Starting a market garden sounded like a good idea…
Raspberries. Tomatoes. Broccoli. We would grow all the things and the people would rejoice!
This may not be exactly what was on my mind when we first set out to grow produce for our community. But I can honestly say the picture I had in my head about how things would be was pretty far from reality.
The plain and simple truth of it? It’s just not that easy growing food.
Managing a garden for personal use is one thing, with its own challenges. But when you add the pressure of growing food (gulp!) for profit you take on a whole nother set of issues. Especially if you go into it blindly.
We’ve made a lot of mistakes. More mistakes than I really care to admit. We’ve been frustrated. We’ve been discouraged. We’ve been bone tired and stressed out. But we’ve also been blessed, and the knowledge we’ve gained along the way has been worth the pain.
Through it all, I haven’t lost my passion to grow healthy and beautiful produce, and to get better at doing it. It’s what keeps me going every season, trying new things, experimenting. I’m still learning from my mistakes.
I say don’t be afraid of failure. Honestly, it’s how we grow. Our abilities are stretched and honed and eventually perfected through perseverance. And learning from each other.
I’ll share some of our biggest struggles from our first couple years market gardening. Maybe it will help someone avoid some of the frustration we experienced.
Mistake #1 – Starting without a system
What is a system you ask? Think of processes and efficiency. Think of eliminating waste – wasted seed, wasted food, wasted time. Especially wasted time!
If you want to market garden you have to invest in building a system. Where will you wash, process and store your food? How will you manage your soil? No till? Crop rotation? Will you use cover crops? What about weed control? How will you get your produce to your customers? What about marketing?
These are all part of the system you’ll design. Everything starts here, and many of the other mistakes we made could have been at least minimized if we had given more thought to having a system. You certainly won’t start with all the answers, and your system will evolve, but starting a market garden without spending time thinking about process will lead to many frustrated days.
Mistake #2 – We took on too much too soon
I think this is common. When people who try to market garden get frustrated and quit…I think it’s often because they take on too much the first year. Whether that means planting too much ground, planting too many varieties of food or trying to take on too many CSA customers…I know the frustration. We’ve been there. We did that. Just because you have 3 acres available to plant doesn’t mean you should. Start small…grow smart..scale in a way that’s sustainable.
Mistake #3 – We underestimated the weeds
Seriously. This one. Because the weeds? They grow. Whether it rains. Or doesn’t rain. They grow.
You might think that you can stay on top of cultivating. If you plant a small enough space you might be right. But the thing about weeds is once you get behind on them they go to seed. And you know what seeds do? They make more weeds. Take some time to sit down and think about the weeds before you till your bed or plant your first seed. Go here for some practical ideas on how to battle weeds.
We’re still working to find a good system to fight weeds. It’s a constant battle. But we made it harder on ourselves by not doing adequate research or taking the time to limit weeds from the beginning.
Mistake #4 – We didn’t think about having the right tools
The truth? We didn’t really know what the right tools were. Because we didn’t know what we were going to grow or how we were going to grow it. We underestimated the power of weeds. We didn’t have a system.
We had a couple straddle hoes. We bought a Hoss double wheel hoe (amazing tool by the way!). Yes we bought tools along the way, but only after doing things the hard way for too long.
A great example of this is how long it took us to finally decide to buy a tractor. We started our first year by planting an acre and a half of ground. And the weeds yo! We didn’t use any fabric or mulch that year, and so we had weeds choking everything. I’m talking taller than a grown man. And me? I was out there trying to mow it all down with a lawn mower. Brilliant. I’m sure my neighbors were amused.
A tractor with a 3 point mower saved me many hours of wasted labor, and allowed me to spend more time doing things that actually had a strong return. It was an investment that has more than paid for itself over and over again.
Mistake #5 – We weren’t smart about how we engaged our customers
Our first year we did the farmer’s markets and sold produce over Facebook. I delivered veggies up to an hour away from the farm, with no consistent schedule or limit. This is after working more than eight hours at my day job and then several more hours in the field harvesting. Many of my deliveries were small, some of them under five dollars worth of produce…not even worth the gas. But we were hungry to get our name out there.
And by the end of the year we were burned out.
Year two we expanded our CSA customer list significantly…and we spent 20 weeks fighting unpredictable weather and stressing over how we would be able to meet our commitments.
Customers are important…and serving your community with healthy, freshly grown food is a noble, important endeavor. But the best advice I can give you if you are just starting out is to start small…learn your craft…and grow your customer list every year. If you can serve your customers with quality they will continue to buy from you. But if you’re burned out at the end of the season, it’s likely you’re not giving your customers your best and it will come back to haunt you.
Bonus Lesson – Know your market
I see a lot of first time market gardeners ask what they should grow and how much they should expect to make. The answers will depend on location and potential market.
Take time to walk the farmer’s markets. Talk to the people who buy fresh produce. Study the other fresh market farms in the area. What are they growing? How are they growing it?
Don’t set out to do what everyone else is already doing. What can you grow that no one else is growing? What will be your niche? What will make you stand out?
Before you buy your seeds, design your system or buy your tools, take some time to study your market. Having a strong understanding of what you can grow and what you can expect to charge for it will help you plan out everything else.
Bonus Lesson – It really is all about the soil
Another question I hear from first time market gardeners is why their plants aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It get it. It’s frustrating.
Plant health, disease resistance, pest resistance, weed resistance…it all starts with the soil.
Is your soil healthy? Does it have the right balance of nutrients for the plants you’re growing? How do you know?
Before you put your first plant in the ground, get a soil test. Healthy, thriving, living soil is the best defense and it’s the best offense. Read up on how macro and micro nutrients work with each other to create a balance necessary for life. Learn what things will upset that balance and how it will affect your plants. And then once you know where your soil health stands, make a commitment to improving and maintaining optimum soil health every season.
As market gardeners, our legacy begins with soil.
Our soil is one of the greatest gifts we have been given, and over the decades we have abused it, we have polluted it and we have taken it for granted. If we take our stewardship of the land seriously, as we should, we will do everything in our power to make sure we are leaving it healthy for generations to come.
Stepping off my soap box now.
I hoped this discussion has helped, even in the smallest way. Remember, the greatest lessons in life are the ones we can learn from each other, and even those often come from someone’s mistake or two.
Be well –