Small-Scale Market Gardening


It is popularly supposed that the small-scale market garden can no longer be economically viable since it cannot compete with the economies of scale of the larger growers. While it is true that many of the old market gardens have disappeared, there are several that I know of that are very successful. This and succeeding articles will look at the techniques and strategies used by these growers to make a living from small acreages.

First, Identify Your Market

There are certain characteristics that the successful person has in any business, not just the ones to which this publication is devoted. The primary characteristic is being market oriented. In the last issue of Organic Update, we read a letter from a grower lamenting the lack of sales for his product. In this issue, there is a letter from a potential customer lamenting the lack of product.

This gulf is caused by poor planning on the growers' part, a common failing in Australian agriculture and horticulture. You must first and foremost identify who is going to buy your crop. It is not good enough to grow a crop and then try to sell it. The successful grower not only has his/her primary market identified, but also spends time identifying alternative markets in the event that the primary market fails to come up to expectations.

My friend Ian Cairns is a case in point. He commenced growing for the passing retail trade and Chinese restaurants. He later identified a supermarket that would take everything he could produce, at a higher price than the Chinese were willing to pay. The retail trade brought a higher price still, but was too time consuming, so it has been dropped.

I dropped retailing for the same reason, but Nirvana, in the Adelaide Hills, charges people who want to "look around". Quentin Jones says, "If they complain about the cost, I just tell them to get a small group together to share the expense". As well, Quentin and his partner, Deb Cantrill process some of their produce, increasing the price they receive. It is this innovative approach to the marketplace that distinguishes the ordinary from the also-rans in business. Ian Cairns turns some of his unsaleable greens into bags of mixed salad and herbs, changing a problem into a profit.

Small is Profitable

Often, the "bigger is better" economies of scale are difficult to realise in practise. An employee will rarely work as hard as the boss. Let's assume that you will realise a gross return of 10% from employing someone. In order to double your income, you must employ 10 people. That is you must have 11 times as much land and plant, or looked at another way, 11 times as much capital invested. Many farmers are discovering to their regret that this capital comes at a very high price. Biggering may not be as bettering as the economists would have us believe.

The small-scale grower who finds that they need occasional help will notice that the worker who labours alongside the boss, doing the same tasks, will work much harder. The gang of ten will often "skive-off" as soon as the too-busy boss is out of sight. The employer who is alongside the worker not only nips this problem in the bud, but he/she has the respect of the employee. Often, too, the wages are paid partly in kind. The worker is only too happy to take unmarketable produce as part payment of wages.

High Yields, High Returns

Part of optimising the return for effort comes from the high yields per unit area that are available to the organic grower, as John Jeavons notes in "How to Grow More Vegetables (than you thought possible on less land than you can imagine), 10 Speed Press. He reported in 1979, "Our initial research seems to indicate that the method can produce an average of four times more vegetables per acre than the amount grown by farmers using mechanized and chemical agricultural techniques. The method also appears to use 1/8 the water and and 1/2 to zero the purchased nitrogen fertiliser, and 1/100 the energy consumed by commercial agriculture, per pound of vegetable grown".

Jeavons "method" is a combination of Biodynamic and French-intensive gardening. That is, it is organic. The high yields are a result of :

  1. High levels of compost humus
  2. Never compacting the soil where vegetables are grown by machinery, trampling, or excessive tillage
  3. Occasional, deep, non-inverting tillage
  4. Raised beds for excellent drainage
  5. Close planting in blocks, rather than long, narrow rows

It is interesting to see this approach adapted to mechanised agriculture, where the use of narrow, permanent raised beds is called tram-tracking. The reported results included the observation that the farmer could either do twice the amount of cultivation in the same time, or reduce tractor power by 50%.

The adoption of new ideas is not a one-way process, however. The wire weeder developed for tractors and marketed by Lely, has been adapted into a hand-tool, though this is not yet commercially available in Australia.

The mention and illustration of the hand version of the tickle weeder in the last issue aroused much comment and requests for further information. Where do you get one? You don't. You make one at this stage. In the accompanying diagram, the constructional details are shown. The tines are approximately 30 cm long and made of 2.5 to 3 mm stainless-steel wire. These are clamped between two pieces of rectangular steel and a suitable handle is attached.

