With the Breaking Into series we will explore US agriculture, the least complex, the most complex, the failures, frustrations, sustainability, costs, and future of each topic that makes up modern agricutlure. On this episode we are going to explore one of the more simple ways to get into professional agriculture, Market Gardens.
Market Gardens by another name are simply backyard gardens where the output is more than the habitants of land can consume and sell the excess at cost or for profit. This is one of the simplest models for turning income in agriculture.
Market Gardens have been given a black eye from the industry mostly due to the size and scope of each. Gardner compared to a farmer is a large feux pas. Farmers dislike being compared to gardeners mostly because farmers add scale and further complexity to their operations, which is arguable because most monocrop farmers will be the first to tell you how much back breaking effort goes into produce for human consumption.
Gardening can be a simple cathartic way of tending to spare time, or in this example, a way to cover your costs and make a few neighbors happy. With additional space, a market garden can supply quite a bit more than just a couple of households worth of produce going so far as to supply enough to fill tables and baskets at a local farmers market if one should choose. Market gardening can open ones eyes to the abundance that can be harnessed from even a small patch of land. The Victory Gardens of World War II helped sustain the food supply. The hard lessons learned from the depression made sure that each household produced a considerable amount to be consumed directly by the family. Through the 1950s keeping a garden was a post war ritual. The 1960s abundance as the economy created the largest middle class in the world left very few households willing to keep up the effort until the 1971 oil shocks, runaway inflation, crushing interest rates caused homeowners to start rethinking their position on backyard gardens. By 1980 about half of homes had some type of produce garden, that number declined significantly throughout the 90s and early 2000s but the recent pandemic and inflationary shifts have caused a reported 39% of households to be active in gardening in 2021 according to Axiom. The rate at which adoption has continued into an ever rising interest rate and inflation stoked economy is surely to see the percentages back to about half, if not more as the future unfolds.
Complexity of any garden is largely focused on plant species suitable for the open environment where you wish to plant, as well as symbiotic plant species that can grow well amongst one another. What you plant and where you plant it are two large questions. Bed rotation is also something to keep in mind. For example, pole beans, or legumes of any kind are great to plant before corn. Grow beans, rotate on and plant corn in those beds next season, cucurbits after that. Nitrogen ebbs and flows and each plant species can help with the nutritional requirements of the entire landscape. Complementary species are always good to keep in mind. Your space is limited, so do some research. Soil quality can be an impact, but a few bags of potting mix or a truck load of compost is a sure fire remedy. Considerations of what to plant can also be dictated by how much rain you receive, and how much you are willing to irrigate by hand. Rain is free, city or well water is not. Sunlight is also free, grow lights are not. The best thing you can do is to minimize cost without sacrificing quality and quantity. The emphasis should always be on quality, and that means treating your land and soils correctly.
Market Gardens are some of the most sustainable methods of agriculture. The ability to weed a garden by hand keeps the herbicide use down to a minimum. Composting from kitchen scraps also keeps a large amount of waste from going to the dump and somewhat negates the necessity of chemical fertilizer use. Some supplementation will still be necessary, and a soil test is always advised to see what nutrients are directly avaliable to whatever plants are sown.
The amount of time spent per plant allows you to heed off potential issues. When the leaves start the yellow, you will notice more quickly than acres upon acres. You concentrate your efforts and the yield per plant will be greater than an open field.
Frustrations and Failures
The common failures are too much too soon. That presents itself in two distinct ways. The first is trying to have an abundance on the table at the market and rushing for completion. Farming is a function of time and money. The more time you have, the less money required. The inverse, the less time you have, the money necessary to spend. It’s this delicate balancing act of how quickly can I get a truckload to market is one of the hardest parts in the beginning.
The second big hurdle is scaling. Container or potted plants purchased at a big box store and planted into custom mixes that are prefertilized are easy. Scaling that to a quarter acre can take some planning and expertise. Getting sprouts to germinate is frustrating. Irrigation lines are frustrating. But once a season or two of knowledge has been acquired, the following seasons come relatively easy and complexity can be increased.
Costs and Future
These two concepts are inexplicably linked. To start, go with what you know. Add complexity and costs a little over time. A few raised beds and a few watches a a few YouTube videos can get you started for a two hundred dollars.
The next iteration, build larger boxes, bring in additional compost, explore larger areas to plant, purchase a drip irrigation system with a timer. All in, with seed, plug trays, getting to an intermediate level will set you back around $500 or so, if you plan to purchase plants. If you are willing to seed by hand direct, or have space and the ability to germinate plugs in trays, go that route. Bringing in bulk compost is always a great way to save money and waste. Making your own compost is time consuming and not advisable in the beginning stages.
What could start as a hobby, could turn into a half acre or full acre field that could supply a net income of anywhere from $5,000 to upward of $40,000 depending upon a whole host of factors. A full acre theoretically can produce huge sums, but the inputs, both labor hours and systems can eat into that rather quickly. The income is heavily dependent upon revenue from the markets. Does your local community have enough demand to sustain a large growing operation? Is there competition other than the big box retailers? Any successful business will always have smaller competition that will arrive after you’ve shown proof of concept. Maybe you are that competition? An over abundance of grocery stores is also factor. Local economics as well. The variables are entirely tied to the market conditions of your small enterprise, but, with certainty, a market always exists, it just may not be enough to replace your currently salary. If you have a large market and can somewhat offset a full salary and can meet your basic needs, take the jump. Go full time. Allowing 100% of your time will double the productivity. Don’t expand just yet. Get comfortable, knowledgeable, build those relationships.
The future is mostly steady. We see the baby boomer generation on the edge of retirement and may or may not keep a garden. Gen X will not, typically, want to buy into that level of labor and responsibility at this point in their age. Millennials are the new farmers and will most likely be your peer group, if you are not amongst that generation. Most of us are. The pandemic absolutely had an impact on this generation and the necessity that we see in bringing food back home in small local, sustainable markets. Gen Z are the market buyers, in addition to Gen X and the Boomers, as they are the next generation to understand the complexities of the changing world, and also understand the real world costs of cheap, bare minimum farmed products in part due to some shortcomings within capitalism. They have the relevant knowledge of the connective tissue between food driven thousands of miles to their local markets and the increases of their flood insurance due to a rapid acceleration in the planets carbon cycle. Generation Alpha, the Millennial Children will be the next stewards of the post pandemic food revolution, working and inheriting the Millennial generation farms, that hope to bring back the concept of centennial farmland. The markets will continue to be a vibrant place for communities to once again celebrate the basis of sustaining life. It will be a tough road with lost of labor and love. Perseverance is the necessity for any successful enterprise. Start small.