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  • How many acres could a family of 6 people live off?

    I watched a documentary not long ago on the BBC which was called "A Farm For The Future", and one of the segments of the documentary was an interview with a man called Martin Crawford who had designed a forest-garden. He claimed that if the forest-garden was designed for maximum yield, it could actually feed 10 people per acre. I was quite astonished by that claim - given that it contradicts everything that I've been taught about the possibilities of subsistence agriculture.

    I've been having a heated argument with an organic farming advocate recently about the nature of permaculture. He claims that permaculture is actually an over-hyped "cult" and that it is impossible for one family (of about 4 to 6 people) to even live off 3 acres. He cited an example of when he lived in Nicaragua for a year and helped some families work on their 3-acre plots and he found that some of the children were occasionally malnourished (families averaged 4 to 6 people in total). So he uses that experience against my example.

    Yet...I've seen statistics from governments claiming the following:-

    "A family of four could live ten years off the bread produced by one acre of wheat."

    http://wbc.agr.mt.gov/cons​umers/basics_wheat.html


    Now...if that crop was turned into buckwheat you can get several yields per year, because it's fast growing. Also - if you have a forest garden and space the trees carefully (or just grow in natural oak and birch woodland), you can inter-sperse a variety of root-vegetable crops as your staple diet, grow peas and beans as crawlers, as well as a variety of other things. You could even surround your 3-acre plots with borders of nut tree's. Obviously good food storage techniques would be essential. So, it is possible to live off 3-acres even in a temperate climate without getting malnourished.

    However, the guy I'm arguing with keeps insisting that it's not possible and that you need much more. I'm starting to doubt my own arguments.

    What are your thoughts or experiences?

  • #2
    There is a lot more to do than grow Veg and fruit crops , there is food preservation and storage , seed saving , the list goes on , probably the most critical is planning ahead , there will be crop failures (last season our peas got disease , the previous year we had peas to burn , this can and will happen ) so if your not prepared and have no back up crops , and have no reserves then yes you can go hungry . You could have a ton of crop almost ripe and lose the lot to fire or hail or drought or frost or birds or insects / disease , if your life depends on your crops then everything must go right . A well set up garden / orchard / animal property can produce plenty and 3 acres run to capacity would need plenty of man / woman hours , you would certainly need reliable rainfall and water storage , plenty of permie properties already doing this , there will always be those that say it cant be done , i suspect they either cant be bothered , dont have the knowledge / or are just plain lazy .
    The Ladies used to check me out ---- Now they just keep an eye on me !!!

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    • #3
      Have you heard of bio-intensive agriculture? It seems they are able to get a lot of production from a small amount of land:-

      http://www.growbiointensive.org/

      (The Kenyan initiative is worth checking out...albeit they need more money for outreach to farmers, etc).

      Also - I think a carefully spaced forest garden is far more resistant to drought and heavy rainfall than a conventional kitchen-garden. This is because the forest soil consists of several inches of leaf mould intermixed with clay soil that acts as a big sponge and can hold water far more efficiently than normal soil. Martin Crawford elaborates on this:-

      "Cereals, agroforestry and droughts: an interview with Martin Crawford"
      http://transitionculture.org/2011/06...rtin-crawford/

      It's amazing how little work he puts in per year compared to an annual-vegetable garden.

      The "Greening The Desert" series by Geoff Lawton was also interesting, given that the project that used heavy mulching and composting survived a seasonal drought, whereas the conventional crops did not.

      Comment


      • #4
        ""A family of four could live ten years off the bread produced by one acre of wheat.""

        They're not talking about that being the only thing you eat though (otherwise you'd be malnourished alot sooner than ten years).

        "He cited an example of when he lived in Nicaragua for a year and helped some families work on their 3-acre plots and he found that some of the children were occasionally malnourished (families averaged 4 to 6 people in total). So he uses that experience against my example."

        Were they using permaculture? Either way, one example doesn't prove anything.

