Can market gardening pay in this farm-killing economy? Judging by the three people we visited, the answer is yes, yes and no.
Making a Living Market Gardening
Many a back yard gardener, happily tending vegetables or flowers, has stopped to ponder: Wouldn't it be fun to do this all the time? To garden during the workweek instead of squeezing it in during spare hours?
Most of us dwell only a moment on that fantasy before going back to weeding the carrots—because behind that first, appealing query lies a more basic and difficult one: Would it be possible? Can a person expand a garden, find buyers for fresh, homegrown crops and actually earn a living?
To find out, let's visit three people who, collectively, have spent 20 years market gardening and trying to fulfill this dream: Sam Smith, with his six-acre Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts; David Miskell, on three acres outside Burlington, Vermont; and Bob Gow, with three acres of produce and flowers in rural Zionville, North Carolina. Their stories will reveal many of the ingredients that can make market gardening a success—or a failure.
Williamstown, a small college town, lies in a beautiful New England setting that beckons to summer tourists. Many fine restaurants cater to those visitors. And Sam Smith caters to those restaurants, selling lettuce and other vegetables to a dozen eateries from May through September.
Smith—wiry, friendly and 51 years old—has run his large garden/small farm for 12 years. His 10-acre holding consists of good land in a flat, fertile valley, and his home is comfortable and attractive. He speaks quietly, a dedicated, self-assured but not boastful man.
Lettuce is Smith's mainstay. By early June, he's starting a whopping 3,200 plants a week. He also ships potatoes and onions (two crops that store well) each fall to Bread & Circus, an organic food co-op in Boston. And he grows sweet corn, which, along with other vegetables, cut flowers, seedlings and the bread his wife, Elizabeth, bakes, moves quickly at their roadside produce stand. But the bulk of Smith's income—and indeed, of Miskell's and Gow's, as well—comes from restaurants: places that truly appreciate fresh, high-quality lettuce, summer squash, parsley, basil and carrots, and are willing to pay for them.
When Sam started market gardening seriously back in 1975, he found these customers by paying daytime visits to area chefs and showing them his goods, produce that in many cases was the best the cooks had ever seen. And today he spends about a third of his workday filling and delivering orders.
But how does he manage to keep a 6-1/2-acre garden producing? Smith says simply, "There's no sexy secret to it. Success comes from hard work and persistence." He's not kidding: From April 1 to mid-October, he puts in continuous 80-hour workweeks, with no days off.
In addition, three or four apprentices work on the farm each summer, putting in six-day workweeks and receiving in return room, board, $60 a week (starting pay) and valuable hands-on experience. "I've had very good apprentices," Smith readily admits. "They've made a big difference."
But there's more to success than labor. Sam has refined a very efficient set of growing systems. To begin with, all his crops are grown in space-saving raised beds. He doesn't hand-dig those four-foot-wide beds (some of which are over 100 yards long), but uses a wide-wheeled, 50-horsepower Massey-Ferguson tractor to first chisel plow the soil, then construct the beds with a mechanical bed former. (Disks on the former's sides push pathway dirt up under the tractor, then a set of flat boards smooths the raised soil.)
He starts his seedlings in polystyrene Speedling trays that each contain enough individual plugs for 200 plants. Once the seedlings are ready to leave his gas-heated greenhouse, Smith and his helpers set them out, four rows to a bed. They lay down two 16-foot 1 by 8 boards with marked notches to show just where to set each seedling. One person makes each transplant hole with a dibble stick; another follows and inserts the plants.
To weed the beds, he pulls a scuffle (or stir-rup) hoe all the way down the gaps between plant rows. The open design of the hoe's triangular cutting face makes it easy to pull the tool behind him as he walks down the pathway. If done early, this takes care of most invasive plants. Others are pulled by hand.
Smith spends no energy or money on pest control—not even a few dollars a year on Bacillus thuringiensis or some other organic spray. Indeed, the University of Massachusetts sends agricultural students out every week in the summer to monitor the Colorado potato beetle population in his one-acre potato field. They use his unsprayed—and undamaged—potatoes as a benchmark for comparison to pest-ridden conventional plantings. (When Smith started potato growing, he lost half his crop to beetle damage, but the pests' numbers have dropped every year, and the population of predatory insects has risen: "Our plot now has Heinz's 57 varieties of ladybug beetles.")
