Vegetable Garden Cost/Benefit Analysis

Inspired in part by Daphne of Daphne’s Dandelions, this year I decided I wanted to see if my gardening habit came even remotely close to paying for itself by comparing expenses to the value of what I produced based on market prices.  I have always looked upon gardening as more of a hobby obsession with edible results.  I chose varieties based on color (the panoply of purple vegetables) or in the spirit of trying lots of new varieties, or foods I haven’t eaten, let alone grown, before.  Even though I had decided I would track expenses, I still ordered too many seeds, and new varieties to try even though I had some of a different variety.  I decided I just couldn’t focus on reducing costs versus the pleasure I find in trying new things.  After all, if my aim was really to save money, I wouldn’t garden at all, but would just grocery shop at Wal-Mart,  ick.

I also haven’t decided what to do about the big-ticket items, such as the hoophouse and my mini-tiller.  The mini tiller has applications beyond the vegetable garden, how to parse out the expense of that?  Suggestions, anyone?

Given my indecision, here are my expenses to date:

Yikes, $258.16!  Of course, the seeds do include quite a few packets of flowers.  Ahem. I’m sure that added significantly.  My penchant for trying new varieties is expensive, and who can resist the catalog copy, with words like succulent, slow-bolting, sweet, long-season, never-bitter….  Still, I did actually go a little overboard this year, I think because I was so crazed between work and my Master Gardening class that I just duplicated some items at Fedco and Pine Tree Seeds.  At least they are things that are viable for a number of years!

Determining my crop values is a bit trickier.  The last time I was at the farmer’s market I checked the prices of things I am currently harvesting:  lettuce, spinach, leeks, and scallions.  I decided to use Farmer’s Market prices rather than grocery store as they are more comparable to what I grow in quality –indeed, that is why I grow them.

WOW!  $162.62!  Holy cats, it is much higher than I would have expected.  On the one hand, I can’t imagine paying $9/lb for lettuce right now, BUT I can completely support buying locally grown-harvested-processed lettuce.  Not only does it TASTE way better, it is so much fresher it can only be more nutritious, and buying it at the Farmer’s market keeps the dollars I spend in the local economy.

What would I do if I were not growing my own?  Would I just choose not to eat lettuce, and stay true to the eat in season mantra?  I doubt it, given my efforts to reduce calories/increase raw vegetables in our diet, I would probably purchase organic lettuce in the supermarket, switching to Farmer’s Market lettuce as it becomes more available.This small exercise really drives home the point about the challenges in our food system, though.  Eating fresh foods is far more complicated and expensive than pre-packaged food.

I won’t go into the other, non monetary benefits of gardening, as they are probably incalculable, but they are real:  the immense satisfaction of growing your own, the taste, reducing your carbon footprint, the opportunities to greatly broaden your food horizons by trying new kinds and varieties of vegetables.

I’ll be updating this post, making it a page accessible through a link under “Gardening Resource Pages,” and plan to update it weekly throughout the season.  Currently things stand at:

Expenses: $258.16.    Crop Value: $161.62    TOTAL $-96.54

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19 Responses to “Vegetable Garden Cost/Benefit Analysis”

  1. Angela Moll Says:

    Is the lettuce in your farmer’s market sold by the pound? Or the arugula? In my farmer’s market it’s sold by the piece, and the arugula by the bunch.

    I wonder how much organic lettuce at $1.50 per head cost by the pound (I have no idea how much one tettuce can weigh). Maybe the buyers in my farmer’s market are buying lettuce at $9 lb. but don’t know it so they just go ahead a buy it?

    • Ali Says:

      Angela,
      The lettuce available to date has been mostly bagged young leaf lettuce. The leaf lettuce, spinach and the mesclun mix were the same price, and the arugula was $10/lb. As the summer goes on and more growers have lettuce to offer, I am sure the pricing will change, but that was the price for the last 2 weeks. Only a few growers were even offering it.

      I just weighed a couple of nearly mature lettuces and they each weighed a pound — I suspect that at maturity they might weigh a bit over a pound.

  2. Kevin Says:

    Great spreadsheet! Better than the one I got from Rosalind Creasy’s website. I’ve been entering expenses as I incur them since March, but I have yet to harvest anything, so comparable market prices and the like are blank for now. Spinach will be the inaugural crop this week (now that it’s near bolting with this crazy weather (!)). Suffice it to say I am deep in the red at the moment.

    I think you’ve hit on a very important point to consider in this exercise: the non-monetary personal benefits of gardening. I get immense satisfaction from growing food. Granted, there is a ton of work, worry, self-doubt and heartbreak. Most of my gardening time is spent on pins and needles trying to get seeds started, seedlings hardened and plants in the ground to thrive. But when I do get something to grow and subseqently consume it … ahhhh … that brings it back full circle. Difficult to assign a monetary value to that feeling, but mentally, it’s worth a lot.

    • Ali Says:

      Hi Kevin,
      Thanks! I guess all those years of grants management have paid off –I never thought I’d be complimented on a spreadsheet!

