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Subsistence Gardening Inquiry: A Quebec Family Analyses a Year of Data

In yesterday’s blog, Laurie Fourniaudou discussed her experience with a self-sufficient vegetable garden. Today, we look at how Laurent Dubois sees the subject.

I think you’ll enjoy reading both!

Larry Hodgson

By Laurent Dubois
mclapeche@gmail.com

How much work does it take to grow most of the produce our family eats in a year? How much does it cost, and how much space do we need?

These are the questions we set out to answer in 2021. We have been subsistence gardeners for several years now; mostly in coastal British Columbia (plant hardiness zone 8), but for the last 3 years in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec (plant hardiness zone 4). In the summer of 2020, we even built a small permanent greenhouse that could be heated in winter, allowing us to grow year-round. While our fruit orchard is still quite young, our garden now fulfills at least 90% of our produce needs for the year. We eat what we grow, and we grow what we eat! It’s a deceptively simple plan, which we tweak from year to year as our young family grows, our food preferences change, our knowledge deepens and our skills sharpen.  

Vegetable garden fenced in.
Our garden

The only way to keep track of it all, of course, is to keep good records! We take note of all the important information from year to year: seeding and planting logs, hard frost dates and extreme heat waves, bug infestations, complete harvest records for our crops, yearly garden maps, successes and failures, notes for the following season, and anything else worth noting. We also take pictures of our gardens at different times for a visual reference, making it easy to compare from year to year what certain plantings actually looked like at similar times.

It might sound like a lot of work, but it’s really only a few handwritten notes in a cheap notebook, and a few pictures in our smartphones; nothing too complex. And believe me, any effort spent here saves us in multiples when winter rolls around and we start eagerly planning our next growing season. “When did we plant those carrots last spring? How many kales did we end up planting? Where was the garlic planted 2 years ago? How many watermelons did we get last summer? When was the last frost in the spring?” Good luck remembering all that!

Fenced in vegetable garden.
View from above.

Just about the only thing we haven’t kept track of is our labour. Then again, why would we? Nowadays, when you decide to grow food, it’s usually because you want to. Like any other “hobby”, the last thing on your mind is how many minutes you’re going to spend doing it. Keeping spreadsheets on labour data is probably as diametrically opposed to getting your hands in the dirt as you’re likely to get. Neither would it add value to what we do . . . or would it?

We grow all of our food in 3 distinct areas, which we label as follows: The Garden, The Greenhouse and The River Beds (named for their proximity to the river). The garden is the largest by far, with a footprint of 30? × 60?. Our small greenhouse has a footprint of 12? × 15? (the maximum allowed by the municipality), and the 2 river beds have a combined surface of 4? × 20?. Our growing spaces are inefficient by professional standards; the walking paths are too wide and numerous, but this was by design for comfort and ease of circulation (good for kids to run around in!). Despite this, let us keep to these numbers and assume our total food production footprint is around 2060 square feet, or about 1/20th of an acre. In a good year, that is just enough space to provide us with all the produce we need, plus some to share. In a year like 2021, suffering through several modern-day biblical plagues (wait—does climate change count?), it falls a little short of 100%, but still gets us by.

Two narrow planting beds
Our ‘river beds”.

Our property is right off the main road in our rural community. “Everybody” drives by it at some point. It’s a nice piece of land and the road is several feet higher than us, so the vantage point as you drive by affords a good overview of our property. With our garden being relatively large (for a home garden), and the infrastructure being rather unusual for the area, we get a fair number of comments from onlookers. “Nice garden! I love driving by it on my way to work every morning.” That sort of thing. It’s always positive feedback, which is lovely, but quite often it’s accompanied with some sort of remark about the “work” we put into it, like: “I love your garden! It must be a ton of work though, eh?” Or, “I always see you out there when I drive by; you two put so much work into your gardening!”.

Home vegetable greenhouse in winter.
Our greenhouse

My typical response was: “Actually, it’s really not that much work. . .”. Truly, other than the initial time spent on the infrastructure (fencing, greenhouse, etc.) and the odd calamity, the gardening itself is mostly undemanding. To be honest, I almost took exception to those comments. It’s as if they were saying “You’re crazy for doing all that.” A part of me always wanted to “prove” that what we’re doing isn’t actually hard, and achievable by anybody who cared to try. In fact, I always thought that if you averaged it out for the whole year, it would probably only represent about 15–20 minutes of work per day. Certainly, less involvement than owning a medium-size dog. Alas, there was no way for me to prove it . . . even to myself. Was I wrong? Were we blinded to reality by a thick veil of bucolic ideals? It would be worth looking into.

