Are you looking to start your own vegetable farm? Truck farming is a great way to do it, and this guide will teach you everything you need to know about raising produce and selling it directly to your market.
What is Truck Farming?
What is truck farming, you ask? Truck farming is when a farmer grows large quantities of produce to drive it to low-income urban or rural areas or places like hospitals that don’t have access to or need more healthy foods. This idea was strengthened when folks recognized the need to provide healthy diets to children in underserved areas to promote long-term healthy eating and lifestyle choices. The truck (or car, van, etc.) brings the food to the people, serving as a standalone farmers’ market or mobile market.
An example of truck farming is the truck you’ve seen on the side of a local busy road with a large sign that reads “Strawberries for sale.” The farmer likely grows strawberries in large quantities and takes their product to different areas each day of the week during their busiest season. Some truck farming is done seasonally, so perhaps they switch to growing melons later in the season, allowing them to focus on just a few main crops at a time.
Truck farms are intentionally less diverse than traditional market gardens. A truck farmer may grow a few select items they can easily grow a lot of. The idea can also work for items such as meat, eggs, and dried goods. There are no hard and fast rules around what a mobile market should look like; it’s whatever your community needs. Two to three acres is an average-sized truck farm, whereas ten acres would be considered quite large.
Note: The definition of truck farming varies and is sometimes used to refer to “market gardening.” Market gardeners typically farm on a smaller plot of land and more intensively than traditional farmers. They focus on quick-growing and high-valued products.
Benefits of a Mobile CSA vs Traditional CSAs
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) was begun in the 1960s by Booker T. Whatley, who concluded that farmers would need to find support and funds deep within their own communities rather than from the government, which often denied loans and grants to black farmers. Community members paid their farmer up front of the season and formed a spoken trust agreement. The farmers worked hard to provide for their community, and the members received what they could grow each week. This model has been used for decades and continues in many forms today.
Traditional CSAs have evolved over the past few years as demands and customers change. People want more choices and flexibility; mobile CSAs meet these needs.
How to Set Up a Mobile CSA
Step 1: Decide what type of CSA you want to provide
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) has traditionally been structured as a set box for individuals or families, each containing the same items. Boxes differ each week and are dependent on what is available. There may or may not be a signed contract stating that members understand there may be fewer options during inclement weather.
CSAs have expanded and now offer more size options. Members can select items they do not wish to receive; some work on a point system where harder-to-produce items “cost” more than quicker-growing crops.
CSA models to choose from:
Traditional CSA: the same items for every customer. Pickups are at a designated area each week. The customer is responsible for informing the farm if they are unavailable on a given week or find an alternate person to pick up the box.
Free-choice CSA: customers shop whenever and for whatever they like. There is no need to inform the farmer if you’re out of town and you shop for the items you want at any available market.
Point system CSA: customers choose items based on a point system. Customers walk around a pickup area and select items until a certain number of points is reached. Herbs may be worth two points, and fresh green may be worth five. This allows members to go home with what they love. The farmer learns what their members like over time by monitoring what isn’t taken.
A truck farmer should experiment with the different types of CSA and decide what works best for their members, vehicle, and pickup location. If space and time are limited, there may not be enough time to open up a full stand and lay all the items out for selection. A pre-packed box may work better in this situation.
Step 2: Choose a vehicle to deliver the CSA
When starting a farm business, many farmers use their personal vehicles to get their products to market. But you may quickly realize that you need more space and even refrigeration, depending on the distance your product needs to travel. Select a vehicle you can comfortably stand up in to pack or move freely around.
Several different vehicle options differ in size, cost, and purpose.
Food trailer: The most expensive, includes refrigeration, is the largest option, may only fit in some locations and parking areas, and is best for large events.
Food truck: Serves as a mobile kitchen and vehicle in one, best for mobile markets, fairs, and parks, with moderate costs. May offer refrigeration.
Food cart:Best option for farmers’ markets, rural mobile markets, and sidewalks. Must be towed by another vehicle or left in place and filled when the cart is open.
