Market gardening as we once knew it is changing and with that comes new opportunities. A new sales approach for market gardeners is emerging in today’s social climate. Limited social interaction requirements coupled with a growing demand for nutritious food pave the way for a new type of marketing strategy- the online farmer’s market.
Sale’s channels have changed for many of us with restaurant closures and canceled markets. Now more than ever the consumer model could be tipping toward a more localized movement. Customers want more transparency when it comes to consumable products. Know your farmer, know your food.
The first step in starting a market garden is to start some market research. Think about your local growing season and what crops will do best in your climate and what crops you could include in an extended season by way of hoop houses and tunnels. These questions will help to determine your infrastructure needs.
Growing vegetables can be both rewarding and profitable. Profitability can be managed by focusing on high dollar crops, added-value products, and most importantly keeping overhead costs down. When planning the crops for your market garden, look at each crop and determine profitability in relation to growing time, labor requirements, and demand for the product in order to evaluate if it is the right crop for your particular situation. A good example of this is garlic. Garlic has low water needs, a growing demand, and can be sold into an extended season. Garlic seed is expensive, but can be a one time expense if you save seed. Great profits can come from growing garlic, but it is very labor-intensive. You may need an employee to help with harvesting. Another drawback is that it requires space to hang and dry. You may need to budget for an additional outbuilding for this purpose. So while garlic can be profitable, that first year will set you back with startup costs.
Instead of looking for the most profitable vegetables, look at what vegetables would do best in your situation. If you are able to produce, harvest, and sell a crop successfully then that is the most profitable vegetable for you. Look at your local demand and then determine if you can sell the product at a high enough margin based on the demand to meet your costs and turn a profit on the crop. For example, tomatoes. They are a high-value crop with high demand. They love heat, but need a little help with sun protection. With the help of drip irrigation, hoop houses, or low tunnels one can improve yields substantially. If you can budget the right growing conditions and infrastructure, this crop can bring in large returns.
If you turn out quality, consumers have no problem paying for it. Locally we are at such a huge advantage. We get to sell the product when it is ready. Our products are at their very best when they reach the consumer. They are not getting hauled across multiple states or from other countries. We are able to provide an added value that has been lacking in our grocery stores, quality.
A market garden can be as simple as an acre you have tilled up in your backyard or it can be large enough to sustain a few full-time employees. Figure out what this looks like for you. The size of your start-up really depends on the amount of capital you have to invest as well as the size of the space you have available. Once you have that figured out, start looking into local licensing and permitting. Everything that you will need to know should be on your county extension's website. It varies depending on the state that you live in how restrictive or lenient produce sales will be. With the county’s guidelines, start working your way through any permitting that needs to be acquired before getting too ahead of yourself. This includes permitting for hoop houses and other infrastructure you may require for your startup. This would also be a good time to grab some soil samples for your local soil conservation to test!
The sky's the limit when it comes to automation. While startup costs for things such as drip irrigation or a flood and drain system can be costly, they save in the long run in terms of labor. Irrigation will cost you in start-up cost and will involve maintenance every season. But, it will generally results in higher yields and less water loss. A basic irrigation system adds costs, but you won't have to chase and drag hoses all day, which allows you to focus on more productive tasks.
Adding hoop houses to your operation can help improve your yields as well as extend your season. While startup cost for this type of infrastructure can be high, it is generally a fixed asset that can be reused season after season. Several states have NRCS funding in place to help farmers with the addition of a high tunnel into their operations.
Ecommerce has come a long way just in the last few years. There are great platforms to help keep your business running smoothly and even better, accessible 24/7 to your customer base. Point of sales systems like Shopify and WooCommerce can help you to manage and receive sales for your business.
Being accessible is the number one thing you can do to make your business successful. In addition to providing customers with an online store, integrate the store with an online presence. Customers want to know their farmer, this is where you need to introduce yourself and interact with your customers. Start blogging about what is going on in your garden, share recipes, hold Q&A sessions, and let the customers get to know you. Establishing a social media presence is vital to connecting with new customers as well as marketing to existing customers.
Like with any business, starting capital is important. Basic infrastructure needs to be in place before you sow your seeds. As stated before, irrigation and/or hoop houses are components that eat up large portion of your budget. Next, figure out what your approach to weeds will be. Will you need labor? Is this something you will need a machine for? Will you be using plastic weed barriers? These questions will help you to decide what to budget for now and what to save for in the future. From there your propagation trays, seeds, dirt, and fertilizer will recurring expenses.
Once you have a salable product, you will need to look into proper packaging. Sustainable packaging has become easier to come by over the last few years. Using sustainable packaging is 100% worth the extra cost and most customers prefer it. Glass jars are also a great option for subscription services. Check out how others are doing a microgreens exchange program with Bootstrap Farmer’s 5x5 trays.
As long as US grocery stores are sourcing food from other countries, there will be an alternative demand for locally produced food. As we are starting to see the limitations involved with excessive food miles and relying on global trade, we as consumers will need to return to seasonal shopping. Shopping for what is in season, what is fresh locally needs to be normalized. Check out how Craven’s Local Food Market has done this with their jar exchange program.
The CLFM is a business model created by Bootstrap Farmer founder Brandon Youst and is meant to be model of how to run a sustainable business that:
1. has farmers getting the price they want for the things they grow (through value-added goods)
2. while meeting people where they want to be met (via delivery/online storefronts)
3. with products they crave (pizza, ramen, tacos, kombucha, popsicles, etc.)
Check out your local Department of Agriculture website for more information on grants and loans that may be available to you. Another resource to check out is the NRCS Funding Opportunities. Many states are allocating those funds to help with seasonal high tunnels and organic farm operations.
While the way that we do business is altering dramatically, our customers have not changed. Being able to pivot your business model or create a new one is what is necessary to come out on the other side of challenging times. Localizing our food and resources are more important than ever. Life will continue on and the more we come together to make changes, move away from the ways we have always done things, the more we can take this challenge as a chance to evolve.
We believe a community of positive, action-taking, and collaborative farmers can empower small ag and become a contagion for change in the small farm/slow food movement. BSF