I’ve been looking at the question of how much land we need to grow our own food for some time now, but the question is not an easy one to answer, or find answers to. Whilst thinking about the problem, and during my research, I’ve also thought about how our ancestors lived, although that is obviously from an English perspective. The post doesn’t give a definitive answer to the question, so I’m deliberately not going to put too many tags into it, so that it isn’t accessed by too many people looking for hard facts. I have often thought that our ancestors, here in England, must have worked long hours, on extensive plots of land, to feed themselves, but I’m not so sure that this is the case. My thoughts are inluenced by the size of agricultural fields now. If a loaf of bread needs 1 sq meter of wheat to be grown, then two loaves of bread a day, can be grown on a piece of land that’s less than 800 sq meters, or 1/5 of an acre.
In The One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka writes that using his method of Natural Farming, one or two people can care for a quarter acre of rice and Winter grain, in just a few days a year. He also writes that with good yields, achieved through his methods, this 1/4 acre field will support 5 -10 people.
In How to Grow More Vegetables, John Jeavons, states that it may be possible to grow all of the food, and all of the biomass for the soil,on as little as 4,000 sq feet per person. A rough conversion puts that as about 400 sq meters, or 1/10 of an acre. That equates to a space that is only 20 meters, by 20 meters. Add in some space for paths, and we get about 1/8 of an acre per person. My own experience suggests that this should only take a couple of hours a day to maintain, which is not bad.
What I like about both books, is that although they seem to advocate completely opposite approaches to food production, they both stress the need for feeding the soil, and have strategies for doing so, from within the allocated space. If there is the ability to import fertility, perhaps by collecting leaves, bracken, pond weed, weeds, etc. then it should be possible to use even less space.
It was the import of fertility that led me to wander off track a little, and think about the English peasant. The hard work was probably more to do with feudalism, and the church, than the need to feed oneself. They had to work for their Lord for a certain number of days, not work on the Sabbath, and give a tithe (one tenth of their produce) to the church as well. What they did have was the ability to forage, and feed livestock,on the common land. This would have been a source of free fertility, as well as food. Shame that every time that the common man started to get comfortable, somebody else shoved him/her back down by moving the goalposts. Feudalism, the Enclosures, the mechanisation of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, all kept the working man working for somebody else, as well as himself.
To return to the original question, and how does Permaculture fit into this? Well I’m not really sure. I’ve not seen any research that measures yields, and compares them with yields of conventional/unconventional growing methods, and as there isn’t a “Permaculture Way” of growing, it would be nigh on impossible to do a comparison. I would like to think that a system with a significant proportion of perennial plants, stacked in layers, would outyield a conventional system, but I wouldn’t want to bet my future on it. That is one of the reasons why I’m still deliberating on how to grow my food in the long term. Jeavons writes that ‘using a single agricultural approach to grow food would be unhealthy’, and that it would probably need to be a sustainable collage of Biointensive mini farming, agroforestry, no -till Fukuoka growing, and others. I suspect that this will have to be my approach. Avoiding a one size fits all mindset, should keep me from a ‘monoculture of the mind’.
So how much land will it take to grow my own food? Even taking into account the differences in climate between Japan, California, and Lincolnshire, England, I would hope that 1/2 an acre would feed the two of us here. Once the trees in the Forest Garden, and the coppice start to produce fruit, and nuts, I would expect to need less of the intensive growing space, and to be able to steal some of the fertility from the outer zones, to add to the intensive vegetable growing spaces. What that figure doesn’t include is the space that we need to grow fuel, to heat a conventional, energy inefficient home.
All of the best