By Robert Turner
There is a farm nestled up to a community in Arden that can feed about 200 people in the neighborhood most of the calories that they need to survive, and it’s also financially self-sustaining. Some may be surprised by that. It’s tough to make a profit in agriculture these days.
The farm project in this little agricultural neighborhood, or agrihood, flies in the face of the modern conventional food and agriculture system. It’s organic, hyper-local food that travels just a mile or two from farm to table.
In the fourth year of farming, the farm hit breakeven, with revenues equaling expenses. That magic number is closely tied to the amount of food that we can pull out of the ground, the number of households that we can feed, the labor cost to employ two full-time farmers and the cost of seeds and supplies.
But for me, the project was part of a larger question: Can a community feed itself outside of the modern, industrial agricultural system? And could the farm potentially grow enough food calories to support the community for an entire year?
Our farm revenue comes mostly from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that serves the Creekside Farm community and surrounding neighborhood at The Cliffs at Walnut Cove. Slowly but surely, we made progress over the years by attracting more CSA members and by building soil health organically, which improved production outputs.
But here’s the gist of the whole thing. On Avery Creek Road in Arden, two hard-working women grow enough food to feed a community of 200 people the bulk of their vegetable needs for a good part of the year, and they do that organically. They don’t grow everything that the community eats, but they could if they had to, and that has been the focal point of my little socio-economic experiment over the past few years.
Our farm manager Melissa Wickham has a degree in sustainable development with a concentration in agriculture. She’s tuned in to global issues related to climate change, sustainability and agroecology. She grows—all organically—more than 100 varieties of vegetables. She has a greenhouse and high tunnels, as well as several caterpillar tunnels that help her extend the growing season.
The farm has 50 acres in production, and just six of those acres are in vegetable production. A grass-fed cattle operation covers 18 acres of pasture, corn sits on 12 acres, and roughly 10 acres are in hay to feed the cattle in winter. Four acres are wooded. We offer free-range chicken eggs from our 90 laying hens and occasionally slaughter a cow or a pig.
My little study came down to a calorie count, because calories are king. Calories matter because most of us need about one million of them each year. They certainly aren’t the only thing we need; we also need vitamins and minerals, fats and protein. But if we don’t have those one million calories, other needs fade into the background. So that’s 200 million calories that need to be produced from the soil on this little farm. And just so you know, a medium-sized tomato offers a modest 22 calories. If that’s all we grew, we’d have to grow more than nine million of them to get the calories needed by our community. While vegetables give us vital nutrients, they aren’t big in the calorie department.
To beef up the calories, we’d have to plant at least five acres in potatoes. Corn and potatoes can be grown and harvested with the help of a tractor and other equipment and don’t require much labor.
But why corn and potatoes? Because corn and potatoes pack a high-calorie punch. The average corn yield in the US is about 180 bushels per acre. Each bushel weighs about 56 pounds and each pound of corn yields about 1,566 calories. That means corn averages roughly 15 million calories per acre, which, theoretically, could support the basic caloric needs of 15 people. Multiply that by our 12-acre corn field and you get enough basic calories to support 180 people. Potatoes can rival corn because they also yield about 15 million calories per acre. There’s a reason these crops became staples for Native Americans.
Does anyone in the neighborhood know or really care about my little experiment in self-reliance? I’m not sure. But I do know that they enjoy the food and the connection to nature and to the farm and gardens. And maybe that’s all that really matters.
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.