Sustainable Market Farming Basics For Beginners

Sustainable Market Farming

The practice of market farming involves cultivating your own market garden for profit.

It’s an increasingly popular business opportunity for people looking to live a more off-grid and sustainable lifestyle. With sustainable farming methods like permaculture this can be an attractive business model.

We love the combination of local, organic, and family-run so we’re big fans of market gardeners.

Market gardens are typically small plots of land used for the cultivation of fruits, vegetables and flowers. They are usually no more than a few acres. The harvest is then sold directly to consumers, restaurants and resellers at farmer’s markets.

In this guide to sustainable market farming basics for beginners we bring together everything you need to know to make an informed decision about this exciting opportunity.

What Is Market Farming?

Market farming is the act of farming with the specific intention of selling the products at local markets. It’s normally a form of sustainable agriculture too.

This is particularly environmentally friendly as it reduces the “food miles” of your products.

The concept of Food Miles was originally conceived by Tim Lang, a professor at the Sustainable Agriculture Food and Environment (SAFE) Alliance. Food miles refers to the distance your food has to travel to reach the consumers plate and it’s a critical metric in measuring carbon footprint.

Importantly, market gardens are able to be run in areas that the large agribusiness farms can’t compete for various reasons.

That’s not to say that you’re going to get rich as a market farmer.

The truth is that farming is very hard work and the rewards are often as much in the satisfaction of creating and nurturing life as they are in hard currency.

Farmers markets have become increasingly successful. And market gardening’s popularity has grown as well. Farmsteading using permaculture concepts is especially popular.

The interest from the general public in recent years has surged as people seek out healthier foods. People want to protect their family’s well-being by having fewer (or ideally, no) chemicals added during the growing process.

What Is Market Gardening?

What Is Market Gardening?

Market gardening is market farming on its smallest scale.

It takes place in a garden that has been developed from an ornamental garden to one with the express purpose of growing produce.

Mostly, that produce will be food but it’s also possible to grow flowers for sale too.

In the Middle Ages, this would have been a “vegetable plot” which was found on a peasant’s land to grow food for themselves and to sell a little surplus at the market. All products would have originated locally at these times.

Then in the 16th century, as explorers roamed the earth, new plants (such as potatoes and tomatoes) would have been introduced in Europe from the Americas.

Then as the 19th century came around, the industrial revolution enabled mechanization of farming these plots, and introduced chemicals for fertilization and for pest control.

Then as the 20th century began to draw to a close, there began to be a growing movement that considered these developments to be harmful to our relationship with the things we grow and our diets.

Thus, the organic market garden was born anew.

What Kind Of Costs and Efforts Go Into Setting Up A Market Farm?

This is a short(ish) article and that means we’re not going to address every aspect of setting up a farm in detail but you should give consideration to the following areas:

  • The location and size of your farm. How much space will you have to grow things in? The more the better from a production perspective, but is that area manageable in the time you have?
  • The design of your growing space. You need to get to grips with the soil type, your local climate, the availability of water, the local infrastructure and even the topography of the land if you want to make sure your market farm is viable and can produce what you want.
  • The design of the farm around it. You want to optimize for efficiency and also for organic and sustainable farming. That means thought should go into how you can conserve energy wherever possible and how you can recycle or repurpose any waste that is created.
  • The amount of cash you have to put into things to start. A decent sized farm of, say, a couple of acres will need a fair amount of money to realize a decent yield. We’d estimate around $40,000 for equipment. Now, it’s fair to say that if you do things right, such a farm could realize $20,000-$40,000 of profit annually, so a bank loan for $40,000 paid off over 5 years could make real sense to get things started.
  • The ongoing operating costs. Farms don’t run themselves. You need labor and if it’s not your own, you need to pay for it. You will need to replace consumable items as they are exhausted. You’ll need fuel to run your equipment. And so on… it’s easy to go bankrupt if you underestimate your operating costs and ideally, you should have 3 years’ operating costs on hand before starting any venture.
  • The farming methodology you are going to use. There are all sorts of different production systems for different crop types and you need to be able to say which you intend to employ, so that you can build your budgets, design, etc. around it.
  • Record keeping and ongoing analysis. Once you’ve decided to run a business from your market farm, you need to start treating it like a business. You need to keep detailed records of expenditure and also the things you’ve done to the produce – you should constantly be looking to be innovative so that you can increase yields without lowering quality. The more you create, in theory, the more you can sell, and thus, the more you can earn.

