Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The True Cost of Gardening (or, How to Get Your Produce for ONLY $50./Pound!)

A Community Garden
Wherever you go nowadays, there's an article on "How I Feed a Family of 15 on only 3 Dollars Per Week!" or some similar title. One is given to believe that if you just "Know the Secrets" you can eat almost for free.

When you read these articles, whether they're blog posts, magazine articles, or cookbook introductions, nearly all of them promise that you can have "Free" produce from your garden.

Not so fast there!

Although my dear Grandmother of Blessed Memory did feed her family of 7 with fresh garden produce, and saved lots of money - none of it was free, even though Grandma had a lifetime of frugality experience, dating from well before the Great Depression!

I believe that gardening is an amazingly admirable endeavor, and can truly boost a family's budget.

But, upon reflection, I am sure that many modern families spend more to keep a garden than they ever save.

If you examine some of the following categories of often overlooked garden budget expenditures, you might discover how you really CAN save a lot of money gardening - as I do know people who get each of these things for cheap or free - but as long as you're paying for these things, you MUST calculate them into your food cost if you're going to be honest with yourself.

On the other hand, if you LOVE to garden, it may not matter to you how much it really costs - having an enjoyable hobby and delicious food is a reward in itself. And, if you garden for preparedness or self-sufficiency reasons, that provides a motive outside of cash savings.

If you have a wonderful friend - like I do - who gives you a huge bag of home-grown produce from her garden, appreciate it for the tremendously generous & sacrificial gift it is! : )

As harvest season begins, it is a good time to look at financial planning for gardening -both for this season and for next.

If you're planning on gardening to save money, take a few minutes to calculate the actual costs before you jump in with both feet. And then, figure out some ways to trim or eliminate those costs. Consider whether an option like a CSA box might actually be more cost-effective for some of your produce needs. I find that most people who write on the subject of saving money by gardening never even touch on many of these categories in their calculations.


The REAL Cost of Garden Produce

1. Land Costs. Every mortgage payment or rent payment that is higher because you have land and not JUST a dwelling must be considered as part of the cost of your food. If you have a higher mortgage or rent payment than you would have if living in a small dwelling with no land, your food isn't free. Community or container gardening can be good options for those without land.

2. Commute Costs. Do those who work away from home in your family have to spend more money on gas, and more time getting to and from work so that you can live on a property with land - or so that you can afford the payment on a property with land? Do those who stay home use more gas to run errands than they would if they lived on property with no land?  This is part of your food cost. This is also a cost to the environment.

3. Durable Garden Infrastructure. Fencing, Raised Garden Bed construction, Straw, Potting Soil, Railroad Ties, Lumber, Markers, Potting Sheds, Greenhouses, Grow Lights, Pumps, Irrigation Equipment, Rototiller costs (rental, purchase, maintenance), Trellises, Composting equipment, and Frost-protection Equipment. These purchases should be calculated at a per-year cost for the life of the equipment, and figured into the cost of your food per pound. Some people reduce these costs by buying at estate auctions, or going to a thrift store such as those run by Habitat for Humanity.

4. Garden Equipment & Supplies. Wheel Barrows, Garden Hose, Sprinklers, Pots, Hoes, Rakes, Shovels, Insecticides and Herbicides (whether organic or chemical), Fertilizer, Purchase of Helpful Insects, Buckets and similar items are all part of your costs.

5. Seeds. A lot of gardeners will say, "I spent $1. on seeds and I got 10 Pounds of Produce, so my Produce cost 10Cents/Pound!" That's not really true, but these costs do have to be added to the other costs of gardening. Some people save their own seeds from year to year, althoughthis doesn't work with every kind of crop, it is worth investigating. (I understand it cannot be done with some hybrids).

6. Power & Water. Costs of Water for irrigation, and any power demands for Grow Lights, Greenhouses, or Potting Sheds should be considered.

7. Time. You should measure the use of your time in the garden against other, potentially more profitable uses of your time. If you have your own business that earns you $20/hour, then your time in the garden away from that business loses you $20/hour.

8. Preservation Equipment. Canning Jars, Lids, Freezer Bags, Freezer Containers, Colanders, Pressure Cookers, Water Bath Pots, Vacuum Sealers, Purchase of a Deep Freezer, Dehydrators, and Smokers, etc, are all part of your produce costs. Once again, estate auctions, garage sales, and thrift stores can help you economize here.

9. Garden Losses. Last year, we watched a Doe and her Fawn clear out row upon row of the community garden. Some gardener put in a lot of time and money for a zero (or near zero) harvest that year. To have a fair accounting, he or she should average the bad years with the good years.

