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Can your garden
provide homestead income?

Here are several possibilities

By Ken Scharabok

A garden can be an excellent way to supplement a rural income if high quality, fresh produce can be provided on a consistent basis. Many operate out of a shed or booth at the front of the property with in-season produce picked and provided on a daily basis. Other sales methods are to sell at farmers’ markets, flea markets or to line up customers in advance and then deliver whatever is ripe on a weekly basis.

It could also be a single product. For example, according to the November 1997 issue of The Stockman Grass Farmer (800-748-9808), one year a woman in Alexandria, AL sold 800 jars of crab apple jelly out of a cart by the roadside on an honor system basis. The cart came in at night and only one jar was taken without payment.

Similarly one Hermitage, TN farmer operates a small roadside stand on an honor system and in over five years of operation, nothing has been taken without payment.

While market gardening with sales through several farmers’ markets can be a full-time occupation for farm families and part-time help during the season, some people do it as a way for their children to earn money during the summer, as well as obtaining experience in a business venture. In this case, perhaps some arrangement can be worked out where you provide everything but the labor for a portion of the gross income realized. I’ve read stories of kids helping to pay their way through college in this manner.

In order to offer more items, a greater variety, and to help spread out the work of manning a stand, a cooperative between several families might be feasible. The cooperative would essentially buy at wholesale prices, sell at retail and then somehow split profits. On the downside is the extra bookkeeping involved and the possibility of squabbles between partners. It may be more feasible to just buy from others for resale.

In addition to direct retail sales, don’t overlook the possibility of supplying health food stores with garden-fresh produce grown under “organic-like” conditions. Those who think picture-perfect fruits and vegetables were almost washed in pesticides, actually look for produce with a less-than-perfect appearance. In this regard, you might become a broker between the outlets and home gardeners.

If you have a good-sized, permanent roadside stand, also consider stocking such items as milk, bread and soft drinks, even if they just break even, as a further incentive for people to stop. (There is a good article on roadside produce marketing, which includes this aspect, in the July/August 1997 issue of Backwoods Home 541-247-8900.) (Ed. note: Check your local laws, as some states prohibit the sale of unpasturized milk.) Sales of farm-fresh eggs and possibly homemade goods, such as baked products or canned vegetables or jellies would seem to be a natural here also. Your sales may also be enhanced by having something unique nearby. I had a pair of Royal Palm turkeys as pets. It seems everyone who comes into the yard was enthralled with them as most have never seen a turkey “up close and personal.” I called them “mobile yard ornaments.”

How many times have you gone into a retail establishment to just buy one thing and ended up buying several? This same concept applies to on-the-farm sales. Give customers exposure to a variety of things. Is there the opportunity to sell some meat products, such as pasture-raised broilers and your own beef, lamb or pork which has been processed in at least a state-inspected facility?

Making your product unique may not be all that difficult. For example, occasionally I will buy a pack of radishes which have a “tang” to them. I have been told this is due to their being grown in soil which contains more sulfur than normal. These might be direct marketed as something like “Our Home-grown Zesty Radishes.”

If going after an upscale market, in addition to the standard produce, unusual items might be provided. Examples are baby (miniature) vegetables, blue potatoes, banana muskmelon, different tomato varieties or just-released varieties of exotic fruits or vegetables.

Chile peppers are considered to be a “hot” market today. For further information on this opportunity contact the Chile Pepper Institute, New Mexico State University, Box 30003, Las Cruces, NM 88003; 505-646-3028; www.chilepepperinstitute.org.

Health-conscious consumers would likely prefer to see actual market garden crops growing near the stand, as it verifies the product was grown by the vendor and not purchased from a wholesale market. Proximity to growing plots could also allow some harvesting on an order-by-order basis to guarantee freshness.

Over one million consumers a week visit a farmers’ market somewhere in the U.S. during the growing season, and it generates over $1 billion in direct sales to producers. The number of farmers’ markets has grown by over one-third since 1994. Many market gardens sell in part or exclusively through one or more farmers’ market. If one does not exist in your community, investigate establishing one and then rent out stall spaces to other producers. The local government body and Chamber of Commerce are likely to support your effort as a potential boost to the local economy. A likely spot for one is in the parking lot of a large retail establishment or shopping center, which would benefit from the additional traffic flow when the market is open. Thus, renting an area of the lot may be reasonable. Your cost would primarily be in putting up the roofed structure and providing portable toilets. If the farmers’ market was held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, increasing the income by using the same facility for a flea market at other times may be possible.

In addition to, or instead of farmers’ markets, homegrown produce is also frequently sold at flea markets. I have seen vendors at both farmers’ markets and flea markets specializing in only one type of produce, but with varieties of it. One family specialized in growing varieties of uncommon tomatoes, such as sausage and white tomatoes, and enhanced their sales by giving out free wedges for tasting. Another farmers’ market vender sold, among others, a variety called “egg tomatoes.” They closely resemble the size and shape of eggs and, as a marketing device, they were sold by the dozen in egg cartons. One vendor at the Nashville, TN downtown farmers’ market specializes in nothing but hot sauces from mild to extremely hot.

