What a year!
Though we started working The Farm and going to market during the 2016 season, this past year really marks our first official season of trying to get a small farm business started from scratch. This article is a roundup of experiences on a first-year farm, with all of the ups & downs that go with it.
About The Farm
The Johnson Family Farm was indeed established in 1957 and has been continuously owned by the Johnsons since then, with its primary business being the raising of beef cattle. In recent years, The Farm opened itself up to folks wanting to experience life in the country and help out with day-to-day operations. I moved to The Farm in 2015 and the idea for the market garden was born. The daily chores, maintenance, planning, sowing, weeding, harvesting, marketing, and selling are primarily carried out by one person: Me. 🙂 That isn’t to say I’ve done everything on my own, because that’s simply unattainable. Building, fencing, plowing, hauling, tractoring, and anything involving a hammer…there have been many tasks & projects where I’ve needed the help of stronger people and their generosity is both vital and deeply appreciated, hence the frequent usage of “we” and “our” in the blog entries.
Because I don’t like the way the modern food system works in our country. It’s unethical and unhealthy — for both people and planet. I believe we need more small organic farms in our communities to give people choices in knowing where their food comes from, and I’m a proponent of everyone having at least a small garden of their own. There’s also a huge level of pride and satisfaction that goes with being able to grow food and be in business for yourself.
What We Did This Year
- Built an 8 x 8 ft insulated walk-in cooler for produce storage
- Fenced off an additional section of land for future garden expansion, bringing our total garden area to around half an acre
- Built our first hoop house
- Plotted out a new field block of four 50-foot beds
- Improved the berry patch
- Set up a gravity-fed drip irrigation system
- Helped start a brand new farmers market in the area
- Brought our produce to market a total of 30 times from May to October
- Installed a new water line to the garden
- Built a new produce wash & prep station
You Win Some
- Overall production and market sales were about three times more than the previous year
- Cucumbers, squash, lettuce, carrots, radishes, and onions all grew well
- Discovered using black landscape fabric to block weeds prevents mental breakdowns (also referred to as the Marriage Saver)
- New hoop house was the best investment we made this year
- Hoop house & row covers made the mid-September frost a non-issue
- Received frequent compliments on the quality of our produce and market booth presentation
- Hosted our first seasonal intern to help on The Farm
And Lose Some
- Cold rains during entire month of May adversely affected our planting & growing schedule
- Sections of gardens overwhelmed with weeds and had to be smothered with black plastic
- Lost our entire first plantings of beets, chard, and spinach to a pest infestation (leaf miner)
- Lost nearly entire potato crop due to voles (underground rodents)
- Tomatoes and peppers grew poorly
- Exceeded annual budget and couldn’t fully finish the walk-in cooler
- Entire flock of hens permanently stopped laying eggs in April and had to be rehomed/repurposed
By The Numbers
We kept records of the produce sold at each market. This year, our market totals included:
- 157 pounds of carrots
- 311 pounds of cucumbers
- 103 pounds of onions
- 67 pounds of radishes
- 97 squashes
These totals don’t include what we kept for ourselves, as well as what we gave away to friends & neighbors.
So, are we determined enough to try for Year Two? Yes! One of the experienced growers at the farmers market remarked that you really can’t make it in farming until Year Five because it takes so much work, time, and resources to truly get a productive and profitable market garden established. Despite all the hardships, I absolutely love the work I’m doing, so why quit now? I learned so much this year, mostly from the failures & losses, which will be applied next year. Some of these lessons include:
Pad the budget. Despite careful planning of predicted expenses, everything ended up costing more. Everything. Next year’s budget will have some padding and when the limit is reached all spending stops.
Mulch everything, whether it’s with landscape fabric, straw, or wood chips. I lost so much time & energy trying to keep up with weeding. No more. Next year I plan on covering most of the beds with black fabric and mulching the pathways with wood chips.
Be more proactive. Some problems in the garden need to be dealt with immediately. I lost my potato crops to underground monsters in 3 distinct stages this year, each time thinking (hoping) that the voles had gone somewhere else. After the second attack, I installed underground sonic spikes which did absolutely nothing. After the third attack I got an adapter for my car’s exhaust pipe to fumigate the rodent tunnels and it worked. Next year I’ll be gassing them at the first sign of attack and no, I won’t be sad about it.
Figure out a backup plan. This year, right at the height of the season, I a) was hurt falling off a runaway horse, b) lost my beloved cat, and c) came down with pneumonia. It was the latter of these events that really triggered a downward spiral for the rest of the season because I was physically unable to work or go to market for two weeks. Next year I want to be more prepared with a written plan and instructions to give to a helper in case I’m temporarily down again.
Take time off. I busted my ass for three solid months before burning out. No surprise there. It was around this time I made my now-famous quote “It’s not discouraging, it’s just impossible!” After that I instituted a new rule of stopping all work at 7pm each day and taking 1-2 afternoons off each week to go swimming or do something non-garden related. While this leisure time made me feel guilty, it was necessary for the overall balance of work & play/rest.
Don’t believe everything the seed catalogs say. I buy all my seeds from reputable organic providers, but even still they can’t all be winners. While I enjoy trying to grow new & unique varieties, there’s a reason that tried & true varieties exist. Next year, I want to determine which varieties produce the best and stick with them as main market crops while still trying out new varieties in a test garden.
Find a niche or specialty. I think I tried to grow too many different types of crops for one person to manage on a commercial level. Many different plants = more problems. Based on my two years of growing here, I now know what thrives and what isn’t worth the effort. We’re going to focus mainly on root crops, salad greens, and raspberries.