size for one person operation

mbrown297(6b)February 1, 2005

Last year was my first year selling and I made a couple thousand dollars selling tomatoes and herbs (mostly basil). I was growing on about 1/10 acre. This year I will be expanding my operation to about 1/8 acre and of course putting in more plants. I work the garden just by myself. I'm curious at what point a garden stops being a one person activity. I don't want to hire workers (or my kids) but I also don't want to work 15-18 hour days everyday. Is anyone out there working a relatively small plot of land and making a decent return?


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mark_brown(7 NC)

It can be done but is a big task. I think very specific about my growing and I too am a one man band. remember it is not just the growing but the selling and marketing takes time too!!

I think in terms of each square foot of production, and use raised beds and or think of all my plantings as beds. I also think of my income based on the square foot. I again think of my labor by the square foot for each crop and process. Two of the biggest labor things are weeds and soil building. I am doing more and more mulching and less and less tilling. I think I will rent a straw shredder/blower once or twice a year and make extra mulch. It is fast and easy. Yes there is a cost to buying hay and straw but it is quick and easy. The other ting is I am going to grow only in unheated greenhouses with powered ventilation. I like to control all that I can, you get the best results that way.

Just some food for thought.


    Bookmark   February 2, 2005 at 3:18AM
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robertjones(7 NC)

Mark, that is a sound approach, so how many sq. ft. do you think you can handle?


    Bookmark   February 3, 2005 at 11:21AM
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mark_brown(7 NC)

My unheated greenhouses are 26' x 120' and the raised beds inside are 42" wide and there are five of them in each 'greenhouse'. this gives me 10 rows of vertical growing at 100' long each. I'm starting my second greenhouse now. I think full time I can handle 5 houses, maybe 6. I grow tomatoes on 8" centers and cukes on 6" centers. these are my main crops and I will be adding basil and in the distant future snap peas, green beans and some special vining squash. I pay 1 dollar a pound to pickers to pick the beans and peas, they have strong demand and I pass the picking cost on to the customer and most customers are willing to pay.


    Bookmark   February 3, 2005 at 11:34AM
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You're facing one of the oldest questions and dilemmas of a small business: how to expand or how to make more money?

I'd like to hear everyone's input on this but here's my thinking.

If you want to keep this a hobby and do everything yourself, you will succeed -- it will remain a hobby.

If you want to turn this into a business with a "decent return", you will have to hire additional people and you will have to delegate.

A lot of people are afraid of doing this because they think it will no longer be "fun". The truth is, it becomes more fun. What you delegate are the parts of the work that you don't like; you keep the "fun" parts.

Farming -- including "market farming" -- is a labor-intensive business. Unlike service-oriented businesses, such businesses require additional labor to do "more", to expand.

If you simply want to make "decent money" for the input you are willing to invest, you should think as some of the other posters have said -- "per square foot". There are some crops that will bring in a high return "per square foot" and some lower. Commodity flowers and vegetables aren't it. It's the specialty stuff.

The "per square foot" concept will make your hobby worthwhile but it won't expand into a real business for you.



    Bookmark   February 6, 2005 at 11:31AM
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mark_brown(7 NC)

Joe is right, you need to hire some labor, I hire my beans and pes to be picked as stated above, I pass that cost on to the customer. I'm starting to hire out more of the hard labor like spreading tons of composted material. I hire local kids on the football team and wrestling team. They like the "work out" I play loud music and feed them well.

Very soon I will hire help to harvest other crops, older retired people do very well.



    Bookmark   February 6, 2005 at 1:58PM
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Have you read The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman? He talks abit about this question of how big for one person, and whether to hire labor. I think it all depends on what you want your business to provide. Do you want to support a family on your farming, or just augment another source of income? My husband and I farm less than an acre by ourselves, and have put our efforts into figuring out high income products, and also into labor saving devices. We're always looking for ways to do things faster and easier, but don't be fooled- at peak season we are putting in long days. And we couldn't support a family, but the business does generate a decent return as we only sell retail for the price that the product is worth.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2005 at 10:43AM
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It also depends a lot on what equipment you have.

