Organic Farming on One Acre or Less

Organic farming is possible even with a small piece of land.

bountiful organic farming harvest

Growing vegetables and raising animals for market on a small acreage is doable ... and profitable.

Photo By Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

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Four years ago, I left behind the city life in Los Angeles and later started my own farm in southern Vermont. It turns out that transitioning to the simple life isn’t always that simple, and bootstrapping a farming business is not always a warm and fuzzy experience. It has been a daunting task requiring endless amounts of faith, relentless hard work, creativity, support, and, most importantly, gratitude. Hopefully others will learn a thing or three from my experience.

Raising farm animals

Animals provide so much more than eggs, meat, dairy, fiber and other marketable products. It’s truly fulfilling. After a long day of work, watching the pigs wrestle provides a comforting laugh, and the sound of a rooster crowing as you sip your morning coffee is a comforting resonance that the farmer grows to love.

But, animals also require lots of attention and resources: housing, fencing, heat in the winter, extra water on hot days, plenty of feed, additional predator deterrents, and a multitude of additional needs. Be sure you’re ready to be a responsible animal husband before taking the leap — and don’t take on too much too quickly. My strategy when adding animals to the farm was to be frugal and ensure that each species had a valuable role.

Raising pigs

In the early spring, my main priority was readying the vegetable plot for planting. Pigs do two things very well: plow and fertilize. But I quickly learned that pigs need diligent managing. I used lightweight housing made from 2-by-4s, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe, and a tarp coupled with portable electric fencing to “force” my pigs to work certain sections of the field. I did not follow any specific schedule in terms of rotating them. When the soil looked adequately rooted and the land cleared to my liking, I moved them to a new patch.

In about three weeks’ time, I was able to plow one acre of virgin soil, saving myself countless hours of grunt work and a good chunk of change on fuel needed to run motorized equipment.

Raising laying hens

If I were to raise just one animal on the farmstead, it would be a flock of laying hens. Eggs for breakfast and free fertilizer are just two of the reasons.

For faster egg production, I bought 100 Golden Comet pullets at about 17 weeks of age rather than raise them up from chicks. Pullets cost anywhere between $5 and $12, but they also can save you six months of chores and feed without egg production.

Because I had only an acre to raise my hens, I decided to build a stationary coop from recycled materials and place it in a shady spot. Once again I used a portable electric net to move the ladies to fresh grass as needed and to keep predators out.

As for collecting fertilizer, I created a deep litter method where fresh straw is added to the nesting boxes and the floor of the coop every few days. This creates an added source of heat come fall and will provide a nitrogen-rich compost pile in one easy location. Simply scoop it out, and it can be applied directly to the garden. As time moves forward and the garden winds down, it’s helpful to allow the chickens to roam within the following year’s vegetable plot, eliminating the task of collecting your manure and spreading it.

Raising broiler chickens

April brings snow in Vermont, and I didn’t have a barn, so I turned an unused bedroom into a brooder room. I tacked tarps and old grain bags to the floor and walls, provided a thick layer of bedding, and strung heat lamps from the ceiling. I even rigged up a web-cam so I could monitor and share the growth of the chicks with friends online.

Once they were old enough, I relocated the chicks to fresh grass where they lived in an open-air chicken coop. Once again, using 2-by-4s, PVC pipe, chicken wire and a tarp made it light enough to be moved with just the use of human power. I kept a large electric net around the bird cage and performed a “day range” style of pasturing. This means I let the birds out of their coop in the morning, fed them and allowed them to forage all day, and then pulled the coop forward to provide fresh bedding for the evening hours. Right before dark, I gave them a small amount of grain inside the coop to entice them into their sleeping quarters. This method provides the chickens with a great deal of freedom and forage throughout the day and keeps them protected while they sleep.

