Starting a market garden

I promised a turn to more practical matters, and since the discussions under both my last two posts somehow managed to turn, as all discussions should, from global politics to market gardening, let’s have a think about the latter. Especially because I recently received a query from some start-up market gardeners asking some interesting questions about the business side of it, which struck me as good material to share in a blog post and hopefully elicit some other people’s responses.

But let me start with a preamble on a few of the issues about garden productivity that were being discussed under my preceding posts, and also a comment on my own personal horticultural trajectory.

Simon mentioned in a comment the view of the inestimable Tim Deane that you can grow enough on an acre to fill 25-30 veg boxes per week. That sounds about right to me, on the basis that you’d be producing the fertility elsewhere (so yes, probably halve that for in situ organic production). But it does of course depend on what you grow, and why. Suppose you decided to produce absolutely everything you put in the boxes yourself. Making allowance for paths between the beds, your acre should give you something like 28 metre-wide growing beds each 100m long. And you’d need to produce about 10,000 individual veg items over the year. If you put about 1kg of potatoes in each box, I reckon most small-scale organic growers would need about 10 beds of potatoes – so that’s a third of our space gone already, and we still need to find another 9,000 items!

But never fear, if we put just half of one bed down to swiss chard and another half down to courgettes we can knock out almost as many items from that one bed as from all ten potato beds. And if we grew one full bed of lettuces successionally through the summer, in theory we could probably furnish another 3,000 items, though I think we may struggle to sell them all. Looking at the wholesale organic prices, if we were lucky we could probably make about £100 gross per bed from the potatoes, while the chard/courgette bed would bring in over £1,000 and the lettuce bed more still. Though these leafy beds would require a lot more human labour than the potato beds – assuming that you have a tractor with some kind of potato planting and harvesting kit to go on the back. But if you’re a small organic grower cropping on about an acre, chances are there’s someone else around growing potatoes who has a bigger tractor than you. And they’ll probably be selling bulk retail at 20p per kilo, which would bring your returns down to around £25 per bed if you tried to match them.

Suffice to say, then, that from the high water mark of my enthusiasm to furnish all my customers’ vegetable-related needs from my own sweet labour back in 2007 when I started growing commercially, I have gravitated away from the potato end of the horticultural spectrum in a direction more generously furnished with chard, courgettes and others of their kind. At the same time, however, my political thinking has gone rather in the opposite direction. When I started down this path I burned with the conviction that every town and city should be ringed with market gardens growing produce for local consumption. But the reality of trying to do my bit in implementing that vision has instilled a certain scepticism. While offering sincere thanks to our loyal customers, I must ruefully acknowledge that ultimately there’s a cold logic to the price of labour and the price of diesel which can’t really be averted in present economic circumstances. I got into this because I thought good things would come of communities providing for themselves, not because I wanted to grow exotic salad garnishes at prices to make a market shopper’s eyes water. Hence, I suppose, the journey charted on this blog: from prospecting a future of small commercial farms plying their trade, I’ve become more interested in the path of the substantially self-reliant latter-day homesteader. Luckily for me, there’s currently a great group of people leading on the market gardening side of the farm, with fairly minimal input from me. This leaves me time amongst other things to grow a homestead garden with plenty of potatoes, which are definitely not for sale.

Still, it needn’t be an either/or thing. Currently, Britain imports a large proportion of its vegetables, not because they can’t easily be grown here but because they can’t as easily be grown here profitably – the usual blind logic of capital, which the political events I’ve been discussing recently purport to contest. Well, without rehashing all that, it seems to me that getting into market gardening still isn’t the shortest route to easy street, but things may be looking up a bit for the British small-scale veg grower (and for the British veg buyer, not so much). And, however jaded my feelings about small-scale commercial horticulture, there’s still a case for economic relocalisation through import-substituting local market gardens – not everyone can be a homesteader, after all. So let me make my peace with the cut mixed salad, and proceed to answer as best I can the questions that came my way from the start-up market gardeners (funny, isn’t it, the different moral weighting we place on ‘start-up’ and ‘upstart’). I append below more or less what I wrote in answer to their query.


