Ten things I've learned from failing (twice) as a market gardener
I've had two attempts at running a market garden. The first was in 2013/14, mostly on a share lease at the farm of some friends. A nasty little drought saw us literally run out of water (in a 1200mm average rainfall area) and be forced pull the plug on a venture that was travelling along pretty well. Kylie and I swore we'd be silly to try again, then we went to the 2016 Deep Winter Agrarian gathering at Gerringong. The small scale farmers we met and the market garden we visited inspired us immensely, showing what's possible and underscoring the need for more farmers. Then there was the 14 hour road trip home, which gave us a dangerous amount thinking time. By the time we drove into our driveway, we'd more or less decided to sell our house and garden, buy some more land and have another crack at starting a market gardening business.
We signed a contract on our place after just a couple of days on the market, and signed a contract on a three and half acre farm in a prominent position a few kilometres up the road in Hampton village. We quickly set about tilling a neglected ant bed tennis court as our main market garden space, and within a couple of months we were planting our first crops. The venture proved to be short lived, frustrating and major drain on family finances. It pushed me close to (but not over) my limits of endurance and resilience and saw me becoming more and more jaded, not just with gardening but with life in general.
I can say now, a month or so after making the decision to wind the market garden up, that I'm gradually getting my mojo back and again, finding the wonder in growing plants. I've had time to reflect, so here are some of the lessons I learned from failing (twice) as a market gardener.
- Farming is hard. It's hard in all contexts, and for various reasons, including fickle markets, cheap food prices, heavy competition, pests/diseases and the doozy of them all, weather. Some jobs are affected by rain, snow or wind, but no other profession is as vulnerable to, and as dependent on, the weather. The vulnerabilities are obvious - drought, flood, fire, frost, hailstorm and any other cataclysm you can think of - but what isn't widely recognised is that farmers also depend on the weather to produce their crops. If the weather repeatedly fails to deliver, it's a short and slippery slope to ruin. As for me, my number one weather nemesis seems to be drought.
- Market gardening is one of the hardest types of farming. A small scale market gardener has to be a jack/jill of all trades, but a small scale market gardener who grows diverse mixed crops has to be a super strong amalgam of athlete, statistician, project manager, marketing whiz, horticulturalist and mechanic. I'd love to say I possess all of those qualities in a tidy package, but I don't and it's one reason I couldn't make it work.
- It helps to have capital when getting started. A lot of books aimed at new farmers give the impression that it's a doddle to bootstrap your way to success with very little cash to get started. It is possible, in theory, but most of that possibility will be swallowed up buying the gear required to run a market gardening operation. What gets overlooked is a chunk of cash that can be used for working capital. This is vital to keep a market garden business afloat while crops grow and markets get established, and if I were starting from scratch I'd set aside the equivalent of six months worth of the minimum wage, at least.
- Do the best market research you can prior to sowing a seed. It's one thing to be able to grow crops, but something else entirely to find someone who wants to buy them. Research farmers' markets, box schemes/CSA's, small retail outlets, restaurants/cafes, even ethical onsellers/agents for certain crops. Ignore people who says they'll support your little venture and will buy whatever you can grow. They mean well, but chances are, when people get busy or forget their cash or get sick of eating carrots or whatever, they won't buy your produce. Be hyper-realistic about your potential markets.
- Get a soil test done before you break ground. Not having one done prior to purchasing my farm is the biggest mistake I made. I'd lived in the area for 10 years, heard lots of stories about how amazing Hampton soil is, read the generic soil descriptions for the area, and assumed I'd have no issues. The opposite proved to be true. My soil has turned out to be very free draining and low in organic matter and clay, which means that it is very heavily leached of nutrients. A soil test (which I had done a few months after my first planting) would have shown me just how leached my soil is. I'm not sure that it would have been a deal breaker, but it would have heavily influenced how I spent my start up capital and the kind of crops I decided to grow.
- Try to find a decent work life balance. This is like finding the holy grail, but seriously, it's too easy to burn out as a market gardener. At one stage in my recent market gardening attempt, when I was throwing good money after bad, struggling to pay the bills and having zero time left over at the end of the day for anything remotely leisurely, I found myself googling "burnt out symptoms" during a lunch break. I've never been prone to mental illness of any kind, but I knew then, that something had to change. Within a couple of weeks I decided to stop market gardening. The best example of work/life balance I've come across belongs to Japanese market gardener Taku Kondo, whose philosophy (and practice) is "morning for work, afternoon for life".
- Find a farming mentor. There will be times during the growing season when it all goes to pot and at this point, it helps to have someone wiser and more experienced who you can call on for advice, a discerning eye or a shared beer at sunset. As much as I actually like the idea of farmers being independent, resilient people, I know that no man or woman is an island and there are times when it's important to swallow your pride and admit you need a hand. You don't need to sign a contract or anything formal, just approach someone you like and trust and ask them if they'd mind a phone call or two when things get tricky. Most experienced market gardeners will be more than happy to help.
- Romanticise market gardening at your peril. We've all seen beautiful photos on instagram or facebook of good looking young market gardeners living the market gardening dream. I hate to say it, but the reality isn't anywhere near as glamorous. Market gardening inevitably offers moments of shear ecstasy and joy, of course, but but it also guarantees blood, sweat, sore backs, exhaustion, dehydration, frustration, drudgery, and annoying customers. Lets just say that I made the mistake of buying too heavily into the romanticism. Don't do what I did.
- You've gotta love it. Market gardening is unlikely to make you wealthy or successful or a property mogul or an early retiree or whatever conventional ambition you harbour. It's a tough gig, the kind of alternate way of making a living that works best as a passion project, something you'd do if if you weren't getting paid to do it. That's not to say you should do it flippantly if you're keen. Treat it as a business, aim to make enough cash to properly pay your way in the world, but don't do it if you don't love it. It took me two failed attempts to learn that even though I love growing food, I don't actually love the business and pressures of commercial market gardening.
- For the right person, market gardening can be a wonderful, deeply satisfying way to make a living and a life. If you're thinking about giving it a go, I absolutely encourage you to take the plunge. Take a breath, hold your nose if you must, but keep your eyes wide open to the possibilities and the pitfalls.