        I have no idea about how much land you would need. Doesn't it depend on the land, the climate, the kinds of plants that grow there etc?

        Also, this whole notion of the garden as having four walls is not conducive to humans learning to be sustainable. We are never going to grow all our own food, even the staunchest people import something.

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        • #5
          this comes under "how long is a piece of string", to many variables to say with any certainty, first of course type of soil and average rainfall, also what climate.

          on paper a family may live 10 years on that amount of bread, but how do you keep the bread fresh and edable between crops of wheat? got to calculate in the bad years as well. then harvesting an acre of wheat by hand would need a certain level of stamina, then the husking and grinding.

          and as for fruit trees food forest if you wish, most hard wood fruits only produce a crop once a year, pawpaws and bananas more so but returns can be variable, pawpaw oftgen affected bym that black spot as well as fruit fly and fruit bats, bananas produce variable fruit quality and affected by fruit bats. so to be sure you get a fair share of the food you may have to resort to some form of chemical, unless you can have space i would suggest up to twice what is needed on paper. then there is meat and eggs to calculates in as well. if beef is on the menu tghen the grazing rate is important, buying in food all year gets pretty expensive, also a good way to bring in unwanted weeds.

          better if you can live somewhere and find others who will share produce. i've written a bit of an essay on how i see it, it may help it may not help. the quality of the land is so variable.

          if the land won't support a dam that is hold water then look past it i reckon, keeping moisture in and having good water as the saying goes very important. so you maybe looking at from 40 acres to 100 acres? dunno.

          about the best case scenerio is to be supplementry to varying degree, you will nearly always have seasonal gluts, yep preserving or drying can be done but it is another energy user.

          len
          Last edited by gardenlen; 19-07-2011, 03:28 AM.

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          • #6
            Just double checking what you mean by your question. Do you mean feed 4-6 people off of 3 acres, or grow a crop to sell on 3 acres and make enough money to support a family of 4 to 6? I would say it's easy to feed that many people on 3 acres (vegetarians), and it's not enough acreage make money off of to support that size family.

            It also depends on where you live. If you live high in the mountains and only have 3 months of growing season, it would require canning, drying and freezing to store food all winter. If you have a crop failure in a short growing season, all bets are off. If you can grow something most of the year, it's much easier to keep producing food.

            I have 3 fenced acres that I grow fruits and vegetables to sell in the summer, and we are inundated with leftovers that don't sell, I can them, dry or freeze them. It would be easy to grow enough for 4 on one acre.

            If someone calls Permaculture a cult, they have no idea what Permaculture even is, or how successful it's been around the world. have them look at YouTube farms where growing conditions are tough, Permaculture often succeeds there where conventional farming does not.
            "Life flows on within you and without you"...George Harrison
            ~~~~~~
            Coastal California, USA, Mediterranean climate - no summer rain, a little frost mid-winter

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            • #7
              we grow food for twenty families on a little more than half an acre using the permaculture design Mandala market garden and though it does not produce everything for those families it grows our pluses and legumes to a great degree and three acres could grow wheat and grains.
              Accounting for the things Terra mentions like preserving and interdependence and trade makes it a workable system. Climate and soil will definatly affect the outcome but careful planning and the improvements to soil moisture retention and drainage as well as fertility that comes from the Pc application make it more doable than any other system.
              Purple Pear Farm
              www.purplepearfarm.com.au
              http://www.facebook.com/PurplePearFarm
              Permaculture Education and Community Supported Agriculture
              INTENT-OBSERVATION-INTUITION

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              • #8
                That won't be all the food for those families though surely, even allowing for the grains? What are the main sources of protein and fat?

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                • #9
                  I agree with the the others. There are just soooooooo many variables.

                  But one that gets missed very often is the Experience/Skill level of the practitioners...

