This is a question comes up often when people see the size of our vegetable gardens or when they learn that we're even taking the time to grow our own wheat and oats. If you don't know our full story, or if you've been racing through life just trying to keep your head above water, it would be hard to fathom how anyone could fulfill all of their regular commitments and also add food production to that balancing act. So this month, I'm going to answer this question by breaking down my weekly time budget and showing you how we've managed to squeeze a whole lot of food production into our 21st century lives.
My Weekly Time Budget
My 7 day weeks are made up of 168 hours just like yours, so let's have a look at where I am spending those hours. Even though I am self-employed, I like to keep to a pretty regular routine. Therefore, it was relatively easy to put together a pretty accurate estimate of where my attention goes each week. Short explanations of each area follow below.
Sleep: The 70 hours for sleep includes a few minutes of settling into bed and wake up time in the morning. My actual time sleeping is likely more like 9 hours a night. This may seem like a generous allotment for sleeping time, but that's how I roll. My brain starts to break down pretty quickly if I skip out on sleep.
Work: I've done the 70 hour work week thing as a teacher and even occasionally when I was running my urban farm. Eventually, I learned that it wasn't getting me anywhere. If the only thing that awaits me after a 70 work week is another 70 hour work week, what's the point? Since our kids joined our family, I've been focused on slowly scaling back my work hours, and I now plan to spend about 25 hours on my Vegetable Academy tasks each week.
Meals: Wow. It takes time to eat well! I don't know how much the average North American family would spend on their meals, but I'd bet that it's less. We intentionally prioritize the act of making meals from scratch in our household and that time really adds up. The 20 hours listed here is just the time I spend personally sitting down to eat and completing my share of the meal preparation and clean up duties in our family.
Childcare: These 14 hours are the total of the designated times throughout my week that I am the sole parent looking after our two girls. If we accomplish anything productive during this time, it's a bonus. For the most part, this time is filled with things like trips to the park, games, lego, and daddy-daughter wrestling matches.
Household Maintenance & Food Production: My vegetable growing work is very seasonal so it made sense to pair it with household maintenance. During the warmer seasons I spend a few hours a week on garden related tasks, but during the off-season all of these 10 hours are burned up pretty easily fixing vehicles or things around the house or slowly making improvements to our living quarters.
Healthcare / Wellness Activities: I would like this section to just read something like"Sports" or "Athletic Pursuits" but in recent years, there's been a higher ratio of physiotherapy in my life, so I guess we'll go with this general heading to encompass all things related to the care of my physical body. : ) It's sitting at 10 hours. This is one section I would like to get higher.
Social Gatherings: These are things like potlucks, church activities, game nights with friends and my best guess is that these would only amount to an average of 5 hours a week.
Flexible Time: This last category catches all of the leftover transition periods, the interruptions, and the wind-down time in the evenings, most of which are related to more parenting in some way. For example, a typical wind-down time activity would be stretching on the floor of our living room while at least one of my kids is crawling on me and Rachel and I are attempting to carry on an intermittent conversation. I don't know how to classify that sort of thing other than to call it flexible time and it appears as though this eats up 14 hours of my week.
So there's a glimpse into my regular week. That was an interesting exercise, but it doesn't tell the full story. It doesn't really explain how a family could meet all of their needs with one person working 25 hours a week or how a family could find the time to cook all of their own meals and sit down together to eat them. For those answers we have to dig a little deeper.
How did it come to this?
Next, I will share some of the most significant realizations that have influenced my life decisions and led me to where I am today. To keep things simple, I'm just going to list each realization in the order that they presented themselves to me, and to prevent this from turning into a book, I'll try to only add a few sentences of clarification after each one.
The best things in life are free and the best privilege in life is freedom.
Since entering the working world in my 20's I've been surprised by the willingness of my peers to sign away their freedom in exchange for more...more house, more car, more vacations, etc. I chose to work part-time in my first career as a high school teacher. I made that decision thinking that it would allow me more time to be the best teacher I could be, and it did that, but it also allowed me to maintain a much more balanced and healthy lifestyle. That's something I couldn't have bought with a higher pay check. I realized that, despite what the media would like me to believe, I only have a few simple needs for food, shelter, and clothing, and if I can meet those needs with minimal cost, I can use more of my waking hours in ways that I would like. If I had chosen to get the biggest mortgage the bank would give me, and take an expensive vacation any chance I get, all the rest of my days would be spent trying to pay for that high cost of living, and I'd be constantly counting down the days until my retirement.
Buying food is more costly than you think.
I used to stop in at the grocery store almost daily to pick up a few things on my way home from work. The grocery store seems like a convenient source of food because in a few minutes you can buy everything you need for supper, but I'm afraid it only "feels" convenient. The numbers tell a different story. The average Canadian family is predicted to spend $16,297 on their food in 2024. So the cost of that food is $16,297 right? Wrong. Unless that money is just dropped of at their doorstep, someone in this average family needs to spend their time working to earn that $16,297. The average wage across the Canada in 2023 was $33.25. At least 15% of that will go to income tax so that leaves us with $28.25 per hour of labour. So our $16,297 of food is also going to cost us at least 577 hours of labour. That's not including all of the time needed to travel to work and back or the time spent going to the grocery store, walking the aisles, and waiting in the checkout lines. Oh, and if you drove a motor vehicle to the grocery store, don't forget to account for the cost of owning and operating that money pit on wheels. From this perspective, the grocery store option doesn't seem like such a great deal anymore. When I took all of this into consideration, I started to wonder if I could afford to work less if I planned to spend some of my free time outdoors growing my own food.
