The Value of an Edible Garden

There have been a bunch of articles on raising food at home this year, perhaps as a reaction to the number of people who are doing so in order to make ends meet. But plenty of us were doing so before the economy fell apart, not just because it makes ends meet but because there are real benefits to raising your own food. Here are some of the benefits I get:

- the varieties I want
- food picked at the peak of ripeness instead of on a market schedule
- food that has not been bruised or dented in handling and shipping
- food that has not had snot rubbed on it at the farmer's market (always, always wash anything that was ever where a child could reach it), or had feces smeared on it in some field processing plant
- food that stores nicely on the vine or tree
- positive knowledge of how my food was raised and handled
- the giddy feeling of bringing in a basket full of food that I raised myself
- food that is considerably cheaper than I could buy it locally

Now just to get this out of the way, don't even bother sending comments that say that food is cheaper where you live, because that just makes no sense at all. I'm basing my economic analysis on the cost of living where I live, not on the potential cost of living in any part of the world. You may have noticed this is a blog about my house. Which is in Alameda, California. I can't save money on milk by buying it in Michigan.

Can you tell I get some really angry e-mail?

Anyhow, back to valuing a home farm. I recently read an online article about the value of home food crops. I thought the exercise was pretty useful. I often think about whether things I do for myself make economic sense. While gardening is a hobby and therefore something I'm willing to spend money on rather than something I need to have work out at a profit, I do wonder if I can save money on groceries by growing or making some of our own food. Since my contribution to the household is supposed to be largely in terms of saving money rather than bringing in income, working out what makes economic sense is what I do much of the day.

And it's a mixed bag, but overall, growing food seems to work out to be a lot cheaper than buying it, even through our CSA box. I think because I'm pretty selective about what I plant, so most of what I have planted is fairly high-value. Depending on how much fruit your household eats, your mileage will vary.

First, our most valuable crop, in terms of cost to grow versus cost to buy, is Asian pears. We have four trees (you need at least two for pollination) and get about 100 fruits in total on the average year (these are immature trees). At the store, Asian pears sell for $2.50 each (yes, that's right, not $2.50 per pound, but $2.50 each); organic ones go for $3.00 each or more. AND those bought fruits are always picked slightly underripe. Since Asian pears will not ripen off the tree like European pears, the ones you buy at the store are never anywhere near as tasty as they should be. The trees cost us $15 each (I bought bare-root and picked them up so didn't have to pay for shipping), and I've spent about $20 in compost and water in the four years since we planted them. So they've paid me back over $600 in fruit, especially nice since I always skimped on Asian pears because of the cost, and now I can totally gorge myself from August through October (guess what I've been snacking on lately).

Then there are nectarines. We have two nectarine trees. Organic white nectarines cost $2-4/lb at the markets, assuming you can find them (white, easy; organic, less so but possible; white and organic, the holy grail, I guess). We get about 10 lbs off each our trees every year. This year so far, we've made 12 pints of canned nectarine halves, 7 pots of jam, and eaten many more fresh nectarines. Having those two trees has paid us $50 over the last four years, and processing the fruit into other products like jam adds to the value.

But the best crop is the tomatoes. Not because they are cheaper than storebought (and oh, yes, they are: tomato seeds end up costing 1-2 cents each, our compost is basically free, and our water is nearly so due to the disastrous foundation job). But because we pick them when they are ripe rather than when they will ship better, so they taste like a completely different kind of fruit. The best tomato is picked off the vine, walked into the house and sliced up to be eaten right away. Basically, you can't buy good tomatoes, not even at a farmer's market. (The ones we get in our CSA box are good, but never totally awesome like the ones out of the yard.)

OK, but what about the chickens? For some reason, there have been a bunch of articles lately about how chickens are total money-sinks and not really all that popular, and chicken-owners could save themselves a lot of time and money if they'd just buy factory-farmed eggs like the rest of you lot.