After about 12 weeks of happy living, the chickens were butchered here on the farm over a three-day span, saving a great deal of money on butchering fees. When the second batch of baby chicks arrived, the warm weather and a supplemental heat lamp allowed the birds to brood outdoors, resulting in faster growth, a healthier environment, much heartier young chickens, and a happier farmer.

Growing vegetables

Before New England’s last hard frost in May, I had 17 family subscriptions to my vegetable CSA. My goal was to grow as much food as I possibly could on one acre of soil without the use of synthetic chemicals. In February, I placed a hefty $900 seed order and built a greenhouse from recycled windows, which allowed me to get my plants started as early as March. Come early August, I was providing members with 17-pound bags filled with beautiful tomatoes, salad greens, potatoes, green beans, leeks, onions, kale, chard, carrots, fennel, sweet corn, squash, fresh herbs, and fresh-cut flowers, just to name a few.

Organic farming challenges

The beauty of farm life comes full circle only when a series of challenges are presented to the steward of the land. I believe these challenges are merely a part of a grand design that will integrate a farmer with the symbiotic relationships that exist on a farm and create a permaculture. Have no fear, these challenges will make you stronger and wiser, and will force you to rely on your creative strengths. Most importantly, they will inspire you to become a better farmer.

During my first season, I experienced more than my share of challenges. If it was not the drought conditions, it was the pests attacking the squash and potatoes. When I needed eggs the most, the laying hens decided to take a break. The virgin soil sprouted weeds faster than it did vegetables. In the end, the most difficult challenge was the art of managing cash flow throughout the season. One thing became pretty clear: You simply cannot prepare for everything nature has to offer. All of the spreadsheets, advice solicited and books read cannot teach you what hands-on experience can. All you need to do is get out there, face anything that comes your way, and farm.

Hindsight

There are learning experiences in a farming season that you will never find in a textbook, things such as poise, compassion and work ethic, or perhaps the first taste of fresh sweet corn of the season.

Remember to keep it simple. Stress is an integral part of farming; however, to be successful, your mind has to be in the right place. If I did it all over again, I would have started with only the vegetable enterprise and focused on higher yields. My protein and fertility would have come from only a few laying hens to meet my personal needs.

Farming is not an occupation, it’s a lifestyle — a lifestyle that required a fundamental change in the way I lived my life. Surviving Year 1 just enough to know that I will farm again next season somehow feels like a monumental victory in my life.

Read more: Support young farmers and the future of agriculture in You Want to Be a Farmer? 


Tips on Raising Pigs

• For those who opt to buy piglets, I would advise getting them in the later part of spring, especially if you live in a four-season climate. Essentially, fodder crops of beets, squash and radishes as well as garden scraps are an excellent way to pacify pigs and supplement their diets; however, your garden will most likely not be in abundance with surplus until August.

• Collect food waste from local restaurants and grocers. I was fortunate to find a local chef who had staff members save food scraps and place them into buckets for my pigs. Every few days he would either drop them off or I would pick them up. He was in awe when he saw how much food waste the restaurant had accumulated and was happy to get rid of the scraps; I was happy to get free pig food, and the pigs ate well.

• Talk to a local dairy farmer about “waste milk.” Dairy farms, especially during calving season, often have excess milk that never makes it to the bulk tank. Give them a call, find out if they have waste milk — if a dairyman does have extra milk on hand and you can pick it up, consider yourself lucky. There is nothing a hog loves more than a five-gallon bucket filled with creamy, smelly milk. And nothing fattens them up quicker. I would consider bartering pork with a neighboring farmer who can provide waste milk consistently.


Tips on Raising Laying Hens

• Avoid changing type or amount of feed provided to your hens, especially when dealing with young hens.

• Lightweight and open-air chicken coops are great for spring, summer and fall; however, in the winter months, you may consider downsizing your flock by way of butchering for stew hens, and building a coop made to house chickens properly, such as an unoccupied greenhouse in the winter months.

• Be sure to provide adequate space and nesting boxes. This will reduce stress levels and encourage your hens to lay eggs.