Do you have a tractor? Makes tilling SO much easier! Plastic layer and hiller? If you lay plastic weeding time is cut by a ton! Will you buy starts or do them all yourself?

If you have a small CSA you could have members help pick as part of the cost of their shares. But you'd have to be sure you had the right members.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2005 at 10:47AM
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Thanks everyone for the helpful opinions. It certainly gives me something to think about as I plan for the coming seasons.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2005 at 11:05AM
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mark_brown(7 NC)

Yes, a lot of interesting thoughts as we strive to improve our operations. I have been able to realize a profit of $5.50 per Sq. Ft. in my unheated automated ventilation green house. the green house is 26' x 120' and has 5 raised beds each 3.5' x 100'. This profit is after all expense and before the tax man with some paid labor to harvest. this makes one house giving a profit of $ 9,600. I do think with intensive management and high value crops I can double this [more experience too]. I'm sorry but I do not have good records on my labor inputs to this so I can not calculate a dollar per hour. and as far as record keeping goes I'm not off to a good start this year. Tracking labor is difficult but needs to be done.


    Bookmark   February 8, 2005 at 5:40AM
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garliclady(z7 NC)

One of our friends that has a CSA has a work day each spring for the customers and they come and clean up around the farm and have a pot luck dinner. That would give some free labor!
Our farm is just my husband and I and he works a full time job off the farm. We have almost an acre of garlic (40,000-50,000) plants plus about an acre of vegetables and blackberries. We ocassionally hire my nephew but besides that we do the work ourselves. We grow 15 varieties of garlic that it is planted in a span of a month- that helps us stagger our harvest. Learning to stagger planting especially labor intensive things helps a lot. We make a decent return. Garlic shallots and basil are our best, spring and fall greens are worth the time we put into them.

The garlic Lady

    Bookmark   February 8, 2005 at 11:29AM
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everettFL(8/ N. Fl.)

I used to fixate on the square foot idea, too, which can make a person dreamy-eyed as the numbers add up! As I have continued to grow my business while still using the same gardening area (about 1/2 acre), the most accurate profit equation for me is time (and I am a one-man operation)... from good plantings, I can harvest $120 in salad greens or $240 in shiitakes in an hour. Sounds pretty good! Thing is, my body is only good for 3-4 hours of harvesting a day, and that's hoping I only have to harvest a couple mornings a week!

I also happen to build custom furniture for supplemental income. It clicked for me last fall that I could easily pay someone a good wage of $10/hr to do the harvesting for me, and I can keep a good $100/ hr profit from the venture, for all of my blood, sweat, and tears that have gotten me to this point, and for taking the risks, owning the land, providing equipment, etc. In the meantime, I can spend my time making furniture (which is a better moneymaker anyway; I just need the time to put into it). Or I can turn around and be a diligent manager by spending my time doing more marketing, doing more plantings so I can increase my production, and doing better yearly planning. I finally realized that I can't afford NOT to hire employees!

This probably seems like a pretty basic thought process to people familiar with small business, but it took a long time for me to see it, as I can be very stubborn about doing the hard work myself and thereby keeping as much profit as possible. But when I think of paying some one else a good wage to do the hard work while I still keep a handsome profit, while freeing myself up timewise to manage the farm better and even bring in other income, it's going to be an easy transition to make.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2005 at 10:35AM
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mark_brown(7 NC)

everettFL, you are right, it just takes time to find the right people, I have found a few retired guys who like the work and i pay them by the pound or unit picked and they do a good job and in many items I pass the cost along to the customer, like green beans and snap peas. I'm even thinking of putting them in the farmers market as they are nice guys and easy going and every one seems to like them. One of them makes stringed instruments and picks a banjo and well there are possibilities.


    Bookmark   February 14, 2005 at 7:58PM
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Ron_and_Patty(z7 GA)


We have the same ideaÂwe donÂt want to hire any one, and it is just the two of us. But since we are both doing this, it is a lifestyle and really never feels like work. (Well, almost never!) . We are still learning, building beds, figuring out what to do, when, and how. So we put as much time in reading/learning/planning as in actual gardening. We "work" 7 days a week right now and normally 10-12 hours a day. But I consider writing this e-mail, reading, talking to other vendors "work".

