Economics of an Alabama Small Farm Homestead

When I took a trip to Alabama a couple of months ago, I visited a small farm about an hour’s drive south of Birmingham. The proprietor of Rora Valley Farms, Noah Sanders, makes a living for his family mainly by selling vegetables from a garden plot, plus raising chickens for selling eggs and meat. I was curious as to how he manages to do this, since the usual model of agriculture is to operate at large scale, with big machines efficiently  plowing and harvesting hundreds and thousands of acres.

I had read online about a low tech, compost-intensive method of farming developed in Zimbabwe called Foundations for Farming. This method  has proven extremely successful in southern Africa at mitigating food insecurity; I posted a longish description of it at   “Pfumvudza” Planting Technique Revolutionizes Crop Yields in Zimbabwe.   Noah is listed as the U.S. representative for Foundations for Farming, which led me to contact him.

The Modern Homesteading Movement

The most fundamental aspect of his operation is not the specific crops he grows. Rather, it is the overall vision than he and his wife have for their lives and their family. Trying to start up a small farm is not something folks do just for the money. There are much, much easier ways to make a buck.

The Sanders are part of a small but growing homesteading movement. It is hard to pin down precisely what that means these days, but in general it denotes a lifestyle aimed at self-sufficiency. Thus, homesteaders grow a large portion of the food they eat, and often install solar panels and rain catchment systems to reduce dependence on the electrical and water grids. Raising chickens for eggs and meat is common. All this can be done in a suburban or even an urban back yard; nearly anyone can put in a garden, and some cities allow a few egg-laying hens to be kept (but no roosters, because of the noise nuisance). More typically, homesteading is done in a rural setting, on maybe 3-10 acres. Most of that acreage would be pasture, to support some larger animals, such as goats, sheep, and pigs, all the way up to cows.

Besides producing more of what you consume, part of the homesteading ethos is to consume less. Instead of buying yet more made-in-China stuff and watching hours of contrived mass media and movies, homesteaders are found making cheese or canning vegetables, or maybe just sitting on the back porch watching the ever-entertaining chickens. To keep overall investment down, a homestead dwelling itself is typically no-frills. You are more likely to see pine boards than designer ceramic tile when you look down at a homestead kitchen floor. Hopefully all this producing more/consuming less allows the adults to spend less time working away from home, and more time with their families. Most homesteaders still need to drive off to work “in town” to make ends meet. Holding down an outside job plus running a farm operation plus doing home-schooling can lead to stress and burnout, even for a strong young couple. A homesteading ideal, therefore, is to be able to support oneself entirely from home-based activities.

A big driver for homesteading is to raise children in a situation where they can see their parents daily working productively, and where the children themselves make genuine contributions to the family’s welfare, rather than being merely consumers that cost the family time and money to entertain and occupy them.   This small-scale, subsistence-type agricultural activity runs contrary to the conventional wisdom that economic welfare consists of increasing specialization and then exchange of goods/services that are produced by efficient specialists.    

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“Pfumvudza” Planting Technique Revolutionizes Crop Yields in Zimbabwe

Birth of a New Farming Method

Brian Oldreive is a Zimbabwean, born there in 1943. A star cricket player as a young man, he moved on to become a successful tobacco farmer. In 1978, he became convinced (given the harm that tobacco causes) that he should no longer grow tobacco. When he tried to switch to food crops like corn (called maize in Africa), using standard agricultural practices, he could not make a go of it. He ended up losing his farm and his livelihood due to his moral stand against growing tobacco. He went to work for another large farm, but even there it was a struggle to grow food at a profit. Soil was eroding and crop yields were falling.

He began to think that maybe there was a better way to farm than the usual Western model. One day in 1984 when he was walking in the forest, he noticed that the trees and bushes there grew just fine, with no help from humans, no plowing or irrigation. How was that possible? He observed two things. First, the ground was covered with a thick layer of leaves and other debris, which formed a natural mulch. Beneath this mulch layer (“God’s blanket”), the soil was moist. This was while the region was experiencing drought, and regular farmers’ fields were parched. Secondly, the undisturbed mulch layer naturally decayed to return nutrients to the soil.

Oldreive parlayed those observations into a system of no-till agriculture which mimics the created order. He called this “Farming God’s Way”. The emphasis is on high productivity from a small plot. This involves precision planting at the proper time, crop rotation (corn/beans), and deep mulching to retain moisture and keep weeds down. Nutrients are supplied by both compost and chemical fertilizers.

This method can be practiced by farmers owning no tool other than a hoe. This breaks the cycle of farmers or nations going into debt to purchase expensive Western agricultural machinery, which then may become useless due to inadequate maintenance out in the bush.    

This approach contrasts with conventional farming practice which plows up the soil, leaving it to erode away when it rains and to dry out when it doesn’t rain. Plowing also disturbs the natural ordering of the microbial communities within the upper and lower soil layers. (There is aerobic metabolism near the surface, and a whole different anaerobic community in the soil lower down).

Oldreive started by planting one small plot using this approach in the estate he was then managing:

I decided to copy what God does in natural creation and I observed that the leaves fall down on the ground and the grass dies down and there is a protective blanket over the earth, and that is how God preserves soil to infiltrate the water that we receive…

Many people did not believe me and said I was wasting time. But I was not deterred because I was convinced that this method would work. I decided to put the model into practice by starting with just two hectares. I prayed for wisdom and God showed me how to plant maize into wheat straw residue. This is just the same as what God does in nature.

That two-hectare (about 5 acre) plot confounded the skeptics, yielding about ten times more corn per hectare than the local average yields. He then planted more acreage using this approach. Over the next few years, while a number of conventionally-run farms around him went broke, he kept expanding and growing more food with his system.

Oldreive believed these insights were gifts from God which were meant to be shared with others. Therefore, he shifted his effort towards teaching other Africans how to farm with this method.

Things Fall Apart in Zimbabwe

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