How can I make a living / money from growing and selling vegetables at home?
So can I make a realistic and viable income from growing and selling my own vegetables from home, will it be worth the effort required, and will it generate an income that offers a sensible rate of pay per hour worked?
These are the questions I am working on now, as I have been offered the opportunity to take over a further area of land close to our home in order to create a second vegetable allotment, (I already started one from scratch this year as those of you who read the relevant hub on the subject will know). I have also been growing vegetables in containers outside our house for a couple of years now with great success.
My original allotment is fairly large for one person to manage, (about 140 feet long by 18 feet wide), and did take up a lot of my time this year what with weeding, and all the other work involved. If I take on this second piece of land (as I have agreed to), it is virtually the same amount of land all over again, and I would like to know that the effort involved will pay off.
I intend to write further hubs on my progress as I work on this new project, and I would like to be able to post a hub after the first season, hopefully that confirms if the business ended up being viable or not, plus how much effort was required to generate a sensible level of profit. I am certain that I will not be in a position to employ labour, so I shall need to do 99% of the work myself (maybe with a bit of help for the heavier stuff from my Husband when he isn't working in his day job).
One of my biggest problems is I am a very petite female, (only 50 KG), and therefore lack the muscle I need to do the heavier digging etc required much of the time. This means that at the beginning of this coming Winter when I need to prepare the allotment for next Spring, I will need to get a tractor to come in and plough over the land on both the old, and the new sites. I shall then need to arrange several large trailer loads of seaweed to be brought from our local beach to the two allotments in order to mulch thickly over the ploughed land so that this seaweed can rot into the soil over the Winter months, (and then be drawn down into the soil by the worms and insect life). In the Spring I will require the tractor to return, rotavate the land to break it down, before getting me further loads of seaweed for use as mulch as the growing season progresses. This mulch will be essential, as otherwise I know the physical weeding will soon become out of control, whereas a thick layer of washed seaweed around the plants should keep the majority of the weeds from surfacing, therefore drastically reducing the workload. Naturally tractors and labour cost money, and I estimate this will cost at least a few hundred pounds in total, (even at 'mate's rates based on a couple of our friends being farmers). I also need to arrange fencing around the new allotment to keep the rabbits from eating my crops, but I know my Stepfather and my Husband will help with this, plus we already have wire and posts we can use in storage.
I am lucky in as much as the new piece of land is rent free, and all the owners want in return is to be able to have the odd few bits of veg for their own use. One slight catch is that their water supply is metered, so if I use mains water I will have to pay for it, so at all costs I must avoid this, and grow the vegetables relying on the elements alone not to let me down.
The seeds themselves are very inexpensive to buy, so my next consideration would have been finding buyers for my crops once I have them. This is covered by the fact a local hotel are happy to take most of what I grow from me so long as I can provide the correct crops, (in other words, for my own sake I need to concentrate on the crops that pay out the maximum return for the minimal amount of space, yet mature in the shortest possible growing season). Even if the hotel fail to take all the crops, we do have "Farmer's Markets" here all Summer, where I could always go and sell any surplus in family size bags each Saturday or Sunday, and would probably make more per pound or kilo than selling in bulk to a hotel, although selling to the hotel is less time consuming and less complicated, plus leaves me my weekends free to work on the allotments themselves.
I have narrowed down the most desirable and profitable crops to the following list, largely based on what I grew this year, (2009), and what I have learned are the most useful crops to a hotel.
1) Beetroot, (especially the Italian stripey beetroot as it looks more attractive on the plates).
2) Runner Beans, (I am told these are better than French / green beans from a hotel's point of view).
3) Courgettes, (the hotels cannot seem to get enough of these I am told, and as a fast producing crop I intend to grow lots of these next Spring).
4) Spring Onions, (another much loved crop that is high value and grows reasonably fast in the right conditions).
5) Radishes, (especially the globe shaped ones. These are ready in under six weeks from seed, enabling several crops to be planted on the same land throughout the growing season).
6) Mustard and Cress, (easily grown at home indoors all year round, and ready in under seven days. Anyone can grow this and make money all year round.
7) Lettuce, (but only the nice iceberg or cos varieties, as the "cut and come again" varieties are not worth the effort required as you will read later in this section).
