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Recommendations on large scale vegetable growing  RSS feed

 
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My wife and I recently purchased 28 acres in Northeast Ohio.  On the 28 acres, 20 of it would be considered "farmable/tillable".  The previous farmer planted corn, soybeans and wheat.  Unfortunately, he used non-organic methods, so I can't apply for organic immediately - but my wife and I are interested in taking the next step in our vegetable farming.  Currently, I'm very comfortable with a large garden.  Every year we've planted a 60'x100' garden with all of our favorite veggies; however, with our new purchase we've discussed going much larger - like 2-3 acres worth of veggies.  A small amount would continue to be for our own consumption, but the idea on the rest would be to sell (we live near a VERY busy thoroughfare and thought of opening a market stand).  We would also sell to local grocers, farmer markets, etc.

I'm somewhat hesitant to make such a leap, as I've never grown that much before.  I've researched raised bed farming (which I've never done) as well as some other types, but am still weary on how to lay out my veggies in a way that's most ergonomic and economic.  We've always "cheated" in a way with our weed control as I've purchased those burlap weed control sheets that you layout and cut holes in.  They're expensive up front, but I've gotten a few years of use out of them each time so they are more reasonable.  Would you do the same on a large scale?  If not, how do you successfully control the weeds?  Are there vegetables you'd focus on first - or cast a wide net and plant a plethora of plant types?

Obviously, I want to do it right, but I am not afraid to take big bites; however, I'd rather limit the bruise on my backside should it not go completely as planned or if I have a steep learning curve up front.  Any advice the community could give me would be greatly appreciated.

Some additional information:  I have access to both small and large machinery.  The land we purchased had a 40x60 pole barn on it and the farmer sold me his 65 HP tractor, a disc, brush-hog and rototiller (PTO hookup for back of tractor).  I can also borrow my father in-laws equipment which is very large (150-200 HP tractors with large disc, field finishers, planters, etc.).  On the excess land that I would not put to veggies I plan to plant alfalfa and produce hay for the next couple of years until I can apply for my organic certificate.  
 
steward
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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Looks like your garden has been about 0.14 acres. The most land that I can comfortably grow vegetables on, working by myself, as an experienced farmer, is approximately 2 acres.

On my farm, I went the low-input route. That means no weed barriers, drip-tape, compost, fertilizer, poisons, or helpers, unheated greenhouse, grow my own seed etc... I only weed newly planted rows once or twice, then allow the vegetables to fend for themselves. The weeds are next year's soil fertility and cover crop. I take a happy-go-lucky approach to farming.

Another farmer at my market goes the high-input route. He counts every vegetable he grows, he buys plastic to supress weeds, he uses poisons, and fertilizers, and replaces drip lines every year, and hires a bunch of help, and heats his greenhouse in the winter, and air-conditions it in the summer. He buys seed. He refrigerates his produce, and packages it in plastic. He is constantly late for market, and runs himself and his crew ragged.  

To get an idea of how much of which things to grow, you might go to your local big-box grocery store and look at how much display space is taken up by the various vegetables, and then mimic that... Onions get 20 square feet. Parsnips get 1.

There are about 250 raspberries in a pint basket, which will sell for around $6 at my market. Each one has to be picked individually. Or, I could pick two winter squash and sell them for $3 each. Hmm. I know why squash is one of my biggest crops. Pretty much any berry sells fast, and for good money, but require significant labor to harvest, and they are highly perishable. I can take a winter squash to market for months until it sells.

Tomatoes are very popular. Everybody grows tomatoes, so meh! Unless you are first to market, then name your price!

Sweet corn is very popular, if it's fresh. You might do well planting an acre of sugary enhanced sweet corn. Plant successive crops when the previously planted crop is 3 inches tall. That can be problematic in early spring, because untreated sugary enhanced tends to germinate poorly in cooler soil. Maybe plant an su corn for your first two plantings.

If you can keep up with weeding, carrots and beets are popular, as bunches with the tops still on. Plant successive crops to keep them coming all summer.

If there is a vegetable that thrives and tastes really great when grown by you in your soil, that would be a good thing to grow. I was startled when the university conducted a study of my customers, and asked why they were buying my vegetables. The number one answer was taste. I grow all my own seed, and taste every fruit before saving seeds from it, so I had been improving the taste for my customers without even really being aware that they had picked up on how great my vegetables taste.

