In agriculture, market gardening is the relatively small-scale production of fruits, vegetables and flowers as cash crops, frequently sold directly to consumers and restaurants. It is distinguishable from other types of farming by the diversity of crops grown on a small area of land (typically, from under one acre (4,000 m²) to a few dozen acres).
Market gardening as a business is based on providing a wide range and steady supply of fresh produce through the local growing season. Many different crops and varieties are grown, in contrast with large, industrialized farms, which tend to specialize in high volume production of single crops, a practice known as monoculture. Market gardening also employs more manual labor and gardening techniques, compared to large-scale mechanized farming. Because production is relatively low-volume, sales are often through local fresh produce outlets, such as on-farm stands, farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture subscriptions, restaurants and independent produce stores.
Market garden operations
An example of a market garden operation in North America might involve one farmer working full-time on two acres (8,000 m²). Most work is done with hand and light power tools, and perhaps a small tractor. Some 20 different crops are planted to throughout the season. Hardier plants, like peas, spinach, radish, carrots and lettuce are seeded first, in earlier Spring, followed by main season crops, like tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, cucumber, onions, and summer squash. A further planting timed for harvest in the cooler Fall conditions might include more spinach and carrots, winter squash, cabbage, and rutabaga. Harvesting is done at least weekly, by hand, sometimes with part-time help, and produce is sorted, washed and sold fresh at the local farmers' market, and from an on-farm stand. A pick-up truck is used for short distance transport of crops and other farm materials. The workflow is a steady cycle of planting and harvesting right through the growing season, and usually comes to an end in the cold winter months.
A somewhat larger market gardening operation, ranging from 10 to 100 acres (40,000 to 400,000 m²), may be referred to as intensive mixed vegetable production, although the essential business and farming tasks are the same. Such operations are often run by a full-time farmer or farm family, and a few full-time employees. The tractor is relied upon for many tasks, and manual labor requirements, particularly for setting transplants and harvesting, are often significant, with crews of 10, 20 or more people employed seasonally. This has led in the U.S. to groups of "transient" or "migrant" workers who follow the harvest seasons to different farms across the country. In cooler climates, greenhouses are generally used to produce transplants, and sometimes greenhouse production is extended through winter or with hydroponics. Harvest and post-harvest handling are more sophisticated at the larger scale, with some mechanized harvest and processing equipment, walk-in coolers, and refrigerated delivery trucks.
Market gardening business
Surviving profitably in market gardening relies in great part on direct sales . Farmers selling into wholesale market typically receive 10-20% of the retail price, whereas in direct-to-consumer, they receive 100%. Although highly variable, a conventional farm may return a few hundred to a few thousand dollars (US) per acre ($0.03/m² to $0.30/m²), while an efficient market garden can be in the $10,000-15,000 per acre ($3/m² to $5/m²) range, or even higher. On the other hand, there is a practical ceiling on how large a market garden can get, based on this model, whereas with conventional farming, quite vast areas can be farmed because access to a direct market is not a requirement.
Larger market gardens often sell to local food outlets, including supermarkets, food cooperatives , through CSA programs, at multiple regional farmers' markets, to fresh food wholesalers, and any other higher volume channels that benefit from purchasing a range of vegetables from a single supplier. By pursuing mixed crop production, a larger market garden can thus maintain a sales alternative to the wholesale, commodity-style channels often utilized by farms specializing in high volumes of a limited number of crops.
Market gardening as alternative lifestyle
Market gardening has in recent decades become an alternative business and lifestyle choice for individuals who wish to "return to the land", because the business model and niche allow a smaller start-up investment than conventional commercial farming, and generally offers a viable market, especially with the recent popularity of organic and local food (and the fact that "everybody has to eat"). It is in some instances considered hobby farming , although market gardening is a recognized type of farming with a distinct business model that can be significantly profitable and sustainable. Although in some cases the distinction may be arguable, market gardening should not be confused with the efforts of amateur gardeners, who sometimes sell from home or at markets, as an extension of their pastime.
Last updated: 05-21-2005 01:26:14