Farming the Garden
How small is too small? Depending in what year you asked this question I would have given a different answer.
I came across Permaculture in 2004 while searching the web for ‘intensive growing systems’. I lived in the burbs and only had access to small areas. Many techniques for gardening were attempted as I jumped from garden to garden in my parents and friends yards. Permaculture just seemed to rattle around in my head until 2007.
I was introduced to Joel Salatin, and his book You Can Farm, and I was hooked. Over the following years I read, watched, and researched everything permaculture, gardening and farming.
I met the woman who would soon become my wife in 2011 and we began to search for a homestead. I was interested in the land; my wife, the house. I thought I would need 50 acres to farm but that was so far out of financial reach so we looked for 10 acres.
The land was right but the house was not acceptable (for my wife) so we looked for 5 acres. I could still farm something on 5 acres but it was still too expensive; Okay, so 2 acres?
We settled on .9 acres just outside of the 5th largest city in Canada (where my wife works) and I thought “I can have a great garden!” but, well you can’t farm on .9 acres, right?
I watched the land for nearly 2 years, the flow of water, the access, and layout. I knew when we first saw the property that it had all the bones for a hugely productive space, but I didn’t realize at the time just how productive.
The first two years had a few fruit trees and berry bushes planted around the edge as I dreamed about the future. A dozen laying hens and 4 beehives joined us that first year.
In 2014 I took Geoff Lawton’s online PDC. After studying Permaculture for ten years I thought I had a great understanding of its techniques, ethics and principles. Geoff’s presentation, however, was truly enlightening; for before this I had most of the pieces but couldn’t see the picture.
During the course, the students must assemble a mainframe design; and while it is recommended to choose someone else’s property, most of us of course chose our own.
During the summer and fall of 2014 I dug a pond and swales, planted 50 fruit trees and a few support species, 65 berry bushes, vines, herbs, perennial vegetables. I turned the flattest, sunniest 1/8th acre into raised bed annuals, increased my hives to 16 that year (30 today). I read, planned, dreamed.
Entering 2015 I was armed with optimism, a holistic goal, a business plan, and a mainframe design. That first year of farming I joined two local farmers markets, selling annuals from the 5000sq’ garden, and honey. It was enough to completely pay for all the investments, trees, structures, and earthworks I had performed the year before.
Within weeks of attending the market I was offered and have continued to be offered new hive sites and land to farm. More land than I can currently use. At the end of 2015, my neighbor offered me a 1 acre site of gently sloped grass right across the road from my homestead.
So, for 2016 I invested in more trees and perennials, built a walk in cooler, and have farmed full time. I supplied 10 families (plus my own) and 2 markets weekly for 8 months. I made a profit despite only having 30 hives and 1/3 acres of annual crops; the forest orchard is still young and not producing yet.
The goal is $100,000 per acre and while I am not yet there (I am currently in year 2) I am already ahead of my projections. Daily as I wander the garden, I ‘see’ it as it will be 10, 20 and 50 years from today and realize that as productive as it currently seems, I am barely scratching the surface. Every day I notice ‘the hidden farm’; all the underutilized spaces, the nooks and niches left unfilled, connections unrealized.
The greatest joy is not the direct production of the site, or the realization of a goal. It is not the soil on my hands but rather the cultivation of life; my own and the growing number of species that seem to gather as if drawn here.
I am often greeted by songbirds I am told are uncommon or rare in this area, and the appearance of frogs was rather exciting. Not all denizens have been desired as the earthworks I performed created perfect vole (fuzzy field mice) habitat and their numbers exploded.
I decided to wait and see and the next spring the garter snake numbers grew while the vole population collapsed. Nature always finds balance.
So how small is too small? Well on .9 acres, even as underutilized as the space may be, and as yet unrealized forest orchard production, I am able to produce about 60 percent of our food, and with the addition of the ¼ acre off site, enough to sell for a full time salary.
2017 will see again an increase in hive numbers and more of my neighbours land will be used. Further tree and shrub plantings as well as the addition of meat chicken and nursery stock production. The future does indeed look fruitful.
As the seasons turn to winter here in Canada I have more time before a computer, if you would like to hear more about my business plans, cropping systems or any other topic please leave a comment below.
Shawn McCarty is a Chef, Baker, Butcher and now candlestick maker. Obsessed with food since ‘75 he operates Chickabee farm, a small profitable apiary and market garden located on .9 Acres just outside Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Here he rejects sustainable living in favor of regenerative systems. Permaculture teaches us how to garden and the garden teaches us how to live. Visit his site at www.chickabee.ca or contact firstname.lastname@example.org