Grow Better, Not Bigger: An Interview with Jean-Martin Fortier, Author of 'The Market Gardener'

In this exclusive interview, author and market farmer Jean-Martin Fortier sums up his recent U.S. book tour for “The Market Gardener,” a 2015 winner of the prized American Horticultural Society book award.

Jean-Martin Fortier

Jean-Martin Fortier with his trusty broadfork, the tool for which his farm, Les Jardins de la Grilinette, is named.

Photo by Alex Chabot

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If you’re a vegetable grower and you haven’t yet heard of small-scale agriculture advocate and author Jean-Martin Fortier, you need to look him up. Fortier is the author of the popular practical farming manual The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming (New Society Publishers). One could say that Fortier’s new book is the updated and more detailed sibling to Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower. Like Coleman’s book, Fortier’s manual tackles the practical side of organic farming, with an emphasis on how to make a good living on a small acreage.

The Market Gardener is acclaimed by farming authors Joel Salatin and Eliot Coleman, and just won the American Horticultural Society book award.

Fortier just finished his last tour date in California as part of his 2014/15 U.S. speaking tour. His U.S. tour reached more than 10,000 people through more than 20 workshops and talks, touring to 13 states from Florida to Kentucky.

An Interview with Jean-Martin Fortier

Diving back into his own farming life at Les Jardins de la Grelinette in Québec, Fortier is full of inspiration and insights about small-scale organic farming, profitable agriculture and the young farmer movement.

Moss Dance: What is your motivation for writing & sharing The Market Gardener?

Jean-Martin Fortier: My motivation was to share good technical advice about how to grow crops sustainably and profitably. We had pulled it off, and our system was just too good to keep to ourselves. I knew the needs of other growers and I felt privileged to be doing so well. I wanted to give back to others and to pass along our successful model.

We’ve been farming without a tractor and doing it successfully, and that’s a great way to enter agriculture - a lot of people are interested in this way of life. For organic small-scale agriculture, the problem is: how do people get into it? Because we had faced the same problems as everyone else - we had no land, no money to buy all the equipment - I felt this model would empower other people in our situation. 

MD: How did you get started in farming?

JMF: My wife and I began farming in a very small market garden, selling our veggies through a farmers’ market and a CSA program. We rented a very small piece of land (⅕ of an acre) where we set up summer camp. It didn’t take much investment in the way of tools and equipment to get us up and running, and our expenses were low enough that we were able to cover our farming costs, earn enough money to make it through the winter and even do some travelling.

Eventually there came a time when we felt the need to become more settled. Our new beginning meant that our market garden would have to generate enough income to make payments on the land, pay for construction of a new house, and keep the family afloat.

We could have followed a route similar to that taken by all the other growers we knew: invest in a tractor and move towards a mechanized growing system. Instead, we opted to stay small and continue relying on hand and light power tools. From the outset, we had always believed that it was possible and preferable to intensify production through gardening techniques. To grow better instead of bigger became the basis of our model.

MD: Who are your mentors? What books inspired you to get started?

JMF: We got started in farming by WOOFing with Richard Bélanger, and he was a very positive role model. He was having fun, he was popular at his local market, and he was making money! Richard was farming two leased acres, and he would go to Mexico in the winters. He is called “The Salad King of Santa Fe!” He produced the best salad mix and everyone would go to his market booth.

When we went to Cuba and visited the Organoponicos there in 2004, we met people who were farming without tractors on permanent bed systems. There were acres and acres of permanent beds. That was the first time that I saw with my own eyes what a cropping system without a tractor could look like on a broader scale than just a garden.

Eliot Coleman is by far my biggest influence, his book The New Organic Grower is the first farming book I read, and was the better one out there. I visited his farm, and his systems made a lot of sense. But after reading The New Organic Grower, we still had to figure out how to do what he was doing on our own farm. That was influential for us.

MD: After having so much success with your book in Canada and Europe, what made you decide to do a U.S. tour?

JMF: My book came out in French first, and after the English version was published, I toured Canada and Europe talking about my practices. Everywhere I went, people were really listening to my story and were encouraged by it. It took a lot of courage for me to decide to tour the U.S. because at first, I wasn’t sure if it would fly. People like Sara Dent from the Young Agrarians and Christie Young from FarmStart Ontario told me that young and new farmers really want this information and they encouraged me to go for it. After some initial cold-calling to American farming organizations, I contacted Sophie Ackoff from the National Young Farmers Coalition and she opened a lot of doors for me.

My goal in doing these workshops and getting all this publicity out there is to get people to read The Market Gardener. I’d done a “Rock Star Farmer” tour in western Canada, and I enjoy facilitating workshops, but I still believe my best teaching is in the book. Reading the book yourself and seeing how it can work for you is the best way to learn about our small-scale farming systems. I am just a “conveyer belt” for the information. It’s not about me as a person, it’s about our system. I hope people will pick up the book and read it, and find out how to make it work on their own farms.

