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Lessons From Our First Year of Market Gardening

 

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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Just a Little Update

Well, spring arrived here in Iowa…and then it quickly slipped back into winter. The last couple days temps have plummeted back down to the high thirties. It was seventy-five last weekend, just to give you perspective. And while the rain is keeping us out of the fields, it is a necessary blessing. The radish, carrot and spinach seeds we planted last week have all sprouted, and our broccoli, kale and lettuce are enjoying the cooler weather (although not really the steady wind).

The rain has also given us the opportunity to get caught up on a few things. We’ve been seeding inside the house and repotting transplants like crazy the last couple days. We’ve fallen a bit behind on those things and its good to get that going again. I’ve also gone virtually silent on the blog for the past month, so I wanted to take this chance to catch you up on what we’ve been up to.

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In March we started planting seedlings inside under lights. To see how we do that click here We’ve started around 300 tomato plants, 100 pepper plants, broccoli, melons and a few flower varieties. We have more tomatoes to seed and a few other things that will transplant better rather than direct seeding in the ground. This has been a new adventure for us, as we’ve never really started seeds indoors before. Our basement has been converted into a makeshift grow room! But its been fun, and we’ve learned so much that we will take into next season when hopefully we will be able to add a greenhouse to expand our seeding efforts.

What will we do with all of our transplants? We’ll plant many of them in the market garden, but we also plan to sell some of these at the first couple farmer’s markets of the year.

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In March we also began raising a flock of 15 chickens. These girls (and a few unexpected roos) brooded in our front room until they were big enough to go outside. And just a couple of weeks ago they all moved into their new coop. FYI, it smells a wee bit better in the house now, thank you very much.

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They’ve made the transition without any problems, and they love the new space to roam around. Although it took some coaching from “mom and dad” to teach them how to go in and out of the hen house. I used to think that I would never have chickens. I’ve taken care of other people’s chickens before, and it kind of turned me off on the idea. But there is something to raising our own that has changed my mind. And I can’t wait for those fresh farm eggs every morning!

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We’ve broken ground on the 3 acre market garden. This plot of land had been used for soybeans in the year past, but last year was so badly overtaken with weeds that it was hard to imagine how this could ever become a garden. But we mowed, we plowed, and we ran a disc and a harrow over the ground more than a dozen times to get it in shape for making beds.

Our plan is to put in 10 distinct garden plots made of 12 beds each. Each bed is 100 ft long and 20 in wide, with 18 in space between. This will allow for a 10 year rotation between crop types, which will help alleviate disease and aggressive pest issues.

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We’re adopting a permanent bed model to eliminate compaction of the soil. We’ve tilled each bed this year, partially to help line each one out and to help with weeds, but we hope to move toward a no-till process in the next couple years. Our goal is to build up healthy soil, and limiting how often we disrupt it, or turn it over, will help preserve those beneficial microbes we are trying to nurture that live in top six inches. Iowa has incredible soil to begin with, so we are already starting in a good place.

After each bed is tilled, it gets a healthy application of compost around 3 in thick. Starting next year, we’ll rotate our compost application, giving preference to the heavy feeders like potatoes and tomatoes, while applying every two years to the lighter feeders like leaf crops and legumes. Compost is expensive, and we’ve been bringing it home by the truck load. We have a place locally we can get it, but it would be in our best interest from a cost perspective if we can figure out how to provide the amount we need from our own operation.

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Part of the 3 acre garden has been reserved for permanent crop. We’re putting in almost 60 raspberry plants this year, and will likely double that next year. We’ve also got around 300 strawberry plants coming and about the same amount of asparagus over the next two weeks. We hope to expand on these depending on the market in our community.

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In addition to laying compost, we’re laying shredded oak chips in the pathways around each garden plot. Hopefully this will aid in weed suppression, while also giving the garden definition. Another expensive resource that I need to work on sourcing cheaper. Any arborists out there who want to donate their wood chips?

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Part of our overall plan for the farm is to incorporate fruit trees throughout the property. When we bought the house, everything was so overgrown that it will likely take the next couple years to clean it up the way we want. But once we do that there will be plenty of space for small orchard plots around our 12 acres.

So far we’ve added 10 trees. 4 apples, 3 pears and 3 peaches. We’d like to double this yet this spring, with the plan on adding at least another 20 more next year.

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The reason we named our farm 16 Hands was because we have 6 children. Add me and my wife and that’s plenty of helping hands, right? This is a lifestyle that we are hoping will offer our children beneficial skills and experience that will help shape their character as they grow older. Our greatest responsibility in life is to raise healthy, compassionate children who are willing and able to contribute to their community. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by growing up on a farm and sharing in the daily responsibilities.

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This rain has not only been good for our germinating seed, but look at all the weeds popping up in the field! We’ve got our work cut out for us, and I’ll show you how we plan to handle these weeds a little later. But I’m very excited with how this project it turning out. It’s not easy, but I’ve learned that nothing worth having is ever achieved without working for it. And we’re happy to do so.

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Apart from the 3 acre market garden, we’ve also started to put in so raised beds across the property for extra growing and research opportunities. Right now these boxes have cold weather crops growing in them, most of them direct seeded and started under the hoop frame I built in the picture above. These are great for protecting young starts and for extending your growing season. To learn how to build your own click here

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When I pause to reflect on what we are trying to accomplish I sometimes get overwhelmed by the amount of time and energy that will be necessary to pull it off. But when I look at all we have already done, I’m encouraged. It doesn’t feel like work when its something you are very passionate about. Are there unknown risks? Of course there are. But the reward is greater than any of those risks. And I’m blessed to have the people I love most at my side working toward the same goal.

It’s been a crazy ride, let me tell you. How did we get here? I’m not even sure anymore. But we’re loving it, and that’s all that matters.

To see how things progress, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And if you’re in the Ames, Iowa area, we’ll see you at the market!