Does It Really Take 35 Acres to Feed a Family?
Let's look at the math.
Recently, a guy on Twitter got a lot of attention for calling “having a self-sufficient farm” “the biggest conservative cope-LARP around,” claiming that a family of five would need a whopping 35 acres to be self-sufficient. Is that true? How much land does it really take?
Before we begin, let’s establish a few things. True, total self-sufficiency is insanely hard. Even most people who grow all of their own food rely on outside inputs like bug spray, fertilizer, and livestock feed. And even if they work out those issues, I guarantee they still have to source things from the supply chain, like salt.
That’s why we introduced the concept of dependency loops. There may be loops you can never fully close, but that doesn’t mean progress is pointless. The more you can close those loops, the less dependent you’ll be.
Checking Rob’s Math
Rob got his 35-acre figure from a neat calculator on the Permaculturism website.
That’s it, case closed. Or is it? Notice that he has multiple checkboxes selected:
Vegetable and Fruits (Non Veg)
Vegetable and Fruits (Veg Only)
Wheat and Grains
Pathway and Storage
First of all, I want to express my appreciation for having a Pathway and Storage option. So many small farm guides leave this element out entirely, like the classic Dorling Kindersley illustration of a 1-acre farm:
Where do you park your vehicle? How do you haul things between areas? The only border between the cows and pig are trees, so what keeps the pigs in their pen?
Anyway, I digress, but it’s important to be realistic.
Let’s reexamine Rob’s selections. First, he’s selected both Vegetable and Fruits options. A comment on the page explains that one option is for vegetarians while another option is for the rest of us to account for meat production. So right away, he’s doubled up the vegetable options.
He also selected three land-intensive items: beef cows, dairy cows, and wheat and grains. Cows take a lot of space, which is why many small homesteaders raise goats or sheep instead. You can fit a dairy cow on a one-acre plot, but you’ll have to import a great deal of hay to feed it. And, of course, it takes a lot of land to grow enough grains worth bothering with. A 4x8 raised bed won’t produce enough wheat to even make a loaf of bread.
So let’s cut those elements out. Now there’s another duplication: he has both Eggs (Chicken) and Meat (Chicken) selected. For a family of five Eggs (Chicken) only adds 0.05 acres while Meat (Chicken) adds 1.45 acres. If we make it so we only have Vegetable and Fruits, Eggs (Chicken), and Pathway and Storage selected, we bring it down to 4.75 acres, which is fairly realistic.
Even then, this calculator is imperfect. I’ve raised meat birds on far less land than 1.45 acres. In fact, the Cornish Cross (often raised for meat production) doesn’t take a lot of room because they don’t like moving. They live to eat, drink, and swiftly go into the freezer.
How Many Calories Can You Cram?
How many calories can you cram into a plot of land? That’s a tough question to answer because many factors go into that math:
What do you and your family like to eat?
What are your soil conditions?
Are you comfortable with processing animals for meat?
Total yield, which can be influenced by bad seed, unexpected cold snaps, pests, disease, fertilizer, drought, flood, etc.
No one can predict exactly how much food you can produce. Farmers have crop insurance because crops fail all the time for all sorts of reasons.
But let’s simplify the math by picking one food: the potato, which may be the most powerful food in history. Europeans were suspicious of them when they arrived from Peru, but thanks to some clever marketing, the potato fueled the European conquest of the world. Plus, they’re fairly low maintenance, have high calories, and are chock full of nutrition.
According to Wikifarmer, an inexperienced farmer can grow 10 tons of potatoes in a single acre. That’s a lot of potatoes, but is it enough to feed a family?
Assume each person in your household requires 2,000 calories per day. Our friend Rob specified a family of five, so that’s 10,000 calories per day. So our family of five needs 3,650,000 calories for the year.
Per the calorie-tracking app Cronometer, one pound of raw potatoes with the skin intact comes to 263 calories. Let’s just call it 250 calories to keep the math simpler.
One ton is 2,000 pounds. Assuming 10 tons — or 20,000 pounds — of potatoes, that gives us five million calories.
To break down our oversimplified math: 1 Acre = 5 million calories, enough to feed our party of five with 1,350,000 calories to spare.
And you’d still probably have room for rabbit cages and a chicken run.
All of this is to say that feeding your family on a small plot is possible. It’s not easy, it’s not guaranteed, and the food may not be very fun, but it’s possible.