NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming

How Much Land?
Probably not as much as you might think,especially if you’re growing the right crops. Here's what history teaches us...

By George DeVault

How much land? Ultimately, about six by three, according to Leo Tolstoy and the Devil. The photo to the right is of Tolstoy’s grave. MORE >





E-Letters from Readers

Here are answers to a few of the e-letters we received from readers. We’ll feature more in upcoming columns.

Feel free to write us now with your questions and your stories.

Balancing Family With Farming Dreams

“I dream of becoming an organic farmer, but am daunted by the challenges. How can I afford to quit my job, buy even a small amount of land with a home, and market enough to pay the mortgage and provide for my family? I would most appreciate concrete strategies that would help me accomplish this.

I read about many farmers retiring with few young farmers willing to take over and learn from them.

I see many ads for low-paying, seasonal, temporary internships designed for college students or single people. I am 35 years old, married with three daughters under age eight.

What I need is some full time, long term apprenticeship opportunities which would help me learn to farm organically, while providing for my young family.

Would some of those retiring farmers consider taking me under their wing and eventually transfer the farm to me in a way that would financially benefit us both?”

--Cody Wheeler

You have the right idea, but PLEASE don’t quit your job and plunge right into farming!

And, PLEASE read all of our Beginning Farmer columns (Nuts & Bolts & Dreams), especially son Don’s pieces and Mel’s cut flower columns.

A dear friend of ours recently did just what you’re talking about. In two years, farming a few acres of rented ground, he lost nearly all of his life’s savings of $40,000.

Before you make the plunge, get all of the production -- and marketing
-- experience and information you can. Eliminate or at least minimize your debt. Save as much money as possible. Internships or apprenticeships can help you earn while you learn. Many people, whether beginning farmers or those who have been at it for decades, have a spouse with an off-farm job to provide a regular paycheck and health insurance.

It’s a jungle out there!

That’s why we’ll be writing a whole lot more about how we and others got started in farming -- safely. The idea is to make your new farm dreams come true, not turn them into nightmares. It takes a lot of hard work and even harder planning, patience and preparation, scrimping and saving, plus often burning the candle at both ends, especially at first. If you’re not up to that task then the new agriculture is definitely not for you.

By the way, there ARE tons of good resources out there for finding apprenticeships. We’ll most likely do a whole column on just that, sprinkled with comments from folks who have had experiences (both good and otherwise) with apprenticeships. But in any case, we’ll pass along a few good resources in our next column.

What’s Up With Whatley?

“I read Booker T. Whatley's book edited by George DeVault (“How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres”) in the 1990s. Very inspiring. My grandparents raised registered Herefords in South Dakota, so I had enough exposure to farm life to see there was a lot going on in that book that would work.

Is Mr. Whatley still farming? What was your uptake on his ideas?

At age 49, I can begin to envision those things for myself. Your web site is great. You wanted feedback on content. I'd like to see some practical applications of ideas, "farm biographies,” how people started and made it work.

Thanks for your web site. I'll be here often.

--Robert R Scoles, Sr.

Dr. Whatley is 87 years old now. He is enjoying retirement with his wife Lottie at their home in Montgomery, AL.

Whatley was retired from Tuskegee Institute when his classic book was first published in 1987. It sold more than 150,000 copies. Dr. Whatley paid for the last print run of 2,000 copies in 1996 to meet residual demand, then said, “Enough.”

For our money, Whatley’s ideas on diversification, year-round cash flow and direct marketing of high-value crops are still the most sensible, practical -- and profitable -- advice to come from a university scientist since George Washington Carver.

Hey, we might even try to arrange to reprint portions of Dr. Whatley’s book here on the web site, if there’s enough interest. Cast your vote by clicking here and telling us you’re interested in the Whatley reprints.

Glad to hear you’ll be coming back to often, because there’s a slew of “farm biographies” that you request on the way. Stay tuned!




March 5, 2003: “How much land do you need to do something like this?” I asked Scott Nearing about 30 years ago. He and Helen were busy building with stone. Time was short.

“What’s your crop?” Scott replied.

Crop? What crop?

“Gee, I dunno. What crop do you grow?”


And so, when we finally bought our land in 1984, we quickly noted that our land was on the sour side and “lay wet” in spots, as the old timers say. Perfect blueberry ground.

The first Father’s Day we owned the place, Melanie and the kids bought me six highbush blueberry plants. We still have those bushes. We have added hundreds more over the years. With drip irrigation and minimal care, they are thriving -- and adding considerably to our farm’s bottom line. Since they began bearing, blueberries have been one of our most popular crops, which is why we will be adding even more bushes this year, along with serious bird netting. (More about all of that in other columns).

Fresh market vegetables, herbs and cut flowers -- all certified organic -- are our other main crops. At most, we cultivate five of our 19.2 acres. And we have our hands full! We don’t really have time, the money or the energy to properly take care of the rest.

Scott was right. How much land depends on what you intend to do with it. Over the years, I’ve seen people gross more than $250,000 a year on a half-acre city lot in downtown Berkeley, CA, and others go broke on hundreds or even thousands of acres of prime farmland in the heart of the Corn Belt.

It’s not only what you grow, it’s also:

  • Where you grow it.
  • How you grow it.
  • Where you sell it.
  • How you sell it.

Then there is how much you pay for land or, more importantly, how much you owe on land.

