Break-Even gardening is the phrase we are using to describe that point at which a home gardener’s total cost of materials and supplies equals the cost to buy that gardener’s yield in vegetables at the average, supermarket fresh, produce price in his or her area.
Gardening is a healthy, rewarding hobby. It also teaches valuable skills. Most of us don’t garden in order to save money. To be honest, there are very few of us set up to grow our own food in sufficient scale to even come close to the price of produce in the supermarket. The supermarket produce is grown on massive agricultural tracts utilizing tons of industrial fertilizers. There are a winnowed down, few select varieties chosen for their appearance and survivability over time rather than flavor. The produce in supermarkets is often picked quite unripe and chemically ripened later.
Every home garden is different as is every home gardener. Some garden tracts are quite large being a half acre or more. Some are a pot or two on a balcony. Some gardeners have years of experience and have accumulated and accrued a vast array of garden tools, soil amendments, and pest control measures. There are some gardeners that are actually able to meet and beat supermarket prices, but most can’t. However almost all gardeners are quite willing to pay extra to produce their home grown produce. Still the cost can sometimes cause us to divert part of slim budgets from other necessities towards gardening. Wouldn’t it be nice to tweak your gardening to such a point that you could meet or approach at least the ‘break even’ point?
While some gardeners can do this easily, many can’t reach that point at all. However, most can get closer to that point by taking some or all of the actions discussed in this series of articles. This article is simply an introduction or overview of the ‘break-even gardening’ topics to be discussed. Some of the strategies outlined may be impractical or impossible for you. Some may be possible, but they decrease your enjoyment of gardening to a point that the saved money or increased net yield don’t compensate for the sheer lost joy in one of man’s oldest professions. I suggest you pick and choose. You may decide to implement one or more strategies the first year and then implement others in succeeding years. There is a common theme running through many of the strategies and that is co-operation and coordination with other local gardeners. Those strategies may take a while to implement but may yield more than just monetary savings or better utilization of yields, they may create important friendships and relationships that make gardening and life more pleasant.
Let’s briefly look at the strategies we will cover to help home gardeners get closer or reach the ‘break even’ point. There will be a separate article on each of the strategies in the near future. If you want to be notified when these articles are published visit our contact page and send us an email telling us you want to be contacted. If you have something you want to contribute regarding a specific strategy OR overall concerning the concept of ‘break even gardening’ let us know. We are happy to publish your suggestions with full credit.
In order to maximize the value you get from your gardening you need to make wise decisions on what you want to grow. You may want to try growing many crops for the experience and that’s a fine ambition. However growing crops that are best suited for your climate, best suited for the space and type of gardening you do and crops that cost enough at the grocery store that your growing them creates a good cost to price relationship will help you approach the breakeven point more than will a variety.
When choosing your crops, you will also need to consider how much space they need to reach optimum yield. Watermelons are an excellent and enjoyable home crop, but they require a lot of space for vines to grow and a specialized soil. It is very likely that if you are an apartment resident then a watermelon is far more expensive to grow than to buy at the supermarket. Now some vegetables that have long running vines are still suitable for a small space if they can be staked or trellised to run upwards. Beans are an excellent example.
Crops that have a long growing season may also not suit your needs, especially if you live in a climate that such crops mean only one harvest. Also if you live in a warmer climate where you could get in two or three plantings of the same crop in the longer growing season as opposed to one crop of the crop that requires a long growing season you may wish to opt for shorter season crops. That brings up the determinate vs indeterminate variety discussion as well.
Crops that you like to eat are automatically good choices over crops that look cool but likely will not be eaten. However if you develop relationships with other gardeners in your area that can’t grow but do like to eat a crop you like growing but don’t like eating and they are willing to swap something you do like but didn’t grow for that crop, then it becomes far more feasible. We will discuss ‘Crop Swapping’ in another article as well.
Novelty crops are a great joy to gardeners that can afford them. For example, growing mirlitons in Minnesota is a fantastic challenge and a great conversation piece. However it will not be a good choice for closing in on the breakeven point as it requires a long, warm, wet growing season that is simply not likely to occur in Minnesota without creating a greenhouse. Novelty crops are like very strong spices, best kept to a minimum but they can make the gardening experience much more enjoyable.
Bulk Buying for Discounts
Many gardening supplies such as soil amendments, fertilizers, seeds, containers can be purchased at considerable savings in bulk. The home gardener may not need the larger quantity all at once or ever. The home gardener may not have the space to store a large quantity of supplies for later use.
This is another place that cooperating in local gardening groups is helpful as gardeners may be able to pitch in and buy truckloads of sol or compost, 100 lb bags of soil amendments and fertilizers, large bags of seeds, and other supplies and materials that cost a lot more per unit bought in small batches. However, such purchasing requires a distribution point and transportation to divvy it up. This be organized in local groups, perhaps online or at coffee meetings or events.