10. Medical Costs/Lost work time. For many years in my childhood, my Mother put in a garden in the spring, only to have her back go out and leave her unable to move from the floor for about three weeks each spring. The garden would be overtaken with weeds, and our harvest would be minimal (we kids were too young to be much help, I'm afraid). If you get a back injury, a severe cut, a knee injury, a severe sun burn, carpal tunnel syndrome, or go into diabetic shock while gardening, the increased cost of medical care and lost time from work should be calculated as part of your produce cost. Pain & suffering don't have a financial cost, but if you have a serious health issue, they're worth considering, too. For some with medical issues, a CSA box might be a much better option than doing it yourself.

11. Produce Storage. The cost of electricity for operating a deep freezer is very high - sometimes estimated as high as $50./month for an older model - new "Energy Star" models can run about $5 a month, after the cost of purchase. Installing additional shelving or a pantry for canned goods is a cost that must be considered. If you purchase produce every week, you can afford to have a smaller house & less storage space than if you're keeping an entire year's worth of food in your house. Operating a backup battery system for your freezer or buying a freezer alarm can be another cost. Which brings us to the last point:

12. Stored Food losses. If your deep-freeze should fail while you're out of town or when you don't notice it (and it does happen!) any food in it is a loss that must be averaged against the "good" years. Costs of clean up, and possible freezer replacement are not negligible either. And of course, any food that is simply not consumed & goes to waste is also a loss.

To summarize, I'm all in favor of gardening for fun, for tasty food, and for the environmental benefits. And, if done properly, it CAN be a great money-saver. But, I'm also in favor of an accurate accounting of the actual costs, so that garden produce prices can be accurately measured against the cost of purchased produce.

This is being shared on Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, Simple Lives Thursday, Hearts for Home, Making Your Home Sing, Clever Chicks, In & Out of the Kitchen, Anti-Procrastination Tuesday, Teach Me Tuesday, Wise Woman, Fabulously Frugal Thursday


6 comments:

  1. So so true!! There is a reason that farming is usually one of the least profitable careers--wasn't always this way! Another factor in gardening, is that often the first few years of production are inconsistent, as the gardener is learning while the land is getting adjusted to having crops instead of whatever is there before. Then there is the cost that builds over time as the soil gradually gets depleted from being worked, so that what was once a profitable garden, after ten or so years, must be fed more and more to produce less and less crop. One must be careful to use sustainable practices, if this is to be avoided. In which case gardening can be very profitable, thankfully! Thanks for the disclaimer, there is so much to be said for counting the costs!

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  2. Incredible post! Very well done! Excellent! Thanks for posting! I almost did a garden this year but didn't. I know, I know...ALMOST only counts in Horseshoes...but...eeeeek! Excuses, eh!? LOL - Maybe next year :)

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  3. Great post...I think most people either don't take these things into consideration OR they're Debbie Downers and say that all that makes it more expensive and not worth it to grow your own garden. I think it's so worth it!

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  4. Some good thoughts. This year I kept track of all our garden expenses, seeds, water barrels, lime, etc. Our garden was doing great and saving us money until the dear started eating us out! A couple of the ways we saved money was using rain barrels for water (an investment that lasts for years) and digging our garden with a shovel instead of purchasing a tiller. We did not have freezer or caner expense because we were just growing what we ate for the time. I also sold some of our extra tomatoes and squash to pay for the seeds and lime.

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  5. I have to disagree with your #1 and #2. If you have a home with land, you're mortgage is the same whether you garden or not. I don't see that as a cost, but rather a more efficient use of my assets. The same goes for commuting. If you have to go into town, you're going anyway to work or shop so the cost of an extra stop at a garden supplier is minimal.

    And as an accountant, I totally appreciate the idea of making sure your accounting is accurate. But just remember that while spending money on things like wheelbarrows, shovels, fencing, etc is important, you can spread that cost out over the whole life of the item.

    But these are all good things to keep in mind - gardening is definately not something to jump into unless you know all of the potential expenses. Still, I'd take a home grown tomato over a storebought faux-mato anyday!

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    1. I'm sorry that I wasn't clearer. I know of very few people who truly own their property - as long as you're making mortgage payments, you have a choice to move up or move down in monthly payments. It is unusual that a house without land costs as much as one with land in the same neighborhood. If someone doesn't have land, they cannot get "free" vegetables - therefore the acquisition of land (assuming that you garden on your own land) is a "startup cost" of having a garden.

      If you use someone else's land - as in the case of sharecroppers - you generally have to pay part of your produce for the use of the land. In neither case is the land use *free*.

      I also mentioned that some people DO get each of these things for free - so in the unlikely case that someone has just given you land use outright - well - then #1 doesn't count. Even if you own land, though, you must consider tax and maintenance costs as part of your produce costs.

      The commuting costs I was talking about are the commuting costs of driving to *work* from the home out in the country - not from the home to the garden supply store (which, to be honest, I never even thought of!)

      On #3, I specifically mentioned that the costs should be considered over the life of the equipment; and in the introduction I mentioned the rewards of gardening that are not savings-related - so we agree on those things : )

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