Mini-Farming: A farming system for a sustainable future

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Date: Mar. 1999
From: Countryside & Small Stock Journal(Vol. 83, Issue 2)
Publisher: Countryside Publications Ltd.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,715 words

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The Biointensive Mini-Farming (BIMF) is an organic system of raised beds, not traditional rows. The beds are fertilized with compost supplemented with natural fertilizers, and companion planting is used to maximize space. BIMF has been found to grow up to 4 times as much food per unit as conventional methods. Several references to recommended books on the topic are included.

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In the January/February issue a reader stated, "There is no way on Earth six acres could be self-sufficient."

Ken Hargesheimer begs to differ. People are doing it, he says ... but not by using conventional methods.

His comments add substance to our speculations on "homesteading in the 21st century." Read on.

Ken Hargesheimer Lubbock, Texas

During the mid-1970s, an interesting alternative production system was gaining both notice and respect. It was referred to as the French-Intensive/Biodynamic method, because it shared techniques and philosophies from both of these European farming systems. In more recent years, the name has evolved to Biointensive Mini-Farming (BIMF).

A mini-farm is small. It looks like a large, diverse garden, with an arrangement of raised beds and paths rather than traditional rows. Equipment such as rototillers and tractors are totally absent. (Hand tools and hand implements are used: wheel hoes, string trimmers, etc.)

BIMF is an organic system. Synthetic pesticides and soluble, commercial fertilizers are not used. Its organic character means less pollution of the environment and a more stable agroecosystem, where natural, biological control agents proliferate.

Beds and the paths between them become permanent. Growers avoid walking on finished beds to reduce compaction. Likewise, no fertilizer, water or extensive tillage is wasted on paths.

Beds are fertilized routinely with large quantities of compost and supplements with other natural fertilizers if needed. The proper production and use of compost is paramount to maintaining soil fertility. BIMF permits the use of manures but depends mainly on vegetation-based compost. Proponents feel heavy reliance on manures creates nutrient imbalances (Jeavons 1979). On the other hand, a great variety of vegetation can be grown on-site. Even in urban situations, an abundance of plant materials such a leaves, grass clippings and kitchen scraps is usually available.

Double-digging and concentrating fertility into beds allows for high population of crops. Companion planting is also used to maximize space and gain added pest control and fertility (Philbrick and Gregg, 1966).

Potential of BIMF

Since BIMF needs little land or capital, it has been of particular interest to agencies that aid subsistence farmers in developing countries. It has also captured the imagination of many gardeners in industrialized nations. Some believe BIMF may effectively address many of the ills of modern commercial agriculture both in the United States and abroad.

Certain characteristics of the system lend credence to these assertions. BIMF is highly productive and has been found to grow two to four times as much food per unit area as conventional agriculture. Cucumber yields have ranged from 9 to 15 times the national average. Carrots have exceeded 2.5 times the national average in 17 years of evaluation. Of course, the skill of the grower and the fertility of the beds are relevant factors (Jeavons, 1989).

Jeavons (1976) estimated that one mini-farmer working 40-45 hours per week could produce enough food for 24 people on about three-quarters of an acre. These figures came from attempts to provide a complete diet using BIMF in northern California. Researchers at Janus Farms Institute in the Piedmont region of North Carolina have reached comparable results (S. Jamir, 1994, personal communication).

BIMF requires fewer off-farm inputs. Many practitioners rely only on compost. Those who employ other fertilizers use half the amount of organic nitrogen typically applied. Compared to conventional American systems, BIMF uses 1/3 to 1/31 the amount of water per pound food produced.

After a balanced soil is achieved, BIMF also conserves energy. It consumes 1/100 or less the human and mechanical energy of mechanized farming (Vesechy, 1986).

BIMF wastes little. Nutrients are recycled through the composting of all crop waste. Cover crops, plant diversity and limited tilled ground ensures little loss of soil and nutrients to erosion and leaching. BIMF practices also have the potential to build soils for long-term production. Research has shown that 500 years worth of humified soil carbon, a major indicator of fertility and soil maturation, may be accumulated in as little as eight and a half years. Furthermore, this increase in soil carbon may be accomplished by employing a closed system in which a portion of the crop is grown specifically for making compost (Jeavons, 1989).

Capital requirements are one of the most significant barriers to entry in modern agriculture. BIMF uses small areas, does not need expensive irrigation equipment, avoids the purchase of petroleum-fueled cultivating and harvesting machinery and reduces expenses for annual inputs. As a result, it is an enterprise accessible to those with limited financial and land resources.

