Advice for new market grower with a microfarm?

fire80March 14, 2013

This is my first year growing and selling veggies from my microfarm (~1300 sq ft) at local markets and to local restaurants. I'll be specializing in mostly heirloom tomatoes (as well as cherry tomatoes and romas), while also producing sweet and hot peppers, basil, and lettuce. I'm a tad worried about how much production I'll get out of such a small area and whether or not heirloom tomatoes will sell in a fairly conservative small city in the midwest. Any advice?? Thanks!

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First of all, how small of town are you talking about. Around my markets, heirlooms don't get a higher price and don't have more customers than the traditional varieties.

Cherry tomatoes and romas will have only certain customers, and in my case, not that many. Regular red cherry tomatoes only sell when grapes are not available. I think I have had 1 regular customer that prefers them.

Sweet banana peppers will sell only during the early times, before other gardeners starts producing their own.

Large to Huge Bell Pepper sell, also if they are RED, but small/medium ones don't sell as well. Most marketers that I've seen pick their peppers in the small/medium stage instead of waiting for the Large/xxl sizes.

Basil will sell if there are not alot of other vendors with it, or customers that grow their own.

Lettuce will sell well during the off-season, if you can get it to work for you. Early in the season when everyone else has it, don't expect alot of sales. Plus it takes alot of lettuce to make a pound.

I started out with a small garden about the size that you're talking about and made about $1700 worth of sales. I increased each year, but would still recommend starting at the level that you are at. You will learn whether you want to deal with the people and be able to control that area BEFORE you expand.

I notice that you're from the same zone area as I am, where are you thinking about marketing and have you already arranged to be at market? So many markets in my area are full and are not taking new vendors.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 12:31PM
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Thanks for the tips familyfarm! My town is in central IL, about 100,000 people. I've contacted a couple markets so far, one said I could definitely get in and the other needed to wait on renewal applications before they could approve.

I'll be growing multiple colors of cherries (red, white, black, and maybe some teeny green zebras). I figured they'd be my best seller!

I'll definitely wait for bells to grow to full size and ripen, thanks for the advice.

I'll be growing lettuce under fluorescents in the basement, so I'll be producing all summer, although it's a pretty small space...

Definitely good to hear that you didn't totally crash and burn the first season, that's encouraging!

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 12:46PM
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I'd call that a garden, not a farm. I have about 4x that space in production (plus berries) and I don't have enough to sell at multiple markets and restaurants.

Did you check out your local market(s) before you decided what to grow? Might be a lot of other tomato sellers there, maybe the offer heirlooms, maybe they don't. If they don't, maybe it's b/c they don't sell well. I think Jay (jrslick) said other than Cherokee Purple, he's given up on heirlooms and sticks to hybrids. But he grows LOTS of tomatoes.

Cherry tomatoes sell well but need caging (as all indeterminates do), they are easier to grow and market than heirlooms so unless the market is glutted, I'd devote the space to those instead.

I've never successfully grown basil, I know it sells but maybe someone else can comment.

If you can trellis them, try Little Leaf H-19 cukes. They are "pickling cukes" but are great for salads. I sell a lot (though they didn't do well last year due to downy mildew). Bush Champion hybrid is the more typical long green dark-skinned cuke, it's not really a bush but don't take up that much space, for a small space I'd rather have a climber though. People like the small size and smaller seeds of the Little Leaf, they also don't get bitter. You just have to talk them up b/c most people (here at least) wouldn't consider a "pickling" cuke for salads.

Here in conservative Yankee land, heirloom organic tomatoes sell well, but peppers don't. Unless you have huge green bell peppers and sell them for $1/lb. Anything that's not green but is bell-shaped (not that I have time to let them ripen with our short season, you're in same zone) gets looked at a little funny - though grocery stores carry red, yellow and orange bells. Anything not a bell is looked upon with suspicion as a chile, though again grocery stores carry (and must sell) jalapenos and even habaneros.

My DH is from TX so I have to plant jalapenos and serranos. Don't sell many though. I didn't plant cayenne last year, though this year I started 10 seeds so maybe we'll have a couple plants. I am also trying Aji Limon. Other than that, I just started 20 jals (we'll see how many I transplant), 10 serrano, 20 Sweet Banana and Corno di Toro (mix, I'm hoping it's roughly even) and 10 bells (Burpee's Carnival mix, they grew better for me last year than Fedco's King of the North has done in past 2 years, and I did manage to sell some of the purple ones but it was a bad year for all my pepper plants).

I did pretty well on Salad Bowl lettuce and Rocket argula, mizuna and tatsoi in a mix, at least before it got hot and the lettuce went bitter. This year I'm trying to do more succession planting of transplants and not direct-seeding, not trying to cut and come again for too long. I'm also planting more tatsoi, arugula, maruba santoh, and mustard rather than buying "salad mix" seeds, that way I can mix my own, let some get bigger for stir-fry, etc. Edamame sold well in a trial so I'm planting a lot more this year.

What city are you in? Do people have backyard gardens? What do they grow themselves? Unfortunately, you don't have much more space than the backyard gardeners around here.

