Once you develop farming skills, what’s the most important step in establishing a successful market garden? Finding the right site to grow vegetables! While there is no such thing as the “perfect” kind of farmland – there are some key factors to consider before choosing farmland, and they all relate to what you’re planning to grow, your scale (how big do you want your farm to be?), and preferred customer base.
If you don’t think carefully, it’s easy to get swayed into making decisions that may not be quite right. For example, loving a site with a beautiful landscape isn’t going to be ideal if you’re five hours away from the only potential market. Similarly, farmland that may be near a potential market, but isn’t optimal for vegetable production isn’t going to work either. Trust us, you’ll want to avoid these common mistakes as they can have very detrimental impacts for beginning farmers, not to mention cause unnecessary debt!
So what should you keep in mind? Besides the basic factors of whether you may have existing access to land through family or friends, take your time in exploring a number of sites and evaluate the following elements before choosing farmland:
Understanding Soil Fertility before Choosing Farmland
Soil fertility is the basis of organic production. The quality of your soil will largely determine the quality of your crops. Your ideal soil would be loose, have good drainage, and substantial quantities of organic matter. It’s critical to do a soil test before purchasing or leasing/renting farmland, as you’ll want to know what you’re working with and what approach you should take when nourishing your soil beds. If you only have short-term commitments to a plot of land (i.e. if you’re renting or only have a short-term lease or other arrangements), you’ll want to find land that already has existing healthy soil so you won’t have to worry about the time required to build up its quality.
Knowing the Climate Zone
Though there are ways to implement season extension techniques on your farm (i.e. hoophouses; greenhouses), the local climate of a region has a major impact on how your crops will grow and should be one thing to consider before choosing farmland. Some elements to take note of include the number of frost-free days and the average temperature in a given area, which you can determine through many existing free online resources. Understanding both of these components will guide whether or not a site is ideal for long-term food production. In the United States, a site like the Web Soil Survey can help you determine the potential of different sites of production.
Considering the Locations of Potential Markets
Location, location, location. Committing to farming means committing to business. If you grow food, you’ll need to find ways to sell it and this will greatly depend on your local market. The level of interest and profit may vary, so do some research and see what already exists in your region. It’s important to assess what’s already available and determine your market niche from there. Keep in mind, proximity is critical. If you have to travel two hours to and from market each week, that’s a lot of time out of the field, and an easy way to contribute to unnecessary burn-out. Break down how much produce you can sell (for the rates that you want) within your immediate area, or directly from the farm, and then build your options from there.
Having the Right Space To Farm
Jean-Martin Fortier’s teachings in his book The Market Gardener are based on intensive production of approximately two acres or less, which might be the optimal maximum for farming without a tractor. This is a big factor to consider before choosing farmland. The focus is on growing better, not bigger. Your farm’s scale will impact your labor needs. Even if you have substantial farming experience, one acre can be a LOT to manage by yourself, so think carefully about all the tasks involved for the crops you’ll be growing and plan accordingly. It may be necessary to find one or two additional full-time workers or find seasonal/occasional volunteer support when harvest or weeding tasks pile up. If that’s the case, keep in mind that managing others requires an additional set of ‘people’ skills and different administrative procedures to put in place.
Access to a Good Water Source
If you’re managing an intensive mixed vegetable farm, you’re going to need a good water source to grow your veggies. Your irrigation system must ensure your crops –whether directly-seeded or transplanted– can be supported with adequate moisture and this plan needs to be established BEFORE you plant anything. With the reality of climate change and rising seasonal temperatures, it’s simply impossible to grow crops without an abundance of irrigation water. If you’re in an area that does not guarantee consistent rainfall, this needs to be factored in even more. Relying on a well may work for operations that are less than one acre in size, but if your farm is larger, sourcing from an existing reservoir, such as a lake or pond, or river might be inevitable. If doing so, make sure you have all the authorizations and investment capital you’ll need to create one.
Importance of Water Drainage
Depending on the way your land is situated and how it slopes, you may deal with an oversaturation of water, and that can pose several issues for your farm. Having sufficient drainage is key and an important factor to consider before choosing farmland. When reviewing a site, be sure to take note of the areas where water may pool. From there, you can determine how or if they can be adjusted – which may involve additional supports, such as drainage tiles. In terms of general location for optimal drainage, your best bet is to situate your farm on a south or southeast-facing slope, as you will maximize exposure to sunlight which can help to warm the soil and reduce an overabundance of water/moisture.
Overall, these factors are just some of the key things to keep in mind when you are choosing land to farm – other determinants include existing infrastructure and potential pollutants. As you can see, this decision involves many multifaceted considerations that all connect in impacting the overall success and resilience of your production, so make sure to take the time to do the necessary research and seek consultation from mentors and/or professionals!