Step 3: Register with the State Department of Agriculture and Markets
Most states require the following to do business as a truck farm:
Permit to sell produce, whether at the farm or elsewhere
Scales must be inspected and certified each year with proof to the state
Identify and file as a business with the state
File an annual business report and pay yearly fees for doing business
Filing processes differ state by state; some offer scaled inspection clinics for a lower cost. Contact your local extension office or Department of Agriculture and Markets for more info.
Step 4: Obtain a license, permit, and tag
First, check with the town to which you hope to bring your mobile market and learn about the local regulations. Each county and town differs in what permits, insurance, and licenses they require.
Secondly, find out if you need to provide an insurance rider to keep your business and customers safe. And perhaps most importantly, file a business license with your state, provide your EIN, and pay any required mobile food facility fees. Start by contacting the town or county clerk for details.
Step 5: Get insurance coverage
Some insurance companies offer a certain amount of riders for free with a policy or for a low cost. Contact your insurance agent to inquire about adding one for each year you sell.
Contact your homeowner, renter, or auto insurance company and ask about the bundles they offer. Combining different types of insurance under one umbrella is most often more cost-effective. There are also specialty insurances for food producers.
Step 6: Build a mobile kitchen platform
Not all mobile markets are mobile kitchens, but you may consider providing prepared foods for customers if your vehicle and time allow. A simple mobile kitchen option for a farmers’ market is a pepper roaster or sautée area so customers can sample products before taking them home. People may not feel comfortable asking how to use certain crops that are unfamiliar to them. Consumers want to know and trust their farmers. Demonstrating how to use them is the perfect opportunity to educate and will give you an edge at the market.
Insurance and permits differ when prepared foods are involved in each state and town. You’ll need to work with a food inspector and get certified in food preparation and serving safety.
What are the benefits of Truck Farming?
Communities benefit significantly from truck farming because healthy fruits and vegetables are brought directly to them. They support local growers and producers and feed their families healthy food. There’s no need for them to leave their community and no markup on the cost of produce.
Although they're gaining traction, SNAP benefits and state-funded market match programs aren’t widely used at farmers’ markets. Folks with these benefits may feel more comfortable using them in their own backyards rather than traveling to a larger city farmers’ market. Some states give customers an additional 50% or match their daily use up to a certain spending limit when used on fresh fruits and vegetables.
Nearly 12.5% of the total United States population received SNAP benefits, according to April 2023 data. Benefits can be used to buy fresh food and groceries, including at big-box establishments like Target and Walmart but the ability to use them with local farmers can tie communities together.
What crops are commonly grown using Truck Farming?
Crops vary with the season and typically include a less diverse spread of easy-to-grow and transport items.
Many of these fruits and vegetables travel well, and some can manage without refrigeration for the time it takes to travel to our mobile market area.
What are the challenges associated with Truck Farming and Mobile CSAs?
Location: Finding the right location can be a challenge. Consider income levels, the number of SNAP users, and overall health statistics in different areas, and choose one where your services will provide the most impact.
Once you find a location, work with neighbors to develop good relationships. Involve them in your plans and inform them of the benefits of truck farming. Be approachable and forthcoming. Many rural areas aren’t welcoming of outsiders, so educate yourself on the area, the local rules, and the culture before moving into their neighborhood.
Finding help: Consider working out a trade with a few community members to help out once or twice a month in exchange for fresh produce if you need help running your mobile market. It’s a great way to meet and involve members of the community.
Getting the word out may be challenging: Show up consistently, and customers will show up. Market yourself online, in the community, in a blog, and however else you can. Have a logo made, have a tagline, and use them consistently.
Start-up costs and fees: It may seem overwhelming to get started after reading about licensing, scale inspections, food safety certifications, etc., but if you plan for these up-front investments, long-term costs should be maintenance, general care of equipment, and required annual fees.
How can Truck Farming be used to support local communities?
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows about 19.3% of children in the United States are obese, and we know this increases their risk for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, adulthood obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and more. We know from research that a child’s socioeconomic situation and the type of neighborhood they grow up in greatly affect their health, especially if they live in areas where fresh fruits and vegetables and organic options are not available.
Studies show unhealthy diets have lasting effects on children’s long-term health and success. Bringing healthy foods directly to communities in need can set kids off on a healthier path, promote healthy lifestyles as adults, and teach them to make healthier decisions overall.
Written by Jenna Rich, Partners’ Gardens
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