I'd like to say concentrate on the exotic, things that are expensive in the stores and that people usually don't grow themselves.but I don't know what that is, and what tastes are in your area.

Check out the recent threads on bestsellers and growing in a small space.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 12:54PM
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Marla beat me to it! She must type faster ;-)

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 12:56PM
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Fire80 - where in our glorious state are you, if you don't mind me asking? There are several of us here and have experience with some of the different markets.


    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 1:04PM
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I am downstate from you. As soon as I get my plastic on the new building, I'll have more in high tunnel space than you have in garden. And at that size level, I still think I would make more money if I just got a job at McDonald's. But I do it because someday I want to have ten times what I do now in high tunnel space; then I could have an income that approaches the poverty line :)

If I were you I would cover your space in a greenhouse or high tunnel and then try to cater to a specialized market, which is not like your typical farmer's market crowd. Talk to upscale chefs and restaurants and ask them what herbs they would like to be able to buy fresh that they can't find. Ethnic-oriented grocery stores are another specialized market to whom you could also ask that question. In a space that small, you need to produce a product that no one else sells.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 1:31PM
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I started out with the size (1/4 acre) that he has mentioned. I know several major marketers with maybe double that. They do farm/garden intensively. We're lucky to have ground that can produce alot on little bit of ground.Some without even not with greenhouses

I'm in west/central IN and there are several IL farmers on this forum.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 4:12PM
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Great suggestions! Thank you all.

Tom, I'm in Peoria - any experience in the markets here? Do heirlooms sell or am I wasting my space/time?

Thankfully, I'm not relying on this as my sole source of income; I'm giving it a try to see if this is something I'd like to do on a larger scale and as a profession. I'd be satisfied if I can just recoup my expenses (but much happier if made a buck or two :)

I also forgot to mention that I'll be growing organically, though not certified organic. Any feedback as to whether or not this is a selling point?

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 4:48PM
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Adam, you are directly west of me.

Over here, organically doesn't pay as far as $$ you can get. Any if you're not certified and plan on selling more than $5,000, DON'T use the word organic. There are fines for doing that.

I had some customers that organic (or at least chemical-free) was a big deal, but over-all the majority of customers just wanted good tasting quality produce.

Don't expect to break even til year 3 if then, it's takes awhile and $$ to build your business.

You don't mention if you have the equipment or experience for this business.


    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 5:07PM
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Souds like we're just about neighbors Marla! I'm definitely aware of being careful about using the word organic - basically I'll tell customers that I use only organic soil, fertilizers, and farming methods, but I'm NOT certified organic. This may or may not be beneficial to me, but it's how I choose to garden. No harm there, right?

I do have lots of gardening experience, although no commercial experience. I've had gardens 1/3 the size of this that have produced way more produce than my family could eat fresh. Thank god for canning! Don't have any equipment though... I figured a tiller is the only piece I'd need for this small of a plot.

If I won't break even for 3 years, sounds about on par with any small business :)

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 5:30PM
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Right, we tell people that our gardens are safe enough for our grandkids to come out to the gardens and pick and eat anything they want.

It is a small business, which sometimes take longer than the 3yrs that IRS want you to make a profit or get declared a 'hobby'. I don't see why the IRS would complain if on year 3 I would declare more profit than actual. It's more money in their pocket.

I'm about 30 miles inside of state line, just north of I74. We're about 150 miles apart.

BTW, there is a mega store in Danville that you can get supplies, like pots/dirt and such. Very nice people, I call to confirm that they have what I what and then start the drive over. Usually ready when I get there.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 5:42PM
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little_minnie(zone 4a)

Yeah even before I started selling I started with 5000 sq feet. Then I went to 10000 when I started at the market. However when you can specialize in the perfect crops it is a different story. I just think it is hard to find WHICH crops!

    Bookmark   March 14, 2013 at 9:24PM
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I was up and through Peoria a couple weeks ago on my way over the Dadant's in Hamilton. We are a little south and east of you - the home place is between Decatur and Champaign and I live down in the Mattoon-Charleston area. We do two markets in Decatur and one in Monticello during the season but know a fellow that has been IIRC to the Riverfront Market in Peoria (meat seller) and liked it OK. Bloomington is a bit farther from you but has a really good market, as does Springfield. I really do not know much about the smaller markets in that area but U of I Extention had a website listing a bunch of them.

As you probably have figured out the easy part of our job is the growing - marketing takes a little more work. My observation has been that the first year or two you need to work on building your customer base. In an established market people know who they have dealt with in the past and IIHO tend to favor them at least for their primary purchaces. After people get to know you and your produce you'll develop you own following - especially if you can find a nitch product that others do not have. That means your going to have to sell yourself as much as your product. I try to greet as many of the people walking by with a simple "Good morning" or something to that effect. Most respond back; quite a few will stop and engage you in conversation. That both creates the potential for a purchace and makes your booth look busy. Busy looking stands tend to draw more people. Learn as much as you can about your produce and be willing to share that in a concise way. As far as the organic draw - I really could not say. My gut says that most of our customers are more interested in the freshness and locality of our produce than if we are or are not organic. That is going to depend a lot on the market so you may find different. One thing to do is look into taking WIC and Senior Nutrition Farmer's Market vouchers. They are easy to do and free to sign up for but it takes a little time to get set up. It opens another avenue of revenue and frankly are great programs.


