesn't help you much - and have to get along well with them.


    The kind of scenario you describe is one that might exist sometime in the future when a lot of the suburban lawns and parks are being used for vegetable production. Then the production from very small plots could be combined in a manner like you describe. And trucked a short distance to the nearest neighborhood weekly market.

    The structure of what is occurring with the farmers markets today is very different. For example, at the markets I sell at I am one of the closest vendors in terms of miles distant. My markets in 2008 were 17, 28 and 29 miles one way. There were vendors at these markets that were driving in excess of 100 miles one way. The amount of produce and equipment (tent, tables, etc) that I took to market pretty much completely filled a pickup which has a wooden box built over the box. Most of the vendors are much bigger than I. At one market there are 5 vendors who arrive with a completely full Isuzu diesel delivery truck (20 ft long box that is about 9 ft wide and 8 ft high. The large scale truck is probably much more efficient than mine when you figure out the total energy costs per calorie.

    Now if a group of small farmers like you describe pooled their resources and purchased a big truck for all of them to use together? Interesting idea. But they would all have to be in the same market. That requires a different structure than today's markets also.

    Many of the com mentors to this article have very good ideas and visions of what might work in the future. the trouble is that most of those visions are very problematic in today's world. How do we reach a critical mass of folks who are prepared for the transition in those circumstances?

    BTW: I think that everyone agrees that the mixed farm concept is the most sustainable. The trouble being that if we are to reconfigure suburbia/exurbia to small scale farming there is not likely to be minimum amounts of land available to create mixed farming operations. You probably need at least 20 and more like 40 acres. The original deed for my farm is from 1786. All operations were based upon sustainability then. It was required that the properties then be minimum 40 acres.


    Welcome to the life of small scale farming Wyoming! My plot is ten acres located in South Central Illinois; if you flatten in out it is probably closer to fifteen. Many of your experiences are similar to mine. Were about the same age, I turned 55 a few days ago, but I’m a tradesman - a carpenter - and working the land alone. Deer suck. I had three newly planted peach trees buck rubbed during this fall that will probably have to be replaced. I was working heavy overtime at a grain elevator during harvest so I did not get to put protection on them. Fencing the main garden is a must. Next year I’ll take a few during hunting season with my bow and shotgun. Why the two wheeled walk behind tractor? I‘ve looked at them but was not overly impressed - at least for my needs where I grow a field of hay for compost and barter. I would also be a little concerned about repair and parts availability. Also a small tractor like a Kubota with a three point hitch, hydraulics, and power take off can be adapted to a huge array of devices. .It seems the first two years I’ve been doing this, I’m going into my third year, that I don’t have much besides some veggies and garlic, to show for my efforts. But when my asparagus, fruit trees, fruit bushes, nut trees, and vineyards (I will be making wine and beer) start producing in earnest it should be all worth it.

    As a suburban gardener, I have been experimenting to see what I can grow undisturbed by deer and groundhogs. About half of my garden is fenced and "patrolled" by my dogs (although consideration for my neighbors means I can't leave them out to bark all night at the deer). I have found that the deer don't touch aspargus,rhubarb, onions, most herbs, or garlic, and only turn to turnips, rutabagas, arugula and kale at the very end of the season when everything else is gone. I was surprised that they even ate most of the hot peppers I planted. So you could argue that in deer-infested areas, all you can grow is stuff most people don't like, either, but of course those unpopular root crops can keep you going a long time in the winter. I keep my fruit and nut trees protected, and have been surprised how much damage they do even to bramble fruit like raspberries. I put in on gooseberry bush this year, which I anticipate will be left well enough alone!

    Hey! Eat the deer. Easy to get, tasty. Groundhawgs good too, even easier to get. Practically commit suicide. One shot with 22 short.

    And don't forget wood gas- works on any IC engine. Bottle it under pressure, stick it on the engine, and off you go- for a short time. Best to get some local iron-banger to go into business making the wood gas generator, compressor, and storage bottles. Trade carrots, chickens or whatever for the charged up gas bottles.

    Folks on the woodgas list have discussed compressing wood gas.

    It's not practical, because there is too much nitrogen in the gas. Also I recall reading that under high pressure, the gas separates into various parts, some liquid, including sticky tar!


    Great question. I expected it earlier.

    You might be aware of Eliot Coleman's book, "The New Organic Grower"? When I was researching how I wanted to go about this experiment I consumed a lot of books on the possible methods of running a very small operation. In that book was my first exposure to the two wheeled ag equipment. As you might be aware, outside of the US there are very large numbers of this scale of equipment in use. Hundreds of thousands.

    This scale of equipment is designed for the 1-5 acre intensive operations. It is very useful in confined spaces such as high tunnels and terraces and the like where larger 4 wheeled equipment has issues. Beyond 5 acres and maybe less (I am not the expert here) it makes more sense to have larger equipment. Another issue that makes the small equipment useful for myself is that when one makes the move to 4 wheel equipment and the options it presents then one has to cross the threshold beyond the one person operation. One cannot take advantage of many of the benefits of the larger equipment unless they have multiple people. Tractor assisted transplanting for instance.

    I have neighbors who use both 4-wheeled equipment and also have 2 of the 2-wheeled machines.

    This equipment is not the junk that is sold by DR and Toro, etc. It is designed to full commercial ag standards. The life spans of the diesels (it will run on straight vegetable oil btw) use in this equipment is circa 4000 hours of operation. Once you use the various implements you quickly realize that this is real equipment. And it is relatively inexpensive (part of the experiment again) and thus something that a beginning farmer can contemplate when they have limited resources. A full set of brand new equipment, including all the implements, at this scale would not run to even $15,000. The smallest Kubota that is suitable for 5 acre vegetable operations costs more than that new. And then there are the implements.

    I ordered an upgrade of this type of equipment this fall. I am getting a root digger (potato digger), a cultivating bar with various kinds of attachments, a special modification that will help me with hilling and use of plastic mulch should I choose that route. There are lots of possibilities with this equipment. If you attach it to a wagon you now have 4-wheel capability for hauling. The maximum speed of my tractor is 10 mph. I could actually haul a significant weight long distances should that be required. In some parts of the world they are used this way on the rural roads. Look up Earth Tools on the net and peruse their catalog to see the possibilities.

    Now what might work for me will not necessarily work for you. That is why there are so many different equipment choices. If you are baling hay and bartering it then you would not be able to put up enough with the 2-wheeled equipment to make that work. BTW there is a full of sickle bar mower, rake and baler for this equipment. But it is more sized for putting up bales for ones own horses or something like that.


    They can also be used as taxis:

    Free Image Hosting at

    Thanks for sharing your story. My only question is: how does a non-weathly person become a farmer? Land is now too expensive for anyone to service the debt with farm income. In the future, land may be cheaper but there will be fewer jobs and fewer means to scrape up the needed money.

    I can't help but imagine that the wealthy land holders get wealthier and the landless get poorer. Eventually, we could end up in a lord/serf relationship. Perhaps the only way to give people a chance to become farmers, as well as keep the most people fed, would require strong government action giving land to the landless with the provision that food be produced. The wealthy lords would never willingly give power to the landless without a bloody revolution. If land can be leased at extremely low prices, on the condition that it is used to feed/employ people, it would be the agricultural equal to the community garden.

    More than anything else, this is what ought to be subsidized -- not bailouts for the banks, hedge funds, etc. That plus rebuilding small towns that are agriculture based.

    This would help prevent starvation and give millions of people who are facing unemployment a way to make a living. There would need to be a lot of guidance from knowledgeable people.

    But you are again right -- it won't happen without a revolution. It amounts to removing a huge number of people from the "market system". Even when unemployed, one is still part of the market system, putting downward pressure on wages if nothing else.

    More than anything else, this is what ought to be subsidized..

    True enough. It involves land reform. Joe 6 and Marcia the single mother and Dolores the unemployed secretary cannot buy, rent, re-possess or squat land.

    An interesting example to look to is Zimbabwe.

    I know many Americans hold the ‘evil dictator Mugabe’ is responsible for ‘killing his own ppl’ etc. (shades of Saddam..) yet in some ways Z’s problems re. land reform are emblematic. Z had big agri, huge landowners, corporate farms (these have not been affected which is never mentioned) and produced an agri surplus.

    At the same time it had land-hungry peasants, small-holders starving, even day workers without jobs... (Climate change is responsible for a big part of the wreckage.)

    this long piece, lessons from Zimbabwe, from the London Review of Books throws up many interesting questions:

    What makes you even think that the majority of the people living in the city would even be willing to go out and get their hands dirty working the land and pulling weeds in the hot sun? My guess is that 80-90% of them would rather starve to death than go out and do manual labor in the sun/wind/rain. Expect massive riots demanding food, but no-one volunteering to help grow it.

