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Review: The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier

The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower's Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming

By Jean-Martin Fortier

224 pp. New Society Publishers – Mar. 2014. $24.95.

For some years now, author and farmer Jean-Martin Fortier has lived rather comfortably with his family entirely off the proceeds of their market garden in Québec, Canada. He, his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches and their two children, Forest and Rose, generate up to $140,000 in revenue a year (with a profit margin of nearly 50 percent) and feed more than 200 local families with vegetables raised on a mere acre and a half. And they do so without tractors or other industrial farm equipment, instead relying on hand and light power tools. Fortier’s terrific success at low-tech growing has earned him an international following and the moniker “rock star farmer."* He freely shares his methods and techniques, and encourages others to emulate his example. Even so, I suspect that he’s one of those prodigies who make everything look easy, and that those trying to follow in his footsteps will have a challenging time of it. 

Yet that should hardly keep one from trying; and to this end Fortier has put out two books detailing exactly how he and his family have done it. The first one, Le Jardinier-Maraîcher, was an instant hit when released in 2012 by small Montreal-based publisher Écosociété. The second, an English translation of the first titled The Market Gardener, is now fresh off the presses from New Society Publishers. Both books meticulously guide readers through every stage of Fortier’s process, from buying equipment to managing soil tilth to seeding and harvesting crops. They also contain a wealth of supporting materials—such as checklists, planning sheets and crop rotation schedules—that offer great insight into how Fortier and his family run their operation. In short, they give Fortier wannabes the best possible chance of capturing his magic.

Fortier has a favorite catchphrase when it comes to his preference for small scale: “Small is profitable.” He uses it to emphasize that localized organic approaches are desirable not only because of their low impact, but because they can supply just as secure a livelihood as industrial methods. Thus, his and his wife's eschewal of heavy machinery and chemical pesticides is not a philosophical choice but a practical one: they simply don’t need such shortcuts. 

The initial setup costs for their farm totaled about $40,000 nearly a decade ago, and this is the amount that Fortier still recommends as up-front investment for beginning market gardeners. This sum includes $11,000 for a greenhouse, $8,500 for a walking tractor and its accessories, $3,000 for an irrigation system, $4,000 for a cold room and $7,000 for two hoophouses (i.e., polyethylene tunnels used to extend the growing seasons by sheltering crops from cold). Fortier acknowledges that many people will find it difficult to come up with this money, and suggests applying for grants and other forms of government aid. He says that these were a great help to him and his wife in defraying their startup costs.

Fortier and Desroches named their garden Les Jardins de la Grelinette, which is French for “The gardens of the Grelinette.” (Grelinette is another term for broadfork, a tool they admire for its efficiency and ecological soundness.) Every feature of the garden is geared toward harnessing natural systems and maximizing human labor. For example, in order to reduce walking distances, the plots are all equidistant from compost piles, an irrigation pond and a work shed. Each plot in turn is divided into rows of standardized width and length—allowing equipment used on one row to be used on all of them—and oriented so that the ground’s natural slope aids drainage. The rows’ placement also serves as passive weed control: rows are spaced closely so that the leaves of plants in one row meet those of plants in the next row, forming a canopy that shades out weeds.

Biologically intensive agriculture is the general term used to describe these sorts of methods. In essence, it represents an approach to horticulture in which growers achieve maximum yields on a minimum amount of land while preserving and nurturing the soil. Key to the success of biologically intensive growing is that it views the farm as a single organism whose ecological harmony must be maintained. Some ways in which farmers preserve this harmony include crop diversification, composting, using local renewable resources and fostering beneficial interactions among plant, animal and fungal species. One of the leading practitioners of this approach to farming is Eliot Coleman, whose book The New Organic Grower  (Chelsea Green Publishing, 1989) was the first book that Fortier ever read on vegetable gardening.

Since healthy soil is vital to any intensive farming operation, much of the work done at Les Jardins de la Grelinette involves promoting good soil structure and fertility. One practice that is crucial in this respect is minimum tillage. There was once a time when Fortier and Desroches rototilled, but that was before they learned that this decimates soil organisms like bacteria, fungi and earthworms, which are critical to plant growth. Now the soil is worked as lightly as possible using a grelinette, then treated with amendments made from green manures (i.e., crops grown to be used in soil amendments) and raked to remove rocks and other debris. The remaining work is done by the soil life that wasn’t killed by rototilling. Other measures to ensure soil quality include mulching, planting cover crops to suppress weeds, monitoring pH and fertilizing with natural organic materials.

Small-scale organic farming places a premium on self-reliance and a do-it-yourself mentality, but there are some things that Fortier doesn’t recommend doing yourself. Chief among these is testing soil for the correct micronutrients, structure and pH. Though Fortier does suggest a crude preliminary test for this purpose—one that involves placing soil in a jar and then combining it with dish soap to settle out the different-sized particles—he stresses that this must be followed up with professional lab testing. Another thing that Fortier says is best left to experts is composting. He humbly admits that even he hasn’t mastered how to make quality compost, and that he and his wife buy theirs from specialists.

An integral part of the business model for any market garden is direct selling. Indeed, it’s because commercial gardeners sell directly to customers that they're able to make a living off their vegetable crops. Unlike with conventional agriculture, where three-quarters of profits can end up in the hands of distributors and wholesalers, all of the proceeds from a market garden go to the grower. In addition to having an unbeatable profit margin, direct selling also pays off in the form of customer loyalty and retention. It’s for this reason that Fortier strives to provide the best customer service possible, always selecting quality vegetables, washing and displaying them neatly, and being friendly and helpful with customers. 

For those wondering where to locate a market garden, Fortier has many ideas. He explains that while most of the obvious farmland has already been cultivated by industrial-scale interests, there remain many less obvious spots where micro-scale agriculture can flourish. Among these are vacant properties located around derelict cities and towns like those of America's Rust Belt. Once a potential site has been identified, there’s an additional checklist that Fortier recommends using to gauge its practicality. Fortier laments that too many novice farmers make impractical choices, based on qualities like secludedness or beautiful views. Seasoned farmers, in contrast, know that it’s far more important to consider factors such as how close the nearest market is and whether the scenery is accompanied by biodiversity beneath the ground. 

 

Fortier emphasizes that the tools and strategies described in his book all have proven track records on his and his wife’s farm. When he does mention something that they’re trying for the first time, he stresses that it’s still experimental. He also points up how their approach differs from those of other practitioners, due to their own peculiar biases and the particular decisions they’ve made. And he couches all of this in spirited, accessible prose that is a pleasure to read. In sum, Fortier’s introductory book on market gardening is a fine, authoritative reference that is already an indispensable part of many growers’ libraries, and seems bound to become a classic. 

* "Six Figure Farming for Small Lots - Rockstar Farmer Tour in Cranbrook," Wildsight, Mar. 12, 2014,http://www.wildsight.ca/events/rockstar-farmer-tour-six-figure-farming-small-lots-workshop-cranbrook (accessed June 29, 2014).

 

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