About Kevin Wright

Kevin lives with his family in Illinois, where he is a market gardener, freelance nature photographer and writer.

Tips From A Market Gardener: How To Sell What You Grow

Planning. It seems like I do more of that than actually working in the garden sometimes. Even before the gardening season ended last year I was already planning for the new season. But that is what we do, all of us. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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A Butcher’s Secrets: How to Slash Your Meat Bill

butchering-knives

These days it is even more important to try and save at the supermarket. Meat prices are soaring, and saving could mean survival – not necessarily in a life-threatening sort of way, but a penny saved will mean a few dollars spent on even more important things in your life. Continue reading

Sweet Syrup from Your Own Backyard!

Cooking over campfireA couple of years ago I got fired up about making my own maple syrup. It was late winter then, and I was not prepared for my venture into syrup making at that point. But the following year I was ready. And I was fortunate enough to get me some of that sweet, golden nectar.

Yes indeed, there was some work involved, but the results far outweigh the effort. I was in it not to sell bottles of syrup, but to just make enough for my family and even a few friends to enjoy.

With just a few maple trees, you too can have your own sugary sweetness. It doesn’t take a lot of fancy equipment; in fact, about the most expensive thing you will need is time. Continue reading

4 Simple Steps to Cure And Keep Winter Squash

A perfect butternut squash--make sure yours are this clean when you put them in cold storage.

A perfect butternut squash–make sure yours are this clean when you put them in cold storage.

It is hard to believe that summer has wound down, and we’re all looking at fall gardening chores already.

One of those fall gardening chores is the harvest and proper curing of my Butternut Squash. Butternut Squash is one of the most popular types of winter squash.

Don’t get confused with that term. By no means does that mean that you plant or harvest your squash in the winter. It simply means that the squash was bred to be harvested late in the season, and eaten throughout the winter. Continue reading

The Off Season: Maple Syrup and Mushrooms

3-Gallon Sap Bucket

3-Gallon Sap Bucket

Previously published in spring 2013, this entry from truck gardener Kevin tells us how he keeps busy and profitable during the winter season.   –Editor

When the market garden is done for the year (as much as it can be, because there is always something to do) we can sit back and hopefully relax a bit. If the season was good, we can survive the winter with our profits. If not, we must find something to do to make up the difference.

Such is the case for many who try to survive on the income from a market garden or from any seasonal income-based project. It can be anything and for those who try to live some type of self-sustaining lifestyle it can be everything.

As for me, I try to survive in the off season so I do not have to work for “the man”. My mind is always working, trying to find ideas to make a few bucks, not to get rich, but to be able to keep doing the things that I love.

This late winter is no different. And my first project hit me right in the head. What started out as a trial run appears to be headed for bigger things, but they will have to wait until next season. Let me explain.

Bucket Lid for Sap Bucket

Bucket Lid for Sap Bucket

Making Maple Syrup?
I had always wanted to tap my own maple trees to make a bit of maple syrup. Euell Gibbons had started the fire in me after reading some of his books. I figured I could try my hand at this and make a bit of syrup for my family. I had the time, the trees, and the excitement for this little adventure.

I ordered myself a small starter kit and waited. Over the next few days I read Euell’s words again and researched all that I could. When my kit arrived I was ready.

The weather did not cooperate with me in February 2013. I needed a few days around 40 degrees to get the sap running in the trees. Finally, in the first week of March the stage was set.

I drilled 7/16ths holes in my chosen maple trees and put in the splines (taps). From there I placed the tubing from the taps into empty gallon milk jugs (they work wonderfully, by the way). I kept the lids on and cut small holes in the tops to place the tubing. This setup will keep your sap clean and keep out any critters.(Or try this manageable sap collection kit from Lehman’s in Kidron or Lehmans.com.)

This was done in the very early morning of the warm-up. By late that afternoon the south-facing jugs were over half full of clear sap (I had tapped only two trees because of their size; both were Silver Maples).

The next morning, I found the same results. In two days I collected nearly ten gallons of sap from the trees. What would it be like if I had tapped more trees? The woods behind our house are full of perfect maples!

