Planning a Subsistence Homestead

Planning a Subsistence Homestead
Growing a Better Life

by Walter W. Wilcox
junior agricultural economist,
Division of Farm Management and Costs,
Bureau of Agricultural Economics
Circa 1934

The material in this article was reprinted from a depression era USDA bulletin. It reflects the then emerging federal philosophy and policy regarding agriculture: one which touted industrial process and monoculture while condescending to that vast majority of Americans who feel a powerful connection to the land and their farming heritage.

Be careful of what you read in this reprint. There is some good stuff here but it is coated in an insidious and pervasive attitude of disdain for the stupidity and hopelessness of average folk in general and simple-minded farmers in particular. Implied throughout is an attitude of the superiority of big “modern” farming over any concept of mixed general farming. They seem to suggest that if you are able and willing to pay for it, you can raise some of your own food. And if you are poor enough but still have a land base, you “might” be able to provide some food for the table.

Times have changed and this policy has been shown for the class prejudice and economic folly it has been. Today we know, from many quarters such as this magazine, that we can grow a better life on small acreage. Treat this material with your best protective filters in place. Hope it helps. LRM

Planning a Subsistence Homestead

MANY FAMILIES with small incomes can lower their living costs by living on a small piece of land and growing their own food, and at the same time enjoy a greater quantity and variety of fresh and canned vegetables and fruit. Gardening and poultry raising on a small piece of land is about all an employed man and his family can care for by hand. About one acre of good land is enough for such purposes.

But if the family wants to keep a cow and plans to buy the necessary winter feed, two acres of good pasture land, in addition, should be enough, and the extra work will not be excessive.

Men employed only part time or short hours who have large families and small incomes may find it economical to keep a milk cow, or milk goats, and some pigs, and raise the necessary feed in addition to having a garden and keeping poultry. This plan means the use of horse or mechanical power and should be tried only after experience and careful consideration.

Some families are so placed that their best plan involves obtaining a fairly large acreage of cheap land for general farming. In many areas this cheap land is extremely poor and has failed to yield a reasonable living under any kind of farming. For this reason extreme care must be exercised in selecting a so-called cheap farm.


GROWING FOOD for family-living purposes in connection with enough outside work to provide the family with the cash for the necessary farm and family expenses is a combination that many families now want to develop. Recent hard times and still more recent Governmental policies have renewed and intensified interest in this possible combination. This kind of farming has often been called subsistence farming and a farm of this kind a subsistence homestead.

This part-time farming has certain problems of its own that are somewhat different from the usual farming problems. The family has to think of the quantity and variety of products it needs rather than of what the markets demand. Those who are inexperienced often underestimate the savings made possible by this way of living, and they often underestimate the costs in the way of the labor and cash necessary in such part-time farming.

In this kind of farming special attention is given to obtaining just the right area and kind of land; for when much of the work is done by hand, a heavy soil that is hard to work is a great disadvantage. With no power available, and with only a minimum of livestock, keeping unused land free from weeds is a burden.

This combination of farming and wage work off the farm, now usually called subsistence farming, is particularly attractive to those families with several children who find it difficult to provide suitable housing and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables from their small incomes. It is much less attractive if wages from work off the farm are not enough to meet the necessary cash expenses of the farm and the family living. Inexperienced people will find severe competition if they try to raise farm products for sale.

Many people now in town who lived on farms in their childhood inquire about subsistence or “self-sufficing” farming on 20 to 100 acres or more. Many farms that are apparently suitable for such a purpose are now for sale at relatively low prices, but many serious problems are involved in this kind of farming. Only a few of those problems are discussed here as most of them are covered in other Farmers’ Bulletins.

This bulletin deals chiefly with the economic problems that will be met by those people who are planning to combine part-time farming and wage earning.


