In the previous 2 articles I mentioned that you can transition from your job, build a thriving micro farm and that you can even do it with less work inputs, fewer tools and more profits if you follow a certain strategy and method.
In case you haven't read them, here they are:
Let's get started.
Overview of today’s article:
1. The different market gardening methods
2. The drawbacks of traditional systems
3. 5 farming myths that cost you time, money and energy
A small warning.
This article might change your entire perspective on farming commercially and contradicts quite some of the ‘well-known’ established farmers.
Proceed at own risk ;)
The different market gardening methods
Let’s start with the different types of methods you can use in your market garden.
Many years ago, when I was following a Permaculture Design Certificate Course in Thailand, I was wondering how I could create a lifestyle of self reliance, somehow in harmony nature.
Once you start looking into the possibilities of permaculture, regenerative farming and all the alternative types of natural farming you can’t help but imagine what life would be like if you would have a successful farm following these principles.
The next logical question I asked myself is: “where do I start?”
And then in particular, what type of enterprise do I start with?
I was always drawn into food forests and farming methods focusing on perennials. Working with plants, mainly perennials, always resonated the most with me.
For me there’s nothing better than simply planting a young fruit or nut producing tree that your children’s children’s children can reap the harvests from. And their children as well :)
Ultimately after lots of research I realized that many of my dreams of owning a decent amount of farm land and running several successful farming enterprises that worked harmoniously together was going to become pretty difficult to realize.
I mean, land prices are insane in some locations and we simply didn’t have the funds to buy a property and everything required to start a farm.
We just had enough funds to start one enterprise and it had to be on rented land.
Whilst most farming enterprises required significant funding or hectares of land (and a decent amount of experience), one type of farming enterprise stood out of the rest in terms of money required to start and in terms of land requirements: market gardening.
Although not my first choice, it just made sense.
With not many options available, market gardening was a great ‘foot-in-the-door-farming-enterprise’ that we were able to start on a relatively low budget, with the biggest benefit that we could create a viable farm on a small piece of rented land within several months.
Rather than creating complex business plans, trying to get funding from banks, we could simply rent a plot of land, start our farming journey and get the ball rolling from there.
And we’re glad we did.
After visiting several rental properties, we found a suitable piece of land that was close enough to local markets, large enough to be financially viable, and crossed off most of our requirements.
The biggest benefit of the plot of land were the existing tree systems.
Although most wouldn’t think of the trees as a benefit and wouldn’t see themselves able to grow vegetables in harmony with the existing tree systems, we couldn’t have stumbled upon a plot of land that was more in line with our vision.
With careful pruning of the trees we were able to allow for more light penetration allowing us to grow an abundance of high quality vegetables below the canopy of the fruit trees.
This allowed us to get a ‘food-forest-type-feel’ whilst growing annual vegetables that would become the main revenue stream for the farm.
That was a big win.
What we did realize at that time is that we wanted to grow the crops in a way that was harmonious with the soil and was ecologically sound.
We learned about the damage tillage did and the vast quantities of top soil we’re losing on a large scale world-wide. We didn’t want to be a part of that.
So we researched every method possible to find the one that made the most sense ecologically and economically wise.
And we found out some pretty interesting methods.
The moment you decide or consider to get started you can’t help it, but you want to learn as much as possible.
You start reading blog posts, start watching some videos, and maybe even buy a couple of books.
We did the same thing.
And we quickly realized that there are three main methods farmers and gardeners use to grow their produce (either on a homestead or commercial scale):
These are the three main methods we’d identified and each method is successfully practiced by farmers worldwide.
Having said that, not all follow the same practices and not all are in line with our ideology of growing nutritiously dense food.
Not to mention, they don’t all share the same practicality, efficiency and profitability.
So what are these methods exactly?
Starting with the first one on the list: tillage
This is probably one of the oldest and most well known method out there when it comes to growing vegetables.
For centuries farmers have been tilling their lands with the use of animals and later with machines. The soil is plowed, weeds are turned under and the crops are planted in loosely tilled soil.
