Picture the scene, you‘re awoken by the morning sun, grab yourself a coffee and step outside. As you take your first sip you watch the sun rising and enjoy the serene sound of birdsong. Everything’s tranquil as you take a leisurely stroll around your market garden, making a list of today’s tasks. There is a lot to do but you enjoy every tiny piece of it and can’t wait to begin.
Can you imagine this life for yourself? Do you think it’s possible for you to enjoy this kind of lifestyle and actually make a decent living from it?
I’ll let you in on a secret. The biggest challenge in life is YOU and your beliefs. When it comes to commercial vegetable growing, the idea of a profitable micro-farm is frequently met with scepticism. Some cynics will try to discourage you from starting a market garden, declaring that production simply won’t be enough to make your family’s ends meet.
Time and time again we have to remind ourselves that it is possible because, as Allan Nation, pioneer of grass fed movement states: “If somebody has done it, it can be done.”
So, today I want to introduce you to Jean-Martin Fortier (JM) and his wife Maude-Helene, Market Gardeners. JM and his wife make $140000 from 1.5 acres, and live a life that other people only dream of. They challenge the belief that a small family-run farm cannot stay afloat in today’s economy.
Let’s learn more about their operation.
Les Jardins de La Grelinette – Quebec, Canada – 10 acre property – 1.5 acres of raised beds – 10 years of establishment
Founded byJean-Martin Fortier and his wife, Les Jardins de LaGrelinette, is an internationally recognised 10-acre micro-farm. Only 1.5 acres are cultivated in permanent beds, using bio-intensive growing methods. In the last decade, the focus at LaGrelinette has been to grow better, not bigger. To optimise the cropping system, they use low-tech solutions and place heavy emphasis on intelligent farm design, appropriate technologies and harnessing the power of soil biology as their key components to successful farming. You can find more about their methods in Jean-Martin Fortier’s book, The Market Gardener.
The farm grosses more than $100 000 per acre, with operating margins of about 50%, enough to financially sustain the family. Every week, the market garden produces enough vegetables to feed over 200 families. The low-tech strategy kept start-up costs to a minimum, and overhead expenses low. The farm became profitable after only a few years, and he claims they have never felt the pinch of financial pressure.
So, let’s do the math.
For the last decade, the Fourtiers have had no other income than from their 1.5 acre micro-farm.
When I asked JMF about this income he replied: “Our economics are not complicated. We sell around 150k of veggie produce on site. Our cost of production (including two salaries for employees that are around 6 months) makes up about 50 % of that amount. The other half is the net profit that my wife and I share. Our salaries, if you want.”
Here is a brief summary of the numbers from their 1.5 acre operation for 2013:
- Revenue: $140,000
- Customer sales breakdown:
CSA operations (140 members): 60%
Farmer’s markets (2): 30%
Restaurants/grocery stores: 10%
- Staff: 2 paid employees plus the Fortiers
- 2013 Expenses: $75,000
- 2013 Profit: $65,000 (~45% profit margin)
Ok, so this proves that it is possible to have a career in market gardening. In fact, one can envisage making a pretty decent livelihood. Their initial start-up costs were in the $40,000 range. They did, however, receive financial aid in a form of a government grant of $30000 because of their sound business plan. With this additional support, the chances of market gardening success improve greatly. But grants or no, one fact remains: keeping costs low when starting a business reduces financial risk and ensures profitability over the short-term.
This, in itself, is a winning business model. So, let’s elaborate…
The Market Gardener Model
The features that characterize their operation are: high productivity on a small plot of land, intensive production methods, season extension techniques, and selling directly to public markets.
However, that is only one part of the equation. To start an operation like this you must first reduce start-up costs, avoiding mechanization and machinery-related costs (purchase, fuel, maintenance, etc.) and, most importantly, limit dependence on outside labor.
Let’s start from the beginning.
1. Location and size
Les Jardins de la Grelinette is a 10 acre farm located in Quebec, Canada. This is a cold climate and a zone 5 plant hardiness area. The family cultivates 1½ acres (including one greenhouse and two hoop houses), and JMF considers this the optimal land base for tractorless farming.
The farm is conveniently located close to their main market, being just one hour away from Montreal, although they sell 40% of our products locally at the grocery store, restaurants, and a farmers’ market.
JMF emphasises that finding the right site to grow vegetables is the most important initial stage for establishing a successful market garden. Each site has unique characteristics, and there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ site. It is very important to understand and prioritize factors like soil fertility, climate, topography, water access, and infrastructure before investing in a site.
2. Farm design
When interviewed, JMF said that Permaculture had been one of his biggest influences. This is reflected in the way he looks at the farm as a system. To explain:
When designing the farm his aim was to organize different working spaces so that the workflow would be as efficient, practical, and ergonomic as possible. All fixed elements needed in a market garden (storage facilities, water reservoirs, greenhouses, windbreaks, etc.) are placed according to a well thought out plan for conserving energy and improving efficiency.
The farm also has a standardised garden layout – several smaller sized plots called ‘field blocks’ with uniformly sized raised beds. With this method, he can use materials cut to standardized interchangeable lengths, a system that offers great versatility.
