Once you have gotten quite good at producing food for your table, it is natural to think of providing for others. You could casually share with your neighbors and the local food bank, but many want to take it further and exchange their extra veggies for cash. If that is where your thoughts have been leading you, I would like to offer some things for you to carefully consider before becoming a market gardener. There is a big difference between doing what you love when you have the time and turning doing what you love into a business. During my time as a market grower I grew and sold a lot of lettuce. This photo shows me washing it for a restaurant delivery.
On January 29 I gave the presentation Scaling Up from Homestead to Market Garden at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference. It was well received and people who heard me speak approached me that evening and the next day to thank me for the presentation. Those who had already been selling said that my points hit home. I became an organic gardener so that I would have a healthy family. In order to also have a healthy community I became a market gardener in 1992 and sold to area restaurants. The farmers market network was not yet established at that time. In 1997-98 I had a small CSA in addition to the restaurant sales and in 1999 I was a founding farmer at our local farmers market. I left selling produce and eggs for others after the 2001 season to concentrate on teaching and researching so that I could put more knowledgeable consumers and producers at the markets.
Selling to others on a regular basis highlights the need for good record keeping. You need to plan for how much to grow and to plan for how much money it will bring to your business. No matter how good you are at growing some crops, such as broccoli and cabbage, the income from the same amount of other crops, such as specialty lettuce mixes, will exceed it every time. If you have already been a home gardener and have kept some records of your yields you will be able to anticipate how much you can produce from the space you have. Keep in mind, however, that if you have to break new ground for this endeavor, it may not be as productive as the garden you have been building the soil in for years. Some crops might surprise you. Onions turned out to be a good crop, as well as potatoes, winter squash and garlic—all crops that are not as labor intensive as lettuce.
You need to know what your crops will sell for before you even grow them. Notice what they are being sold for in area grocery stores and farmers markets. Start now and make a chart of the stores and markets in your area with a list of vegetables you might want to sell. Record the prices for them each week throughout the year, noting if they are sold by the piece, pound, bunch, etc. If by the piece, how many pieces make a pound? If by the bunch, how many items make a bunch and how heavy is it? Also record the origin of each crop. This list will be invaluable to you as you move forward with your plans.
Potatoes in wooden boxes were sold by the pound. Small potatoes in pasteboard containers were sold by container.
Although prices might fluctuate in the greater marketplace, I decided on a price that was fair for both myself and for my customers for each crop and kept it the same throughout the season. That said, there are a number of things you could do to vary the price. If you have an abundance of something, you could offer a larger quantity of seconds at a cheaper price per pound. I sorted my potatoes and displayed the smaller ones in pint and quart containers at a higher price per pound than the larger potatoes that were sold by the pound. The price displayed for the containers was by the container size, not by the pound. Nevertheless, the prices remained the same for the abundant seconds (cucumbers), the pints and quarts of potatoes, and everything else for the duration of that season.
Know your produce. People often comment on how much more expensive the colored peppers are in the grocery store compared to the green ones. Well, you need to leave the green peppers on the plant for a few additional weeks to ripen to red, yellow, or orange and anything can happen during that time. I priced my colored peppers at twice as much per pound as the green ones and had no complaints. Besides the prices, you need to know the nutritional value of everything you have and what to do with it in the kitchen. The more information you can pass on to the buyers, the more sales you will make.
I sold a limited variety of produce to the restaurants; primarily leaf and romaine lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and onions and the chefs did not need me to suggest what to do with it. For the farmers market I needed a larger variety of things for my booth and my customers welcomed my suggestions. The greater population has gotten away from cooking from scratch at home and need some instruction as they move back to that. If you package all the ingredients for salsa, for example, plus the recipe, many are more likely to try it. Packaging all the colors of the peppers you have together will entice your customers to buy the package, rather than just the one or two peppers that they had in mind.
Your passion and enthusiasm will go a long way to making sales, but keep in mind that you need to tend to your family first—and to your soil. If you feel you can grow more than you already do, maybe it is time to expand what you are growing for your own table, rather than grow for others. How much of your staple crops, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, and grains do you grow? Are you growing enough cover crops to feed back the soil and provide all your own compost?
The first DVD I produced was Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden and I was excited that I could show people how to manage cover crops in their gardens with hand tools. I knew it would be a tremendous help to small scale market gardeners—those gardeners moving from growing for their family to growing for others. The garden plan DVD followed which shows how to put together a notebook with your complete plan. I wanted gardeners to have a good foundation to help them plan to feed their families and others. Through my teaching I met folks who were ready to jump into growing for the markets with little experience of getting their hands dirty, let alone an understanding of what is going on in the soil when things grow and in our bodies when we eat the food. By the way, you will get dirty, sweaty, and tired. So tired that you will fall into bed at night thoroughly exhausted, only to get back up early in the morning to do it all again. It is not an occupation for the fainthearted.
I want gardeners to understand all of that before they ramp up to feed others. I expanded on what was in the DVDs when I wrote Grow a Sustainable Diet. It includes an additional worksheet (How Much to Grow), and information on nutrition, food processing and storage, garden washing stations, sheds, fences, and more on garden rotations with cover crops. With that book and the DVDs it is like taking a class from me. No matter how many people you are growing for or how much land you are using, my teaching materials apply. I’ve been talking here about determining how much money you could make, but sometimes the profit in this is not so much about the money you make, but the life you make. You become an integral part of the community around you and you can’t put a dollar value on that.