In short, you can’t rely on working hard and determination to carry your market farm into life and profitability. It requires some serious thought too.

Some farms will look to produce as much as possible and others, will want to more carefully balance the work load with the output.

What Do You Need To Know About Making A Living From Market Farming?

If you are thinking about starting a market garden to earn money, you need to know some important points:

  • Quality comes first, always.
    You’re going to be stood with your potential customers, they’re going to examine everything they buy. Food has to taste and look great. Flowers should be super bright colored and they should last when taken home. It all needs to be clean and well presented.
  • Prices need to match the market.
    You need to know what people are paying for these products locally. Even if your products are the best in the area, you can’t expect to charge insane premiums. What do people pay for these things in shops? What are they paying elsewhere in the market?
  • You have to be able to market.
    There are two components to this: merchandising and sampling. The first refers to the way that you display your produce, it has to catch the eye and lure in potential customers and the second refers to the act of giving away some of your product so that people can test it for themselves. You have to be careful with samples, many markets have very specific rules on what you can give away and how it must be presented.
  • You have to be able to sell.
    Even if you get the first three things right, you can still make a loss if you’re not paying attention to the way you interact with customers and build relationships with them.

How Much Money Can You Make From Market Farming?

What Is The Most Profitable Crop To Grow?

Most people think vegetables and standard produce when you talk about market gardening.

The most profitable, however, are specialty crops. Flowers, herbs and mushrooms are some examples.

flowers going to market

It really does depend on many variable including location. Even if you can market and sell and grow quality produce at the right prices, you might only make a small sum, you might break even, if you have the right-size of farm, you might make a decent profit.

Some families can support themselves wholly through market farming, others treat it as a hobby that goes alongside other work.

The only way to determine this with any accuracy is to do it and look at your start up costs, variable costs, the yields you get and the price you can bring in for that yield.

You can forecast your profits/losses to some extent but remember that you will be using guesswork to come to those sets of figures and the reality may vary dramatically from those guesses.

We’ve heard of farmers with farms of 2 acres or so, making $150,000-$200,000 a year from their farms but, it’s worth noting that these are not start up farms but long-term established market farms with years of labor and analysis put into them.

You’re not likely to start making this kind of money for years, if ever.

“Farmers who are successful — that is, making enough money to keep farming — can have an operation of any size, from a tiny, part-time start-up to a large, established business. They are growers who have achieved a balance between income and expenses, carving out enough to pay themselves fairly while building equity in land, buildings, and equipment.” Mother Earth News

However, it’s important to remember that profits are not the only thing you get out of market farming and we think a farm is sustainable when you want to do the work and you keep doing it.

Tasty food on your table, regular exercise, etc. can be worth more than money in the long run.

The Benefits Of Market Farming

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the benefits of market farming that aren’t measured in dollars:

  • You will change the way you eat
    Food will become something “more” as you start to consume more local produce and learn the story of the plants and animals you eat and the people who made it possible.
  • You will become an activist for real food
    Growing food ignites a real passion in you for less chemicals and machines are more love and nature.
  • You will get so much exercise
    It’s not easy to run a farm. You’ll be digging, fetching, carrying, planting, harvesting and more. Your fitness levels will be shooting up before you know it.
  • You will make friends
    Farmer’s markets are brilliant places to connect not just with customers but other farmers too.
  • You will sleep well
    All that work and good food? It’s a recipe for a great night’s sleep.

Check out Growing For Market magazine. It’s a trade publication for local food and flower producers. It’s all about the business of growing and selling vegetables, fruits, cut flowers, plants, herbs, and more.