I was a market gardener long before I ever knew it.
I came along it quite by accident, really. It would be several years
after my first experience that I finally realized that I, indeed, had been
a market-gardener all that time.
I worked at a small grocery store in town. Living in that same town,
I had a small garden in the backyard. It didnít amount to much, that
garden, just a few rows of this and a few of that; just enough for my
small family, with a little leftover to share with others. My plant
of choice at that time was tomato, of which, I had about 16. Those
tomato plants are where it all started for me. One day the store was
short on an order for tomatoes. Luckily, I came to the rescue for
that order. I was paid for my tomatoes of course, thus the
real beginning of my market-gardening career.
I was able to sell the store more tomatoes after that, along with a few
green beans, and an assortment of peppers. I didnít get rich that
first season, but I did make some money. Because I liked the
idea of selling my homegrown produce for a little cash, I made plans to
expand my growing space for the next season.
In those very early stages of my market garden I had very, very little
growing space but despite that I still made some money. Since there
was no one out there knocking on the store's door to sell their
homegrown produce, this market was completely open and I was fortunate
enough to fall right into an outlet for my produce.
So, depending on your needs, monetarily speaking, of course, the size of
your garden can vary. If you are looking for just a few dollars here
and there, a small garden will suffice, but if you have bigger plans, then
you will need more growing space. I eventually moved from that small
home to a much larger home with more ground in which to garden and for my
needs it has worked out perfectly thus far.
Planning is the key to
being successful and you will want to plan well in advance. Your
first big decision is where you will be selling. Farmer's
markets? Wholesale? Just to friends or family? Other
outlets? Then, do you want to grow several items or stick with
just one or two? Will you have a conventional garden or will you
try to grow organic? Will you start your own seeds or buy
If you plan to grow for the markets, then the first task will be to
contact local officials or a county extension office to find out what
markets are in your area. Most small communities have farmerís
markets and most times you can find one occurring almost any day of the
week. Depending on travel distance, you can do one or two a week, or
all of them if you have enough produce. But for most backyard
gardeners one or two markets a week will keep them busy enough. It
will be to your advantage however to try and check all the markets out as
some will be more productive than others.
I myself am not a big fan of most farmerís markets. I like the idea
of the market I just feel that most folks sell their wonderful homegrown
produce too cheap. Itís difficult to sell your green beans for $2.99
a pound, when everyone else is selling for $.99 a pound. If you are
in it to make a little pocket change then that is fine but if you are a
big market gardener then you need to make some profit. So, keep an
eye out and see what type of market you are dealing with, stick with the
ones where you can make some money, because after all, that is what you
I am, however, a big fan of wholesale selling.
After a few years into my venture with market gardening, I began selling
tomatoes to local restaurants and grocery stores. My tomato
plantings went from 16 that first year to well over 100 a few years later.
While you will not get as much money per pound (most times) as you would
at a market, you do have a guaranteed sale. Many times you can latch
into a guaranteed so-many-pounds-per-week deal until you are out for the
season. I had two restaurants, each buying 30 pounds a week, one
season. Just make sure you can produce whatever is needed.
I like to check out the
local stores to get an idea on pricing. Remember that you are
selling FRESH HOMEGROWN PRODUCE so donít be afraid to charge for it.
It is also pretty easy to get an idea on what the grocery stores
themselves have paid for their product. This information is
especially important if you are going to wholesale some of your produce.
Most grocery stores will work on a 25% to 30% markup. So, if
tomatoes are retailing at $1.99 per pound, it means that the store has
paid roughly $1.39 if they have a 30% markup.
If I was going into market with this information I would sell my tomatoes
for at least that $1.99 a pound. If I wanted to wholesale some of
those tomatoes to that store, I would offer them the tomatoes at around
$1.25 a pound.
How do you choose if you want to market or wholesale? That is
totally up to you. I like the idea of the guaranteed sale as I
mentioned earlier. Such is not always the case with markets (but if
you find a good market, you can nearly always sell out).