3. Low start-up costs
The start-up costs (cost of equipment) total $39,000. This might sound like a lot of money to pay upfront, but if we do the math, it’s well worth the investment. Here’s what I mean:
JMF claims that a well-established, smoothly running market garden with good sales outlets can generate $60,000 to $100,000 annually per acre in diverse vegetable crops. That’s a profit margin of over 40%. A bank loan of $39,000 spread over 5 years at 8% interest means an annual investment of around $9,500, which is reasonable when compared to the potential revenue a market garden offers.
However, this doesn’t factor in the mortgage and other business expenses such as the delivery vehicle and other variable costs (inputs, administration fees, supplies, etc.) Even so, the initial costs are still relatively small, especially in comparison to the costs of equipment used in mechanized vegetable growing. Furthermore, some items can be purchased second-hand or over time.
4. Low operating costs
Reducing start-up costs is a good first step. Avoiding mechanization and machinery-related costs (purchase, fuel, maintenance, etc.) is another. But the most important one of all is limiting dependence on outside labor, which generally accounts for 50% of the production costs of a diversified market farm.
In his case the Lion’s share is done by the owner-operators with the help of either one or two seasonal workers, depending on the area under cultivation and the number of greenhouses. The major operating costs are therefore reduced to inputs (amendments, seeds, plant protection products), which are generally fairly minimal.
5. Productive farming method
JMF book serves as a manual for his growing method, please refer to the book for more detail. Here, however, is a quick summary.
Les Jardins de la Grelinette contains 180 standardized raised beds, with 40-50 vegetable crops in cultivation. These are grown using a biologically intensive approach, (intensive spacing and encouragement of biologically rich soils). To cultivate the beds they adopt minimum tillage but use appropriate machinery including a two-wheel tractor, broadfork and tarps. The biology of the soil is of paramount importance and soils are fertilised organically using good compost, poultry manure and green manure crops.
The growing season is extended by using floating row covers and low tunnels, caterpillar tunnels and hoop houses. This allows for the protection of crops from cold and frost in both early spring and late fall, and has a market advantage of offering ‘out of season’ crops.
Their sales method is a direct exchange between producers and consumers, CSA (community supported agriculture). To summarize, the consumer buys a share in the farm’s production at the beginning of the season. In exchange, the farm commits to providing quality produce, usually harvested the previous, or even the same, day.
In their case, although they sell at two farmers markets, CSA has always been the preferred option since it guarantees sales and simplifies their production plan. For new market gardeners, JMF recommends CSA because of the many advantages and its tailor-made sales outlet. When starting out, adopting CSA provides backing and security because customers are paying up front, therefore 30% is guaranteed income.
CSA or not, the point of direct selling is to build a loyal customer base and forge interdependent relationships. People want to build a relationship with those who grow their food and CSA facilitates this. However, when it comes to customer loyalty, JMF emphasises that the quality and presentation of products are key to success.
7. Planning and management
At Les Jardins de la Grelinette nothing is left to chance, everything is planned in minute detail. During winter months a cropping calendar is prepared and decisions made as to what exactly they are going to plant, and precisely when and where they are going to plant it. Crop planning is absolutely fundamental to profitable market gardening. Once you develop your crop calendar and garden plan, running a complex production system becomes much simpler, and forward planning removes the anxiety from those hot summer months.
They also keep records throughout the growing season, making notes of what works and what doesn’t. These are important when preparing crop plans for the following season. Record keeping is also highly significant in determining customer preference , allowing them to prioritize the production of the most profitable crops.
This kind of planning and management leads to improvements and when they talk about profits using big numbers like 150k a year, one must understand that these profits are a result of fine-tuning production.
Summary and JMF’s Remarks
It is clear from this model that willpower and hard work do not, by themselves, make a successful market gardener. Farm design, good managing practices, use of appropriate technologies and careful planning are all key components in developing a successful system.
While this system uses permaculture principles, there is a difference between production farming and permaculture. In response to my email regarding his income JMF states: “Our goal was not to set up a system that is low maintenance, but quite the contrary. Intensive, in our scheme, means high production due to high input of labor and attention. What we have done is used our intelligence to make our work truly productive on a human scale.”
Here are some crucial points to consider if you are interested in starting a market gardening operation:
- Only 1.5 acres of permanent beds can bring in revenue of $140,000. At a 45% profit margin this equates to $65,000 profit.
- The goal is to grow productively in a small area and limit the use of heavy machinery and dependence on outside labor
- Cheap start-up costs, economical portable infrastructure and use of appropriate low technologies keep expenses down
- When setting up a market garden, the farm design will determine how efficiently many day-to-day chores will be carried out
- High production is achieved using a combination of biologically intensive methods of cultivation, productive growing techniques and a standardized garden layout and standardized tools
- Market gardening is as much about selling as it is about growing, having the farm close to the market is crucial
- CSA guarantees sales and simplifies production – making it easier to plan in advance and produce what customers want
- Everything is planned in detail during the off-season – things just get too complex during summer
To conclude, I’ll quote JMF on the future of farming: “The challenge of our lifetime is to reinvent the profession of farming and to feed people locally, with demise of cheap oil comes an era of resilient biological agriculture. There is a bright future in farming!”
So, do you still think it’s impossible to make a living from commercial vegetable growing? Let me know what you think in the comments!