Be a Frugal Farmer

How to use the refuse on your property and in your community to stretch the funds for your farm and create healthy soil, plants, and animals.

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by Jonathan Olivier

I’m gazing at three pigs under the white light of a headlamp. They’re snorting, oinking, and rooting around their new enclosure in the dark after a nearly three-hour drive to get to my farm — they’re already hankering for some food. I’m not too keen on the idea of more mouths to feed, in addition to my chickens and rabbits, but I have plenty of food at my disposal. I swiftly unload a few buckets of spent grain that I nabbed from the brewery down the road, and the pigs rip into the slop.

In early October 2018, I found my swine online for a bargain price — only $100 for a trio of Kunekunes, which are docile, great grazers, and lard producers. I couldn’t pass up the deal, but I also recognized I had already hit my limit with farm expenses. So, I decided I’d only pay to get the pigs to the farm, and everything else would be free. Over the next few days, I made a few more trips down the road to the local brewery to load up more buckets of grain, as well as to a health food store for organic produce. Other than the minimal cost of gas to get there, the hauls cost me nothing.

My plan included building a pigpen in the woods near my home to provide them with plenty of shade during the warm fall in Louisiana. I used free pallets to build the pen. I fed the pigs with spent grain from the brewery up the road and food scraps from local grocery stores. I planned to slaughter the pigs in early December for a Louisiana boucherie, a local tradition where a hog is harvested with the help of the community, and every piece of the animal is used, making dishes such as blood boudin, sausage, hog’s head cheese, and more. This gave me two months to see if my experiment in frugality could feed three hungry swine. When December rolled around, the pigs were as healthy as ever. They had spent a few months basking in the sunshine, being hand-fed grapes and fresh Swiss chard. My experiment was a success — I spent no additional money to feed the pigs in a little more than two months.

Since July 2019, when I broke ground on my market garden, I intended to spend as little money on infrastructure and animal feed as possible. My rationale was a prudent one — with a smaller investment in the farm, my return would be better. I also wanted to be less of a burden on a system that already churns out so many items that only end up in the landfill, and I’d do that by refraining from buying many new materials. When I constructed a shed using wood and tin from an old chicken coop, I filled it with secondhand materials and other items that were headed to a dumpster, such as an old washing machine, shelves sitting near a dumpster, and a dusty sink stored in an old barn.

One of the main reasons I wanted to farm was because I saw it as an act of public service, one that reduces the amount of industrial food grown with petroleum. At the same time, I’m providing my community with options that are nourishing and healthy. Doing so with as minimal an impact as possible, I believe, is the best way forward.

While some of these methods are harder for a large-scale farmer to implement, they’re perfect for the small-market farmer and the backyard gardener. On a more minute scale, quality trumps quantity. You can ensure you’re growing healthy food and animals while keeping money in your pocket and materials out of the landfill.

Enliven the Livestock

I’m lucky enough to have a craft brewery not far from my house, which is great considering that I live in the country, at least half an hour from the biggest town. I contacted the folks at the brewery when I first bought my chickens, and asked if I could pick up a few buckets of grains a week. They welcomed my idea, since, like most breweries, they would otherwise have to pay to get the spent grains hauled off. So, call your local brewery and tell them you’re a farmer interested in picking up spent grains. Talk to them and establish a mutually beneficial relationship.

Brewery grain shouldn’t be the sole food for your cattle, poultry, or hogs. However, it’s great to mix in with other food sources. The grain is typically wet — about 80 percent water by weight — but the solid matter is around 20 percent protein. Brewery grains are typically barley, and they contain plenty of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Mixed with other food sources, such as purchased grain, leftover vegetable matter, and other surplus food, it’s an excellent addition to your animals’ feed.

For my chickens, I mix brewery grains with other grains that I purchase — the additions are often pretty minimal. Also, I take advantage of food waste from local health food stores that have organic options. Contact the manager of the store and ask if they’d be willing to let you pick up any food waste — sometimes this is produce that’s older but still edible for your animals, and other times it’s scraps they’ve cut in the kitchen.

Food waste from the grocery store is more of a treat than a staple of my farm animals’ diet. Often, my pigs get huge boxes of kale, chard, and turnips that they gladly devour. Occasionally, it’s grapes and bananas, in which case I limit how much they eat. If any of my supply begins to spoil, I simply toss it into my compost pile, which will later feed my plants.

