Making a Good Living & Making a Good Life

It's the darkest time of the year for market gardeners in the Northern Hemisphere. These are the days where the sun's rays are weakest. Wind and snow and chilly temperatures hinder cultivation of crops. Even in the greenhouse, things are growing slow because the days are so short.

This is an essential time for market gardeners to take a break, contemplate and plan for the next season.

Some winter affirmations for market gardeners: check out this podcast with Jean-Martin Fortier on Permaculture Voices. Whether you're just getting started on your farm, or if you've been farming hard for years, you may find reflections of your adventures reflected here:

The Adventure of Going into Farming – Blending the Romanticism of Farming with What It Takes to Be Successful (Hint… It’s A Lot of Hard Work), The Founder’s Story with Jean-Martin Fortier

And here's an excerpt from The Market Gardener to inspire your season of rest. 

The popular myth of family farms persists: we are tied down tot he land, we work seven days a week, we never have time off, and we just barely scrape by financially. This image probably has its roots in the real-life struggles experienced by most conventional farmers, who are caught in the strangle-hold of modern agriculture. It is true that being a mixed vegetable grower is hard work. Rain or shine, we are up against the vagaries of a highly unpredictable climate. Bumper crops and seasons of plent are far from guaranteed, and a hefty does of pluck and commitment is required to make it through - particularly during those first few years, when one is still building infrastructure and a customer base.

Our vocation is nevertheless an exceptional one, defined not by the hours spent at work or the money earned, but by the quality of life it affords. Believe it or not, there is still plenty of free time left over when the work is done. Our season gradually gets started in the month of March and finishes in December. That's nine months of work; three months off. The winter is a treasured time for resting, travelling, and other activities. To anyone who pictures farm life as endless drudgery, I would assert that I feel quite fortunate to live in the countryside and work outdoors.

Wishing you all a restful winter season!

Six Best Tools for the market Garden

Originally published in Growing For Market (March 2014) & on the FarmStart Tool Shed blog.

At Les Jardins de la Grelinette, we’ve been growing vegetables commercially with hand tools (i.e. without a tractor) for more than a decade and if efficiency and yields are to be the measure for successful growing, our tools and technics have proven to be just that; incredibly productive.

Recently our friends at FarmStart, an organisation dedicated to supporting new ecological farmers,asked us to provide them with list of our six favourite market gardening tools. This is not an easy task given that all of our tools complement one another in our intensively cultivated 1.5 acres. Its like asking which part of your car you think makes it most important for the car to run properly . Nonetheless here is our ranking.

1. The Rotary Power Harrow 

We began working with a power harrow, which is mounted on our BCS walking tractor in order to replace the rear tine tiller that usually comes equipped on walking tractors. The power harrow has multiple sets of tines that rotates on a vertical axes for complete horizontal tilling of the soil. It works the soil by stirring it instead of mixing like a tiller would do. The result is soil layers that are not inversed (there are may benefits to this) and no vertical compression of the soil ,which can lead to hardpan formation.

The power harrow is equipped with a steel mesh-roller in the rear that perfectly levels and pre-tamps the soil for good seed-to-soil contact. You can easily and quickly adjust the working depth of the tine so to cultivate only the top few inches if you like. This feature is important for us since it allow us to work the soil to no more than 2 inches deep, in accordance with minimum tillage techniques we favour on our farm.

One pass with the power harrow gives us a perfectly conditioned bed ready for transplants and direct-seeded crops. Overall it’s far superior to a rototiller and I would recommend trying it first before adopting another tilling or spading device. It’s also worth mentioning that the better ones are built by Rinaldi R2 which is compatible with BCS, Ferrari, Pasquali waking tractors.