Research has shown if most produce is quick chilled as soon as possible after being picked, it will stay fresh far longer. If you are blessed with a good-flowing spring, some of which can be channeled to a tank, most vegetables can be immersed in the water for chilling. Fresh, good keeping vegetables satisfy customers, as well as build up a base of repeat customers. This also allows produce to be picked the night before sale, allowing some flexibility. On this aspect see if your local library can obtain a copy of either From My Experience by Louis Bromfield or Louis Bromfield at Malabar by Charles Little. Read the chapter on “The Roadside Market to End All Roadside Markets.”

Over 600 market gardeners nationwide operate on a subscription basis, sometimes called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Under this concept they contract with people in advance as to what and how much will be grown. Subscribing for a year generally costs between $200 and $700 and the buyers then either pick up or are delivered what is ripe on a weekly basis. In this manner payment is obtained in advance.

An excellent example of this is John Drury in Columbia, TN. He has a one-acre garden with 24 customers who signed on for $400 for 20 weeks of delivery from May until late September. He thinks his current garden size can support around 50 if his continues to be the only labor provided. He harvests on Friday mornings and delivers on Friday afternoon and some on Saturday, as he reasons most people home cook more on weekends. Most of the produce goes to individual customers, but he does have a couple of drop-off points for multiple customers. Produce is delivered in three-quarter bushel-sized plastic laundry baskets.

While he grows a variety of common vegetables, such as 250 tomato plants of several varieties and 2,800 feet of seven types of potatoes, he does also grow some more exotic offerings. Examples are arugula, pitty-pat squash, miniature bell peppers and Asian eggplant. Sometimes he includes cooking methods for various vegetables. He does not sell as “organic,” but rather “chemical-free.” Even his irrigation water comes from a well. His fertilizer is locally purchased composed chicken litter and a small amount of organic fertilizer obtained from Gardens Alive.

(Note: Should Mr. Drury build up to 50 customers at $400 per year, that is a gross of $20,000. For his customers, $20 per week is probably about what they would spend in a supermarket for produce anyway.)

He said the reasons for his customers purchasing from him seem to range from the “no-chemical” to “freshness” aspects. He has only been in this business for a couple of years and is still changing his marketing and delivery concepts to fit his market. Also, in the future, he would like to get input from his steady customers on what they like, rather than just giving them what he grows. He has tried selling at a farmers’ market, but has found this system better accomplishes his goals and lifestyle. (John Drury can be reached at drury@igiles.net.)

For further information on subscription gardening see Farms of Tomorrow: Community Supported Farms-Farm Supported Communities by T. Groph and S. McFadden, available from the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Bldg. 1002B, Thoreau Center, PO Box 29135, San Francisco, CA 94129-0135, 888-516-7797.

The national association is CSA at Indian Line Farm, RR 3 Box 85, Great Barrington, MA 01230; www.csacenter.org.

One implement manufacturer, which specializes in equipment for market gardeners, is Market Farm Implements, 257 Fawn Hallow Rd., Friedens, PA 15541, 814-443-1931.

The annual Gardener’s Source Guide contains almost 1,000 mail-order sources for gardening supplies, equipment and publications. It is available from Gardener’s Source Guide, P.O. Box 206, Gowanda, NY 14070-0206.

A periodical on market or subscription gardening is Growing For Market, Fairplain Publications, P.O. Box 3747, Lawrence, KS 66046, 800-307-8949.

A source of supply of promotional material and signs for roadside marketing is Produce Promotions, 1801 West Cullerton, Chicago, IL 60608, 812-733-4390.

For information on specialty crops:

  • Alternative Field Crops, available from the Center for Alternate Plant and Animal Products, 340 Alderman Hall, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN 55108, 612-625-5747.
  • Specialty and Minor Crops Handbook, available from the University of California Small Farm Center, University of California, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616-8699; www.sfc.ucdavis.edu
  • Specialty Farming Guide, University of Idaho, Sandpoint Research and Education Center, 2105 North Boyer, Sandpoint, ID 83864, 208-263-2323.
  • Videos, such as Sweet Basil, Know Your Market First and Direct Marketing, available from the Cooperative Extension Program, Agriculture Communications, North Carolina A&T University, P.O. Box 21928, Greensboro, NC 27420-1928, 919-334-7047).

