Learn from the experience of a seasoned farmer and you, too, will be able to grow a successful and fulfilling market gardening career on less acreage than you ever thought possible.
"Les Jardins de la Grelinette" is the author’s thriving 1.5-acre market garden in Saint-Armand, Quebec.
Photo by Parafilms/Possible Media/The Market Gardener's Toolkit
Many people believe that a small-scale market garden can’t compete economically with larger industrial growers. For more than a decade, however, my wife and I have supported our four-person family solely by intensively farming 1.5 acres. We offer our experience here as a road map to help you start your own successful market farm.
We began our farming careers as “WWOOFers” (volunteers with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and later worked as farm managers on someone else’s market farm. After we spent some time learning abroad, we came home to Quebec to pursue our own farming project. We started small by growing produce on one-fifth of an acre and by living simply — in a tipi! After a few years, we longed to put down roots in the community and expand our farm, but we needed to generate income. To make payments on a small plot, fund the construction of a modest home, and cover the expenses that surround a growing family and business, we made a decision that might sound contradictory to economic growth: we decided to stay small.
We wanted to continue relying on inexpensive hand tools and light power tools. We even named our farm Les Jardins de la Grelinette after la grelinette (“broadfork”), a tool that epitomizes efficient hand labor in organic gardening. We’ve always believed that it’s possible — even preferable — to intensify production through smart gardening techniques. Our motto became “Grow better instead of bigger.”
We began by investing in a large quantity of organic matter to create rich, living soil. We continue to add compost regularly, while restricting the tilling of the soil to the surface. This method keeps the soil’s structure as intact as possible. By improving the soil’s structure, we’ve been able to sow crops close together, resulting in higher yields and reduced weed growth.
We further maximized our growing space by planting as many succession crops as possible. To make a crop-rotation plan, we had to first determine the length of time each crop would spend in the garden, and then schedule our plantings so we could replace harvested crops with new plants or seeds as soon as possible. With our crop-rotation plan in hand, we succeeded in producing multiple harvests from the same permanent garden beds.
We wanted to avoid the investment necessary for maintaining a large, four-wheeled tractor, so we rely on a small-but-mighty walk-behind tractor with multiple detachable implements. Learn about two-wheeled tractor options online.
The soil’s integrity is our top priority, so we’ve opted for a rotary-power harrow (shown here), which stirs and prepares the topsoil for planting while retaining the vitality of the bed’s subsoil. We also use a “tilther” — a clever tool powered by an electric drill that does a great job of mixing amendments into the soil (available from Johnny's Selected Seeds). All of our tools, including row covers and two-wheel tractor implements, are sized to work efficiently in our uniform, permanent beds, which are all 30 inches wide by 100 feet long, with 18 inches between each bed.
Weeding can be extremely time-consuming, so to discourage weed growth, smother crop debris and dedicate our time elsewhere, we cover the soil with black plastic mulch. UV-resistant, black polyethylene tarps do an especially good job of diminishing pesky weed pressure. The explanation is simple: Weeds germinate in the warm, moist conditions created by the tarp, but are then killed by the absence of light. This weeding technique is called “occultation,” and it saves us a lot of work. The great thing about these methods is that they’re relatively inexpensive, especially when compared with the large equipment and expensive chemical inputs used in traditional farming setups.
Direct selling via farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs allows market farming to be a financially successful career choice in today’s economy. These expanding avenues for direct producer-to-consumer sales allow growers to recover the large portion of profit that’s traditionally scooped up by distributors and wholesalers. For example, most grocery stores take a cut of between 35 and 50 percent of an item’s selling price. The distributor, who transports and handles the product, takes another 15 to 25 percent. This means that salad greens sold for $2 in a store will only bring the vegetable grower about 75 cents. That’s a big loss! Market farmers, on the other hand, can receive all the profit for their product if they’re willing to put forth their own time and effort on marketing, sales and distribution.
At Les Jardins de la Grelinette, we favor the CSA model because it guarantees sales and simplifies our production plan (see “Advantages of the CSA Model” further in this article). Last year, we sold 46 percent of our produce to our 140-member CSA program; 44 percent at two farmers markets; and the remaining 10 percent, which was mesclun mix, to a few local restaurants and a nearby grocery store. We peddled produce to approximately 250 families. Don’t forget, we live in Quebec, where the growing season is shorter than most U.S. regions, despite our application of season-extending techniques. If you live in a warmer climate, you should be able to sell even more.