                  If you took 6 average city folks and plonked them down on a decent piece of land and that was all they had (even with a good supply of seeds etc), I reckon most of them would starve within months. My guess is that if you took 6 conventional farmers and took away their chemicals half of them would probably struggle to put a meal on the table too. However, if you took 6 experienced and skilled growers and permies and shoved them on that same piece of land they would be up and running reasonably quickly. Even so, In my opinion it takes at least a few years to get a system up and running, and the permies would probably still be pretty hungry to start with, they would be eating weeds and all sorts of things that your permaculture-is-a-cult man would not consider food.

                  You can't take experience and intention out of the equation and get any meaningful result.

                  As for my experience... After nearly 4 years of struggling along, basically doing this myself, with very little capital, a wife and two young daughters. With modest off farm income to keep us ticking over, there are still time when we need to buy in some things. But for most of the year at least a percentage of our food every day is what we have grown. The fruit trees started to give real returns last season and with preserving we have managed to have some sort of fruit for most of the year. If I miss some plantings with sickness, laziness, poor organisation or just plain not enough time to do it all myself, then the vegetable gap is very obvious. Preserving and curing is a big part of it and we are gradually getting the hang of that too.

                  But I look out there and see the fruit and nut trees, I see the Mandala gardens and put my hands in the soil and I think to myself, this spring is going to be a real leap forwards! It's even starting to 'look like a permaculture garden'. This stuff takes time, effort (a lot) and persistence. It requires you to develop experience. It really requires partnerships and communities. If your lazy, angry, dogmatic and overly idealistic the chances are you won't be able to do it with any success.

                  If we don't do it we are screwed anyways.
                  You cannot solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that created it - Einstein

                  www.greentemple.com.au

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by pebble View Post
                    That won't be all the food for those families though surely, even allowing for the grains? What are the main sources of protein and fat?
                    Dairy, eggs. lentils and chickpeas, avacardo, olive oil??, beans, guinea pigs!!cockroaches!!
                    Purple Pear Farm
                    www.purplepearfarm.com.au
                    http://www.facebook.com/PurplePearFarm
                    Permaculture Education and Community Supported Agriculture
                    INTENT-OBSERVATION-INTUITION

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      PP, are you saying that you are growing most of the food, except for grains but including Dairy, eggs. lentils and chickpeas, avacardo, olive oil??, beans, guinea pigs!!cockroaches!! for 20 families on half an acre?


                      Grahame, most permies in my climate would starve in that situation too (maybe it's different in tropical or sub tropical). You can't start from scratch and expect to produce protein and fats in enough quantity to enable physical work within that time frame. What's the quickest source of meat? Rabbits? How long until they produce enough meat and ongoing babies for 6 people?

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Thanks Pebble, Having re-read my response I see that it was sort of pointless.

                        So I have changed my response to the (reworded) question "Can a family of 6 grow enough food to live off 3 acres?". My answer is...

                        Yes. Provided the climate is not too extreme, there is enough water and you know what you are doing.

                        It would however, be a much more satisfying existence if there were a community of like minded people pooling there resources to do so together.

                        Further to that (because for some reason I can't summon up the energy to go out and work right now) I would say that anyone who calls Permaculture a cult, a) has no idea what permaculture is and b) has no idea what a cult is.

                        Don't doubt yourself Hossein and remember that permaculture is much much more than just growing food and self sufficiency. Does the organic dude think he can feed a family of 6 a nutritionally balanced diet on three acres using mono-crops?

