How Much Land Do I Need to Grow All of My Food?

Hi all

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

Deano

16 thoughts on “How Much Land Do I Need to Grow All of My Food?

  1. Mrs Squirrel

    Its a difficult one for sure and as you say very little literature

    we have started a list of what we eat during the course of the year and worked backwards instead. 365 onions 52 cabbages 150 leeks …………………………..you get the picture.

    Sadly we dont have the room for staples such as rice or flour so will buy organic where possible

    John Seymours book the ‘fat of the land’ is a good (semi autobiographical) read for what is needed to grow animal feed too…..and quite funny too

    Shaz

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Sharron
      You didn’t say what your conclusion was, in relation to the amount of space that you would need, nor whether you were trying to provide all of your food, and compost materials.
      See you on Saturday
      Deano

      Reply
  2. Sue

    It’s an interesting question isn’t it?

    Martin Crawford reckons that a 1 acre forest garden should be able to feed about 10 people. This seems to stack up with what Jeavons suggests.

    I haven’t read the Jeavons or the Fukuoka books yet, but they’re on my reading list. It’s a good point Jeavons makes about not using any one single approach to growing food to the exclusion of all others. I guess it’s always been good advice not to put all your eggs in one basket!

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi again Sue
      It’s one thing to say that it should be able to…., but I’d like to see it demonstrated. The Jeavons book is a really useful starting point, even if you never use his bio intensive methods, as he establishes the thought that you need to grow biomass rich crops, calorie rich rops, and and then the rest. Have just finished reading The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman, and there is more to think about in there.
      I think the final, and most important part is to do it, and learn from that experience. That’s why I’m doing my experiments, to see what works for me, here, and now.
      Good Luck with your reading
      Deano

      Reply
  3. Mrs Squirrel

    Sorry Deano , i reckon we could manage on an acre especially if it has an edible hedge as a boundary, this would also enable us to keep birds for eggs and meat and possibly a pig too…………………………….all theoretical at the moment though but we have just been offered a place through the Landshare scheme 🙂

    Reply
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  6. Jo

    Hi Deano
    Energy in and energy out… Does the amount of time and energy I put in affect the outcome? Yes it does. So the next question is how do we measure yield?
    After flicking through the Jeavons book when I last saw you I did comment that i should be able to increase our food production here – by looking at some of his suggestions – but to do these I need the “time to work the land” – as I don’t have that I accept a lower production at the moment….
    Sorry to answer a question with a question.
    Hope all well.
    Jo

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Jo
      I didn’t reply straight away, as I wanted to think about what you wrote.
      Energy. Most of the energy needed is solar, and biological. Not all of the energy needed is your own. I agree that you might need to put more time in, to get more out, but some of that is not repetetive, and some of that time may be best spent thinking.
      I know that your time is short, and that your available space is limited, but I also know that if there is a way to do things more efficiently, you will find it, once you decide that you want to.
      Wishing you all well

      Deano

      Reply
  7. Susan

    Wonderful post that gets me thinking.
    We live on our boat and I am thinking about how to grow as much of our food as possible on the smallest amount of space. This is a good start on that topic.
    Thank you,
    Susan

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Susan
      Thanks, and good luck. There has been some really good work done on growing food in small spaces, so I’m sure that you’ll find plenty of good ideas. Perhaps you could let me know how you get on?
      Deano

      Reply
  8. stevegreen

    Reblogged this on Dorset Odyssey and commented:
    Just up my street this one, thanks and I’m going through the same process though we have only 140m2 so need to go for the high yield/cost plants. We also need to balance some of our time against working. Anyway lots to think about but it’s a pleasurable puzzle to have

    Reply
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