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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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5 Ways to Prep Your Garden For Winter

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The warm days of summer might very well be behind us for now, but there are still plenty of things that need to be done in the garden. And if you’re like me, this is good news!

I love the fall months for their rich change in color, crisp evenings and moderately warm afternoons. But I know that fall leads to winter, and winters in Iowa tend to be long and bitter. This year, winter has come early, and I’m already aching for warm soil, dirty hands and beds of brilliant green. But there is a rhythm to this life. Life sheds its beauty in fall, is stripped to its core in winter in order to be reborn in spring.

So as we come to the end of the gardening season, we look to the coming months of cold and barren fields not only with trepidation but also with hope. On the other end of winter, somewhere between April and May, there is life! A new planting season!

But it doesn’t come without a little preparation. Our gardens are a living organism, and in order to get the most out of our spring we need to prep our fields and our plots to withstand the cold months.

Here are 5 ways you can prep your garden for winter.

 

Pull the brown. Now is the time to walk your beds and pull the leftover tomato vines, pepper stalks, and whatever else is left of your summer crops. Throw these in your compost pile, unless you suspect disease. If you wrestled with blight, verticillim wilt, downy mildew or club root, take these plant remains to the burn pile instead so you don’t infect your compost.

Cleaning your beds of spent plants will allow you to mend the soil and will help prevent bugs like the squash beetle from overwintering in your garden.

Lightly till your beds. If you have a small garden, you can do this with a hoe or rake. We use a walk behind tiller to open up the beds in our 3 acre marketgarden. The trick here is to not go too deep, where you’ll disturb the living microorganisms that are hard at work building your soil. A couple of inches is enough to expose any pests that might be planning on napping in your garden.

Test your soil. A healthy garden crop starts with healthy soil. Fall is the best time to test your soil as it will allow time for amendments like lime to breakdown before spring. Gardens big or small will benefit from testing soil at least once every 2 years. We test every year, pulling soil from each garden plot and amending as necessary, based on our crop rotation.

Taking soil samples is easy. There are plenty of home test methods available. Or you can simply pull a spade of soil from your garden (again, we take one from each plot), put into a Ziploc bag and take to the lab. Check with your local extension office for the location of a lab near you. It will usually only take a couple of days before you get your results back.

Cover your soil. Here’s a rule of thumb everyone should remember: never leave your soil exposed over winter. Leaving your soil exposed to the elements will result in erosion of your precious top soil (especially if your winters are windy like they are here in Iowa) and nutrients. So what do you do?

If you want to experiment with green manure, you might consider planting a winter cover crop like annual Rye. This will stand up to most winter temperatures and will provide an excellent source of organic matter for your soil. Make sure that you have a way to cut and till the rye, otherwise it will continue to grow through spring. You’ll also want to make sure that you till rye in as early as possible in spring, as it has a allelopathic tendencies and could tie up nutrients in your soil that may prevent seeds from germinating if not broken down.

Clover is another option to use as a cover crop. Till this in as early as your soil can be worked in spring and this will provide an excellent source of nitrogen for your new crops. Or leave in your garden paths to prevent weeds from growing.

If you don’t want to use a cover crop, you can cover your garden beds with mulched leaves or straw. Leaf mold provides a great snack for microorganisms in your soil, and both will break down to add a rich source of humus. Or you can simply use plastic. If you struggle with weeds, covering your beds with black plastic after you lightly till is a good way to force any seeds that may have come to the surface to germinate and die from lack of sunlight.

Whichever method you choose to try, covering your soil for winter is a best practice every gardener should be using.

Protect your perennials. You’ll want to protect any plants you hope to come back in spring. Cover your strawberries with hay. Prune any brown raspberry canes to soil level, but don’t prune the green ones; cover any canes that haven’t experienced winter yet with straw or mulch.

Prune your roses and heavily mulch with compost around their root base. Do the same for any flowering shrubs you may have.

Split bulbs and compost heavily for a welcome sea of color in the spring or summer months.

Tackle those chores. Fall is a great time to take on those chores that might save you time next spring. Cut any new stakes you think you’ll need for next year’s tomatoes. Move the pea or bean trellis and string for next year’s crop. Build those raised beds you’ve been thinking about. Maybe you’ve been longing for a better way to suppress weeds along your garden paths. Now is a great time to lay landscaping fabric and to spread wood chips. Clean your tools and put them away for next year.

Take a few minutes to sit down and plan out what you want your garden to look like next year. Make a list of any chores that need to done to accomplish this plan, and then work in whatever you can this fall so you can spend most of your time next spring planting and building your soil.

