To Market, to Bank
A petite vegetable farm in Saint Armand shares lessons in profitability.
Written onNovember 15 , 2016
Québecois grower Jean-Martin Fortier draws a distinction between a good living and a good life. “’A good living’ mostly refers to how much money you make,” he tells me during a phone call. A good life, in contrast, takes into account “how your time is spent, and to what purpose.”
Just four miles north of the Vermont/Québec border, in Saint Armand, Jean-Martin and his wife, Maude-Hélène Desroches, have been building their version of a good life in the form of a petite, intensively planted farm—one that is unusually profitable. The business is called Les Jardins de la Grelinette, after an implement known in English as the broad fork. The tool, which is used to aerate soil without disrupting its structure, is one of the keys to their success. So is paying acute attention to detail, and maximizing efficiency at every turn.
In his book The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-scale Organic Farming, published in English in 2014, Jean-Martin lays out what the couple have learned over a decade running a profitable, human-scaled business, and provides a guide for others who wish to do the same. The volume has a 4.8-star rating on Amazon.com and is currently the bestselling book in the “sustainable agriculture” category.
Who is the book for? For anybody who’s ever had a hankering for making a living with their hands in the dirt, growing food for their community. Although the book is geared towards small-scale farmers, much of the information in it would also be useful for a serious home gardener, one who is looking for ways to bring efficiency to the hobby, and to maximize output and quality.
At Les Jardins, Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène grow enough vegetables on a mere one-and-a-half acres to feed more than 200 families. They offer their products through a CSA, bring hundreds of bags of salad mix—a combination of lettuces, arugula, and chicory—to their local grocery store, and send the rest of their produce to be sold in Montreal.
One of the pleasures of reading The Market Gardener is in realizing that starting a small farm can be achievable for those who are passionate about agriculture but don’t have access to lots of capital. In the book’s second chapter, Jean-Martin lists the start-up costs for creating a market garden business similar to his. Including the purchase of a greenhouse and a pair of hoop houses—plus all of the requisite equipment for working the land, destroying weeds, and keeping out pesky deer—the total comes to $39,000 (which, at the current exchange rate, is an encouraging $29,240 in U.S. dollars).
Once Jean-Martin has convinced the reader that it’s possible to make a living as a market gardener, the remaining contents of his book seems even more invaluable. Chapter by chapter, he breaks down and shares the secrets of Les Jardins’ successes. He tells the story in clear and detailed prose, with line drawings illustrating concepts that benefit from being rendered visually.
One of the crucial early chapters is about selecting farmland, which doesn’t necessarily mean shelling out money to buy it. Like many operations in Vermont, Les Jardins started on rented property. “I know a lot of rich people who would like somebody farming on their land,” Jean-Martin says. Although negotiating such arrangements has its own set of challenges, he believes it can be a valuable way to get started. Eventually, the micro-farm’s successes allowed Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène to invest in their own property, which now serves as their business and their home.
But even if you’re not settling on a site permanently, its quality can dictate the success or failure of an operation. Whether renting or buying, some people, Jean-Martin suggests, rely too much on the presence of existing infrastructure, or even the beauty of a plot’s “bucolic landscapes and spectacular views… Choosing a site for the wrong reasons can make the work of a market gardener much harder,” he says. The Site Evaluation checklist in the book offers a comprehensive set of questions that buyers or renters should ask themselves each time they consider a piece of property.
That checklist is just one of the detailed charts that make the book valuable by giving exact details about the thought processes and practices that make the farm so efficient. One such graphic illustrates Les Jardins’ 10-year crop rotation plan, showing how plots are switched from producing garlic, to greens, to plants in the nightshade family. The rotation was created with pest suppression and soil nutrition in mind. And the couple never deviates from it. “We don’t improvise,” Jean-Martin explains. “There’s a reason why we do everything.”
Another section spells out, in exact terms, how the couple and their interns germinate and transplant seeds in order to manage the quality and quantity of the vegetables they produce. They start nearly everything indoors, preferring the work of transplanting to the uncertainty of sowing crops directly in the field. “Transplanting ensures perfect density, allows the crops a considerable head start over the weeds… It’s also much easier to ensure optimal germination,” Jean-Martin writes. And it allows for regularly scheduled successive plantings of many of their crops.
Because they eschew tractors—both because of the expense and because of the impact they have on soil—the team at Les Jardins direct-seed or transplant their crops into permanent raised beds. “They provide the most space and labor-efficient layout for the market gardener, and the most beneficial growing environment for plants,” Jean-Martin explains. “After many years growing in such a system, I find it hard to even imagine growing vegetables any other way.”
Other secrets to their success: growing crops that customers are excited about, such as tomatoes and greens, and minimizing those that are hearty but less enticing. At Le Jardins, they don’t do storage crops. “When we stop [for the year] people are very disappointed. It’s like ‘Oh no, back to the grocery store.’” But, Jean-Martin continues, that absence works to their advantage when spring rolls around. “When we start again, boom! It’s fresh, it’s exciting,” he says. Perhaps that’s why, after a decade, they have so many of the same customers.
With this book in hand, what else does a prospective market grower need to do to have a good chance at success? Read other books, for one thing. Jean-Martin included a list of his favorites in a bibliography. And most important, work on other farms. “Spend at least a year working on somebody else’s farm, hands down,” he told me on the phone. And then, give yourself another year to prepare your own garden, “making the permanent beds, putting up greenhouses, building a wash station.” That way, when you begin, the infrastructure will be in place, and you’ll be able to focus on the crops, and the customers.
Over the last few years, Les Jardins’ sales have settled in at around $150,000 per year, and 50 percent of that is revenue. Given that the family home is located on the farm, and that the expenses built into the business cover some of the costs of living—such as a truck and electricity for the property—there is ample money on which the couple can live. Before they had kids, Jean-Martin says, he and Maude-Hélène used to take off in the winters and go surfing in Mexico. And they’re able to put money away for retirement. “In the end, it goes a long way,” he says of the money they make.
Which brings us back around to the idea of a good life: “I feel that when you’re growing vegetables, and you’re the family farmer of a group of people—if you can do it profitably without overworking yourself, and you’re outside, and you get to work with ecology on a daily basis—it’s a good life. I’m having so much fun doing this… This job is the best… I never want to sound cocky, but this works.”