Whether you choose to use a CSA model, farmers markets or a combination of avenues, direct selling builds a loyal customer base and develops interdependent relationships with clients. This can take a few years, and you can’t overlook two key components: quality and presence. When it comes to customer loyalty, quality of the product is vital. Always wash and neatly display your vegetables. Be present at market stands and CSA program drop-off points. Bigger, mechanized, faceless operations will never be able to compete with you if you’re producing top-quality produce and consistently showing up to form an ongoing, positive relationship with your customers.
Market gardening provides the opportunity to get started little by little. In our first year of production — on less than one-fifth of an acre of rented land — we sold $20,000 worth of produce. The following year, our sales more than doubled to $55,000. In our third growing season, we invested in new tools and settled on our current farm site. By increasing our amount of cultivated land to 1.5 acres, we increased our gross sales to $80,000. When our sales broke the $100,000 mark the following year, our micro-farm reached a level of production and financial success that most people in the agricultural industry had previously believed to be impossible. We’ve only continued to grow since then.
For us, $39,000 was enough to provide all the tools and equipment we needed to start a small-scale market garden, including one greenhouse, two hoop houses, irrigation equipment, a walk-behind tractor with implements, a cold room for vegetable storage, and more (see “Start-Up Costs” further in this article for a full list of equipment). This may sound like a lot of money, but consider that a bank loan of $39,000, spread out over five years at 8 percent interest per year, meant that our annual payments were about $9,500. Compared with the potential revenue of an intensively managed market garden, these payments were entirely manageable. Plus, this figure is much less than the costs for an industrial farm on hundreds of acres.
Of course, this initial investment wasn’t our only business expense. It doesn’t include certain necessities, such as a reliable delivery vehicle, land rental or purchase fees, or utilities. As you can see from this pie chart, 19 percent of our annual budget is allocated to paying back our loan. The largest portion (33 percent) goes toward paying our two full-time employees. After those two large cuts, we spend the remaining 48 percent of our budget on utilities, insurance, fuel, seeds, soil inputs, packing and promotional materials, and other miscellaneous necessities. All in all, last year’s production expenses added up to $98,914.
This may sound intimidating, but before you back out, know that our revenue last year was $154,386, for a net income of $55,472. My wife and I have been able to support our four-person family with that level of income — plus, we’re our own bosses, live a life that’s connected to the Earth and the food we produce, eat really fresh, healthy fare, and have winters off. We’re not getting rich, but we believe our work is honorable, and we’re living the life we set out to create.
• Guaranteed sales. The main advantage of the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model is that production is prepaid at the start of the season, often before the first seed has even been sown. This model allows the farmer to budget with greater precision.
• Simpler production plans. Because members have already purchased the produce, the farmer can plan production based on sales. After determining the number of customers, the farmer can plan the contents of each delivery beforehand. This is even more important for growers who don’t yet have much farming experience to base their year on.
• Risk sharing. The idea behind CSA programs is that the risks inherent to agriculture are shared between the farmer and the members. When members sign up, they authorize a contract inviting them to be tolerant in case of hail, drought or any other natural catastrophe. If the season is good, the members will receive more than planned, but if the season is bad, they’ll receive less. For the farmer, it’s similar to taking out an insurance plan on the harvest.
• Customer loyalty. CSA models allow farmers to build customer loyalty and tangible relationships between consumers and the farm. Many of our members have been buying vegetables from us for many years now. These people know us, they’ve come out to visit the farm, and they greatly appreciate the work we do. As its name suggests, community-supported agriculture really does have the power to build community.
• Greenhouse (25’ x 100’): $11,000
• 2-wheeled tractor and accessories: $8,500
• 2 hoop houses (15’ x 100’): $7,000
• Cold room: $4,000
• Irrigation system: $3,000
• Furnace: $1,150
• Flame weeder: $600
• Indoor seeding equipment: $600
• Hoes and wheel hoe: $600
• Floating row cover, insect netting and hoops: $600
• Electric fencing: $500
• Harvest cart: $350
• Seeders: $300
• Harvest baskets and scales: $300
• Broadfork: $200
• Rakes, shovels, spades, wheelbarrow: $200
• Sprayer: $100
For more information about The Market Gardener read Grow Better, Not Bigger: An Interview with Jean-Martin Fortier or read an excerpt from The Market Gardener at Organic Weed Control with Jean-Martin Fortier.