In order to keep stewards on the land, agriculture must supply them with an adequate standard of living. By one estimate, a grower might be able to net US$10,000 to US$20,000 annually (1978 dollars) on a 1/10 acre mini-farm, working a 40-hour week and taking up to four months' vacation (Jeavons, 1979). (Average gross in 1998 is $8,000 per acre. A family can garden 3-6 acres. KH)

Trends that might favor the growth of BIMF include the heightened interest in locally grown and organic foods. The continued rise of farmers' markets, health food outlets and community-supported-agriculture projects represent marketing options for mini-farmers. Increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains also favors this system.

Using a closed system is not necessary when other sources of organic materials are available such as manure, sawdust, food waste, etc.

(All the above applies to mini-ranching, as well, with beds producing forages for animals. KH)

BIMF boasts two advantages which no other production system can claim. First, it is easier on the soil than mechanized methods. Second, it is the least expensive method in terms of capital outlay. For very small farms (mini-farms) this method is not only economically viable but superior to the alternatives. (Jeff Rast, Countryside, Nov/Dec 98)

Multinationals will never be able to produce "vegetables with the farmer's face on them." Despite USDA's pathetic attempt to gut the meaning of the word "organic" with the issuance of bogus federal rules, the simple message, "Health means eating a lot of fresh, uncontaminated vegetables and fruits" rings clearer and clearer in the national conscious ness. Confidence in the conventional food supply is headed for the basement. Thus, conditions for the rebirth of an old industry, truck farming on the urban fringe (and inter-urban, too. KH), appear to have set in permanently.

Bob and Bonnie Gregson (Rebirth of The Small Family Farm, Box 2542, Vashon Island WA 98070, $10 ppd), calculate that participation in subscription farming by no more than 5% of the 2-3 million people in greater Seattle, where they farm two acres, would keep 1,400 tiny farms like theirs on Vashon Island fully busy and prosperous.

And they mean prosperous. Their experience and that of other growers suggest that a two-acre general purpose farm operated by two people can earn the local median income within four years from startup and will reach a practical limit at about $40-50,000 net per year.

If enough readers take their example to heart, in a few years we could be seeing these postage stamp farms occupying the economic high ground (the upper 5-10% of all farms by income), while producing most of the food that actually feeds people.

We are talking about a new revolution in agriculture!

The Gregsons lay out solid, essential information for the would-be farmer, telling their own story -- complete with sore shoulders, marketing stumbles and mature psychological insight -- concisely and intelligently. Even more to the point, they analyze, from the perspective of experienced professional managers, the conditions they believe supported their success.

They have done so with a welcome absence of naive hucksterism. "Many are amazed to discover that we two middle-aged novice farmers are making a living on less than two acres of land. Even more amazing is that the model appears to be replicable by almost anyone, almost anywhere in this country and many others. Technological advances, careful planning, and marketing directly to the consumer have reestablished this time-honored format as a basis for the new small family farm."

Useful appendices list Meadow Farm's actual crop selection and harvest data, revealing the practical limits of each planting. These two earnestly want their readers to succeed, joining them in a movement that could profoundly reshape the character of the nation.

The main limiting factor facing future small peri-urban (and interurban. KH) farmers, but one which life circumstances eased for the authors, is access to capital. Though the financial requirements of a small farm business are modest ($11,000 by this account) most younger couples, particularly with children, would face significant obstacles in financing a small farm venture, particularly when the cost of purchasing land and housing is factored in.

But Bob Gregson is not chairman of the King County Agriculture Commission for nothing. His innovative proposal to institute a "GI Bill" for small family farmers addresses that need for capital. At once visionary and highly practical, such a program -- combining education with the homestead model of finance -- could rapidly accelerate a healthy transformative process already underway.

"The loss of the small family farm has seriously damaged our whole culture over the past 60 years. But now, mixed-crop farms as described in this book and pasture-based small livestock operations described in Joel Salatin's books, offer economically viable options to start healing that damage."

The Gregsons have given us a clear testament of a middle-class model that can succeed in the U. S. This simple book is a significant contribution to the literature of ecological restoration in American culture, for it describes the steps by which almost any two, having a bit of intelligence and willing to work hard, can pay for the establishment of a system using local resources to serve local needs. (Permaculture Activist, No. 38, Black Mountain NC 28711-1209,

For more information, contact Ken Hargesheimer, 806-744-8517, or

Highly recommended: How to Grow More Vegetables (than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine), by John Jeavons (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A54246235