The Technology of Backyard Micro-Farming


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Backyard Micro-Farming

You read about it or hear it on the news about pesticide use and genetically modified crops. But when you consider all the health issues that are linked to pesticides and GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) and GEs (genetically-engineered crops), it makes you wonder why more people don’t know how relatively easy it is to have sustainable gardens in backyards, apartment balconies and community gardens using a bit of simple technology or a lot.

Pesticide Use vs Crop Yield

Barry Ritholtz, author and former Wall Street trader with a background in math, sciences and law, published an overview in Jan 2014 of studies surrounding GE (genetically engineered) crops. Here is what he found:
• GE crops have led to 25% increase in herbicide use
• The USDA published a report that 93% of all soy and 85% of all corn in the U.S. are GE herbicide-resistant varieties
• 93% of all U.S.-produced cottonseed oil and over 90% of all canola oil is GE and herbicide-resistant.
• Monsanto says that 95% of all sugarbeets planted between 2008-9 are GE and resistant to their pesticide Roundup.
A 2012 scientific study by Charles Benbrook at Washington State University brought to light some concerns about herbicide use in the USA. (Benbrook was the former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences, and also the former Executive Director of the Subcommittee on Dept Operations, Research, and Foreign Agriculture, U.S. House of Representatives.) Contrary to other claims that GE (genetically-engineered) crops are reducing pesticide use, Benbrook found that “the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied.” Newer GE forms of corn and soybean, if approved, could increase herbicide use by as much as 50%. Do you know how much herbicide goes into food and other crops?
• HT (herbicide-tolerant) crop volume increases have resulted in the increase by 527M pounds over the period 1996-2011 (16 years).
• 1.5M pounds were used in 1999.
• 18M in 2003
• 79M in 2009
• 90M in 2011
• From 1996-2011, 404M extra pounds of pesticides have been used on major GE crops (527M pound increase in herbicides, minus 123M pound decrease in insecticides) .
• Overall pesticide use in 2011: 20% higher per acre of GE crop, compared to an acre of non-GE crops.
• The result is about 24 types of weeds resistant to glyphosate (major herbicide used on HT crops) and they are spreading, infesting millions of acres.
• These weeds drive up herbicide use by 25-50% and increases weed-control costs for farmers by about the same percentage.

The gist of these numbers is echoed by another study produced by Food & Water Watch in Jul 2013. Overall, several studies suggest that GE crop yield is actually lower than non-GE crop yield.

• An U of Nebraska (2008) study found that Monsanto GM soya yield was 6% lower than its non-GE equivalent, and 11% lower than “the best non-GM soya available”.
• More than one scientist or organization has expressed that they felt, in light of their studies, that GM crops could not solve world hunger.
• This includes Professor Bob Watson (chief scientist at the Dept for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), who chaired a large 2008 IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development) study in 2008, as well as the UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists) in 2009.
• UCS also suggested “organic and similar farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers in such developing regions as Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Repeat: Double crop yields with organic and similar farming methods. By why should poor African farmers have all the crop-doubling fun? Food costs have risen everywhere, including the United States. Some of these techniques can be applied to micro-farms in backyards and balconies.

There are scientists who claim the opposite, that GE crops are good and are the answer to world hunger. But stop for a minute and ask yourself: do you really want to eat food laden with pesticides? Does simple washing of food remove all pesticides? Do you really want to risk it? Are there any adverse impacts on our health? Ritholtz’s article goes on to say that GE foods have been linked to obesity, cancer, liver failure, infertility and other diseases. (Read Dr. William Davis’ first book “Wheat Belly,” if you feel that your health and weight control issues persist despite what seems a reasonable diet.)

Sustainable, Herbicide-Free Crop Production

So it all boils down not to whether or not these herbicides can cause widespread illness but whether or not you want to risk your health if there are herbicide-free alternatives. Would you rather have food in grown in a manner that, at least on a small scale, produces relatively high yields of food and is sustainable as well as lower in cost? If yes, then read on. There are a number of ways to grow sustainable crops:

Multicropping — the planting of multiple crops on the same area of land, either in parallel or sequentially. This includes crop rotation and intercropping (two or more crops with different characteristics, for mutual benefit to each other). This technique has been shown to increase yields, increase biodiversity, and decrease susceptibility to pests.
Sustainable crops use little to no pesticides. Alternatives include IPM (Integrated Pest Management), intercropping, mulching, groundcover, manual control, and release of beneficial insects and organisms.
Instead of synthetic fertilizer, alternatives are compost, animal manure, seaweed, and worm castings, which overall have been shown to increase nutrient value of plants.