“How Much Debt Can A Body Stand?” was the headline of a Gene Logsdon column in The New Farm magazine in the early 1980s. Good question, and one you definitely need to ask yourself, again and again. Just how deep are your pockets? How much risk can you, your spouse and your family stomach? You may well bet the farm on your prospects as a farmer. But are you willing to bet your children’s education? How about your retirement? If you’re raising corn and beans, hogs and beef and you’re a million or two in the hole, it doesn’t matter how much land you have. These and many other pieces all work together. Fudge just one factor in the equation and the bottom line changes drastically, often for the worse.

So, how much land do you need to earn, say, $40,000 a year? The American Farmland Trust asked that question in 1987 in a report titled “Small Is Bountiful.” Here are the answers that AFT found in six different states:

  • California: 30-acre vineyard yielding seven tons of grapes per acre.
  • Texas: 65-head beef operation on 650 acres.
  • Iowa: 175 acres producing 150-bushel corn and 30-bushel soybeans.
  • New Jersey: 20-acre truck farm producing 9,000 pounds of broccoli and 3,200 pounds of blueberries per acre.
  • North Carolina: 13-acre farm producing one ton of tobacco per acre.
  • Wisconsin: 200-acre dairy with 25 cows, each producing 13,000 pounds of milk a year.

How much land? Probably even more today, since production costs have soared and prices paid to farmers have generally plunged in the last 15 years.

The question goes back probably 10,000 years to the earliest beginnings of agriculture. Ancient Greeks and Romans wrestled with it. We’ll focus on more recent times in just North America.

“Our farms ... though small, are generally too large for our capitals; that is, we work badly too much ground, instead of cultivating well a little,” Nicholas Biddle said in 1822 in his address to the annual dinner of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (

How much land? Too often over the years, the answer has been, “Too much to take care of and not enough to make any money on.”

One of the most dangerous myths of modern agriculture is that you must have a lot of land. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Peter Henderson, the great-grandfather of truck farming in America.

In the mid-1800s, Henderson supplied New York City with fresh vegetables from his farm in what is now downtown Jersey City, NJ. He had this to say when a man signed a 10-year lease on 20 acres next door for a song and proudly announced that he was going into the vegetable business:

“The place was cheap enough, only I was afraid he had got too much land, if he attempted the working of it all,” Henderson wrote in his classic book “Gardening For Profit” in 1867.

“The result was as I expected; he began operations in March, his little capital ($1,000) was almost swallowed up in the first two months, and the few crops he had put in were so inferior, that they were hardly worth sending to market. Without money to pay for help, his place got enveloped in weeds, and by September of the same year, he abandoned the undertaking.

“Had the same amount of capital and the same energy been expended on three or four acres, there is hardly a doubt that success would have followed. Those who wish to live by gardening, cannot be too often told the danger of spreading over too large an area, more particularly in starting. With a small capital, two or three acres may be profitably worked; while if 10 or 12 were attempted with the same amount, it would most likely result in failure.”

Bargain-priced land in the boondocks is no bargain, Henderson added. “It is always better to pay rent or interest of $50 or even $100 per acre on land one or two miles from market, than to take the same quality of land, six or seven miles distant, for nothing.”

How much land? That very question furrowed the brow of Abe Lincoln.

“The ambition for broad acres leads to poor farming, even with men of energy. I scarcely ever knew a mammoth farm to sustain itself; much less to return a profit upon the outlay. I have more than once known a man to spend a respectable fortune upon one; fail and leave it; and have some man of modest aims, get a small fraction of the ground, and make a good living upon it. Mammoth farms are like tools or weapons, which are too heavy to be handled. Ere long they are thrown aside at a great loss,” Lincoln told the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859.

“The prudent penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor -- the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all -- gives hope to all, and energy and progress, and improvement of condition to all.”

One of the more popular -- and practical -- farming books on the American market in 1875 was Edmund Morris’ “Ten Acres Enough.” Yet, a few years later, Morris followed it with a book called “Five Acres Too Much.”

In 1935, M.G. Kains gave us “Five Acres and Independence.” The theme was the same: Grow a diversity of high-value, high quality crops and sell them directly to consumers at retail prices and you don’t have to make yourself crazy by trying to farm three counties.

Naturally, we all want to have lots of land, if for no other reason than to enjoy ample elbow room. That’s simply human nature. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, I believe, just as long as we keep in mind what Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1886 in a short story called “How Much Land Does A Man Need?”

“If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!” said Pahom, a perpetually disgruntled peasant. The Devil was listening and quickly devised a scheme that answered the question, once and for all:

“Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”


Next: Practical advice on buying and renting land, and even farming it for free.



The photo of Tolstoy’s grave was taken by George in August of 1991, a few days before the coup against Gorbachev. Here’s what he had to say about the trip:

“We’d gone to Tula to interview the director of the Soviet Union’s leading state farm. Only he wasn’t there. He’d suddenly been recalled to Moscow. We didn’t know he was one of eight hardliners trying to take over the government.

So, we dined like kings on borscht and liver and onions in his executive dining room, then watched a fistfight break out between men and women over a pan of fresh sausage in the farm’s grocery. 50 years ago that month, the woods and fields around us had been filled with Nazi tanks and troops.

Visiting Tolstoy’s nearby estate later that afternoon was the perfect ending to a long, strange trip.”