Crop Proportions and Sizing (Guide to Backyard Farming)

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How much of each crop to grow depends on a number of factors but most importantly on your needs and the requirements of market outlets if you choose to grow enough to sell. Averages come in handy for general planning, but nobody is really average. What this means is nobody can make a chart telling you exactly what to grow.

Folks in the United States eat notoriously unhealthy diets.

According to the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, only 10% of Americans have a healthy diet.

So before we get into crop proportions and sizing, let's take a brief look at nutritional requirements.

As of 2006, the USDA food pyramid specifies the servings per day of different food groups (see Table 9).

By examining what constitutes a "serving" in each case and doing a little multiplication, we can create target production suitable for a healthy diet, which can later be modified if necessary to match the family's food preferences and activity levels.

----------- Table 9: 2006 USDA Food Pyramid

For grains, a serving is a single slice of bread; 1/2 cup of rice, pasta, or cooked breakfast cereal; or one ounce of ready-to-eat breakfast cereal. Serving equivalents are computed on the basis of 1/2 ounce of flour per serving.

For vegetables, a serving is one cup of green leafy vegetables or a half cup of any other sort of vegetables, whether raw or cooked.

Three-quarters of a cup of vegetable juice also constitutes a serving.

Potatoes count as a vegetable, with half of a cup constituting a serving. Botany defines tomatoes as a fruit, but U.S. law defines tomatoes as a vegetable. For the purposes of the food pyramid, tomatoes are a vegetable.

With fruits, an average-sized whole fruit or 1/2 cup of fresh berries or canned/cooked fruit constitutes a serving. Three-quarters of a cup of fruit juice is also a serving of fruit.

All forms of meat but also dry beans, eggs, and nuts fall into the meat category. For red meat, poultry, and seafood, 2.5 ounces is a serving. One egg, half of a cup of tofu, half of a cup of cooked dried beans, and 1/4 of a cup of dried seeds each constitute a serving.

One cup of milk or yogurt or 1.5 to 2 ounces of cheese constitutes a serving of milk.

Using food pyramid guidelines and serving sizes, we can determine the target production numbers for one person, as shown in Table 10.

Table 10: Per-Person Yearly Food Requirements

Crop | Per-Person Yearly Requirement

Vegetables 456 lbs Fruit 365 lbs Wheat, corn, oats, and rice 250 lbs Total lean meats and eggs 159 lbs

What those numbers indicate is that the yearly diet for a family of two adults and one teenager requires 1,368 pounds of vegetables, 1,095 pounds of fruits, 750 pounds of grains, and 477 pounds of meat and eggs. This is, of course, subject to food preferences and allergies, so at the individual crop level, nobody can tell you what to grow. But at the level of gross nutrients, the USDA food pyramid can give you a good starting spot from which to customize.

Different crops give different yields per unit of space, and a mini farmer has to be aware of the expected yields to plan space allocation. Table 11 (page 82) gives approximate yield information for planning purposes based on a number of assumptions.

Non-hybrid plant varieties in ordinary soil with sufficient water are assumed. Actual yield will depend on the variety of a given crop grown and individual growing conditions. And, it is quite possible (even likely) that a farmer with richly composted soil will exceed these yields.

Our hypothetical family of three (two adults and one teenager) requires 1,368 pounds of vegetables for the year . Averaging the yield of various vegetables, you get 220 pounds per 100 square feet of bed space, meaning that all of a family's vegetable needs can be provided easily in 700 square feet of bed space, assuming a variety of vegetables.

The same hypothetical family needs 1,095 pounds of fruit for the year . Muskmelons, cantaloupes, and watermelons all count as fruits.

Unfortunately, in most cases, these don't keep very long past the growing season. Fruit trees and vines are best to produce fruit in significant quantities. These aren't grown in raised beds and are instead grown in the ground.

A dwarf apple tree can yield up to 160 pounds of fruit annually.

Apples store pretty well in a root cellar and are easily made into applesauce, and dehydrated apples make a tasty addition to oatmeal. Another good source of fruit is sweet and sour cherries, which will yield 300 and 150 pounds of fruit per tree, respectively.

Blackberry canes are easy and trouble free to grow and will yield up to 50 pounds of blackberries per 100 square feet. Strawberries will yield around 100 pounds per 100 square feet.

Any number of combinations of fruit could work, but one example that would yield the 1,095 pounds of fruit is as follows:

100 square feet of strawberries (100 lbs) 100 square feet of melons (200 lbs) 200 square feet of blackberries and raspberries (100 lbs) 2 sour cherry trees (300 lbs) 5 dwarf apple trees (800 lbs) Knowing that the hypothetical family of three requires 750 pounds of grains, it is easy to calculate the space that would be needed for grain crops from the information in Table 11. Oats produce only 10 pounds per 100 square feet, but wheat can produce as much as 20 pounds in the same space. Even at that, dividing 750 by 20 and multiplying by 100 gives 3,750 square feet, which is an awful lot of space for a relatively small amount of food carbohydrates. On top of that, this small scale of growing grains isn't enough to justify buying a thresher , so the grain would have to be threshed by hand-an incredibly time-consuming chore. There is also the process of turning it into meal and/or flour by hand. I've done a lot of that over the years, and it is serious work.

