Concerning the Bio-Extensive Market Garden
by Anne and Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA
A Diversity of Cropping Systems
As a matter of convenience, we plant all of our field vegetables in widely spaced single rows so we can cultivate the crops with one setup on the riding cultivator. Widely spaced rows also provide each plant with a large reservoir of moisture and fertility, enhance air circulation, and make it much easier to cultivate delicate vegetables in stoney or high residue conditions. Row cropping makes sense for us because we are more limited by labor than land and we don’t use irrigation for the field vegetables.
The comments from several visitors made us wonder if our wide row example has given perspective teamsters the impression that all horse-powered market gardeners row crop their produce and consequently earn much less per acre than multiple row tractor farmers. The reality is teamsters use a wide diversity of cropping systems as documented in Stephen Leslie’s essential books, The New Horse-Powered Farm and Horse-Powered Farming in the 21st Century. As for the economics of planting produce in work horse friendly single rows, revenue is comparable to many multiple row tractor systems.
The chart for our Beech Grove Farm itemizes the sales for all the crops we grew last year. For comparison purposes, we extrapolated the return per 380’ row to an acre basis, fully realizing that these numbers may be suspect due to a whole host of variables that can change when scaling up production, such as prices or insect and disease pressure. The extrapolated return per acre for many of our dry land vegetables is within the range of enterprise budgets for multiple row tractor operations we have seen as is our average return per acre of $19,500 for the 3.2 acres in field production in 2015.
The crop yield and revenue spreadsheet for David Fisher and Anna Maclay’s Natural Roots CSA in Conway, MA makes a much stronger case for row cropping with horses. Using different management techniques, including narrower row spacing and packing more plants into each row, their extrapolated returns are, in some cases, two to three times ours.
Anna and David’s total vegetable income in 2015 was $97,036 for 3 1/2 irrigated acres in production or almost $27,500/acre. Since most of their vegetable revenue comes from CSA shares, they based the prices for their per acre extrapolation on their local food coop’s prices minus 25-33% due to differences in overhead costs, location, customer convenience and produce selection.
Other important details on putting together these spreadsheets: To determine the income per row foot, both farms counted all the area planted to each crop regardless of whether the entire crop was harvested or marketed. These calculations also took into account adjacent rows needed to grow the crop to maturity even if these adjacent beds were planted to another crop. For example, David and Anna typically alternate rows of sprawling cucurbits or trellised nightshades with short term vegetables. We do the same during the establishment year of strawberries alternating rows with lettuce.
Although 2015 was a good year for both farms, not every crop performed as usual. Phytophthora, a new disease at Natural Roots, ended the season prematurely for some of David and Anna’s cucurbit and solanaceous crops. The yield of winter squash, potatoes and one variety of garlic was well below average on our farm and demand for salad mix and spinach at the growers market was lower than in recent years.
Anna and David organized their chart by extrapolated revenue per acre so readers could quickly see which crops had the highest potential return. We listed our vegetables in order of total income generated, reflecting our market niche. Both of these variables are needed to determine a profitable crop mix along with the cost of production, labor availability for harvest, and personal preference.
We were not successful in finding other horse-powered growers who kept crop yield or income records, but six experienced teamsters responded to our request to fill out the plant density chart for three transplanted crops. In several cases, plant populations equaled or exceeded standard tractor systems used here in the Northeast.
Tractor I is based on Richard Wiswall and Sally Colman’s Cate Farm in Plainfield, VT as portrayed in Richard’s Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook. We pieced together Tractor II from the enterprise budgets for brassicas and lettuce in Vern Grubinger’s Sustainable Vegetable Production and the onion plasticulture system used in Pennsylvania by both tractor and horse farmers. No doubt there are horse and tractor powered farms employing more intensive cropping systems than we captured in this plant density comparison.
We also learned that row spacing has changed in recent years for at least a couple of the participants in this survey. For example, Stephen Leslie and Kerry Gawalt of Cedar Mountain Farm in Hartland, VT have actually increased their row width from 32 to 36” in order to implement the horse drawn guidance system described in the