A lot of research has gone into this practice and I think we all know that if you want to build a healthy soil, create the best conditions for the soil food web, and grow the highest quality food, this is not the way to go.
Tilling (or digging) is probably one of the worst things you can do to the soil and the soil life. It causes erosion, loss of top soil, reduced water holding capacity, it destroys the organisms that are then unable to distribute the nutrients and make them available for plant intake.
This, and tons of other negative consequences are the result of tillage.
Fortunately, as fast as soil is destroyed, if following the right practices, soil can also be very quickly regenerated and revived.
Nevertheless, from the beginning it was very obvious to us that we didn’t want to use this practice on our farm.
The second method on the list is ‘low till’
This is kind of a grey area in market gardening.
It’s easy to classify what tilling is; you either till or you don’t.
But some practices and tools live in between and the use of these can be considered ‘low till’.
A great example of such a tool is the broadfork.
In its essence, a broadfork is a tilling tool.
You disturb the soil minimally and you don’t grind it all together, like with a traditional rototiller, but you’re still interfering with the soil structure.
(full disclaimer: when we started our farm we used the broadfork to decompact the soil, but have found after several seasons that it wasn’t necessary anymore. We compared beds that were broadforked vs. non-broadforked beds and the results were very similar – often a little better on the non-broadforked. I regard this tool as a ‘transitioning tool’ perhaps only necessary if you’re dealing with very compacted soils.)
Another example is the use of weeding tools like precision weeders.
Although these tools essentially ‘till’ the top 2 centimeters of the soil, it doesn’t have a big negative impact and in terms of practicality and profitability on the farm, they’re highly needed.
For me personally, I regard both the broadfork and the basic weeding tools as tools we can use in a no-till/no dig setup. The broadfork strictly to slightly decompact some compacted soils and only for a season or 2.
Then there are tools like the tilther and a walk-behind tractor with a power harrow.
Many farmers want to make you believe that these tools are no-till, yet if you ask me, I kind of regard them as tilling machines. Low till at the most.
They grind up the top 5 to 10 centimeters of the soil to create a smooth seed bed, just like the traditional tilling machines do.
I have to say, when we converted our plot of land into a production area we opted for an initial tillage of the soil. We hired a tractor (and a walk-behind tractor for in between the trees) to get rid of the existing vegetation and immediately converted it to a no till/no dig site. I’ll share more about this in the next article.
With the experience we have gained, if I would start over again, I wouldn’t even bother tilling anything and simply follow the method of no dig to create the growing beds (I’ll show you how to do this in the next article).
It’s much more efficient, doesn’t require heavy machinery (a wheelbarrow and a shovel are basically everything you need), and lays a great foundation for the fertility of your land.
And that is the third method: no dig
Oftentimes also called ‘no till’ (mainly in the US), no dig is a method of growing vegetables that imitates the way nature functions.
Essentially with this method you’re smothering out the existing vegetation with a layer of cardboard and compost (or straw/weed-free hay – depending on climate).
Through the use of a compost mulch you’ll kill off the plants beneath it (which become food and nutrients for the soil food web) and you’re able to instantly have completely weed-free clean growing beds in which you can plant directly.
The great thing with this method is that it will allow you to ‘unlock’ the nutrients that were already present in the soil and make them available to your plants.
Essentially the way this works is that you’re feeding the soil organisms with a carbon source and their activity (eating, pooping, dying) is what makes the entire system function.
In fact, that’s how the most diverse and resilient forest ecosystems in the world function.
Through the constant cycling of nutrients.
Plants and trees photosynthesize pumping huge quantities of sugars into the soil to feed the organisms.
They in return provide the plants with nutrients.
What makes this system so abundant is the constant cycle of soil organisms interacting with the plants and organic matter falling on the surface of the soil being recycled back into the system (of course, it’s a little more complicated than this, but you get the point).
Essentially that’s what we’re trying to mimic with no dig.
Annual vegetable production is and never will be regenerative (nature always wants to go to the next succession). But this method might just be the most sustainable practice out there.
And as you can imagine, after realizing and understanding the processes of this method, we couldn’t help but simply adopt this practice on our farm.