The weeder relies on the flexibility of the tines to do its job. The established plants just push the tines aside. The ensuing vibration of the tines disturbs the just germinating weed-seeds. It will not work if the weeds have started to establish. deep roots. Timeliness is everything with weeds, giving rise to the aphorism that the difference between a good farmer and a bad one is just three days.

Weed-control is uppermost in nearly every organic grower's mind. The organic practitioner appears to be behind the eight-ball compared to the conventional grower. T'ain't so. Herbicides are fine in theory and certainly have a minor rôle to play under difficult circumstances. They are however, no substitute for the methods used by successful organic growers. Herbicide resistance is but one problem. In the Huon District of southern Tasmania, my herbicide-using neighbours have created a new weed. The willow weed is resistant to glyphosate (Roundup) and has taken off like a rocket. It is a poorly competitive plant and prior to the introduction of Roundup, not a problem. To compensate for its lack of competitive ability, it is a prolific seed producer. Bringing on the next herbicide is merely a short-term fix.

Mulches

While many gardening books extol the virtues of mulching, they rarely mention the disadvantages. They appear to be fine for tree and vine crops, but can encourage slugs and inhibit water penetration. One study we conducted showed promising results for potatoes grown under hay mulch. The yield in a wet season was 4 kg + per plant for Tasmans grown at a spacing of 38 cm.

In a dry season, it was difficult to keep the water up to the plants as the hay resulted much run-off. Very slow, long periods of irrigation helped, but encouraged fungal disease. Flood irrigation would work, given the right soil type and topography.

A southern Tasmanian viticulturist established seven acres of wine grapes over the last three years. They were interested, but not committed to organic production and conducted three parallel weed-control trials. Herbicide, a synthetic weed-mat and organic mulch were compared. The organic mulches tried were well-decomposed eucalypt sawdust and hay over newspaper.

The best results came from the hay/newspaper combination; the worst from herbicide. The weed-mat was surprisingly poor, until the grower realised that it was even more water-repellent than hay! The sawdust lasted only a few weeks before disappearing into the soil and it was too heavy to handle compared with hay.

Cultivation

Weeds are readily controlled in the few days following germination. Up until a few days prior to crop emergence, the rake is the best tool to use. In our own situation where the soil has been composted for several years, this pre-emergence weed control is both speedy and effective. In fact, the rake is our most used garden tool.

Carrots need but one hand-weeding, their growth then covers the bed shading out any further weeds. More rapidly growing crops do not even need this. The wider spaced, slower growing crops need at most two, or three hoeings until they too shade out further weed emergence. The crops are not completely free of weeds, but the attainment of perfection is neither necessary, nor desirable.

Allowing a small number of weeds to grow on with the crop helps to diversify the ecosystem. This then provides a greater number of ecological niches for insect predators, as well as pests. Our intervention to control pests was reduced to squeezing the life out of one cabbage moth grub last season. In the previous three years, we very occasionally have used Bacillus Thuriingiensis (Dipel) in summer and soft soap for aphids in late autumn.

The population of predators has grown enormously over the last ten years. There are rove beetles and birds, centipedes and frogs, chalcid wasps and lacewings. But that is the subject of another article.

What are weeds?

Weeds are a response to environmental conditions. The humble dock is only a successful competitor when the soil is heavily compacted. In time, it creates a better structured soil, and its relative abundance declines as its strong roots penetrate the tight soil. The ubiquitous chickweed scraps up soluble nitrogen in even the coldest conditions. Bracken is a response to potassium deficiency. Soil that is fertile and well-structured will suffer less from problem weeds, as well as making their removal considerable easier.

Weeds appear to play a rôle in mobilising soil nutrients that might otherwise be unavailable to our crops. Some growers make liquid manures of them, others prefer to incorporate them in the compost heap.

Strategy

Weed seeds often require light in order to germinate. Deep cultivation will stimulate the germination of many weed seeds. The use of an occasional deep cultivation for this purpose at the beginning of the weed-control phase is fine, but weed control by cultivation immediately before and after crop emergence must be shallow.


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