Now ten gallons is not all that much, especially when it takes nearly 33 gallons of sap just to make one gallon of syrup. The idea is to boil all that moisture away, leaving you nothing but pure, golden maple syrup.

Stainless Steel Bucket Spile (Spout) with Hook

Stainless Steel Bucket Spile (Spout) with Hook

I write a weekly outdoor column for the local newspaper. I did a story on my project and the next thing I knew everybody wanted to try it. I knew that I could never get enough because of my lack of equipment, but what if? What if I prepared myself for next year? The interest was there, would the money be there? I think the answer is yes.

My late winter project for 2014 is now set and oh, how do I look forward to it. But now as the days begin to warm, the sap will start running dark and getting bitter, and it’ll be time to turn to the next income generation project.

Making the Most of Morels
Garden plans are set and small projects are taking place. I need another project to get the spring off to a good start. And this project too will come via Mother Nature. Yes, it will soon be Morel mushroom time. And in my neck of the woods it is a very popular bit of fungi, one that some folks will pay dearly for.

I have heard reports that some fancy restaurants pay upwards of $100 a pound for the morel. How true this is, I don’t know. But what I do know is that it is very common to receive from $10-$20 a pound from the local folks. Many are older who are not able to get out anymore. Some are people who love to eat them but don’t like to get in the woods to find them. And yes, folks do buy them.

It pays to advertise here, and to advertise early. Let people know you will be after the mushrooms and barring good growing weather, just take orders beforehand.

I guess Mother Nature can supply you with a good off-season bounty to help you survive. But it doesn’t stop here, there is plenty more out there and there is a market for it. I try to keep thinking of more and more ideas! But hey, that’s another story for another time. I wish great natural adventures to you.

Snipped From The Market Garden 2

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of Kevin Wright’s insider view on growing produce for farmer’s markets and vegetable stands. See the first entry here: Snipped From The Market Garden 1 if you missed it.

Veggie BasketThe Farmer’s Market
Depending on where you live it can be difficult to make any money at the local farmer’s market. The reason I say this is because there are so many vendors who are only there to try and make a few dollars off their surplus produce. Market gardeners like me are there to make a living. It’s hard to sell beans at $2.00 a pound when a vendor a few booths down is selling hers for $1.00 a pound. Yes, I understand that there will be competition in today’s tough economy.

So how do you compete? Market yourself. Show off. Make it clear that your produce has value above the asking price, and motivate the customer to buy it. Tell them why your produce is the best. I grow everything by using organic methods and I let people know that I use no chemicals, pesticides, or anything that hurts the environment. Folks will pay a little more for safe, wholesome produce.

At your farmer’s market stand have your produce displayed as beautifully as you can. Pile it high, use attractive baskets or containers. When you make your produce look like it’s special (it is!), you customers can see that, and know you mean business–and that you know your business too. Give the customer plenty of product to sort through so they can get the vegetables that look perfect to them. Educate them on how and what you grow and best of all, get to know their names. Personal contact gets people coming to you. Soon enough they will be as excited to see you each week as much as you look forward to seeing them.

Wholesale
I will always love the wholesale part of selling produce. Yes, your profit margin will be slimmer but once you make a sale to a distributor (which could be a single local store, a restaurant or even a grocery distributor) you know it is final. But by wholesaling you harvest only what you know you have already sold to the distributor. There’s no over-harvesting, which typically occurs when heading to the market, where you have to hope you have enough of seasonal produce, but not so much that  you’ll be carrying it home at the end of the day. At a farmer’s market you might get stuck with, say 15 pounds of greens at the end of a market day, and may only be suitable at that point for the chickens. There’s no danger of that with the wholesale model. You do have to find outlets, and that can take some time, but in the end, it may be the ideal way to handle your produce.

Fruit standFreelancing
What do I mean by freelancing? Simply, it’s approaching a local business and asking permission to set up a table once a week to sell your produce. Let them know you are a local grower. You will be surprised at how many will let you set up shop for a few hours a week. Because your time at the freelance location may be limited, make sure that you choose a location with good foot traffic, ideally where your customers would have to pass you to get to the store, activity or whatever.

