The past few years have taught us to really appreciate a sense of economic security, fresh air, and nature.
While not a walk in the park, starting a market garden (i.e. a small commercial farm) is a great way to reconnect with nature. While earning a small profit from your passion.
Starting a market garden requires money, time, and labor. It is by no means a passive investment. And requires careful planning and skillful operations to be successful.
Below, we’ll explain what market gardening is and how to start a successful one.
What is Market Gardening?
A market garden is usually a small, less than 2-acres (1 acre = ~16 tennis courts of land) piece of land. Where a variety of crops are grown for profit.
Market gardens allow for denser, more varied, and generally more profitable crops. Since mechanized equipment is unnecessary, market gardens can be quite sustainable. And profitable for the small farmer.
Depending on where you live, expect to invest up to $20-30,000 USD in startup equipment (minus the cost of land).
It’s certainly possible to earn a living starting a market garden. And we’ll outline the steps needed to start one below.
Steps to Create a Successful Market Garden
Below are the key considerations for starting a market garden:
1. Do your research. What crops should I grow? Do I till or not? How will I irrigate my land? Does the type of soil matter? How many days of sunshine do I need? Do I need a greenhouse? How far apart should I space my vegetable bed?
These and hundreds of other questions are answered in Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener. Which we recommend as required reading. However, no amount of research will beat trial and error.
2. Find a piece of land. The most important factor in securing land is location. The closer you are to urban customers, the more profits you’ll earn. A beautiful piece of land 3+ hours from your urban customers. May mean you’ll spend more time driving than farming.
The quality of the land is also important. Bad soil could mean inferior produce and fewer customers.
3. Decide what crops to grow. Cash crops such as cherry tomatoes generate higher profits, but need a lot of sunshine. Lettuce/salad mix also generate high profits, but require a lot more land. Reducing revenue per plot.
Crop rotation is also important to ensure high soil nutrients. This means tubers are out as they take up more space and time and can’t be marketed as fresh.
Other factors include local market conditions such as supply and demand. So, it’s important to do research for your area. Of course, personal preferences also play a factor.
4. Have a Plan for Marketing/Selling. Supermarkets take up to 40-50% as margins and distributors will take between 15-25%. This means 60% of your margins could be eaten up by the middlemen.
Selling directly to consumers means higher profits for yourself. But requires active marketing and branding.
Many farmers will also sell via Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) models. In CSA models, consumers buy shares in a farm’s production. Which reduces risks by guaranteeing sales for that season.
Most profitable market garden crops
The University of Illinois’ Agribusiness Program suggests the following cash crops as highly profitable for small farmers. Bamboo, specialty mushrooms, lavender, garlic, christmas trees, etc.
However, it’s important to do your own calculations. As your own location’s soil, supply and demand, your efficiency, and your personal preferences will influence outcomes.
Personal passion, product presentation, marketing, and quality are also factors that help you earn more. A plump, fat, and tasty tomato will certainly earn more than a shriveled and tasteless one.
Advantages & disadvantages of market gardening
The pros of starting a market garden are many:
- Independence and community. It’s great to connect to nature and the community.
- Income. It’s possible to earn a higher wage than the average worker owning a farm if you work hard enough.
- No need for mechanized equipment or high start-up costs
- Sustainable and rewarding practice
The challenges are also equally as many:
- Scalability. More than two acres will generally require mechanized equipment and more labor. This means your maximum income will be capped unless you grow.
- Initial learning curve. Experience is the best teacher. You can read as many books, but there’s nothing that beats experience.
- Risk. There’s always a risk of drought and disaster, so preparation is key.
Frequently Asked Questions
Market gardens can earn 50% margins on revenues (or higher). If you minimize labor and specialized equipment costs, and establish direct sales channels.
According to the USDA, the median total household income among all farm households in America ($80,600 in 2020) actually exceeds the total household U.S. households ($67,521).
Of course, your mileage will vary depending on your efficiency. The type of land you have, the location of your farms, your sales channel, marketing, etc.
Market gardens can be any size. But most market gardeners do not recommend taking on more than 2 acres for two people.
Farms larger than 2 acres will generally require mechanized equipment and 1-2 extra helping hands during harvesting season. So, a market garden is perfect for a couple or small family.