Tips on Raising Broilers

• Do not butcher birds when they are scheduled; butcher them when they are ready.

• Be aware of your cost analysis when planning for meat birds — your price per pound should reflect what you invest in grain.

• Establish a market before you raise them. In other words, don’t raise 175 birds if you only have orders for 25 — that is, unless you have enough freezer space to store them and you like eating lots and lots of chicken.


Nuts and Bolts

I am not independently wealthy, nor was I grandfathered into a farm. Knowing that I was going to incur both basic and unforeseen financial expenses, I began looking for assistance early on. For me personally, this was a very difficult task; not because I struggled to find the monetary support that I needed — that came quickly — but because I had to swallow my pride to ask for it.

In the dead of winter and before the farming season was a tangible reality, I secured more than $10,000 in startup capital. Friends on Facebook, fellow small-farm activists, and CSA members in the local community who were looking for nonindustrial food cast a bright light on the dark task of financing my startup venture and chipped in. I was lucky, clever, and undoubtedly blessed to have earned the trust and capital from the kind people who gave to my farm with such benevolence, giving me the opportunity to pursue my dreams — growing food for local community members. Each and every week I thanked my micro-lenders and supporters as my grain bills and general operating expenses demanded more than $4,000 per month. While my farming savvy continued to grow, my bank account continued to shrink as I skated on the thin ice of survival.

It was a hot day in early August when I sat down, took a break from my farming chores and sipped from a cold beverage. I stared at my beautiful garden and admired the rapidly growing pigs as they wrestled one another. I’m not sure if it was quiet desperation or a deep admiration, but I couldn’t help but acknowledge all of my relentless hard work and everything that I had created from ground zero.

Suddenly, reality set in: I was not going to profit in my first season. Moments later, I returned to my afternoon chores with a smile on my face, knowing that regardless of what the numbers might indicate, my first farming season was a success. It was a success because people believed in me, and most importantly, I believed in myself, and one way or another, I was going to continue farming. I knew that a farmer’s success is not measured solely in dollars and cents, but merely his or her ability to persevere.

Year 1 certainly cost me a good chunk of change, probably close to $20,000; however, I walked away with an education I could have never acquired from an academic institution attached to a student loan.


Nathan Winters and his wife, Eliza, run an organic vegetable CSA, and raise and pastured poultry, pigs and grassfed beef at Hill Hollow Farm in New York.  

 

april hughes-spann
10/9/2013 8:23:33 AM

Wonderful article. I really enjoyed it. I am just now (at the age of 46) learning to grow my own food. It's the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. I want to have a large garden and possibly livestock to feed myself and my husband. I don't think I want to try to make a "living" at it, at least not yet. I found out 2 yrs ago that I am highly allergic to MSG and preservatives in food and organic food is a must for me. Growing my own is a wonderful experience. I look forward to more articles and advice on how to do this. Thanks!!


nathan winters
4/15/2013 11:32:40 AM

Thanks for the kind words, Diana and it sounds like you are getting closer to your goals. Keep farming and having faith and it will all come out in the wash. As I am sure you know, the goal is not to get rich but to earn a fair wage and steward the land. Be well. - Nathan


diana boeke
4/14/2013 1:56:04 PM

Your experience closely parallels ours, except we didn't take on pigs... Yep, we were down about $20K the first year, what will all the infrastructure investment. Year two, while we managed to generate $26K in revenue off of our acre of vegetables and 700 day-ranged broiler chickens, once we factored in all the expenses (the new freezer, the farm vehicle repair, the gas for attending a market 50 miles away each week, the non-GMO chicken feed, trucked in compost (because our chickens hadn't created enough yet, though we do have great pasture now!), we were down only about $1000... So maybe this year we'll actually make money! I'm still grateful that I walk to work each day, and don't have to figure out what to wear... Blessings to you. And keep up the gratitude. It keeps us sane.