Smith's crops are also so healthy they resist pests. He puts great emphasis on soil fertility. With the help of his tractor, he spreads 25 tons of imported and composted chicken manure and wood shavings on each acre every year. He also rotates growing and fallow areas and sows cover crops of winter rye and hairy vetch or oats whenever possible. Smith even plants red clover in among his growing corn with a seeder-cultipacker that runs over his two- to three-inch seedlings: "It looks like it crushes the corn plants, but they recover and have the head start they need on the clovers."
Sam Smith grosses an impressive $34,000 per year (and all the vegetables his family and apprentices can eat) from Caretaker Farm but says his success didn't come overnight. "It took years for me to get an understanding of my plot and for the soil to get balanced and fertile. One of the key skills I've developed is a sense of timing. When 20 things need to be done at once, I now know which one really has to be done just then. You can't learn that skill from any source but experience."
Where Sam Smith is wiry and composed, 37-year-old David Miskell is stocky and intensely serious—a man with a lot on his mind and hands. Miskell's northern Vermont land is different, as well. His arable site contains only three acres instead of 10 and is bordered closely by woodland. It looks more like a space-efficient and well-managed garden than a miniature farm.
The most striking aspect of David's garden is that a large percentage of it is covered by plastic. Many of the beds are covered with hoop-supported, partially slitted polyethylene. Others are topped with white floating row covers (spunbonded polyester or polypropylene sheets so light they can be laid right on top of the frailest garden crops, and so permeable that rain and most of the sunlight pass right through). There are also two large poly-covered, Quonset-shaped greenhouses.
Why the big cover-up? Miskell focuses on beating the timing of other growers, and those plastic shelters enable him to have fresh produce long before and after competing gardeners do: "My crops always have to be earlier than everybody else's and have the highest quality. The only way for me to survive is to keep innovating, to keep coming up with new crops and ways to grow them."
It works. While Miskell also sells lettuce and other vegetables to local restaurants, he grosses $26,000 from his three acres, 50% more per acre than Sam Smith. Since some of David's success comes from having crops earlier—and later—than local competitors, his nonstop work year is also longer than Smith's.
Miskell learned his skills by apprenticing at Elliot Coleman's biodynamic herb farm in Rhode Island and then by working for market gardeners in France. (His wife, Susan, was the head gardener for famous homesteading advocates Helen and Scott Nearing.) Five years ago, he set out to establish his own commercial garden on the three acres he leases from the Shelburne Farms estate. The location, only a few miles from Burlington, Vermont's largest city, provides a ready market for his produce.
While Miskell uses plastics to extend his growing season much more intensively than Smith, many of the other technical differences are less significant. David uses a Ladbrooke soil-block maker to make the soil cubes for his seedlings instead of growing starts in trays. ("My lettuce seedlings germinate in two days," he boasts.) He works his land with a 16-hp BCS tiller instead of a tractor and makes flat, not raised, beds. He marks and makes his transplant holes by pulling a lawn roller studded with soil-cube-sized blocks over the prepared beds. And while, like Smith, he uses a stirrup hoe for weeding, Miskell's has a wheel and handle so he can stand fully erect while he scoots it back and forth among his crops. "Most market gardeners I know have bad backs," David explains. "Two years ago, by the end of the season I was harvesting lying down. So any tool that reduces bending over is good by me."
Miskell also employs three to four apprentices, for $125 a week and a share of the profits at the end of the season. "They really shouldn't be called apprentices, but workers," he says. "I lecture to them only one evening a week."
His plot is close to pest-free: "Occasionally I use Triple-Plus, a mixture of rotenone, pyrethrum and ryania, for an insect problem or put copper sulfate on the tomatoes to reduce blight. On the whole, though, I try to follow the agricultural approach of biodynamics"—the organic method invented by Rudolph Steiner—"and learn how to treat the cause of a problem instead of its symptoms." Deer are a little harder to deal with. More than once they've caused significant damage to his crops.
