GCC: This past summer we met Mr & Mrs Crazy Kicks at the GCC Meetup in New York City’s Central Park. They introduced themselves by offering a handful of fresh picked cherry tomatoes and a fine summer ale, so of course we hit it off immediately :) Their approach to early retirement is a wonderful mix of amazing food and world travel, and I hope you enjoy learning about it as much as we did.
Early Retirement on an Urban Farm
When we got married, my wife and I made a hard plan to retire early. It was 2008, and we were both working at the same company where we’d met. It wasn’t so much the work itself as the high stress, man-child egos, and lack of vacation time that set us on a path to financial freedom. Our plan at the time was to reach financial independence then move to a homestead near a community college. My wife, who loves school, wanted to teach and we both wanted to get away from all the traffic and crowds – to slow down and grow our own food.
Chasing down our dreams
We both had decent jobs and were already living on one salary. When it came to investing, I used to waste time and money trading in and out of stocks, but over time we learned a simple three fund portfolio was all we needed. Soon we were maxing out our 401ks, making automated contributions to Vanguard accounts, optimizing for taxes, and increasing our savings rate to over 70%.
Financially we were starting to look good, but we had no plow experience. The only thing we knew about growing veggies was what we saw on documentaries – we were just a couple of beer drinking sofa farmers.
We decided to start a garden in our backyard. Living in the suburbs, we didn’t have a huge property, but 0.2 acres left plenty of space for a small plot.
Learning to grow our own food
I tilled up some dirt, built raised beds, and planted our first crops. If this had been our first year homesteading, we would have starved. I planted everything too close together and none of the plants got big enough to produce fruit. The few veggies we did get were enjoyed by squirrels and groundhogs. Considering the effort we put in, and the fact that we could just buy all these veggies at the store for a few dollars, almost made us give up.
At least it wasn’t our first year trying to live off the land somewhere in the boonies. Instead of giving up, I picked up the book Garden Way’s Joy of Gardening by Dick Raymond. The next spring, we started over.
I fenced in the garden, tilled up a larger area, setup an automatic watering system, added more compost, and mulched with leaves and grass clippings. With the right amount of space, fertilizer, and regular watering, we started seeing some real crops. Not everything turned out great, but we were making progress. Results improved each year as our soil got better.
Adding in some farm animals
Our crops were starting to look good, but we still wanted to move to the country and get a piece of land where we could have chickens for fresh eggs. Then one summer we took a road trip to Asheville NC, and ended up booking a room on an urban farm. An eccentric little hipster spot, they were raising meat rabbits, ducks, chickens, and bees – all on a tenth of an acre. Maybe it was all the free homebrew they shared, but this heady experience left us inspired.
Having chickens in a suburban development is unconventional, but so is retiring in your 30s. Screw convention. When we got home, we drew up plans on a napkin and built a coop the next day. After spotting an ad on Craigslist for various fancy breeds of chicks, we went and picked some out.
Now, before getting into raising chickens, we knew we would have to butcher them at some point. Chickens only lay eggs well for the first three years of their life, but they can live for over a decade. On a farm, chickens are for both eggs and meat. We understood this was something we were signing up for.
Besides, we had good 3 years before we would have to worry about butchering chickens… That is, until we realized that 4 out of 6 of the chicks were actually roosters. Who knew the prettiest, strongest looking chicks were all dudes? We ended up with a lot of meat birds that first year.
The two hens we ended up with quickly found their spot on our little urban homestead. They happily took care of all our garden and kitchen scraps turning them into eggs and excellent fertilizer. We let them roam the yard where they’d devour any bugs in sight, eradicating our grub problem. They completed our backyard ecosystem.
Sliding into early retirement
Each day we got closer to our goals, and each day our corporate jobs got more stressful. I switched jobs within the company and turned down some projects in order to reduce my responsibility. My wife however, kept getting pushed up the ladder. Becoming a corporate big timer was fun at first, but now the 24/7 emails had her on edge.
One day, she saw a position at a local community college. It paid less than half of what she was making, and at first, she didn’t think much of it. A few months later, we were on our winter break and really enjoying being away from work. My wife wasn’t keen on going back and told me about the teaching position – it was still open.
Maybe these weren’t the circumstances we expected, but this was exactly what she’d always wanted. I told her she had to take it. It was a massive pay cut, but not a big deal for us. Our spending was so low that her new gig would still cover all of our expenses, and we could keep putting away my salary.
Leaving the corporate environment was transformative. Instantly I could see how much happier and healthier she was feeling. Life was good, really good.
With the bull market boosting our savings, it wasn’t much longer before we became financially independent. I thought I would pad our savings a bit more, but now my wife had summers off, and it was really tempting for me to quit my job and go travel with her. It also didn’t hurt that her community college gig still covered our expenses and provided excellent healthcare benefits. I quit my job the next summer – 4 years earlier than we originally planned.