Several problems are involved in selecting a small piece of land near a city in which jobs may be found. The first is the difference in the prices of land with reference to location. The price of land near a city is often based as much on residential value as on productive capacity. Two tracts of land equally valuable from the point of view of building sites may not be equally valuable for use in growing fruits and vegetables. A part-time farmer should have good, productive land. The importance of the soil cannot be overemphasized. A moderately level, fertile, well-drained piece of land that is free from stones and can be readily worked may easily be worth twice as much as another nearby tract of the same size. Sandy loam soils usually can be worked earlier in the spring than the stiff clay loams, but crops on the clay loams frequently withstand dry weather better than those on lighter soils. By draining, irrigating, manuring, and the right kind of cultivating, any reasonable good soil can be made suitable for the intensive growing of vegetables.

Distance to place of employment and transportation facilities are other important considerations. Studies show that most part-time farmers do not want to drive more than 10 miles to work. Other things being equal, a location near several places where jobs might be found has many advantages over a location where a family would be rather cut off if the one industrial plant closed down.

If city water is not available at a reasonable cost, a good supply of pure well or spring water is necessary. A small tract of land that is otherwise suitable for a subsistence homestead may not have a supply of pure water available because of surface or underground drainage. Public health authorities in the nearby city will test the water for purity or furnish the address of some State official who will do it. Although wells may be drilled at a reasonable cost to most localities, there is always some chance that a supply of good water will not be found near the surface.

In those sections of the United States where the rainfall is scant, it may be necessary to irrigate the crops during at least a part of the growing season. Under such conditions even more attention should be given to the water supply.

The location of the land with regard to community improvements, like roads, schools, churches, and electric-power lines, should also be considered. A part of the cost of some improvements, like paving and sidewalks, is often assessed against the adjoining property. This should be considered when deciding between two tracts of land, if only one has city improvements. The amount of the tax levy for recent years and the probable future taxes should be investigated.

In many cases a small tract of land with a house and outbuildings can be bought more cheaply than it would be possible to buy unimproved land and put up the buildings. But if the chief object is to have a place to raise a supply of food for the family, the quality of the soil should have greater weight than the state of repair of the buildings. In the New England and other western States, uncleared land on the outskirts of cities is sometimes available at a very low price. Many city people have bought small tracts for home sites, but such land requires a great deal of labor to make it productive. Moreover, care must be taken on uncleared areas to keep rodents and other small animal pests of agriculture sufficiently under control to insure full crop.

Small acreages near cities are available for rent. These can usually be rented with the payment of rent on a monthly basis. A year’s experience in renting such a place will not only make it possible to decide for oneself on the advantages and disadvantages of living on a subsistence homestead, but it will furnish an excellent basis of judgment as to the advantages and disadvantages of the particular property as compared with some other one located nearby.

If the purchaser hopes to increase his farming later, in order to have produce for sale, he should keep the possibilities of such increase in mind when buying.


Enough vegetables and small fruits can be raised on one-half to three quarters of an acre of good land to furnish a family of five with all they want during the summer and with plenty for canned, stored and dried products for the winter. These small fruits and vegetables, together with a small poultry flock and a few fruit trees, are all that can be cared for properly by the ordinary family without a horse or garden tractor, if the man is chiefly employed in some other job during the growing season.

Planning a Subsistence Homestead
Figure 1


Figures 1 and 2 give suggested plans for using approximately 1 acre of land. Figure 1 shows a plan that is suitable in the North or Northern States as far west as there is sufficient rainfall. Figure 2 shows a plan adapted to the South or the old Cotton Belt. It is to be emphasized that these plans are merely suggestive. The topography and the quality of land vary so greatly in many localities that the plan for using any plot of land must be adapted to its specific conditions.

Planning a Subsistence Homestead
Figure 2

A few important points are to be kept in mind in planning the home and grounds, regardless of locality. Although the chief object in securing a small acreage may be economy – growing food for the family and lowering the housing costs – beauty or sightlines should not be overlooked when planning the buildings, garden, and tree planting. Success in changing from a city to a country type of living will depend more on the wife – on her ability and willingness to adapt herself to the new conditions and responsibilities – than on any other member of the family. Careful arrangement of the buildings and plantings will do much to make country living attractive to the family.