In this country, as much as 40 percent of the food we produce is waste, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So, by taking a grocery store’s unwanted leftovers, you can also make a dent in an otherwise steady flow of usable food that goes straight to the landfill.

Fretless Fertilizers

I like to take cues from the old days, the ones my grandparents still talk fondly about. When they were growing up, at least here in southwest Louisiana, chemical fertilizers hadn’t yet infiltrated farming circles. Instead, folks were still using animal manure to enrich the soil in their fields. They grew grain to feed the animals, and then spread that manure in the gardens.

Despite farming without harmful chemicals, I was still at the whim of the feed store for blood meal, kelp, and molasses to make compost tea. I wasn’t sufficiently channeling the ways of the old-timers. So, I bought a flock of chickens and a few rabbits. I feed them on a mixture of purchased grain, food waste, and brewery grain. To cut down on feed costs further, I pasture my chickens and rabbits.

A few times a week, I collect their manure. Since chicken manure must break down before it’s used in a garden, I toss a bucketful into my compost pile. As for the rabbit manure, I like to bury it in the soil when I’m transplanting, or let the pellets break down in the compost. Slowly, I’ve been able to reduce my need for store-bought fertilizers. The results have been stellar — I’ve noticed healthier plants.

Make no mistake, relying on animal manure to fertilize a garden, even a small one, requires volume. So, it may not be possible to completely cease buying inputs to fertilize. But every bit you can reduce is beneficial. In addition to reducing store-bought fertilizers, making your own compost can enhance the health of your garden, and it won’t cost you a penny. Inputs such as kitchen scraps, animal manure, and debris from the woods create excellent compost. I began tossing these in spent brewery grains, which are an abundant and free source of nitrogen, and my compost piles have flourished. With a hot composting method, you’ll have a finished product in only a few months.

Community Collaboration

Getting to know my neighbors has been one of the best things for my farm. Not only have I made close friends, but I’ve also received more free supplies than I know what to do with, including chicken waterers, scraps, and old tin. Since I was unwilling to purchase new equipment when I was starting the farm, I had to get creative in finding construction materials that saved me thousands of dollars. For example, I built a chicken feeder out of old 2x4s, reused PVC, and aluminum gutters. Not long after, I tore down a chicken coop at my grandparents’ home, and I used those materials to build a shed near the garden. I snagged pallets from around town to build the pigpen.

Reusing materials is in direct conflict with a new trend I’ve noticed among small farmers today, many of whom tout their regenerative practices, but buy brand-new supplies. Plenty of companies offer shiny new tools and gadgets that can either be built for pennies or are unnecessary. It seems like the capitalistic mindset that long ago infiltrated corporate agriculture has even begun to root itself in small-scale, regenerative farming. By reusing materials, we can help to reduce the strain on a wasteful system, which is better for both the environment and your wallet. Save a few thousand dollars on your next shed by reusing materials, and you can use that money on next season’s seeds.

Fermenting Grains

Any grain I purchase is fermented before I give it to my animals, because that’s an excellent way to increase the available nutrients and to keep your animals healthier. According to a 2015 study led by Joris AM Missotten, fermented food increases the digestibility of crude protein for pigs, which means you get more bang for your buck. Also, the authors of that study found that fermented liquid feed is “one of the most effective feeding strategies to replace the use of antibiotic growth promotors.” The feeding technique reduces the pigs’ stomach pH, which prevents the spread of Salmonella in the gastrointestinal tract.

Getting started is easy. Simply take some grains, such as barley, and mix them in a bucket with rainwater, or any water that doesn’t have chemical or mineral additives. Cover the grains completely, leaving 1 foot of space, because the grains will expand during the process. Stir the contents a few times every day to introduce oxygen to the microbes. Over the course of a few days, as the lactic acid bacteria and yeasts begin to grow, you’ll see bubbles forming, which is the buildup of acetic acid, lactic acid, and ethanol. After four days to a week, the mixture will be ready to give to your animals. You’ll have to feed them fewer fermented grains than you normally would with a dry mixture.

With all of these techniques used in tandem, starting a farm or bountiful backyard garden is simply more attainable. Newer isn’t always better — and sometimes the old way is the best way.

Jonathan Olivier is an independent journalist who primarily writes about the environment and how humans interact with the natural world. His work has appeared in Outside, Backpacker, Mother Earth News, and other national publications.

  • Updated on Jun 6, 2022
  • Originally Published on Jun 16, 2020
Tagged with: budget farm, farming on a budget, frugal farm