  1. What is your average turnover per acre/per full-time employee?

It’s a bit hard to unstitch this from our financial returns, since our business involves vegetables bought wholesale, plus livestock, camping and other bits and pieces. Essentially, we grow vegetables on about 1.5 acres and buy in most of the potatoes, carrots and onions that we sell, plus other items – especially during the late winter and the hungry gap. Year-round I’d guess we average a little over one full-time worker on the market garden, but more labour goes into the garden during growing season of course, when we use a mix of paid, volunteer and our own labour. I’d guess that we clear about £12-14,000 from the market garden. The wholesale purchases don’t in themselves affect the returns all that much, but the middleman aspect of the business probably increases our profits a little – it was ever thus.


  1. What is a good (manageable) number of varieties?

As few as possible! (Saves on seed and organisational headaches). But it does depend on business style – are you growing a lot of staple root vegetables with mechanisation or running a more labour-intensive operation focusing on high value summer crops? We’ve moved over time somewhat from the former to the latter, and winnowed down what we grow for commercial sale quite a lot. This year’s plan is as follows (numbers indicate the number of varieties of a crop, and asterisks indicate a major crop in terms of income and/or land take):

*Winter cabbage (5)

Calabrese (2)

*Kale (4)

Cauliflower (1)

Swede (1)

Turnip (1)

Pak choi (1)

Radish (1)

*Leek (1)

*Onion (2)

*Courgette (2)

*Cucumber (2)

*Squash (3)

Carrots (1)

*Celeriac (1)

Celery (1)

*Parsnips (2)

*Beetroot (1)

*Leaf beet (1)

*Chard (1)

*Spinach (1)

Broad beans (1)

*French beans (2)

Runner beans (1)

*Lettuce (11)

*Winter salads (14)

Aubergine (2)

*Tomatoes (1)

Peppers (2)

Physalis (1)

Basil (1)

Green manures (9)


  1. Are there any specific varieties you’d recommend to a new business?

It’s hard to say, as so much depends on site, soil and business style. But most small growers make their peace sooner or later with cut winter salad leaves.


  1. How do you solve the time of the hungry gap?

A lot of people solve it by only operating from June to December and focusing on high-value summer crops. We operate year-round, but we’ve found that on a small scale the crops you can grow for hungry gap cropping aren’t really worth it for the most part – too much ground occupation for too long, for too small a return (eg. sprouting broccoli). One exception is hungry gap kale, which has cropped well for us. Asparagus is another one we’ve grown, but it’s too high value for sale routes like veg boxes. The last flush of the winter salads in the polytunnels helps bridge the hungry gap. If you have the polytunnel space, there are of course also lots of crops that you can bring through early. But we find that generally it’s not worth it – the extra price you get is cancelled by the extra inputs required, and there are better uses for precious tunnel space. Our main strategy is to rely on the salads and the last gasp of the trusty winter root crops, and to buy in wholesale whatever else we have to (including things like mushrooms) – which in a lot of years is most of it (beware the poorer quality of much wholesale produce, though). It’s not exactly a strategy of peasant self-reliance, but business is business.


  1. What are good cash crops?

Salad leaves, lettuces, cut-and-come again leaves…basically, leaves in general and/or anything that has to be harvested by hand by the big guys as well as the small ones. Also, steady croppers that don’t require much input or have many pest problems – beetroot, beans, courgettes, squash etc. And generally summer crops over autumn-winter-spring crops.


  1. Are there any unforeseen or regular expenses?

Regular expenses (in time or money): insurance, seeds/starts, seed compost (though we’ve started making some of our own), fuel, water/irrigation, labour, tool/machinery maintenance and the dreaded agri-plastics…and don’t forget the depreciation of machinery.

