We talk to the expert in market gardening and micro-farming, Jean-Martin Fortier, who brings in six figures a year on his 1.5 acres. This article is part of our six-part series, "How many acres do you need?" Be sure to check out the other five installments:
- How many acres do you need for an outdoor retreat?
- How many acres do you need for a hobby farm or homestead?
- How many acres do you need to raise or board horses?
- How many acres do you need to raise cattle?
- How many acres do you need for hunting land?
Organic, naturally grown, GMO-free, local food is the new “black” when it comes to eating healthy.
With the explosion of social media, celebrity food and environmental activism, international bans on genetically-modified foods, and the emergence of disturbing new studies linking pesticides to everything from Attention Deficit Disorder to cancer, Americans are demanding a new food system.
If you love gardening and have been toying with the idea of farming for profit, it’s hard to think of a better time to take the leap… but what about the land?
Buying land can get expensive, cultivating land is also costly and -- once you exceed a certain number of acres -- hiring crews to work that land can seriously cut into your profit margins.
What's a CSA? it stands for Community Supported Agriculture. A farmer (or other qualified individual), allows you to be part of a team working to grow produce on a farm, and you get paid in the fruits of your labor (pun intended). The lead farmer doles out assignments, provides equipment, and tells you when its time to harvest.
Veteran market gardeners and CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) farmers will tell you that you’ll probably have to start out leasing land (unless you have family land to grow on), you’ll need a minimum of 10 acres to turn a profit, you’ll need to run a lean staff, and you have to work long, hard hours if you want to make a good living growing good food.
No wonder the average American farmer is in his or her late 50s with not enough young relief in sight…this sustainable farming gig can be tough to break into for the next generations of 20-40-somethings.
But, what if I told you that you don’t need 10, 5, or even 2 acres to run a successful market garden?
So how many acres do you really need for a CSA or market garden?
You can make a GREAT living, work reasonable hours and grow a huge variety of organic food on only 1.5 acres.
And by “great living” I mean the potential of growing and selling more than $150,000 in produce annually with a profit of more than 40%.
Not only is it possible, but it’s been done, proven, documented, celebrated, imitated and published by 10-year micro-farming veteran Jean-Martin (JM) Fortier. A micro-farming industry celebrity, JM is the owner of Les Jardins de la Grelinette and author of The Market Gardener.
Today, JM talks with Rethink:Rural about The Market Gardener micro-farming business model and how you, too, can “grow better not bigger” on very little acreage.
Micro-farming by necessity
French Canadian Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches studied farming practices all over the world. They learned about market gardening in Santa Fe, NM, but it was during a trip to Cuba that they discovered small-scale farming.
After the collapse of the USSR, Cuba had very little fuel for farming, so its farmers switched to a non-mechanized model out of necessity.
“It was the first time I visited a non-tractor farm that was productive on just 2-5 acres,” says JM.
He and his wife observed the Cuban farmers working small plots of land successfully using permanent raised beds and no tractors. This inspired them to begin creating their micro-farming model.
Upon their return to Quebec, they began experimenting with non-mechanized farming on a small scale. First on leased land (they lived there 2+ years in a teepee) before purchasing their 1.5 acres.
“Our big story is that we had land constraints, so that forced us to just rethink about growing and about how to have more productivity per square foot. In doing that, our farm just became so efficient and so lean, and that’s our story. We had to make it work with the limited land we had.”
And “make it work” they have.
The success of a 1.5-acre market garden
Les Jardins de la Grelinette (which translates to: “The Gardens of the Broadfork”- broadfork is a staple tool used on their farm), grossed over $150,000 in sales last year from their local CSA and farmer’s market ventures. More than 40 percent of those sales were profit.
In addition, JM has enjoyed the success of “The Market Gardener” book, he’s received international recognition as an industry leader and he is a sought-after speaker.
The BIG key to successful growing on a small scale
JM outlines, in detail, the keys to successful market gardening on a small scale in “The Market Gardener,” but there is one key above all that will make or break a successful micro-farming operation: design.
“Design is everything. Making sure that everything is well thought out, from your garden set-up and crop rotation schedule, to where the buildings are positioned with regards to how frequently they’re visited. This in itself goes a very long way.”
JM explains how they have streamlined their building design at Les Jardins de la Grelinette:
“We centralized everything into one building, a toolshed, a washing station, a processing and handling station, and it’s also the house -- so we’ve made it very efficient that way.”
The primary efficiency comes in minimizing foot traffic. For example if you forget a field knife in the tool shed it doesn’t take you 20 or 30 minutes to walk there and back, which is time taken away from production.
Little, seemingly insignificant time-saving elements like this make a huge impact on your micro-farm’s profits.
Nitty gritty design within your garden is also of vital importance to saving money and maximizing efficiency. JM gives this example:
“You need a good map of what you’re doing, and simple things need to be thought out, like standardizing the lengths of the garden beds. If the beds are all the same size you don’t need a bunch of row covers of different sizes, so these kind of tricks make a big difference.”
What to look for when trying to find the right land to micro-farm
When they began their farming venture, JM and Maude-Hélène were limited by the amount of acreage they could afford, which lead to the development and success of their micro-farm.
But JM believes even if you can afford to buy, or already have, a large piece of land, it doesn’t mean you should have to (or need to) invest in farming more than an acre or two.
“What I think is that even though you have 5 acres, the goal is not to set up 5 acres. If you farm 1 acre well you can move to 1 ½ and if you do that super-well you could perhaps move to 2, but that would mean having 6-7 people working.”