    My family has owned my farm for over 50 years and I have lived here exclusively for the last 28 years. By and large I can not even get people I know from the city to drive the 6-10 miles to the farm to visit - because it is - too: Far, Hot, Buggy, Humid, BORING, etc....... When these people want to come out to work to grow vegetables I'll be growing 300 bu per acre corn in a rock quarry.

    By and large I can not even get people I know from the city to drive the 6-10 miles to the farm to visit - because it is - too: Far, Hot, Buggy, Humid, BORING, etc..

    I was one of those people 10 years ago. Not any more. I still live in a city, but now when I visit my daughter on her farming commune or my brother with his green houses, it is with great interest.

    You are almost correct, but not quite. Starvation itself WILL get people's interest. I know, because in an urban environment when some hotel or something opens up that pays benefits, even though it's minimum wage, people line up around the block in the rain just to apply. People do want to survive.

    My guess is that 80-90% of them would rather starve to death than go out and do manual labor in the sun/wind/rain.

    90-99% more likely. Remember we are now living in a keyboard and mouse society.

    Words removed from the last edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

    Carol, cracker, holly, ivy, mistletoe. Dwarf, elf, goblin. Abbey, aisle, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, minister, monastery, monk, nun, nunnery, parish, pew, psalm, pulpit, saint, sin, devil, vicar. Coronation, duchess, duke, emperor, empire, monarch, decade. Adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren. Acorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy, porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow.

    Words put in:

    Blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, export, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, analogue


    More here:

    Fascinating! Thanks.

    Amazing, thx for the link.

    The trend in dictionaries has been for about 15 years to reduce the number of words in any way.

    Lexicographers (those who write the entries) don’t earn much, or consider they earn Ok, it is work one can do in spare time. Few steady jobs in that field, it is almost all outsourced all over the place and paid by the word, often now to India etc.

    The thing is, one can still sell the dic. for the same price as before, and even it it is slimmer nobody objects, in a way it’s considered good.

    Naturally the “free” internet provides much of what a word-nut wants. So publishers of dics. etc have lost a lot of customers, more each year since the late 90’s, and have re-tooled to sell to the greatest number.

    There is a niche market in highly specialized dictionaries, map producers, etc. and afaik (?) the seriious contenders do extremely well.

    The result is that while the greater number *may* be able to read wiki or get poor stats, maps, off the internet, specialist vocab and knowledge is available only to the anointed few, who will pay anything.

    Therefore, the two divides, the first between those who have digital access and those who do not, the second between those who have access to the special sources, and those who do not, are exarberated.

    There's a mix out there and interest is building. See the movie The Real Dirt on Farmer John for some background on the cultural shift happening.

    I met a 24 year old woman who started a new business custom grazing a small breed of sheep (meat variety) in orchards and vineyards. She lives in a rural area but visits friends from her university days (degree in Agronomy) in the San Francisco Bay Area. Apparently when word gets around a house party that she is into agriculture she is soon surrounded and bombarded with questions. Though a shy personality she blushed that she was "treated like a rock star" by young people in the big city.

    "treated like a rock star"

    I've been telling Jason for a while that he and Sharon Astyk are to the 21st Century as the high tech gurus were to the late 20th Century, i.e., widespread and keen interest in the advice they have to offer.

    I'm still looking forward to the outrageous salaries and perks and fancy parties.

    I too believe that there is a growth of appreciation and exposure for small farmers. With the growth of the local/slow food movement and books like "The Omnivore's Dilemma", quite a few city people have come to respect and perhaps envy the small farmer's life. The problem is the high barrier to entry and low wages, with many small farmers and CSA operators making below minimum wage. Things will most likely get worse for the farmers, since many small operators make a living by selling high margin products (like organic heirloom tomatoes) to wealthy people. Big centralized agribusiness and large corn/soybean farmers are getting government help as opposed to the local small farmer.

    I think that the lesson to be gleaned for non-farm folks reading Wyoming's generous post is that the knowledge, the capital and the work required to grow food is substantial. The system of slaves, poisoning the biosphere and subsidies with monopoly money for agri-corps (for friends if you will) will soon end the game of producing food below the real costs of production.

    Seeing that Wyoming is willing to settle for $10 a day wages and not include the cost of housing (rent or taxes/mortgage)not to mention other living costs necessary for survival. How much do you think his wife will be willing to dip into the family savings to truck this food into the city should something happen like a sustained increase in gas prices? Or a flat tire on his truck? I ask this rhetorically as my wife has had enough of my subsidizing other peoples food. It makes great sense (cents too) to grow quality food for our health and our pocket book but little sense at most levels of production for others. The economies of scale are few and far between and in fact largely become wiped out by the mismanagement of the soil. This becomes almost immeadiately transparent the day that the regulatory and financial subsidies disappear. (Wyoming you seemed surprised that there were rules limiting what you can do. Perhaps an enlightening read for you would be Joel Salatin's: 'Everything I want to do is illegal'. (This is what I meant by regulatory subsidies.)

    The only long term sustainable farm model is a mixed farm this becomes obvious when down the road diseases arrive due to declining levels of organic matter. This model can't work with the Cargill's of the world effectively acting as shills in the market-place. After they have destroyed the goose that lays the golden eggs, expect them to belly up to the bar weeping and wailing and demanding bailout monies, like the banks.

    Wyoming another thought for you is to be very careful with ashes. I believe that this can set you up for a problem with phosphorous availability. (An easy test will be if your vegetables don't taste as sweet as they used to)

    The end of cornucopiaville and the return of parity would re-jig the universe of the bourgeoisie.

    Maybe there is a future starting a farm on a beautiful mountain in the desert after all? What grows in frozen ground? I have on the other hand heard of the joys of wild mountain honey! No doubt c.c.d. is a sign of the times and some humble fasting is in order


    I think your points well put. Part of what I am doing is trying to see what it takes to learn this profession and make it "socially" profitable. Meaning that I am trying to figure out where the break over points are where choosing to live this way becomes a justifiable choice. Not just a choice made for more romantic(?) reasons. As we have seen from the comments there are a number of folks involved in trying to make this conversion. More than I realized. I think of the people doing this as critical part of the evolution from where we are as a society now to where we are going. Just like a lot of the steps to building more robust alternative energy supplies will not be cheaper than the current cost per kilowatt hour of what a coal plants are does not mean that it one should not and cannot justify pushing the progress of alternative supplies. E

    Every beginning farmer is going to be less efficient than the experienced one. And if you compare his results to the industrial model, especially if you fail to count all the costs of each type of activity, he will appear to be wanting. But comparisons today can be very different than they will be tomorrow. And if one system appears to have no future then one must search out alternate solutions. We have no choice.

    I can easily grow all the food we would need and have minimal energy costs. But we don't survive as a people doing that. We have to have farmers who can grow a significant surplus to their own needs or the system does not work. Many "rules" that complicate what we can do now will disappear in troubled times. Some were designed and implemented just to make small operations more difficult and industrial operations more profitable. If you want to sell pesticides, herbicides and mountains of synthetic fertilizers you sure as heck do not want 75% of the farmers using sustainable ag practices.

    Food for thought as they say.


    I understand where you are coming from and what you say you are trying to discover.

    However there is a huge fly in the ointment IMO on the issue of really living on a true farm of the type that might work in the future.

    This is the fly. You become injured. Or sick for a lengthy period of time. The main worker,yourself, in now in a bind. Who will plant this season,who will do the manly labors that might be very difficult for a wife? If you have a wife.

    This would have to be either children(relatives) or very neighborly close friends, who might also be very busy planting or harvesting or doing the large number of tasks that are essential. Milking, hitching the team,butchering hogs,or well the list is huge.

    So without additional labor sources beyond ones self then you can easily falter.

    To me this is self evident yet on TOD and todays culture we eschew the birth of children. Ohhh maybe one. Thats what I see these days, except for the poor, one child. Maybe none. Maybe not even a 'couple' 'as in wife and husband.

    So the very old,I might add very sucessful family UNIT is going to have to be very much in evidence. It has worked since the dawn of time I would believe and in my youth was the way we lived. It was just accepted that one had children and a wife who could bear children.

    Today this is just not even spoken of. "Oh he married well!"...or "She will make a good wife for himl."......its just not here anymore. Many changes of the last 40 years have killed it off.

    Its now all about other factors. The 'love' bug being a huge, if not the only part of it.

