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What’s a Home Garden Worth?

Mar 02, 2009
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With the global economy spiraling downward and Mother Nature preparing to reach upward, it’s a good question to ask and a good time to ask it.

There isn’t one right answer, of course, but I’ll give you mine: $2149.15. Last year, my wife Jacqueline suggested to me that we calculate the total value of the produce coming out of our garden over the course of the growing season. Initially, the thought of doing that was about as appealing to me as a recreational root canal. I remember replying something like: “OK, so let me get this right: in addition to raising three busy boys, managing two careers, volunteering in a school garden, and growing most of our own produce, you’re proposing that we weigh every item that comes out of our garden, write it down in a log book, and spend a few leisurely evenings doing math?” Jacqueline, an economics major in college and a native French speaker, answered with a simple "oui" and so the project began.

There was a lot of work involved, mostly for Jacqueline, but as with gardening itself, it was work with a purpose. It didn’t take long for our log book to start filling up with dates and figures. Although we started eating our first garden salads in late April, we only began recording our harvests as of May 10th, starting first with greens and asparagus. Our last weighable harvest was two weeks ago in the form of a final cutting of Belgian endives forced from roots in our basement.

By the time we had finished weighing it all, we had grown 834 pounds and over six months worth of organic food (we’re still eating our own winter squash, onions, garlic, and frozen items like strawberries, green beans, and pesto cubes). Once we had the weights of the 35 main crops we grew, we then calculated what it would have cost us to buy the same items using three different sets of prices: conventional grocery store, farmers’ market and organic grocery store (Whole Foods, in our case). The total value came to $2196.50, $2431.15, and $2548.93 respectively. For the other economics majors and number crunchers among you, you can see our crunchy, raw data here:

There are things we didn’t include like the wild dandelion greens which we reaped but did not sow, the six or so carving pumpkins which we ultimately fed to our compost pile, and the countless snacks of strawberries, beans, peas, and tomatoes that never made it as far as our kitchen scale. There were also things we forgot to weigh like several pounds of grapes which turned into about 12 jars of jam. As with any growing season, there were hits and misses. The heaviest and most valuable crop was our tomatoes (158 lb/72 kg for a total value of $524). In terms of misses, our apple tree decided to take the year off and very few of our onions started from seed made it requiring me to buy onion plants.

On the cost side, we had $130 for seeds and supplies, $12 for a soil test, and exceptional costs of $100 for some locally-made organic compost we bought for our “This Lawn is Your Lawn” frontyard garden (normally, we meet most of our soil fertility needs through our own composting). I don't have a scientific calculation for water costs, but we don't need to water much and, when we do, water is relatively cheap in Maine. Also, I mulch my beds pretty heavily to keep moisture in and weeds down. Let's say $40 in water. So, if we consider that our out-of-pocket costs were $282 and the total value generated was $2431, that means we had a return on investment of 862%. The cost of our labor is not included because we enjoy gardening and the physical work involved. If I am to include my labor costs, I feel I should also include the gym membership fees, country club dues, or doctors’ bills I didn’t have.

If you really want to play around with the data, you can calculate how much a home garden like ours produces on a per acre basis. If you use the $2400 figure and consider that our garden is roughly 1/25th of an acre, it means that home gardens like ours can gross $60,000/acre. You can also calculate it on a square foot basis which in our case works out to be roughly $1.50/ft2. That would mean that a smaller garden of say 400ft2 would produce $600 of produce. Keep in mind that these are averages and that certain crops are more profitable and space efficient than others. A small garden planted primarily with salad greens and trellised tomatoes, for example, is going to produce more economic value per square foot more than one planted with potatoes and squash. We plant a bit of everything because that’s the way we like to garden and eat.

Clearly, this data is just for one family (of five), one yard (.3 acre), one garden (roughly 1600 square feet), and one climate (Maine, zone 5b/6), but it gives you some sense of what’s possible. If you consider that there are about 90 million households in the US that have some sort of yard, factor in the thousands of new community and school gardens we could be planting, this really could add up. Our savings allowed us to do different things including investing in some weatherization work for our house last fall that is making us a greener household in another way. Some might ask what this would mean for farmers to have more people growing their own food. The local farmers I know welcome it because they correctly believe that the more people discover what fresh, real food tastes like, the more they'll want to taste. In our case, part of our savings helped us to buy better quality, sustainably-raised meat from a local CSA farmer.

The economics of home gardening got a big boost this past year based on the experience of one small, but very prominent home garden: the one at "America's home" i.e. the White House.  Statistics from that garden show that the Obamas and White House staff were able to convert an initial out-of-pocket investment of $200 into over a half ton of fresh, chemical free produce.  Imagine the savings the country could make if millions of Americans followed their example this growing season.  

In the end, it might come down to the language we use. Instead of saying "Honey, I'm going out to the garden to turn the compost pile", perhaps we should say "Honey, I'm going outside to do a 'green job' and work on our 'organic stimulus package.'” I bet that would get the attention of a few economists, if not a few psychologists!