Division of Labor and Tasks
Another area in which home gardeners may lower their cost is in cooperating with other local gardeners in performing certain gardening tasks. For example, if your garden needs tilling and you don’t have tractor and plows or a tiller and attachments, then you could rent one or if you know a local gardener that has such then it may help both of you to make a deal with that gardener to till your plot. You might find it easier to pay that local gardener or even swap crops or something you have of value. Other examples might be if you know your local gardeners and some have excellent facilities for growing worms and harvesting worm castings, some may have space for a superior compost bin, some may have access to vegetable kitchen scraps from an institution, some may have great carpenter abilities and be able to make raised beds, some may have vast amounts of felled trees and some may have a log splitter,….well you get the idea. Some gardeners may be physically unable to build or do a thing that will greatly increase their productivity but can provide access to a tool or piece of equipment if others will help them dig, carry stack etc. Cooperation can make your gardening more fun and more efficient.
PRESERVATION OF EXCESS
If you have excess of a crop during season you will likely wish to save some of it for out of season. There are numerous ways to preserve your excess crop and utilize it later. In fact a crop eaten out of season actually moves on closer to the break-even point because the cost of a crop often significantly increases out of season. Your $1.50 a lb. tomatoes may well be worth $3.00 a lb. in January. There are numerous ways of preserving crops. All involve some acquired skill, some more than others. As in previous strategies, knowing other local gardeners may be of benefit in preserving crops as one of them may have excellent preservation equipment and knowledge and be willing to help you for fun or for a share of the preserved crops.
Some of the ways in which crops are preserved are:
Different gardeners and different garden situations favor the production of different crops. Humans should eat a variety of fresh produce. Often it is not particularly efficient that they grow that variety. Sometimes gardeners just enjoy or excel at growing a specific crop or specific crops. In order to help the home gardener, reach their break-even point it is greatly advantageous for them to exchange produce to increase variety without diluting the advantages of growing optimum crops for their garden or gardening abilities and preferences. Crop swapping is best done at the most local possible levels so local gardening groups that meet online or in person can facilitate crop swapping.
We will examine the many ways to facilitate ‘crop swapping’ from local online swapping groups to regular predetermined crop swap meets
For most small-scale home gardeners the local farmers’ Market’s booth fee makes the small amount of sales they want to do economically unfeasible. Some areas have informal no fee farmers markets or swap meets. Sometimes local zoning laws or lack of enforcement thereof allow a gardener to simply park a pickup by the road, make a cardboard sign and start selling. However even if none of the other options are feasible then sales through a local swapping and sales group, arranged online may be possible to help defray the cost of your gardening passion. Crop sales are a natural supplement to crop swapping. Even crops sold at a greatly discounted amount work towards the goal of reaching or getting closer to the breakeven point. As growing is never an exact science and we cannot always anticipate yield due to weather, and pests we usually try to grow extra, Extra not eaten, or swapped translates to wasted. A wasted crop worth $100 is better sold for $25 than wasted.
The breakeven gardener may not directly decrease his/her costs by donating crops, however if one thinks it through then crops donated to others to eat are utilized at the cost of growing them. The amount of good they do is increased albeit not necessarily for the gardener. It is probably a good idea for a gardener to aim to never throw away crops or gorge on them to the point of being miserable to avoid wasting them (gluttony is in fact quite wasteful, maybe more so than throwing a crop away). If the home gardener develops contacts to which to give not only excess crops but also excess seeds, and seedlings then they truly move closer to the breakeven point.
ACTUALLY PRODUCING MORE MONETARY VALUE THAN COSTS
All of the above strategies are accepting that the cost of producing home grown produce will still be more than buying it but are designed to narrow the gap. Now how does one cross over to regain some of the lost value and reach break even or even save net food costs home gardening? Well some gardeners may find that one or more of their crops yields so much that they cross over the breakeven point with ease. Most probably won’t. To be honest most will need to be happy that they have lessened the gap and gotten closer to the breakeven point and still derived the enormous intangible benefits of growing their own food and the future benefit of knowing how if the time comes they need to know how. Still there are some last-minute push actions that can be take. Among those are:
- Creating a rendered or prepared food for sale from some of their crops such as jams or jellies or salsa etc. The sales of these items can yield more than the cost of producing them.
- Documenting their well quantified efforts and selling a booklet. The market is full of hundreds if not thousands of such booklets however there is always room for an inexpensive specific to a certain situation guide based upon a real-world gardening effort. You can sell your booklet in electronic form or print it out and ask your local garden center or feed and seed to carry it or purchase it to give to valued customers. To do this you will need meticulous record keeping. You can keep a detailed paper journal or use one of the online gardening journals such as Home-Gardenbook.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Deciding which strategies you want to use or can use is important. Some of the previously mentioned strategies may detract from your enjoyment of gardening. Don’t use them if that is the case. In order to keep getting closer to your break-even gardening point you will need to keep some records and jot down some notes in order to discover how effective are those strategies and if you are getting closer.
Tracking expenses is important and admittedly can be boring. There are numerous garden expense trackers online. Some are extremely thorough and demanding in the detail they request. Some are too overly simplistic to really help you make your determination.
Tracking yields is just as important although probably not as boring.
In the final installment of this series we’ll give you links to a couple custom made and customizable spreadsheets to help you track expenses, track yields, compute values and determine how far away you are from the breakeven gardening point.