Becoming Self-Sufficient With a Small Market Garden
Author: Jim Kennard
Q. Can a family be totally self-sustaining by using between 1 and 2 acres to grow, eat, and sell food?
A. Yes! As a matter of fact, families in many countries are doing it, and they often have gardens much smaller than 1 acre. However, you should consider carefully what you are getting into. I'll paint a picture of the problems first, then show you how blessed you are to be using the best possible growing methods for a family garden, and finally I'll give you some ideas as to what and how to grow your market garden.
I. Considerations Before Beginning
Your income depends on what you choose to grow, and how well you follow through in the growing process. It also depends on how well you learn the financial and marketing aspects of the job. Growing corn is easy, but doesn't produce much for the amount of space used, or pay well, unless you like to eat corn stalks. And someone has to sell the produce and pay the bills, which take substantial time and effort by themselves!
"Self-sustaining" requires very different amounts of food and money, depending on the family size, the standard of living expected, and the debt load you expect the garden to carry. Debt of $3,000-5,000 per month requires a much greater effort to cover than a debt-free situation.
Location is also a factor. People in warm climates can often grow into or even right through the winter, while colder climates have a shorter season. Both locations can improve your production by using the Foundation's methods. Warm climates may require lots of water and even a little shade at the hottest times, while cold climates often require more greenhouse seedling production and covering garden crops in spring and fall to extend the season.
Before getting seriously into gardening you need to understand the commitment involved, and be willing to do it right. Our grandparents grew gardens, and also often owned animals. They understood the necessity of working every day to feed, water, and care for their animals and plants. Regrettably, we've forgotten this requirement, as 99% of us have chosen other ways to make a living, and become dependent on the 1% who are highly competent farmers to feed us all.
You must understand and accept that there is very little respite for vacations, etc. during the growing season. A good garden requires your attention on a daily basis!
On the other hand you, and especially your children, will benefit greatly by having a fixed and important responsibility that requires daily commitment and real effort to accomplish. Think of it as a paper route without the 2:30 A.M hours, the driving, the danger, barking dogs, etc.
And one last consideration: A hundred years ago, everyone used manure and compost, and it was a fairly level playing field between the family gardener and the market farmer. Not so today! Your competition includes hydroponic growers who have invested over a million dollars per acre in buildings and equipment, as well as dozens of employees doing the work. And by feeding and watering their plants accurately many times each day, they're growing 330
TONS of tomatoes per acre each year!
II. You have a big advantage over other small market gardens. Is all of this daunting? Have you decided to just give up and forget about growing your own food? I certainly hope NOT, because it's important for you and your family to grow a garden for many very valid reasons, which we can't address in this article.
Understand this. You can produce much more in less space, using the Foundation's methods, than other small market growers are doing, so just GO FOR IT!
The website at www.growfood.com, the books, CD's and videos will teach you the gardening principles and procedures by which you will grow your successful market garden. In studying these things, remember that this unique gardening method has been proven highly effective in thousands of situations, in dozens of countries all around the world. It's a recipe! It WILL work to give you a great garden – in any soil and in virtually any climate. But you MUST follow the recipe.
III. Creating Your Own Successful Market Garden
How do you prepare?
1. START SMALL! Don't plant more than you can care for properly, and sell or use.
2. Determine the market or markets you will sell to: a) Wholesalers, b) small grocery stores, c) restaurants, d) farmers' markets, e) roadside stand, or f) home delivery.
3. Learn what vegetables you should grow by determining those that: a) sell well, b) at a good price, c) that you can grow readily.
4. Build proper facilities including a) a seedling greenhouse with tables, b) T-Frames and c) a good watering system. These are essential for success at this level.
5. Set up a formal accounting system, including account names and numbers for every category of asset, liability, equity, income, and expense. Get help from your CPA.
6. Stock up on tools, seeds, and fertilizers, and be sure to include all those costs, as well as your labor, in figuring your market prices.
You'll have to meet or beat your competition's prices to sell your produce at
the beginning. However, by growing more, bigger, fresher, tastier, and healthier produce than others, you will develop a loyal customer base, and then you can adjust your prices as needed.
In choosing what to grow, consider a) the ease of growing, b) cost and risk of loss, and c) the value of the crop. Cabbage is quite easy to grow; it can be started in early spring when many other crops would die; it only requires about 60 days to mature, so you may get 2 or even 3 crops in a year. However, it doesn't bring a very high price in the market, so you must decide if it's worth it
or not. And sometimes the need to rotate your crops will be a factor.
Let's look at some scenarios of what could be grown and sold from one acre of ground, with good care and decent weather, and without losses from bugs and diseases (by strictly following the Mittleider Method you will minimize your crops' susceptibility to those things):
Soil-Bed Garden – 250 30'-long Beds
Beans-pole – 120 plants per bed, 1.5# per plant, $.50/# $22,500
Corn – 92 plants per bed, 1 ear per plant, $.10/ear 2,300
Cucumbers – 45 plants per bed, 8# per plant, $.25/# 22,500
Potatoes – 92 plants per bed, 2.5# per plant, $.10/# 5,750
Tomatoes – 40 plants per bed, 10# per plant, $.50/# 50,000
The above examples are estimates only, and the actual results could be – and have been – much higher or lower, depending on many factors, including experience, weather, direct retail marketing vs. wholesale sales, etc.
If you are growing for the retail market using a roadside stand or farmers' market booth, you will probably want a fairly wide variety of produce, to bring customers in. While corn has low value in terms of yield for a given amount of space, it is VERY popular with customers when it's fresh, so you may well treat it as a "Loss Leader" and have it available. But don't try to plant too many
vegetable varieties. Ten or twelve key vegetable types are far easier to handle than twenty to thirty. And three varieties of tomatoes are usually enough. I would plant Big Beef, Italia Mia or other Roma, and Grape tomatoes. One planting of Blue Lake or other pole beans will allow you to sell beans all season.
If your customers are restaurants, you will need to grow the specific things they use, such as specialty lettuces, tomatoes, Ichiban eggplant, small red potatoes, etc. And you may need to plant a few beds of the single-crop things every week, to have them maturing throughout the season.
If your primary market is the large grocery store or wholesale suppliers, they will usually want a large steady supply of a few things, so you may be able to plant everything to the "money" crops of beans, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes, or multiple plantings of lettuces and other quick-growing crops.
I encourage everyone to find joy working in nature by the sweat of your brow, and sharing in God's wonderful process of creation