Raising grains can become more practical if a suitable thresher is available at modest cost, and a number of public domain designs are available for folks who are mechanically proficient. Two of the most promising designs were co-created by Allen Dong and Roger Edberg; these were donated into the public domain by the creators as a gift to humanity. These designs are included on pages 174 and 176.

In spite of the fact that the USDA counts potatoes as a vegetable, they can be substituted for a portion of the grains in the diet, and doing so may have positive effects on overall health, energy, and mood.

Three hundred and fifty pounds of potatoes can easily be grown in 200 square feet. Substituting that for a portion of the grain crops would leave only 360 pounds of grains still being needed.

The growing of grains for food purposes (as opposed to cover cropping) in a mini-farm needs to be carefully considered from an economic perspective. In 2006, the most expensive organic wheat sells for less than $15 for a 50-pound bag. Fifty pounds of the finest organic bread flour on the market currently costs $28. It would take 300 square feet of beds to grow that much wheat, and that same amount of space could grow over $1,400 worth of marketable crops instead. In addition, hand threshing wheat is time-consuming and must then be followed by grinding. Overall, within the United States, it really doesn't make sense for a mini-farmer to grow grains for their food value. This is why my approach to mini-farming, unlike the Grow Biointensive approach, doesn't emphasize growing grains at home.

----------- If you grow grains at home, you'll need a grain grinder.

Unless you can make a thresher economical and don't mind digging 3,800 square feet for growing grain, a much better approach is to learn how to use a bread machine. Purchasing bulk flour and whole grains, using a bread machine, and learning how to make grain-based products at home from scratch will ultimately be more economically beneficial and less time-consuming than growing grains for food unless you live in a remote region where such an otherwise economically unwise approach is necessary. Bread machines are the greatest thing since ... sliced bread. Organic bread at the health food store routinely costs $4 per loaf as of this writing.

By using a bread machine and buying the ingredients in bulk, you end up with chemical-free bread costing about $0.50 per loaf.

------------ Table 11: Average Crop Yields Planted Intensively

Crop | Yield in Pounds per 100 Square Feet

Green beans (as a vegetable) 100 Green beans (dried, as a protein) 20 Beets (just the roots) 200 Beets (just the greens) 200 Broccoli 75 Cabbage 300 Cauliflower 200 Carrots 350 Chard 550 Corn (on the cob) 55 Corn (dried for cornmeal) 18

Cucumber 360 Eggplant 100 Kale 120 Leeks 500 Leaf lettuce 320 Head lettuce 180 Muskmelons 100 Onions 300 Peppers 120 Peas 100 Parsnips 290 Pumpkins 120 Spinach 130 Sunflower (shelled seeds) 6 Summer squash 250 Winter squash 200 Tomatoes 250 Watermelons 180

Barley 20 Oats 10 Rye 20 Wheat 20


Of all the dietary requirements, protein is the hardest to meet.

Depending on your preferences, meat may need to be purchased, although it is feasible to produce meat and eggs at home by raising poultry. Larger livestock such as sheep and cattle are too big to be raised cost-effectively on smaller lots. The details of raising small livestock will be covered in a later section , so you may wish to consider space for a chicken coop in your farm plan.

But meat is not the only source of protein! Dried beans such as pinto, kidney, black turtle, soy, and others are rich in protein and easy to raise. I sow my dried beans in between my corn stalks, so they effectively require zero space. As noted earlier in this section , a mere half cup of cooked dried beans constitutes a serving of meat according to the USDA. That's only 1/4 cup of beans in their dried state. Vegetable proteins are seldom complete, meaning that they lack one or more amino acids, but this deficiency can be addressed by supplementing the beans with protein from grains such as wheat and corn. This way the entire mix of essential amino acids is available. I'm not jumping on the vegetarianism soapbox here. What I am saying instead is that if you can eat cooked dried beans and whole grain breads a couple of times per week, your health won't suffer, and you'll save a lot of money on meats.

In summary, assuming that whole grains and flours are purchased rather than raised at home, the core food needs of the family (other than meat) can be met by growing 700 square feet of vegetables and 200 square feet of potatoes or other tubers, purchasing flour in bulk, and growing a variety of fruit trees and vines. Protein can be acquired through purchasing meats, raising meat, and using beans and grains.


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Updated: Monday, February 15, 2021 9:19