Unforeseen expenses: well, you can’t always foresee when the tractor or delivery van is going to break down, and it can be darned expensive (and stressful) when it does. Volunteers are also good at breaking tools. And so am I, if I’m honest…

When I discussed this question with the farm crew it led to a lengthy discussion of water sources and irrigation management. I argued the case against putting much emphasis on rainwater harvesting, at least in our climate – probably because I feel subconsciously guilty about not sorting this out better than I have. But what I’d say is that the rain you can easily collect from farm structures is a small proportion of what you need, and even then you’d need an awful lot of storage capacity to make much use of it, and if you’re going to use it for irrigation you’d need somehow to attend carefully to water purity and water pressure. On a small market garden scale, mains water is more practical. On a bigger scale you’d probably want a borehole – but it can be expensive to install. More generally though, it’s worth thinking about surface water management. Keeping it away from crops when you don’t want it is equally if not more important than getting it to them when you do. But ideally you’d also want to hold it up on your farm and make use of it somehow – maybe by using it to grow useful biomass of some kind.


  1. Are there any unforeseen regulations to take special note of?

You need to register your holding as an agricultural holding, and also register the business with the local Environmental Health department. You may need to get trading guidance from the Trading Standards Officer depending on your sales methods. Since food is zero-rated for VAT, it may be a good idea to register for VAT so you can claim back on your inputs – it’s kind of a pain either way. You’ll obviously need to register your business structure, whatever it is, for tax purposes. There are a few rules and regulations about water, pesticides and fertiliser to think about – but for an organic vegetable business the regulatory burden is pretty light. There’s sometimes a bit of anxiety around salads.


  1. What are your recommended community engagement methods?

I’m not sure I’m a great exemplar here, but here’s a few things – regular open days and/or an ‘open gate’ policy, making the farm available for various community/educational events (albeit with good usage agreements in place), social media (lots of tweets and Facebook posts) and ideally some grounding in the community and community organisations (Transition groups etc.) Getting articles/letters in the local paper can be good. Ditto leaflets around town and on noticeboards. We haven’t found straightforward advertising to be of much use.


  1. What valuable initial capital expenses would you put first in a startup?

I guess first you need to decide what kind of operation to run. Large-scale field crops sold year-round pushes you towards heavy mechanisation, which would have to include a lot of tractor-mounted kit all tailored to specific bed/row systems and therefore possibly bespoke and expensive. If you’re doing a lot of your own compost management then a tractor with front-loader or backhoe or mini-digger may be necessary. There’s a lot of moving stuff around so again a tractor/trailer or pickup may be necessary, though perhaps you could just get away with a van. Otherwise, if you’re going more for high value summer crops on a smaller scale you can probably make do with hand tools or hand-held power tools (maybe a rotavator/2-wheel tractor).

Other main startup expenses could include covered space for packing/storing, polytunnels, agri-plastics, irrigation kit and retail publicity.


  1. What are your methods for sale?

A veg box scheme involving door-to-door local delivery with two delivery days (Mon & Fri) from June to December (in order to optimise picking) and one delivery day January to May. And also a stall at the Food Assembly on a Wednesday night. Occasional sales at small local festivals in the summer and one-off sales to customers and shops. The key thing for a small market garden is to sell direct to the final customer. Almost all the value that you can get is in the retail price, not the wholesale price.


  1. Is organic certification worthwhile?

For a small market garden selling direct to the final customer, no I don’t think so. It would be possible to have a huge debate about the rights and wrongs of organics and certification, but from a purely business point of view for a small direct-sale business, I’d just say the answer is no. However, you do perhaps then need to put a bit more effort into convincing your customers that your growing methods are sound (open days, talks etc.) And I guess you miss out on some of the support and networking opportunities available through membership in the movement.


  1. Are there any useful resources you could point us toward?

The Organic Growers Association is good with a lot of practical information and support (you don’t have to be certified organic to join).

The Landworker’s Alliance is good as a union and political body for small growers.