Last year was our first year at the market, and we didn't make anywhere near enough to live on, but we were happy with our sales.
This year, we *should* (if it would dry out) have about 6500 sq feet of garden space in our back yard. Our lot is almost 2/3 of an acre, with about 1/2 acre fenced in. We are planting fairly intensively, and our goal is to see how much we can do on this amount of land. It just seems like that is enough land to make a nice living on, but we havenÂt done it yet. I know none of this really answers your question, but we will be able to share our successes and failures for the 2005 market season. And we would like to stay in touch to see how it works out for you.

Take care,
Patty & Ron

    Bookmark   February 15, 2005 at 2:48PM
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mark_brown(7 NC)

Just a note, do not hire employees, work with others as independent contractors, saves a lot of tax and legal issues. Not the UPS delivery guy that you see about town, he does not work for UPS, he is an independent contractor.


    Bookmark   February 15, 2005 at 5:53PM
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johanna_h(Z5 SW MI)

Be very careful about hiring "independent contractors" vs. employees if you will have any significant spending in this area. The IRS has very specific definitions of what an independent contractor is -- they make up their own schedule and tasks within the definition of their jobs, they generally use their own tools, etc. etc. etc. I think it would be difficult to argue that an agricultural laborer was an independent contractor instead of an employee.


    Bookmark   February 15, 2005 at 6:52PM
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mark_brown(7 NC)

I recently took a class in the topic of independent contractors due to the concerns posted. It is all in the documentation and it can fit just about any case you can think of. It works and it was taught by an ex IRS person who consults in this specific area. I can provide more details if anyone is interested. Thyere are some good worksheets you can use to determine if some one is an employee or an independent contractor. One of the important things is to if possible to never have had that person or task as an employee in the first place.


    Bookmark   February 15, 2005 at 9:29PM
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Sue_in_Colorado(about 5)

Mark - If you don't mind, I'd really like to hear more about this. We've talked about hiring out our market manager position as an independant contractor (I'm on the board of directors). THANKS!

    Bookmark   February 16, 2005 at 10:36AM
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GrassIsEvil(z6 TN)

Also be aware that what the IRS defines as 'contract' and what the Department of Labor defines as 'contract' may not be in total agreement. What underage laborers may and may not do is a consideration. Handling of and exposure to chemicals, as in fertilizers, herbicides, etc., has special requirements--and these can apply to your 'contract' employees. Liability insurance.

Contact your local ag college or ag agent for information on these issues. They have consultation available, offer seminars, and often have printed materials that can really help.


    Bookmark   February 17, 2005 at 4:03AM
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mark_brown(7 NC)

I.m working on an report to explain this concept of independent contractor. In 20 years 90% of all jobs will be such and you will buy the benefits you need give me 3 or 4 days, ok a week.


    Bookmark   February 17, 2005 at 6:20PM
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tonitime(Z-6a / E.KY)

I am also a one-gal grower...developing soil and space in my organically-grown gardens - to start marketing in the next couple of years. Have any among you ever used WWOOF'ers?? ( Willing Workers On Organic Farms). It is a worldwide org for itinerant "field hippies" that desire room and board for predetermined work and hours. I am thinking of this for the future and would love input.

    Bookmark   March 2, 2005 at 4:07PM
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paulns(NS zone 6a)

This forum is a goldmine, this thread among others is addressing many of my questions.

re WWOOFERs: many have come through here. Some are enthusiastic and give you hope for the future in general and youth in particular. Others haven't been toughened yet, and basically want to party. You probably won't know until they're staying with you. And even the partiers can be fun, though you may wonder whether it isn't more work to have them and feed them and keep them occupied than not. Overall it's a great system and has been worth it. Be clear, for your own sake, about the work that needs doing around your place and don't expect more than about 4 hours a day of work from the wwoofers.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2005 at 8:05PM
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