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Picking the right cash crops

 
pollinator
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In my future plans to escape the 9-5, are many ideas. None get me more excited than a market garden, supplying local restaurants and farmer's market goers with pristine and even exotic produce. In this pursuit, I have been experimenting with many crops, and I keep falling in to the same pitfalls. How do I find something that grows easily in my area, is in high demand, and will help me to turn the highest profit margin?

Living in a deeply conservative area, people are not always keen to try new things. Many of my more successfully grown products end up as compost because I find that many of my friends and family members have no interest in trying new things. It turns out, people like to eat things they are familiar with. It also turns out that I get sick and tired of eating the same thing over and over again.

Well, a few years ago, an upscale restaurant opened up downtown. Now people are more than willing to try anything that has been featured on the menu of this establishment. So, I decided to introduce myself to the chef. I asked the simple question, "what fruits and vegetables would you like to be able to have access to locally?" After being quite surprised by the results, I asked, "how much they would be willing to pay?" and again, the answer was astounding to me.

To summarize and simplify, the produce they were seeking was mostly micro-greens/herbs, salad greens/seasonal brassicas, berries(including watermelon), mushrooms, high quality eggs, seasonal root crops, and Cucurbits.

The price they were willing to pay was astronomical, but under the guise that the quality is of the highest order, and orders are consistent and timely.

Fortunately I have yet to actually grow my produce with the intentions of selling it, because I was able to learn some valuable lessons.

You have to sell your produce before it is even planted.
-Actively talk to potential customers.
      >Share your experiments and get feedback from friends and family.
-Talk to your potential customers at the right time
        >Don't try to talk to a chef during normal business hours!
Don't grow first and sell later.
-Produce goes bad. Compost doesn't sell for nearly as much as fresh produce.
But, you have to know how to grow it before you can sell it!
-You won't be able to keep your customers if you can't deliver on orders!

What other tips can y'all give for how to pick the right crops for a market garden?
 
master steward
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Hamilton Betchman wrote:

The price they were willing to pay was astronomical, but under the guise that the quality is of the highest order, and orders are consistent and timely.



I believe that quality is going to be the easiest aspect to have any influence on, by focusing on the soil that you wish to grow in. The weather or mother nature are likely to be the dominant influence and is always dynamic and changing, and as a grower I would never make any guarantees to a customer regarding timeliness and crop consistency. I think most buyers of quality produce that is produced by a small farm is aware of this, and they will gladly take whatever is available when it becomes available.

I see you stated that you have yet to grow any produce, and I would like to suggest reading Redhawk's soil series here on Permies found in the link below. It contains all the information needed to build and maintain healthy, biologically thriving and mineral abundant soils, and the soil is going to be the key to producing high quality produce, that is nutrient dense, bursting with flavor, and beautiful in appearance, without ever having to use any chemicals or poisons. Hope this helps!

https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk-soil
 
Hamilton Betchman
pollinator
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James Freyr wrote:

Hamilton Betchman wrote:

The price they were willing to pay was astronomical, but under the guise that the quality is of the highest order, and orders are consistent and timely.



I believe that quality is going to be the easiest aspect to have any influence on, by focusing on the soil that you wish to grow in. The weather or mother nature are likely to be the dominant influence and is always dynamic and changing, and as a grower I would never make any guarantees to a customer regarding timeliness and crop consistency. I think most buyers of quality produce that is produced by a small farm is aware of this, and they will gladly take whatever is available when it becomes available.

I see you stated that you have yet to grow any produce, and I would like to suggest reading Redhawk's soil series here on Permies found in the link below. It contains all the information needed to build and maintain healthy, biologically thriving and mineral abundant soils, and the soil is going to be the key to producing high quality produce, that is nutrient dense, bursting with flavor, and beautiful in appearance, without ever having to use any chemicals or poisons. Hope this helps!

https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk-soil


This is great advice. The chef was certainly used to availability problems, so it would be smart not to ever make any guarantees.

I may not have been clear. I have been growing many fruits and vegetable for about 10 years; I have just never had the intention of selling them.

Redhawk has given me so much great advice since I have been here! I urge anyone trying to grow anything to check out his soil advice.
I produce almost all my own farming inputs now! It's funny, as soon as I learned how to make my own organic pesticides and fungicides, I also learned about microbes, compost teas, chop and drop, no till, mulching, and all the other factors that make a healthy soil food web. Turns out most of my herbal pesticides will be going into the compost because I just haven't needed them, at all.
 
pollinator
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I'm also on a similar journey. I'm starting up a market garden next season. I've only experimented with varieties in my own garden, and I love growing exotics but... that's not what pays the bills. It's great that you got to talk to a chef.

I'm going to do farmers markets next season then look to sell directly to restaurants once I know what my production capabilities are.

My plan is to grow microgreens mostly. I was also thinking of things like sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, and other things that make good snacks for kids as my local market consists of 80% parents with young children.