Pricing can be difficult. That is why I make a weekly visit to the local grocery store and their produce department. Remember the store’s prices and then set yours. Don’t be afraid to be a little higher if need be-remember, your produce has a higher value! A customer may question your prices. Let them know nicely that you just picked your produce that very morning and it is at its freshest and that the grocery store probably picked theirs at least two weeks ago and it was shipped in from miles away. If it works for you, don’t be afraid to price lower than the grocery stores for that matter.

Last but not least I have one last tip for the would be market gardener:  Don’t be afraid to charge your family for your produce. You worked hard to get it to the market, don’t give it away for free!

Snipped From The Market Garden 1

Editor’s Note: Kevin Wright is a market gardener, and although this time of year is really busy for him, he made some time to get this article to Country Life. If you’d like start growing on a larger scale, and selling your own produce, he’s got some great tips and ideas.      

I had just prepared the new bed. The earth below me was giving off that wonderful scent and I was so glad to be working it. The new bed was fifty feet in length and would be home to this year’s crop of potatoes. Three more beds need to be prepared for potatoes and  then I would be finished for the day.

Amish Snap Pea Seeds

Amish Snap Pea Seeds

My peas have been in for some time now and are growing beautifully. This year I did try something new. In my prepared row I tossed in the seeds without any spacing needs. The idea is to just let them grow and see where it takes me. Along with that, instead of setting up a traditional trellis system I have placed small fallen tree limbs in the ground within the rows. As the peas grow they will intermingle with the limbs and will be supported. I hope it works anyway!

My to-do list for this year’s market garden is lengthy. So many projects yet to go and so many new things to try. It seems that I can never be satisfied and must try out any idea that I think might work. Sure, I will never shy away from the tried and true ideas and that is why many of my attempted new ideas are tried in a small test area….just in case.

Weeks ago, I started several plants indoors, all growing strong now. Many of those are still a couple of weeks away from going in the ground. Started in seed trays, many have been transplanted into single pots. As the plants grow stronger, their root systems become more solid. I find that the best transplant pots are yogurt containers. Just put a few holes in the bottom for drainage, fill the appropriate soil, and you’re set.

Set Goals For Your Market Garden
Having a goal at the beginning of the season is of utmost importance for the market gardener. I consider myself a small-time market gardener. I think setting goals gets easier after you have done it for a few years as you come to a better understanding of what your general market location has to offer, and what you can expect from your plantings and harvests. With this in mind I still set high goals, but know that I may not reach them all. When the weather is your co-worker, sometimes you settle for good enough.

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

Let me explain how I establish my goals. In most markets today the tomato is king. It probably will always be king. I might set a goal of 500 pounds of tomatoes. With a best on-average yield of 100 lbs. per 100 row-feet of tomato plants (which is a perfect season) I’d better have at least 500 row-feet planted in tomatoes. That could mean as many as 250 plants.

I also need to estimate harvest poundage. I prefer to plant a indeterminate tomato. Inderterminates will keep growing as the season goes on. A determinate plant will produce all at once. It’s much easier to harvest and sell tomatoes that gradually ripen through the growing season than to sell 500 pounds of tomatoes that ripen all at once!

There are numerous web sites who post average yield charts and these are very important to the market gardener. Find what you are planting and see the average yield (almost all are based on 100 foot rows). Many of these sites will tell you as well about how many plants or seeds it will take for the 100 foot row. With this information seed ordering is a breeze! Start your seed indoors, and you’ll be ready to plant when the weather is right for individual crops.

Green beans are second on the list in my area. Everybody loves their green beans. But to stay ahead of the game you need to plant in succession. Even if you plant only one variety of bean, staggering the planting times will benefit you in the long run. I have seen countless times where many of the small markets have run out of green beans because everybody put them in at the same time and then they all ran out at the same time. Make several plantings a few weeks apart. This will always keep you in green beans throughout the season. Same is true if you do a lot of home canning. Spread your work out. No need to try and get all the beans canned at once. Work them throughout the summer.

Every season I have different ideas on how I will do my selling. Will I stick with the local markets, will I try to market my produce wholesale, will I make a stand as a freelancer? This year the answer is yes, I will try them all. In the next installment, I’ll explain how I do them.

