Veronica Limeberry of the ARC&D Council caught up with local student and avid gardener, Ben Schaller, to hear his insights on learning to grow his own food and navigating the channels of direct-sale at local farmers market in this audio interview. You can listen below. For more information on community gardening, backyard gardening, or navigating your local market, you can contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Ben: One thing that’s been on my mind about gardening, is that when I tell people or show them my garden I oftentimes hear “I wish I had done that,” or “I wish I knew how”. To me this always comes as sort of a surprise, because I put a label on it that says organically grown [not certified, but grown in an organic matter with no industrial inputs] and somehow that gives it prestige. But it’s not necessarily deserved. I just go out there every morning and I water it, and to say I do much more is stretching the truth. I do go out there and watch it and do things, but really what I do is spend time in the garden, and ultimately what comes from that is fruitful success. So one thing I would like to say right off the bat to anyone who wants to garden is that’s all it takes to get a good start: some spare time and land, but after you get the seeds in there there’s pretty much just very little upkeep really.
I can talk more about growing and my experience this summer? I went out on a limb and starting growing a bunch of things that I’d never grown before. I had friends help me with this and it was a community effort but are tackling things we’ve never done before. I have a little watermelon patch and I’ve never grown watermelons but I have 6 and they look great. A lot of it is reading. I read on the internet that you can put beans, squash, and corn next to each other and they love it. So that yield is quite successful. Of the things I’ve tried, nothing seemed to really fail. Even things don’t produce that much and I thought they’d do more, they still produce. And on top of that I’m always learning. I’m learning things I can do better next year, but I wouldn’t have done that if–I mean, what are the risks of gardening anyway except for jumping out into unfamiliar territory?
It’s really simple. I would really like to stress that — it’s really easy to grow things.
And now I’ve learned that it’s really easy to sell things. And we’re trying to make it even easier. Something that I spent time thinking about as I set up at the [Johnson City] farmer’s market today is that I’ve been taking donations from other local farms and gardeners. One thing that I have is almost a bushel of marigold heads, pretty flowers. Everybody has to deadhead them so they just want to get rid of them, so I’m giving them away for free. Then there are other things that people have too much of and they don’t want compensation for it so I turn around and sell it with that being the understanding.
I’m wondering how we can turn this into more of a collective. How we can collectively gather food from local gardens. As it stands none of us have large plots of land, we just do this in our backyards or at community garden plots. This is small-time gardening. But get a bunch of gardeners together and you have wide variety of interesting food. We have the chance to grow some oddities, 4 varieties of basil, 6 varieties of tomato, a few kinds of beans and squashes. We have the opportunity to grow more diverse, something that’s not seen in a more commercial way, 50-plus acre, farming. There’s a trend of this. It’s growing and growing in popularity.
So, it’s easy to do, we’re trying to make it easier to sell, and maybe make it profitable.
Veronica: I guess the other part of this is how did you decide to sell? How did you get into the market?
Ben: The Johnson City Farmers Market costs $30 a year. You sign up early, but it’s my understanding that they still have spots. Then it’s $3 every Saturday you sit down, which is easy to make up pretty quickly. I just got signed up in their food stamp program, so now I accept food stamp tokens, which they didn’t always do, but I appreciate that now. [Ben’s space is shared with him by a crafts vendor who doesn’t attend very Saturday.]
I’m growing all this stuff and maybe it’s my liberal ways, but I never really wanted to put a price tag on these things. But I have several friends in this endeavor who are wanting to make an occupation out of this, so that’s the next level. With any occupation you need to make money. Nobody is grossly overcharging, if anything we are undercharging:. At my booth everything is $2. I have a sign that really draws people in “the $2 booth”, everything’s $2.00 come on down! It really draws them in.
Our first market, after sitting there for three to four hours, including set up and break down, I made $78. I split that we a friend of mine involved in gardening and growing things as well.
Veronica: How did you decide on $2.00?
Ben: Oh man, especially if this turns into a collective we’ll keep a book of who gave and did what and what’s been sold but that sounds so “blah”! So we just said, set it as $2.00, a nice even number. We bunch things up, so if you go to the grocery and buy parsley a bunch is 99 cents, so we do a double bunch and sell it for $2. And it’s organic too. With our basil we could probably stand to sell it for more, but like I said, I’m not in it for the money, but there is money to be made.
Veronica: Any thing else you would say to someone who wanted to garden in their own backyard?
Ben: Do it, just do it! Put a little forethought into it, but not strenuous forethought. Make sure you are gardening in a place that’s not getting sprayed by pesticides. Take a good survey and make sure there’s sun….there’s a lot of little things that you think about but it comes naturally after a while. It’s the 21st century and we are reinventing the wheel, you know? All it is is just common sense stuff that you acquire over time. Put a little forethought into where you put your garden, what you’re putting into it and what’s already there.
As for what you want to grow, find a niche. We have a guy as the farmer’s market that sells peppers [Chapo’s Chilis], that’s what he does and he’s awesome. Then there are people who have a wide variety and they do well too. Plan it out and maybe I don’t need to do peppers because we’ve already got the pepper guy. Find a niche and then just rock it.
Do you garden in your backyard? Comment on your best tips below!