Your dream to live self-sufficiently, closer to the land and more economically is within reach.
The rewarding and healthful lifestyle of small-scale farming can be yours on as little as one acre of land, rewarding you and your family with sustenance, satisfaction, and valuable life lessons.
The key to success is not size.
With some basic understanding, planning, organization and efficient operation, your 1-acre farm will flourish.
First, you need a plan
You’ve got the land, the will, and the commitment. Now you need a plan.
Without one, your farm may become a series of frustrating blunders, wasting time and money. So, start by thinking a few things through and writing them down.
Exactly what do you want from your small-scale farm?
Is it a hobby farm, a weekend effort, or a true subsistence farm?
Depending on your needs and desires, each is a valid option for small-scale farms. Your goal will define how you use your available space. For our purposes, we will assume that your intent is to become self-sufficient.
You can modify this plan to suit other farming goals.
Land and Soil Characteristics
Assess your land.
Are there water sources? Land with water may reduce the cost of pumping or buying water to provide for crops and livestock.
Is there adequate drainage? Animals and plants need water but generally don’t thrive in a marshy environment.
Determine your soil type. Farming techniques and crops vary from region to region for good reason. Become familiar with your regional characteristics.
Visit local farms to see what crops are grown successfully in the same soil.
Shallow-rooted leafy vegetables, pumpkins, squash and heavier plants requiring firm root support (cabbage, Brussel sprouts) can do well in dense soils like clay. Clay retains moisture better than other soils but requires preparation and augmentation.
Rich, loamy soil is good for many crops, but if it is too loose or has high sand content, it will dry out during the hot, dry summer months.
Irrigation costs may be higher to sustain crop growth.
In some cases, the soil may be so poor initially that you will plant your subsistence crops in raised, prepared beds. Remember that over time you will improve your soil. Last year’s crop remnants, livestock manure, and vegetable refuse from your personal use will be recycled into your garden plots to increase fertility.
With proper management, poor soil today can be rich, fertile and productive in a relativity short time.
Be familiar with temperatures and rainfall. These determine when and what to plant.
Climate can also influence your farm structures. Colder regions often require sturdier buildings and may even necessitate a greenhouse to extend the growing season.
How much money is available for your start-up and operating costs?
Don’t break your budget. Better to start small and expand as you grow in experience than have your farm efforts end for lack of funding.
Consider your lifestyle preferences. What foods do you and your family prefer? Find ones suited to your climate and soil and grow crops you will enjoy eating.
Vegetarians may want to forgo livestock production but think twice. Livestock waste, rich in nutrients, returns to the soil much of what was taken from it in growing your produce. It is an important part of improving your growing plots.
If you are opposed to eating meat, consider raising your livestock for sale. Retain the manure and sell the meat.
Layout and Design
Consider convenience, sanitation, and your personal living space.
Placing animal pens near your compost pile and the pile near your growing areas will eliminate unnecessary hauling. A centrally located barn adds to convenience. Animal pens, chicken coops, and compost piles draw flies and emit odors.
Place them away from your living space if possible.
Here's an example of 1-acre farm layout from OHHShop:
Plants to grow in your 1 acre farm
Depending on taste preferences, annual sustenance crops should include varieties of the following, suited to your soil and climate:
- Plot 1 – Potatoes or sweet potatoes
- Plot 2 – Beans and peas
- Plot 3 – Cabbage and lettuce
- Plot 4 – Root vegetables like beets, carrots, and turnips
Read this article for a list of vegetables and fruits to grow on smaller spaces.
Rotate your plots, planting a different crop in each plot in successive seasons.
Leave a separate part of your planting area dormant every year. Dormancy and rotation guard against soil depletion, add nutrients back and help prevent the spread of disease and pests that attack certain crops.
Grazing livestock on dormant plots works the soil and adds back nutrients from manure droppings. Plowing grass, clover, and vegetable waste, into dormant ground, enriches the soil for the next planting.
Best farm animals to raise
As a beginning farmer, there are two animals you should consider for your farm. Chickens and goats are reasonably easy to raise and provide high-quality protein. They are also a key part of your soil enrichment efforts, providing that all-important ingredient…manure.
