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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 started plants?
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 farmer’s 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 farmer’s markets. I like the idea of the market I just feel that most folks sell their wonderful homegrown produce too cheap. It’s 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 are after.
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 don’t 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 them.
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 successful CSA.
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 alternative plans.
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. Don’t 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 yours profitable!