Local grower groups can also be good.

Volunteer labour can be useful – the original and best source is WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). But there are pros and cons that need thinking about.



  1. If you were to start again is there anything you’d do differently?

I’d get the layout of the garden better organised from the start (tracks, paths, irrigation etc.) Likewise with thinking through the mechanisation. I’d plan the business better in the knowledge that you have to hold on to retail value. And I’d prepare myself better for the fact that the volumes involved – even for a small market garden – are much greater than for a home garden (meaning, among other things, that a lot of things you can do in a home garden you can’t do in a market garden).

44 thoughts on “Starting a market garden

  1. Chris,
    An interesting selection of questions and answers. You’ve mentioned off and on over the years the amount of volunteer labor (I assume in the form of WWOOF’ers). How would removing that labor from your model affect your profitability and farm life?

  2. Anxiously awaiting an answer to Brian’s question too…

    I particularly liked the description of the arc of your experience on the farm. My own experience on a small farm growing up — where we had a retail roadside stand was one of some evolution as well. Some of the change related to expertise of the labor force over time; market signals about what the local community wanted/expected; our own personal biases toward the veges – both in terms of what we liked to eat and what we found we could grow well. So, yes – it is interesting to see what changes have occurred at Vallis Veg.

  3. Also, with a borehole solution in the UK, is the water drawn then monitored/restricted or are you free to run it dry should you wish? (For rainwater solutions I found most helpful for downpipe filtering and tanks). Much appreciated the post.

  4. In the food world, most of the profit is made down stream, i.e., the processors, handlers, and merchants make money, not so much the farmer. That being the case, it makes sense to process some of your produce on the farm before it goes to markets. Take a handful of a highly perishable crop like apricots, that have a post harvest life of only a few hours and turn them into apricot jam, and 1) you jump from $1 value to $7; and 2) you now have a year to sell it, not just a day. So jams, marmalades, chutneys, and pickles should be on the market gardener’s mind right from the start. This adds value, and lets you even out irregular production, and evade the curses of perverse weather. A dollar’s worth of snap beans or okra becomes worth $5 when you pickle it and put it in a jar. Yes, the jar and lid and label will cost sixty or seventy cents, and you’ll have to get permits and licenses, but the rigamarole is worth it. Cucumbers, green beans, baby carrots, beets, pearl onions, peppers, okra, and others all make good pickles. On my small farm, (no employees or volunteers) when we shifted from strictly fresh product to a fair amount of value-added preserves, our gross annual revenue jumped rather quickly from $50k to $100k. If a market farm is to be your sole source of income, post-harvest processing of a portion of the crops is a good way to stay ahead of poverty.

    • Mike,
      We have been struggling to move towards a value-added format, like you describe. Do you mind sharing a bit? Specifically, I’d like to know about kitchen facilities. Not sure where you are located. But we’d have to use a USDA inspected kitchen to sell any preserves. Although, I wonder if there is some small farm exemption?

      • Brian, Regulations vary by state. We have a separate building that is licensed as a food processing facility (Cost $450 per year plus $100 organic amendment). This is licensed by the state (California). If you serve food on site you also have to have a commercial kitchen, licensed by the county. California has a cottage law that allows small scale production for sale only in the county of origin, that bypasses the state and county requirements. We are registered with the USDA as a producer, but at no cost, and with no inspections. Pickles require a separate cannery license. We produce about 4,000 jars of jam (apricot, fig, blackberry, citrus) and 3200 liters of olive oil per annum. Some olive oil is made into soap. –Mike

  5. Thanks for those comments.

    Volunteer labour is a tricky one. I think it can be useful, especially when you first start dipping your toe into commercial growing, but it’s a mixed bag – people are quite varied, and you can’t necessarily rely on it to get a lot of work done, unless you get organised for a specific large job. The social aspects of having WWOOFers has been a net positive over the years, though again sharing your house with visitors has its downsides. Long-term paid labour is probably a better option overall, but of course is a big jump for a small business and has its downsides too. I guess generally now we’re trying to tighten up what we do and decrease the volunteering focus, but we still have them. It’s hard to say what the effect on profitability is – certainly without them I’d probably have to get off my damn computer occasionally and do some actual work.

