One Acre Grows a Long Way
Written onJune 01 , 2009
Here are some facts about an acre. It is 43,560 square feet. It’s about 40 percent of a hectare, the metric system’s equivalent of an acre. It can be estimated by picturing a football field without the end zones. Most U.S. agricultural production takes place on a much, much grander scale—an average of 440 acres, to be exact—but to many Americans, having even a single acre of productive land seems like a pretty good deal.
Small spaces for agricultural production likely had more respect a hundred years ago, when home gardens provided a quarter of the average household’s diet. (An acre of fertile land can provide a lot for a family.) Today, when most home gardens have been replaced by commercial operations, an acre might be better viewed as a transition point between a backyard garden that is within many Vermonters’ grasp and a growing space for professional farmers. Given that small operations may offer the most accessible way for our next generation of farmers to get their start, a humble acre can be very important.
So, then, what does one acre mean for agricultural production in Vermont?
My parents’ home gardens on the edge of the Northeast Kingdom—complete with figs, kiwis, peaches, lemons, and mulberries—offer one example of what can be done with an acre. The gardens aren’t just about novelty. My mother estimates that she gets almost all her produce from the backyard in summer and plenty of it lasts throughout the year. But the more exotic offerings fit right in with her original goal: to provide food that is otherwise hard to find locally in its fresh-from-the-fields state—or at least that was hard to find when she started the garden 30 years ago (a time before artisan bread, fancy cheese, and flourishing farmers’ markets were signatures of Vermont’s eating scene). Our family’s productive land may weigh in at less than an acre, but it’s had a much greater influence on our diet than the thousand-acre fields that produce most Americans’ food.
When home gardens expand into a business, they offer a modern twist on the traditional farming homestead. One such enterprise, Flowers in Season, is flourishing in the Lake Champlain Islands. Flowers in Season is operated by mother-daughter team Gwen and Minner Hobbs out of Gwen’s home in South Hero. They began selling cut flowers, then responded to customer demand by incorporating Minner’s skills in art. Now it’s a booked-solid flower arranging service that incorporates homemade art into every arrangement.
“It’s not FTD,” Minner says of her personalized arrangements that push creativity to accommodate client requests—one being bright orange deer head sculptures to adorn a wedding bar. And don’t call it a hobby. She and her mother have a full plate of customers. They look stressed at even the thought of expanding beyond their current small footprint.
An acre operation doesn’t always mean a backyard, though. Krista Harness, Duffy Gardner, and Jaiel Pulskamp located their one-acre farm on Vermont Compost Company’s land, a mile from downtown Montpelier. Their small production space means they need to pay attention to every detail in order to perfect their yields. When they started, they worked by hand to avoid compacting the soil, placed the beds just a footpath’s width apart, and interplanted for dense growth they could sort through at harvest. Then they added compost. Lots of compost. Kale, lettuce, scallions, collards, mesclun, peas, summer squash, winter squash, onions, beets, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and herbs resulted. The Montpelier Market Garden owners estimate that even in their first year of operation they were producing enough veggies for 50 to 75 families, including their own.
There are plenty of pragmatic reasons why ventures like the Montpelier Market Garden and Flowers in Season would want to build a business on an acre. Smaller space means less mechanical equipment. It also means less money invested up front in land, and perhaps an easier time finding a parcel for sale. Locating on land closer to more densely populated market areas means that less time and money go into transporting the product. Some landowners, like the owner of the Market Garden’s land, simply believe it’s wrong to allow pockets of productive land to sit dormant.
But these benefits aren’t necessarily primary in new producers’ minds. Instead, many of them do this work for more or less the same reason that led my mother down the home gardening path 30 years ago: a one-acre ag business provides the right kind of life. Krista Harness has high praise for her Market Garden’s opportunity to combine the “solitude of farming and the camaraderie of community,” as she phrases it. “I didn’t want to give up my job, arts, activism for isolation,” she says, comparing the activity of Montpelier to the vast fields of the West.
Minner Hobbs of Flowers in Season sees a lot of farmers following the same logic in the Islands. The makeup of the farmland there still includes large dairies and orchards, but these are increasingly mixed with smaller operations supplying particular niches in the market. Land prices and national market forces have played a role in this transition, but anecdotally what Minner sees is people following what they love to do—which doesn’t necessarily require an expansive spread.
Gwen Hobbs points to her gardens of long-stemmed flowers, birches, Japanese maple, and patches of flowering things that all find their way into her arrangements. “This is my home, too,” she says, “I don’t want it to feel like a commercial flower operation.”
Starting small allows for many styles of businesses. Some arrangements reflect broader micro-business trends, such as spouses with completely separate careers, and enterprises that mature gradually from a hobby to a job. The USDA notes this diversity, defining a farm as any operation selling $1,000 of product or more in an average year. Vermont still averages 197 acres per farm, but recognizing farms of every size makes the goal of producing at least part of a living from the land seem more accessible. That accessibility can help usher in the next farming generation.
And for the rest of us? We’ll benefit from the bridal bouquets, fresh spring salads, mulberries, and homemade preserves that result.
To learn more about turning a home garden into a commercial operation, see UVM Extension’s New Farmer Guide (www.vermontagriculture.com/agdev/newfarm.htm) or explore the introductory courses offered by the Women’s Agricultural Network (WAgN) at www.uvm.edu/~wagn/.
Photo by Helen Labun Jordan