In the first post in this series, we explored the factors that influenced JM Fortier as he began to design his market garden. Today we’ll look at several integral parts of successful farm design, including permanent beds and equipment.
Purchasing Land for a small farm
If you look around, there are lots of buildings that can be reclaimed and repurposed. One of those buildings in JM’s case was a commercial rabbitry house that he and Maude-Hélène purchased and repurposed as their home. Having lived in a teepee for two years, the rabbit house was an upgrade.
The rabbitry sits in the middle of a 3-acre prairie and the property has a 7-acre woodlot. Ten acres of land isn’t big when you consider scaled-up agricultural production, but the land constraint is a good one for a market gardener because when you’re growing forty different crops for market, there’s a lot to manage. Having less land means it’ll be easier to focus.
Permanent Beds, No Tractors
Permanent garden beds are at the core of JM’s farm design. When they started, though, the set-up was novel—they didn’t know anyone else doing it.
They chose not to purchase a tractor because they only had 10 acres of land. JM and Maude-Hélène wanted to maximize every square inch of the land they had, and tractors take up a lot of space—both in use and when not in use. And when you have a permanent bed set-up, you don’t really need a tractor. You can get by with hand tools.
Before JM and Maude-Hélène started cultivating the land, they drew up a design for the farm’s layout. This is unfortunately a step that a lot of people skip. Many start farming right off the bat, with no map or plan on how things should be set.
JM had read Bill Mollison’s permaculture books, and one thing those books always emphasized was the need to place things that are more frequently visited at the center of the design, in order to avoid downtime. This is why JM and Maude-Hélène placed their toolshed at the center of their farm.
Try mapping out all the places you walk to and from on your farm throughout your day and see just how much time you spend walking. Wasting time is something you want to avoid as much as possible.
The key feature of permanent beds is their standardized lengths. If you standardize the length of your beds, you can also standardize the size of the equipment and materials you use on the farm, such as row covers, nets, sprinklers, drip irrigation, etc.
Having standardized sizes means you’ll need fewer materials and you won’t waste your time rummaging around looking for the right size for each plot.
At JM’s farm, the beds are standardized at 30 inches wide and 100 feet long, with 18-inch alleyways. This sets the stage for all the machines, the equipment, the layout, and the overall experience of farming.
Making 30-inch beds ensures everything is within arm’s reach; on wider beds, you run the risk of overextending your back. Since harvesting takes up 50 percent of your time on the farm, straining your body that much for forty years is a recipe for back pain.
Crop rotation is also another thing to consider when you’re designing your farm, especially if you want to cultivate the same piece of land for a long time. JM and Maude-Hélène considered a good cycle for the light and heavy feeders and came up with a system with ten plots.
Incorporating crop rotation into the design will give you guidelines and will properly limit what you can and can’t do. You can’t just plant anything anywhere and expect your farm to be sustainable long term. Having guidelines ensures continuous, sustainable growing seasons.
When JM and Maude-Hélène started the farm there wasn’t a lot of content on YouTube, and they’d never even seen a walk-behind tractor. So when they decided to purchase one, it was a leap of faith that reflected their economic reality. It turned out to be a great investment that was practically tailor-made for what they wanted to achieve.
Another indispensable piece of equipment on their farm is the broadfork. The broadfork makes sure plant roots will shoot down, without overhauling the soil structure. It keeps the soil healthy—as opposed to using a rototiller, which pulverizes soil aggregates and therefore destroys the soil structure. Using the broadfork, JM can rely on earthworms to do the work for him.
What if your initial design turns out to be a flop? Then you learn.
This is why JM recommends starting on rented land. You can make mistakes and learn, and you’ll know what to do when you start farming on your own land.
In the next post in this series, we’ll talk about work-life balance, seeding, and weeding.
You can learn more in this episode of Farm Small, Farm Smart with market gardener Jean-Martin Fortier:
And you can find all our market gardening podcasts at Farm Small, Farm Smart—the longest-running podcast on market gardening in the world.