Last year, seed sales went up as the economy worsened, spawning many a trend piece about people trying to save money through home gardening. Yet, there are a lot of hidden costs to starting and maintaining a productive vegetable garden. I imagine many first-time home gardeners ended up disappointed when they tallied up the expenses in comparison to the veggie poundage produced.
Last year I basically stopped keeping track of how much I spent, since gardening as much a hobby for me as it is a source of food. Plus, there are a lot of start-up costs in the first year (my grow light set me back $70, for instance), and I didn’t want to dissuade myself from the venture by looking at the totals. But this year I decided I’d keep track of my costs, and then also figure out how much value I was getting out of the garden. Would I at least be able to break even?
I’ll admit that I gave myself a leg up by not amortizing the costs of things like the grow light, garden tools, etc. I’m considering those sunk costs. I’m also not factoring in the cost of my own labor (that’s the hobby part). Still, this year alone I’ve spent in excess of $200 on seeds, plants, soil, peat pots, stakes, garden membership fee, a new pair of gardening gloves, etc. (Before I scare off anyone from gardening, I should note that both The Dirty Radish‘s and Bucolic Bushwick‘s currently posted totals are much lower than mine). But with the exception of needing more garden twine, I’m mostly done with expenses for the year. Now the question is whether I can get $200 worth of produce from my 14×14 foot plot.
Of course, to answer that question I first have to figure out how to put a value on my harvests. One obvious method would be to weigh each harvest of each veggie, find out the price per pound for that veggie, and then calculate the price of the harvest. But this method is not without flaws. Do I use the price-per-pound at the grocery store? At the farmers market? What if the quoted price is something I’d never actually pay? For instance, I think $9-10 per pound is too much for plain old salad greens, but that’s the price at the Dupont Circle farmers market. Or for a really extreme example, I found out that pepquiños (aka Mexican Sour Gherkins) can cost $70-120 per pound; by that count, I probably grew at least $500 in pepquiños last summer. But since I would never in a million years pay anything close to that, it wouldn’t be fair to pad out my numbers that way. It’s also not quite fair to think that my produce will be the same quality as what you’d find in a grocery store or market. Frequently my veggies will be smaller and scrubbier and less attractive, but often they will be fresher, or tastier, or a rare heirloom variety not available elsewhere.
So I think I’m going a different route than relying on general market prices. Instead, I will be getting seriously micro with the economics and consulting a market of exactly one person: me. What amount of money, on that given day, would I be willing to pay for that exact amount and quality of harvested produce? In other words, if Farmer Amelia walks up to Consumer Amelia and says “I grew this handful of delicious salad greens in an organic garden, and they’re tender and fresh and picked this very moment, how much money will you give me for them?” the price that Farmer Amelia and Consumer Amelia agree upon is the price I record. If Consumer Amelia is unwilling to pay $70 per pound for some little novelty cucumbers, Farmer Amelia is going to have to lower her price down to something reasonable. Like $5 per pound. That’s about as much as I would pay for the little runts.
This method means, incidentally, that prices will change throughout the season. For instance, I priced the very first radish out of my garden at 25 cents, because, hey, it’s bright new radish and I wanted to eat it immediately – I’d definitely give someone a quarter for it. But then I priced the next harvest of six radishes at 50 cents for the whole lot, because I was no longer as enamored of radishes. But my recent discovery made the price go up again. And when I, Consumer Amelia, am hot and sweaty out in my garden next week and I see the first red strawberries looking ready and ripe and delicious, you can bet that Farmer Amelia will get a good price. But then later, after the law of diminishing returns kicks in, I’ll probably assign the strawberries a lower value in my ledger.
Right now I estimate that I’ve gotten about $16 in value from my garden this season. So I’ve still got a long ways to go before making up the $207 I’ve spent. But I think it’ll happen – almost all of the growing season is still to come. Plenty of time for Farmer Amelia to get a good return on her investment.