 

Now it’s your turn. What do you do to prepare your garden for winter?

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5 tools to invest in this spring

To do a job properly (and efficiently) you need to have the right tools. I’ve been accumulating several and making a list of others I want or need (or think I need), and thought I’d share some of them here on the blog. Many of these tools will be put to work in our market garden, but they certainly have a place on any scale of growing operation.

Here are 5 tools you might consider investing in this spring:

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Broadfork – This is one of the coolest tools I’ve discovered this year. Invented centuries ago in Europe and redesigned with the modern gardener in mind, the broadfork is the perfect way to aerate and provide deep tillage to your garden beds without breaking your back. You can get them with 4, 5 or 7 steel tines that usually are around 12″, and some are reinforced for harder soil types like clay.

The idea behind this tool is simple. When using a tiller, the blades will only loosen up the soil 4-6 inches deep. Below that a hardpan will start to develop, especially after several years of tillage, restricting how deep your roots can grow. Using a broadfork, you’ll be able to break up the hardpan and allow your roots to grow deep and straight, instead of hitting the compacted soil underneath and spreading out. This will allow you to plant more densely, as root systems aren’t competing for space. This is essential when establishing permanent beds like we are this year, or if you’re growing vegetables on a micro scale.

We’re ordering ours from Johnny’s Seed (johnnyseeds.com) but you can find broadforks other places like Valley Oak Tools or Meadow Creek. They’ll run anywhere from $80 to $220, depending on quality.

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Stirrup Hoe – It may seem like a crude tool, but the stirrup hoe makes the chore of weeding long beds so much simpler. The sharp steel band cuts through shallow roots and plucks those annoying weeds right out of the topsoil. Can a traditional hoe do the same thing? Sure. But the stirrup hoe has an open design that allows you to move through weeds without disrupting the soil as much as a standard hoe will. You’re not taking divots out of your precious bed or pathway. Its got an oscillating head that allows you to push or pull, and you can change out the tempered blades when they are worn.

Stirrup hoes can be found almost anywhere tools are sold. They usually come with a 5″ or 7″ head, and will run anywhere from $25 to $60. Totally worth the investment.

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Aluminum Rake – I’ve used various rakes in the garden for years. They usually have a narrow, metal head that isn’t attached to the wooden handle very well. I should also say I’ve had several rakes that have pulled apart over the years due to poor design.

What I like about switching to an aluminum rake like the one in the picture is threefold. Aluminum is much lighter, which will make a huge difference when establishing and maintaining beds on our 3 acre plot year after year. It’s also better designed, meaning the head isn’t going to pull away from the wooden handle under stress as easily as some of the other models I’ve used. Whether dragging rock or filtering tilled soil, this rake will handle any job.  I also like the ability to put the orange row markets on the tines. You’ll see in the picture that these are just plastic tips that slide over the tines, and when dragged across the top of the bed establish a shallow furrow for seed placement.

Quality matters. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $95 on a good aluminum rake.

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Earthway Vegetable Seeder – Even if your beds aren’t 100′ long, having a seeder like the Earthway will make planting this spring easier on the body and more efficient. This seeder is lightweight and easy to use. It opens the furrow, measures seed placement, covers and packs the seed while marking the next row, all in one fluid motion. It’s designed especially with the larger seeds in mind, but should do well with any size. It includes 6 seed plates: corn, peas, beans, carrots, beets and radishes. As an option, you can also include a fertilizer attachment for side dressing.

You can purchase this at Johnnys Seeds for $119.  We’re looking at ordering 2 this year.

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Jang JP Seeder – This model is supposed to be one of the best vegetable seeders on the market today. Boasting precise seed singulation, even when the hopper is low, the Jang JP seems to stand out as a quality option for those with larger gardens who are looking for better seed placement across all vegetable types, from carrot to corn. It has a 1 quart clear plastic hopper that allows the user to monitor seed level, and allows for seed depth adjustment by raising or lower the plow height. Seed rollers are purchased separately but there are a wide option of sizes to choose from. This seeder also comes in a 3-row or 6-row option, and can mount on a 3 point hitch tool bar.

This tool packs a punch! You can buy the single row seeder itself for around $405. Seed rollers range around $20-$30 each. If you’ve got a larger garden and care about precise seed placement quality, this might be an option for you.

Purchasing quality tools is an investment that should have a meaningful return. I think any one of these tools I’ve mention will add value and efficiency to any gardening operation, whether private or market. Do your research and as always, buy from a reputable reseller.

Remember, a good tool makes for a happy gardener!