They make a living on 2 acres in Arkansas.
This article is in response to several e-mails from fellow homesteaders who are interested on how we can survive on two acres. I could write a book about that and the lessons learned and adventures, but since space is limited I will just share some thoughts now in the hope that it may save someone else mistakes or help them.
First, I am only 33 years of age, and so have much to learn. I am no expert, just a simple homesteader who does not even own a computer. Homesteading is different every place and I lived in many states growing up, so I have experienced climate differences. You can learn a lot from the elder homesteaders in your area--they have been a wealth of knowledge. Sometimes advice is obviously myth; just take what you hear with a grain of salt.
When it comes to gardening though, seasoned farmers are the best people to ask questions of--better than the extension agent or professors at the university, in my opinion. I could have saved myself a lot of heartache if I had taken their advice at times. Sometimes though, location and dumb luck can make a difference. Don't believe anyone who tells you that something can't grow in your area. Give it a shot; if worse comes to worst you will be out a few dollars and some time, though if you grow something no one else is growing locally, you may make extra money.
We were not blessed to inherit a family farm. I did seven years active duty in the Army and saved the money to pay for my humble farm. It would have been very hard to start with a mortgage and no income besides what we make on the farm. We have been on this farm five years; before that I built a simple home and homesteaded in the Marshall Islands where my wife and kids are from. This is our third year farming. The first year full-time, we sold $5,000 worth of produce, and I have the tax info to prove it (we also lived on $10,000 in army savings). Last year we sold $20,000 worth of produce and this year will be much better, I think.
Our farm is two acres and since last January I leased another acre from the neighbors. You might think we must have some mighty good soil to grow that much, but that's not so. In fact, it is an Arkansas "rock farm." I could not even use machinery until last year, when I bought my first tiller. All the rocks had to be dug out with a mattock by hand over the last five years. I have also brought in tons of city compost from 45 minutes away, and much hay and manure to make a wonderful soil that would be the envy of Mr. Rodale himself. Don't be like me in that regard. Sure, you could make a garden in a rock quarry with enough compost, but I have done more shoveling in my life than anyone I have met, and the time would have been better spent growing veggies. Any good farm needs organic matter applied, but if I did not have the savings from the army to buy compost with, we would have failed. Peter Henderson said as much in the book Gardening for Profit in 1885. Two industrious, hardworking people can buy a farm--one with good soil and one without--and the farm without good soil will be impoverished and the other succeed.
We grow everything without sprays or synthetic fertilizers. I lost half my tomato crop to the fruit worms other folks at market spray, and they have farms devoid of insect life and poisoned ground water. Tomatoes are all they grow--15,000 of them, with 700 plants of 80 varieties. I could afford the loss of half a crop since we have a hundred other plants bringing income. We're not certified organic. I don't want the same government that pushes NAIS and helps factory farmers with their numerous laws to be involved with my farm.
We work very long hours in the spring through fall. About half of what we grow is sold through the farmers market and half through the local organic co-op. We are very diverse and unless you have a good relationship with the bank and don't mind debt (like all the fruit farmers who had their crops wiped out by last year's very late freeze), you would do well to be diverse. Our main crops are eggs, sweet potatoes, basil, and fingerling potatoes.
Though we grow and sell just about everything from A-Z including berries, Yacon, honey, sunchokes, herbs, flowers, garlic and all the usual summer time crops, we had 80 tomato cultivars this year. We are selling around $500 worth of seeds to Baker Creek Seed Company. Anyone who can garden and grow seeds that are not cross pollinated can be a grower, you don't need to be near a city with a market for produce to be a seed grower. It may seem like they pay a lot, but it takes an enormous amount of fresh tomatoes to make an ounce of seed, depending on the variety. As I said, we don't have a tractor, so what we do is very labor intensive. It is one thing to conceive of growing several thousand pounds of sweet potatoes to sell, but digging them by hand is another thing entirely. Due to what looks like the wettest year on record, I have been unable to harvest them and dry them properly so I am loosing many to rot. It's okay though, one restaurant we sell to bought $1,000 worth of basil and Red Malabar spinach for their garnish. The basil was $10/pound--they had been paying $14 from a source in California. We sell just the top of the plant with very little stem, which saves them lots of prep time and money, plus the basil grows back.
They pay $3 a bag for Red Malabar spinach; I sell it for $4 at market. I bet just about any restaurant in town would buy the Red Malabar as a garnish. We usually only have four hands between us until the kids get older, so we don't have the time to plant more. All the local restaurants are clamoring for good local food here, and I have not visited any others as I can't meet the demand for the places I do sell to.
This year we are expanding. We have five kids (one adopted), and by the time I buy chicken food the chickens don't make much money. The eggs are good for points at the market and helped us get our income up on paper so we could get an earned income tax credit. Also the manure is great for the garden--200 birds will give a lot of that. I found someone to finance five acres 14 miles from us a few weeks ago, and three acres are good, rich rock-free bottom land. It is better to save and buy everything with cash. Don't make rich folks richer by paying interest. Unfortunately my mother could not find a full-time job when she moved here so all the money that would have gone to expansion is gone and I had to finance. It will be paid back quickly though, once I get the deer fenced out and crops going, and God willing if the weather does not turn bad.
I am sure we will stay plenty busy with five acres in berries and veggies between the two places and we're also starting a heirloom sweet potato business. I have many kinds available including Violetta, Ivis White Cream, O'Henry, Arkansas Red Leaf (this is a local heirloom bush cultivar with the first few leaves on the vine maroon colored and really stands out), Red Ivy Leaf, Purple, Brazil, Ringley's Porto Rico and others. (For a complete list plus seeds and details, send an e-mail or a SASE to Jesse Napolitano, 1126 Hwy. 295, Elkins, AR 72727).