David has often experimented with growing and marketing gourmet vegetables better known in Europe than America. He's succeeded with mâche, radicchio (a red-leaf chicory), finocchio (a succulent, faintly licorice-flavored Italian vegetable) and other exotic crops, but admits that now he's focusing more on such restaurant mainstays as lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, spinach, peppers, scallions and leeks: "I decided at the start I'd figure out what it cost me to produce something, add on a fair markup and then set my selling price. If no one will buy it at that price, I change crops."
That practical marketing approach is essential if one is to avoid the no-profit quagmire many conventional farmers are stuck in today, but it demands sharp marketing and crop selection skills. Miskell is only too aware of how tenuous the niche he fills is. "The state of Maine has organized a broccoli project for troubled potato farmers. I can't compete with subsidized growers, so I don't grow much broccoli.
"And the pressure's going to get worse. Tobacco farmers in North Carolina are switching to vegetables. I'm starting to get competition from farmers in Virginia, Maryland and Georgia. The Dutch, Japanese and Israelis are investing in Caribbean farms—they figure those islands will be the next California.
"To survive, the small grower has to be really good with direct marketing and management. Being organic helps because it lowers your management costs and gives you better produce. But it doesn't, in itself, sell crops. I don't market my produce as organic, but as high-quality, good-tasting and chemical-free."
Miskell is also quite conscious of how valuable his hard-earned gardening skills are. "I don't give my knowledge away to anyone who just drops in. Information is real valuable—I've spent 14 years gathering mine. So I sell my knowledge by consulting for Progressive Agrisystems. We work a lot with helping farmers convert from chemical-based to organic agriculture, helping them with their specific soil fertility, etc."
When Miskell talks about how hard he works to maintain a competitive marketing edge, his whole enterprise sounds risky and insecure. But so far he's done better and better every year. Indeed, he's got plans to eventually move to a larger piece of land near a main highway, where he can grow 10 acres of produce and sell it direct at a roadside stand. The vision expands from there to include permanent employees, a training institute and contracting for fruits, sweet corn and other vegetables from other growers.
For now, though, the man running the smallest commercial farm in Vermont is focused on proving that you can make a good living from just three acres.
Work your way from North Carolina into Tennessee on mountain road No. 421, turn right at Trade's post office, cross back into North Carolina, wind around a few miles, head up a dirt road that's tightly hemmed in by hillsides and you'll finally reach Bob and Sandy Gow's 107-year-old house and five-year-old market garden. Bob himself combines the lean body and callused hands of a true dirt farmer with the long hair and beard of the '60s. The house itself is, well, funky: no indoor plumbing, walls adorned with batts of fiberglass insulation and an overhead view of rafters instead of a finished ceiling.
But after just a few minutes' conversation with this resigned—yet still powerfully dedicated—man and his warm, hardworking wife, Sandy, the surroundings fade from view and the passion of their story takes over.
"We started here about six years ago," Bob says, "when I left my job as the gardening instructor in the earth studies program at Appalachian State University. As a former pupil of Alan Chadwick"—a one-time Shakespearean actor who founded the biodynamic/ French intensive, raised-bed method of gardening—"I was attracted to the healing aspects of gardening. So we cleared an acre of poison oak, started a terraced garden on these steep hills and sold $6,000 worth of produce.
"The second year, I expanded to 1-1/2 acres, paid one person to help and made $14,000. Mostly we sold vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and broccoli, taking advantage of our 3,200-foot elevation to raise those heat-sensitive crops all summer long. As much as possible, I tried to follow Chadwick's methods and aesthetics. I `cheated' some: I used a rotary tiller and large-bladed Guatemalan hoe to form our raised beds instead of digging them by hand, and I fertilized with truckloads of hauled-in manure instead of aged compost. But I planted in the hexagonal patterns Chadwick followed and, like him, closely interplanted flowers and vegetables.
"My real passion is growing flowers, not vegetables, so that year we tried to sell some cut flowers in the nearby city of Boone. We made bouquets using 12 varieties of fresh-cut flowers and 15 varieties of dried ones, and sold them all in just three hours.
