Market Gardening

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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.
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The most striking aspect of David's garden is that a large percentage of it is covered by plastic.
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Bob and Sandy Gow are proof that talent and hard work don't always mean success.

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.