Laws: Is Your Garden Illegal?

Of course, we’re not all going to run and become full-time farmers. A good way to start is to setup a small backyard garden or a container garden on a balcony. Unfortunately, thanks to misinformation on the Internet, some people may be led to believe that building a garden or collecting rainwater for it is illegal in some places. This is due to misinformation that gets overblown. It’s true that some families have had police raids on indoor or backyard gardens due to bad anonymous tips. But as points out, these myths are due to a misunderstanding of various Senate bills or outdated state laws. If you have an actual “food production facility,” there typically regulations you must follow. Some authorities, acting on bad tips, may misinterpret that to mean “home garden / micro-farm.”

As for rainwater collection, some states have old laws that require permits. Other states have certain regulations that have to be followed. So for the most part, creating and maintaining a home garden is likely not illegal in the United States — unless you’re growing something illegal.

Micro-farming Yields

Search online or even just visit YouTube and you’ll find any number of articles and videos on micro-farming and related efforts. There’s no clear definition of exactly what a micro-farm is, but typically they go beyond a simple garden and grow small batches of a variety of vegetables, herbs, fruits, etc., in a small plot of land — often the backyard of a typical house. (So, the truth is, if you live in an apartment, you simply cannot set up a micro-farm. However, you can apply some of the same techniques and yield at least some of your produce needs.)

Actual micro-farm yields vary with setup. No one is going to have the exact same efficiency of processes. So here are a few examples. One of the more relatively well known micro-farms is run by the Dervaes family in Pasadena, 15 min from downtown Los Angeles. There are a number of YouTube videos about them, including an award-winning short film from 2009, “Homegrown Revolution,” that’s worth the 15 minutes viewing if you are interested in a creating a backyard micro-farm.

Here are some of the details of their micro-farm, which is in their backyard:
• About 6,00 pounds of food yearly on 1/10th acre = ~4356 square feet (66′ x 66′).
• Actual property size: 1/5th acre.
• Grow 350-400 varieties of vegetables, herbs, fruits & berries, edible flowers.
• 4300 pounds of veg plus seasonal fruits.
• 900 chicken and 1000 duck eggs yearly.
• Have a beehive (originally wild swarm) — no antibiotics; unfiltered, unheated, hand extracted.
• 25 lbs of honey yearly.
• Use 12 solar panels, which provide about 2/3 of their energy.
• Use rechargeable batteries.
• Power bill after solar energy use is about $12/month.
• Whatever the four adults (father, son, two daughters) cannot eat, they sell to local chefs.
• They make about $20K per year from front porch sales, which pays for crops they can’t grow: wheat, rice, oats.
• Uses clay pot irrigation, aquaponics (hydroponics and aquaculture), integrated and natural pest management, polyculture, no-till/ mulch, vertical and container gardening, and some ancient practices.
• The fish keep mosquitoes and other bugs under control.
• The bees pollinate the flowers and flowering vegetables.
• 4 full-time adults manage the garden, plus some volunteers.

Scaled up, the Dervaes’ operation could earn $200K per acre per year — assuming that there’s a local market for it, and that their approach actually could be scaled up. On the other hand, if there were more such operations at even one-half or quarter the size spread out, it could be an answer to urban “food deserts” (where it’s difficult to buy quality fresh food). Another option is to sell produce for bottling, canning, frozen goods, etc.

Backyard Gardens

For those of you that do not have the time or inclination for a micro-farm that takes up your entire backyard, there are many other options including smaller green houses that utilize aquaponics — a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture, the latter of which is the farming of aquatic life such as fish, shellfish and plants. Even a 6×8 foot aquaponic garden covered with a greenhouse can generate enough fish and vegetables to make a big dent in your yearly food bill. Portable Farms ( is an example of just one company that cells such systems.