    "Oh dad we are gonna get married."
    "Wait,,he is a known drug addict daughter."
    "Oh but I love him."

    "ahhh well of course, my blessing on you."

    "Oh dad it isn't working out..we are divorcing."
    "Why daughter?"
    "Oh I don't love him anymore."
    "Oh say no more,I understand."

    So goes the modern scenario. As I grew up with my grandparents I observed that they didn't go around hugging each other and making statements of 'if you loved me....yada yada'...they didn't ever actually kiss each other that I observed...yet

    Yet that woman never never said a disparaging word about that old man. She stood beside him thru all their life and bore him 14 children who she cared for and on her deathbed(my bed actually) she called one last time for her children. She died in our suburban house in my bedroom and my bed.

    So that is the lifestyle back then when he worked a 100 acre farm and did it well enough to raise 14 children. The children did a lot of the work, the females took care of the youngones and cooked and cleaned and the boys worked the farm.

    They even were able to take on raising their son's(my father) two boys. Me and my brother ,,course we had to work just like any of them. Draw water out of the cistern,I drove a three mule team sometimes,dig potatoes, the list is endless.

    Was it good? It was excellent. I am very healthy as a result. I never realized it was that dreaded word WORK! It was fun to walk behind my grandpa as he guided that walking plow behind a single mule. In my bare feet checking the clods of dirt in the new furrow he was turning over. I walked behind him that whole 10 acre field as he plowed it that day.

    Milking cows. We had a dozen. Had to be milked morning and evening. The milk seperated and stored. Making soap. All the essentials of living. Boiling clothes in an outdoor cast iron kettle.

    This was how it was. This is surely how it will have to be. When all the rest is gone,,this will be the way.

    Airdale-different places? Different regimes maybe. Different soils etc.But in Kentucky (and other southern places I have lived) I can swear that this was pretty much the way it went.(Alabama,N.Carolina,etc). The plains? I dunno.The coasts? I dunno.

    Well this system keeps yelling give and more. Ignoring that the farm model that works on a sustainable basis has been and is being
    destroyed by corporate and govt greed. Not because of inherent inefficiencies, as is continually implied. In fact the mixed farm according to a u.n. study is considered dramatically more efficient than large monocultures. The reason is that the market place is easily corrupted. For example when Jimmy Carter brought in huge numbers of cows from Australia to dump into the market in order to undermine the prices. This is what globalization means...An ability to re-jig the market-place, and use the tool of dumping to introduce new traffic rules for the benefit of the few.

    So wyoming I think that you will find like most of us that at a certain point you won't be able to continually give. Unless you are independently wealthy. The adage around here is: "If I win the lottery , I'll farm till the money runs out."

    For those counting on an endless supply of wealthy would-be farmers
    to produce food for you at a price below their costs of production (that you want to eat -meaning nutritional value versus empty food and pesticide free)this is wishful thinking. After some more reflection if you decide then that perhaps you are now willing to pay say 3 times what you currently pay. Should the big systems face problems then you will find that this is not a solution. Because farmers are price takers. What this means is that the price they get
    they don't set. That's why big food shopping retailers report record profits year in and out and why farming on the model that we want doesn't return a living. Hence why they have been going broke for the last 25 years. It always comes back to our love affair with a corrupt market that has delivered slave produced food at cheap prices (subsidies)and because of cheap energy and a corrupt regulatory system that has helped form monopsonistic market control. Read Thomas Pawlicks: 'The End of Food'.

    The Canadian govt. has discovered that the farm kids are passing on the opportunity to take up the cause preferring employment that offers real wages, weekends and holidays, like being a dishwasher at a restaurant. So attempting to run a new version of the -Come get your free land in Saskatchewan (home of the sod house and great opportunities for wind-power) where you could earn your farm fortune of yesteryear. To now advertising to wealthy Europeans to come and get into farming and bring their check books! The problem being that people with money can generally figure out dollars in and dollars out.

    For those unfamiliar with how we would like it to be I recommend the book Malabar Farm and Pleasant Valley by Louis Bromfield. Oh and I sign on with Wendel Berry's of the world.

    We are going over the cliff so to speak (imo) The question becomes how can we mitigate the number at the bottom. If you believe that peak oil will be an inescapable reality that you or your children will have to face then figuring out how to be self sufficient is job #1, #2, #3...
    The gains from specialization doesn't work in agriculture over the long run. And the infrastructure and effort required are massive.
    My farm is 150 acres which I bought 10 years ago. Starting with a barn (that needed repair) and several out-buildings (that were falling over)I got to start with buildings. I have been fencing like a mad man (150 acres is nothing to sneeze at when it comes to fencing. I could invest a $100,000 in more buildings and general infrastructure that would never be re-cooped. But that is perhaps the point. If we look at this as hey let's earn lemonade stand incomes with expenses of medical centers then we get to starve when things fall apart. Versus our money is phoney and while it still provides something lets get 5 acres bulid energy smart homes and plant great big gardens.

    I am betting on horse power. This however means that a good percentage of my land and time is devoted to feeding the horses. The horses offer me manure and work and the ability to produce more horses. And oil or gas disruptions won't necessarily cost me a crop.

    The industrial revolution populated the cities. We will I suspect now see a reversal of this trend.


    My only question is: how does a non-wealthy person become a farmer? Land is now too expensive for anyone to service the debt with farm income.

    There are many answers to this question. They can range from your comments about revolution (has happened before and will again I imagine), to Lord/serf, to tenant farming, and all the other arrangements which mankind has used in the past. There is what one can do today and there is what will come tomorrow and the next day. One of the reasons I am working on this little experiment is to help answer the questions of how we can prepare for the future.

    Today it is possible to start with no assets and work your way into an ownership of a small farming operation. I am aware of some people who have done this in our current economy. And they primarily did it by farming and not working in the office towers to get the money. Not saying it is easy or anything like that. It is hard. But commitment can take one a long way.

    There are many others who farm who do not own land. Every month you see help wanted adds in the small farm magazines looking for experienced organic farmers to manage and run sizable farming operations. There are farmers who have made it a profession to operate such farms without owning them. Some are skilled enough that they are like professional troubleshooters who are hired to fix up a failing operation and then they move onto the next one after getting the operation up and running efficiently again.

    As a society we are very wrapped up in "ownership". But the issue to me is not really ownership it is control. The control you have over your life and your perception of your life's value. For many this question can only be answered one way. But I do not believe it is that simple. You do not have to own land to be a farmer and definitely you do not need it to live a valuable life. Most of our ancestors did not own the land that they farmed. Even in America most farmers did not own their own land until we moved over the Appalachians into the mid-west.

    What does the future hold? I do not know. But I firmly believe that we face tremendous risks. My professional life was centered around determining what the downside risks to trying to achieve a particular goal were. And how to prepare for them. In most cases this advance preparation will result in overcoming the risks and dealing with them successfully when they occur. In the world of extremes, to those who have spent much time there, it is an unstated truism that optimists die young. The deliberate pessimist is not a person with a negative attitude, but rather a pragmatist who has survived long enough to learn to be prepared.

    We need to be prepared should the future world of declining energy supplies lead to a dramatic downsizing of our way of life. If you want to be a farmer then be one. You will have the satisfaction of doing something you find valuable and others cannot do without. And you will simultaneously be preparing for possible adverse events. Don't worry about who owns the land now as it might not be of significance in the future anyway. If the future goes to the "dieoff" scenario then no one's choices work out anyway. I think that West Texas's ELP advise is as spot on as one can be.


    The average farm owner in the United States is about 60. They are now thinking about their legacy, retiring or cutting back, and want to pass on their land and business to younger people. A program called Farm Link brings such interested parties together.

    Here's the site for California, but most states seem to have one:

    The average farm owner in the United States is about 60

    In my county it seems older than that. I often wonder what is going to happen to these farms when these older farmers pass on. Many have children who have no desire to farm. The farms around me are not large because of multiple small landowners and the topography - I'm guessing the the average being about 100 acres. Real good size to do some small stuff. The soil could be better, but if it was it would be far more expensive. When I looked for a place prices in Northern Illinois were totally out of the question.