“Even if you’re farming 3-4 acres, you could be farming just 1 or 2 acres if you changed your set up.”
JM has a 4-person crew on his farm, including his wife. He was included in that crew up until this year, when he was asked to take on a new project of setting up a learning center using a 5-acre farm.
“People who have land tend to think, ‘just use it’ and that’s the pitfall where you can run into a lot of design and money problems.”
When considering what type of property to invest in, or what to consider within your existing property for setting up your market garden, JM says you also want to look at:
- the closeness of your property to market
- the slope
- water access/quality
- the orientation of your garden space
- space for greenhouses
- the location of other buildings in relation to the garden site.
Want to farm efficiently? JM says, “Forget the tractor!”
“If you’re doing 2 acres or less you definitely don’t want a tractor. Tractors are not made for small acreage they’re made for 10, 15, 20 acres with standardized beds and rows.”
How do you farm efficiently and organically without a tractor?
“To keep things efficient, we use permanent raised beds and walk-behind tractors.”
Permanent raised beds require a bit of investment up front, but the long-term time saving benefits on tilling, weeding, amending and maintaining the soil are huge.
“We raised our beds with the soil we had, then we added a lot of organic matter, compost, etc. over many years, and we stopped rototilling which got the soil biology going and loosened the soil. Now we have something that’s very fluffy and full of good organic matter.”
JM and his crew use a tool called a harrow in place of a traditional rototiller. The harrow is better for soil health and ideal for a micro-farm.
“In the first year we put down a lot of compost and other amendments, but the soil took about 4-5 years to really become groomed.”
They still grew on their soil throughout the “grooming” years, but through consistent addition of compost, organic matter, other soil amendments and specific crop rotation and the elimination of rototilling they were able to go from 2 percent organic matter to 12 percent in 5 years.
As JM says, “We’re definitely not mining the soil.”
How to prevent weeds on a micro-farm
Another enemy of efficiency on an organic micro-farm (or any organic/naturally grown farm) is time spent weeding. As JM puts it, “The primary key to weeding is prevention.”
They have eliminated much of their weed issues by using black UV-treated tarps placed over the raised beds. This heats up the soil so seeds germinate while weeds are starved of light and quickly killed off.
JM also uses a method called “the stale seedbed technique.”
This involves allowing a seed bed to go “stale” by preparing the beds weeks before planting. This encourages weed seed germination in the top 2 inches of the soil. Then just before planting your crop, you carefully destroy the weeds using a power harrow attached to a walk behind tractor, a wheel-hoe or a flame-weeder.
These are only a few examples of the many techniques used on JM’s farm. You can find more techniques and detail in his book “The Market Gardener” and learn more about the tools he uses here on his website.
Does this model work for all types of market crops?
Surely on such small acreage you’re limited to growing just a few items…right? As JM outlines below, this is (surprisingly) not the case:
“The only crops we don’t grow are potatoes, summer squash, corn and melons. Because all of them take a lot of space and they don’t give a lot of revenues in time. You need to grow them for 100 days to get a little out of them and in that time I could cut salad heads three times.”
They have figured out how to grow nearly every other type of local produce on a micro-scale.
How many CSA members can a micro-farm support on 1.5 acres?
Can the produce yields and variety you get from a 1.5 acre farm really compete with that of a 10, 20, or 30 acre farm in the CSA market?
“This year we have 140 families in our CSA and we do 2 farmer’s markets once a week during peak season,” says JM.
“You keep your cost of production really low, and if you know what you’re doing you can become really good at this. You don’t need a big crew. The biggest expense on farms is labor. By focusing on efficiency in all we do, we’ve kept labor to a minimum.”
What’s the upfront investment to get started micro-farming?
Without hesitating, Jean-Martin quotes:
“$40,000 for the equipment, not including buildings.”
Considering the average cost of a mid-size tractor can run you $25,000 - $50,000, the idea of just $40,000 in start-up costs for ALL your farming equipment is revolutionary.
Can the market garden micro-farm approach work on a hobby farm?
For those thinking of applying these principles to fund a part-time hobby farm, JM says this:
“I think you could do it, but you wouldn’t get the same results - that’s for sure. The fact that we’re fully invested in the project, working full-time, is definitely the one big reason we’re so successful.”
JM and his crew work a normal 35-40 hour week most of the year and made more than $150,000 in sales last year…you do the math.
Final thoughts from Jean-Martin on growing better not bigger
“A lot of people are farming the traditional way and a lot of people are struggling. When they hear my message or come to a workshop, they understand what I’m talking about. It doesn’t mean that everybody is going to switch their model and go do it, but it’s just kind of destroying the myth that you need a big farm to be successful…when really it could be ‘the smaller your farm, is the more money you can get out of it.’”
Currently in his winter-planning-season, JM is engaged in an international workshop series entitled: “Six-Figure Farming” that runs throughout March 2016. In this next year he will be focused on his new project of designing a 5-acre market garden learning center using the same design principles he used to develop his 1.5-acre garden.
For more information about market gardening:
To learn everything there is to know about starting your own market garden, get your hands on JM’s book: “The Market Gardener” available at his store on:www.themarketgardener.com. Be sure to sign up for his newsletter, as he will soon be releasing an instructional DVD documenting an entire year on the farm.
You can catch an excellent interview with JM at: www.permaculturevoices.com and see his 6-part video series on 6-figure-farming for FREE here.