"The next year, 1984, we grossed $35,000 from a 2-1/2-acre garden. We had five apprentices—almost a little gardening school.
"I was selling my vegetables to restaurants in Charlotte, a two-hour drive away. The big seller was spinach. Spinach was dollars—I got $25 a bushel for it and was selling 25 bushels a week. Parsley was another good one. Just weed it once or twice a season, and it would keep on producing. Almost every plate in a restaurant has to have parsley on it, so I could sell 30 pounds a week at $5 a pound. I also got $6 a pound for baby squash with the flowers on and an incredible $20 for 12 heads of radicchio.
"Then in the winter Sandy and I made wreaths, bouquets and hat decorations from our dried flowers. We traveled to winter craft shows in Carolina and Florida, selling $700 worth of flowers a day at the shows. It was like a month of paid vacation.
"So now we had garden money coming in year-round. Everything was falling in place. We were high, hot to trot, jacked.
"Then came '85 with a hot, dry spring, an incredibly wet midsummer and a hot, dry fall. It was like the weather pulled apart in the center and caved in. Everything rotted—our flowers, our spinach, our lettuce. Along with that, the spinach leafminer moved into our county. It wiped me out—I couldn't sell those miner-blotched leaves. I harvested the equivalent of two beds' worth of spinach from every 10 I planted.
"I probably got the leafminer problem from growing so much spinach. I'd have 20 beds going at once, staggering my harvest, and that provided an ongoing supply for the pests. I got kinda metaphysical about the loss. I'd been real unhappy growing that much spinach—Chadwick followers don't like to grow so much of one thing.
"We grossed only $17,000 in '85. This spring, though, we were ready to recover and do better than ever. We had our flowers all ready to transplant early in May. But then came three straight weeks of rain. The flowers sat too long in the cold frames and got ruined. After that came the drought and the heat—summer weather that was normally 80 degrees Fahrenheit was 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That burned up my tender vegetable crops.
"In July, I gave up. We decided to forget market gardening. Instead we focused on putting in a fantastic home garden and selling the surplus. Next spring, I'll be working an outside job landscaping an estate.
"Weather and insects put me under. But that's not the only reason I'm quitting. I'm so tired of doing it by myself, of me being the boss and my wife the employee.
"I burned out so many apprentices that they don't come here anymore. One good friend of mine called me `You Gotta' Gow' because I was always saying things like, `We gotta sow that seed now or it'll rain and we'll lose the crop rotation.'
"My family's had incredible patience. But I want to stop telling them everything's just got to wait. The other day my little boy came up to me and said, `Daddy, I wish we had a bathtub.' My own son was asking me for a bathtub!
"It's not the work. I love gardening. It's as good a work as anyone will ever find—very creative and heart-expanding. I'm just tired of trying to translate gardening into dollars. For me, it doesn't work for a full-time income.
"When I look back, I can see some things I did wrong. I made things hard for myself by living so far away from my market. It would have been better if I had spent more time as an apprentice myself, instead of plunging ahead and being forged on my mistakes. And I worked too hard to satisfy my Chadwick-inspired artistic self. I should have planted blocks of crops instead of mixtures so I could water them all the same. I should have planted more in rows. Planting in hexagons gives incredible yields from small spaces—but it takes too much work.
At this point, Sandy lifts her head from her food-canning labors and speaks up. "I wouldn't discourage people from market gardening, but they'll need to be better prepared than we were . . . to have some money behind them when they start—or one of them needs an outside job—so they can get their living space comfortable and not be dependent on that first year's income. We never caught up with our basic needs. And no market gardeners should have small children while starting out, so the husband and wife can both do more work. I feel like I've been pregnant all five years Bob and I have been together. And having another family to share the work with would be wonderful and make everything go much, much easier."
Bob agrees and sums up his experiences: "We've been very successful at everything except making money. That's the truth. It's not a negative statement. It just is."
From the experiences of Sam Smith, David Miskell and Bob Gow, a few lessons are clear. Market gardening is a well-named profession, for it clearly demands a great deal of practical skill at both gardening and marketing. It also demands a good location with fertile soil and ready access to markets.
Given such conditions, a market garden can be successful. And, like any other business enterprise, it can also fail.