The 21st century life must be carefully curated.
My great grandfather grew up in a time dominated by farming, church, and hockey. There are far more options available to us today to help us pass the time, but we can't do everything or possess everything. I have to carefully and intentionally curate the activities and objects that get to be a apart of my life. Over and over, I've chosen activities that connect me with my family, my community, my Earth, and myself, and I've done my best to limit forces that pull me away from these connections, such as financial debt, outrageous work obligations, or even undesirable routines like commuting to work in a car. Less of these things makes me available for more of something else, so my freedom to spend time gardening and hanging out with my kids today is thanks to my discipline in excluding other activities. There's only so much one can fit into each day.
In 2021, the average Canadian worker spent 47 minutes a day commuting to work. That's 200 hours a year or about the same amount of time I use to grow more than 75% of our family's food.
I didn't need a big pile of money to start living the way I wanted to live.
You have probably heard some type of back-to-the-land story about someone leaving behind a high-paced urban life and retreating to a simple homestead in the country with the aim of living a healthier, more wholesome life. Stories like this are inspiring until you find out that they first got rich from their previous life as an investor, dentist, or some other high paying position. How does one start to make changes they want without starting with a massive pile of savings to finance everything? My answers were externalizing costs (next paragraph) and living within my means. (first paragraph of this section)
Land for homes is expensive, but land for vegetable gardens is cheap.
In our industrialized world the term "externalized cost" refers to a situation when the full social, environmental, or economic costs are not covered by the producer of a good or service. For example, let's imagine a fertilizer company builds a mine to extract minerals to sell to farmers who spread the minerals over their farmland. The mining processes contaminate the air and ground water, and the fertilizer run off from the fields causes eutrophication in the waterways. Both the fertilizer company and the farmer have profited from the use of the fertilizer but who bears the cost of the collateral damage to the air and water? Everyone. That means some of the true costs of that fertilizer have been externalized. I realized I could benefit from externalizing my costs too, but in a more positive and cooperative way. One of the barriers for me to growing a serious amount of food initially was the high cost of land. Thankfully, lots of other people in the city already own land. I didn't need to buy it from them. We just needed to cooperate. It turns out there were more than enough landowners who were happy to let me grow vegetables on their property, thus allowing me to externalize my cost of land ownership. It turned out that these landowners also benefit from our relationship because my gardening work has allowed them to externalize some of their cost of property management. Today, we grow food on three lots in the city, none of which we own. Two of these are private residential properties, and one is a large public boulevard across the street from our house. The weeds on that public boulevard used to be mowed down by a city crew a few times a year, but now thanks to our city's boulevard gardening program, the cost of maintaining that boulevard has been externalized and passed on to yours truly.
Growing food doesn't actually require that much labour if it's done well.
A lot of our garden space is very visible to the public so people often tell me how they enjoy watching my garden grow but they wonder why they never see me working.
Growing food is a worthy investment of money and time.
When I made the choice to grow food for a living a decade ago, a switch flipped in my brain. All of a sudden, every garden investment had to pay me back, my labour had to be impactful, and my production techniques had to give me consistent results. After thoughtfully refining our techniques and timing, I was pleased to see my income as a market gardener increase, while the amount of growing space and labour required decreased. That said, my motivation to grow food well isn't just about saving money or time. This year, almost a third of our growing space will be covered with wheat and oats, two crops that are not worth my time or money on paper. In some instances, I grow food for the challenge, the interest, or just satisfaction of knowing my food supply is not harming the planet.
A broader perspective always keeps my ego in check.
There have been many moments when my life has not seemed to be playing out the way I had planned, and these periods, whether short or long, are always difficult for me because I take them as a sign that I was wrong...wrong about living in a small old house that always needs fixing, wrong about biking across town with our kids, wrong about trying to solve most problems with my mind instead of money. It's not fun to feel wrong, even if it's just for a little while until I get things back on track. In these moments when I feel like I'm failing at life, I am always calmed by reminding myself to adopt a broader perspective. If I consider the history of humanity or even just all of humanity as it exists today around the world, I remember that I am incredibly rich. I live in a peaceful country and my basic needs are met. It's hard to admit it sometimes, but almost all of my stress is self-inflicted.
Okay, that didn't come out as quickly as I thought it might, but I did what it took to answer the question. Now, I hope you have a better idea of how I found the time to grow my own food. Our practice of growing most of our own food is something I almost take for granted today, but it's been the result of intentionally curating my life's activities, committing to the path I wanted to take, and solving one problem at a time. It wasn't the only way I could have built a more self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle, but it was the path that seemed the most possible for me, and I am pleasantly surprised by the quantity of quality time that fills my life today as a result of these intentional changes. Someday, my life will come to an end and some might ask how I managed to break free from the rat race. "Where did he first make his fortune?" they'll say. "How could he afford to live so freely just growing vegetables?" By then, I hope I will have spent enough time with my kids for them to understand the answer and respond "We were his fortune. He was rich all along!" On that note, I'm on daddy duty in a few minutes, so I really need to wrap this up.