Brisbane Local Food

Growing local

Is growing food at home costing you more?

An interesting report in the Brisbane Times  raises the conundrum of garden size vs water use as a primary cost factor.

It draws on research by James Ward  and John Symons , published as Optimising Crop Selection for Small Urban Food Gardens in Dry Climates(LINK)

I know that we do not garden for profit -- nor do most of us garden to save money-- but the point is salient:

The researchers found the biggest change to garden affordability was the rising price of water and many residents could find themselves spending more on water than the value of the food grown. 

"In dry cities you've got a double whammy – the dry climate means plants need more water, and that water costs an arm and a leg," Dr Ward said....

Dr Symons said the results were that it came down to the size of the garden. 

"With a small garden the model lets you be really selective, choosing just high-value niche crops like strawberries, basil, tomatoes," he said.

"The bigger your garden, the more you'll have to fill it up with lower-value crops because, let's face it, you can only eat so much basil and strawberries.

"So naturally, profitability per square metre goes down as garden size goes up."

It's true isn't it?

Since I've been engaged with the school garden project I've been much interested in reducing costs . Indeed, that we garden there using tank water makes the initiative feasible.Similarly if I gardened at home with town water all the time my wife would kill me.

At home I have a 3,000 litre tank that rain harvests and I've learnt to manage my water budget carefully.

But another cost cutting measure is to grow from seed rather than bring in seedlings or established plants.Cheaper still is to save your own seeds.

I find it is much cheaper by far to grow seed at home for the school garden -- and at the school shade tunnel with the kids -- than to purchase growing plants. Mind you I can get seedlings at 15 for $2 at the Cab Mkts -- but even that can blow your budget at high numbers. (And so too can over indulgence online in seed catalogues).

In both areas my/our primary cost is seed raising mix.

I'm hoping to make my own when I get around to it...

At the school the set up costs were very high -- what with importing soil and sundries -- but it now ticks over cheaply. Outlays for seed and seed raising mixes are the key budget items.

But there we have 'fertiliser issues' I'm trying to work around as the garden isn't mulched. We do, however, have worm farms.

I've done a lot of work at home on my water budget. That I am gardening on sand means that water doesn't stick around when it's used for irrigation. I have the option of installing a spear pump to access the aquifers below us but I cannot justify the cost relative to the return.

Three thousand litres -- carefully managed -- seems to work. The only consistently dry times are the  months of July into August.But my regime of filling my clay pots every second day seems to sustain my crops. Any other approach -- any other form of irrigation -- I've found --would blow my budget.

I'd love another tank -- another 3,000 litre tank for instance -- to capture more off my roof --as the only water that leaves my property is the roof water that the tank doesn't hold. But even there, at this time of year that water still flows from the heavy morning dews despite the absence of rain..

As for ye olde Permaculture standards -- swales and perennials -- I'm an annuals man and sand on a flat block  is brutally unforgiving.

That leaves me dependent  on mulching and shade hardware but if I was sentenced to paying for those -- hay is around $15 -18 a bale -- my garden would go bankrupt.

Still, this year when I looked at running a monthly market stall again I had trouble designing a profit. There is more return in selling plants than selling vegetables. This is partly because veg don't last in the weather after harvest. Growing for market also takes up more room that displaces your production for domestic consumption. If you want to sell cheaply you are your own worse enemy.

At the school I have to do a lot of planning in regard to sewing to harvest schedules as well as planting volumes. We used to supply local cafes, but now we eat our pickings  within the school community. For instance, we always hope to do a stall once each term, selling produce to the mums and dads. Otherwise, the kids eat the harvest or the tuckshop  makes lunch with it.

At home the irony is that I don't have much surplus. It seems that the more mixed is your plantation the less there is to share. Doing a stall, folk presume you can deliver veg like Coles and Woolies -- that you function in factory mode. But very few urban gardens are like that.

Indeed it is the diversity of produce that got me gardening in the first place. I may aim to grow 'staples' -- like herbs, tomatoes, spring onions and 'greens' -- but with seed catalogues at my mouse click the vegetative world is my oyster.

This enables you to feed yourself and your fam or whoever more creatively and sustainably. You step outside the standard mode and what you may lose on the swings, you gain on the slides.There is always a feed to be had.

So mixed vegetable planting -- polyculture -- makes serious good sense. It may not be profitable if you market stall it -- but then, that's the consumer's problem. Indeed the greater the  variety of food you grow the more sustainable you are. And when you keenly mix it up there are no longer serious crop rotation issues. There's less pest attack too.

It seems to me, that 'kitchen gardens' are different from urban food gardens (according to these researchers). Cost is certainly a factor ruling both, but one grows for market and the other does not.

Or could it...?

Herein lies the option I've discussed for professional farmers that  may indeed be preferable, more efficient of time and energy, more convenient and sensible:distribute produce from your front gate -- either surplus or consciously grown for sale .

Garage Sales for food....Any money you make offsets your water bill.

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Comment by Jason Watson on June 30, 2017 at 6:26

For me its very human to only see the end cost of an item and little else.  We tend to miss so many real but unseen costs, rather focusing on the cheapest or comparative price.  We don;t suede things like joy, metal health, environmental sustainability, or recycling worth. 

Why do farmers suicide? Possibly part there of from being screwed by major supermarkets for cheap prices so they can look good, but the farmer can't pay the mortgage. Add that to rising production cost, fuel, power, fertilisers etc, then ask why do major supermarkets wish to be exempt from rising costs. Its not to keep the prices down, more so profits up.  What about the knock on effect of that suicide on the families finances and mental health.  Friends and community also have a value.

If one puts a price on joy, how often does a home gardener receive that. If they do it every day for 20 minutes, or a few hours.  Price that off against going to a cafe for brunch or a musical every day.

