Monday, June 20, 2011

The Numbers of Sustainability: 2

It seems my last post generated a lot of interest, and not a little ire. Some people hate it when you quantify things. Sorry 'bout that. I'm writing this blog for the purpose of helping normal people of average financial means to attempt to live sustainable lifestyles. It isn't as easy as some would make it.

So, constructively, here's another question people must ask if they want to succeed with a sustainable lifestyle. Their personal conclusions can differ, sure, as mine's a bit of a guess, but a good one--and as the economy changes so will the conclusion. My conclusion is based on my experience and what feet on the ground right now will likely experience. Not selling anything, just offering up my best analysis.You're welcome to your own answer: Just have one.


At what point does the per square foot cost of a given piece of land make farming/gardening economically nonviable?

Here's how I would think about it. Raw, round numbers again.

I'd assume that reasonably fertile land can return a quarter pound per square foot of produce per season.

I'd assume that a reasonable mix of produce may have a value on the current market of 2 dollars a pound. Bell peppers may be more, potatoes a lot less of course. This is a guess of a mix of things that constitutes a garden that might provide meaningful substance. Other guesses are worth hearing and will provide other results. Obviously if we try to cook the books by suggesting that we're growing saffron we'll get unrealistic numbers.

That means one can expect to gross .50 cents of value per square foot per season. This assumes no labor inputs at all, no water bill, no seed costs, no fertilizer, and no bugs. Honestly, any body I know who could crack out .50 cents a square foot is doing pretty dang good. I don't get even close to such a number, as such intensive ag would make for so much soil erosion I'd be done in 5 years.

To purchase a given piece of land either requires an out of pocket expenditure or finance-- in either case it would generally be considered bad business practice to expect to yield less than a 10 percent value return on such an investment. We can quibble about that number. I'd appreciate hearing other views.

That gives me, of course, a value of  5 dollars a square foot, as I see it, as a reasonable estimate the absolute maximum number at which a given garden can actual return more value than it consumes. 3 dollars a square foot is more realistic, and leaves some room for labor costs. 2 dollars a square foot may even net a very meager return. Again assuming no labor input or costs or losses. Beyond this projected value, the garden consumes more resources than it produces and becomes unsustainable. I'd appreciate hearing other values of what one might think is the breakback number where inputs are a wash and labor a loss. Surely we can all agree that such a number 1) exists and 2) is important. I understand that some are in a position where none of this matters, again, great, smoke 'em if you got'em. It's doesn't make you bad. But at some point, for sure, exercises in gardening become so uneconomic to be nothing else other than conspicuous consumption. That's all, and to obfuscate that fact may mislead people new to the issue and of more modest means to take on projects that won't pan out for them, and that's a shame.

Unfortunately, much real estate in suburban neighborhoods exceeds this number. The closer one gets to the beach, the more one exceeds this number. The Girl's old place in Venice had a cost in excess of 300 dollars a square foot at the bubble valuations, yikes!-- it would cost you 25 bucks, by that math, to rent storage for a dog turd.  By contrast, I paid .14 cents a square foot for my property and one could go cheaper than that now. Obviously, if one wants to have a leg up on achieving sustainability, or even pretend to approximate economic decisions, those kinds of low costs give one a huge leg up.

Do the math, it matters. . .

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