    Here is how my good friend found his way into ranching. As a teenager he worked as a Cowboy up in the Booby Hole where he learned the basics of how to get along with cattle. When he turned 21 he signed up for the good Farrier's School in Oklahoma and after ten weeks of schooling he returned to the county and hung out his shingle as a Farrier. He worked hard shoeing horses, saved his money, and married a gal who went to Nurses School and became a RN. She works at the County Hospital. He leased some pasture and some hay ground and began buying 2 year old heifers from his neighbors. One here, one there. He fed them rained on hay, and whatever he could grow on his leased ground. He found himself an old bailer and swather for a couple of thousand bucks. He now has a herd of 75 mother cows and he owns some of his ground for pasture and hay. He still shoes 8 to 10 horses a day, six days a week and he's now 33 years old. His next step will be to buy an allotment for summer range on the mountain and then one for winter range in the desert. The thing about cows is they're like four legged piggy banks as long as you keep it simple. If you go out and buy a big piece of pasture for $2500 an acre, a brand new swather and baler with a new bale wagon, you'll never make it unless you've got very deep pockets. But, if you do it the old fashioned way with open range cattle, you have a pretty good chance if you are willing to work real hard. Being a Farrier pays good money these days in rural areas where not much pays worth a damn. With a herd of 300 cows you can make a decent living and grow wealthy on your hard assets, but your wife ought to keep her job in town just in case. Best from the Fremont

    Jim, thank you for an honest and informative post on your experience.

    I was wondering if you had looked at diversifying slightly into adding livestock as a few posters had mentioned if you chose to remember there is far more to chose from than the traditional farm animals.

    Ostrich can offer high conversion rates of feed to meat, many types of fish can be farmed in fairly small areas.


    The second link has videos of projects using fish farming, hydroponics and vermicompost (worm composting)

    By moving our diet down the food chain much higher conversion efficiencies from solar energy to human protein can be achieved.

    I have been looking at the energy requirement figures, and you give slightly less than 1,000 gallons of fuel. There is a bit less than 40kWh in a gallon, so in producing you food you used approximatly 40,000kWh or 40MWh of liquid fuels and around 8,000 kWh of electricity ( I assumed 20kWh / $ so at $30 a month is 600kWh a month ~7,200 a year, rounded up in the calculation) Giving total energy requirements of less than 50MWh/yr

    A small wind turbine will produce at about 0.2 capacity factor as a worst case scenario. Hence a turbine rated at 30kW will deliver this much electricity per year. The cost of such a turbine would be around the same as a new truck. Since you also said you assume that ~75% of this energy was used transporting products from your farm to the market place, the actual energy requirements of the farm could met from wind power fairly easily (in absolute terms not minute by minute day by day, although it wouldn't be impossible)

    I think chosing between one method of food production or another for the future is a bit futile, but I see a compromise between large monocultures of staples grown to maximise yields to feed lots of hungry mouths, supplemented with more locally grown vegetables.

    I think there is a big growth area in social networking for marketing locally grown veg, you can complete the order online and can pick it up from a suitable place or have it delivered. This could help reduce transport costs for both seller and buyer. This system could work especially well with a taxibus public transport system, you could order a food box and a journey home.


    We have talked a fair amount about the mixed animal/crop issue. It is obviously a more sustainable structure in the ideal. For our situation we think that a limited number of laying hens would make the most sense as we could easily market the excess eggs and they would be available for our consumption eventually (homemade chicken soup- they are not much good for anything else). We also think that as our farm is currently configured we could have a few sheep. But we will not likely do anything but the chickens. I will sort of plan on growing the vegetable, fruit tree and berry production until it max's out the available land.

    In terms of self sufficiency (not for sale) our pond is full of fish and turtles. We could easily satisfy any meat consumption from the pond and via the chickens. I could even stab a few of the obnoxious deer from time to time.

    I fully agree with you on your guess that the future will be a combination of large mono culture cropping operations (using chemicals and lots of diesel) and smaller scale organically oriented vegetable/fruit operations. This makes perfect sense to me. With our large populations we will need vast amounts of the staples and they will command the infrastructure to make it happen. I do not see a future where vegetables from California are trucked to Virginia for consumption. Virginia can grow its own and if it won't then it does not get any. The energy equation of the future just does not seem balanced to support a great many of the practices we are involved in as a civilization right now. I refuse to buy any produce in the grocery store that comes from outside the US as I do not believe it is responsible to be wasting energy by shipping it such distances. IF we don't ship grains around the world there is mass starvation. We can get by just fine without grapes from Chile or apples from South Africa and New Zealand.

    I like your wind idea but it would not work at my farm. I live in the lee of the mountain and we just do not have much wind at all. Even in big storms our winds are much less than they are even a 1/2 mile away.

    I like your ideas about having a system to order your CSA package for the week and use the public transport system for delivery. That would seem a natural evolution in areas where there is an infrastructure to support it. I wonder if that is being contemplated anywhere like California or New York city. In my area there is no public transport until ones gets to the city itself (35-50 miles). What I would like to see is a group of organically oriented (not necessarily certified as I do not think that is all that important) get together and for a group CSA. The variety and volume that could be generated, while maintaining a small scale operation, would seem to have some interesting advantages. Such an organization could even contract with a large "city" entity just to supply them. Say one of the 20 story condo's in the city contracted to have the farms supply it with CSA shares. There could be one or two deliveries a week with a quick drop off and departure. Efficient and practical. There are so many ideas that have promise.

    I am rather afraid that Wyoming's farming operation is so different than what I have experienced that I can hardly comment.

    It seems he has access to a nice area where selling his produce it possible. Right now in many locations in outback that is not possible. We all don't live near a DC area where rich folks are willing to pay high prices for organic foodstuffs.

    My hometown tried putting up some areas for free use by those wishing to sell produce. Not a single taker. Its not worth the money I think.

    So around here many used to can/dry/freeze/store their garden produce but not much anymore. We are going to be almost as bad off as the city folk once TSHTF. Maybe in some ways worse IMO.

    Yet we have good weather,good rain,lots of water and very good soil yet monoculture ag has not been kindly to those who would work the ground differently.

    So there are very few who try subsistence farming on any scale around this part of the country.When tobacco when haywire a lot of Kentuckians had little left except for cattle and horses so some tried to go it via niche farming operations. My take on what I have seen is that it will only work if there is a lot of rich city types or suburbanites nearby to buy their outputs.

    Well and good but when things change markedly there will no longer be this market. So then you only need to sustain yourself and family.This will be IMO an entirely different paradigm that what Wyoming is performing on.

    I think his scenario is very good. It might work in a slow powerdown situation. But without all the inputs such as electric, fuel etc then a lot much change markedly and then I wonder if he has plans to survive in any other mode.

    Might call it 'possum living' then for thats what I think will occur. Living close to the bone. Wearing old clothes and walking a lot behind a mule,if you can find one or maybe a yoke of milk cows.

    It will be trying. Thats what I am trying to ease into in my latter years. So far I have used less than one cord of wood this winter.Have gone down to about 300kwh per month of electricity. And so on...I am not there yet but still circling downward. .....I probably won't last too long once the meltdown does come but I only have to feed myself.
    My family won't be coming back.

    What else have I to do then with my land and time on my hands? This interests me and even though I was an IT professional like Wyoming my hands have always been on the land when I had a choice.

    All I have as experience in real sustinence living was what I lived as a child and youngster with my various relatives during the first 15 years of my life.

    I can't really relate to what Wyoming is doing.I applaud him nontheless for it where I was 15 years ago building my own loghouse,tending 50 acres of hayfields and doing custom haywork all over the county. I barely made it and I worked like a 'rented mule'.

    It got me thru until my pension came online and later SS.

    Yet its a great life if you can endure.If your family don't up and leave you. If your wife can adapt and has the desire. But for the facts of aging then I don't see it ending well for many since having more than a few children seems like a necessary part of what must happen. One or two can only do so much and if you become ill then as the primary mover and worker you can easily die off when you miss a season of either planting or harvesting. Yet todays culture spurns larger families. So the tea leaves are mixed on this as far as I can see.

    IOW the needs are there but the culture is not at this point conducive to having offspring to assist in what may be forthcoming.
    I am reminded that my grandparents had 14 children. Many others had at least 4 or more. Bearing children was a necessity. Not so today. Not so for some time perhaps and the ones left to start us over may not have the skills or knowledge nor desires nor even be around.

    A man and wife only can be hard. One of my uncles had only one female child. His wife went somewhat insane later on,,he did'nt live too long and finally his daughter,my cousin, blew her head off with a .410 laying in bed with her deeply disturbed mother way out on that old farm where no one would come visit for fear. He was my favorite uncle on my mothers side and me and my brother lived with him for 2 years. He made it with tobacco and small crops his mule and mare pulled the plows and disks and two row planter. He was happy it seems until he got a few years under his belt then it all went down hill. Ifn he had a son or two it would likely have been far far different.