Here are some details on yields and approach:
• Approximately 6×8 foot garden: produces 100 pounds of fish and 400 pounds of vegetables per year.
• Each 25 SF (square feet) feeds one adult 25% of yearly protein intake and all table veg — year round.
• 20K lbs of fish and 70K vegetables per 1/4 acre per year. (1/4 acre = ~10.89K SF)
• Scaled: 240K vegetables and 92K pounds of fish per acre per year.
• Uses no dirt, and 95% less water.
• Aquaponics system, combines hydroponics with small-scale aquaculture in a closed-loop system.
• No pesticides, no fungicide, no fertilizer, no watering, no weeding

Micro-farming Options and Tips

Most of these tips are meant for a micro-farm or at least a garden in the backyard, but some of these tips apply to container gardens on balconies or even indoors in an apartment. You can start off small with some grow boxes and lights, then add solar panels and small wind turbines for energy, and Arduino micro-controllers for automation, if you decide to grow a micro-farm.

Microfarms can be started in a growbox as small as 4×4 square feet. You could go smaller, but it’s probably not worth it. You can also use short barrel-shaped wooden pots. Check with your favorite home and garden center.

Save food scraps in a container, separate from garbage, to use as compost.

Gift family and friends with fresh food instead of things they may not use or will throwaway.

Cost & Energy:
Automation costs money; however, technology such as solar panels or mini-wind turbines eventually pay back by reducing your energy costs — if you have the space for them and observe city laws for structures in a residential area.

If you live in an apartment/ townhouse, try the balcony. Just make sure you don’t use anything that violates your lease. Some landlords have regulations against certain hanging items.

For very limited space, considering vertical gardening, which uses a variety of stacked, hanging pots or even “grow towers”. Either of these will fit on a balcony as well as the backyard.

For those with no space indoors or on a balcony, there are a growing number of community gardens, although you may not want to invest in any technology that will sit out in the open.

Energy & Space:
The smallest backyard wind generators can be homemade, are just 4-5 feet tall and often have room for small solar panels as well. So you can combine the effort to be energy self-sufficient into a minimum amount of space.

There are small sensor systems like Greenbox ( that have a sensor controlled by a smartphone app.

Automation helps save time. Arduino micro-controllers can be hooked up to control watering of plants, and even feeding of fish if you’re using aquaponics. Environmental sensors for temperature, humidity and light can be used to trigger micro-controllers to add or reduce heat and lighting. If you go this route, look into the Open Source code APDuino for aquaponic and other applications (,

You can buy grow boxes, barrels, automation systems, and whatever else you need for a micro-farm, if you want to skip the building and get to the growing.

If you live alone in a house and have a backyard, maybe you have a close neighbor whom you can partner with, and share the bounty with. Just make sure you put in an equal amount of time and are fair with dividing up the yield.

Check YouTube or Google to find instructions on simple wind generators, about 2 feet high, built using mostly PVC piping and parts available from places like electronic and hobby shops.

Time & Energy:
If you don’t have the time or tools to build turbines, etc., there are numerous small businesses who sell pre-made and modular items. You can have turbines and solar panels installed at a fee.

If you’re concerned about the safety of having spinning blades in areas of high foot traffic, you might consider small roof-mounted, low-noise wind turbines. With the right framework, you can also set up solar panels simultaneously. Rooftops are at an optimum height for turbine blades.

If you have a concern about birds on your rooftop near spinning blades, there are turbines with covered blades that are bird-safe.

Turn your micro-farming into a business. Chefs who support “cooking local” will gladly buy fresh from the micro-farm. Local markets might have low-cost stalls to sell produce from.

Starting Smaller

Of course, a micro-farm and even a garden is a time-consuming effort. If you don’t have the time, or you’re in a space without a backyard, you can always start off with a few small pots of herbs, tomatoes and chili peppers, and maybe a shiitake mushroom log under the kitchen sink. Some vegetables will even grow in a glass of water from kitchen scraps (some need to later be transferred to a pot of soil):
• Leeks, scallions (aka green onions), fennel.
• Lemongrass
• Romaine lettuce
• Celery, Bok Choy
• Cabbage

You can also grow other kitchen scraps in a small pots of soil:
• Onions
• Ginger
• Garlic
• Hot peppers
• Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes
• Mushrooms (button)
• Pineapple — although this will take a few years, even if the climate is right.

This is just a small sampling of what you can do indoors, on a small scale, if you’re not ready for a micro-farm.


Information for this article was collected from the following pages and web sites:


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