Growing a high income market garden

Growing a high income market garden is within the reach of most growers. It's possible to gross $40,000 or more from a one-acre garden, but achieving this revenue depends on careful crop selection, good marketing, and efficient work methods.

Here are some suggestions for the most profitable crops to grow in your market garden:

Planning assumptions for the high income market garden

First, its not what you make, its what you keep. In other words net income is more important than gross income. For example, green salad mix (mesclun) is a high-value crop on a per square foot basis, but the cost to pick and clean and dry it before packaging is also high. Be aware of the labour cost of your crops - even if you are doing all the picking yourself.

Second, you are operating an organic high income market garden. This means you are growing a complex polyculture using sustainable methods. I will assume you aren't growing anything as a commodity. Small market gardens can't compete with the factory farms on price or volume; you have to compete on quality. The premium market is organic.

Third, you need to stretch out your cashflow by growing crops that yield as early and as late in the season as possible. Tomatoes are popular and profitable, but if that's all I grew I would have 8 or 10 weeks of income, perhaps less. Read more about scheduling your market garden here

Fourth, you are going to sell your garden wares direct to your end customers at a farmers market or by starting a CSA. Small market gardens can't afford 'middlemen'.

Finally, be aware of local conditions and preferences. Popular crops in your area may not be on this list, so check out some local markets to see what's selling.

Crop selection for the high income market garden

I love my garden!

Here's what I would grow in my high income market garden, with a rationale for each crop.

Tomatoes and peppers (sweet and hot) are all reasonably high value and high yield. Differentiate your garden by growing especially tasty or heirloom varieties. Grow indeterminate tomatoes and trellis or cage them for an extended harvest. You can grow a mix or red, orange, and yellow cherry tomatoes to make a colorful and profitable display. And check out my recommendation for sweet peppers here.

The vining crops like cucumbers and summer squash are prolific and popular. If kept picked they will produce over an extended harvest period. Try some unusual or specialty varieties like lemon cukes. Make an early-summer and a mid-summer planting (but at least 12 weeks before your fall frost date) to stretch the harvest.

Bunching onions pay more per square foot than slicing onions,and are ready earlier in the season. I do grow some slicing onions, of the large, sweet type (Walla Walla or Candy). The basic yellow storage onions are not profitable in a small market garden.

As mentioned, some crops are reasonably high value per square foot, but expensive to pick and process. Snap beans fall into this category. Some varieties of snap beans will keep producing over a long period (I like 'Provider'), and thus yield quite well.

But they are time consuming to harvest. Picking a pound of tomatoes takes 5 seconds; a pound of beans, 5 minutes. They are popular, so grow some, but be aware of the cost. You won't make a lot of profit on beans

Many herbs sell for more per square foot than actual food crops. I would start with the annual herbs like cilantro, dill, and basil. They command a nice price, and cilantro and dill can be direct-seeded beginning quite early in the season.

Unless you have a lot of land, and specialized equipment, stay away from potatoes as a main crop. The yield per square foot and price per pound are low. Dealing with potato bugs organically on a large scale requires specialized equipment like vacuum systems or 'sweep and collect' jigs that run from a tractor.

And digging a few hundred (or thousand) feet of potatoes by hand may be more exercise than you want. If you want to grow potatoes for your customers grow some specialty 'fingerling' types.

The root crops are not especially profitable, but you may develop a 'following' for them. In order of popularity (in my experience) the common root crops are carrots, turnips, beets, and rutabaga.

I do devote a little greenhouse space to an early crop of carrots and beets, here's why. All the root crops require diligent weeding and thinning to produce good-sized roots. They also all have the potential to stretch the season. I would recommend devoting some garden space to the first three; I wouldn't grow rutabaga unless you had customers that specifically ask for it.

Big bed of early beets in my greenhouse

If you want to grow cole crops, stick to cabbage and broccoli – cauliflower is finicky, and more easily damaged by weather and bugs than the others. Leave it out of your high income market garden.

Be aware that I absolutely cannot grow broccoli or cabbage without row cover; the bugs just love these crops. This adds to the labour cost. Some of the more unusual cabbages command a higher price (Tall Michilli is a favorite of mine)

Lettuce is a popular crop, quick and easy to grow (except in real hot summer conditions) and can be harvested both early and late in the season. Grow multiple varieties and look for heat-tolerant cultivars for summer growing.

A final option: It's an interesting fact that people will pay more for ornamental plants than ones they can eat. If you have the space in your greenhouse, you could grow some bedding plants for early sales at your market.

Operating a nursery as your main enterprise is a risky business; it's a highly competitive industry, and you need specialized, automated equipment to succeed.

But as a sideline, growing a few hundred bedding plants alongside your other plants can bring a nice early cash flow to your garden. You can read more about How to start a backyard nursery here

Laying out your high income market garden

So to wrap it all up, what would your high-income market garden look like? Here's an idea of the space to allocate for each crop, based on profit, popularity, and growing room needed.

  • Vining crops (cukes, summer squash) – 20%

  • Tomatoes (cherry and slicing types) – 15%

  • Carrots, turnip, beets – 10%

  • The cole crops (broccoli, cabbage) – 10%

  • Lettuce and salad greens – 10%

  • Potatoes (fingerling or specialty) - 10%

  • Peppers (sweet and hot) – 10%

  • Onions (bunching and sweet) - 5%

  • Snap beans – 5%

  • Annual herbs – 5%

Two final notes about the above:

1 - I didn't allocate garden space to the bedding plants; they will be mostly grown in your greenhouse.

 2 - this is not a prescription; consider this list of plants just a starting place for your own research and planning to build your own high income market garden.

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