A New Season Begins for the Market Gardener

As the new gardening season quickly approaches it’s time to go over notes and reflect on last year’s season. For most gardeners we know that every season can’t be the best and last year was a bit rough for me. Some things did go just perfectly while others, well not so great!

But that’s good. It’s those not-so-great things that help us learn and make us work a bit harder to improve on the mistakes we made. So I go into this year, just like I do every year… with high hopes!

Let’s start with a good thing from last year. Last season I was able to obtain a bit more ground. Thanks to a brother-in-law, I got full run of nearly an acre or so. Now, this was new ground so I was not able to work it as well as I would have liked, and it still needs lots of work, but I was able to put about a 1/8th of it into production. Weeding was the worst problem. It was almost impossible to keep up with the weeds!

My worst problem was being hit with a bad case of squash bugs in the melons which took out several plants almost overnight. One day everything is green and thriving and the next day, well, it was tough to see.

Herbs have been going strong now at the markets and last season I decided to expand on my herbs.  Basil is always big, as well as thyme, sorrel, oregano, and lemon balm. This season I hope to expand even more.

I also plan to start my green peppers indoors a week or so earlier than last year. Last year I started them about the third week of March and I did not think they were hearty enough when time came to put them in the garden. I put in about 100 green pepper plants so this year I want them to be bigger and stronger. Another week of growing might do them well, at least I hope.

I start most of my plants indoors, but this year I will move them to an empty room in the house where it will be much warmer. I will have to use a bit more artificial light but I think the added warmth will prove a bit more beneficial to the growing plants. I hope to be a bit more aggressive  and start my leeks earlier this year as well, because last year the plants just did not have the strength.

Late last season I was able to purchase a large green house from a grocery store that had closed. It had been sitting out behind the store for several weeks when I went and made an offer (very cheap offer). It did not have any plastic but the metal frame was in very good shape. Needless to say they were glad to get rid of it. And now I hear they may have another!

I put in more garlic last fall and I hope to keep expanding. Garlic sells at the market and very rarely do you ever have any left. With good storage you can hold it for a while, if you do have any left.

I tried some Thai peppers last season and did not have much luck. But I believe I did not start them early enough so they too were not strong when I put them in the ground. I do not plant them for edible reasons at least not from my standpoint. The peppers grow upright and when the plant is picked you can make it into the most beautiful wreath. I will start them early and hope I can turn them in to an added value product at the market.

In the next few weeks I hope to be tapping a few maple trees in hopes of making a few jars of maple syrup for the family. But after that it’s time to finalize the planting schedule, get some plants started and hope for another fun season with the market garden.

Garden Planning in the Dead of Winter

I sit tight against the fireplace. Outside the snow is flying and the air biting. In front of me is a steaming cup of coffee and about a half dozen seed catalogs. Could a cold winter day be spent any better than this?

Despite the garden being under several inches of snow, with more to come I’m sure, I’m getting ready for the upcoming market season. You might think it a bit early, but actually preparations for the coming season had already begun even before the past season had ended.

For instance, cover crops were sown, garlic planted and mulched and blueberries (although just a few plants) were heavily mulched. Leaves were raked and piled high to break down for future use, and the list goes on.

Keeping good notes from season to season will allow you to make good decisions for the coming season. And during the winter I will pore over these notes as to not make the same mistakes or to keep a good thing going. I also jot down notes on ideas that I would like to try the next season. Continue reading

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The Quest for the Puffball

Puffball Mushroom

Puffball Mushroom

I remember as a kid taking a stroll through the local neighborhood in search of a tiny mushroom no larger than a dime. No, I was not intent on picking and eating these mushrooms, for I knew nothing about them. My goal was to find and then step on them, because upon being stepped on the tiny little mushroom would release a neat plume of “smoke.” There would be a time or two when nothing would happen, at which time that mushroom be declared a dud. I showed all my buddies who then began their own assaults on the fungi.

It would be years later that I would realize there was more to this “smoke ball” mushroom. The mushroom was called a puffball, and under the right conditions they grew much larger, sometimes to the size of basketballs! Once I found out they were indeed edible, my curiosity turned into a full-blown love affair. Continue reading