I really want to grow pumpkins and other squash for Halloween and "Fall decor" as people go nuts for that stuff here... but I've been warned they are water pigs and not worth your time.

I think if you can have a good relationship with a chef that would be ideal. Chef's get bored to and you can always try growing new mixes of greens and mustards. Or work with them to create seasonal specials!
 
gardener
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For the type of market garden you describe, getting InTouch with the local chefs and finding out what they would like you to grow for them will be key to being able to make a profit.

If you also have stores such as Fresh Market or any gourmet shops that sell food items, check with the managers or owners as the case may be, to see if they would be interested in marketing something they can't easily get from current suppliers.

 
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It is so exciting to be in that place where people are receptive to inquiry. I am a newbie flower/vegetable grower, graced with an open-minded community of buyers and growers. There are good examples of organic and beyond organic growing practices around here, but at some point I realized I have to take the time to get my head wrapped around my piece of land and how to embody my ideals and interests into my operation, rather than just seeing how others are doing things. After reading some of what Wheaton Labs teaches, I want to head more toward that wild meandering composition, rather than the straight rows of kale where I fight the cabbage leaf moth larvae, notorious to growers around here. Looking forward to being a part of this conversation.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Micro greens are actually a market share that is pretty easy to get into.
There are two fellows in SanFrancisco that are marketing microgreens, one has a nice warehouse with all the accompanying overhead.
The other grows his in his home and he has a better market value than the guy paying for his building, lights, heat, and everything else, sure he has a larger share of the market but his profit margin is far less than the guy growing in his home.

I have always thought that microgreens would be a good business to get into simply because you can grow quite a lot in a small space and the margin is pretty good since you have a 7 to 14 day turn around on each tray of microgreens.
 
pollinator
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A farmer has to really be careful because I already see a huge red flag...the chef has mentioned availability.

One of the things that often happens is, a restaurant will get a farm to produce what they need, but they only buy 10-20% of their needs from them. Let us use Kale as an example. They get their Kale from the local farmer, then advertise as such, "we use locally sourced Kale from a local farmer", but it is what they do not say, that stings. It is only 20% of their consumption. Citing a lack of unavailability, they then buy 80% of their Kale from US Foods or some other conventional food distributor for very cheap money. This gives the restaurant maximum prices, for a minimal of pay-out. That is often why they pay so much...they pay so much because they do not buy a whole lot of the local kale in the first place. But goodness, they need the marketing of locally raised food.

This puts the farmer in a bind. They cannot exactly call out the restaurant because their own farm reputation will be ruined, and what market they do have will be gone, but make no mistake about it, the farmer is being used.

I have seen this happen A LOT, and there is not much that can be done. But I do cite this because I do not want new farmers to be disillusioned either. Proceed gingerly, there is a lot of demand for locally raised food, but a lot of sly ways locally raised foods can be misrepresented as well.
 
pollinator
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I grow vegetables for sale, and I disagree about having to have a market before you plant, if you try to pin people down on what they will buy you'll end up planting nothing. My sales are mainly from the road stand with some markets (there isn't a farmers market thing here at all) I have also done boxes.

The main points for my area I have found are.

For the roadside stand;

1 Plant "Normal" things as the mainstay, and by normal I mean carrots should be orange, beetroot red, peas need to have "puffy" pods and look like they are expecting them to look.
2 No damage is acceptable, split, forked or insect nibbled crops will NOT sell.
3 limit the offerings, people stop at the stand for certain crops they don't buy others there.

For market
1 stack it high
2 lots of colour, ignore the roadside rule about things looking "normal"
4 Better to have 40kg of carrots than 1 kg of 40 things
3 again no damage.

restaurants? Don't bother they want things on stupidly short notice at very low prices
For everything, do not underestimate how long harvesting/cleaning/packing will take, look in the books and then triple the time they suggest.

Of course your customers will be different, I live in a poor "backwards" area customers when asked about microgreens will probably say they're some type of compact tractor.
 
pollinator
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I agree with a lot that my colleague, @Skandi Rogers, said above.  I grow mostly "conventional" items, things that I know people want and a few "unconventional" items for the few folks looking for an adventure.  

I have a roadside stand on our farm and sell at several markets.  I live in a middle class country area.  My customers at my roadside stand will buy unconventional items occasionally, but more often than not, they just want to buy conventional produce.  Most of my markets are in lower economical classed areas (on purpose).  Those customers rarely buy anything outside of the norm, and that's okay, I'm just glad that they are shopping at a local market and trying to buy fresh organic fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.  I might take a few unconventional items to those markets, just in case someone would want to try something new, but it's not my focus.  I also sell at one higher end market.  I am more likely to take unconventional items to that market because it is more likely that I can sell them.  People who shop there pay more for their produce and they don't mind trying things out sometimes because many of them have more disposable money.  That said, my focus is still on conventional items, because it's what sells the most.  

