If a community wants to remain sustainable for the long term, it needs a source of food. We wouldn’t have any kind of civilization if farmers weren’t around. Modern agribusiness practice threatens the very soil web we need to grow food. Erosion, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides are some of the major threats. The big reason for industrial agriculture’s success is that it works, at least for now. We’ve been able to grow more food in less space than ever before. It’s hard to argue against results.
But during the 20th century and even today, organic farming techniques have been offered by many different authors to show us a way to grow food that doesn’t rely on industrial technology. Small-scale farmers have been using organic methods for their own families, but not many books have gone into how to use organic methods on a profitable commercial scale.“The Market Gardener” by Jean-Martin Fortier is an attempt to fill that gap. Jean-Martin Fortier, his wife, and two farmhands have managed to build a 1.5 acre farm that provides enough food for 200 families in Quebec, a very cold country. This is quite an impressive feat! Fortier got his start in market gardening after studying ecology and working on other organic farms. After branching out on his own and 10 years of experimentation, he now shares his methods in this book.
One of the first things that struck me about this book is its business-oriented nature. Most gardening books, or even homesteading books that teach self-sufficiency, turn first to how to garden rather than how to run a garden that is meant to make money.
Fortier begins immediately with the idea that the reader of the book will want to make a profit off of their land. He has been able to make $60-$100k per year off of his 1.5 acre farm with 40% of that being profit. He makes no bones about how farming is not a way to get rich, but he does extol the ways that running a market garden brings connections back between farmers, the local community, and the land while still making enough money to live a good life.
He also dispels the notion that farmers have to be completely tied to the land. He and his family are able to take three months completely off each year, which is far more vacation time than most people get.
The first thing he recommends aspiring garden farmers to do is to get some work experience on an organic farm and read as much as they can. There are significant expenses to starting a farm, and it is harder than it looks. He believes that would-be farmers should work at least an entire season just so they don’t have any illusions about how hard the work will be. He is also clearly states that his method is just one method of many to make a profitable garden, and that what works for him may not work on another site or climate. He emphasizes methods of selling directly to the public rather than to distributors to get the most profit. Notably, he is a strong proponent of CSAs and has helpful sections on how to approach a CSA from the farmer’s side and how to negotiate shares.
Next he goes into site selection, an important consideration for any growing operation. He goes beyond the normal list of adequate sun and soil qualities to things like how close the market is, will you need to build a reservoir or not for intensive gardening, topography, drainage, and infrastructure considerations. In another example of focus on commercial profit, he highly recommends soil tests to check for pollution.
Fortier next goes into how to design the operation. He highly recommends having a standard-sized garden bed throughout all the plots to simplify soil amendment calculations and seeding. He is also a proponent of polytunnel use and greenhouses. His preferred method of gardening uses lightly-tilled raised bed gardens with minimal machinery. Deer protection, windbreaks, and irrigation issues are also covered.
The permanent raised bed is the foundation of the garden. Unlike standard biointensive gardening techniques, he is not a fan of double-digging and he’s skeptical of no-till methods due to unpredictable germination rates. Instead, he prefers to use a minimum tilling method using a two-wheeled tractor and then do deep loosening with a broadfork. This provides a balance between the benefits of tilling the soil to aerate and kill weeds without damaging the soil too badly.
To further kill weed seeds before planting, he covers the rows with black tarps for several weeks before planting to create a humid, hot environment with no light. Purists may disagree with his use of a two-wheeled tractor, but Fortier isn’t against machines if they are helpful and can be used in a sustainable matter. Also, by using this piece of machinery he can work his farm with fewer workers and thus make more money.
Strangely, he doesn’t go into details about how to make compost, but goes on for pages about its importance and how to recognize good compost. He admits that while he does have compost piles he does bring in a lot of extra compost from outside as well as composted chicken manure. Due to the huge amounts of organic fertilizer he needs to farm in his intensive methods, it is impractical for him to generate all the compost he needs on-site. Mixing enough material to make 40 tons of compost every season would be almost impossible by hand!
He also uses crop rotation to balance his plots. This helps save costs on compost and rests the land. The system he uses is quite complex, and may only be really necessary if someone was farming as intensively as he is. He is also uses green manures in fall to till back into the soil in spring. Most home gardeners don’t have to worry too much about crop rotation if they’re bringing in enough compost, but on a commercial scale it is necessary.