If a restaurant wants 60 pounds of tomatoes a week and I am getting $1.25
per pound, I am making $75.00 from them, guaranteed. If I head to a
market with 60 pounds of tomatoes and only sell ten pounds at $1.99 a
pound, I have only made $19.90 for the day. Now I have 50 pounds
that I have to get rid of pretty quickly. If I can sell them all, I
have made a good profit but what if I only sell 25 pounds and the rest go
to the compost heap, my profit then for that 60 pounds is $69.65.
Keep in mind that you can do both. A bit of wholesale to go along
with your markets is a great way to profit. Some gardeners will
wholesale their product after the market. Maybe you have picked 30
pounds of green beans and sixty pounds of tomatoes and your market was
slow for the day. Stop off at the local store and shoot them an
offer to take your remaining produce off your hands.
Never, however, offer your produce at cheaper prices to finish off the day
at the market. You will find out rather quickly that many of your
customers will begin showing up during the end of the market because they
know you will have your produce marked down. Soon enough, your
entire market will consist of those last few minutes as folks wait to get
that special deal and you never will get full price.
Growing space and what you have to work with is your next concern. I
use any available land on my property that receives good sunlight. I
guess my growing space is less then a quarter-acre or so, maybe a bit
more. I know I can get nearly 100 tomato plants, 50 green pepper, 50
assorted peppers, several rows of beans, cucumbers, zucchinis, squash,
peas, onions, melons and cut flowers. Use as much space as you can
and are able to work with.
Recently, I have begun to use more trellising to
enlarge my growing space. Cucumbers once took up much needed growing
space, but now, I grow all cucumbers on a trellis system. Now they
grow up, which gives me more valuable planting ground. I also use
the trellis system for melons. Keeping both cucumbers and melons off
the ground allows them both to grow stronger and protects from ground rot
and garden pests.
What to grow is next on
your list. Over the years tomatoes have been my number one producer
followed by green beans, cucumbers, green peppers and then variety
lettuces and other greens. Rounding out the top ten would be onions,
radishes, melons, variety herbs and assorted hot peppers. But what
works for me might not work for you. In my area of central Illinois
this is what produces best. Get to know your general market.
If you are thinking long term with your market garden it might be wise to
invest in some type of greenhouse. Early on you will probably buy
many of your transplants from a local greenhouse. But they can be
pricey and to make the most money possible you need to start all plants
yourself and that greenhouse, while, at first, may be a large investment,
will soon turn very profitable for you. A greenhouse will also allow
you to get a jumpstart on the season. You can get early greens for
sure. The greenhouse will also be very valuable as you grow many of
those same greens right into the winter. The size of the greenhouse
is all up to you and your needs for your market.
Be very confident in what you are doing. Confidence sells. Let
your customers know why your produce is best. Maybe itís the variety
you are growing, Heirloom plants for example. I myself use no
chemicals on my garden. While I am not certified organic, I grow
organically and I let folks know that.
Take good notes and keep good records. Keep notes from each market,
what you have sold, prices, a hot item that someone else is selling, what
is not selling. In the garden, keep a diagram of the garden, what
you are growing, transplant and other planting dates, pest problems, seed
variety, weather, etc. DETAILS!
There are other outlets, of course, to sell your produce. Offer it
to your friends and family. Just donít be afraid to take their
money. It is, after all, a business for you. If your community
has apartment complexes, especially ones designed for the elderly, then
you have an outlet. Hang up a sign with what you have to offer along
with a contact number. Tell the folks you will deliver to the
complex on a certain day each week and that you will need their orders at
least two days in advance. Let them know it will be fresh picked for
There is also a thing
called a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. Here you have
folks pay in advance for a weekly delivery of whatever is in season.
Generally, advance pay is for the entire growing season. This system
is a bit more complicated and deserves more training or education.
Before starting your own CSA it is best to try and visit a CSA if one is
near you. Here you can get tips and ideas on how to achieve a
I have tried to compile as much information as I could in the space
allocated for me. Just remember that planning your garden is the key
to success. And planning has already started. Know what you
want to grow and for whom you will grow it. Be ready and have
While I have not covered anything in the way of actually growing your
produce, it is also in your best interest to know all about the plants
that you are growing. Know best growing times, possible pests, frost
dates, etc. Donít get stuck because you were not prepared.
Read all you can.
From a small garden with small profits to a big garden with big profits,
its all out there for you. Jump right in and make that backyard of