    Airdale-just my recollections of how it was then,the way we lived it and how I am living it now..good, bad or indifferent and right now most folks in my hometown are not the same kind as yesteryears ..these people would most likely let others just starve..the culture is not the same and may never again be the way it once was...years ago as you drove the team and wagon to town.they called at you to stop and visit and eat dinner and spend the night and they meant it you wouldn't get a stale biscuit thrown at you... but in the city they would likely suck your blood!!! So?............

    remove double post

    Wyoming: Impressive - kudos!

    A comment wrt your marketing situation:

    It seems to me that right now there is a mostly missing link that needs to be more fully developed both for the benefit of small producers like yourself and for non-producing consumers. That missing link is buying clubs.

    There are a few buying clubs out there, but IMHO this is something that is extremely undeveloped right now. Most cities of any size have a food co-op, and that is fine. Most urban food co-ops, however, are large enough operations as to need to be supplied from relatively large-scale operators, or from wholesalers that aggregate the production of a large number of small-scale operators like yourself. Obviously, when you have one or two middlemen (or more) between yourself and the customer, what the farmer ends up getting is obviously going to be limited; it is definitely to your benefit to market directly to the end consumer if possible. As you have found, however, that is not easy for one farm-bound farmer to do.

    Looking at it from the other direction, not all consumers are fortunate enough to
    have access to a local food co-op; this is particularly true for people (like myself) who live in small towns. The smaller the community, the harder it is to get a food co-op going and to keep it going. The food co-op model is a challenge, because operating a store involves a lot of overhead - a cost that must be covered, no matter how much or little is purchased by the co-op members. That isn't so much of a problem in a large urban area, but it has often proven to be an insurmountable obstacle for smaller communities.

    Yes, there are farmers or tailgate markets, and those help. Unfortunately, those are usually just once or twice per week, and are often not convenient or accessible to all potential customers. Many communities (including mine) only operate these for half the year; what is the farmer and the consumer to do for the other half of the year?

    Yes, there are also CSAs, and those are certainly a little more advantageous for the farmer; the farmer can have a reasonably assured market for his produce, which is good. A big disadvantage for the consumer, though, is the need to plan ahead and commit for up to a year ahead, sometimes not even knowing from week to week what they are actually going to be receiving, and the produce they receive not always matching up with their preferences or needs. Then there is the problem of consumers needing to drive to the farm or a centralized pick-up point. That is a lot of travel, especially given that this does not complete the consumer's food shopping for the week - they still have more shopping to do, as the CSA only covers their vegetables and maybe some fruits.

    I am suggesting that it would be very helpful to both the farmer and the consumer if CSAs could evolve into buying clubs. What I envision is that an area too small to support a co-op forms a buying club instead. The buying club then contracts with however many local farmers as necessary to supply the entire club with produce (or milk & dairy products, or eggs, or meat, or grains - there are a lot of possibilities here). Whatever the buying club can't procure locally is ordered from wholesalers (and I am aware of some that are set up especially to service buying clubs), or maybe bought in bulk at Sams or Costco and then broken up and repackaged if needed. The advantage of this is that there is one trip between each supplying farm and the buying club central collection/distribution point each week. Members make one trip from their home to the buying club central location each week. Furthermore, because the orders of all members are being aggregated, there is a little more flexibility to cater to individual tastes and needs than what you have with a CSA.

    You, as a small farmer, might consider suggesting to some of your customers that this is a logical next step they consider. It could definitely be to your benefit to nudge them along this path.


    Your ideas are very sound and I think that the types of arrangements you mention have real possibilities.

    The hard part is reaching the critical mass that it takes to create them. Both on the customer and farmer end of things.

    Unfortunately the farmers are in general so burdened with work that the formation of such arrangements will likely have to come from the customer end. In time maybe folks will step forward to help shepherd the creation of those types of arrangements.


    Here's the link to a website with software for a food co-op/buyer's club: It's a way to connect sellers and buyers via an online site.

    Check out the video at the site for a fuller explanation. I think it sounds brilliant and it's something a group of us are looking into implementing in my town.

    Last New Years Eve at my house we had a small party with friends. The local food bug had gotten into a lot of people, but it was so inconvenient. Local farms were not connected well to local stores and most consumers didn't have ready access to their food.

    We brainstormed and a friend who just had a baby and wanted some part time work where she could set her own schedule (mostly) decided to start a "CSA type" operation only she would connect interested consumers to the various farmers and arrange for pick up and delivery to a central location in town, which happens to be my farm. So while I am doing veggies in town, she is bringing in meats, cheese, oils, herbs, eggs, milk, grains, and even some baked goods like pies (which she does herself). Every 6 months she has people sign up for what they want, they pay up front, and then she pays the farmers.

    Easy to replicate something like this.

    Thanks for this, Jason. Do you think she'd be willing to talk/email with some folks down here in Sonoma Co. about what she's done? My email is in my profile.


    Great article -- you have certainly taken a big leap.

    Based on the comments, it seems that a bit of diversification may be in order. I can't disagree about cows being potentially destructive, but in small numbers (3-5) they can be happy and manageable. Just yesterday I was out in the hinterlands of N VA picking up a quarter (100 lbs) of organic grass-fed beef raised on a small operation. The owner uses a single strand of electric fence to shift the bovines from one zone to another (for effective grass utilization), and refers to them as his lawn mowers. FWIW, I also saw a chicken tractor on the premises.

    It seems to me that some degree of specialization is required for any member of an agrarian community -- you need to be able to do a lot of things passably well to keep the farm moving, but doing a few things really well is where you will make your mark (and dollars).

    Also, the cheap labor provided by fossil fuel remains quite important, and even at $10/gal, I'm sure you would still use the walk-behind tractor. If you had to do it all by hand, your acre or two under cultivation would be about the end, but trading time for money, you can still harness the power of fossil fuels quite effectively on a small scale. My experience on a small farm in Tennessee indicates that one of those small 2-wheeled tractors is about all anyone really needs unless you have scaled up well beyond what is required for survival.

    BS (with a lot of family in WYO)


    My issues with the cows are more due to my having to keep them on only a few acres as I am using the rest for other purposes. They do tear things up though just do to their size and general clunkheadedness.

    I probably know the farmer you got your beef from. Neighbors!

    I agree if you are looking just to provide food for your own families survival then the 2-wheeled tractors and implements make far more sense than the larger versions. Much lower cost and maintenance. Much easier to do the work on yourself.


    All I can say is Wow!

    Wyoming, I'm happy to find your post and admire your attitude and sense of dedication. I'd try this myself but I still have two kids to put through college and I have absolutely no idea how to pay for it all. So I haven't left high tech, though I'd like to.

    A friend loaned me a great little book called "Ten Acres Enough" ( written in the 1860's by someone who made a go of veggie farming in southern NJ. Lots of good advice and from what I can tell there is very little difference from today's organic farming, except we know more about the science. I strongly recommend you find a copy. It holds many useful hints.

    About the livestock - the key to having a few cows is the manure you don't have to pay for or transport. The author made compost tea and composted manure and I suspect it was the secret to making the farm break even. I think these economics might still apply today, but with the cost of feed and the value of pasture land, (especially the value of grass-fed beef) you'd have to redo the numbers.

    The other key was diversification - lots of different crops - and choosing crops of high value to the nearby city. This author chose strawberries; he was near a train station on a main line to NYC. It paid off. If you're close to DC, maybe look into what would sell there. And stick with farmers markets; according to McKibben they are the fastest growing segment of the US food economy, amazing.

    I hope you will continue to post updates as you continue into the next few seasons. It will be fascinating to see how it goes, and whether the calories/gallon figure changes.



    Another great reference is "5 Acres and Independence" M.G. Kains. I've referred to it for the last 30 years. Some info is dated, but some is just timeless.

    Don in Maine


    You and I are likely a few miles apart. I'm still full-time engineering, so my garden is much smaller, though we have 20 ewes. I'm at Skyemoor Farm.


    I bet we are close. I live near Round Hill.

    I need one of those dogs of yours to chase off the deer!


    First: Wyoming: thanks for taking the time to write about your experience. It is fascinating reading for me, who spent 18 years in an intentional community in Virgina where we had large gardens and orchards to help feed our families.

    Now I live in the city, and have a full time job. I plan to 'retire' in 6 years when I'm 70. Am now in the process of building up a little urban homestead in our back and front yards.