If you are actually trying to make money selling at a farmers market, you have to grow and sell things that people want.  People mainly want things that they are used to eating, especially in lower economical areas.  It makes sense for them to shop this way because they are on a budget.  Many of them feel that they can't afford to buy something that they may not like and that will end up going to waste.  

If you are just in it for fun and money is no object, then you can just sell the things that you like.  Keep in mind that you may not make any money, but instead be in the negative as far as what you put in and what you get out.  

Also, I did/do my research about what people are interested in as I sell what I have already grown (which are staples that most people buy: tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, basil, flower bouquets, etc.).

I'd like to encourage you to grow the conventional staples and a few unconventionals and jump in with both feet next season. :)



 
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We have grown mixed greens and micros for chefs for about 12 years now.  One huge problem can be the changing of the chef.  You work with someone for a year or two and they move on.  Then you have someone new.  At one restaurant we are on our 4th chef.  To all of their credit they have to show a profit.  A lot of small farmers are a pain in the ass for them to deal with.  We buy and sell stuff to go along with what we grow.  Its local and we can go pick it up or go find out what's going on when no one answers the phone.  Chefs aren't willing to do that.

You mentioned cherry tomatoes.  If you get into gets Sakuras from Johnnys.  Amazing producers and the don't split when you pick them.  We grow and sell those and buy and sell big slicers for sandwiches and caprese salads.  If you have basil you pretty much cover the whole salad for them.

What was said about micros is very true.  Different chefs use them different ways.  During the summer we sell around 10-12 pounds a week under lights in our living room.  We get around $20/pound for a mix.  

Never forget asparagus.  Takes a while for it to get going but chefs love it and they recognize that with stuff grown locally you don't have to throw away half a stalk like they do with something from Sysco.  Asparagus is the easiest veg for them to prep.

I think it was Redhawk that originally turned us on to coffee grounds.  All the restaurants we deal with have buckets with our farm name and coffee grounds written on the side.  Twice a week we are in there.  We know the servers, line cooks and dishwashers. Most of them will give you all their food grade 5 gallon buckets if you want them.

Happy to answer any questions.
 
Hamilton Betchman
pollinator
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Thanks for this response, it is nice to see other view points. Do you mind if I ask what kind of yearly profit per acre you are making? How many acres you plant? Also how much of your crop ends up being "waste", from either not ever being high enough quality for market or from not selling?



Skandi Rogers wrote:I grow vegetables for sale, and I disagree about having to have a market before you plant, if you try to pin people down on what they will buy you'll end up planting nothing. My sales are mainly from the road stand with some markets (there isn't a farmers market thing here at all) I have also done boxes.

The main points for my area I have found are.

For the roadside stand;

1 Plant "Normal" things as the mainstay, and by normal I mean carrots should be orange, beetroot red, peas need to have "puffy" pods and look like they are expecting them to look.
2 No damage is acceptable, split, forked or insect nibbled crops will NOT sell.
3 limit the offerings, people stop at the stand for certain crops they don't buy others there.

For market
1 stack it high
2 lots of colour, ignore the roadside rule about things looking "normal"
4 Better to have 40kg of carrots than 1 kg of 40 things
3 again no damage.

restaurants? Don't bother they want things on stupidly short notice at very low prices
For everything, do not underestimate how long harvesting/cleaning/packing will take, look in the books and then triple the time they suggest.

Of course your customers will be different, I live in a poor "backwards" area customers when asked about microgreens will probably say they're some type of compact tractor.

 
Author
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At Three Sisters Farm our main crop was a Salad of the Season. It always had a base of lettuce with 12- 20 other seasonal  greens. they diversity of ingredients allowed us to keep the restaurants interest, and allow for some crop failures to not effect the end product. nhef's want consistent quality  and consistent deliveries. For 25 years, 30 weeks of the year we mixed salad on Wednesday night and delivered it Thursday morning. Other crops included high value herbs, edible flowers and a full range of vegetables. Crop diversity is essential for good rotations
set up appointments in advance of sales calls, take samples of your produce and work with them to develop crop mixes to suit there needs. But restaurants do close, and chefs change jobs, so have a diverse client list as well
 
Ed Waters
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Sound advice Darrell.  We can stretch the 30 weeks to maybe 34 with greenhouses.  Primarily 8-10 varieties of greens from Johnny's.  Seeds make up such a small portion of the costs of doing business that we use the most convenient company out there.

We can get $9/pound for organically grown mixed greens.  We are not certified.  Places that do weddings are great.  They will promote the local products as part of the overall experience.

There seems to be a lot of competition for edible flowers.  We can get $4 for a clam shell.  Most of those are perennials but its a tiny part of our sales.  

Standard produce we buy and sell.  There are huge Mennonite farms here.  In season you can amazing toms for 40-50 cents a pound.  They are a boring variety but most of the chefs don't care.

 
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