By Doug Ottinger – Whether you’re using paper and pencil or an online market garden planner, why not start dreaming? It could be the start of a long-term, sustainable business venture for you! You may not get rich, or make a lot of money, but it can be an enjoyable venture that can be profitable. It takes work, but if you enjoy gardening and have a little extra space to grow things, why not give it a try? Some successful growers keep their operations small and very simple, while others morph into larger, more complex operations.
Here are some secrets I have learned over the years. Every situation is different, so there is no single way to do things. Consider the tips I use in my market garden planner. Use the ones you like and discard the rest.
Market Gardening for Profit
While you may enjoy what you are doing, remember this is a business venture. If you want your business to be profitable and sustainable, remember that simple, small decisions will determine whether you see a yearly profit.
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Start at a Reasonable Level
Don’t try to do everything in the first year or two. When you’re starting out, it can be hard to know how big to make your initial garden or which crops are most in demand. It might take two or three seasons before you are able to fully assess your local market and customers. What is a reasonable level? Start with what you think you can realistically handle with your time and workload. Give this factor serious thought because it will be one of your keys to business success.
Where am I Going to Sell my Produce?
This seems basic, but it is a good idea to have a designated sales outlet established before you plant your market garden. Identifying your sales outlets and sales methods will also help you decide what to plant, and just how much you need to plant.
If you live in an area that has a weekly farmers market, this may be a viable option. Many of these markets are controlled by the local chambers of commerce. There is generally a nominal annual membership fee, plus weekly space rent. There are by-laws that growers must follow. The advertising is done by the market and it carries the liability insurance, saving you both expenses.
Sales calls to local chefs and restaurants or grocery store produce managers can produce sales in large bulk amounts. However, this is a time-consuming method that can be laden with rejection. Do you have time and energy to make repeated weekly sales calls, plus grow, harvest, pack, and deliver the produce? If you do, go for it! If not, there may be more suitable sales options for you.
By starting your own produce stand, you won’t have to haul your produce to market every week. Your customers will come to you. However, you will need to make yourself known. Simple road signs with lettering big enough to be seen at 500 to 1,000 feet away are a good option if the county or state zoning allows it. Block ads in the local paper or advertising inserts are also advertising methods that work well. Be sure to check on your legal liability for your home market. Most homeowner’s policies will not cover liability claims from a customer that twisted her ankle in a pothole
What About Equipment?
Use the first two or three years to analyze what pieces of equipment will be your best investments. If you are relatively small, do you need a tractor or would a sturdy walk-behind tiller be more economical? Add the base cost of the equipment and any anticipated interest charges. Divide the total by 10 years which is a good rule of thumb for equipment life. Add in anticipated yearly fuel costs, oil and other operating fluids, and service costs and repairs. This will give you a good estimate of annual costs to own and operate a piece of equipment. In many cases, renting a piece of equipment when needed or hiring someone locally can be more cost-effective and give more annual profit. Remember, you are running a business and bottom-line profit is important.
Should I Grow my Tomato and Pepper Plants from Seed?
Unless you already have your own greenhouse, it is often easier and just as cost-effective to buy these young plants from a nursery if you can get them in bulk. If you have a local nursery, see how much the owner will charge to grow several flats of plants for you. I use this arrangement myself and find it cost-effective.
Deciding What to Grow
Until you pinpoint your buyers’ preferences, I recommend keeping your core offerings to a maximum of two or three traditional varieties of each vegetable. For example, choose two varieties of big, juicy tomatoes that do well locally. Unusual heirlooms are definite marketing hits in some regions, while buyers in other areas refuse anything that looks different. We found this out by experience. Buyers in California were always willing to try new and unusual fruits and vegetables. When we moved to the Upper Midwest and started selling, we found that many buyers refused to try anything new. Grow a few unusual heirlooms on a trial basis each year and test them in your market. If buyers like them, grow them for sale the next year. If not, don’t waste your time.
Pro Tip: Most people’s taste buds gravitate toward sweet flavors. If you can, lean toward vegetables that have sweeter flavors. This little secret will often get you repeat customers!
Sweet corn is always a hit. Learn a little about the basics of sweet corn genetics. Grow varieties that hold their sugar for an extended period after picking.
Melons? Buyers love melons. If you live in an area with a long, hot growing season, grow them! One secret is to grow melons such as the crenshaw, a cross between cantaloupe and casaba melons, that are not found as readily in the supermarkets.
Salsa, pickles, and hot peppers … many buyers come to farmers markets and produce stands to pick-up supplies for making homemade salsa or various types of pickles. Grow these supplies in bulk quantities. If you grow pickling cucumbers, make sure you grow lots of dill! Fresh dill can be hard to find in some areas. Growing peppers is generally worth the effort. Two or three varieties of hot peppers plus some sweet juicy bells are always hits. Hot peppers are in demand for salsa, as well as many types of pickles. And speaking of salsa, don’t forget the tomatillos! They bear heavily and are easy to grow. However, most varieties prefer hot weather and longer growing seasons. If you live in an area with cool, short summers, try the Amarylla variety. Developed in Poland, it is large, sweet and slightly citrusy in taste.
Winter squash are always mainstays for fall. Four to five-pound squashes are the size range most desired. Squashes that have smooth, deep-orange flesh and a high sugar content are generally most desired. Butternut squash, as well as kabocha varieties or buttercups with the green rinds are well-known and are preferred by many buyers.
With a little planning and work, you might be able to turn your passion for gardening into a lucrative, sustainable, and profitable side-business!
What other tips are included in your market garden planner?