Homesteading on an urban farm
It’s funny how we’d been chasing this dream for years, then it just kind of fell into our laps. After years of practice, we hit the ground running on our urban homestead.
Tending the garden has become second nature – we put in less effort and get more out. There’s nothing quite like walking out into a backyard grocery where you can pick more veggies than you can eat, and gather fresh eggs for breakfast everyday.
With more time on my hands, I even built a greenhouse to extend our growing season. It’s March in Connecticut, and I just picked the last of our greenhouse kale. We made soup out of it with some garlic, tomato sauce, turnips, and herbs we stored from last summer’s garden. A lot of the meat we’ve been eating this winter is from the last flock of chickens we raised in our backyard.
How urban farming plays into our finances
If you want to run a profitable urban farm, your best bet is to intensively farm crops that are more expensive and can be grown fast – mainly fresh greens. You might even be able to expand your operation by finding neighbors willing to let you cultivate their backyards in exchange for fresh veggies. If you can find a market to sell within your community, transportation costs can be eliminated.
Our urban farm is far from being optimized for profit. We have a portfolio to support our financial needs, and the farm is more to increase our quality of life. That said, generally speaking we still come out ahead financially.
By staying small, startup costs remain low. It cost me a couple of hundred dollars to buy some rabbit-proof metal fencing and setup an automated watering system. I do have a small tiller that I picked up on Craigslist for $50, but you don’t necessarily need one to dig up a small plot. Just a few hand tools like a shovel, hoe, and rake will get you started. With a few bags of fertilizer, you should be able to have a garden setup for less than $300.
Getting setup for chickens costs about the same. I estimate we spent about $200 for materials to build our chicken coop, and it took us a day to build it. I made their automated feeder and heated waterer with scraps we found in a construction dumpster. The actual birds usually sell for $5-7 for a chick or $10-15 for a grown laying hen. When we got chicks, we made our own brooder out of a cardboard box and a lamp we had laying around.
The most expensive piece of our urban farm is the greenhouse. Even though I did all of the work myself, it still cost about $650 to build. I estimate this will take the longest to pay itself off.
The largest recurring costs for the garden are in seeds and watering. We might see our water bill increase by about $50 a season, and I’ll spend another $50 on heirloom seeds. While I might pay $3 for a packet of seeds, generally speaking I can grow those seeds into $30-$60 worth of produce.
A lot of plants don’t even have any recurring costs to grow. For example, garlic and potatoes are planted from old ones stored from the previous season. Often times, they even come up on their own from strays that we missed during harvest. I can save seeds like green onion and dill from old plants and keep them for the next season. Plants like strawberries and asparagus are perennials and come up year after year.
We hardly have any chemical costs, because we mostly use composted chicken poop to fertilize our plants. I never use pesticides, though I did introduce a few mantis eggs that I picked up for about $10 a few years ago. Our garden pests are kept under control by spiders and mantises who come back each year to work for free.
When it comes to our chickens, I’ve already calculated that half a dozen hens earn about $30/month in fresh eggs after accounting for feed costs.
It’s hard to put a price on how much produce we get, because we don’t weight it all out (we just eat,) but I’d estimate we get over $1k in fresh veggies, eggs and meat each year.
Urban farm commitments
Our farm doesn’t exactly look like what we expected, but neither does our lifestyle. We’re traveling much more than expected, and have to balance that with our commitments at home. When it comes to our chickens, we do have an automated waterer and feeder setup. With those alone, our chickens would be fine on their own for a few days.
For longer trips, we have family close by to check on the ladies and let them out to graze. Since we rotate flocks, we sometimes have a break from taking care of chickens. This winter we took advantage of such a break to snowbird in Costa Rica.
While maintaining our garden does present some hurdles, it isn’t too difficult to leave it and travel. Over the last few summers we’ve taken long trips to Colorado, Nova Scotia, and Spain. During these trips our garden would become over grown, and some crops would go to waste. While this isn’t ideal, we can usually clear the weeds and still keep things productive after 3-4 weeks of absence.
The right size for us
Being in a more urban location has a slew of benefits like being close to major airports, and having a gym, grocery, bars, restaurants, and hardware store in walking distance. I even find myself happy that there isn’t more land to take care of, because it allows more time to pursue other hobbies like mountain biking, surfing, and traveling. Maybe this isn’t the homestead retirement life we initially envisioned, but for us, it’s even better.
Having a smaller operation leaves more time for other things
Would you Retire to your Urban Farm?
GCC: Thank you Mr. Crazy Kicks, I’m definitely inspired. To learn about future meetups, be sure to sign up for our mailing list (form below and in the footer.) Also, check out our own early ambitions to grow our own food: So You want to be a Farmer?