The Truth About Vegetable Farming for Profit

Here's the truth about vegetable farming for profit: there's a world of difference between the typical home garden and a successful market garden. Organic vegetable farming is a more complex and demanding, and requires much more in the way of planning and management than casual home gardening.

By the way, if you want to have a serious home garden that provides a significant percentage of your food, the following applies to you as well.

Here's what separates vegetable farming for profit from the other kind:

The diversity of crops grown

Crop diversity is essential for successful (organic) vegetable farming. You need to grow a complex “polyculture” of crops, for a couple of reasons: first, this helps create a mini-ecology on your small farm, supporting soil microorganisms and beneficial insects that contribute to garden health.

And second, the more things you grow, the greater the resilience of your garden. For example, if you are growing just two crops and one fails, you have lost 50% of your garden.

On the other hand, if you are growing a complex polyculture of perhaps 30 or 40 crops (like we do at New Terra Farm) and 3 or 4 fail completely, you are still at 90% productivity. This is important if you are depending on the garden for income (or food!)

We built a Garden Planner Spreadsheet to manage our garden

Integrated management of crop production and soil fertility.

Our pigs help clean up the garden and maintain soil fertility

I tell people (only somewhat facetiously) that organic vegetable farming consists mainly of moving manure from where it is to where you want it to be. Vegetable farming for profit depends on maintaining soil fertility by the application of composted manure, crop rotation, and cover cropping.

This has to be integrated with cash crop production, and with your overall garden plan and schedule. For example, carrots don't like manure applied in the same year they are planted. So when planning you crop rotation, you would plan to grow carrots on a spot that was manured the year before, where perhaps onions or lettuces had grown.

Managing garden pests

This includes animals, insects, weeds and diseases. In the home garden, losing crops to the 'bad guys' is annoying; if you are vegetable farming for profit, your income can be wiped out!

In our garden and greenhouse we use extensive passive and preventative means of pest and disease control. We buy disease-resistant cultivars. The garden is surrounded by electric mesh fence to keep out marauding animals.

We use about a half-mile of floating row cover row cover each year, as a physical barrier against insects. We grow multiple varieties of each vegetable (see Diversity above) and we do multiple plantings.

We leave large 'wild strips' in the garden to provide a habitat for beneficial predatory insects. We rotate crops to reduce the build-up of pests.

In short, we expend a lot of effort to protect the crops we grow, because our income depends on it.

Row cover and film mulch reduce insect pests and soil micro-organisms

The cost of labour

The home gardener probably doesn't care how many hours her garden consumes, or the 'payback' achieved. However, if you are vegetable farming for profit, labour will be your biggest expense. So you have to think about getting the most return you can for the effort expended.

This is true whether you do the work yourself or hire help. Some crops you just will not be able to grow profitably; you will need to keep good records to determine which.

This also means you need to continuously strive to find ways to me more efficient – i.e. more output for your inputs, while remaining true to your principles.

This can be challenging, because many techniques are scale-dependent - e.g. double-digging garden beds is feasible in the home garden, not so much on a 40,000 square-foot market garden. This means that sometimes, growing the size of your garden requires completely changing how you do things, and getting new equipment to do it.

Bed shaping equipment can save a LOT of hand labour

A good example of this in the picture above. We hired a neighbor (thanks Dan) with a tractor-mounted tiller and bed-shaping equipment. He built our whole garden (about an acre) in one day.

Aside from all the labour saved, this also meant I could plan out our garden crop placement more easily. And, big bonus, no bottleneck in planting because we fell behind in bed making.

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