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Mastering Market Gardening – Two Takes on Small Scale Agriculture

Attendees listen to a workshop presentation

By Cameron Bell, 2018 Guelph Organic Conference Attendee and Volunteer

“Baler twine, like duct tape, is your friend”, grins Kristine Hammel of Persephone Market Garden.

She’s describing her approach to bed layout in the spring, measuring and marking out rows to create corridors of crops as the season progresses.

Over a hundred workshop attendees are eagerly listening to her and co-presenter Hanna Jacobs of Matchbox Garden and Seed Company explain their month-by-month workload as small-scale farmers.

Photo of workshop in progress about market gardening

Exploring Options for Your Business (and your life)

Cameron Bell and other attendeesLike many of my fellow workshop participants, I have a few years of gardening and farming experience, and big dreams of running a business growing and selling food.  (That’s me in the green jacket.)

Having never attended the Guelph Organic Conference before, I was eager to absorb as much information as possible, starting with a full-day workshop on market gardening.

The two presenters each provided unique business models to consider.

Seed production generates most of the revenue for Hanna’s business, and surplus vegetables are sold through a 15-member CSA.

On a slightly larger scale, Kristine’s 1.5-acre market garden pumps out fresh produce for more than 50 CSA members, multiple restaurants, and a local distribution co-op.

Starting with some tips on designing your lifestyle and setting long term goals, the presenters covered a wide range of topics in both business planning and farm operations.

While a great deal of advice on these topics is easily available online, there is no substitute for knowledge gained from practical experience in farm-based problem-solving.

For example, as a mother, Kristine extolled the benefits of a “wrap” to keep a newborn safely secured to your back while working in the fields. This is not an immediate concern for me personally, but an important consideration for many young farmers.

Choosing an Appropriate Planning Process

Amidst a slew of technical questions ranging from “bag and tag” cultivar isolation to installing row cover on brassicas, Hanna and Kristine ran us through their respective crop planning processes.

Using graph paper, pencils, and a few DIY Excel spreadsheets, Hanna takes a low-tech approach to annual planning. Maintaining separation between seed crops, reducing the impact of juglone from a black walnut on the property, and maintaining soil fertility are a few of the factors that affect her annual planting plan.

Kristine, on the other hand, uses digital platforms like AgSquared and Small Farm Central to create her crop plan, manage the CSA program, and track tasks throughout the season. While the automation of this approach (excluding technical difficulties) appeals to me, either method can successfully manage productive and profitable farms when used consistently.

Collage of equipment and equipment tables at workshop.

Share the (work)load – The Seasonal Rhythm

Following a lunch break spent investigating Kristine’s collection of tools and BCS attachments, we spent the afternoon exploring the typical monthly work plan for each farm.

While our local growing season typically runs from April till November, a farm’s to-do list is dictated by the products they sell. In the spring, most farmers are busy seeding and transplanting. Kristine, however, advises us to “plan day trips” off the farm in April to reduce the temptation to cultivate wet fields and risk soil compaction.

Selling seedlings keeps Hanna busy in the spring, but her workload decreases in mid-summer while her seed crops grow. A few months later, while Kristine’s vegetable production is finally slowing down, Hanna’s crops need to be harvested, and seeds must be cleaned and packaged for sales throughout the winter.

Keeping these examples in mind, new farmers can pick the enterprises that suit their preferences. For example, reducing the winter workload to allow for skiing!

Adopting the Agricultural Lifestyle

After the workshop “officially” ends, eager attendees crowd around the presenters to ask more questions, while others mill about the tools and books at the side of the room, sharing stories and advice.

Hannah speaking with workshop participants
It’s only the first day of the conference, and we’re already energized (and slightly overwhelmed) with new information about planning and running a market garden. It’s a journey fraught with challenges from financial to fungal, but also an attainable goal.

Success is predicated on having a detailed yet flexible plan, and a realistic understanding of the career and lifestyle we are adopting.

Hanna described it best while gazing at a picture of her seed-producing garden on the projector screen; amidst bushy plants, a few weeds, and overgrown pathways and trellises, her seed stalks emerged proudly.

Despite our best efforts to organize our lives and businesses, there are times when farmers must simply embrace the chaotic beauty of nature. “It’s a mess and it’s glorious,” she smiled.