As poultry and produce prices skyrocket due to inflation, many Alabamians are looking for ways to keep food on the table without taking a hit.

Some have turned to growing and raising their own food. 

Soon-to-be Chilton County Extension coordinator Lucy Edwards said she’s seen an increase in at-home gardening in the past.

Edwards said she attributes the increase to people who recognize the overall physical and mental health benefits of gardening, are looking for something to do during retirement and COVID-19 or are trying to obtain a food source that they can trust and save them money.

“You have the individuals who simply want to know how it’s been grown,” Edwards said. “If you’re growing it at home, you’re in complete control of anything that’s added to the soil or pesticides.”

The owner of C & R Feeds in St. Clair County, Roland St. John, noted more people coming into his store to grow their own food now that grocery prices have risen.

“More people are planting gardens to try to grow their own vegetables," St. John said. "There was a lull last year but a big boom in people growing gardens in 2020 due to COVID-19 and people panicking that there would not be groceries.”

St John said people are also trying to raise their own chickens, cattle and pigs for meat.

But does this actually save money in the face of inflation?

Some seasoned gardeners and experts say no. Others believe, if done correctly, it can.

Money doesn’t grow on trees

Jason Kingry is a student at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law at Faulkner University. He is currently working as a Summer Law Clerk at the Beasley Allen Law Firm in Montgomery.

Kingry and his wife, Ashley, started growing their own peppers and tomatoes in 2019 to provide ingredients for tomato sandwiches and hot sauce that they couldn’t find at their local grocery store. He said he learned to garden by watching YouTube videos and interacting with Facebook groups. 

Kingry planted seeds in March that year and had his first harvest in June.

The following season, Kingry expanded his garden to include 25 varieties of peppers and 15 varieties of tomatoes. Now, he also grows blackberries, strawberries, squash, cucumbers, luffas, sunflowers, watermelons, cut flowers and roses.

“Our yard currently resembles the lawn and garden section at your local Lowe’s or Home Depot,” Kingry said. “...We typically grow more than we can eat, but that comes in handy for making jams, jellies, dips, and sauces. I may use a couple pounds of peppers for one ferment, and the final product from that may only fill 10 to 15 bottles of sauce.”

Kingry said he gardens for fun. He doesn’t believe it is an effective way to save money, even with food prices increasing.

“The bar to entry for gardening likely wouldn’t be offset by inflation yet,” Kingry said. “...One would soon find out that you spend almost as much to get started as [you] would on the increase in the cost of vegetables over the course of probably two to three years… You’d save money buying vegetables over starting a garden big enough to replace them.”

Kingry said an exception might be someone who already has land, proper equipment, seeds and manure to compost for fertilizer.

“Outside of that, it’s a hobby, and it costs more than you make like most other hobbies,” Kingry said. “...Even with inflation, you can’t beat capitalism, specialization and the division of labor.”

Eat your vegetables

Edwards said whether or not you will save money by starting a garden depends on many factors. Larger families have a higher likelihood of saving money in a single growing season, as long as they eat a lot of vegetables.

“If you don’t really eat a lot of vegetables, you probably won’t see big savings,” Edwards said. “But hopefully, if you grow them, you’re more prone to eat them.”

Getting creative

Edwards said that gardeners can save money by starting from seeds as opposed to buying transplants and reusing pressure-treated lumber, bricks and cinder blocks that they already have. 

“Get creative and see what you currently have at home,” Edwards said.

The wood can be used to build a raised bed garden, which Edwards said is easier to garden as opposed to an in-ground garden. It can cost over $200 to build a raised bed at home from new lumber.

“If you go buy lumber right now or you go buy the supplies to build a raised bed, regardless of what you use, it’s going to be more expensive,” Edwards said.

In-ground gardens: less expensive, more work

Of course, an in-ground garden could be cheaper, according to Edwards. New gardeners can purchase a tiller for around $135. They’ll also need a water hose, a hoe and a rake. 

“It’s less expensive,” said Edwards. “That’s the only advantage [to an in-ground garden] in my opinion. It’s more work. You definitely either have to till between your rows of your plants to keep your weeds out or you have to go out and hand-cultivate with the hoe.”

Edwards said she recommends new gardeners start small and build two to four above-ground beds, so they can get a feel for how much gardening they can handle.

“[A garden] is like a pet,” Edwards said. “It needs attention. There are living things out there.”

Health benefits of gardening

Even if gardening doesn’t save you money, it may have many health benefits, both physically and mentally. They might also taste better.

“Commercially grown foods cannot be as healthy and cannot taste as good as the food you will likely grow from your own amended soil,” Kingry said. “The nature of commercial agriculture provides that the foods are grown in the same soil that other or similar foods have been grown in year after year. This is the harsh reality of modern farming practice, and why many people are interested in farming their own food.

“...Additionally, in order to deal with the soil issues created by commercial farming, most farmers only plant certain types of crops that have been scientifically engineered to produce the most fruit from the least nutrient-dense soil. Because of the engineering, those crops typically produce large, sugar-laden fruits lacking in essential minerals,” Kingry said.

Chickens and eggs

Jason Woodard, the store manager at Tractor Supply in Trussville, said he noticed at-home chicken coops becoming more popular in 2019.

“It slowly started growing into an industry of its own, as in raising your own chicks,” Woodard said. “2020 hit and a lot of people were stuck at home with nothing to do.”

Individuals can build a chicken coop out of pallets or plywood. They may also buy them premade, but this is more expensive. Tractor Supply sells premade chicken coops for $399.99. 

If chickens are purchased as chicks, they’ll have to sit for six months before they start laying eggs. During this time, chicks require certain equipment such as a heat bulb and tub.

Some people choose to buy full-grown hens and roosters. Woodard said a lot of his customers find them on Facebook Marketplace.

“You can buy a fully grown hen for $15 or $20, and you cut out probably $400 just from growing your chick from a chick to a hen,” Woodard said. “There’s a lot of cost just in getting the bird up to age to lay eggs.”

Woodward said the standard start-up includes about six birds, which can produce around 12 to 18 eggs a week. 

Chicks cost $4 a piece, and federal law requires that no less than 4 chickens are purchased at a time.

A standard start-up cost for raising six chicks in a pre-made coop would equate to $591.71 before taxes. Walmart sells organic eggs for $4.54 a dozen, which equates to $0.38 per egg.

If six chickens produce an average of 60 eggs a month, the savings still wouldn’t be enough to make up for the monthly cost of feed and shavings. Even if you sold all 60 eggs for the Walmart price, it would take years before the start-up cost was recovered.

“All of this is just more of a hobby than it is to save money on eggs for most people.. Unless you have 300 chickens and you’re selling [a bunch of] your eggs, you’re not going to break even at any point,” Woodard said.

Chicken for meat

Woodard said some people do save money by raising chickens for meat.

“Meat birds are a lot cheaper,” said Woodard. “In 16 weeks, they’re ready… fully grown, six months. That’s four bags of feed, smaller coops because they don’t need the space to free-range. With meat versus eggs, you’re looking at about $300 in cost savings. It’s a big difference. Normally most meat birds get up to about 9 pounds on the heavy end.”

St. John said people raising their own meat might run into trouble finding a slaughterhouse.

“They all stay booked up,” St. John said.

However, Woodard said chickens, in particular, can be easily processed by the individuals who raised them.

“Most people who are using chickens for meat are not looking for a processor,” said Woodard. “They’re comfortable doing it themselves.”

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