Earn a Good Living Without a Tractor: A Market Gardener Tells You How | Civil Eats

Earn a Good Living Without a Tractor: A Market Gardener Tells You How

Jean-Martin Fortier’s farm sells $140,000 of food on an acre and half. Now he wants to help others do the same.

According to Jean-Martin Fortier, it isn’t a farmer’s job to feed the world. And he finds it absurd that many U.S.-based food and agriculture companies tell farmers they should do so. “Feeding the world? People in Africa don’t need the U.S. to feed them.” What we need, the Canadian farmer argues, is small farms feeding their communities, and that task is difficult enough.

Fortier recently took two years off from farming to write a book called The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming. In it, Fortier argues that farmers can make six figures on just a few acres of land. At a time when most small-scale farmers have the odds stacked against them financially, and young people are hesitant to start farming for fear of failing to making a real living, the handbook is bound to attract an audience.

“I felt that there was a need for [a book] like this. I have been involved with growing the food movement. My response was to tell people that they can grow and here is how,” says Fortier.

TheMarketGardener-FrontFortier, born and raised in Quebec, began farming with his wife, Maude-Hélène Desroches, as interns and WWOOFers. Years later, they started their own project on rented land. Like many others, they dreamed of farming on their own land and worked hard to make that a reality.

Today, they grow a diversified mix of crops including beets, broccoli, salad greens, and carrots on an acre and a half. Their award-winning farm, Les Jardins de la Grelinette, clears $140,000 in sales annually. Fortier and Desroches work nine months out of the year and their CSA feeds 200 families a week during the summer months.

Fortier’s philosophy is “grow better, not bigger.” Better to him means not only better food that is grown in better soil, but it also means a better quality of life. He prides himself on the fact that he can take winter vacations with his family.

The couple’s approach to growing food is what Fortier refers to as “biologically intensive,” incorporating permaculture methods like conservation tillage, building permanent beds (as opposed to creating new ones every season), and crop rotation. And, like many young farmers growing in colder climates, he cites Eliot Coleman as an inspiration.

The Market Gardener gives the aspiring farmer the sense that they can pick up the book and follow it step-by-step to start their own farm. The book begins by explaining Fortier’s approach to small-scale farming and ranges from tips on how to choose a site to designing the layout. “The aim is to organize the different workspaces–inside and outside–so that the work flow will be as efficient, practical, and ergonomic as possible,” he says.

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He troubleshoots through difficult topics and makes suggestions on how to fertilize organically, start seeds, manage weeds, insect pests, and diseases to practical advice on harvesting: “In order to avoid having to fetch more elastic bands in case we miss some, we always carry an extra box in our harvest cart.”

Many new farmers buy tractors early on in their business, seeing it as an important stepping stone. But Fortier emphasizes a different approach. “We could have followed a route similar to that taken by all other growers we knew: invest in a tractor and move towards a more mechanized growing system,” he says. “Instead, we opted to stay small-scale and continue relying on our hands and light power tools.”

In the book, he has an entire chapter dedicated to minimum tillage and appropriate machinery, like the broadfork and the two-wheel tractor. (The couple provides detailed information about all the tools they use and where to get them on their website.) The broadfork is the namesake of their farm, explains Fortier. “The broadfork traces its origin back to the grelinette, a tool invented in France by André Grelin in the 1960s,” he says. “We named our business, Les Jardins de la Grelinette, after the tool because it is so emblematic of our philosophy of efficient, environmentally sound, manual gardening.”

Fortier hopes book will filling a big hole in the existing literature around farming. “What I am presenting in The Market Gardener is not the ultimate set up but it is good enough to get started,” he says. “Growers starting 10 to 15 years ago didn’t have that.” He also believes that his practices can apply in many locations, for many people. “You will hear a lot of people say, ‘what you are doing on your farm, I cannot do on my farm,’ but I’m sorry–farming isn’t that different.”

Fortier’s approach to basic skills and design concepts can be used all over the world. Fortier and Desroches have spent time on farms in Cuba, Mexico, and New Mexico which he sites as inspiration. “We had been to Cuba, and we had seen acres and acres of farms running on permanent beds without tractors and thought that was a brilliant way to do it,” says Fortier.

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These practices are commonly used in South America and Africa on both small- and large-scale farms, but they are far from mainstream in North America, and could have a big impact on farm productivity.

“My message is that if you want to get into farming–if you’re young and you don’t have access to land or capital, this is a pretty bright way to do it without a lot of input. And you can make a living,” says Fortier.