It is the only method that allowed us to be truly connected to the land we farm, whilst being able to give back to the soil.
On top of that, because of the fact that we constantly mulch the surface of the soil with compost, we barely have to bother with any weeds.
This reduction in work is significant considering that weeding is one of the tasks that takes up a lot of time on many farms. And every hour you spend weeding is an hour you lose money.
Not unimportant on a commercial farm!
This method allowed us to achieve exactly what we wanted.
Growing food in a way that’s economically sound and ecologically viable.
The drawbacks of traditional systems
I know that many people dream of an alternative lifestyle and want to live a simple life on the land.
To achieve that it’s easier said than done.
And I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. It takes hard work. And it takes dedication.
But what I CAN share with you, is that there are certain methods and approaches you can take that will make your farm life easier, better and will give you a higher quality of life.
One thing my wife and I really value is our time and the time we spend with our children.
And although this farming lifestyle allows us to be together pretty much all the time, we still feel that it’s important to take a break from the work every now and then.
You’ve probably heard of the saying: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”.
And although in many ways I completely agree with that, I still don’t want to work more on the farm than I need to.
From Monday to Friday, 8 hours a day is more than enough for us, and allows us to still have enough time for other activities and hobbies that we like to do together.
And of course, not to forget a couple of weeks of holiday in the summer and a nice hibernation in the winter.
That’s what farming is all about for us right now.
It allows us to live a certain lifestyle, which is in our opinion provides an extremely high quality of life, with direct access to high quality food, whilst we’re able to serve the local community that in turn allows us to pay our bills and live life on our own terms.
We couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity farming has given us, as we know that unfortunately, not everyone has access to these standards and the quality of life we experience everyday on the farm.
This is all we’ve ever wanted to provide for our children, that we believe are fortunate to grow up in such an environment.
I also truly believe that if this kind of lifestyle is something that you’re after, you can create it, even if you don’t believe it yourself right now.
In my opinion, this world needs to go back to having a small and thriving farm per community.
But, where do you start?
And how do you get started?
Those are some of the first questions we started to ask ourselves.
When it comes to market gardening, and then specifically the methods applied, there are many different ways of how you can get started.
You can till the soil, you can use tarps, you can use deep mulch beds, and several other methods.
But not all methods are the same.
Definitely when it comes to profitability.
In fact, profitability is one of the key things to look at when starting a farm.
And you want your farm to be as profitable as possible from the day you’re going to start it, whilst obtaining a healthy work and life balance.
Something else that was equally important to us from the beginning was that next to profitability, the farm had to be also ecologically sound.
As interesting as this may sound we simply wanted the farm not to do any harm.
Specifically after learning that many conventional and even organic farms are losing topsoil at a staggering rate.
Rather than being a part of that problem, we wanted to farm in a way that was doing the opposite of that.
We wanted to operate a farm that actually increases the quantity and quality of the topsoil (and not loses it due to poor practices).
You see, with most traditional market gardening methods, where tillage is applied, you’re constantly going against nature.
You wind up in a constant battle that you’re never going to win.
And this battle will cause you to have to work more, you’ll have to put more effort into it, and you’re going to need a whole assortment of additional tools to manage your farm.
This extra labor and effort and the additional tools you need mean two things.
Lower profits and a higher initial investment cost.
Think about that for a few seconds.
That is something you definitely want to avoid when you start your farm.
No matter what method you use, starting a farm is going to be hard on its own already.
So why make it even harder on yourself and reduce your profits and increase your investment costs?
It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
And that’s the unfortunate reality for many people getting into this.
Before they even start their farms, and without them even knowing, they’ve already put extra weights on them, making it much more difficult for themselves.
And that’s what happens when you use the approach of tilling the soil.
It creates more work, tons of weeds you need to manage and weeding tools you’re going to need to control them, and at the end of the day you’re pretty much constantly destroying soil and the soil structure.
This translates back into having more problems with plant diseases, as plant pathogens are awakened, but also the nutrient cycling will be reduced and the soils ability to hold water and moisture for longer has been disrupted leading to more watering and more compaction.
