Lessons From Our First Year of Market Gardening

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Market Gardening has become the craze. Do a quick search on the subject and you’ll probably find someone boasting about how you can make six figures growing vegetables in your front yard. Thousands of YouTube videos have been made on the subject. Advocates like Curtis Stone and JM Fortier have made the idea of farming vegetables on a small-scale attractive to many.

We started down the path that eventually led us to market gardening long before we knew about the pioneers like Fortier and Stone. For us, small-scale farming was a way of life that was not only attractive but essential to the nurturing of our soul. There’s something incredibly satisfying about growing your own food, working the soil with your hands and earning the right to eat from it by the sweat of your brow.

But can it be profitable?

We’ve always gardened. But the idea of making a living by working our own land didn’t start to take root until a few years ago when we were still living in Oregon. It wasn’t until we moved to Iowa in 2016 that we were able to put our dreams into reality.

When we started our market garden we knew very little about what it would take to make it all work. We had a three-year business plan. We had twelve acres. And we had a lot of determination. But would it work? Would it be successful? Or would our dreams go up in smoke?

I’m happy to say that we’re still at it. We have learned so much since that first year, and even though we are still very much students of the craft, we have also gained a wealth of understanding and experience that has made us a little bit wiser.

Here are some of the valuable lessons we learned that first year:

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You Will Have To Give Up Much

We seriously underestimated how much we would need to sacrifice in order to succeed.

In order to establish our market garden, we had to convert a 3 acre field that had been overgrown with weeds into a suitable place to grow fruit and vegetables. It was a kind of blank canvas, but required a lot of time to turn the soil, design and establish our plots and prepare new beds for planting.

I have a full-time job, so every day from May through most of October I would race home and spend the evening in the field until after the sun went down. Every weekend was spent in the field as well, starting early Saturday mornings harvesting produce for the market and our CSA members.

When my kids were playing in the yard I was in the field. I’d try to sneak in a late game of catch with my 8-year-old, but I always felt like it wasn’t good enough. Often I would be late to the table for supper. The rest of the property pretty much went neglected, the flow beds in front of the house barren, the shrubs in the old grove overgrown, the weeds around the buildings untrimmed. Man how that bugged me.

We did squeeze in one vacation, a whirlwind road trip back to Oregon to attend our eldest son’s wedding. But we found that leaving the garden for any long period of time was to risk losing part of our investment. We were in a drought and so watering was a daily chore. So we chose to forgo any other family vacation time. There was always something to plant, something to harvest, weeds to pull, soil to turn.

I’m not complaining. Not at all. This was the life we signed up for. This was farming. It was a summer filled with hard work, sunburned scalps and dirty hands. And I loved every minute of it. But I also wrestled with guilt for not having the time I wanted to spend with the kids, and other projects around the house that were put on hold. This led to a deeper desire to be more efficient with my time if we were to make this a long-term vocation.

If you want to farm vegetables for profit, it is one of the most fulfilling endeavors you can pursue in this life. But be prepared for the sacrifices you’ll need to make. It can be lonely. It will be tiring. And the only thing certain is uncertainty.

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Start Small

The tendency when starting out is to take on too much. To start too big. You’re anxious to get all those veggie varieties planted, and more space is better, right?

Wrong. My recommendation is to start small until you have a good idea of what you’re doing.

We launched our market garden with a 3 acre field, but even 3 acres proved too much to work with our first year. We started without a tractor, using only a rototiller, a couple of wheel barrows, an assortment of hand tools and a hand seeder, which made the challenge even more daunting. Ultimately we only used about an acre and a half our first year. This included six plots of twelve 100′ beds planted with vegetables, plus our raspberry, strawberry and asparagus plots. We also planted a quarter acre in fruit trees.

The rest of the field grew weeds. Literally. This proved to be one of the greatest challenges we faced that first year. The sight must have been humorous to our neighbors as they passed by our field and saw me out there mowing two acres of ragweed standing 4 feet tall with a push mower. 

When starting out, have a plan, plant only what you can manage, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. You don’t need to be everything you want to be in year one.

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Invest In The Right Tools

Our budget was tight, and honestly we weren’t sure exactly what we needed when we first started farming. We invested in an Earthway Seeder and also bought a new Husqvarna tiller, but that was pretty much it.