2. The Berta Plow.

    We grow on permanent raised beds and overall we have 180 of them, each a 100 feet long. When we started the farm, we dug all of them with shovels and I still remember how long of a job that was. Nowadays, we use a Berta Plow (also mounted on our BCS walking tractor) to do same thing as our shovels only 50 times faster. As raised beds have a tendency to settle over time, we continually have to till the soil. . The Berta Plow takes the soil from the bottom and moves it sideway.Due to the fact that the soil is not trapped under a hood and repeatedly pulverized, as would happen with a tiller, the soil structure is not beat to death. The Berta Plow is also great for breaking new ground making it ,I believe, a more that worthwhile investment when starting out the market garden.

    3. The Flame Weeder.

      We haven’t hand weeded a carrot bed for many years now thanks to the help of this amazing gizmo. We rely on flame weeding mostly for burning weeds in the pre-emergence stage of slow germinating, direct-seeded crops such as carrots, beets and parsnips. This approach is somewhat like the false seedbed technique, where seedbeds are prepared 2 weeks before planting (to give the weeds a head start to grow), but instead of destroying the emerged weeds prior to seeding, you seed the bed one week earlier halfway into the growing process. Just before your vegetable seeds emerge from the soil, the flame weeder is run over the ground, leaving the crop to emerge into an essentially weed-free bed. Simple and VERY effective.  If you’re still pulling weeds on your hands and knees, you should definitely look into getting this timesaving tool.

      Effective thermal weed control depends on the quality of the flame weeder. Ours is 30 inches wide and features five torches, which allows burning at a high intensity with multiple flames. The torches are shielded from the wind by a metal hood—an important feature that allows us to use the tool in windy weather.

      4. Crop planning calendar

      Granted a calendar is not a piece of equipment, but it’s so vital to our market gardening success that I could not go without giving it a place in this ranking. On our farm, every thing we do, what we grow, when we start our crops and where we seed everything is all pre-determined in the winter and laid out as acropping guideline for us to follow come summer -time when things get crazy. If done properly, a calendar of this sort leaves nothing to chance. We grow the equivalent of about 250 CSA shares on our 1.5 acres mainly to fact that we have many successions following one another. Without our crop-planning calendar, this simply would not be feasible.

      5. UV-Treated Polyethylene Tarps

      The main factor in keeping a garden weed-free is how much space is to be kept under control. If we had to cultivate the whole 1 ½ acre garden every week to keep it clean using hoes, I doubt we would manage. This is where black plastic mulch comes in handy. Covering unused beds with tarps is a very effective way of avoiding weed proliferation in the garden AND diminishing weed pressure on subsequent crops. The explanation is simple: weeds germinate in the warm, moist conditions created by the tarp but are then killed by the absence of light. This weeding technique called occultation is widely use by organic growers in Europe.


      I believe plastic tarps are just as beneficial to soil as other forms of mulching. We are often reminded of this when we pull back a tarp and are greeted by an abundance of earthworms.

      6. The Quick Cut Harvester

      Mesclun is our signature crop and we’ve been growing thousands of pounds annually for a long time. Over the course of that time, we’ve pretty much tried every possible growing technic to lessen the burden of this labour intensive crop. By far, our biggest advent was the purchase of the quick cut harvester. A hand drill powered mechanical greens harvester that saves us hundreds of harvesting hours yearly. You can see a great short video of the product featuring Eliot Coleman below.

      Stopping at 6 is almost torment. How can I not mention the broadfork (grelinette in french), the collinear and wheel hoes, our vacuum and precision seeders, or the paperpot transplanter, which we are trying to hack to make more effective and affordable.

      You’ll find all the details of our farming system in the recently published book, The Market Gardener; A successful grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming (New Society Publisher).

      The Market Gardener receives Living Now Book Award!

      The Market Gardener was awarded a silver medal at the Living Now Book Award and is well on its way to having sold 40 000 copies.

      I feel very humbled about all this appreciation. Hopefully, it translates into providing beginning farmers with a solid framework for them to successfully start their own farming endeavours. That’s my goal.

      Thanks to everyone who has read my work and shared it with others. As a group of liked minded people, we are slowly changing the face of agriculture. Its up to all of us to reinvent the noble profession of farming

      All the best in your agrarian adventures
      JM Fortier