The Market Gardener, A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming

Reviewed by Laura Davis

The original French language version of this book was published in the fall of 2012 and was titled Le Jardinier-Maraîcher.

As a fellow market gardener on a small piece of land, I pay attention when a farmer says they can bring in $60,000 to $100,000 income per acre annually with a profit margin of 40% in diverse vegetable crops on 1 1/2 acres of land, without a full size tractor. Jean-Martin Fortier encourages aspiring farmers to explore the idea of a profitable micro-farm and takes one on a step by step journey on how to achieve it. I enjoyed not only reading about Fortier and his wife Maude-Hélène’s success at making a good living but was heartened that their success was compatible with making a good life for their family.

While it is easy to start small when one has little money to start a farm, Fortier believes that staying small is also an important part of being a successful small-scale organic grower. He outlines start up costs for a small market gardener and the specific equipment and investment needed for a small size farm.

At Les Jardins de la Grelinette, Fortier focused on a biologically intensive approach to farming which comes from both the French intensive vegetable growers and Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic principles. The soil was built with a large quantity of organic matter at the beginning to create a rich and active soil. Compost and granulated poultry manure were added regularly and there was limited turning of the soil to keep the structure of the soil intact. A broad fork rather than a tiller is used to aerate the soil in the permanent beds at a deeper level. Plants are planted close together to form a canopy for reduction of weeds. All of these techniques create higher yields per square foot. The author refers to John Jeavon’s intensive gardening techniques as a model, however actually attaining the level of fertility that will feed 100 CSA customers per acre could take some time. Most market gardeners and farmers are feeding 20-40 CSA customers on each acre.

While most farmers look at mechanization to increase production so they may grow their business, Fortier believes that avoiding it and machinery related costs is the better option. He also stresses that successful market gardeners must limit their dependence on outside labor, the bulk of the labor must be done by the owner-operators in order to keep operating costs low. His goal for operating costs is 50% of total sales revenue.

Another strategy that the author utilizes is direct selling. By recovering the profit that is often made by a distributor, the small-scale market gardener can earn more income. CSA, farmers markets and farm stands should be considered as the key marketing outlets in order to succeed over the long term.

Lastly and certainly not least, Fortier encourages market gardeners to focus on adding value to the crops in order to command better pricing. While focus on quality is key he also sells roots with leaves demonstrating freshness, avoids storage vegetables which take a long time in the garden and cannot be marketed fresh, focuses on fresh greens and hoop house tomatoes and chooses varieties that are unique to keep customers interested.

This is an ideal book for new and beginning farmers as Fortier takes you on a productive path of finding the right land, setting up the garden design, appropriate equipment for a market gardener, organic fertilizer, seed starting, weed management, insects and pests, season extension, harvest and storage and crop planning.

There are a few tips that I took away from the book as a small-scale farmer in my 4th season. A greenhouse may be one of the best investments you make early on your farm, as you cannot overestimate the value of greens production. Fortier recommends one large for greens production and several small greenhouses for seedling and tomatoes in the start up costs for market gardening.

Another tool Fortier uses is an annual sales table of all production, which is laid out by % garden space vs. profitability. There is a ranking assigned for highest sales and also revenue per bed. This set up is a good way to look at the best efficient use of your field for the maximum profit.

I was intrigued by Fortier’s technique of relying on soil-covering tarps to smother crop debris when preparing beds. This is a complement to his minimal tillage system, which takes care of remaining crop debris and small weeds, leaving a clean bed and also reducing weed pressure for the next crop. This technique he calls occultation. I can see many advantages here, as often times beds that have been prepped can not all be planted at the same time and weeds start to grow before you get to them.

Lastly, Fortier has written some crop notes in Appendix 1 that identify the plant spacing he utilizes for the intensive planting on his farm. Fortier refers to Elliot Coleman as a great influencer on his early farming. If I were going to compare Coleman’s The New Organic Grower to this book I would say that Fortier has simplified the process from start up to harvest to profit for the new market gardener.