Organic Broadcaster

Author offers sage advice for small-scale, beginning market farmers

By Katie Bishop, PrairiErth Farm

New Society Publishers; 221 pages
Available at the MOSES Bookstore for $24.95

New Agrarians embody the movement for local, small-scale and sustainable food systems. These young farmers are passionate, resourceful and tech-savvy, but likely very new to farming. Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener is undoubtedly written for these farmers. Importantly, Fortier’s book speaks to aspiring farmers who will farm on smaller parcels of land, providing sound advice on how to profitably raise vegetables on as little as 1.5 acres of land with only a modest initial investment.

Fortier’s business sense is right on. His approach to direct selling to consumers guides the reader in farming acumen and marketing know-how. For instance, his perspective on the advantages of a CSA model is relevant to a young farmer who may consider a CSA to help with the initial investment costs of starting a farm; the “Crop Planning” section of the book aids in the important steps needed to ensure the CSA is successful.

The book is an excellent resource for marketing advice as well. Too often, farmers (both new and experienced) underestimate the power of marketing their products; Fortier emphasizes the need to understand which vegetables command a higher price over others, and provides strategies for obtaining those prices from your customers. He notes sagely, that “market gardening is as much about selling as it is growing.” I nodded my head in agreement when I read his take on adding value to crops, as this is something I personally spend countless hours contemplating. He explains, “In 2012, a five pound bag of organic carrots sold for $6 in the grocery store ($1.20/lb.), while the same carrots in a bunch sold for $2.50 per pound. The value of the carrots more than doubled simply by leaving the leaves on to indicate freshness.”

Sometimes it can feel like the weeds are chasing you, and dealing with that chase is overwhelming at best and – at worst – can be the reason you don’t have carrots or salad mix to bring to market or to put in CSA boxes. If you’re a new farmer who hasn’t made enough capital to invest in larger equipment, having an experienced farmer like Fortier acknowledge the challenges faced when farming organically, and then provide smart and inexpensive solutions is extremely useful.

An example of some of this great advice is found in Chapter 9 “Weed Management.”

The concept of “getting ahead” of weed pressure before it becomes a problem is some of the most valuable information in this book. During my first year growing on my own 1.5 acre plot, a seasoned farmer responded to my complaints by saying “Mulch, mulch, mulch.” Now I raise vegetables on 10 acres and the advice still rings true. Similarly, Fortier provides concrete, manageable and affordable ways to deal with weed pressure. I personally needed the motivation and reinforcement Fortier provided on this topic and hope to implement his ideas on stale seed bedding with my onion crop next year.

My only significant quibble with the premise of this book is the author’s insistence on non-mechanization. Throughout this book Fortier argues that small farms with no mechanization are more profitable. More experienced farmers may find this claim to be less easy to swallow, since tempered mechanization aids with the inevitable physical toll that organic farming takes on our bodies. Constant stooping, bending, and leaning is hard on the farmer’s body, and moderate, thoughtful mechanization in the form of an eco-weeder or a mechanical transplanter supports sustainability of the body for the farmer and farmworkers.

Also, with slightly larger acreage, the ability to rotate fields—leaving some fallow or planted with cover crops—and integrating livestock allows for greater soil fertility and is an economic benefit to the small farmer. At PrairiErth Farm, we are able to save money and add value to the farm through the sale of grains and beef, chicken, pork and eggs. Much of this is difficult to do with very small acreage. Nevertheless, it’s clear that many new farmers will be raising vegetables on small acreage farms; significantly, these philosophies of non-mechanization also address global warming concerns and the importance of putting our food system in line with calls to address climate change.

This book is valuable because these young farmers matter. Their commitment to small-scale agriculture means maintaining biodiversity, cultivating their communities’ values and economies and aiding in rural re-development and preservation. And, while directed towards micro farmers, the book still resonates with “larger” small farms.

The beginning farmer will find value in the functional way Fortier lays out specific crop information in the form of charts and graphs depicting data such as his rotation plan, seeding dates, and pricing strategies. The content of this book resembles many conversations I’ve been lucky enough to have with mentors, consultants and fellow farmers. This exchange of information is so important for farmers, young and old alike. Given the rapid emergence of today’s “new agrarian” movement, this book is timely, useful and valuable to small-scale farmers with limited access to land and financial capital to get started and for those without access to those intimate conversations with more experienced farmers.

Katie Bishop and her family own and operate PrairiErth Farm, a certified organic, diversified market farm in Central Illinois.

From the July | August 2015 Issue

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