MD: What were your greatest discoveries on your US tour?

JMF: My greatest discovery is that everywhere we go, we are all the same. We’re all young people trying to make farming work. We’re all super-stoked and positive. We’re a group of like-minded people. And there are a whole bunch of us out there! And I really feel that together, we are changing the face of agriculture. We are doing it right now.

When we are out on our own farms, we forget that there are a lot of people like us. Maybe we are all on our little farms, having our daily struggles, but we’re all in this together. We are all facing the same challenges, and we all have the same aspirations and high hopes that this model of farming is going to replace the old one. And I see that this has already happened. I feel very empowered and positive about that.

MD: Now that you’ve toured the US, Canada and Europe, what is your sense of where the young/new farmer movement is going?

JMF: It’s going mainstream. It’s going to take awhile, but more and more people are looking at us and thinking, “Wow, this is a pretty good lifestyle.” The demand for local organic produce is going up and up and up. As more of us get into that kind of farming, we’re creating a bigger “up.” We are going to take over the market. Farmers are creating niches, circles of influence and special products everywhere. That’s how it’s going to grow. We’re replacing mass production with production by the masses - that’s my gospel.

MD: What is your favourite story of farmers who have read the book, then started their own farm?

JMF: [Laughs] One day, I saw a Kickstarter campaign from Excelsior Farm in Oregon. It was like a cut and paste of my farm - all the techniques, all the tools - a perfect set up. They were doing a Kickstarter campaign to get a greenhouse. And the picture of the greenhouse was from our farm! Even thinking about it, I’m emotional, because I was looking at this Kickstarter Campaign with my wife Maude-Hélène, and I thought, you know, people are getting this, it’s working! That was a very profound moment for me.

MD: Do you mean to say that the greenhouse picture in their Kickstarter campaign was literally a photo from your farm?

JMF: Yes! It was perfect, because I’m the first one to say in my book, this is how we do it, and make your adjustments from there. That’s what they were doing.

I also visited a young couple in Kentucky - they had obviously read The Market Gardener. They had set up a market garden exactly the same as ours, and had all the same equipment.

I could see that they had set up a very good farm. But, they had put the permanent beds on the wrong side of the slope - the beds were created counter-slope. They had dug 100 beds 100’ long the wrong way. And I was sitting there with them, thinking it through, and I told them, “You guys, you need to do this again. Because if there’s a flash flood, you’re going to lose all of your top soil!”

MD: [Groans] I’m having a visceral moment imagining re-doing all of the beds! So, what’s next for the Market Gardener? Any ideas where you’ll tour next?

JMF: Something that’s dear to my heart is that I recognize that we need better tools for small-scale agriculture and urban farming as well. So, I’ve been working with different tool companies, really pushing the envelope, and it’s hard because every company has its own sets of constraints. The exciting news is, I’m involved with a group of market gardeners and we are starting our own tool company.

The company is called Growers & Co and I will be an ambassador. I’m so excited about this because I’m really interested in tools and gear. I’ve toured around Europe and I see great gear all over the place - but there’s no exchange between the continents. I want Growers & Co. to be a conveyer belt for better tools in North America.

Better rain gear, better boots, better seeders, better hoes, better everything. Better exchange between all of us on these things. It’s not going to be a Farm Hack, it’s going to be a provider of tools, but everyone is going to chip in their ideas to make better tools and gear available to small-scale farmers. This company is going to focus on function and fashion - to represent what we are as young growers.

So that’s what’s next for The Market Gardener - I’m going to invest a lot of my time with Growers & Co. sharing growing information to go along with the tools we offer. The reason why my book got so popular is because I took all these tools and made a system out of it that works for you if you follow the plan. The tools are out there, but people don’t really know how to use all of them together. I’m excited to apply my knowledge and farming systems through Growers & Co. so we can provide high-value information with high-quality tools.

MD: Exciting! So, what message do you hope to get out to new farmers as you continue to share your book and support new projects for small-scale growers?

JMF: That we can make a good living and have a great quality of life as market gardeners and small-scale farmers. The popular myth of family farms is that we are tied down to the land, we work seven days a week, we never have time off, and we just barely scrape by financially. But our vocation as farmers is exceptional. It’s defined not only by the hours spent at work or the money earned, but by the quality of life it affords. Unlike employees of big companies living with the constant threat of layoffs, I have job security. Also, a well-established, smoothly running market garden with good sales outlets can bring in $60,000 to $100,000 per acre annually in diverse vegetable crops. For anyone looking for a different way of living, market gardening offers a chance not only to make a good living, but also to make a good life.

For More Information:

The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming as well as resources, podcasts, tool features and more are available at The Market Gardener website.

Growers & Co. - an up-and-coming tool and gear company for small-scale farmers. Check them out on the Growers & Co website. They’re just getting started, so sign up for updates and stay tuned!