    On green manures, the main issue there is the fact that with many of them you need to keep cutting them and stop them from going to seed, which generally you don’t want – and keeping them for seed would tend to mess up your rotations, because really you want to maximise time for the veg crops. There are some types like buckwheat, or maybe some of the cereals, that may be feasible to save. But seed is relatively cheap, so in a business sense I don’t think it’s worth it.

    On boreholes, I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but you have to get a licence from the water authority and you’re usually limited in how much you can abstract, but the limits are pretty generous and usually adequate for horticulture. Not sure that it would be a good idea to run it dry.

    On value added, I found Mike’s comments interesting. It’s not a route we’ve gone down (I suppose our equivalent is the campsite, which brings a better reward to labour). I’ve always felt that you’re in the same position of competing in a tough market as with primary produce, plus there’s all the processing time and regulatory stuff. But on the other hand, I know a lot of small farmers do find ways to stay in business by adding value through processing. Perhaps, as with most things, and as Clem says, it’s all about judging the market and finding ways that work for the individual.

  6. Thanks for this.

    From a back garden growers perspective I can identify with a lot of it.

    I save rainwater into plastic drums which is then pumped to tanks around the garden using a submersible pump – £25 or so from Lidl. I have never bothered with looking at water quality although I do try to rotate it and usually empty all the tanks at the start of the winter.

    Obviously as its a back garden I have a generous roof to growing area ratio, but generally dot bother much with irrigation apart from when I plant the crops out and obviously in the greenhouse

    What issues can you get with using rainwater from the roof?

  7. Thanks for this.

    From a back garden growers perspective I can identify with a lot of it.

    I save rainwater into plastic drums which is then pumped to tanks around the garden using a submersible pump – £25 or so from Lidl. I have never bothered with looking at water quality although I do try to rotate it and usually empty all the tanks at the start of the winter.

    Obviously as its a back garden I have a generous roof to growing area ratio, but generally dot bother much with irrigation apart from when I plant the crops out and obviously in the greenhouse

    What issues can you get with using rainwater from the roof?

    • Not sure what the issues are from a market garden inspector’s point of view regarding harvested rainwater purity. For uses other than watering (ie washing hair) you’d probably want to filter it before storage to get most of the solid impurities out; if you intended to make it potable quality then potential pathogens from bird droppings would need to somehow be filtered out and/or UV-light zapped. Some architects have gone down the ‘autonomous house’ route, collecting rainwater for all household needs in preference to mains water. Last I read on this is that rain will slowly corrode copper pipes if not also treated to decrease its acidity. All things considered, it’s hard to beat a well, which you can indeed run dry until the pump bottoms out, as they slowly fill back up within a few hours. Boreholes probably behave differently owing to the smaller diameter/construction method.

      • My family has lived on untreated catchment water for thirty years with no problem. We catch off the painted metal roof of our house and store the water in a covered 40,000 gallon tank. It is unfiltered, unsterilized and we use it for just about everything, including drinking. I have also used this water for topping off lead acid batteries with no problem. We use pond water for irrigation.

        We do go to some effort to keep rats and mice off the roof. We also live far from any industrial air pollution, although we occasionally get rain falling through volcanic aerosols from an active volcano about 50 miles away. The pH of our water is 6.

        You may be right about the corrosion of copper pipe, since we have noticed some blue staining in our white shower enclosures, but I recently changed out some copper pipe from a solar hot water supply and return after 28 years of use and there was no evidence of significant internal corrosion. To make sure the pipes last for a very long time it might be better to go with CPVC or some other plastic all around.

