Market gardening is a great job. Bringing fresh healthy food to appreciative customers can be enjoyable and profitable. But if you are on a budget, how can you start market gardening without breaking the bank? Here’s some suggestions to get started growing for market on a budget.
Step 1: Finding land to start market gardening. Here’s the good news: you don’t have to own a farm to be a farmer! In most rural areas, there is good land that is underused. Put the word out to your neighbours that you are looking for a small plot for a market garden. You can also find land by driving around and looking for fields that appear un-worked, without animals grazing. Ask local farmers if they might be interested in renting you a small plot; they may even take a share of the vegetables you grow in exchange. A plot as small as 5000 square feet can produce an amazing amount of food for sale.
Step 2: Covering your start-up costs. Here’s a way to raise the start-up capital you will need for seeds and equipment. Approach your friends, family, co-workers, boy scout troop, hockey buddies, in short everybody, and tell them you will be raising delicious, fresh, naturally-grown vegetables, and if they hurry they can get on the list to get some. You can ask them for a deposit to secure their share of the bounty from your garden, or even get them to pay you in advance for veggies they will receive throughout the season. This model of market gardening is known as Community Supported Agriculture, and is a popular and successful model to start gardening for money.
Step 3: Getting your equipment. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on market gardening equipment to get started. You can hire a local farmer to plow and disc your garden space for you. A simple light stand for starting seeds indoors can be built with florescent shop lights and 2 by 2 lumber. Shop light usually come with chains that will let you adjust their height as your plants grow. A market garden of up to an acre can be managed with mostly hand tools, often available cheap at farm auctions. If necessary, you can buy a used rear-tine roto-tiller, or rent one as required. Other recommended supplies include drip or soaker hose for irrigation, and a roll of floating row cover to protect your plants from weather and insect damage.
Step 4: Ordering seed. This is one place where you don’t want to skimp too much. Check the seed catalogs from different suppliers, and find the best prices and sizes of seed packets that suit your growing needs. It’s better to order too much rather than too little seed; if you run out in the middle of the season, more seed may be hard to find. And most seeds will keep for several years, so anything you don’t plant can be used next season.
Step 5: Putting it all together. You now have your land, some customers, start-up capital, and market gardening equipment. Now you actually have to grow the delicious vegetables your customers are expecting. To start with, you need a production plan for your garden. You need to figure out how much of each crop you need to grow, when to start growing them, and when they need to be replanted to ensure a continuous harvest. Your planning will be based on such factors as the length of your growing season, your date for last frost in the spring and first frost in the fall, the number of customers you have, and the equipment you have available. For example, if you have ten customers that each want one head of cabbage from you each week, you will obviously need at least that many cabbages available for harvest on a weekly basis. And since not every seed germinates, and there will be some losses due to weather or insects or disease, you should allow for a ‘safety factor’ when determining how many plants to start. To be sure you will have 10 cabbages ready for harvest, you might start 15 seeds to allow for losses. Follow this kind of analysis for each crop you plan to grow.
Step 6: Maintaining your market garden. Market gardening is real work, requiring regular daily attention to be successful. You will spend time each day in watering, weeding and feeding; the gardener’s WWF. One key to this is, don’t start too big a garden the first year. Perhaps just grow vegetables for a few friends, then as your experience grows you can increase the size of your garden.