Economy of effort is important. The use of the land should be planned so that the work can be done with the least possible effort. This means that the vegetables and berries that need the most attention should be closest to the house. As more trips are made to the garden for small vegetables and berries than for late potatoes, sweet corn, and orchard fruit, the small vegetables and berries should be located nearer the kitchen. If the condition of the land permits, all the cultivated part should be located in one tract to facilitate the preparation of the seed beds and the cultivation. Since poultry requires attention at least twice a day, the chickens should be located reasonably near the house. Trees require the least care and, with the exception of those used for shade, should be located farthest from the house.


Detailed plans for vegetable gardens in the North and South respectively are given in Table 1. The amount of each vegetable crop to plant and the standard variety for the general region are suggested, as a guide for those who are not experienced. There may be other equally good or better varieties for any given locality or soil type within the region. The State agricultural experiment station and extension service or reliable garden-seed companies may be able to recommend varieties that are better adapted to specific local conditions.

Planning a Subsistence Homestead

To be most useful, the vegetable garden must provide a succession of crops throughout the growing season, and a supply for canning and storage for use during the other months. Varieties should be selected with these requirements in mind. With success in growing, the quantity of the various vegetables indicated in the tables will supply an adequate and balanced diet for the average family of five throughout the entire year.

Strawberries do well in most localities and bear fruit the second year after the plants are set out. Some of the better everbearing varieties will produce fruit throughout the fall of the first year. The Klondike and Missionary varieties are best for the Gulf coast region. The Southland, a new homegarden variety, is excellent for other parts of the South. Late summer or early fall is the proper time to set out strawberry plants in the South.

From North Carolina northward to the Canadian border the Premier or Howard 17 is one of the most popular strawberry varieties. Two good new varieties, the Fairfax and the Dorsett, are also well adapted to this region. For the northern Great Plains, the Howard 17, Dunlap, and Progressive are among the most popular varieties. The Progressive is an everbearing variety.

Strawberry plants can be set out in the spring in the Northern States and, if given proper care, will yield the second year. They do well in most localities. Some of the better everbearing varieties will produce fruit throughout the fall of the first year. Fifty plants for each member of the family are often recommended as a guide for planting. The strawberry bed should be so located that it can be changed and replanted every 2 years under most conditions.

Grapes bear well in most localities and are relatively easy to care for once the proper methods of pruning and training are learned. They usually reach practically full bearing in the third year after planting. In the Northern States the Concord, Niagara, and Moore’s Early are the most popular varieties. In the Southeastern States, the Thomas and Scuppernong varieties are the most popular. About 10 plants set 10 feet apart in the row are plenty for an ordinary family. Grapes require a trellis and careful pruning each year for best results.

Raspberries, blackberries, and dewberries cannot be grown successfully in as large a part of the United States as grapes and strawberries. Dewberries winter kill in the Northern States but are excellent for the South. Raspberries and blackberries do not bear well in the far South. Raspberries, blackberries, and dewberries should bear the second year after planting in those sections of the country where they do well. About 50 to 100 plants of each planted 3 to 4 feet apart in the row should furnish plenty of berries for the ordinary family.

A small asparagus bed should also be found in each family garden and in the North, a few hills of rhubarb.

Only a few inexpensive tools are necessary to care for the garden and berries. A good hoe, a garden rake, a spade or spading fork, a pair of pruning shears and a trowel are all that are essential. Much hard work can be saved if a wheel hoe with a large wheel and a well-built wheel barrow can be bought. Other tools may be useful but are not necessary.

Planning a Subsistence Homestead
Figure 3


Most families who are interested in raising their own vegetables are also interested in producing their own poultry and eggs. Studies in several States indicated that almost all part-time farmers keep a few hens, usually not over 25. A flock of 25 hens can be kept on very little land. They are fed on table scraps and some grain, and thus furnish eggs at low cost for home use. Their manure may be used on the garden land, thus reducing fertilizer cost. A few young chickens can be raised on a different small plot of land each year, in rotation with the garden and truck patch, or on the land planted to young fruit trees. In case the latter plan is used, the young growing trees must be protected.