    What really rang true for me was when you wrote, "But it is going to be HARD, both physically and mentally. There is a huge amount to learn and this takes up a lot of the non-daylight hours. The physical part of the work is far beyond that ever experienced by most people in our society. It eliminates most spare time (winter only) and leisure activities, unless you count reading books on farming as leisure time. Even the young are going to be tired, sore, beat up, frustrated and many other things. I was raised in a country where hard physical work was the norm and I experienced my share of it. I knew what I was getting into. None of this is a surprise to me. I don’t doubt that large numbers of folks my age could do this if they had to. However the issue is probably more along the lines that we need people to choose to do this in significant numbers long before they have no choice."

    I think, as has been stated by many, that as our economy contracts, more and more people will see that growing at least some of their own food will be a necessity. During my 18 years at the community, I learned a lot about gardening, orcharding, and working with farm animals (the latter not really applicable for me in the city, except perhaps for raising some chickens). But still, I feel as if there is so much I do not know, and have to learn.

    But with a full-time job, I find to keep up with things, basically I come home from work, go out into the garden to work, then in for dinner, then back out in the garden again after dinner for more work. Even in the winter, I'm getting in firewood, or collecting it, or turning the composting leaves which I collect from neighbors yards, etc. Plus planning for the coming season. The work is not unpleasant, but it is endless. And it is this kind of relentlessness which I think people are not going to be prepared for. No spare time is exactly right.

    But I do think that lots of people, urban and suburban, are going to be gardening in their yards for all that they are worth. This will be especially true for those who have lost jobs, and can't find work.


    I see your comments and those from folks like Airdale and think of the things you know how to do and that we need you teaching people. As Jason pointed out up thread, the average farmer in the US is almost 60. I am years younger than average. I have a friend who's father is 75 and still farms full time.

    We deperately need to be training the replacements. It does not take a genius to figure out we have a real problem relating to having enough farmers in the near future. Say what you will, but farming is the single most important occupation there is.

    If we don't have the critical mass of experience teaching the beginners then we are really in trouble.

    Get those neighbors to work!

    I suspect WTSHTF there will be strapping boys "loaned" by parents for farmwork just for room and board, and learning the ropes. Probably the same for the trades. Heck, I might loan myself if it kept the wife and I from starving!

    The problem with farming now is that you can barely break-even when you have land; you have to "make it" in another industry to buy the land, or inherit it. This problem will go away when land prices crash and food prices rocket, but then there won't be enough farmers.

    Here's a question for the farming experts: I have 10 acres of brushland out in the country, mostly hilly and wooded but some decently flat. All its ever been used for (a long time ago) was cattle. Backyard gardens grow well in the area, though, with some watering. The land is really too rocky and hilly for "large scale" farming, but terraced plots on the hills and 1/2 acre plots on the tops appear to be possible. Is it worth trying to clear and farm this, or would I better off working some overtime for a year or two (if the work holds out) and buying some previously farmed local land? I don't have the cash to buy tools/tractor and land too.

    But I do think that lots of people, urban and suburban, are going to be gardening in their yards for all that they are worth. This will be especially true for those who have lost jobs, and can't find work.

    Some will, definitely.

    But many without jobs will lose their homes and thus will not be able to garden. I guess that there will be at least a twenty year period when the cost structure of living in our society is still high (high land prices, high property taxes, etc.) but the means to service the cost (i.e. a job income) is too low or missing entirely.

    As Orlov points out, when the SU imploded largely people weren't kicked out of where they lived because they didn't own their homes. The state did. Here, where we are set up well for a high-energy (i.e. rich) society the transition to a low-energy (i.e. poor) society will send many people to live on the street, wandering on foot because public transport will largely be missing. And that's because when almost everyone owned cars we didn't build it.

    I don't think tens of millions of people are going to just put up with living on the street. Much more likely is that they'll squat in the foreclosed and abandoned homes.

    Remember that we're already seeing abandoned homes in the US torn up for their copper and wood and so on. So the owners won't object too much to the squatting, since if they can't sell or lease out the buildings they own, it's good to have someone there who'll at least stop others from turning it into firewood.

    Very likely, I agree. But the rate of "outflow" will exceed the uptake rate for a while, I think.

    good work Wyoming
    My experience is much stranger than yours but I'm doing it too. Coleman talks about the use of green manure and a land use of equal proportions, ie 1/2 acre veggies 1/2 acre alfalfa/whatever. I've been reclaiming pasture for my veggie patch (read pain, lots of pain) I've been kickin around the idea of putting 3 hogs in a hog tractor around my 3/4 acre veggie plot, let them take care of all the perennials and rhizomes, and sowing alfalfa behind them. In my experience alfalfa is a trap crop for deer and anything they don't get I can use as green manure. any thoughts?


    I am hardly the expert to give advice.

    If I were you I would find a local farming expert (maybe your extension service?) and have them look at your land and discuss with you the possibilities of what your best options are. Every situation is unique and I do not know your situation.



    Sounds sort of similar to what folks do with the chicken houses on wheels.

    Make sure that they are far enough from the vegetables that heavy rains etc cannot wash the waste into your vegetable plot. You don't want to get sick. If I remember correctly the limit of time between application of raw manure on crop land and harvest for consumption is around 180 days.


    Today has been an interesting window into future problems of farming. I met retired loggers, hay contractors and European back packers who will be worked hard all day picking fruit then treated to a barbecue. This is Lat 43S by the way. Outside a middle aged bloke is cutting hay with a bar mower and his son will rake it with another machine. Then a baler will come along. Hopefully I'll have enough strength to stack the estimated 500 square bales in a barn, otherwise I'll have to hire the backpackers.

    Here's what is missing from the picture. One day there will be no diesel to operate the tractors. Battery tractors are not up to this kind of task. NPK will run short. Young people won't want to do this kind of work full time or hang around long enough to learn the finer points. The old timers must ease up before long. People should pay more for produce but they won't or can't. This is what we should worry about, not bank bailouts. The squeaky wheel got the grease but farmers as always sucked it in. The time must come when farmers get praise, social status and a bigger fuel allowance while SUV drivers and Wall St minions get to pick lettuce.


    It is very possible that energy supplies, like diesel from crude oil, will be very restricted in the future. But adapting to that scenario is possible. By the time we reach depletion of that scale the entire world will have changed in many ways. But we can adapt if we plan for it.

    If we don't plan then we get bit big time. I always keep in mind that our ancestors survived and they lived lives much more rigorous than ours. That ability is still within us. We just have to give it time to reemerge.

    To give a little story that describes what I am trying to say. A few years ago in my early 50's I went on vacation and hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. I noticed that my whole reaction to the world changed as I spent all day every day in the woods. When I talked to other hikers doing the same thing they described the same result. An example: almost everyone when they start are very clumsy and trip a lot, twist ankles etc. After a couple of months it just hardly ever happens. When you step on a round rock under the leaves instead of twisting your ankle and falling down you have relearned to so quickly unweight the foot that you hardly even notice that it started to happen. You just wobble a little and move on, rather than picking yourself up off the ground. Your hearing changes, your perception of speed (I still drive much slower now than I used too). Many other old skills from our past surface.

    Given time and the proper tools we will adapt. If we deny the problems and stick our heads in the sand all bets are off.

    Given time and the proper tools we will adapt.

    I recall that Alexander Selkirk, on whom Robinson Crusoe was based, grew so fit during his four years on his island that he preferred to run down goats on foot rather than shoot them. When he was rescued, he competed in games against the sailors and was much fitter than any of them.


    Have you looked at hoop houses? Initial investment is much lower than for a greenhouse. I have two 12x32 houses that cost about $500 each. Covering needs to replaced after three years at a cost of $180-$200 each.


    We are just using different terminology. When I say high tunnel I think I mean the same thing you do when you say hoop house.


    Wow, thanks for writing up your experiences! I'd love to do what you are doing, and hope to do so someday soon. It's kind of funny how many IT/Tech/Eng folks are drawn to agriculture/gardening. My personal thesis on this is that both Ag and technology have the same draws, or attract the same type of mindset. They are both about building systems, while completely different as to inputs/outputs (natural vs man made), they are so similar in process. Anyone else ever think of it that way?

    Let me throw out a comment that I have been thinking on a bit.
    It is likely counter-culture but its the best situation to be in at this point in our nations situation and exactly right where I would most prefer to be..were the clock turned backwards a bit.

    The perfect scenario then:

    To be in my forties. Two boys around 8 or 9 years of age and a daughter near the same.A good wife who was raised in the country. Not a mall shopper.

    Enough cash to buy some good land away from any cities. Say in the Ozark Mountains around Iron County.

    Purchase one good mare and a jack(male donkey) and breed up a couple of work mules.