Olivia Maki is the co-owner of Redfield Cider Bar & Bottle Shop in Oakland, California, and one of the voices behind the cider podcast Redfield Radio. In her career building community around food, drink, and agriculture, she has organized educational experiences at 18 Reasons and handled marketing and communications for the Farmers Guild and FarmsReach. Olivia is a senior manager for Bio-Logical Capital, a land investment and conservation company, and previously served as communications advisor for Kitchen Table Advisors and Real Food Real Stories. She has farmed in California and Vermont and worked with apple growers for the past eight years. She is the current Chair for the Cider Category for the Good Food Awards. Read more >

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  1. I just bought this book a couple weeks ago. We have a few acres outside Portland Oregon and hope to use many of these techniques. We opted to buy an inexpensive old Ford tractor for mowing and tilling. In our scenario I think that is a better fit than a higher priced two wheel tractor.
  2. mike green
    There I no market for beets and greens in oklahoma
  3. i have been farming organically for 40 years. I grow the food for my community of 12 households on an acre of land. We also have an acre orchard. I don't use tractors either. It CAN be done . I will refer my interns to this book. It looks like a great read!
  4. Mary
    I LOVE IT,
    my mom has been raising her own vegetables for as far back as I can remember and she grew up on a farm I checked and farm and a cotton farm while her parents raised chicken and cotton. I think the best rather than the biggest is an excellent way to do business on a farm.
  5. Tina Jones
    I love gardening & have sold some of my excess baby plants & have also pondered the thought of growing extra vegetables to sell, but have always felt intimidated at the pressure that you can feel about having to produce & what happens if you can't.
    You sure seem make one feel that this is a do-able thing to do. I look forward to reading your book & figuring out how to get started & how to keep up with it.
    Thank-you :)
  6. JoeSnow
    Sorry, but the minimal cost of operating a tractor relative to the time and human effort saved makes it more than worthwhile to own one if you have sufficient acreage. It's not worth it if all you're planting is your back yard because you won't have enough room or work for it to do, but if you have the room to drive it, then it will increase your productivity immensely because time saved on tilling the soil can be used for other things.
  7. Tom Day
    My wife and I are in our 60's and getting a chance to homestead on our 80'x120' city lot in Albuquerque. If we were younger we would do what you are doing. Thank you for your hard work farming and writing the book. I love to read people's personal experiences. They are what brings wisdom to the world. I will look for your book. You might find "The Third Plate" by Dan Barber interesting.
  8. Kodachrome
    The number of 'celebrity' farmers able to sell their produce to wealthy consumers and high end restaurants in any given area is pretty small. Put 20 other farms doing the exact same thing next door to Fortier’s farm, and they're not going to work. Hell, his farm may stop working.
  9. Lisa Robertson
    This is fantastic. I have so many negative people telling me I can't do this and that I'm crazy to want to create something like this.
    I recently leased 8 acres, two of which I'm using for my horses but the rest I want to farm. I plan on also having guineas, chickens, ducks and goats. I also plan on putting in Einkorn wheat and using it to make my ancient grain bread I sell.
    I can't wait to read the book and am so happy I followed my heart, it's been a dream for a long time and to be able to make a living as well will be prayers answered.
    Thank you again for uplifting my spirit and desire to move forward.
  10. Vaughan Rightmyer
    Hi how are you? Me and my family want to build are own farm and get back liveing on the land. The city is not for us. If you can help us make are dream come true plz help these dream.
  11. Grace Sherer
    so inspiring and hopeful! Thank you for your dedication and work, but mostly for your INTEGRITY and STEWARDSHIP! A most humble thank you.
  12. Thank you we hope to order the book today//we sure need the help to get our farm off the ground and stable
  13. Very exciting. We're looking forward to learning how to grow on our .5 acre!
  14. Vicki Buckley
    What w wonderful article and such inspiration! Oh to be young again. My son teaches Permaculture in Calgary and I am always saying to him "come and turn my property into a food forest!" I am still waiting! Well done to you both, it's so great to hear a success story built around nature!
  15. Joyce
    Very inspiring. My dream is to have a farm (small-scale) in my rural home which enjoys the cool climate of Mt. Kenya.
    I will get a copy of the book to start me off. Thanks.
  16. John Smock
    I would like more info like this
  17. Thank you for this inspiring article on Fortier and Desroches' successful efforts at small scale organic farming. At a time when many struggle to maintain large farms utilizing heavy machinery they have shown what's possible by "growing better, not bigger." I look forward to reading "The Market Gardener" and learning more about their system of permanent beds.
  18. Debbie Downing
    I would love any information you post to my email. I am so interested in the young trying to make a difference!
  19. This is exactly what people need to learn in their lives, to be self-sufficient. I'm going to share this on my website as well. It's www.createmyhomeschool.com, as well as my FB page. Thank you.
  20. Alice Taylor
    This book has been my bible and my motivator to do something I greatly believe in! Thank you for the amazing information!
  21. Arletta Gripado
    my husband and I are going to be 70 years old this year , but we would like to use our land [we have a farm] foe growing vegetables
  22. I scanned part of this text. It is so lovely to read about this kind of possibilities. We are developing our own farm and definitely are inspired by reading about Jean-Marton Fortier. Great to hear of!!
  23. Deborah Lafortune
    I just finished reading this article. WOW! I am going to order your book. We own 1 1/2 acres of land. I would be willing to use about a 1/2 acre (start small) We aren't young...but I would love to get into more organic vegetables. I come from a family of farmers...mostly milk and beef. As you say, farmers who feed the world. I have great soil. But first, I will start with your book. Great article.
  24. Rainbow Farm
    This is wonderful! I can't wait to introduce my interns to the broadfork because the hoes and spades they use now are pretty narrow and I am certain they could get a lot more done if the tools were bigger and heavier. I've long understood I don't need any tractor rated in horsepower as long as I can get volunteer interns rated in ;people power. I think I might be making about the same money from my farm but I don't really keep track of it because I do cash business and taxes could be a real problem. Also I keep expenses down by not buying much stuff. The interns bring most everything they need and they don't need much. I try to get donations too whenever I can. We run with a pretty small carbon footprint that way
  25. Josh
    I would love to learn more about this. I live in Alberta Canada close to the rockies. Any advise would be great. Thanks
  26. Jackie Schmitds
    I'm not in agreement with the philosophy stated by Mr. Fortier. Evolution allows for better technology to increase the standard of living for societies. Those that want to farm as Mr. Fortier does is fine, but it doesn't allow for better fed and eventually higher societal living. Africa does not have nor would I want to see the poor land there utilized for many small inefficient farms. Look at China, they cannot feed their population, they are made up of small farms by mandate. Communism and smaller less Democratic governments like those found in Africa don't allow for systems which can easily feed populations. So it is a bit selfish of positions like Mr. Fortier's that won't allow for good nutrition to find the demand.
  27. Gene / Margaret Gregor
    Can you let us know how to obtain a copy of your book?

