Starting A Market Garden

timopAugust 7, 2009

18 y/o with two years experience working on a 5acre CSA, looking to have 2acre market garden on my family's land next season. Looking to sell at markets, in a farmstand, and possibly some wholesale. My goal is to net $20k, $10k per acre, although I know I'll make a lot of mistakes and might not be near that. What are the steps I need to go through in planning for my market garden? Before I start doing stuff like tilling and planting I know I need to have a structured plan for the economics and all other aspects of growing. Any help?

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I think you should have a two part plan: 1) growing and 2) marketing -- they are worlds apart and require completely different skills. I suspect there will be plenty of comments that will come on both so I'd like to address your comment, "Before I start doing stuff like tilling and planting. . ."

Consider no-till growing. I gave my tiller away about 9 years ago. My soil is in better shape than it has ever been and I do approximately half the physical labor I did under a tilling scheme. Capital investment to start will be less but the caveat here is that no-till will require more and better management. And, you will need to start planning, probably, a year in advance.

If you are interested, I'd be glad to give details off or on forum. Where are you located?


    Bookmark   August 7, 2009 at 1:15PM
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Ok, heres my 2 cents. I will try not to keep you here all day. LOL. I have wanted to start a greenhouse business for about 10 yrs. Busy with restoring an old historical home and raising babies, put it on hold. My focus then would have been more on flowers, but now I am all about food. This spring we finally got a 32x50ft hoophouse up and prepared a couple of fields, plus I have a 8x14ft hobby house for seed starting and 16 raised beds with mini-hoops. Pretty good set-up. By the time we got the big hoop and plowed , some plants didn't go in til June. I live on a very busy road in a semi-rural setting, so I decide to puy up a small roadside stand, instead of doing the farmers market. we spent about $5-6K all said and done for hoop, roto-tiller etc. watering systems, seeds,fertilizers, compost etc. maybe more. ( I also want to work towards a no-till system). All total, I am probaly growing on about 1/3-1/2 acre. Here's what I learned this year.
One person can not do it by themselves. Even though my family helped at times and a friend 3-4 hrs a day in the begginning, it is a lot of work. From seed starting,potting up if nessacary, tranplanting, starting more seeds, watering, harvesting, washing produce, tranporting, then selling it, a LOT of time. I have not stopped since early March. 7 days per week. One day golfing w/friends. My background is in sales & marketing so I am comfortable there.

You can not control the weather. This has been the coolest summer in my part of the country in over 100 years. Plus no rain in over 5 wks. (just woke up this morning to rain and I felt like crying w/ tears of joy) Just trying to keep up with watering needs became a full time job. Plants in the hoop are not that much farther along than ones in field.
Timing. Due to some poor planning on my part and the weather, I didn't have enough of a selection worth opening my stand. It would have been easier at a farmers market, then I could have been the lady with all the lettuce, but at a stand it didn't seem worth it to me to be out there all day for $40. dollars in lettuce sales. Crops just didn't mature together like they should have.
I had hoped that the summer crops would have saved the season and we would have made a least enough money to cover some of our investment, but I've pretty much given up on that because we just are not getting enough heat. But I will have a good supply of food for the family.
So, plan on help if you want to do 2 acres.Plan on failures, pests,dieases, etc. but always hope for the best. Really work on timing. Your experience working on a CSA will help you a lot. And though it may sound like I am discouraged, I am not, I will be much better prepared for next year(hoop up,2nd one going up in fall) fields will be in better shape and I will know what I can and can not do with just me and a bit of help here and there. This was my learning year and I am ok with that. I did have many successes also and grew many things that I have never tried to do before. Just had some of the best potatoes in my life last night and I knew nothing about them. You will also find that everyone on this forum to be very helpful. Others here are having a good year. Hope this gives you some things to think about and Good Luck!

    Bookmark   August 8, 2009 at 10:07AM
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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

Gardener1908 had some really good points. 1/3-1/2 acre is alot of one person. That is what I do and I am at it all summer long. I am a teacher so I have this time off, but school starts next week. So I will start my two full time jobs for the next 3 months. Clean out everything in 4-5 months, rest in 6 months, order seeds in 7 months and start planting in 8 months!

Everything has a cycle and order, you just need to figure yours out. Growing a garden and prepping it for sale is just a process. You just have to figure out what yours is.

In addition to gardening, I am "Daddy Daycare" for our 4 girls under the age of seven for 3 days a week. One of those days is my busiest market evening too! If I can do it, anyone can.

Here are some of my suggestions.

1)Start small and work your way up. Don't plant 2 acres the first year. You will be over whelmed. I would start with 1/2 acre and work up.

2) If you have 2 acres, you will need a small tractor or borrow one, or have a neighbor do some beginning tillage for you. I only have a big tiller, and I spend way to much time using it. I am having a neighbor plow my plots under this fall. He is going to do it for free.

3) Grow what you know will sell, then add stuff to it. Don't grow a bunch of odd-ball stuff and expect to make that much. You will have to have lots of squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, onions and other staples to make it work.

4)TAKE A DAY OFF EVERY WEEK! Find a time to not work outside and rest. You will need it. My time is Saturday pm and Sunday am-mid afternoon. After I get home from my market on saturday, I unload and put stuff away and rest.
5) Some years are better than others, don't give up. Last year people wanted cucumbers, bad year for cucmbers. This year everyone has cucumbers and they aren't selling as well.