                        Tell 'im he's dreamin'
                        You cannot solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that created it - Einstein

                        www.greentemple.com.au

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          no no no pebble that would be over the top. we provide a box of food including seasonal fruit and vegetables for the twenty families we have a house cow and grow lentils and other pulses for ourselves. The cow is on 10 acres outside the half acre garden but the guineapigs are in the garden (they keep the paths mowed) but we don't eat them but could if it became necessary.
                          We have olive trees (14) and avacados in but not yet producing as well as pecans and almonds but again outside the half acre but we do produce peaches apples pears and apricots as well as ten citrus in the half acre.
                          I think that perhaps (if authorities allowed we could provide for most of the needs for our twenty families from our 14 acres and maybe double that when the trees are mature.
                          Purple Pear Farm
                          www.purplepearfarm.com.au
                          http://www.facebook.com/PurplePearFarm
                          Permaculture Education and Community Supported Agriculture
                          INTENT-OBSERVATION-INTUITION

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            I'm looking twice before I tried the crunchy fried side dish when I'm coming to visit. I'd rather feed the cockroaches to the chooks than save them for me....

                            I dunno the answer. It takes years to set up a garden to get it to reasonable productivity. Most fruit trees are going to take between 2 - 7 years to START to yield and may not hit their peak for a long time after that. There's a difference between giving someone a blank bit of dirt and saying feed your self with that mate, and moving them into a village environment where food production had been a way of life for generations and there are established productive plants.

                            I've spent the day at the Yandina Community Garden today. They have an area about 3 regular suburban blocks that has been planted up for 10 years. It would easily feed 2 families of 6. There's chooks - they could keep more but are limited by council regs and can't keep a rooster, but in an ideal world you could probably eat a chicken every week from a garden this size. There's an aquaculture system that would give a fish or 2 a week. You'd need to have a neighbour with a goat or a cow for milk. There's more than enough in the way of carbs and greens in the garden though.

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                            • #15
                              "They have an area about 3 regular suburban blocks that has been planted up for 10 years. It would easily feed 2 families of 6."

                              is this supplementing or total food sufficiency, in a what i would imagine to be a seasonal garden, without intense gardening and a pest management plan that may at least include natural pyrethrum's all take diligence to make sure one gets to eat more than the bugs. there is always peaks and troughs not to mention failed wet seasons and bugs etc.,? mulch getting dearer as is mushroom compost that the farmer once paid to dump.

                              it does take a long time to develop gardens a fruit trees along the way then once productive they need to be kept that way especially gardens, for 2 of us we had 16sq/mts of vege' garden no room for more and all that did was provide seasonal supplements, i buy seedlings and the quality is very variable, so plant losses can be high, then progressive planting starting very early in teh season gives one a kick start but going from late summer/autumn to winter if you plant late may and into june july for brassica the days too short and the night too cold even with much for those seedling to get a kick off, solution might be to plant seedlings into larger pots and keep in warm protected place until they kisk of and recover from teh initial transplant, then plant them out, never tried it but a possibility. same with summer crops plant august into september then a follow up about novemeber december but then gets too hot so stressed plants don't produce so well, ok put shade cloth over garden all costs time and money. netting toms' and cap's a bit of a pain. and mild winters mean the brassica grubes are around nearly all year then.

                              we are on the move back to rural up to 2 acres of 2 much to keep as lawns and gardens and too little to do else with, can't grow beef/lamb/goats, might have to resort to a goat for milk if no one enar by doesn't have a house cow. can't raise chooks for eating as even in the bush yuppie councils won't let you have a rooster so you can't create cockerels for eating. they provide little in the line of services but much in the line of dominating what one does. need to ask why no rooster if we have a night box?

                              as for fruit trees it all comes back to growing what birds, bats and fruit fly don't like, for us that is citrus and that only produces best around now a year. just going to do a couple beds at a time (going to cost now got to raise bed heights minimise bending another variable), always have a glut of citrus in season, so hope ther are other gardeners who want to trade.

                              so the original question si quite a question, no one who ever asked it before has done anything to update the groups on progress or otherwise. might be able to get mulch hay for $50 a roll and mushy compost for $50 a tonne?? going to need absolutely oodles of both, as where we are moving to noted for shaley type eucalypt scrub country grows factory pines well and won't hold water so no dam and no bore as water can be brackish at best and salty enough to for tiger prawns, love prawns but not as a mono diet.

                              len

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