How Much Can One Person Grow?

willametteJanuary 11, 2010

Howdy all, this is my first post but I've been reading this forum for a while now. I've been doing urban tree work for 2-3 years now, but I want to move into farming. Nearly done with my AAS in Horticulture and I'm planning on doing a full-time organic farm apprenticeship for a year or two starting this spring. Horticulture is my second career, 36 years old, worked in education and editing previously.

I'd like to know what folks think is the maximum one person can do by themselves in terms of acreage. I plan on growing organic and intensively, but I also plan on using tractors and other machinery as much as possible as well as hoophouses and greenhouses. I'd like to minimize the amount of labor I have to hire (preferably none at all). I'd be interested in growing veggies, fruit, nuts, and/or nursery products.

Most of the lit I've read say that one person can only really intensively cultivate one acre of veggies, but not sure if that's hand or tractor cultivation. Is it possible for one person to make a living on one acre? I'm thinking I'd like to try the CSA model, but most sources say 20-30 shares is all you can get from an acre, and that isn't enough to pay the bills year round.

Guess I'm not getting how small-scale intensive organic farming is financially feasible. Any insights? I'd really like to do this full-time.

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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

It depends on what crop you are growing. If you are growing 1 acre of sweet corn or 1 acre of green beans. The sweet corn would be easy, the beans not so much. I am assuming you are going to grow a variety of produce. I don't have a tractor, I am a teacher and I garden/farm on 1/2 acre and double crop it all. Next year I will have 3,000 square feet in high tunnels and I don't have too much problem with it. I do get some help from my family, but 95% of it is all me.

I would say an acre would be doable, but you will be working 6-7 days a week. What about marketing?

You could probably gross $40-$50 thousand off an acre, if you are growing high value crops and extending the seasons with tunnels. This would also include selling at retail prices and not at wholesale. I have some data I picked up from a conference, from an established organic farm in Arkansas that had about $49,000 in sales last year.

They had about 1.5 acres and had some additional help.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 9:25AM
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I grow 8 acres, and I hire help, help isnt a bad thing, it enables you to do more, they dont replace your enjoyment and satisfaction of doing the majority of the work yourself, if you hire stay at home moms, and retired people, offering them flexibility, modest wages, (stay at home moms are great help, part of thier wages, that they value the most, is a share in crops, they value healthy food for thier families. You just provide them flexibility for thier families, the ability to bring thier kids, older kids equals more help, plus moms are perfectionist) This help usaly is only needed part time, at peak times, like summer sales. One of the moms that works here is convincing me to let her help my wife to take more of our crop to the farmers market for a higher return. And that got me thinking that would be a great use of stay at home moms, to man market stands, allowing one to stay and work on the farm (what I prefer) and enjoy higher prices for crops. I have found good help is an asset not a liability. Help pays for itself times ten. Retirees are another overlooked resource, with the economy and rising cost of medical care, and plain boredom , retirees are looking for part time work , and work that allows them to work at thier own pace, and not have a teenage kid bossing you around, at least thats what the two retired fellers I have working for me say. So Id advise you to look into having some help, the added production, and the ability to have others to help with repetitive task, like weeding, is a great asset. Just remember that retirees and moms like to be shown they are appreciated, Christmas cards are a big deal to them, so is the privledge of taking home extra produce, free pumpkins for the kids, and eggs for breakfast.
And then hiring help is a good way to give back to the community, it helps revitalise your communites economy, it may not seem like much, giving one ore two or more people a job, but the math that explains the impact of the extra taxes, the employees spending, it shows it does make a difference. The tobbacco buyouts were another nail in the coffin to rural communities. Tobbacco farms were labor intensive and provided many part time jobs to neighbors. Here in tobbacco country, southern Indiana and south, the ag dept, is trying to convert old tobbacco farms to labor intensive crops, like vegetables, and pastured poultry. If they can they hope to return those part time farm jobs, it has finaly been noticed how important those part time jobs were. Before it was thought , those jobs dont contribute, jobs that pay only from 2000-10000 dollars a year. But they were wrong, those jobs were taken by moms, a second job for dads, a part time job for retirees, or even teenagers. They were the boost that kept many rural town alive, even if barely. Most time dad works 20 or more miles away, and his taxes are paid in another town or county. So realy give hiring help another thought.