        • Thanks Joe. The pipe corrosion problem cropped up on an autonomous house build in Worcestershire, UK, called Cropthorne House. The owner says it’s raining carbonic acid in that part of the world! At the other end of the scale, similar to yourselves, an Australian couple and their family lived on untreated rainwater. Both retired chemists, they told me they occasionally sent their daughter in to the catchment tank to clean it out every couple of years or so. I’ll always remember how they calmly assured me that, in their opinion, having to routinely treat the water before drinking it was “a load of rubbish”.

          • Thanks for the reply. I will attempt to investigate the copper corrosion issue further. Everything else in our water supply system (other than the roof) is HDPE, including the tank liners. It would be a shame to have all the house piping crap out, but I guess we could always haul water from the spigot by the front door.

            The change to catchment was a step up for my family. For the previous 11 years (before moving to our present property in the tropics) we got our water supply from a mountain stream. We did fine with untreated and unfiltered stream water too, although it did come down out of pristine douglas fir covered wilderness. We could not drink the stream water here where we are now. Far too much biological contamination, such as leptospirosis from rat urine.

  8. Some interesting thoughts & observations here: I’ve got a 3-acre market garden selling produce mostly to shops & restaurants, & been running it for 7 years. It’s been gradually make more money as I’ve got better at growing/timings etc, and have concentrated on fresh leafy things that command a better price, as well as unusal varieties and produce that’s harder to get hold of elsewhere, rather than cheap staples that take up a lot fo space are more cost-effective on larger scales eg roots, onions, cabbages etc. So a business plan is essential in order to work out what the local demand is. There’s just me plus some seasonal paid-for labour at the moment (and the odd volunteer day for eg polytunnel skinning etc). Last year we reached just under £18,000 turnover and I’m optimisitic that with more direct selling and more experience, this coud easily be more like £25,000 (still only just about living wage in terms of profit when you include hours spent). Some more info on my place here if if interest:

  9. Wrong time of year for me to be going in depth to this discussion, but wanted to throw in that with a no-dig market garden of currently ½ acre including two 60x20ft polytunnels we will have turned over £17,000 of veg by end march. The farm is in total a 9acre site with camping and forest school (not included in that £figure) 20 mins south of Bristol. All customers are in a 5mile radius apart from 3 whole food shops (chain) in Bristol. We use Charles Dowding’s methods of growing and sowing, and sell direct to pubs, shops and restaurants, with some wholesale going into a pre-agreed price veg-box scheme and farmers market. We are certified organic, paid for by some of the extra hay sales from the rest of the land.

    • Hi Susanna, could i just clarify your turnover please? I assumed that it was your end of yr figure but my growing partner has just asked if that’s for the first 3 months of the yr only? Which would seem phenomenal! We have been growing no dig a la charles on a very small scale supplying some products to one hotel/restaurant and food hub. We are aiming to get to 1/4 acre by 2019 with a 2nd larger polytunnel too and supply more restaurants, but are looking for inspiration. We’re ok at growing but rubbish at selling and need to improve and have some realistic idea of potential turnover if we do it right. Thanks, loretta

    • Hi Susanna
      I was so interested to read your comment as we are also following Charles Dowding’d no dig method and have a 4 acre site with option to expand into another 4 adjacent. We’re in Worcestershire and are just starting out – literlly getting the beds down now… I would love to connect with you if possible to chat and share info etc?

  10. Just a ps to my comment on an earlier post where I chipped in about “micro-farming” in towns (seeing as I live in what might be, in your alternative future, the City-state of Brigstowe). I thought it might be of interest to give the a link that was at the back of my mind, but didn’t have to hand when I made that remark:

    urban cultivation in allotments … with press release here.

    I had slightly misremembered it, as I thought it made more of deal out of food security aspects, though it does make that point. It might very well be “well duh!” to the assembled expertise that reads this blog!

