How Much Land Do You Need?

Could you do a good job subsistence farming on just an acre or two of land? Yes, and more land would give you more flexibility. It would also reduce the money you must spend off-site for things like feed and firewood.

Having more land than we need offers several advantages, one of which is the sheer joy of hanging out in the forest. [/caption]Amanda and I own 88 acres of land in central Alabama, clearly more than we need. As we’ve already discussed here, we think we could do what we need to do on 12-15 acres. Could we do most of it on an acre or two? Absolutely. Let’s see how that settles out.

You need a place to live

[Having more land than we need offers several advantages, one of which is the sheer joy of hanging out in the forest. ]1The actual footprint of your dwelling could be as small as 150 square feet, but if you have additional space inside, you have more flexibility for family members, guests, indoor processing, and entertaining, and you need to earmark space to get in and out of your dwelling along a driveway. So let’s say you need 4000 square feet for your dwelling. At 4000 divided by 44,100, that’s 1/10 of an acre earmarked for your living quarters. So far, so good.

You need a place to grow food

We have 1/4 acre of land in a vegetable garden, but the area under active cultivation is the 16 raised beds, each 16 feet by 4 feet, for a total of 1024 square feet. And we have asparagus growing outside the raised beds on a separate plot of 20 feet by 4 feet. That works out to a stunningly small 25/1000 of an acre. That’s an almost meaningless number, of course, because you must have room to walk around as you tend plants. But it gives you a good idea of how much food you can raise on a tiny space if it’s important to you to be compact. Our 1/4 acre garden produces all the vegetables we need and plenty to give away, but virtually no protein.

We have approximately one acre inside the electric fence in what we call the orchard proper, where most of our fruit trees reside. Then we have a strip of blueberries and some assorted fruit trees outside the orchard fence between the lodge and the barn, so the total of the orchard space devoted to fruit is approximately 1.2 acres. All our spacing is generous, because we have plenty of land to play with. We could squeeze our roughly 135 trees into less than 3/4 acre if necessary, and after the trees mature we could get by with 1/3 as many trees. You can devote as much or as little space to fruit as you wish depending on how easy it is for you to grow in your area, how much you love fruit, and how much space you have. For now, let’s pick a number somewhere in the middle and call it 1/3 acre.

Protein is more difficult to pin down. Our four chickens don’t take up any space of their own, because they live in a coop and run that we move every 1-3 days to a fresh spot on the orchard floor where they forage. If you need a fixed coop and don’t mind providing all their food in the form of chicken feed you buy off site, you’ll just need a tiny spot for the coop. Or you could opt for the utterly refreshing approach our friend Jane takes and just have a good-sized coop, some water, and a good fence around the vegetables. Each night the chickens – hens and rooster(s) – sleep in the coop. Each morning they emerge and forage on their own, with their diet supplemented by purchased chicken feed. Moms have booty calls with daddies, daddies fight for dominance, chicks get hatched and raised, some get taken by hawks and some by coyotes but plenty – the smartest and most cunning – survive to productive adulthood, all with minimal intervention from their human steward. Jane has a constant supply of more eggs than she can use. She gets frustrated when she loses a productive animal, but she doesn’t grieve over it the way we do when we lose one of our ladies.

We plan to add a rabbitry soon, where we plan tentatively to house eight cages and hope to harvest 150 or so bunnies per year. That works out to nearly three rabbits per week, which should be plenty for us to enjoy and share with friends and family. We will need to purchase food for them, and may raise some food of our own, but the space our rabbitry will take is so tiny it’s almost not worth counting.

A quick parenthetical here: much has been made in the media about the danger of “rabbit starvation,” the extremely rare condition present in some who eat nothing but rabbit meat. The lean meat of rabbits, eaten alone, leaves our human bodies with insufficient fat and carbohydrates to survive. I think this is unlikely to be a problem for anyone but the most ardent rabbit fanatic, but combining the rich fat of chicken eggs (and an occasional fatty chicken carcass) with rabbit meat and fresh vegetables from the garden is a perfect, wholesome, healthful diet, one that gives our bodies all the nutrients they need.

So let’s add all the land we’ve discussed. I’ve added the digital equivalent after each category so we can total them easily.

  • Vegetables: 1/4 acre – .25
  • Fruit: 1/3 acre – .33
  • Chickens and rabbits: call it 1/10 of an acre – .1
  • Total: .68 acre, so let’s be conservative and call it an acre

You need trees for firewood

We harvest firewood from our entire property, so we never have to cut down a healthy tree unless that tree is in the way of something we want to do. Our firewood supply is absurdly abundant, which is a good thing. However, we could get by with much, much less.

I don’t need to do this, but if my land for firewood were limited, I would reserve a woodlot that’s already established in a mixed-growth forest and take full advantage of coppicing. The first year I would cut what I need from the southernmost strip of the woodlot, cutting all trees down to within about a foot of the ground. Pull the trees out, split and stack them, and burn them as needed. (You must be at least a year in advance of your need, because you shouldn’t burn firewood until it’s had plenty of time to season.) The next year I would take the next strip down in the same manner, being careful to disturb the recently cut strip as little as necessary. The next year, the next strip, and so on, until I had cut the entire woodlot once. I would hope that my woodlot would be large enough by now that the southernmost strip has had 6-8 years to regenerate, by which time you should see a plentiful supply of limbs growing from each stump. Time to harvest those limbs, and then resume the annual pattern.

Yes, if you opt to use a woodlot this way, there are some distinct disadvantages:

  • You would compromise the woodlot’s usefulness for wildlife, because you would be keeping it clean of organic matter by necessity
  • You would forego the most effective growth time of your trees. Older trees grow faster than young trees, and you are never letting them get to the fast growth stage
  • Coppicing is hard on your soil. You would be harvesting all the above-ground plant material and never allowing anything more than a few leaves to disintegrate and return to the soil. Over time (as in many years), the soil fertility would decline if you keep this up

However, if your land is limited and you need firewood, I think the coppicing strategy makes sense. Using it each year, experts estimate that you would be produce enough firewood for a family to stay reasonably warm in a small, well-insulated home on a woodlot of about three acres.

So let’s put it all together

  • Dwelling: 1/10 acre – .1
  • Food: 1 acre – 1.0
  • Firewood: 3 accres – 3.0
  • Total: 4.1 acres, so let’s be conservative and call it five acres.

Understand that this is all quite subjective, and it depends on your being able to produce effectively on all five acres. So, for, example, if the land you are considering includes a ravine, swamp, or cliff-side, you would want to remove that from your calculation. But this should get you started.