1 Like    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 10:50AM
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We had help last year, only the family, and it really helped alot. We are both in our 50s and are finding things are not getting easier. We also were working with a garden tiller, not a large one and not a tractor full-time. We rented a Kabota sized tractor 1-2 times to major till all the plots. Yes you, as an individual, can work one acre, possibly 2, without the help of tractor. We are attempting 7 acres this year with the help of an old tractor and disc.

We are not expecting much help from the family, each kid going their own way more. All help will be appreciated.

We put our garden in as plots, approximately 50x 100 size. We found that 50' is all we want to be pick, especially green beans, at one time. So image 7 acres split up into 50x100 plots with areas between the plots wide enough to drive a pickup between. We pick to the end of the row, leave that box/basket, then pick up an empty at that end and start back on next row. After picking a few rows, whoever needs a break, takes the truck and drives around the plot and picks up the full boxes/baskets. Next time the other person does it. We do try to keep a moist cloth to cover the picked items if they are sensitive to heat loss (beans). I'm hoping that the grandkids can help with this step, since they have 4-wheelers. Grandkids will be 8 or less. They do like to help plant, but not so much with the picking.

Josh, definitely go to the farmers market with at least some of your leftovers. Think of it as a break time.

I know one fellow that hires the mental handicapped in his area. If he can teach them to pick tomatoes, that is what they pick. And they are very happy to be useful.

1 Like    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 11:50AM
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phantomfyre(z5, N. IL)

I often enjoy threads like this, but must say I am really appreciating the information/opinion about hiring help. Eye-opening and thought-provoking. Thank you, Josh and myfamilysfarm!

    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 3:13PM
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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

My brother in law is mildly mentally handicapped. He lives in town and comes out and helps me during the season. He has been a real life saver from time to time. For example, when I was at market 45 miles away and a storm was coming towards our farm. I was able to call him and have him drop the sides and shut the doors of the high tunnels before the storm arrived.

He also does a good job at particular tasks.

How much to you guys have to pay to have employees? I have heard that it costs a lot in taxes and insurances to have employees.

Just wondering.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 3:26PM
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Employees on a farm only cost you the employer's
portion of the FICA and medicare tax. this is 7.65% of their gross pay. Insurance requirements vary by state.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 4:14PM
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As an employer you also need to pay Unemployment tax, I think that's about 2.7%, or it was way back when when I was studying Accounting.

My kids work for a portion of the profits, if the farm doesn't make a profit, they don't get anything. Last year, we had the 3 kids/families plus hubby and I. We used 20% each. Each family had a portion plus 1 portion for overhead (seeds, fertilizer, supplies and such). Downside, not everyone worked the same amount, one more than another. One works faster and gets more done than another. One works the stand, while another prefers working in the fields.

Still haven't figured out how to make it 'fair'.

I'm still trying to decide what to do this next year. Maybe keep track of hours and pay accordingly. Trying to determine how much each person will get is driving me nuts. Any ideas???

    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 4:53PM
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dirtdigging101(7 - NC)

It all depends on the model you use. I have gardened since I was 7 years old. And two things are for sure it has to be fenced and irrigated. the more intensive you are less fence and irrigation you need but limits the use of the tractor. And that land costs money to buy or lease, bigger pieces of land tend to be farther from the markets. And before you plant one thing, how in the world are you going to sell ian and what will be your profit?

From my experience I can maintain a 100 sq ft raised bed in 30 to 45 minutes per week on overage. some crops more some less. The max I can do alone is about 10,000 sq ft.

I am having to start over in a new location and am close in to markets but have limited land. my raised beds will be 50 sq ft each and 3 ft wide [17 ft long]. the paths along the 17' sides are 2' wide the main paths are 5' wide at the end of the beds. I am planning on 150 beds or 7,500 sq ft total. right now just working on the first 50 beds and their soil. taking a class in Marketing of farm produce and another class n alternative crops for this area. I am thinking about 1/3 of this opperation will be berries that will be processed and sold as value added products but that is just thinking right now.