Why not do it then? Why not record all of our food production labour for a year? If we did, we’d know exactly what our “average daily input” is. Not only that, but this new data set, in conjunction with the others, would allow us to ascribe a certain value to our labour, like an hourly rate. This prospect was also quite interesting to me. I was curious because in general, the assumption with farmers and growers alike is that if they ever figured out the “wage” they were earning, it would be abysmally low (lots of work, low pay). After all, no one goes into farming for the money. As the old joke goes, “How does a farmer make a million dollars? He starts with two million!”

A note on precision: While we strived to measure our time as accurately as possible, many tasks are repetitive (think watering), so we averaged and rounded when acceptable to do so. Moreover, the accuracy of the numbers is not really paramount. The nature of gardening itself guarantees that this will always be a moving target. The size of the garden, the plants chosen, the style of growing, the climactic conditions, etc. all have an impact on labour. What was important for this exercise was to capture as realistic a picture of labour as possible, for this specific year, with all its glories and foibles, and the bounty we were able to produce.

With those numbers in hand, we’d be able to paint a portrait of our backyard food production that is representative enough to extrapolate from and predict/estimate the labour component of other years as well by isolating and modifying certain elements in the equation. E.g., “what if we changed irrigation systems?”, “what if we increased our garden size by 20%?”, or “what if we had harvested the 150 lbs of tomatoes we expected to get?” In short, we gave it a college effort. Here are the results of our year-long experiment.

Looking at the table above, you can see that our total labour input for 2021 was 215.18 hours. Averaging that out for the year yields about 35 minutes/day. So, while I was off with my original “guesstimate” of 15–20, I was still right about the dog thing. In other words, this amount of input is well within the realm of possibility for most people. Of course, that’s not quite a fair analysis because 80% of that time is spent in the 6 months between May and October. Nevertheless, even in our busiest month (August), labour still falls well short of a part-time job, with an average of about 45, non-consecutive minutes each day per person (2 adults). See the graphs below for a visual representation.

As far as value is concerned; we’ve always kept track of everything we grow. We do this first by measuring what we harvest, either in weight or volume, depending on the produce, then giving it an equivalent dollar value based on current market prices. For example, tomatoes are weighed in pounds, while kale and chard are counted in bunches. In 2021, local tomatoes were anywhere from $3/lb for bulk to more than $6/lb for heirlooms and cherry tomatoes, while kale and chard bunches were around $3.50 each.

The only exceptions are things like peas and ground cherries that are typically sold in pints, and items we almost always harvest as a medley such as salad greens, as well as those that we pick only a little at a time, like parsley. While we do keep track of these to some degree, it’s impractical to assign them a truly accurate value for the season (“how many peas did we snack on again today in the garden…?”). See the table here for our 2021 harvest.

Using this system, we arrive at a total harvest value of about $6,200 for 2021. Not a bad haul, for sure, but undersized compared to the $7,200-$7,500 we had forecasted. The year 2021 proved to be our most challenging yet, and while we were able to adjust and turn things around for most crops, others suffered irreparable setbacks. Most notable were our losses with tomatoes (100 lbs shy), winter squash (120 lbs short), and hardy greens (?60 bunches shy). Nevertheless, the cycle continues and as we take our lessons to heart, we foster resiliency, build capacity, and hope for a better “next” season, year after year.


Here Comes the Math!

We have now reached the crux of the matter . . . the “juicy bit”, the “big reveal”, indeed, the “surprising twist”! You see, thanks to our little experiment and a few careful calculations, we’ve discovered that we’re actually saving a lot more money than we thought! While it may come as a surprise to many of you that growing one’s own food is moreefficient than buying it (i.e., it takes less time and effort than “simply” getting it from the store), any old-timer raised in the country or subsistence farmer can attest to that fact.

The economics of growing your own food have always been sound, but perhaps now more than ever . . . and getting sounder every year thanks to inflation. What surprised us was just how high our equivalent “wage” really is. According to our data, in 2022 we will be “earning” as much as $50/hr for our gardening efforts! Don’t believe me? Let’s have a closer look.

