“Is growing your own food worth it?” When I get asked that question, people are talking about cash-in-hand not harvest-in-hand. They aren’t saying, “Is it worth it to have the very freshest sugar snap peas?” or, “Is it worth it to see your child poke a bean seed in the ground?” because there is, clearly, only one answer to those questions.
No, when people say, “Is it worth it to grow your own vegetables,” they want to know if they can save money by gardening. It’s a tricky question to answer. When people ask me how much I save on my grocery budget through gardening, I usually defer answering.
Partly that’s because I still feel that I spend a lot of money on food, basically by optional hoity-toity foodie choice, and I don’t want people to think it’s not worth it financially to grow your own food just because I spring for big ticket items like salmon and game meats that skew my budget upwards of what it could be.
Partly I’m not sure about answering because, while I know we save money on a per-item basis, what and how we eat is totally different because of the gardening and DIY component.
I can say honestly we buy very few vegetables – onions, carrots and sweet potatoes are the only vegetables I regularly purchase – and we eat a lot of them. Berries too. What’s the cost of 8 or 10 pounds of organic strawberries at the market these days? That’s what we harvest every few days for a month in a good year. Raspberries? We pick ‘em by the bucket. Tarragon we hack off in bunches as big as your wrist. Figs, apples, herbs, greens – that high-ticket stuff sure seems to pay for itself. But does that make it worth it?
If I didn’t grow pounds of strawberries, would we eat pounds of strawberries? Probably, since I still supplement with purchased local berries for freezing in early summer. But I sure wouldn’t upend a pint of organic golden raspberries at $5 a pop into each of my kids’ pieholes every few days. If we bought those berries there would be some pathetic and unsuccessful attempt to, you know, savor every bite, which would really mean, treat every berry like you are swallowing a dime, because basically you are.
Being somewhat of a produce glutton, I would fail at this attempted moderation. I have never understood the logic that one does not appreciate the last bite as much as the first, or that measured slow eating is always necessary for enjoyment. When it’s raspberries, you appreciate every damn mouthful even if you appreciate them fast. You pop those berries in, mush them between your tongue and the crenulations at the roof of your mouth and repeat, mouth full and oozing juice, looking around for more, rapid fire. At least, I do. My Slow Food cred probably just went out the window, but there you are. Pass the berries, please.
Would I be so gluttonous if I were paying by the berry? I don’t know. Probably not. Yet I am confident I would spend at least $200 to $300 a month more on fruits and veg in addition to what I currently spend on groceries if I didn’t garden. $50 a week on fruit and veg? Easy, I’m embarrassed to say. But then, I consider a typical supermarket bunch of kale to be a rather stingy single serving. Produce gluttony strikes again. So maybe the way we eat (differently and just…more, I think) doesn’t apply for a lot of families when the question is, “Is it worth it?”
So that’s $2400-$3600 a year savings on fresh produce alone, which seems shockingly unreasonable, since that is many families entire annual food budget. See why I hesitate to answer this question?
Here’s another example. Pint by pint and quart by quart my preserves save money. In fact if anything the “value added” items like jam, tea, homebrew, etc. seem to contribute more to our grocery negabudget than the raw produce.
I saw jam that looked very comparable to the jam I make at the store yesterday. It was a half-pint of apricot preserves for $7. It looked great but I think I’d balk at paying that much for jam. This is a question I won’t face anytime soon, as I got five cases of apricots for free last year, and so am very well stocked on apricot jam for probably the next two years. If for some reason I were faced with $7 jam, we simply wouldn’t use as much, and that might not be a bad thing.
If I were paying $8 or $9 a quart for canned tomatoes – which as far as I can tell is the market price for tomatoes and tomato sauce like mine – instead of the roughly $2.70 I pay to make each quart of homemade canned tomatoes, I would be far more stingy with the tomatoes.
The thing is, I simply hate being stingy with food. I’m just not into it. Hospitality is important to us and our family is in the fortunate position that a lot of things would have to go south before household food rationing seemed reasonable to me. There is always room for another mouth at my table and everyone can always have another serving if they are still hungry. The idea that I might hesitate even a minute before sharing with a friend or having the neighbor kid stay for dinner kinda disgusts me, actually. Nothing is ever wasted, but there is always plenty.
I like creating plenty. It’s kinda my gig. Plenty at the table, plenty in the garden. A philosophy of plenty. So if that’s what it came down to: losing a feeling of plenty, or going for less expensive, less sustainable food, I’d have #10 cans of California tomatoes in my cart and to hell with BPA and local farm support before I’d tell a friend they couldn’t join us at the table because there wasn’t enough tomato sauce to go round.
Obviously, I try to avoid this dichotomy, and get the best of both worlds – local tomatoes preserved in glass for about the same price as commercial stuff in cans – by doing the labor myself. But that’s just me. That’s how I try to strike a balance. Other people weigh the same issues, of time, grocery costs, sustainability, food ethics and their other values and they find the solution that works for them.