      Hope your spinach is delicious. Mine has bolted, but with highs of 119°F in the hoophouse, well, I bolted –for the exit.

  3. Sara Says:

    I did a lot of record-keeping the last few years, but am taking a break this season! Once you start hitting 100+ pounds of produce it will even out a lot. I think I spend a bit less of seeds than you, but do remember you should get several years out of some of them–like tomatoes and peppers.

    Definitely compare yourself to market prices, and I’d probably just count the hoophouse and tiller as long-term investments–I suppose you could amortize them over their lifespans! :)

    There’s a research study in our area this year for this purpose, and they’re including time. Which makes sense, but its really hard to compare the effort of one person gardening for a family to a farmer growing for a community. Plus would you count puttering or admiring your cabbages? I spend a lot of time out there just enjoying it. I’m with Kevin in that the value is bigger than money :)

    • Ali Says:

      I actually spent more on seeds this year than I have in years past, mostly because I duplicated so many, but I also ordered a lot of things to experiment with –overwintering especially, since the spinach was so great.

      And yes, gardening and growing my own is wonderful in so many ways…. I just know walking out to the garden every morning makes me so happy.

  4. Teresa Says:

    I was feeling rather awful that we’ve spent $400 on the garden this year, including 2 new raised beds, topsoil (since ours stinks) and fencing.

    Then we went to the farmer’s market and I spent $3.00 on a 2-serving bunch of braising greens. I’ve been picking braising greens, mesclun and spinanch almost daily since late March. I think we’ll be okay, especially “amortizing” the expenses of setting up the bed.

  5. Daphne Says:

    Just wait until you see my expenses for the year. LOL we just have subsoil in the new house. I’m debating how to do it. If I didn’t grow veggie I’d put in grass. So I might add in the additional cost above that.

    For you hoop house you should amortize it over the life of the house. The plastic should be separate since it gets replaced more often. So if your house cost $2000 and its life is 20 years then it would be $100/year you add in. I do that with my fence around my current house. It cost me $1200 and I add in $60 every year for its amortized cost when I do the calculations.

    Oh and don’t forget to count the mental health added in. I find my garden is very calming. When I’m stressed out I go out there and weed or listen to the bees.

    • Ali Says:

      I suspect you will put my spending to shame, Daphne, starting from the subsoil, so to speak. It does seem like starting with costs over the cost of a lawn is fair. Hmm, I wonder how many years I should amortize the cost of the tiller and the hoophouse? Supposedly the plastic is good for only 4-6 years, but the structure itself should last longer. Need to do some more thinkin’ I guess.

  6. David Says:

    I try to prioritize the items in my garden that we both like best and that cost the most at the store.

    Beets and green beans are the two things I like best, since the beets are pricy and you get tons of delicious greens along with the oh-so-yummy root part. Green beans are always one of our most successful crops unlike say, squash (squash borers) or tomatoes (early heat waves) which are a lot more variable for me.

    • Ali Says:

      I’ve got beets in the ground right now, and more to sow for greens. I also want some for pickled beets. Oh, and green beans are so yummy, and I pickle those, too.

      I am thinking for me the high value crops will be tomatoes, leeks, greens, and specialty peppers. I’ll have to pay attention this summer.

  7. vrtlaricaana Says:

    This is very detailed spreadsheet. I am afraid to do my own cost/benefit matrix, as the result would be very negative. So Im just counting harvests, this way I’m always positive. :-)
    Home grown food tastes so much better and this is value that I can’t put a price on.

  8. VT Garderner Says:

    I’ve been thinking about doing this also. I remember last summer giving my sister-in-law a 25lbs + bag of fresh organinc produce and thinking “there is probably $50 worth of food here”.
    I’m trying to remember if I still have the receipts from my seed, light, and other gardening supplies so I can track my costs also….I’ll have to look or maybe just follow your spreadsheet for this year.
    Great Blog!

  9. Robin Says:

    Very interesting. Lee and I will probably do this at some time too. I’m not sure how much we got last year as we were working with unimproved soil, and then had our huge house project going on in August and produce got wasted. This year we’ve improved the soil in each bed but due to rainy and cold temps still, it is making gardening a challenge. I also am buying some starts as I don’t really have a place to start anything. Hopefully by next year that should change and bring some costs down. Regardless of the cost, the taste of the vegetables, knowing where your food came from, no worries about ecoli or salmonella recalls, being outside with nature, and the highs and lows of watching over your plants is so worth it.

  10. Beth Says:

    Ali, a friend of mine in Bowdoinham sent me photos of the damage done to her oak tree from a browntail moth infestation.The leaves are completely stripped from the tree. She said standing near the tree sounds like rain falling-it’s their poop dropping. She lives on the Bay Road. They have stripped her large oak and are moving on to cherries and other trees. No sign here in Bowdoin yet. How about you?

    • Ali Says:

      How devastating! No sign here yet, and I will be on red alert. Ugh. Thanks for the info!

  11. Lou Murray, Ph.D. Says:

    I don’t dare keep track of my garden costs. It might discourage me. Is it cost effective? Not the way I do it. But it gives me great pleasure, and that’s worth a fortune.

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