8) A crop I am working on, although it won't produce a saleable product for at least two to three years, is asparagus. This is highly profitable, plus the asparagus bed will produce spears for up to twenty years if looked after. It is well worth the wait for this crop financially, so I have already been growing a number of seeds of asparagus for the past few months, (although the process could have been sped up if I had purchased asparagus crowns instead, which are expensive, but at a more advanced stage of growth)
Strange at it may seem many of the crops you would expect to be a good idea to grow, are not really very profitable on a small scale, and so I will only grow sufficient for our own use, and ensure the majority of the two allotments are dedicated to the crops with the maximum potential. The crops I am restricting to "our own use only" or "not to be grown at all", are as follows:
1) Potatoes, (These are bought in by the sack-load for a very few pounds within the hotels, so even seven or eight rows of these might only bring me in £10 - £20, not worth the effort when a crop such as runner beans or courgettes covering the same surface area would generate ten times as much, if not more still).
2) Onions, (same problem as above).
3) Carrots, (same problem again).
4) Parsnips (same problem again).
5) Shallots, (might make a bit more than onions, but not enough to warrant the weeding, time taken drying them out etc).
6) French / Green Beans, (I love these, but simply because the hotels and people in general over here seem to prefer runner beans, plus runner beans are faster and easier to pick a good weight of, I shall reduce the French / green beans to home use quantities only).
7) Leeks, (tie up the land far to long to be viable on a small scale).
8) Celery, (tricky one, but in the end decided they took too long to mature also).
9) Brassicas, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli etc, (Not only do these take far too long to mature, but unless you are willing to use pesticides and sprays, which I am not, then a huge amount of time and effort is required to protect your crops with physical barriers such as horticultural fleece or fine mesh netting in order to keep the butterflies off, not to mention slug pellets to stop these additional pests destroying your crop).
10) Sweetcorn, (the hotels just don't seem to want this "on the cob", plus it takes up a lot of room and needs to be planted in blocks to aid pollination. Time to maturity is long, and earwigs are a total nuisance nesting within the layers of foliage wrapped around the cobs).
11) Tomatoes, (too much day to day work required removing side-shoots, feeding them etc, especially when a box of tomatoes cost next to nothing for a hotel to buy in bulk).
12) Cucumbers, (surprising I know, and actually if I had a greenhouse with a water supply I might reconsider, but outdoor variety cucumbers are prickly, and not so desirable, hence why I do not intend to grow cucumbers again until sometime in the future when I have some land where I can fit a large greenhouse or polytunnel, with a water supply, and grow the indoor varieties that look much like your supermarket cucumbers).
13) Peppers and Chillies, (again, not very successful without a greenhouse, plus taking way too long to mature, although quite a valuable crop with an available area of glass and a water supply).
14) Chinese Radish, (although a quaint looking, white on the outside, red on the inside, large, cookable variety of radish, I had virtually a zero success rate on these due to dry weather conditions. I doubt the effort is worth it unless you have access to a hose pipe and non-metered water, although the hotels might well have paid quite a good price for them in order to include them in stir fries etc).
15) Cut and Come again Lettuce. (This is not the same as a nice individual iceberg or cos lettuce, as cut and come again lettuce require you to harvest the leaves as you need them, leaving the plant to grow more. The problem is that the hotels therefore want the leaves picked freshly on the morning of the day they are going to use them, and often in very large quantities, which is not very viable for the effort or financial return. Far better to grow individual lettuces such as "Lakeland" that produce a good firm heart, and can be harvested even a few days before the hotel use them, assuming the hotel refrigerate them of course).
My aim is to attempt to earn an average of approximately £250 per week in my first year between the two allotments, (although most of this needs to be covered over the Summer months when the crops are growing and harvestable), so for thirty two weeks I need to earn an average of £406 per week, (from March to September). This would generate a gross income of £13,000 per year, and maybe about £12,500 after my basic expenses such as seeds, tractors etc. What will make this harder is that from about October to February the land will not generate anything, and will be lying fallow with seaweed rotting into it ready for the spring. During this time I will need to top up my income with things like the Mustard and Cress grown at home indoors.
I shall be publishing follow ups to this article as the new season and my new potential start date for this business approaches. I shall be totally honest about my profits, losses, problems and stresses in order that anyone considering a similar line of self employment will know what to expect, and if this is a viable " work from home " option.
Look out for the next instalment around late November 2009.