The necessary permanent buildings and equipment for 25 hens and 40 young chickens would cost about $50 if built with home labor. Temporary buildings made of second-hand lumber and covered with roofing paper may be built for much less. The yearly expense for purchased grain for this number of chickens would be from $25 to $40. If they are well cared for, 25 hens are more than enough to supply the family with eggs throughout the year. In addition, approximately 20 young chickens weighing 3 pounds each and 12 hens weighing 4 to 6 pounds each would be available for meat. This is about 120 pounds of meat of a kind all families like.

There are great differences in the number of eggs produced by the same number of hens under different conditions. Commercial flocks average between 12 and 14 dozen eggs per hen, each year, but the average production in the United States is less than 7 dozen with good care and housing, the pullets in the flock will lay all winter, but the spring months naturally bring the heaviest laying. It will probably take a few years of experience to get good fall and winter egg production. Eggs are usually lowest in price during the spring and highest in price during the fall and winter. During the heavy laying season in the spring the surplus eggs can be preserved in water glass for use in the winter. On request, the county agricultural agent or the home demonstration agent will furnish, without cost, instructions regarding the use of water glass.

Unless this plan is used the first year or two, it may be necessary to buy eggs in the fall and winter. As in the case of gardening, starting in a small way in egg production is advisable for the beginner. A dozen pullets may be enough for the first year. If the family is successful in getting good egg production from this number, they will have enough fresh eggs for their own use. If good production is not obtained the first year (and this would not be unusual) a larger flock would only mean a larger feed bill.

Losses in the raising of young chickens are likely to be heavy unless the chicks are fed properly and parasites and diseases controlled. To raise only a few chickens the first year will give the needed experience and will keep down the risk of heavy losses.

Planning a Subsistence Homestead
Figure 4


To grow tree fruits, especially winter apples, may be doubtful economy if the land is high priced and the family has enough cash income to buy these fruits. These trees do not come into bearing for several years; peaches take about 4 years, cherries and plums 4 to 5 years, and apples 6 to 8 years. During this time they must be cared for, sprayed, and pruned if they are to yield well at maturity. A well-rounded program of production for family subsistence, however, should include cherries, plums, peaches, pears, and apples in all localities where such trees bear well.

Bearing fruit trees should be sprayed several times each year, to kill the various insects and to combat the diseases that attack the trees and the fruit. This work is often neglected by those who have only a few trees, as it requires some special equipment, but unless this need is fully realized there is likely to be disappointment later.

A barrel mounted on a 2-wheel cart and fitted with a hand sprayer can be bought or built at a cost of not more that $30. This equipment can be used to spray the trees on 5 to 10 homesteads having 10 to 15 trees each. If the spraying equipment is owned in partnership the cost would be only $3 to $6 for each family.


If the vegetables and other crops are to be cultivated entirely by hand, the intensive use of a small piece of land with heavy fertilization is more feasible and will give better results than the use of a larger area of land in medium or poor condition. Stable or barn-lot manure, when it can be obtained at a reasonable price, is the best garden fertilizer for most soils. A first application of 20 large wagonloads of partly rotted manure on a half-acre garden is not too much, if the land is lacking in organic matter and fertility. However, such manure is usually scarce and expensive near cities. The time to apply the manure will vary, but as a rule it should be spread just before the ground is plowed.

Commercial fertilizers can be used to advantage in many cases along with the manure from the poultry flock. An application at the rate of 600 to 1,200 pounds to the acre, when no manure is available, will usually prove satisfactory. A fertilizer that contains about 5 percent of nitrogen, 10 to 20 percent of phosphoric acid (usually in the form of superphosphate), and 5 to 6 percent of potash is about right for general garden crops. After the ground has been spaded or plowed, the fertilizer should be worked into the ground before the vegetables or other crops are planted.


Diseases, insects, rodents, and other pests attack the vegetables as well as the fruits and poultry. These pests, or poor seed, or unfavorable weather may cause a partial or total failure of any one crop or planting. Several plantings help to insure against total loss. A safe plan for the inexperienced is to plant only a small amount of each crop the first year or two. On the basis of the experience thus gained the family can decide which crops are the best for them, considering both what they are successful with and what the family needs.

Even if the first efforts are not successful, the particular crop of variety need not be condemned. Perhaps neighbors have been very successful with it. If so, it probably can be grown successfully if the right methods are used.