Two of the most complex chapters are his thoughts on seedlings and direct seeding. Some writers, like Solomon in “Gardening When It Counts”, are anti-seedling, but give the basic instruction. Fortier is the opposite. Due to the reliability of seedlings once they are in the ground, he prefers to use them in his operation. There are plans for nurseries, seedling rooms, and how to best build seed flats. Direct sowing is only used for plants that do not transplant well. The decision whether to use seedlings or to do direct seeding is one that every farmer will have to make for themselves, as they both have pros and cons.
Another good chapter for any gardener, market or no, is on the one on weed control. Rather than just sticking with a method like hoeing, Fortier gives a wide variety of weed control methods that he uses in tandem on his farm. Besides normal control with a wheel hoe, he covers his beds with black 6 mil tarps several weeks before planting. The black tarp warms the soil so that weeds can sprout, but the lack of light soon kills them off.
However, they are quite heavy and do rely on a petroleum product. Another technique is to prepare the seedbed several weeks prior and putting a row cover over it to let the weeds sprout, then killing them all with a wheel hoe or with flame weeder. This is called the Stale Seedbed technique. For plants with long maturation, he also uses landscaping cloth with holes punched in it for the plants to further control weeds. By using a wide variety of methods, weeds hardly have a chance.
The chapter on pest control is one of the shortest. Unfortunately there is no easy answer to pest control problems in organic gardens, but Fortier does go over things like using screened covers and inspecting your plants every day for disease and pests. One important thing to note is that he doesn’t try to kill all the pests, but only to reduce the population enough so he can get a healthy plant.
If last month’s article on polytunnels intrigued you, Fortier also has an entire chapter on the use of this technology for season extension, including a handy chart of which type of tunnel to use in which seasons for the crops that he grows. However, keep in mind that he is growing in Quebec, a very cold province that needs to concentrate the heat energy where it counts. Gardeners in the northern states of America would do well to follow his advice. If you live further south, consider using these technologies more conservatively so your plants don’t get overheated.
Harvesting procedures on Fortier’s farm are rather straightforward. He likes to sell his produce the same day or the day after harvest. The important concept to keep in mind is to cool the harvest as soon as possible after picking to preserve freshness either through a cold water wash or storing the vegetables in a cold room. Above all, he strongly recommends learning proper harvesting techniques from a seasoned grower and also learning how to teach them to others. Harvest time is a common time for farmers to get volunteers, but he recounts stories of volunteers who tried to harvest peas by ripping the whole plant out of the ground!
The last chapters of the book cover how to set financial goals for your garden and how to keep good records on what to grow and when to meet CSA obligations. A set of handy appendices cover things what they plant and how they space them (something normally found smack in the middle of a gardening book!), a supplier list for all of the special equipment he talks about, a gardening calendar, and a VERY extensive annotated bibliography that is almost worth the price of the book.
Do Fortier’s methods work? It is quite obvious that they work for him, and would probably work for gardeners in very northern climates. But for market gardeners in southern climes some adjustments would have to be made, notably about the use of season extenders and what to plant when. Fortier’s own methods are inspired out of Jeavon’s biointensive planting ideas, but ditch core concepts like double digging and hexagonal planting in exchange for light tilling and dense narrow rows. He also focuses on leafy vegetables that sell well year round, but only briefly mentions certain vegetables because they are too much work for his system of farming (potatoes), require too much space (corn, squash), or are harvested when his farm is shut down (asparagus).
A lot of things are assumed that the reader has some familiarity with them, like how to make compost. Supplement this book with a good basic organic gardening method book, then compare the methods to see what works best.
However, I do think that this IS a book every aspiring commercial gardener should read, if only to get familiar with how someone is doing it right and all the considerations that have to be taken. I would not make this my first gardening book. A lot of the machinery and scheduling information in the book are really only necessary for people who do plan to go commercial.
One of the great and greatly frustrating things about gardening is that there are a lot of ways to do it right, especially if you’re only doing it as a hobby. But going from hobby to self-sufficiency, or from self-sufficiency to commercial success requires a greater level of dedication and a focus on what really works well and what only works so-so. Books like “The Marker Gardener” can help, but nothing can replace time actually working on an organic farm to see techniques in action and to learn valuable skills. One great way to do this is to join WWOOF, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms and volunteer as often as you can. Go to wwoofusa.org for more information.