Simple food from the farm on a June morning.

If you look at John Seymour’s popular book, he gives a helpful explanation of what’s possible in different spaces.  It really depends on how “self-sufficient” you want to be.  We live on 15 acres, but are really only using about 6 acres right now.  Self-sufficiency is not something you can “install”.  It takes years to get the entire system working, but there are priorities.

The key, I think, is dairy.  Once you have dairy, you feel like you have real food at home and eliminate one of the most annoying and expensive parts of grocery shopping.  It’s really, really, simple, too. The first time you milk a goat and sit there holding a quart of fresh milk in your hand you’ll say, “Are you kidding me?”.   You can buy your first goats already in milk and start milking from day one.  Get two does and a buckling and you’re all set.  

You would simply need enough land for the number of animals you wanted (1 acre per cow or 1/2 acre for 2 goats are the usual numbers thrown out there).  You could have less land if you provide grains/hay for them, but then the savings you make on buying less land, you end up spending on more food.   We let our animals graze on our land all year around and we cut hay in our neighbors’ fields, bale it and bring it home (they give it to us for free so they never have to care for the grass in their fields).  We just brought home 200 bales last week, which will last us all winter.  If you have grass fields and can grow some out for hay, you can find a local baler to cut and bale it for you either for cash or to split the bales.  You have to have good grass and hay if you have animals.  That’s what the land is mainly needed for…grass.  If you have grass, you have animal food.

Second, you need chickens.  You need about 16-20 chickens to routinely get a dozen eggs PER DAY for most of the year.  Egg production ususally drops in the winter, but so does the need for food since your diet should lighten up as there’s less work to do outside.   Add a few roosters and your chickens will make chicks and you won’t ever buy a chick again.  You don’t need to start butchering chickens to get started, so don’t worry about that.  After a couple years, though, your hens will need to either be killed and buried or put in a stew pot.  After a few months with roosters, you’ll be eager to kill them.  Anyway, you’ll need a henhouse for eggs and a pen for them to scratch around in.  You can let them graze if your gardens are fenced off and just through them some grains, weeds and table scraps for food.   You can allow them a 1/4 acre for a nice-sized area.

A food garden on a farm is different than a hobby garden in the suburb. Here you can see our beans and corn in mid June.

You can grow most of your garden food on an acre, but you won’t be doing a suburban vegetable garden. That’s cute, but it doesn’t feed a family.  You will be growing greens, beans, corn and potatoes in large quantities.  You need food, not hobby vegetables.  If you live in Zone 8 as we do, you can get two harvests every year and garden still through winter.  The normal suburban garden stuff is fine, once your staple foods are established.

At that point, you’ll have dairy, eggs and vegetables on a few acres.  Add an acre for your house and barn and you’re started.  You can order grain in bulk and have it delievered or find a local mill that sells it.  If you’re willing to clean it yourself, you can get a 50lb bushel bag of wheat for anywhere from $7 to 9 locally.  It will be listed as “not for human consumption” or “animal grade”, but all that means is that it needs to be cleaned before use.  It’s bagged straight from the combine and will be dusty with some pebbles, etc.. mixed in.  Of course, you can grow your own grains if you have more land.

So, for 2 dairy goats, chickens, a good vegetable garden and buildings, you’d need 4 acres to get started, 5 to be safe.  More than that just allows you to do more and become more self-sufficient.   The ultimate question is what kind of income and time you will have as you get started.  If you have to work away from the farm, then the time it will take to develop things becomes longer and you will have to lay out money for needs longer.  If you can work from home, you can develop a work schedule that allows the farm to come together more quickly and you can free yourself from the expenses more quickly.  That developing process is a complex one and you have to manage it wisely and work your butt off, realizing what you’re achieving is the greatest benefit you can provide for your family’s stability and peace in the long run.  It’s an awesome achievement, and you should expect to invest everything you have in it.  I’ve worked like a dog for 5 years to get where I am and am continually beginning to reap more and more of the benefits.