    Lots of good rock/stone in the Ozarks.Its very inbreed in many parts and people don't like outsiders. Lots of hardwood there.

    Get some good creek bottom ground with a live spring and a running creek. Build my buildings with stone and good oak. Use cedar for fence posts.

    With this I could teach my younguns the necessary work ethics. Marry well and increase holdings as need be. Have enough help to see me thru to old age.

    Run the hills and hollers.Live close to nature.The weather there is perfect. A good hidden small holler and the bad stuff would blow right over you.

    The ozarks sounds weird I know but those who are familiar with it know of its potential and nearby is huge amounts of federal land that I/we used to run thru endlessly. Vast mountains and wooded terrain passed over by current civilization. Almost like another world.

    The Black river and others are or were almost pristine. One could drink out of them. The fishing was very good. We used to snare suckers with baling wire of poles. Deer and turkey are everywhere.

    Just what I would dream of if I were once more in my 40s or even 50s.

    Before I hauled away out of the environs of St. Louis County I looked at a farm of 140 acres that was as good as what I just described.This was in the very late 60s. I was offered it at $45/acre. I should have taken it but my company called and they had no prensence in the outback. Yet...well my close buddy at the time..a part indian/german went ahead and brought such a farm.He lives there now with another wife(my old girlfriend-his previous wife had passed on early) who was also part indian...and is at the dead end of 'nowhere' and quite happy.

    I elected to return to my roots where I presently a abide but its just me and the dogs now. Watching the wheel of time turn slowly and this country burn itself to the very ground.

    Airdale-so..two mules,a good wife,three children,some good land...yes I think you could make it..for in the past many did just that

    PS. For this reason I think children are an absolute necessity for the future. Ones that you book learn yourself.Ones that will stay with you and help out. Ones you can count on. Ones who will help to restart the earth. Who will know the ground and nature and not do what we did. The things we did..a travesty for sure. The sins be on us.

    Wondering if anyone else noticed that little graph on OIL futures on the upper right of the home page of TOD?

    Its shows that last week oil went from around $50 to end up around $30 on friday. Thats amazing to me.It blew thru a 40 percent drop in just 5 days!!!

    Of course it will seesaw around but the bottom is certainly approaching at runaway freight train speed.

    Just that one facet of the global economy looks to be enough to sink many nations. Am I missing something here? What the hell will the MidEast do to survive this if the bottom just goes all to hell?

    The mideast without oil profits seems to me to be a desert with a lot of fancy buildings and little else. Are there even enough camels left to bring back nomadism?

    Likely this post should be on the main DB but most things get smacked down there if you don;t take a numerical/scientific slant on them. Mockery might abound as well for this poor country boy's observation.

    Seems just the price of oil plummeting could lead to a fast rise of a bad moon. And I think that most all predictions of what I have seen are not working out as thought. Its all going south real fast IMO.

    So IMO the idea of creating CampFire was a very good occurrence. We need all the information we can gather and store on our little SD chips for the fast arriving future on track #9. That and a 45 watt panel to power our laptops into some partial phase of PowerDownUSA.

    No more paper. Chipping msgs on stone is not good enough. Words of mouth can disappear. No how did one make charcoal? Mhhhhh. Canning tomatos? Tempering carbon steel?

    One small SD Micro on my Blackberry has 8 gig capacity.I can take videos,store lots of data there. Run it on a PV panel. Same with my ham rigs.

    The Harbor Freight panels are calling to me. I am getting behind.


    Congratulations on doing what many just talk about.

    I grew up on a 10-acre table grape farm in the 50s. We were close enough to town that the electric trolleybus terminus was a five minute walk away, milk arrived at the doorstop on a battery-operated milk float, and a horse-drawn wagon with a semicircular top took away the domestic garbage. (Am I looking at the past or the future?) My father operated the farm as a sideline while he built his legal practice, but even with two permanent farmhands my mother spent many hours in dungarees and wellington boots behind the rotary hoe. My father spent all his free time busy with a to-do list in his hand. (My mother eventually divorced him and married a miner.)

    The life of a small farmer is constant experimentation as prices and markets change. Table grapes are very labour intensive, so when labour became expensive the grapes were taken to the local winery. When that closed down they went to distant winery. That was too expensive so he took some vines out and planted broad beans. Then came the nursery and cut flowers for local florists. Every now and then he would have to sell off a small parcel of land to keep going. It is all residential property now.

    I learned nothing about farming as a child -- my sister and I were regarded as nuisances and shooed away. I am barely able to cut the lawn. But as a result of reading TOD I am going to start urban veggie growing.

    Reading what you have written here I am struck by how much you have to do yourself. I expect with time other people will provide services, such as collecting produce from the farm and processing and marketing it. Maybe itinerant pruners and harvesters. Obviously there needs to be a sufficient amount of farming in a locality to attract them.

    One other thing -- do you have insurance? With that pond and creek, flooding would seem to be a possibility, and of course you have to worry about personal injury. (I'm not an insurance salesman, I'm just asking.)

    Thanks for a really interesting post- I would love to see more like this from similar small farmers.

    It reenforced my belief that trying to make a living growing food for today using techniques that should be sustainable tomorrow post peak oil is a losing recipe. The balance of the cost of land, the market value of the crop, and the competitive value of your own labor are all totally out of whack. If you manage to be fortuitous in your situation (ie relatively rich) and very talented and hard working you can effectively grow tasty organic produce for others who are unwilling to do it for themselves, but it will be at slave labor wages and fail to cover the current market value of the land (and often require supplemental off farm income as well).

    All those traditional farmers of the past, who were far more skilled and had all the necessary resources in place were outcompeted by mechanisation and chemicals for a reason. The reverse trend will only happen in its own time as oil ebbs away again. The faster that happens the more painful the transition will be of course.

    This doesnt answer the question though of how we move forward to an agricultural society that isnt dependent on fossil fuels. For me the solution for now lies in only growing as much food as I can use for my own immediate family. This takes away all the vagaries, expenses and waste of trying to sell your produce on a small scale. Personally I am doing this on a two acre property with my family. My retiring boomer parents covered the cost of the land, and I supply all the oomph and enthusiasm to keep it going. I still work nearly full time, but use my long weekends to reclaim and rebuild the soil and gather crop varieties for trial and small livestock to breed. If I do produce more than we can eat or preserve I prefer to build social capital by gifting or trading it with immediate neighbors. My main objective is to grow knowledge of plant and livestock varieties and techniques, grow cultivated soil, grow community relationships, grow my cooking skills, and to stay as healthy as possible since the medical safety net is not something to depend on anymore.

    I view this process as a form of investment and saving for the future, and I believe I am doing it in a way that allows me to straddle the present world and a possible future one. It also allows me to tap into the resources I have built up when I need them most. I probably produce enough food to sustain one person at present, but could easily scale up to feed the entire family if I lost my job. Likewise it is a resource that can be scaled up to share with the entire community if they were similarly motivated. These scaleable catalytic resources are the most important ones to gather now while things are still relatively normal. But it isnt armageddon yet, so we have to do so in a way that doesnt prevent us from working within the mainstream economy.

    Like anytime in history success today relies on straddling the contradictions of the past and the future,

    Yes, I agree with your comments, it is more-or-less what I'm doing. I'm building up potential capacity, learning techniques and acquiring equipment. But, I'm only producing for family and friends, giving away surplus produce. It just isn't worth going into business just yet with the burden of taxes, regulations and associated cost of sales. I'm not even going to attempt to compete with the ridiculously low prices for farm produce currently in evidence.

    Micro-farming for me is a safety net for when the current system fails. And when it does fail, who you know will probably be more important than how much you have in the bank. So building a local support network is more important to me than building a market for my produce.

    Jim/Wyoming, thanks for great(ly daunting) article.
    You don't mention potatoes (except that you're getting a "potato digger" implement. This seems to me a crucial oversight in your article, because potatoes are reckoned to be unique in (1) requiring a lot less work, (2) a lot less land, and (3) a lot less expertise (you can pretty much just dump them on the ground and they'll grow).
    And (4) they are the only known single food on which people can stay healthy (pending blight catastrophe). These reasons appear to be why the Irish let themselves get so over-dependent in the 1840s.

    They are a bit high on spare-tyre carbohydrates but then that will soon burn off with that heavy labor regime you describe!

    I'm guessing you are just lumping the potatoes in with the "vegetables". Can you provide any further info of how potatoes fit in your picture please thanks.

    Hi Robin,

    Sorry, I guess I should have put a full list of everything I have been growing.