    Thank you,
    • Twilight Greenaway
      Hi Gene, There's a link near the top of the story above that should take you to a page where you can buy a copy. Thanks!
  28. Stephen Chavez
    I've inherited a one acre farm my father who is diciest was born there in 1918 it hasn't been worked in over 80 years. I'm in my second year of beekeeping andy goal is to get the farm opperational my problem is financing any tips?
  29. Joshua Edel
    Great post. Following.

    Going to buy the book and step up my knowledge.
  30. I totally agree. Definitely worth reading this. The idea that we should have huge factory farms so we can "feed the world" is what makes much of the world unable to feed themselves. It is a political and greed issue - not an issue of being unable to grow enough food to feed the population of each country.
  31. R P Patil
    A good concept specially that of permanent beds. Useful for Third World Countries where land holdings are small.
  32. Cass
    Oh dear - comments like Kodachrome really don't understand food sovereignty. Only profit and getting bigger. Lovely first chapter. Thank you. Will share with as many in Tasmania as I can. And thank you for taking the time to write this guide.
  33. Steph
    Please sign me up for more information. Very interesting x
  34. sreeker
    where is your farm and are you restricted to uncommon foods that you grow?
  35. Gary J. Beaudry
    I have worked as a Manager for 2 farms over 23 yearsn and was only paid $13.30/ hour at the end....60-70 hours a week, managing about 45 crew and making only $16,000 a season...my hard work made the owners QUITE a chunk of $$$$$$$$, and they never even thought of sharing....I'm still trying to find some land to do it your way...glad you are succeeding!!!!!
  36. Marion Flanary
    This is brilliant thank you for sharing
  37. megan
    Wow, I can't wait to read it and start. :)
  38. Donna Clements
    What if you are NOT young, chronologically? I am just turned 60. Have BEEN wanting to do something along the lines of what this article talks about for a very long time.

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