1 Like    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 4:58PM
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There are special rules for unemployment when it comes to farms. Something like 20 employees or more to be subject. If you hire your kids and they are under 18(?) then you don't have to withhold FICA/medicare.
When my kids were younger and worked on the farm, they would be in charge of specific crops and I would split the gross sales with them for that specific crop.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2010 at 9:51PM
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Thanks everyone for the great replies. Josh, you make some good points. Right now I guess I'm just trying to figure out how to make small-scale farming pay my own bills before I can even begin to think about hiring help.

So is it possible for one person to make a living just cultivating one or two acres intensively? I would be growing a wide variety of organic veggies and fruit, hopefully near the Portland metro area, which has a lot of demand for organic, local food (CSAs, farmers markets, restaurants, etc.).

I've only just begun looking at land prices, but I've found a couple properties that rent for $1600/mo, which includes a few acres, a farmhouse, and outbuildings. Not sure if it would be feasible to pay this and other business and personal expenses on just an acre or two. Still don't have a clear idea of what the margins and production/marketing expenses are.

Jrslick, you mentioned $40-50k gross per acre. Any idea what the margin is? How did the farm that grossed $49k market their produce?

    Bookmark   January 12, 2010 at 12:46AM
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Not real precise, and here in my part of IN the price your paying (or would pay) for a farm would give you a real nice house and at least 100 acres LOL But roughly here you can estimate a 50 percent margin.

Randy is correct, farming has special federal rules on employment, less than 20 employees is an exemption on unemployment, and if they are part time you dont have to (the employer) pay taxes, and if you just want to be sure have them sign a paper saying they are independent contractors.

On pay I take into consideration the wants and needs of each employee, thats why an interview is important. Then you can decide if you and the prospect employee can be mutaly benificial. Like if they are interested in taking home some of the produce. Then I split up the task. For example, we all know harvest is one of the hardest jobs, in terms of timlieness and expanse of labor. I have found the best way to motivate people is not the hourly wage, but piece work. For example with beans and tomatoes you pay by the basket picked. You have a older child, or handicapped, or elderly person at the end of the row keep a list with everyones name and tally each basket a person picks, and you pay accordingly. You can not be more fair, each person is rewarded with the amount of work performed.
Other task, like staking tomatoes, a different pay scale, but similar scale, you reward by work perfomed, have the same person tally at the end of the row.
I have long believed that the hourly, and the day wage was a downfall of civilization, it encourages people to find ways to spend thier time doing the least amount of work as they can get by with, even if subconciously. One dosent feel his work stands out anymore than the next persons, and you are not immediately rewarded for doing more than the next. Furthermore, even if you are a real hard worker its easy to feel bitter, you notice that so and so isnt carrying ones weight and you feel bitter for having to do more.
Some jobs of course dont lend themselves to this method, like manning a stand, there a share system might be more encouraging, with a back up of a day wage in case sales are slow. The share system would be a percentage of the days sales, the more one sales the more they make.

1 Like    Bookmark   January 12, 2010 at 9:06AM
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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)


The farm I was talking about sold at 3 farmers markets. It was a speaker at a conference I recently attended.
You can check out the place at The speaker gave a handout that showed his income from his different crops.


    Bookmark   January 12, 2010 at 9:46AM
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There is no exemption for FICA/medicare tax for part time employees and calling them independent contractors is not legal, even if they agree. However, this is common practice anyway. the IRS imposes stiff penalties if you get caught.
As far as making a living farming on your own goes, i believe it is possible but it would require quite a bit of capital investment in equipment and season extending tools, such as hoophouses and heated greenhouses. You would have to know your market so you can grow only things that would sell well. You would have to get lucky with the weather too.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2010 at 10:22AM
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The question you ask is impossible to answer because it all depends on you. You will not know until you find out for yourself. Its in your blood or its not. 99% of people who try what you want to do fail in the first 5 years. None of us even in the best of times ever exceed our expectations. In general small market gardens equal small incomes and gardening organically although fun is gardening with one hand tied behind your back. Keep your gardening options open and keep an eye out for a good paying day job... Bob.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2010 at 10:22AM
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Making a living means different things to different people. If you want to just survive, with no bills to pay, yes you probably can do. If you have to buy or rent land, I don't think you will make it.