As you can imagine, this constant battle gives a huge increase in complexities.
You don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.
When you start out, you want to keep things simple for yourself.
The simpler you can make it from the beginning, the faster you’re going to be able to see success.
But, I understand, it’s not easy to make a choice.
I mean, when we start out, we inform ourselves about how to do things and many of the resources available tell you to invest in tillers, tractors and other unnecessary equipment.
You’re being told to till the soil and use the latest technology to handle the problems you’re creating for yourself.
And a simple question to ask yourself is: who is benefiting from this type of information that’s being shared?
Is it you, the farmer, that needs to take out big loans or use all of your savings on fancy equipment?
Or is it the companies that provide you with the latest gadgets.
I think the answer is pretty clear.
Going in debt or investing a big percentage of your funds into tools and equipment that are going to end up giving you more problems than solutions (and are going to give you more work for less profits) is a recipe for disaster.
The fastest way to failure is spending more money than you have and spending more time, energy and effort into managing tasks that can be completely avoided altogether.
And the worst is, those are not the only problems we face with the traditional methods of growing food.
We now know that the market gardening systems where we till the soil are not only less profitable, but also require us to do a lot more work.
We put ourselves into a position of needing to make additional questionable decisions that ultimately are going to affect our bottom lines and increase the overall complexities of running a small farm.
There’s the phenomenon of plants needing loose soil to grow in, and the hundreds of fertilizer recipes you need to give to each individual crop in order for them to grow well.
Or what about crop rotation and sending off soil samples to laboratories to get your soil tested?
What about all this extra work and these extra inputs.
Do they have a quantifiable outcome?
Are they really that necessary?
Or are they simply part of the old way of thinking that have been adopted just a few generations back without ever questioning why we do them?
5 Farming Myths That Cost You Time, Money & Energy
We know that with tilling the soil we’re creating a lot of problems for ourselves as farmers.
We will be constantly going against nature which reflects back into having more weeds, needing more tools, and needing to put more work efforts into it.
This means that you’ll need to invest more from the start so you’ll end up with a much higher initial investment cost, but will also mean less profitability due to the extra labor it requires to manage the farm.
Not to mention what it does to your soil and ultimately the overall quality of your production.
From this tillage method we can directly tap into 5 myths that are associated to this way of growing food.
And these myths are going to cost you to invest more time, invest more money, and requires more energy inputs to run your farm.
Myth #1: You need a lot of tools and equipment to manage the farm
To a certain extent, this is true, IF you go down the path of using tillage in your overall growing methods.
The tools and equipment that are being used with this method are endless.
You’ll need tarps, flameweeders, wheel hoes, a walk-behind tractor or a tilther (or both), tine weeders, and several other tools, strictly for the management of weeds in a tilled market garden.
And the costs for all these tools are not the least.
Just these tools combined can cost your over 10.000 Euros (or dollars).
That is a huge amount of money that you need to invest before you even start growing!
You’re already 10,000 down the hole and what do you get in return?
Extra work and more complexities.
These tools are not miracle tools.
They’re tools specifically created and designed to help you with the weeding management on your farm.
But does it help you address the root of the problem?
You see, the whole reason weeds exist in an ecosystem is to help regenerate a land after either a man-made or a natural occurring disruption of the soil.
An example of a man-made disruption is tillage. An example of a natural disruption is a wild fire.
Whenever a disruption occurs, natures first response is to start the regeneration process.
And this means a flush of, you’ve guessed it, your favorite weed seeds.
They’re both annual and perennial plants that are the toughest and most resilient plants alive on the planet.
They are able to start growing in very poor conditions just with one goal in mind.
To cover the soil and protect it from the elements.
But imagine you use a method of growing food that doesn’t create this disruption, and instead focuses on working in harmony with nature.
That method exists (we’ll cover more about that in the next article), and it directly translates back into the amount of tools that you simply don’t need for your farm.
You can, quite literally, save yourself a huge initial investment cost that can reach numbers upwards of 10.000.