6) Put up a hoop-house and learn how to manage it. A hoop house has saved my bottom line this year. We had snow in April and freezing temps in early May. Without a hoop building, I would have been still waiting for tomatoes. Also they are great use of labor. I remember days when it was raining outside and I was inside, planting, weeding, picking and staying perfectly dry. A very nice feeling. My wife hated it because in the past a rainy day was a non-work day. Not anymore.

7) Don't buy every tool you see. You can get by a tiller, hoe, rake, potato fork, shovel and hand shovel. I will add an Earthway planter or something similar to this list this year. To be honest, I don't even have a hoe anymore. I broke mine killing a very angry snake 1.5 months ago. I am waiting for the end of season sales.

8) Only take your best stuff to sell. Spend time in your prep room to make your produce look its best. I get comments every week about how nice my produce looks. People don't want to buy dirty produce. It isn't appealing. If you want a premium price, give them a premium product. Examples of this are. I wipe off/wash off every tomato I pick. They are all clean and free of dirt or other stuff. I go through every cherry tomato basket. I don't sell splits or bad spots. I have that reputation for my product, that is why I can charge .75-1 more per basket. Wash off beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, potatoes, onions and other root crops. Pick a consistent size of each crop. If this means you have to store it in a fridge, do it. My pickling cucumbers are all very even and people like that much better than a bunch of random sizes.

9) Know what everyone of your products are, their name, how to prepare them, how to store them and even any history about them. When someone asks you will know not, "I don't know"

10) Have fun!

    Bookmark   August 8, 2009 at 3:31PM
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Thanks everyone for your input, I really appreciate it. I did an analysis of the production and sales it would require for me to get the numbers I set as my goal and realized it was kind of ridiculous. At the same time, I'm going to set my goals high realizing it will be a long shot to come anywhere near. I appreciate all your points of advice. I think I'm going to try 2 acres despite your attempts to dissuade me, I'm young and invincible leave me be! I have a strong support base in my family and the community of farmers around me, plus I can round up some friends for weeding crews. If I found that I'm run into the ground then at least I'll have learned a lot. I've heard of the no till method and was planning on being catious of not overtilling, but I'm skeptical of how it can be efficient on a larger plot of land.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2009 at 7:28AM
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Since you are going to try to do the 2 acres, use them for crops that take alot of space but not alot of work. Like pumpkins, winter squash and such. Farmers with smaller amounts of ground will be using their ground for higher profitably crops. I sell LOTS of pumpkins and winter squash. Except for squash borers they take care of themselves after they get a bit of size on them, plus when they are ready to pick, they store for a long time. I just need to keep sorting out ones that are not as good as others. Most of my last month of market, I only sell the pumpkins and winter squash. Be aware, they DO get HEAVY to pack around. Hopefully your market lasts until Halloween or after, since it works better for these items.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2009 at 8:49PM
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hanselman's advice about picking a few crops is a very good suggestion. Easier as far as soil, fertilizer needs, watering,pest, dieases etc. Your focus would be on the needs of a few plants vs. the needs of many. Beleive me, there will be days when everything is a priority and you will not be able to do it all! We are not attempting to dissuade you - only giving you advice from our experiences, some with many years of doing this. You are young and if you have no other responsibilities or commitments you can spend 12 or more hours in the *fields*. But again, I caution you to really think about how much one person can do. I'm still trying to figure out how to do 2 (or 3,4) things at once! It may be better to celebrate a smaller amount of success that to fail because you took on to much(wow, sometimes I should to listen to my own advice!!). But you also learn from your failures. Again, plan, then plan some more. and good luck.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2009 at 10:03AM
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Start high profit perennials such as raspberries and asparagus ASAP-they need several years to get going but will increase your bottom line dramatically when they do.

Get good equipment. We use a 14hp BCS walking tractor for our 4 acre market garden. A 4 wheeled tractor would be nice but the BSC is thousands less than the other and gets the job done (and I say this from the perspective of a person in their mid 40's not early 20's-oh to have that body again)

Nail down your markets for next year now, or at least by the time you start seed ordering in 2010. keep your marketing simple for the first few years. I strongly suggest going the farmers market route at first than getting into other venues. With 2 acres stay away from wholesaling if you want to net $20K on the 2 acres

2 acres is not a lot of room despite what others seem to be saying. And I assume you learned something about how to grow different crops and time management during your stint with the CSA. That said I would keep it simple and do no more than say 20 different crops (we do about 55 to 75 most years and many different varieties of most of the 55 to 75)

Know that marketing will take up at least 50% of your time and is probably more important than the growing/harvesting end of things

Consider investing in good refrigeration-this will lessen the work load as you won't be forced to harvest withing 14 of a market. You can spread out harvest over 2 days and you produce will be much, much higher quality and hold far longer in your customers' kitchens.

Oh yeah, grow things you like so if they do not sell eating them is not an issue.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2009 at 2:34PM
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sandy0225(z5 Indiana)

If you have a stand at your place, people will expect you to have the basics: corn, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, pretty much all of the time. Other things they seem to be more understanding on like green beans. Once you explain to them that they just don't jump in the basket, you can schedule "bean days" during the week.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2009 at 10:27PM
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