Garden your way to a profit

Gardening is more popular than ever. Canadians spent an impressive $747.5 million on nursery plants in 2021—a year-over-year increase of more than four per cent. The appetite for locally-grown food is strong, with 60 per cent of Ontario’s food grown in the province.

With the growing desire to find meaningful work, some individuals are exploring how starting their own market gardens can fill that need.

What is a market garden?

Market gardens are small-scale farms that supply produce directly to customers. This business model differs from traditional agricultural businesses that sell produce to retailers at large scales.

Market gardens also tend to sell a diverse number of crops rather than a few, which is more typical for traditional farms.

Why start a market garden?

Looking for a way to become self-sufficient, Jake Thompson started Black Oak Gardens, a micro-farm located near Orangeville, Ont. He started selling his food as a way to support his family’s homestead. The businesses began to grow rapidly, leaving Thompson struggling to keep up with demand.

While growing food is hard work, it is something Thompson genuinely enjoys.

“That is key — to enjoy it,” he said.

The physical demands of farming mean it is not for everyone,  Thompson explained. He said many people enter the profession expecting easy money but are disappointed when they learn it takes hard work, risk and patience.

For Thompson, despite the physical effort required, there are financial incentives to pursue farming. For example, he only works half of the year while still earning the equivalent of a full-time income.

How to start a market garden?

According to Thompson, adequate growing space is the most crucial element when starting a market garden. While he recognizes that many people don’t own plots of land, he said there are alternative solutions for those who do not have space for gardening.

One option to consider is leasing a plot of land. Thompson explained that this eliminates the need for land ownership, which may make it a better choice for some people. The disadvantage to this, however, is the recurring expense. Regardless of sales, gardeners must pay rent monthly, which can be risky for some people.

To secure a lower startup cost, Thompson said it’s possible to strike a deal with landowners for a percentage of the food grown. He explained that some landowners appreciate the opportunity to have access to free, fresh produce.

Equally critical as land access is ensuring the legality of a business. Would-be market gardeners must review zoning bylaws to ensure they run a legal business.

You have land. Now what?

Thompson said that, after acquiring land, it is essential to have a way to store, prepare and transport the food. Storing and preparing the food can be two of the most challenging aspects when starting a market garden.

“You definitely need a huge fridge and a clean space to wash and sort your produce,” Thompson explained.

It’s much easier if you own a property that can be modified to accommodate food storage and preparation facilities. However, it is possible to reach an agreement with a homeowner who has a shed or a garage, Thompson said.

If you convert a shed or garage into food storage and preparation facilities, check out local bylaws and provincial food safety standards. This information can be found by searching Ontario’s food safety laws and contacting a city’s bylaw office.

As for transportation, Thompson stated that the easiest method is a car or a van. He has heard of some people who use bicycles and trailers to transport their produce in a large city centre.

Where to sell?

Common ways to sell produce from market gardens include farmers’ markets, restaurants or community-supported agriculture subscriptions (CSAs). CSAs are subscription-based boxes where customers pay a fee for guaranteed access to food from a farm.

There are several directions to go regarding farmers’ markets, restaurants and CSAs. Thompson explained that which channel heavily depends on individual circumstances.

“Since I have a car, I can get to farmers’ markets pretty easily,” he said.

Thompson added that CSAs work best at farmers’ markets, so it may be best to pursue both rather than one or the other. Thompson said he believes that restaurants and hotels are often neglected sources of revenue. He elaborated that chefs love fresh, locally grown, high-quality food. Also, depending on the restaurants’ and hotels’ purchasing practices, some chefs don’t mind paying higher prices for better ingredients.

The face behind the farm

Thompson explained that regardless of where someone decides to sell, it’s as much about the food as it is about the people selling it. In his experience, consumers like to know who and where they buy from, making it important to establish customer relationships. If someone can provide that, the customers will come, Thompson said.

With the right planning, even a gardening novice can start a market garden. Just make sure to consider the work and risks involved — after all, Old MacDonald didn’t have a monthly lease to pay!

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