I have grossed over $40K one year with only 1 market (3 market days) in 1 town. Of course net was much lower.

I was told when I got started that I should be pricing my items at least 2x of what I have in them. Of course, this is not easy to determine. Now, I attend auctions and I base my prices on 2x-4x of what the auction prices are. Sometimes I make only 2x and other times I might make 5x, it just depends on what the item is and what the customer will pay.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2010 at 9:41PM
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randy, yes there is an exemption in taxes, I forget exactly the amount right now , if a person earns no more than a few thousand, they are exempt from federal taxes, you do not even have to file a tax return. My father after he retired was a tax acct., now I know laws change year from year, but the exemption is still there, thats how a kid who delivers newspapers does not have to pay taxes, its not age, its gross collected.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2010 at 5:27PM
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Hi willamette,

I am not going to be able to hire anything done, and only have my yard to garden in, and I spend many hours a week working regular jobs. I had hoped for a few acres of land to do a small u-pic orchard but that isn't likely to happen soon. So here's what I'm doing.

I started gardening 2 years ago in my small yard and have found that onions and sweet peppers, melons and winter squash grow well for me. Also beets did great. I have nicely established sage and rosemary. This year I am going to try to raise enough to sell from an honor table in my yard, and maybe a little at a market.

If I am able to sell that way, I will put aside my profits toward next year, and will review again which crops did best for me. I found one variety of bell peppers that did really well, others were wasted space. I also am starting to get a sense of which crops are most in demand (at least when they are free - we'll see what happens if I am charging for them). I figure I'll get a bit better each year.

One of my neighbors raises a yard full (literally right up to his house) of tomatoes each year. Focusing on one crop works for him. I suspect that one's marketing skills are foremost in maximum profit per acre, and next after that is one's frugality. If you must rent, look at renting unimproved land - maybe with water access, but do you really need those buildings?

My advice is to go after your dream, but go after it in a way that is manageable on your off-hours while you still have another way to make a living, and that won't leave you hurting or obligated while you learn how to make it work (or learn whether you really like doing it).

Pecan Corner

    Bookmark   January 18, 2010 at 6:08PM
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We have a lot of young people (anyone under 40, LOL) in our area of Northern CA successfully doing what you propose. And they don't all grow a side of Medical Marijuana, either (although many young people here have bought their first land by growing their legal limit on a rented parcel first). The most common way is a CSA, and some of their customers get a discount on their portion by helping on the farm ( 3 acres is the usual). They usually have 10 helpers on a weekend morning.
One of my elderly relative grew pecans on a 30 acre farm in Redding until the day he died at 85. He worked 2 weeks out of the year. He borrowed geese from his neighbor to weed...diverted a canal from the river he was next to for water. And everyone in the area shared in the rental of harvest combines. The wholesale buyers bid the crops in advance. He always said, with a big grin and rocking back on his heels in glee, that "There's nothing better than Pee-cahns."

    Bookmark   January 31, 2010 at 5:07PM
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Hahahaha, I like pecans to, though they are not as reliable here in Indiana, like peaches, 3 out of 5 years, unless you want to fuss and fight the weather more than my lazy behind wants to :0)

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 9:53AM
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Hey williamette,
Here's a link to a local farm. They're whom I aspire to be when I grow up, although my husband gets cranky at the very idea.
Notice that they have 160 CSA members...they gross 90K a year just from that. They are also at the farm markets 3 days a week and sell to restaurants. How do they do it? Click on their tab labeled "interns". They give them room and board and a small stipend. And promise to work them 8 hours a day.
I'd send my son there to intern if he wanted to do farming as a business. Obviously their system work$ and six months at low wages is an inexpensive learning experience.

