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.

We started down the path that eventually led us to market gardening long before we knew about pioneers like Jean Martin Fortier and Eliot Coleman. For us, small-scale farming seemed like a way of life that we could easily pursue. There’s something very 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?

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 learning something new every year, we have also gained a wealth of understanding and experience that has made us a stronger, wiser and more productive.

Here are some of the lessons we learned that first year of market gardening.

You Will Have To Give Up Much

We seriously underestimated how much we would need to sacrifice in order to succeed.

Designing the plots. Establishing a system. Working the soil. Amending the soil. Planting. Weeding. Harvesting. Repeat. We started with a blank canvas, but that meant that everything had to be built, established, created.

I have a full-time job, so every evening from May through most of October was spent in the field until the sun went down. Every weekend. Every day off.

I was dedicated. I wanted to succeed. But there were afternoons when the kids wanted to play catch or go on a bike ride and I was too busy in the market garden to pull away.

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.

Start Small

The tendency when starting out is to take on too much.

My recommendation is to start small until you have a good idea of what you’re capable of doing, and so you don’t get burned out.

We started with a 3 acre field, using only a rototiller, a couple of wheel barrows, an assortment of hand tools and a hand seeder. This was simply impossible. The plots looked nice when they were first planted. And then the weeds came.

We were ambitious and willing to work hard. But we didn’t have a sustainable plan, and we spread ourselves too thin.  

Plant only what you can manage, and give yourself the latitude to learn along the way. You don’t need to be everything you want to be in the first year.

Invest In The Right Tools

Our budget was tight, and honestly we had no clue what we even needed when we started farming. We invested in an Earthway Seeder because that’s what other market gardeners were using and we bought a new Husqvarna tiller. About mid way in the season we bought a tractor, and that was a huge investment. But it was a game changer for us.

We also spent money on tools that we figured out didn’t really have a place in the system we were building. Wasted time. Wasted money.

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, start with a plan. I’ve already mentioned that above, but it will save you a lot of heartache and money. Put your plan in place and then start acquiring the right tools.

Have A Plan, But Be Flexible

I kinda feel like I said this already. But seriously, most of our first year struggles came from not having a plan.

I knew I wanted to work on permanent beds, but I had no idea how I was going to get there. I knew very little about soil structure and microbiology, but knew I needed to build up our soil after years of being farmed conventionally. I grossly underestimated how difficult it would be to overcome weeds, and so I was forced to adapt my methods often.

Honestly, I didn’t really start getting a sense of how to build a system until around year three. So having a plan when starting doesn’t mean having it all figured. Give yourself room to make adjustments and to learn through the experience.

Don’t Underestimate The Weeds

I’ve mentioned our battle with weeds several times now. Seriously, it was one we almost lost!

Pulling weeds is an inefficient way to spend your time. 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.

Pay Attention To Your Market

A frustrating rookie mistake when starting a market garden is to plant without understanding the market you’re trying to serve.

We did a little investigating into what others were selling at the markets around us. Where we really stumbled was in the amount of what we grew. Have you ever seen how much two 100′ beds of basil can produce? When it comes on all at once?

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 it away. Who knew?

Do some research. Think critically about how much you need to plant to produce what you need. Have fun experimenting, and take a lot of notes for next year.

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. 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.

But you have to also be flexible and kind to yourself. You have to learn how to let some things go, and celebrate little victories. Market gardening is a process that is learned through trial and error.

We survived our first market gardening year. If we can do it, so can you. I’m happy to share our bone-headed mistakes from our early years if it helps get someone else started in the right direction.

Growing food for your community is honest, meaningful work. And it’s very much worth the effort and the sacrifices.

If you choose to go down this road, I promise you wil never be the same again.

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