This past week on February 2nd, 2015 I was able to attend a workshop hosted by Living Web Farms with the excellent farmer, writer and educator Jean-Martin Fortier. In addition, I want to sing the praises of Meredith Leigh for organizing the workshop and making all the delicious food provided after the workshop!
Jean-Martin Fortier released his first book titled The Market Gardener: a Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming based on lessons learned farming in Quebec for over 10 years with his wife and partner Maude-Hélène Desroches. Jean-Martin began with the story of their farm. After two years farming leased land and living in a teepee through Canada winters they were able to find a 10 acre tract that has become the home of their farm les Jardins de la Grelinette (translated The Broadfork Gardens). They now support 140 Community Supported Agriculture or CSA shares, two farmers markets, and a handful of restaurants on 1.5 acres of permanent raised beds growing produce bio-intensively. Bio-intensive farming entails maximizing yields on smaller plots of land and draws from French Intensive and focuses on diversity and sustainability.
Farming full time this small scale organic farm with a walk-behind BCS tractor, two high tunnels, one greenhouse, and two additional full-time employees they are able to see a 45% profit margin, enjoy 3 months off in the winter, and save for retirement. When the common narrative for small scale organic farming is based on the idea that it’s next to impossible to make a living, Jean-Martin Fortier’s logical and practical approach is a breath of fresh air. If you’re starting a small farm this book is an excellent source of inspiration and guidance.
Key elements to Fortier’s methods revolve around having a goal for providing two incomes for himself and Maude-Hélène, continually improving their efficiency with farm tasks and yield, quality, & caliber of produce; and planning, planning, planning. Before they did anything with the farm they spent a significant amount of time planning the farm on paper using the permaculture method of minimizing your foot traffic on the farm so all the garden beds surround the packing house so you’re never very far from your tools, and refrigerator.
Fortier and Deroches were able to make a permanent plan for the farm because they decided from the beginning that they would not be expanding beyond 1.5 acres. This way they are able to focus more on efficiency optimizing their space, rime and efforts instead of continually growing out. They standardized the length and width of all their beds to 100 ft x 30 in. This simple choice allows them to have standard sizes for their row cover, insect nets & drip tape and can easily calculate crop yields and charts for planting.
To combat growing pest pressures as they move in from the south (i.e. the U.S. of A.) most of their crops are under some sort of row cover almost year round. Moving between re-may type row covers for season extension and insect netting that comes in different gauges based on the insect you’re trying to keep out.
Other efficiency methods they’ve learned and incorporated include grafting tomatoes, using some nifty new tools like a Paper Pot Transplanter; a quick cut salad greens harvester, and a Vacuum Seeder, and organized crop planning during the winter. Fortier continues to hail the benefits of detailed crop planning in order to take the decision making process our of the work day, and has found it to be an essential part of their farms success. Crop planning entails setting financial goals, deterring production levels establishing a details crop calendar, and making a garden plan.
I found his advice for new farmers particularly informative. First, he said, don’t try to grow everything or be as diverse and possible. You’ll be better off and less likely to burn out if you start with a dozen or less crops in your first few years. Each crop has a learning curve and it can take several years to master each one, so start with a few and add a new one each year. Second, there is a lot of benefit to leasing land in the beginning so you can make your mistakes on someone else’s land before you take the leap with your own land. And third, it can be better to wait a year or two before you do intensive crop planning so you know more about growing and have started to establish some of your systems.
Have you seen JM speak, or read The Market Gardener? Or even had the chance to visit his farm? Leave a comment below and tell us what resonated with you!
If he’s not coming to a town near you here is an interview with Jean-Martin that will whet your appetite!
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director.She grew up in Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, and has made her home in Western North Carolina. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC – Chapel Hill in Anthropology and Geography in 2006, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University in May 2011. Gaining as much experience as she could she worked with several other regional nonprofits in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. When she isn’t visiting farms all around this end of the state as Farmer Programs coordinator you can usually find her digging in her garden or adventuring alongside her husband Walker, the farm manager at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.