And if you’re able to do that, it will be much easier for you to start seeing success.
Myth #2: You need to cultivate/till, because plants like loose soil
Probably coming from tractor and tiller manufacturers.
“You need to till and cultivate your soil to get a crumbly and loose topsoil, which is perfect for your vegetables”.
And the production on our farm, simply proves otherwise.
We don’t cultivate the soil, yet our plants are growing extremely abundantly.
And if we look deeper into why that is, it’s pretty simple.
The structure of our soil and the no dig growing beds are home to a wide diversity of soil life that are being protected, stimulated and promoted.
They are constantly creating air and moisture channels.
These channels and pathways are used by the roots of the plants to reach for water, nutrients and oxygen.
Without tillage, the soil will naturally be firm.
This firmness, contrary to popular believe, is actually a good thing.
It allows plants to anchor down into the soil and hold on to it, providing stability.
Now, I personally don’t walk on my beds, but if I do it actually feels like a sponge. Similar to what it feels like when you walk in the forest. It kind of bounces back.
This is a great illustration of something you want to create and shows that we’re working with a soil that’s alive, vibrant, and full of organic matter.
Forests don’t require any tilling, yet they’re one of the most abundant ecosystems on this planet.
On our farm we don’t do any cultivation or tilling besides removing the occasional weed here and there with a precision weeder, yet this undisturbed soil is providing us with plenty of healthy and abundant growth.
Myth #3 & 4: Soil testing and the need for fertilizers
I decided to combine these two myths together since I believe they are closely related.
This topic is an interesting one, because it doesn’t matter what book you open, in most of them there will be a section on soil testing and the importance of it.
But is it really that important?
Is a soil test really able to tell you what’s in the soil and what’s available to your plants?
And based on these results, are you able to come up with a recipe to add anything your soil might lack?
To answer these questions we need to look at what soil tests are and what they do.
In general terms a soil test is the analysis of a soil sample to determine the nutrient content available within the soil, the composition, and other characteristics like the acidity or pH level.
This test is often times done by commercial laboratories that offer a wide variety of tests, targeting groups of compounds and minerals, like the major nutrients, the secondary nutrients and the trace elements.
Based off the tests they do, they can see the exact quantity of nutrients that are available in the soil, the pH level of the soil, the exact composition: so what it is made out of, whether it’s clay, loam, silt, sand or a combination of these, and usually also the level of organic matter content.
If you’ve ever sent a soil sample to a laboratory for testing you’ve probably seen the values of what your soil contains and the amount of each of the nutrients they recommend the soil should have.
At first, if you wouldn’t know any better, you would think that following their recommendations is the right thing to do.
After all, they’re the scientists and do these tests regularly right?
To answer this question I’m going to refer to something Doctor Elaine Ingham said.
If you don’t know who that is, she is an American microbiologist and recognized as the foremost soil biologist in the world.
You can check out her website here.
She discovered the soil food web nearly 4 decades ago and has been pioneering research ever since.
She literally said:
“I don’t know of any soil in the world that doesn’t contain all the nutrients already. During my lifetime, the number of plant nutrients considered to be essential has increased from 3 to more than 40. Who can say what a plant needs, except the plant itself? Applying this mineral or that fertilizer is also a waste of money. Assays of plant tissues reveal that the nutrients present, bear no relationship whatsoever to any soluble artificial nutrients applied. A plant requires all nutrients to a greater or lesser extent, and only it knows what it needs and when. The trick is having all those nutrients in a bio-available form in the soil at all times”.
Looking at this it puts literally everything into a different aspect when it comes to soil testing.
Because, here on one side we’ve got pretty much every single one telling us that it’s important to do a soil test, yet the world’s foremost soil biologist says it’s a waste of money.
Now, I’m personally not a soil biologist and quite frankly, I’m not too interested in becoming one.
But having a basic understanding of the soil and simply by observing the growth of your plants, you will be able to work your way around soil testing and fertilizers.
I mean do you really need to buy those expensive bags of fertilizers that mimic nature poorly and give the plants no chance but to force feed them with it?