To illustrate my point, we need to compare two alternative scenarios: our current one, in which we grow all of our produce, and another by contrast, where we would purchase the exact same amount of produce instead. Both scenarios are based on our own data, and use real-world figures and estimates to complement, as needed. See the table below for the comparison, with calculations and explanations to follow.

In both cases, the net value of the produce is the same, set at $6,200 (our 2021 harvest). On one side, I’ve detailed our real-life approximate costs and labour components. On the other side, to the cost of the produce itself, I added a simple estimation of “labour” and money spent to obtain the food based on time spent and cost of gas for the additional grocery store trips it would take us. We currently buy our other necessities at the rate of about once every 10 days. Should we also have to buy all of our produce, we reckon it would add at least another 50 trips/year to the store, at the estimated rate of 1 hr and $6 in gas per trip.

The numbers above are simple and simplistic, but they are real and concrete. And while the comparison isn’t perfect (as is indeed any complex hypothetical question), its value lies not in its precision, but in its illustration. The main point to appreciate is that in both scenarios there is a cost to obtaining the produce. In the first instance, the dollar cost is lower, but the labour cost is higher, and vice versa in the second instance.

One can choose to either “pay” more, or “work” more for their food. In other words, if we decided to stop gardening and switched to buying all of our produce, we would save some time, but that saved time would cost us money; we would be paying for those hours. The cost of each one of those hours is the real value or “wage” earned when choosing to grow your own. It is a real-life savings. The exact number will vary from situation to situation of course, and many more factors will come into play, but the fact will always remain. See the equations below for the explanation in determining the value of each of those hours, based on the table above, and expressed as both a net and gross income equivalent.

The other important thing to note is that inflation works inversely in each case. On the one hand, inflation increases the value of your crops, while on the other it increases the cost of your purchases. With all things being equal, yearly inflation acts like a pay raise for the home growers, and as you will see in our example, it is not insignificant.

A note on “shrinkage”: The amount of food wasted in Canada, and elsewhere, borders on the unbelievable. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 45% of all the fresh produce grown (fruits, vegetable, roots and tubers) is wasted somewhere along the way. There are several avenues for this wastage, e.g., at the transit, storage, service industry, wholesale, retail, and consumer levels.

The one which concerns us most here is the consumer level, i.e., how much produce gets wasted after the consumer buys it. Again, there are several reasons why produce gets wasted: perhaps the quality was low to begin with, too much was purchased at one time, didn’t get eaten quickly enough before spoilage, leftovers were thrown out, etc. Think about how many times you’ve had to pick through tubs of salad greens, how many partial parsley bunches you’ve discarded, layers of cabbage or lettuce leaves peeled away, onion halves left to rot, and “forgotten” veggies in the crisper. It all adds up.

There are inherent differences between “homegrown” veggies and “purchased” ones that all but guarantee that the former will suffer much less wastage. Most notably: when food comes from your garden, it is as fresh as can be and you can pick only what you need, when you need it, leaving none to go to waste. Also, you’re more likely to care about the food you’ve grown and less likely to waste it, in general.

Many reputable estimates exist for various aspects of food waste in Canada, but unfortunately, none exist for our specific little exercise. I settled on 5% as a realistic, conservative amount for household wastage, based on a higher proportion of fresh, local foods being purchased. For the sake of our equation, consider this analogy: If you wanted to have 100 apples, but knew you would lose 5, you’d have to purchase 105 to make up the difference. Therefore, it must be factored in as an increase to the net cost.

Afterthoughts

While there are many advantages, or benefits to growing your own food, financial motivations are usually low on the list. Things like freshness, taste, quality, variety, lifestyle and pleasure tend to predominate. Personally speaking, we have always also appreciated the constant learning experience that cultivation provides, the communion with nature, land stewardship and the opportunities for quality family time. Not to mention the everyday feelings of pride and satisfaction when you bring home a lovely harvest, and when your dinner meal is composed almost entirely of the fruits of your labour. No matter how nice the produce at the store or market is, I promise you it will never provide that same feeling. Sharing that same food with others only enhances it.