Here is a link that might be useful: Illinois Farm Direct Market Search

    Bookmark   March 15, 2013 at 1:56AM
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Ajsmama is spot on...definitely try to trellis pickling cukes. I also grow in a small area & this is my second season and I trellis all my cukes & the production is great. I have also found less diseases and better looking cucumbers when they are off the ground. Cucumbers were my best sellers because no one else wanted to bother with them & so many times I was the only one with them.

Basil is great since it takes little room & has a high profit margin. I would recommend starting off with about 4 plants for you until you determine how many bundles you can sell your first year.

Lettuce can be really good if you find a good mix for your area (may take some extensive experimenting). The people at my market are very particular about lettuce.

As far as heirlooms tomatoes, IMO not worth it. Especially for your size.

I have found that organic really raises costs, and there are only two of us at the market that grow 100% organically. I'm not certified so I don't say organic, but have found that only 10% of our makert customers even ask or care & the rest just assume everyone is organic because it is market (not sure why)

    Bookmark   March 15, 2013 at 7:21AM
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Fire80, Welcome aboard. I sell in the Effingham area while my farm is further south. Lots of great advice here. Be prepared to succession plant. As soon as one thing is going out, be ready to replace it with something new so you always have something new and fresh to offer.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2013 at 9:28AM
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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

I grow many pickling cucs, I prefer to call them Little Cucumbers as most people think they are only good for pickles. To me they have way more flavor and taste.

I have had no luck growing them on a trellis. Every time I have tried, I was very disappointed. It seemed to cause more disease and attracted bugs.

So, I will continue to plant them on the ground and leave them there. Maybe I will try one more year with a trellis.

I would suggest these varieties, H-19 Little Leaf, Vertina and I am trialing Excelsior this year too.

This post was edited by jrslick on Fri, Mar 15, 13 at 22:58

    Bookmark   March 15, 2013 at 10:23AM
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Jrslick, I've been trying to find a different way to explain the pickling cucumbers as like you mentioned people think they are only for pickling...but mine aren't small..I let them get big & for whatever reason they get really fat almost melon like. Maybe my lack of disease less to do with the trellis and more to do with the variety (it is very specific toy climate). But the trellis is the only way I can maximize production forums land area & it really doesn't add much to my labor costs...and my profit margin is quite high on it (never sold a cucumber less than $2/each....but every customer says they are worth every penny...they said best cucumber they have ever had!)

    Bookmark   March 15, 2013 at 1:56PM
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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

What varieties gama_garden? Those big ones dont sell for me. They must be small. I get $2.50 a pound all year long.

Here is a pic of an wishbone little cuc. This is a not normal, but this is the preferred size. About 4-5 to a pound.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2013 at 11:11PM
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If I had a really small space like that with no room to expand I would grow verticle and choose high dollar stuff. My first choice would be strawberries. I have never seen anyone not sell their strawberries. Plus you don't even have to worry about farmer's market. Berries sell themselves. Tell folks you have them and word will get out. There is a lot of competition in produce such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, not to mention home gardeners raising and giving away their own. It pushes the price down to where you have to scratch and claw to make it. Find something people like but don't typically grow. In my area brocolli is not typically grown but it has become something a lot of people enjoy and are excited to see it fresh. Maybe mushrooms. As mentioned up thread, you might even find a restaurant or two that has something you could be competitive with. I had Chinese roommates in college and they went bonkers over those super long green beans when they would find them at the farmers market. My long term goal is to turn most of my space (1 1/2 acre) into berry production with just enough garden space for my family and maybe a bit extra. Everyone at my market does produce and they're all figuring out high tunnels. It's just too many irons in the same fire. I think you have to figure out your goals. Do you want to make enough to have the garden pay for itself with maybe a little pocket money to spare or are you going to try to make some sort of living from this.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2013 at 11:45PM
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jrslick, I only grow Carolina Hybrid variety. It looks similar to what you've got except a little lighter in color, about 4-6". I don't sell by the pound since I don't have a scale...$2/each. They are pretty fat so I would guess they each weigh about a pound or maybe two I want to weigh them to see..hmm

    Bookmark   March 16, 2013 at 5:38PM
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The new Illinois Fruit and Vegetable News lists a series of mixers for chefs and farmers to network including one in Peoria on April 8. Might be something you could check out. There are several others including Bloomington and Champaign late this month.


Here is a link that might be useful: Chef/Farmer Mixer

    Bookmark   March 17, 2013 at 12:53AM
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Great advice everybody, thank you. Tom, thanks for the heads up on the mixer. Just found out that the Heights Market (which I'm guessing is the more popular of the two) is full for the season, so I'm looking for another outlet.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2013 at 11:29AM
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