You might find a niche that works really well for you. One farmer at my market focuses on garlic. Another focuses on greens. Another focuses on raspberries. Another on cut flowers. Another on bedding plants.  There are a few of us that are generalists, or that focus on things that nobody else brings to market, for example, I take nopales,  sunroots, and medicinal herbs.

If I grow carrots, or beets, they can stay in the ground, and get picked when I want to pick them. They just get a little bit bigger each week. If I grow berries, they have to be picked several times per week, or they rot. I can pick carrots the day before market. Greens pretty much have to be picked in the morning before market. If I pick tomatoes at first blush, there are fewer that spoil in the field, and I can shift the harvest to mid-week, rather than during the day before market frenzy.

My gardening is greatly simplified by a wheel hoe, an Earthway seeder, and a planting tube. I made customized hoes.

farmer's market


farmer's market


farmer's market


Tube planter. 5 seconds per tomato plant!!!
tube planter


My favorite custom hoe.
custom hoe


Wheel hoe, except the double wheels were the wrong choice! Switched to single wheel.
wheel hoe
 
pollinator
Posts: 204
Location: Sask, Canada - Zone 3b
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Hey Daniel, welcome to permies :)

If you are going from 0.14 to 2-3 acres, haven't had any experience with large scale market gardening, and are having to develop suitable soil at the same time, I would suggest on starting small and building up. Many people try to go big too quickly and "fail". This then sets a precedent for an argument of "this is just too much work" or "what a waste of a year" and might deter you from trying again. (for me it was neighbour's making those arguments)

It wouldn't be good to set up a veggie stand and then have very little to show for it, considering many people who stop through might be potential repeat customers.

The expansion in area exponentially grows the potential effects of many factors aswell - some positive and some negative. I had a similar 0.14 acre plot and then adopted a 1/4 acre plot. I had many beans in the 1/4 acre, enough that it was the first time a fungus has ever attacked any of my plants. There were so many cabbages, despite mediocre attempts at management, that deer and bugs flocked to them when this didn't happen in the 0.14 acre plot. I didn't use the 1/4 acre well enough and so there were spots with bare soil which basically cooked any surrounding plants despite many of the other plants getting enough water.

---

Daniel Woods wrote: Are there vegetables you'd focus on first - or cast a wide net and plant a plethora of plant types?  



Start small and focus expertise into a few areas. There are around 10-15 main veggies that North Americans buy en mass, but just do like Joseph said and see what your locals grocers are selling. Example: it wouldn't make sense for me to sell ordinary onions, I couldn't compete with cheap onions coming out of quebec, and even considering home-grown taste I doubt consumers here would notice the difference. The Hutterites here basically have a monopoly brand on fresh carrots and potatoes so that also wouldn't make sense for me. No one likes buying cheap chinese garlic here though, so that's something I'm hoping to get into. Heirloom tomatoes are almost always a safe bet. A small area dedicated to speciality fresh herbs are usually easy add-ons for a lot of produce.

I'm sort of in limbo right now in deciding whether to make the jump to market garden, but I know if I do, I'll focus a lot of my produce aimed at Asian cuisine. We have an influx of people from asian countries here in the last few years and they all want kohlrabi, bok choy, daikon radishes, etc. I grow a few of these already for myself, while many other growers have no idea what they are - a good competitive edge.

Daniel Woods wrote: how do you successfully control the weeds?


Many do it by hand and the garden will eventually get to a state that isn't so intensive. I've used 3 inches of straw on the 1/4 acre and that worked pretty well. It reduce weeding and saved a lot of water.

---

You'll lose nothing by starting with 0.5-1 acre and trying to maximize it's production, vs possibly getting mediocre productivity from 2-3 acres while requiring more work and inputs.

Best of luck :)
 
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Congratulations on the new land!  

I guess what area you put to market gardening has a lot to do with how much time you plan to spend working on it and how much intensively you plan to use your land.  And on water availability, market etc.  On Youtube there's a guy named Curtis Stone who talks about the business planning side of market gardening.  I believe he focuses on selling salad greens to restaurants but he has lots of good points about marketing, planning and focusing so that you can be wise with your time and money.  Its not the romantic idea of a farmer, but he's got some good points that might save the beginner market farmer some grief.