Over time, nurturing your garden also weaves itself into your life’s storybook; becomes an anchor, a reference point. Gardeners tend to keep at it their whole lives; it becomes second nature. Like other hobbies, gardening helps with the transition to retired life and keeps you active. It deepens your connection to a place; you are less likely to move away if you have an established garden. In the spirit of “like begets like”, I also believe that “caring begets caring”; taking care of your own natural space, fosters empathy for nature at large . . . but, I digress. This report is not a manifesto.

In 2021, we set out to establish a “baseline” understanding of our total investment into this rewarding hobby. We gathered as much data as possible and played around with it. The results were fascinating (at least to us) and educational. We endeavoured to show that it was not only possible to have a subsistence garden in a cold climate, but that it was feasible for many. The space required is fairly small, and the time investment is manageable, even with kids and full-time jobs. Bonus benefit: it’s recession-proof and highly profitable! We’ve never really grown food for financial reasons, but it’s nice to see that our efforts are well rewarded regardless! We’ll add it to the long list of reasons why we keep doing it. If you don’t have a food garden yet, why not give it a try . . . it might grow on you!

About the Authors

Man, woman and toddler insides home greenhouse in winter.

Laurent is a carpenter (now) by trade, but has been growing his own produce for 15 years and subsistence gardening for most of it. He has had the joy and privilege of working alongside many different farmers and gardeners over the years which has exposed him to a wealth of knowledge and experience. From native plants to exotic, if it is edible there is a good chance he’s tried growing it or foraged for it! His approach to growing is organic with a penchant for permaculture. Originally from Montreal, he spent 10 years on Salt Spring Island, in coastal BC, but is now back in ‘la belle province’ living in the Gatineau Hills near Ottawa with his wife Shelley and two boys. Outside of their no-till gardens, Laurent and Shelley also have a fruit orchard with over two dozen trees and many more bushes and vines of small fruit. Their goal is to have an abundant and beautiful edible landscape.

Shelley has an urban planning background and is currently working on her doctorate in environmental studies. When she’s not weeding the garden or tending to the flowers and chickens, she’s finding any other excuse to spend her precious free time outdoors.

Photos and tables by Laurent Plante.

13 comments on “Subsistence Gardening Inquiry: A Quebec Family Analyses a Year of Data

  1. Suzanne Armstrong

    I really enjoyed reading this article and the effort put into tracking and calculating costs and labour over a whole year. However, I see one big oversight, and that is the cost/value of the land used. As we know a big part of inflation is the increasing costs of housing and land. Access to this much land to grow food, even if it seems relatively small to the authors, is a privilege not shared by many.

  2. Randy Evans

    Wow! That could have been a doctoral thesis! That was very informative. Thank you!

  3. I echo all that the author has said but would like to add one of the biggest reasons we should try to be more self sufficient is the carbon footprint of our food. Grown in far away places there are huge transportation costs: trucked or flown in, transported to distributors and then purchased by us and taken home. We have also come to expect all fresh produce to be available at all times of year. Strawberries and tomatoes in February?. Growing your own allows you to eat with the seasons, store what you can for the off season and help reduce carbon emissions all at the same time.

  4. An excellent article thank you. I’ve not seen such a good analysis like this done before. It will take me several re-readings to digest all that. Great work and valuable to a lot of us too. … Robin

  5. Christine Lemieux

    They have a lot to be proud of. Thanks for the great read.

  6. marianwhit

    I think this is the BEST by far of any article I have read on vegetable gardening…and I read about plants not quite 24/7 but close, lol. I will share it widely even though I grow the vast majority of my produces (and do a lot of wild collecting), I don’t write about it with the same interest/passion. Thanks so much for sharing it, and to the authors for doing this analysis. Working off facts is important, and this is the first organized attempt I have seen at gathering the data needed to make good decisions. I promote native habitat restoration for 50%-70% of one’s outdoor living space with the same advice…know what you have when you start, take lots of photos over time, and track what shows up to live there, and you have some measure of how you are helping the planet rather than just destroying or consuming it. Growing and eating food is a human becoming part of the ecology, and a great thing to do. It also builds understanding and empathy for those who grow our purchased food and the pressures they are under.

  7. Joyce Killin, Hamilton, Ontario

    Larry, that was a wonderful article thank you for posting it. So many people see gardening as a very big chore but at the heart of it is the feeling so well described and illustrated by this Gardener.

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