1 Like    Bookmark   February 7, 2010 at 2:28AM
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Hi willamette,

Great question! One I have contemplated for the last eleven years. I am over 60 and have about one acre in cultivation on a friendÂs dairy farm. I have a 65-member CSA.

I started in 1999 with 10 hand-dug, 4Â X 25Â raised beds. I now have 66 beds. For power equipment, I have a Mantis tiller, which I seldom use and a lawn mower. I have lots of hand tools. For the first few years (until the membership passed 45) I was able to do the entire operation alone. For the last four years I have had limited help. I trade shares ($325) for 2 hours per week; last year there were 5 share workers that helped for shares. Ninety percent of their time involves the harvesting and packing. I also pay two teenagers for 4-6 hours a week @ $10/hr., mostly for grass mowing and some packing. I could do the job with less help, but I have gotten use to them being around. :>) All together I get less than 20 hours of help per week. If I wasnÂt single and had a partner for part time work, we probably wouldnÂt need any help.

From February through May, I do all of the seed starting, bed preparation, transplanting, etc. The help doesnÂt start until the first harvest in early June. Time wise, I start the harvest at 1 PM, four of the share workers arrive at 4 and we are done dividing and storing the harvest by six. The next morning, another share worker and her two teenagers arrive at 8 and we pack the produce into the 65 ½ bushel boxes. The truck is loaded and ready to go by 10.

As for income, I gross around $20,000. It is my only income and I can only do that because I have no rent or mortgage. I paid for utilities only from Nov till April. I can, dry, or freeze any extra produce. My truck is 15 years old. I have no health insurance and I keep my thermostat set on 50 during the winter. IÂm sure I qualify for being poor, although I do not feel poor. In fact I feel rather wealthy. I usually have a solid four-month vacation.

1 Like    Bookmark   February 7, 2010 at 12:06PM
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loodean, now your a true American, I aint a whole lot better off myself, a higher income, but more dependants, 2 boys and the missus, but they help pull thier own weight. We all need to be thankful for what we have.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2010 at 8:11PM
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fleethart(z6 WNY)

There are a lot of factors that determine your success. Lots of people have a lot of good answers. I have a little over an acre that I took on because a friend does very well on his little acre by Seattle. He and his wife are retired and do theirs alone. They have corn, beans, squash, peas, carrots, berries, lettuce, potatoes and the like. He has a mid-size Kubota and a good gas tiller. He lives next to his plot and his wife cooks for him. After watching his success for years I jumped when I had the chance to have a similiar plot. Boy, did I have a lot to learn! It's a lot different than a garden. My plot is about 5 miles from my house so tractors, tools, equipment and so on must be hauled down there. Top speed on the Deere is 12-15mph. I also have 4 kids and I do all the cooking and canning although my husband helps with the haying he still has a full time job, I mean besides fixing what I break :p My 15yo son was to help but he injured himself and could not work all summer. While my friend's garden looked beautiful, mine suffered comensurate to the neglect it suffered. Also, my land owner specified in our agreement that I could not use chemicals, pesitcides or herbicides due to the fields proximity to his house and his family's allergies. While my friend in Seattle does not use row covers or black paper mulches, I am definitely planning on using them this year to thwart the squash bugs and weeds. There are some implements I think will help immensely, esp. a 3 pt cultivator.(Honey, if you are reading this, my birthday is coming up! :) This year I am also planning on fewer vegetables and more grain crops (oats and spelt). Hopefully my son won't get hurt this year and the kids manage better, maybe even help out a little. I may even bring along the chicken tractor and move that around to help control more weeds. It can be done, and one of these days I will get it done. Meantime, I listen to the old farmers, read, and roll up my sleeves. I love watching seeds grow up into food that goes into my pantry. The sense of accomplishment when I see my loft full of hay, jars full of food and my pantry filled with apples, squash and beans from my own hand is worth the effort.

1 Like    Bookmark   February 17, 2010 at 5:38PM
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