  11. Thanks everyone for the additional comments.

    The water quality issues for plant-watering are really just clogging your pipes with solid matter. Maybe there might be worries about pathogens affecting seedlings too. I remember reading in a Bob Flowerdew book that he thought it wasn’t excessive to use bottled mineral water for watering young seedlings. However, I suspect that if you plugged that into the kind of business plan that Kate’s suggesting you’d quickly come to the conclusion that, yes, it IS excessive…

    Thanks for the link, Martin. I read the abstract – looks interesting. I suppose the obvious questions are where is the organic matter coming from that’s being added to the allotments, and how much food do the allotments produce. Perhaps they answer that – I’ll try to read the full paper.

    • here is the organic matter coming from that’s being added to the allotments

      They give some answers to the organic matter question – but insufficently fine-grained. That’s to say, from the questionnaire part of the study, most of the growers did compost their own green waste and a lesser proportion (though still more than half) did bring stuff in from outside – but they don’t quantify further. I would have thought there was a high potential for keeping things within the urban system, if there was the will to do so: councils often collect food waste, there is manure from ‘city farms’, both of which can be re-directed to local allotments (and presumably often is).

  12. Thanks for the link Martin.

    Indeed, the press release did say:
    However, the heyday for allotments was during World War Two, when 10 per cent of the UK’s food came from less than 1 per cent of its cultivated land thanks to the expansion of own growing under the Dig for Victory campaign. At that time, one in three households in Leicester had an allotment but following a national decline in demand, today Leicester’s allotment plots number only 3200 and cover just 2 per cent of urban green space although the city is the second highest provider of allotments nationwide. <>

    So, the simple minded bloke that I am started scratching the noggin. One source I have suggests there were 49 million souls in the UK in 1944 (a war year). Another source suggests there are 6.2 million hectares of arable in the UK. I’m guessing there were more in the mid 40s – would I be close if I imagine there would have been 7 million hectares then (the 0.8 million loss due to development since then). One per cent of 7 million is 70,000, right? If we want to look at acres instead (most of what Chris has quoted here is in acres)…. then we have close to 173.,000 arable acres at the 1% level. Divided up amongst the 49 million souls we get 0.0035 acres per soul. Now we only need to get 10% of the food from those acres – so multiply by 10 and now we have 0.035 acres per soul… Feeding the population on just under 4 hundredths of an acre would be a pretty good feat – even with 21st century genetics and technology. My guess is there are some qualifying assumptions made by the authors that I’m not making here.


      • That was my thought too. The Edmondson paper which I linked to says:

        In the UK, there are c. 330 000 allotment plots, and a standard plot is 250 m2, giving a total area nationally likely to be
        >8000 ha

        The citations it give for this are:

        Crouch, D. & Ward, C. (1997)The Allotment Its Landscape and Culture.Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham, UK.


        Keep, M. (2009) Agriculture: historical statistics. Standard note SN/SG/3339. House of Commons Library, London.

        • Regarding this 10 per cent of calories from 1 per cent of the land, I imagine most of the food was veg, followed by some eggs, occasionally a chicken, maybe rabbits, soft fruit, but not grains and oils… it’s a gross oversimplification therefore to extrapolate that 100 per cent of the food could feasibly come from 10 per cent of the land (for almost 50 million – you’d need 30 per cent more land today), though as the figures do point in that direction nor is it science fiction exactly. I only raise this back-of-the-envelope daydream as I frequently hear on Radio 4’s Farming Today programme and elsewhere of the impending global food security problem, stemming from the way the system works (large-scale production, global distribution) at present. However, I’m not knocking Radio 4 in particular, in fact they have an interesting-sounding 30-min programme about the French agro-ecological movement on Costing the Earth this afternoon at 3.30GMT. The link for anyone interested, though I realise I may be communicating this to the already converted:

  13. Chris, couple of things I’ve been mulling over regarding your business: You don’t mention a chiller cabinet/cold room (unless I’ve missed it) to keep salad leaves and such from wilting after picking. Do you need one in the UK? I’d imagine they’d be fairly costly to run, ditto polytunnel heating. Also, as a self-employed market gardener, if one were to aim to earn just under the yearly tax threshold in the UK (approx. 11k per annum last time I looked), would that simplify the paperwork any?