So, enough hedging. Is it worth it to grow your own? In a strictly financial sense, if the hours you garden would be hours you were working at a decent paying job (whatever that means), it’s honestly probably not worth it. The professional farmers can grow more efficiently and more cheaply than you can, which is why when anyone runs the numbers on householding and edible gardening and gives themselves a “living wage” the return looks pathetic…like, 14 cents an hour, or negative.
But this is an unfair comparison, because no one is suggesting people make the choice between gardening and working for wages. Gardening isn’t farming, and as much effort as I dedicate to growing my edibles, I am not a farmer. Gardening fills in around the edges, like any other pastime. It takes time but it doesn’t have to take full-time. So it’s not gardening or job. It’s gardening or Dancing with the People Who Have Cooking Talent Today (or whatever the latest reality supershow is). It’s gardening or reading or writing or workouts at the gym or some balance thereof. The advantage with growing your food is that it is a productive hobby – there is something tangible to show for the time and investment.
No one asks a golfer if it is “worth it” to invest in new clubs, or a runner if it is “worth it” to get $80 running shoes. Whether it’s worth it to grow your own food has to come down to, would you spend your time this way for free anyway, as with any other hobby? Gardening is consistently listed as in the top 5 or 10 most popular hobbies in the U.S., so plenty of people are happy to. And for us, oh yeah, it’s totally worth it.
Is it worth it to you?11
Awesome post and awesome comments. Thank you. I’m seriously considering growing food for our extended family of seven across three generations. I recently became unemployed temporarily so I have so extra time to do something productive while searching for opportunities that sometimes lead nowhere. I’d love for the kids to have a better appreciation of homegrown produce. We have always been a family of cooks and chefs. Food has always brought us together. I’m hoping that in addition to saving money, eating healthy, and engaging a stress reducing hobby that this might be another way to help bring our family together more.
I live in Florida though and am quite concerned about cats, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, possums, armadillos, and ducks that are active in the immediate vicinity and that might ruin any chance of harvest. I thought of growing in my screen enclosed patio but I’m not sure if that will keep them out. I also thought of growing things that they might not like such as chillies, certain herbs like mint and cilantro, garlic, dill, mushrooms, etc… I really would like to get as much bang for my buck if I can. I would love advice on any of the above issues or what really pays off to plant since I don’t have much spare money and it would be useful to get the rest of the family, old any young alike, in on the experience as we largely operate as a family with consensus building. SAving money and eating more healthier is something that we all already agree on as a concept. Thanks,
For me, the only concrete answer I can give is “If you’re at all interested in growing food, it’s worth it to try.” Not everyone has the time or inclination to grow things, and that’s okay. There are tons of hobbies that im not interested in. If the idea of spending time outdoors tending to a garden that might get wiped out from pests, predators, or extreme elements turns you off, then you might not enjoy gardening. Heck, I don’t do much indoor starting because I simply don’t like doing it. i’d rather buy tomato starts and directly sow everything else outside when the temps are right. I’m lucky enough to be able to do that without breaking the bank, but others’ mileage might vary.
There’s no real apples to apples comparison I can give for my own experience, because gardening resulted in many changes to the way I eat. If you want to save money by growing food, or just get more nutrition for your limited food dollars, then you probably want to start out with that goal in mind. I just always wanted to learn how to grow stuff, and after several bad starts got some good advice, and the garden took off from there.
This is great. “Produce glutton” – I can so relate to that. I also like to have “plenty” in the fridge/pantry, and food is the biggest expenditure in our household (more than mortgage!!). We do like to eat organic and we don’t skimp on fresh seafood and meats, so yes, it turns out to be a bit expensive. But food is important to us, so we skimp elsewhere. Everyone prioritizes differently and this is how we do it. I find it rewarding when people invite themselves over to my house for dinner because they know it will be delicious and there will be “plenty.”
Heidi T. Johnston says
I agree with 99% of the previous posts. I am a lawyer, and if I compared my savings and/or hourly wage for growing vs. my billable rate, anyone would think I am out of my mind to spend time growing, harvesting, weeding, and preserving. There are a number of more than reasonable farmer’s markets close by where I could buy produce. In the future, I will probably go to them for some of the things I grew this year, such as onions. But growing your own food is bigger than the immediate economic return. My husband and I have two children (6 and 3), and it is vitally important to us to excite them about the very freshest and best produce of the season (they LOVE baby snow peas, cherry tomatoes, peppers, and cukes!) and to teach them to appreciate and respect the growing process and learn how to work hard to achieve the very best results. I truly believe in supporting local farmers, which is why I purchase as much of what we don’t grow as possible from local farmers, but I also believe that growing yourself instills a greater respect for the process and appreciation for the results. In addition, you cannot overestimate the spiritual value and fulfillment of gardening. Whenever I am stressed, a little time deadheading, weeding, harvesting, pruning, or whatever takes the place of therapy, and is an avenue I believe everyone on the planet would benefit from. Long story short, the benefits of growing your own food so far surpass economics as to make the choice a no-brainer, as far as I am concerned. This doesn’t mean it makes sense to grow every fruit or vegetable that you eat, but to me it does mean that there is no one who would not be better off growing something that they later placed upon their table.
So, in brief, growing your own food is not worth it financially. It is time consuming, difficult, and a full time job.
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