The hidden cost to the environment from large scale farming, top soil loss, silt in steams, pesticide drift, board acre water wastage and the draw levels on that supply, what inhabits that water for its health and everyones biodiversity. All things that are not added to the cost at the majors sales tables verse the home gardener.  

And then there is fresh from the garden V cold storage, and the chemicals to do so.  Hard to say but what if I developed cancer from the modern fruit and veg storage and supply practices. Where the home gardner can decide for themselves what and how they use it.         

The home gardner can return scarps to soil V broad acre tend to use mostly fertilisers. The home gardner could use second hand water tank where as commercial tend to use new.  Manufacturing has energy cost, carbon cost, transportation and environmental cost, as does a home gardner, but the foot print is much much smaller.  

So in reality the cost at the supermarket should be much much higher, but for most humans they don't want to accept it.

Comment by Jeff Kiehne on June 29, 2017 at 7:31

The farmers get very little out of the $10 a kilo tomatoes  they said about $2  what happened to the hydroponic green house in SA  with tomatoes if intensively grown in a green house can produce hundreds of tons per hectare so how big an area to supply nationally.

Comment by Dave Riley on June 29, 2017 at 0:21

At the mo tomatoes have been selling for just under $10 per kilogram. Herbs are priced up. Spring Onions are being offered at $4 a bunch. And many Winter veg sewn were guttered by the last cyclone. Kale is $3.50 a bunch. Even potato prices are up. Red Royales are 68 cents each at Coles...So you have to wonder about  your budget options.

I know that when I shop at the Cab Mkts I save big time with fresher veg to take home 'off the farm'-- but fresh does hit the wallet...and supermarket bought produce doesn't keep well or for long. So there is more waste.

And where better to store vegetables than in the vegetable garden?

I had fennel bulb for tea -- can't get that anywhere except outback. Ate Dragon Fruit for dessert: a weed at my place, over $5 even in the market. Chicories, tomatilloes, flat beans...not available in the shops (bar an isolated few).

Comment by Dianne Caswell on June 27, 2017 at 7:33

Great Blog Dave and Andy I couldn't say it better myself and you are right about Cheese Making we can waste a bit of water. When I am making Cheese we bring in a big white bucket and all the Whey goes onto the garden and at the end of the day the cooled down Jacket water onto the garden as well. I still waste a little but if it goes to the garden I am happy.

Comment by Andrew Cumberland on June 26, 2017 at 21:57

I never expected to save money doing it myself.  I learned that with cheese making, before I even had my gardens.  I do it for taste and so I know what I am eating.  None of my veges are ripened with gas, or sprayed with chemicals.  I hated tomatoes until I ate the ones I grew myself - mine aren't a funny textured things that a cat peed on like the ones in the shop.  I also invested in solar and have rainwater storage to mitigate costs.  I think the main impact - the thing that keeps me happy - is the fact that I now do far less damage to the earth.  I will also leave this yard a much better one than I bought ten years ago.  My yard also brings me a great sense of peace and joy - I can find which damn isle that's in at Coles.  LOL. 

Comment by Jeff Kiehne on June 26, 2017 at 10:44

Water in Water tank can be saved by getting some  Intermediate Bulk Containers they are cheap and not heavy when empty  could  even dig a big hole and put in the ground   i pump into the one i have when the tank is full and water the garden with that water .

Comment by Dave Riley on June 26, 2017 at 8:34

It's true that the utilities have guaranteed their profits  by hitting us hard for pipes and infrastructure such that water usage is a secondary outlay in the invoice.Indeed, the way the water market is structured at the moment , privatised as it is, there is less motivation to save  by reducing daily use.

Another long drought may only lead to greater tensions as folk have learnt to hate their providers...already.

But then bringing in a tank -- plumbing it, adding outdoor electricity, buying a pump and laying down a cement slab -- will cost you, maybe $1,000-3,000 at least --depending on volume. Spear pumps are at least over $2,000 installed --and there is always a chance of maintenance issues (the one at the school garden is clogged permanently and needs to be re-drilled. Cost: >$1,000).

But to pour town water on a garden is an expensive hobby. It tends to become your largest water usage -- potentially outstripping the combined cost of washing and sewerage. Indeed, as friends on acreage have found, even running pumps for the whole house -- they have a large water pond -- blows out your electricity bill.

Folk who garden in pots, raised beds, wiking beds know the budget benefits of irrigating these --as I do with my clay pots. Nonetheless, water issues should be the key design parameter when setting up a  veg garden.

And yes, Jeff, you're right : we do sell to make money for the school garden but I have to train up teachers and kids more to make such activity standard and I'm only a volunteer.It is busy enough manipulating the curriculum.

Comment by Jeff Kiehne on June 26, 2017 at 7:05

If you grew seedlings and small plants at home and at the school to sell the profits could be used to invest in the garden and could also look at buying seeds and packing into smaller packets and selling  plants like egg plant and tomato you can not plant in large numbers and seeds go to waste .Chillies would be a good plant to raise to sell  in pots  Aldi have sold for $6 a plant but i have never seen one at Aldi  so must sell quickly.

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on June 26, 2017 at 6:42

So far, the cost of the actual water is insignificant relative to the cost of the infrastructure. We cannot just pay for water however and are probably perennially, stuck with paying for the pumps and pipes. Even if we didn't use a drop of town water, the bill would be substantial anyway.

When I first started gardening in the early 60's, I started to keep all the invoices and receipts. I gave up after a few months and have not tried to count the cost since. By my guesstimating, I've paid for the harvest several times more than had I bought from the shops.

The payoff is in getting out in the sun and fresh air, learning what will and will not grow here and best of all the satisfaction of eating fresh tasty organic produce. But I have to be able to afford that luxury and while I can, I will.


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