I frequently come across articles touting the social and environmental benefits of growing your own food, but I rarely see any specifics about the economic benefits, so in this post we are going to look at some numbers in terms of dollars. Economic considerations have been especially significant for me having set out to grow most of our own food, but also to make a living selling the extra. I simply wouldn't be in business as an urban farmer if it cost me more to produce vegetables than it did to buy vegetables.
The big numbers we are going to use to consider the economic value of our vegetable garden space are the amount of money we would spend on food without a garden and the amount of money we spend on food with a garden. Then we'll be able to calculate the difference between the two numbers to figure out how much our vegetable production is worth to our family.
First, let’s look at the amount of money a typical Canadian spends on food. According to Statistics Canada, the average household in the province of Saskatchewan spent $9143 on food in 2017 and the average Canadian household spent $8527. The average household spending of each Canadian province is shown in the chart below.
How big is an average household? Well, according to the 2016 Statistics Canada census results, the average size of Saskatchewan's 432,625 households was 2.5 people, so that's the number we'll use for our purposes.
With this information, we can determine that the average food spending per person in Saskatchewan in 2017 was $9143/household divided by 2.5 people/household to equal $3657 per person per year.
Saskatchewan Annual Food Expenditure per Person = $3657
Now let’s look at our household spending records from the same year with two adults in our household and a big garden. In 2017, we spent a total of $2635 on food and groceries. Now I should clarify that there is a minor source of error in this data. These expenses of ours include all food related products from grocery stores and restaurants, but also non food items like toiletries which would also be included on our grocery bills. Sorry, I’m not quite particular enough to go through all the receipts and pick out these little extras here and there. I hope these hidden costs are negligible enough to still give us a reasonable estimate of our garden value. Here is a run down of our family's expenditures by month:
Our 2017 Family Expenses
At the time, our household was made up of two adults so the average amount we spent per person is the total of $2635 divided by 2, which leaves us with a total of $1318.
Our Annual Food Expenditure per Person = $1318
Those two totals give us enough information to approximate the value of our garden vegetables to be $3657 - $1318 = $2339, so in our household of two...
We saved $4678 by growing our own food in 2017.
Well, that's not too shabby. It's sure nice to have a hobby that saves more money that it costs and contributes to our health and overall wellness too! Mind you, the work of growing and preserving our own food doesn't always feel like a hobby. Some days, we work in the garden when we'd rather be doing other things. On those days, I find encouragement in numbers like this that remind me of the economic value we are gaining from the work we do.
At this point, there might be a few questions or criticisms on your mind, because that was a pretty simplified calculation to give us a rough answer to our question. So before I wrap this up, I want to address a few additional considerations.
You saved $4678 on your food bill but it's not free to grow a vegetable garden right?
True. We do have annual input costs for water, potting mix, compost, seeds, and electricity. I will leave those totals for another post, but they pale in comparison to the value we get out of the garden. After you have bought some initial equipment, most of the cost of growing food in North America, is the time you need to invest with your own labour.
Why are your monthly expenses so variable and why do you still have food costs in summer?
You can see quite a bit of variation in our household spending data from month to month. Since this might be a little confusing, here are a few points worth noting which could be contributing to the monthly variation:
May and June show quite high spending even though these months are starting to feel like summer. This is likely because these are the last few weeks before our gardens start to produce so we’re buying the most food at this time. We are finally running out of storage crops like carrots, beets, potatoes, garlic, and onions, and so we are purchasing these items or other foods to take their place in our weekly meal plan.
Summer spending still isn’t zero and September and October are surprisingly high too even though we are harvesting far more from than we can eat. This is partly because we don’t try that hard to restrict our diet to food that comes from our garden. We still buy other staples like oatmeal, eggs, and oil, and we also have some more expensive days of eating during summer travel when we do get away for some time at the lake. I would attribute some of the fall costs to the purchasing of canning supplies to help preserve the harvest. We also have some pricey days at u-pick farms in summer and fall when we load up on berries for the winter.
In regard to the significant variation from month to month, we don't do large grocery runs that often because we have a lot of food in storage at home. Therefore, when 1 or 2 large grocery runs happen to land in one month, that month looks especially high.
What are some sources of error in this cost comparison?
Yeah, I know this data isn't perfect. It's for approximation purposes only and we would need to get a lot more specific to get more accurate results. Here are a couple of sources of error that come to mind:
As I mentioned earlier, our household expense totals I used for this comparison included the money we spent on toiletries for our family as well. Omitting these costs would decrease our expenditures and make our garden produce appear even more valuable.
I can't possibly measure our food expenditures with and without growing our own vegetables in the same year so I used the average expenditures for our province. Some people eat at restaurants a lot more than us, and others buy less expensive food than us. There are so many variables impacting the totals. I hope that by using the household average expenditure for our province, we have achieved the most realistic estimate for the amount of money an average person could expect to save if they grew a lot of their own food.
We eat a lot of vegetables, probably more than the average Canadian. If we just ate bread and meat, we couldn't expect to see much difference between our food expenses with and without a garden. Obviously, the value of a garden is going to the highest to those who are happy to include a lot of vegetables in their diet.
Could you spend even less money on food?
Certainly. We haven't been too picky about restricting our diet to homegrown vegetables. We frequently use items that we don't grow ourselves and when we do make these food purchases, we generally buy more expensive items produced with the highest standards we can find so we could easily spend less money on food if that was the only thing we cared about. One improvement we have made since 2017 is with our berry production. Berries used to be a large food cost for us because I love my morning smoothies and frozen berries are a big part of this. Since 2017 we have begun to produce our own strawberries, cherries, and raspberries.
How else could you calculate the value of our garden?
Alternatively, we could measure the amount of food we produce, assign a price per pound to all of the food, and calculate the total value. I know these numbers pretty well since we run a small for profit urban farm as well. Using this method, I can tell you that we earn around $5 per square foot in production on average in one growing season and that number is based on a variety of crops with a large range in value per square foot.
Are numbers like this realistic for me?
This depends entirely on your level of commitment, the size of your growing space, and your growing zone. Numbers like the $5 per square foot mentioned above likely won't be achieved in your first year, and definitely not with half hearted efforts. You'll need to put some energy in to get value out. Next, the size of your garden will also limit your production. If we had less space, we would focus on crops that have the highest value per square foot. This shift could increase the value per square foot of our garden space, but with the smaller area, the total value of the vegetables we could produce would still decrease. Lastly, we are quite far north here in zone 3 and I can only assume that a longer growing season would enable us to obtain a larger percentage of our food from our garden.
I hope this analysis has shed some light on the economic value of your vegetable garden and helped you realize how much money can actually be earned with your work in the home garden. Yes, it can be fun. Yes, it's healthy to spend time working outdoors. Yes, it's better than buying food at the grocery store...and YES you can save a ton of money growing your own food too.