One thing that occurs to me is that if you do go with the market stand on that thoroughfare you could help yourself out in the long run by socking in some perennials that are low maintenance but yield steadily in the long run.  For me, things like parsley, rosemary and mint won't die, and a little goes a long way, so a few plants give me a steady harvest.  It could fill in the gaps on a market stand whenever needed without much effort.  And I'm sure that the 30x$1 bundle of Rosemary you pull off the plant each year more than pays for the initial investment and your time caring for it.
 
Posts: 353
Location: SW PA USA zone 6a altitude 1188ft
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I'd pick a few items to specialize on. That'd make people remember me. Corn, tomatoes. Give people what they want when they want it and earlier. Get customers coming to you cause you have the best, or the best variety. Corn and tomatoes are good sellers. I once calculated what it would take in sweet corn to make a good living. If I remember it was 13 acres. But after your specialty I'd provide a variety.

I had 6 varieties of Beefsteaks in my home garden last year. And I had a couple yellow tomatoes. I do organic and I have to say there's not many of them marketable. Squash, cukes, pumpkins a different matter. Then back to trouble: bell peppers, no luck there. I'd sell seedlings in the spring and Christmas trees late.

Here in PA (SW) you don't need to collect sales tax on veggies, but I'd get the license. There's always something you'd want to sell that'd need it

I appreciate the effort it would take to accomplish your goal. Good Luck! I'll pray and root for you.

 
pollinator
Posts: 337
Location: Denmark 57N
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My advice is DON'T! I've been working on a organic farm this year that did exactly that, went from under two acres of conventional farming to  six acres of organic mixed veg (they swapped land with a neighbor to go organic first year) 2.2 of that were potatos so not much work. 2.5 acres of veg with a tractor a mechanical weeder two different types of planters and a seeder requires 3-4 people FULL TIME to manage. There is a problem with farms this size and it is not solvable, they are too big for a couple to manage, but not big enough to afford the specialised machinery to bring the costs down.

Look online look at curtis stone look at fortier they both use the non mechanised raised beds, look at their labour usage, do NOT underestimate the amount of labour this will take, you are looking at 1.5 to 2 people PER ACRE.  If you're looking to do it mechanised you're still looking at one person every 2 acres or so, more if you are planning something labour intensive like strawberries or peas. The one acre of strawberries we had was taking over 10 man-hours to harvest every day. four rows of peas 300m long took 5 man-hours every two days.

In my opinion you need to decide whether to go large and specialised in one or two crops and then buy the machinery to do it, or stay at 1 acre or under with 2 people and be un-mecanised.

Case study here would be our 2.2 acres of potatos, we had a 2 row setter and a one row harvester. sorting machinery and a washer. and due to their small size we couldn't compete on price with the large growers selling the same organic potatos, Yes we sold plenty from the shop and to restaurants, but 2.2 acres produces 12ton or more of potatos way more than can be sold locally. And all that machinery costs money. You cannot compete with the specialist growers, any business plan you make must take that into account.

Now I am not saying don't do it, in-fact I am myself doing it next year, what I am saying is keep it small 1 acre or under even down to 1/2 acre for the first year, cover the rest in silage tarps to clear it up for no work.
 
John Indaburgh
Posts: 353
Location: SW PA USA zone 6a altitude 1188ft
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Suggestions:

Orchard items: Apples, new varieties like Honey Crisp and the one still not on the market, Ever Crisp out of central Ohio. Old standards, maybe a few full flavored apples for Cider. Apple$ from July thru October.

Peaches seem to me to be easier to grow in our area than apples.

Grapes. Big quantities of Concords, please the wine makers. And a lot of wineries near lake Erie in PA and NY do a big business in "better" wine grapes.

Back again to sweet corn. There are so many varieties but you need to keep them separated.

Im concerned about you keep your organic rating and havĂ­ng an orchard? How much separation would one need between an orchard and the market garden? I think I'd grow tomatoes next to apples, for the over spray.

Am I helping you by giving questions?

 
Posts: 73
Location: Medina, OH
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Daniel Woods wrote:My wife and I recently purchased 28 acres in Northeast Ohio...



Not sure if you're still reading this thread, Daniel - but feel free to reach out.

I'm located in Medina County.  There's a few of us around here.

Best wishes and good luck growing!
Rob
 
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