A web site is www.garden web.com/forum/market/

For further information see:

  • Backyard Cash Crops: The Source Book for Growing and Marketing Specialty Plants by Craig Wallin, available from agAccess, 424 2nd St. #B, Davis, CA 95617; www. agaccess.com.
  • Backyard Market Gardening: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Selling What You Grow by Andrew Lee, available from agAccess (address above).
  • Ball Redbook, available from The Grower Talks Bookshelf, 335 N. River St., Batavia, IL 60510; 800-456-5380; Growertalks.com (800-page book on current research on ornamental crops.)
  • Direct Marketing of Farm Produce and Home Goods, publication number 2300, available for $3.00 from The University of ME, Cooperative Extension, 5741 Libby Hall Rm. 110, Orono, ME 04469-5741; 800-287-0274; www.umext.maine.edu
  • Dynamic Farmers’ Marketing: A Guide to Successfully Selling Your Farmers’ Market Products by Jeff Ishee, available from http://emarketfarm.com; 540-886-8477. Emphasizes selling produce or products from a small farm through a farmers’ market, including how to make your stall the most profitable one at the market through attractive displays and signs, customer relationship, salesmanship and carrying the right items.
  • Facilities for Roadside Markets (NRAES-52) and Produce Handling for Direct Market, (NRAES-51), available from the Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service (NRAES), Cooperative Extension, 152 Riley-Robb Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853-5701; 607-255-7654;
  • Market Gardening for Profit by P. Henderson, available from The American Botanist Booksellers, PO Box 532, Chillicothe, IL 61523-0532; 309-274-554; www.amerbot.com or Pinetree Garden Seeds, PO Box 300, New Gloucester, ME 04260-0300; 207-926-3400; www.superseeds.com.
  • Market Gardening: Growing and Selling Produce by Ric Staines, available from Storey’s Books, Schoolhouse Road, Pownal, VT 05261.
  • Market What You Grow: A Practical Manual for Home Gardeners, Market Gardeners and Small Farmers by Ralph J. Hills, Jr., Chicot Press, c/o Randy Whatley, P.O. Box 5198, Atlanta, GA 30355; 800-888-6088.
  • MetroFarm: The Guide to Growing for Big Profit on a Small Parcel of Land, available from AgVentures magazine, 11950 W. Highland Ave., Blackwell, OK 74631; 888-474-6397; www.agventures.com.
  • Sell What You Sow: The Grower’s Guide to Successful Produce Marketing, New World Publishing, 11543 Quartz Dr. #1, Auburn, CA 95608; 530-823-3886;
  • Setting Up a Roadside Stand, Direct Marketing and Quality Control and Marketing Cooperatives. All three books are available from the Small Farm Center, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616; 530-752-8136.
  • Sweet Corn Wholesale Market Considerations, free from Agricultural Diversification, Wallace Building, Des Moines, IA 50319.

(This article was provided by the author out of his book, How to Earn Extra Money in the Country. It is still available from him as a free e-book upon request to his e-mail address. Sorry, but it cannot be sent to hotmail.com accounts.)

If you direct market any garden produce to the public, please submit your experiences to COUNTRYSIDE (W11564 Highway 64, Withee, WI 54498 or csymag@tds.net). Photographs are always nice.

He gets $30.00 for a corn stalk!

A little ingenuity pays big dividends

Living in the state of Nebraska all my life, I’ve seen many acres of corn. While most folks see corn as food for cattle or people, very few see it as fuel or booze.

As a boy I saw my father lose our farm in the ’60s, but growing things is still a good part of this town dude’s life-including corn. Farmers get about three cents for each corn plant they grow. I do a tad better. Last year I broke my old record and made $30 from selling one corn stalk. Of course the seed was free, as I save my seed every year and the water was free from my rain barrel.

I grow a large stalk corn-almost 12 feet tall. This give me two 5′ blow guns selling for $10 each. I keep one ear’s seed and sell the seeds off of the others to gardeners for $1 per 100 seeds, or about $6 per ear of corn. I sell the corn cob after I make it into a hunting dart for $3. I take all the scraps and roots, grind them, then sell them for $1 per pound as ground cover. I also sell the stalks cut and bundled. (I call it “poor man’s firewood.”) I sell all I can grow, because many people use it for barbecues. I make knife handles out of the corn stalks with a glaze hardener-they look like bamboo, but harder!

Of course, you can flood the market easily, so I grow about 200 stalks a year in the back yard. I plant about a dozen different items every year, and keep adding to it.

Now I ain’t no rocket scientist, but there have to be many other uses for items that almost anyone could come up with to help your family income. So the next time you notice a plant, ask yourself, “What could I use this for?” – Bill Donze, NE

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COUNTRYSIDE is the truly original country magazine (established 1917) serving that branch of the Voluntary Simplicity movement seeking greater self-reliance (homesteading), with emphasis on home food production. This includes gardening, small-scale livestock, cooking, food preservation, resource conservation, recycling, frugality, money management, alternative energy, old-time skills, home business, and
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COUNTRYSIDE features reader-written personal experiences and photos straight out of family albums, making each issue just like a long letter from friends who are living the good life, beyond the sidewalks.

  Toil, feel, think, hope; you will be sure to dream enough before you die without arranging for it.

  — J. Sterling