Micro-Farm Success: Learning from the Market Gardener
When my husband Edge and I started our farm, a friend remarked, “now all you need is a tractor and you’ll be real farmers.” What he didn’t realize is that we’ve never planned on buying a tractor to grow vegetables. We’ve always been more comfortable on the human-power scale, and though we did add a two wheel walk-behind tractor to the fields this year, we intend to keep our (bare) feet on the ground. As new farmers, this approach makes starting our own farm feel more doable, with fewer capital investment costs. We’ve been working on farms for the last eight years, but we’re just entering the second year of running our own, and in that sense still feel very much like new farmers. Questions that never arose when we received a paycheck from someone else are coming up now as we face the challenge of creating a financially-sustainable farm that can support us. So we turn to more experienced farmers for guidance.
Last February, at the NOFA-VT winter conference, Edge attended a workshop on Bio-Intensive Market Gardening lead by Jean-Martin Fortier. Edge emerged from the workshop with a copy of The Market Gardener, Jean-Martin’s book (recently translated into English) and a new wave of excitement and ideas for our own farm. Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches own Les Jardins de la Grelinette in St-Armand, Quebec, about 20 minutes north of the Vermont border. Jean-Martin describes the farm as “a micro-farm internationally recognized for its high productivity and profitability using low-tech, high-yield methods of production.” On 1.5 acres, they produce enough food to feed over 200 families every week, and are able to pay themselves a living wage that supports their family. As Jean-Martin writes, “We don’t work for the farm, the farm works for us.” This lifestyle is exactly what we aspire to at Good Heart Farmstead.
The book confirms some key concepts that we’ve been building our into our farm: a small market garden can be a profitable business based on its low start-up costs, low infrastructure requirements, and, with bio-intensive growing methods, high crop yields. Jean-Martin lays out nearly everything from finding the right land to choosing appropriate machinery, from starting seeds to harvest and storage tips, and even discusses the philosophical reasons for bio-intensive market gardening. As Edge and I spent the end of the winter planning our garden, we kept The Market Gardener on our table, open to the crop plans section. As a result we have honed in on crop rotations that allow us to be better organized and more intentional as crops move from the greenhouse into the field.
In mid-May we had the opportunity to visit Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène at their farm in St. Armand. We arrived the day before their annual plant sale, and transplants were flowing out of their greenhouse, which also held two rows of chest-high trellised tomatoes. Despite this multitude of plants, it is still incredible to think about how much food leaves this farm each week.
During our visit we toured the gardens, asked questions on growing techniques and efficiencies, learned again about soil-building and ways of prepping beds without tilling the soil, saw practical ways to keep prepped beds weed free until you’re ready to plant (by covering them with a heavy black tarp), and helped transplant leeks into deep holes so hilling wouldn’t be required to produce a long white shaft. Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène have put subtle practices in place all over the farm that allow them to operate with much greater efficiency while increasing plant health and yield. But to write it all here wouldn’t capture it as well as Jean-Martin already has in his book. What I really took away from our visit is this:
Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène continually learn—they remain open rather than set in old ways, constantly looking for ways to improve. Eliot Coleman writes that “Jean-Martin’s book is very well done and should be of great use to market growers everywhere. Exchange of ideas and information is so important because when we pass ideas on, the next person gets to start where we got to and take the ideas to another level.” As we were planting leeks, Jean-Martin told me that he chooses one crop each year to really focus on and learn how to grow better. Last year was leeks, this year is carrots. There are so many aspects of farming, but this commitment to continual learning and innovating seems to be at the heart of the micro-farm’s success. It’s easy to read a book and conclude that the author has the perfect spot with everything figured out. But during our visit to Les Jardins de la Grelinette, we saw that they must contend with high winds and flapping row cover as well; they too have cucumber beetles and challenging moments like the rest of us.
In a way, it’s encouraging to know this. There are days on our farm when I question how we’ll ever do it all, and there are other days when time works in our favor and I feel so alive with the work of growing food that everything seems possible. The practical guidance offered in The Market Gardener is an invaluable resource, but even more encouraging is the reminder that we aren’t completely naïve in thinking we can do this. The life we aspire to is possible: a profitable micro-farm that is financially and ecologically sustainable, and that even gives us the flexibility to take a vacation once in a while. As Jean-Martin says, it is possible to “grow better instead of bigger.”