Or are you going to allow the plants to take up the nutrients when they require them?
The choice is yours.
But of course, if you have to believe the fertilizing companies, you obviously have no choice.
And I’m here to tell you that after many seasons on our farm, we have not once applied any fertilizer.
Not for our so-called heavy feeders nor the light feeders, yet we seem to be getting bumper crops every single growing season.
The only thing we apply is compost.
And this keeps the whole system protected, happy and fed.
But then the question arises: “Isn’t compost a fertilizer and doesn’t compost leach out nutrients in heavy rains or irrigation?”
And the answer is no.
Compost itself is not a fertilizer in the usual sense, as in nutrients that are necessary for a particular planting.
The nutrients in fertilizers are mostly water-soluble and readily available.
In contrast, the nutrients within compost are held in a water-insoluble state, until plants need to access them.
On top of that, the compost also gets consumed and excreted by soil life, which converts them into an even more diverse range of food for plant roots.
So, to come back to the initial question and myth: Do you need to do a soil test and use plant fertilizers?
The answer is no.
Myth #5: Crop rotation
Reading up on farming, you’ll inevitably end up stumbling on the topic of crop rotation.
And much advice on the topic states of a necessity of a 4-year interval between crops of the same family.
It basically comes down to a categorization of plants into groups or families to reduce diseases and make the most of the fertility that’s available in the soil.
And on a small farm this is simply not practical, nor entirely necessary.
That is, once again, if you don’t till the soil.
Because if you do, crop rotation is probably much more necessary.
If we look at the traditional sense of crop rotation, we would pretty much have one crop in a bed, let’s say cabbages, and follow it up with something like a cover crop that will have to be tilled in and made ready for planting again in the following season.
By tilling the cover crop into the soil we’re creating a subsoil compaction pan whilst most of the tilled in green manures will decompose in an anaerobic fashion.
This in turn favors the microorganisms in the soil that are harmful for plants.
Since we are working on a small scale and do most of the work by hand, we’re not only growing one succession in a bed, but usually at least 2 or 3, and in some cases even up to 6 successions in the same bed in one growing season.
We can start out a bed with for example spinach, followed by carrots, followed by summer squash, followed by lettuce, and as last with radish.
Those are 5 different types of crops and only the carrots and lettuce are from the same family, but are broken down by the summer squash.
This means that essentially we’re already following an adapted approach to crop rotation.
If we look at the traditional sense of crop rotations, most of the rotations are broken down in years.
On a small farm like ours that’s simply not viable and a big waste of time and space.
On top of that, if you put all your efforts and energy into creating a healthy soil the need for rotation becomes very small.
We’ve experienced this personally on our farm.
We’ve been growing crops of the same family in the same beds, without any noticeable problems.
If we have to grow two crops of the same family in succession behind each other, meaning that we could increase our production, I’m more than happy to do so.
Having said that, I try to avoid it if I can.
If you see that there’s a crop that endures heavy pest infestations, so for example, in our case that would be with brassicas and flea beetles, it would be ignorant if we would try to grow those crops in successions behind each other.
It wouldn’t make much of a smart decision, because we know that the possibility of that crop to be eaten and destroyed is very high.
So in that case we would plant a crop from a different family in that bed of which we know that flea beetles (in this case) are not attracted to.
Approaching the rotation of crops in the market garden this way, honestly, has allowed for a much more simplified planning and crop management.
You don’t have to divide your crop rotation into years, and you can even grow some crops of the same family behind each other if you have to.
The key about making this all work lays in the soil.
Take care of the soil and the soil will take care of your plants.
And with that we’ve covered the 5 myths that will cause you to lose more time, more money, and more energy into your farm.
Jeez, these articles are becoming waaay too long!
Anyways, I hope they will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls and will shorten your path to success in farming.
Talking about success, in the next article I want to share with you our preferred method of growing vegetables, the only tools you need with this method, and how you can start applying this on your own farm (or future-to-be-farm) ;)
Remember? I mentioned that there was a way that allows you to reduce your workload, that will increase your profits, and will provide you with a much higher quality of life. That’s up next!