    I grew 2 types of potatoes last year and will have 3 in 2009. By weight the biggest crops I produce are tomatoes, squash (winter & summer), potatoes and onions. I also grew about 100 lbs of dry beans last year and intend to harvest about 200-250 lb of them in 2009. All quantities will be at least double the 2008 amounts if I don't kill everything.


    Another positive of potatoes is that looters would have to come along with a digging tool then dig them up - and most homo mcmodernicus wouldn't know what a potato plant looks like anyway.

    For me the social connections are essential too. Just being able to look your neighbors in the eye, know their name and where they live is a massive safety net. It means you can talk to each other under difficult circumstances rather than taking advantage of each other. My neighbors know they can ask me for help rather than feeling like they need to just take whatever they want.

    One big thing people don't generally appreciate is how critical it is to have the best possible varieties of the best possible crops for your particular space. Some crops grow like weeds, others struggle and get every possible pest and disease, just based on shifts in soil and microclimate. Figuring out what grows well for you, and figuring out how to balance the growth into a diet and learn how to cook it (and like it) all take time. Beyond that even within one type of crop ten different strains will easily give you a ten fold difference in yield. Good genetics are critical to success. And variety trials take a lot of time (and mean lower yields in the mean time). For example I just trialled 30 varieties of potato under unirrigated conditions through a fairly dry spring. In the same area (2 x 4m) they gave from 0.5 to 4.5 kg of tubers. Im picking out the best performers for next year to do a more intensive trial with a little irrigation and mounding up. Im doing this process with a wide variety of tubers, dry legumes and grain crops so I have a diverse genetic base to start out, so in the long run our community has the capacity to grow unirrigated hardy staple crops for sustenance. Vegetables are nice as well, and the most profitable for small intensive plots, but long term they are only a part of a complete diet and are demanding of inputs.

    For me the social connections are essential too. Just being able to look your neighbors in the eye, know their name and where they live is a massive safety net. It means you can talk to each other under difficult circumstances rather than taking advantage of each other. My neighbors know they can ask me for help rather than feeling like they need to just take whatever they want.

    One big thing people don't generally appreciate is how critical it is to have the best possible varieties of the best possible crops for your particular space. Some crops grow like weeds, others struggle and get every possible pest and disease, just based on shifts in soil and microclimate. Figuring out what grows well for you, and figuring out how to balance the growth into a diet and learn how to cook it (and like it) all take time. Beyond that even within one type of crop ten different strains will easily give you a ten fold difference in yield. Good genetics are critical to success. And variety trials take a lot of time (and mean lower yields in the mean time). For example I just trialled 30 varieties of potato under unirrigated conditions through a fairly dry spring. In the same area (2 x 4m) they gave from 0.5 to 4.5 kg of tubers. Im picking out the best performers for next year to do a more intensive trial with a little irrigation and mounding up. Im doing this process with a wide variety of tubers, dry legumes and grain crops so I have a diverse genetic base to start out, so in the long run our community has the capacity to grow unirrigated hardy staple crops for sustenance. Vegetables are nice as well, and the most profitable for small intensive plots, but long term they are only a part of a complete diet and are demanding of inputs.


    Thank you very much for sharing your story with us all. My wife and I have been discussing the idea of purchasing a farm and becoming far more self-sustaining than now. I've been purchasing books on the various subjects related to the farming life (the books will serve only as a guide), and while it seems a daunting task, we're both ready and willing to make the commitment. With a little persuasion, I've convinced a couple very close friends of ours to go in on the deal with us, so there will be 3 or 4 of us tending to it. I'm thinking 20 to 40 acres will be enough for everything we'll need, including animals.

    I'm a bit younger than you (about 10 years), but it was reassuring for us to read about someone in our same age bracket taking the plunge and leaving our fading industrial world behind for a better and more satisfying life.

    I've also been an avid organic gardener of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for a while now, but have kept it to a back-yard level ( I use currently 200 sq ft of growing space. It includes apples, figs, pears, bluberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries for the fruits. The veggies are varied and rotated throughout a season that typically starts in March and goes up through November, which is very nice. In the winter, I can get good production from potatoes and onions, sometimes carrots if I cover them.

    I understand a lot of what your saying regarding soil types, fertilizers, composting, companion planting, etc., and I find it to be extremely rewarding to walk outside and pick your salad from the ground knowing you did it with your own two hands and are confident in the product being completely safe for consumption.

    I have a couple questions I'd like to ask you, so if you, or perhaps someone else on here can answer, I would surely appreciate it.

    In doing my research for this, I've noticed there are lots of resources available for funding and grants that are given to existing farms, but I cannot find any grants or other sources of funding starting one up. Do you, or does anyone on here know of available resources? (I'm looking at the southern Oregon area).

    Also, you made no mention of animals. Do you have a few and find it not worthwhile mentioning in this article, or were you focused on the plant crops this time and will share the animal side of it with us later on?

    If you do have animals, which ones do you find to be the easiest to manage? Most difficult?

    Okay, that's more than a couple questions.

    Hope to hear from you soon and have a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2009.

    David and Keely


    It sounds like you have a lot of good experience already. You should do well if you follow through with your purchase.

    ON the subject of getting grants to help start a farm I know of no such thing. There are lots of ways to get grants for doing practical research on ideas that will make farms more profitable.

    You should talk to your local county extension agent. They will know what is possible as they are normally a required part of any grant process.

    As many would tell you. If you have sufficient land and are trying to be sustainable you need a mix of animals, vegetables and grains. I used to have some chickens and cows, but I have no animals at this time. For the size of my place I think that only chickens and maybe a few goats would actually work. My pond is full of fish and turtles so I actually have a meat supply but it is not really domesticated. And we are over run with deer and geese.

    I strongly recomend finding an experienced farmer to advise you on the best approach for your farm. The extension agents can help too.

    Best of luck. Wyo

    Wyo, I have zero interest in starting my own farm. But I am touched by both your generosity in giving us the original article and your gracious, encouraging replies to people leaving comments. Thank you.

    I can summarize my comments as WOW!

    I own a computer business in NJ and I am at the planning stages of getting a small farm. I was wondering if there is a way to actually come down to VA and get a tour of the farm?

    Thank you,


    I don't havwe any problem with a visit, but that is a long way to come just for that.

    I googled "Organic Farm New Jersey" and a big list of farms came up many of which are probably quite close to you. Folks that are farming like this are pretty friendly. I am sure one of them would let you come by and talk to them for a time. You could also google CSA New Jersey and get a list of farms (might be the same list).

    But if you are going to be in the area and want to visit send me a note and we'll see if we can work it out.

    e-mail is: stridersnowbear (at)

    This is a great article and lots of thoughtful comments. I am going to bookmark it and come back to a lot of the links. I especially am interested in the software suggestions. I am a mac user and have designed my own filemaker database for my small farm but it still leaves a lot to be desired, especially in the planning for seeds and crop rotations. I have a few suggestions of things that really work for us (I am an older woman with a son who is 40 and working with me to develop a small farm for our family's future needs.) We are in Massachusetts so the growing season is pretty short. We grow potatoes and veggies in raised beds. We have turned our garage into a very nice barn where we have a young draft horse in training (she is an SUH - sport utility horse who will be ready to go - we hope - when the SUVs are gone.) Right now, her costs are high (maybe we made a mistake?) but her contribution is huge amounts of manure. We use peat moss for bedding and toss in lime. By the time the "material" comes out of her stall it is pretty good stuff and we are building up the essentially poor soils pretty quickly. We also bed our chickens and dairy goats in peat moss. That material is non-renewable, of course, and we would eventually prefer to build up humus out of ground up leaves. For the time being, it is essential. Peat moss is a good preservative when it is dry, it absorbs tons of water and, when combined with manure and lime, it composts rapidly. Three dairy goats (American Oberhasli), about 20 layer hens, 10 ducks and 52 meat birds for about 12 weeks during the summer provide most food for us and for some neighbors. Goats and chickens are really easy to integrate into a small operation and don't smell or annoy neighbors if you use peat for bedding. Beekeeping and vermiculture round out the "operation." I have planted paw paws, kiwis, mulberries and other minor fruits but none of them produce.
    I know I am loosing money so it is good that I am having fun. In this third year I am loosing less and I think that I might be able to start making a little within two more years. A good farm software package would really help me figure that out. Like many of you, I feel that at my age, my contribution is going to be discovering what works and sharing with the next generation rather than supporting myself. At the moment, I have some retirement and another small business that supports all of this.
    Are there any sites that look, on a state by state basis, at the amount of land it would take for each state to produce a 2,500 calorie diet for all of its citizens? If there is, would you point me in that direction?