As farm animals go, they are relatively low maintenance. That will be important, especially in your first year or two of farming.
Starting with as few as a dozen laying hens, you will have plenty of eggs and meat. With proper management, they will also provide a steady surplus to bring in cash or for use in barter.
Breed selection is important. Some chickens are great layers (Leghorns) but not so good for meat. Others, (Cornish Rock) mature quickly and provide lots of meat but not so many eggs.
For a small-scale farm, a dual-purpose bird is ideal. This classification includes Plymouth Rock, Orpington and New Hampshire Red breeds. These birds tend to be hardy, good sized for meat production and lay abundantly.
Make sure to read this article if you want to know which breeds are the best layers.
Why goats? Here are some facts:
- A female produces 90 quarts of milk a month, 10 months of the year.
- A castrated male produces 25 to 40 pounds of meat.
- A doe will provide at least one baby (kid) every year
Goats are low maintenance animals.
They can be fed in part by allowing them to graze on unplanted plots, but make sure they are contained. If not, they will also eat your garden, your bushes and the leaves off any trees they can reach.
That said, their value to the small-scale farmer far outweighs the inconvenience. With proper and sturdy fencing, they can be kept where you want them and away from where you do not.
A minimum of three to four goats is required to start your herd. Two to three doe and a buck to breed them will ensure a supply of milk and enough kids to augment your supply of meat.
Like chickens, goats are bred for certain qualities.
Some are better milk producers; others provide more meat. Ideally, you should breed a meat-producing buck like the Boer, Spanish or Brush with a good milk-producing doe like the Nubian, Alpine or La Mancha.
About half the kids will be males and can be fattened for meat. The others can be sold or used to augment your existing herd.
Other than chickens and goats, read this article to find out the best farm animals beginners can raise.
The more adventurous beginner might consider a milk cow and pigs. They do have the advantage of providing excellent meat and lots of rich manure, but also require more time, effort, space, expertise and expense than goats or chickens.
A good way of introducing them into the farm is to do it incrementally. Start with chickens and goats. Once you are comfortable with them, add a milk cow. Jerseys and Holsteins come in miniature sizes, about a third to half as large as a standard cow.
Finally, add pigs and increase your meat production and cash flow.
Important structures to build first
Every farm requires several structures. They can be basic and not overly complicated, but should be sturdy.
Make it only as large as necessary for tools, implements, seed and feed.
Locate it centrally on your property so you aren’t making constant trips from one end to the other as you work.
Chicken Coop / Chicken Tractor
Your chicken coop should be sturdy, well-ventilated and secure to keep predators out and the chickens in when they are not out grazing. Make sure you provide at least one nesting box for every four birds.
A light bulb, or heat lamp, depending on the climate, will provide sufficient warmth on cold winter nights.
Another structure you may want to include for your chickens is a “chicken tractor”.
This is a movable pen that allows you to graze your chickens, moving them about the farm to prevent over-grazing. Like all animals, chickens require fresh air, exercise, and a varied diet to remain healthy and productive.
Sturdy pens for other livestock are also essential.
Place your pens near the barn for convenience in feeding and caring for animals.
Remember that if you keep goats, they will seek every opportunity to escape from any enclosure. Goat fencing must be at least four feet high, (five feet is better) and preferably of high tensile wire.
Shelter for your animals is also important. While many, like goats, can live almost anywhere, it is important to provide a place out of the weather.
Minimizing stress from cold, heat and wet improves health, happiness, and production.
In milder climates, a three-sided shed may be sufficient. In colder regions, the shed should be enclosed and windproof.
Perpetual Motion Farm
A well run farm is a perpetual motion machine.
Each season supports the others.
Livestock provide manure for compost. Compost enriches the soil. Fertile soil increases crop yields. Abundant crops provide food for you and livestock and seed for the following year, and the cycle continues.
Your perpetual motion farm will become more productive as you grow in experience. Livestock and crop yields will increase. You will have achieved your dream.