    • Yes getting field heat out of leafy veg can be a problem, even in Britain! But no, we don’t have a cold room as such. We do have an old transit van buried in a big mound of earth which is the next best thing. And on hot days we try to pick early and get salad leaves bagged up as soon as we can. We don’t use polytunnel heating, which means that we don’t tend to bring through early crops. We’re pretty low tech…

      On earnings, I’m not sure tax threshold issues would simplify the paperwork. Officially, you still need some kind of business structure, even if it’s only filing a personal tax return as a self-employed sole trader, but it’s not all that onerous. VAT is more of a nuisance…

  14. Thanks. A cold room buried with earth, excellent. Does pretty low tech preclude seeders like those recommended in The Market Gardener? They look like they’d save some time on long rows of crops.

  15. You might be interested in a robot for market gardeners. It is called Toutilo. You can find it on line.

  16. I am absolutely astounded that you make so little money from that amount of land. I would be interested to know what crop densities and equipment etc. you use?

    I know someone making £35k-£65k on 1/3 of an acre over the last few years (bad year vs. in their best year), and others making £50-60k per acre. This is achieved by:

    *buying in the majority of the compost (obviously not enough space to produce enough of their own);
    *growing the majority of their crops with short dates to maturity (<100 days max);
    *only a small proportion of longer-growing crops;
    *hand tools/simple and specific tools (no large equipment, fuel, or maintenance costs thereof);
    *standard bed width of 2.5' (75cm), since many of the best market garden tools are made as 15" or 2.5' wide – this is a good width to straddle over to plant or inspect;
    *mixture of direct sales/veg boxes, selling to local restaurants, and grocers

    Essentially they have applied lean design principles to the layout and crop planning of a smallholding/market garden and boosted their income by growing a large portion of high-density (e.g. sq. ft. gardening method) high-value crops e.g. salad leaves, tomatoes and peppers (in polytunnel/high tunnel), and maybe having a nursery for microgreens too. They tend to only grow 10-15 different crops and then supplement with bonus extras at various times of year e.g. the guy with 1/3 of an acre has a small area for strawberries and he interplants them with garlic. He works an avg. of 35hr/week and his wife ~18hrs with ~4-5 weeks annual holiday.

    If you wanted to provide a more rounded vegbox, I am sure that new potatoes/late potatoes could be added into this mix too, since they are reasonably short-dated to maturity, but I think a lot of people go wrong trying to be all things to all people. We probably rely on potatoes too much in this country and would be better off eating less of them and more high quality fats added to our meals 😉

    • Hmmm, well I guess if you want to make as much money as you possibly can from growing produce on a small area, yes you can grow fancy salads while externalizing all the inputs. In my opinion it’s a model that speaks to the capitalist status quo and not to a more sustainable future, but fair play to people who want to go down that route.

      Even so, I’d question how realistic and constructive it is to be touting figures of £60k per acre and above. When you say ‘making’ £60k are we talking turnover or net income, and are we including land and other capital costs? If it were so easy to make that kind of net income there’d probably be a lot more people working in the sector, and we wouldn’t be importing so much of our fruit and veg. There are plenty of books around talking up the financial benefits of small-scale farming (of course, you have to include their purchase in the debit column of your business accounts), but I’ve not come across many people who are making anything more than a modest income from small-scale market gardening, especially ones with agroecological/sustainability aspirations.

      Our market garden is making a little more money now than it did when I wrote that piece, but in my opinion a new entrant grower getting started on a bare plot with aspirations towards broadly sustainable practices would be better advised to be thinking in terms of the kind of figures I cited than with yours. The average income for a full-time self-employed farmer across all sectors in 2019 was around £27,000 – if a small-scale agroecological grower is taking home anything approaching that kind of money, they’re doing well.

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