--- This article and the accompanying photo may be reproduced. Please reference Kitchen Gardeners International as the source with a link back to our website. Thank you.

Comments

I love, love, love this article! This is the first year I've started to keep track of my garden production but this is also the first year that it's my full time job. Every quart bag of fruit/veggies I put in the freezer has the grocery store frozen equivalent price written on it and it's recorded in a log. The cost of fresh food at the store right now is pretty low in comparison to the cost of the freezer food. I love the way you include the value of the health benefits! Instead of doing an hour of yoga at the country club as in previous years, I now do side lunges, stretches, and breathing while I'm picking green beans, weeding, or tying the tomato plants to stakes. I call it Garden Yoga/Pilates. I have 600 sq ft of growing space, not including walkways and I can't wait to total up the value of all the produce at the end of this gardening season. But the financial, emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits are probably much more than we can ever actually measure!
Great article. Reminds me of my work in minifundios in Latin America where every small production IS important and must reported if one may have an idea of the exact economic situation. However, some costs are not included, such as tools and other materials. Even without indicating the cost of labour, it would be interesting to know how much hours do you need to grow all that. Even more, do you rent your garden, or do you own the place? Maybe you still have a loan? It's a great piece of calcultion, but I feel it should be deepen to have an even more precise picture.
Great article ... I'm interested in the same thing over here at Ecology Action and did some work on a theoretical garden using GROW BIOINTENSIVE which shows similar gross revenue figures ($60K) but on half an acre: http://growbiointensiveintern.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/grow-biointensive-income-calculations-from-a-500-square-foot-mini-farm/
love the article. I have a very small backyard and this year i found a garden buddy. he owns the backyard, i do the planting, weeding, he waters sometimes. |Since it is year 1, we have small harvest of bush beans. And the engineers in us said: that's not economically sound, an hour of labor maybe for a pound of beans? Me, the gardener said something like - its free therapy, tomatoes and beans. You don't really find that combo in the grocery store? we laugh. Back at my own home, 3 pots of bush beans have very big harvest -- just because i watch it like a hawk (water, fertilizer, light)...whereas as my garden buddy's backyard, it does not have the same care effort. Big efforts, big harvest I say - I don't know if Law of Diminishing returns applies. i just said, next year it will be better harvest. glad you did the math. LOL, I was about to start weighing my eggplants, beans, cucumber, bitter melon. My cucumber (miniature white from SSE) does not reach my kitchen, kids pick and eat...the joys of owning a produce depot! thanks again. angie
I love your chart; I start out weighing and tracking my productivity but somewhere along the line it gets forgotten. I think even if I only track part of what comes from the garden I will still see a great savings. I like how few trips we need to make to the grocery store.
I'm not anal enough to do a spreadsheet for every crop when I grow about 35 different veggies each season. But I haven't bought fresh or frozen vegetables for 4 months, and won't have to buy any for at least 3 more. There are enough tomato products preserved and stored to get me through December. And 6 rabbit meat meals vac packed. I'm pretty set (pantry wise) until the fall/winter stuff is ready for their first eating. Standard vegetable breeds do the heavy lifting. Heirloom and special cultivars are fun but NOT cost effective. They seem to require MORE of everything. Including the learning curve, garden worries, and labor Starting a food production garden is expensive on the front end. Raised bed (and container) gardening have even higher start up costs. IMHO getting the soil productive without a manure source can mean a financially null sum season. For instance, I'd need about 100 bags of black cow (@$4.99 a bag to lay a 2" layer of the stuff on my existing beds. I love chicken and rabbit shit. I think about my food production this way. Does the vegetable PAY FOR ITSELF? For example: I loooove edamame. I used to buy them at $4.99 an 8 oz bag as a treat only. I can now have them whenever the snacking urge hits. Nobody else was really interested in buying them from me, but I’m satisfied with the pay off. I can sell enough of the produce (I'm talkin' to YOU tomatoes) to make most veggies pay their way. And yes, I do lose money & labor value on different fancy pants vegetables, except that this past season we discovered we really, really liked those yard long beans. They are a vertical grow and take very little prime garden real estate. And can be companion planted with leafy salad greens. Every season I add something new to me. Leaning more to food staples and easy to preserve vegetables. Black Eyed Peas, peanuts, pidgeon peas were the biggies. Even if they don’t pay their way money wise, I’ll have the skill set to grow them successfully It's more about subsistence than finance. As food prices rise, the vegetables we grow become more and more valuable.The 'payoff' more satisfying. about a minute ago · Like
Amazing what comes out of that little garden of yours. Imagine if you used the whole backyard. I'm guessing that would be like $15000!
Just discovered your site through StumbleUpon. I have a similar size garden in Georgia and did the same economics experiment on my garden in 2012. Similar results although my blueberry bushes won the prize for most economically productive. About half of my profits came from blueberries. I also found bell peppers to be very profitable. So glad someone else is nuts about this too!

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