Consumerist, for example, says that: "If you're just looking to save money, supermarket eggs cost less once you factor in the cost of acquiring and sheltering the hens as well as feeding them. Feed, in fact, eats up pretty much any savings." (To be fair, they're relying on some weird accounting in the New York Times, in which the cost of organic free-range eggs somehow works out to $2-3/dozen instead of the considerably more that they cost in most urban areas.) This is completely wrong for our chickens. Maybe if you keep them in little cages like they do in factory farms -- you know, the ones where the farmers didn't want to have to go to the extra expense of allowing them to have enough room to fully extend their wings, because that would raise the price of eggs -- then your chickens have to rely entirely on feed. Our chickens mostly seem to eat stuff they find on the ground. Worms, bugs, snails and slugs (when they get out into the main garden). They particularly love grass seed for some reason, so the tall grass that grows around the trees in the orchard gets pulled up and given to them to pick apart. They also eat our kitchen scraps. We last bought a bag of feed a couple months ago; they still have more than half that left.

So the math: 2 eggs a day times 160 days is 13 dozen (and a third) eggs. Buying that many eggs at $4 per dozen (you'd pay more for pastured organic eggs, but that's definitely not going to save you money at prices like $8/dozen, which is the cost through our CSA) is about $53. A 50 lb sack of feed costs about $25. In the winter they eat more feed, and produce fewer eggs. I've worked it out that the average is about $2.30 per dozen including all costs, and our chickens live in ridiculous luxury (we could definitely have spent less on their housing). Just try finding even factory farmed eggs in the Bay Area for that little. So even buying locally milled organic feed at an outrageous $0.50/lb, we're getting eggs at much less than the price of store eggs, and ours actually taste good. Not to mention the free work the chickens do on the compost, and how they provide fertilizer for the rest of the garden.

Michele from Garden Rant had much the same thing to say, though I will say she's getting a bargain on those bought eggs if she's only paying $4.50/dozen.

But wait, am I forgetting that Slate says: "To begin with, keeping chickens is a filthy, time-consuming, and expensive way to keep the pantry filled with eggs"? Hmm. Maybe some of these city folk don't realize that chickens and dairy cattle are not the same animals? (Note: there are skyscrapers less than a mile from my house. If you stood on our upper roof you could see the downtown areas of two major cities. Not all city folk are nitwits, but I'm guessing a lot of them have never cleaned a chicken house.)

Our time spent on chicken raising was at its peak when the chicks were babies. With babies you have to change their water daily and refill the feeder daily, and when they are really small you need to change out the towel they're on daily, too, for about a week. After that, they transition to bedding and you just sort of add a bit more bedding to the brooder to give them a clean surface when it gets all poopy. OMG, SO MUCH WORK I DIED. With bigger chickens, we change the bedding in their room once a year. Yes, once a year. It's not as if they spend any time in that room when they have the option of being out. Every now and then I go into the chicken room and scoop some poops out to use in the compost barrel, to heat it up, and it's usually a bit of work to find enough to fill a bucket.

There is some work, of course. About once a week I go and rake the poops in their yard into the compost, and throw a handful of scratch in their room so they'll rake the bedding around for me (never do any work you can get a chicken to do for free). Pre-chickens, I'd turn the compost myself every week or so, but they do it for me, so instead I go in every few weeks and re-pile it. We gather eggs daily. The feeder bin needs refilling every few months. My backyard birdfeeders require more work than the chickens do. As for the filth factor, some people get worked up about anything that gets you a little dirty, but I'm a gardener. It doesn't seem all that dirty to me.

And the last charge, that chicken-keeping is not as popular as it's supposed to be? I'm not sure about that, but I do know that since we got chickens, our neighbors across the street decided to get some too. We have five or six friends who keep a few chickens. I wouldn't say it's the most popular hobby among our friends, but it's definitely more popular than it was five years ago. Mostly what seems to happen is that people see how easy it is to keep them, taste how good the eggs are, and then enjoy interacting with the chickens, and decide to get some of their own. As more people have chickens, more people are exposed to it and decide to get some of their own. Not everybody, of course, but not everybody wants to live in a 130-year-old house with crumbling plaster and some iffy design choices to rework, either.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

posted by ayse on 08/17/09