After months of dealing with incessant weeds, we did decide to finally buy a tractor, complete with mower, loader and tiller. That was certainly a huge investment, but it would pay off in time and energy utilization. I was able to manage the rest of the property, keep the weeds at bay before they went to seed, and using the loader to move compost and mulch was so much more efficient than the wheel barrow.

The right tools depend on how you plan to farm and how much space you will use. Do you want to be completely or partially no-till? Will you be planting on permanent beds? Or do you prefer the more conventional route, using a tractor to do most of the work?

Whatever your direction, don’t cheap out on your tools. This is an investment you can’t afford to skip.

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Have A Plan, But Be Flexible

When we started making initial plans for our market garden, I knew I wanted to work on permanent beds. I knew very little about soil structure and microbiology, but had a desire to adopt a no-till approach on each bed. My plan was to till once to get each bed established, and then practice good crop rotation and apply lots of compost to build up the soil, thus eliminating the need to till in the future.

I still am moving toward achieving this goal, but have realized that going completely no-till isn’t likely going to work for us. I do want to exchange the tiller next year for a power harrow, which stirs the soil instead of pulverizing it, but our operation and climate won’t likely support a complete no-till operation.

The point I’m making, and the valuable lesson I learned, was not to be too rigid with your plans starting out. I knew very little going into our first year, and with each lesson learned in the field my plans seemed to alter. This is good, and often necessary. Adapting new techniques is part of the farming journey.

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Don’t Underestimate The Weeds

I’ve mentioned our battle with weeds several times now. Seriously, it was one we almost lost!

But valuable lessons are often learned by the toughest of challenges.

Our first year, the only landscape barrier we used in the field was to lay down paths in between plots. But over our beds? Didn’t think about that. At least not until we found ourselves dealing with ragweed well over our heads in the bean plot. And in the kale.

Pulling weeds takes up too much time, and will significantly reduce your efficiency. Plus its a complete morale buster. I strongly suggest planting everything you can on landscape fabric or plastic, or spreading some kind of thick, organic mulch like straw. Even the smallest garden plots can be daunting to manage when it comes to weeds, and there is no way we could manage a 3 acre market garden if we didn’t use these well learned methods.

Vegetables you can easily plant on fabric: strawberries, lettuce (transplanted), squash, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, cucumber, tomato, pepper, pumpkins and melons.

Vegetables that do well in mulch: all of the above plus potatoes, sugar beets, green beans and peas.

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Pay Attention To Your Market

The biggest rookie mistake when starting a market garden is to plant without understanding the market you’re trying to serve.

We weren’t entirely immune from this mistake. We did a little investigating into what others were selling at the markets, mainly looking to identify varieties that we might grow to stand out from the competition. But we still had little understanding of what our market would support.

Where we really stumbled was in the amount of what we grew. For instance, have you ever seen how much two 100′ long beds of basil can produce? When it comes on all at once? It smelled wonderful, and probably kept some pests away, but we couldn’t give our basil away.

We also sorely underestimated how much sweet corn to plant early in the season. We sold out of our sweet corn in one day, even as people were begging to be put on the list for more. We did plant a succession crop that came on in August, but by then the rush for sweet corn was over and we couldn’t give that away either. Who knew?

Do some research. Think critically about how much you need to plant to produce what you need. But also have fun experimenting. We wouldn’t have known how wonderful broccoli could taste growing in our Iowa soil, and how well it sold, unless we took a chance on it.

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Don’t Be Afraid To Fail

This is a good lesson for anyone starting out in business. Follow your dream, and don’t be afraid of failing.

You will fail. Maybe not entirely, but in small (or big) ways that might hurt nevertheless. But failure can be our greatest teacher. We learn from our mistakes, and then we apply those lessons to become better at what we do.

In order to succeed at market gardening, you must have a desire to succeed. You must have determination and grit. And you must love what you do. Every part of it. Otherwise I would do something else.

Don’t believe the hype that has built up around the market gardening industry. You likely won’t make a six figure salary growing vegetables. You may never be able to leave your steady job to farm on a small-scale. You will be faced with uncertainty like you’ve never known. And you will fail.

But in the end, it’s so worth it all. 

We survived our first market gardening year. And we’ve grown in so many ways since then. Every year has its challenges, but that first year is just as exciting and frightening as anything I can imagine.

If you choose to go down this road, you’ll never be the same again.

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