Near Self-Sufficiency Despite a Four-Hour Commute

Brett Markham punches the clock as a network engineering director by day, but he's got a second life as a mini-farmer in his New Hampshire backyard, which, despite the short growing season in his state, is turning out the vast majority of the food his family eats during the year. His book on turning hobby vegetable gardens into economically-efficient "farms" using sustainable techniques, Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre, was just re-issued. CHOW spoke with Markham about whizbang chicken pluckers, multi-dimensional seed planting, and not being afraid to grow food just because you killed the office plant.

What's different in the new edition of your book?

It includes a lot of photos, a few new chapters on micro nutrients, some additions on food preservation chapters, and the previous chapter on raising chickens has been divided into eggs, meat, and a third chapter that covers how to make your own plucking machine.

What do you mean by "mini-farm"?

The idea of mini-farming in general is to take gardening from a hobby to a conscious pursuit as an economic endeavor. You end up making money from the mini-farm, because the value of the produce you created exceeds the amount of money and time you put into it.

You don't exactly fit the hippie back-to-the-lander profile. What motivated an "average" guy like yourself to get self-sufficient?

[My wife] only ate organic food. After we got married and started shopping together, buying free-range meats and organic produce was really expensive. At first, I thought this organic food thing was just marketing hype. But my wife is an incredibly bright woman, so when she speaks, I'll question my assumptions. The more I dug, the more right she was. But I still didn't want to pay $5 for a couple of tomatoes. So the idea got started from me trying to have my cake—organic food—and eat it, too, by not spending a fortune.

Meanwhile, the dot-com bubble broke, 9/11 was on our honeymoon, and we were both laid off from our jobs a couple of weeks apart. Once we became re-employed, gas prices started rising and stories about rising food prices started hitting the papers. Being more self-sufficient made both my wife and me feel more secure about the future and in greater control of our lives. The thing that finally sealed the deal was a friend of mine calling me up and asking me about something called Peak Oil. It turns out that the Government Accountability Office issued a report on Peak Oil saying it was real. Well, I had never heard of it, but I did some digging and it sounded pretty logical to me. So I redoubled my efforts.

What are some tricks to get a lot of food out of a small space?

A corn bed at Markham Farm.

The core to all intensive methods is the use of raised beds because [they offer better drainage, you don't walk on them so the soil doesn't get compressed, and you can concentrate your soil amendments in just the place you need them]. [Also], the soil temperature in a raised bed in the spring can be as much as 10 degrees warmer than that of the surrounding soil. A lot of nutrient availability, especially of nitrogen, is dependent on temperature. Especially for earlier crops, that temperature differential literally results in higher available fertility. They should be three to four feet wide, and you want them to be anywhere from four to six inches tall.

You also advocate not planting seeds in rows, right?

Instead of planting in a long row, plant your seeds spaced in both dimensions. The math will show you that in a four-foot-by-eight-foot bed you can grow as many carrots as in a 100-foot row. It's a fairly common technique, but it doesn't work with industrial farming, since that's built around having enough spacing between rows for tire tractors. It's just a matter of looking at the efficiency of things; I started small, and then I started looking at it like an engineer, and that's what engineers do, make things cost effective.

How big is your yard and what are you getting out of it?

Our yard is a half acre, but most of it is not suitable for growing anything because it's shaded or inaccessible. So in about 2,100 square feet we can provide about 85 percent of the caloric needs for our family. About the only thing we buy are some condiments, some free-range meats, and exotic fruits like bananas that don't grow in New Hampshire. In terms of dollars per square foot, it's right about $7 in produce. I usually grow seedlings and lettuce for sale.

So what's the deal with your DIY chicken plucker?

We raise broiler chickens from early summer through mid-August. You get them at once, raise them at once, and they are ready to be processed at once. But plucking chickens is a horrible, smelly, wet chore. If you are killing 10-20 at a time it is just insurmountable unless you are an expert at it. I had previously gotten a book on how to make the "Whizbang Chicken Plucker." It's a nice design, but turns out to be an expensive project in the $300-$500 range. I figured out how to make my own table-style plucker that sets up on cinder blocks. The total cost is about $100-$120.

Tomato sauce heading towards the canner.

How long did it take to profit off your gardening efforts?

It took about three years. There was an initial cost in a pressure canner and vacuum sealer, the tools—a digging fork, spades, things of that nature. It doesn't seem like a lot, $25 here, $150 on the canner, but pretty soon it adds up, you aren't breaking even right away.

How much time do you spend on the garden?

It averages out to about an hour a day. My full-time job is as a network engineering director. I have a two-hour commute each way, and this is very typical for middle America. If I can do it they can do it. [At this point], I am earning $50 an hour with my garden when I add up the value of what I produce and what I sell, and take out my costs.

What's next?

My friend lives in Washington D.C., with just a balcony, and she and I have been discussing how she can grow more food in container gardening. The problem is, it's really expensive. It doesn't make sense to spend $50 on a box to grow $5 of tomatoes. So I'm turning my attention there.

Give us a pep talk for spring planting.

You don't have to do it for complete self-sufficiency, just use it for what I call "nutritional intervention." Make sure you grow some salad stuff, it's going to be fresh, yours, and give you a sense of empowerment. I think it's a great thing to be doing, even if you just grow something on a balcony. I think that growing your own food is a lot easier than people think. They think that you have to have a magical green thumb and it's totally not true. It is a very natural process, plants were designed to grow, and it isn't that hard to give them an environment that will let them do that. Just because you didn't have success growing a plant in your office doesn't mean you can't do this.

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