Market Gardening

It's a Saturday morning. You and your friends decide to do a little shopping at the food stands at the local farmer's market. Maybe it's your imagination, but the produce there always tends to look and taste fresher. A question pops into your head: where does this food come from? Signs you had scarcely given a second glance to reveal that the potatoes you're about to buy were grown on a small farm a mere 20 minutes away. That's strange, because you remember noticing that the potatoes you bought from the grocery store last week were grown an astounding 2 000 miles away from your home. 

Market Gardening Market Gardening

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Table of contents

    Without realizing it, your trip to the farmer's market supported a network of market gardens: small intensive crop farms that provide food locally. Read on to learn more about the characteristics, the tools, and more.

    Market Gardening Definition

    The concept of "market gardening" in Western agriculture seems to have emerged in London around 1345. The term originally referred, generally, to any type of commercial agriculture, i.e., crops or dairy being raised to sell for profit at a market, as opposed to farming being done for subsistence. Today, the term "market garden" refers to a specific type of commercial farming and should not be used as a synonym for commercial farming in general.

    Market garden: A relatively small commercial farm characterized by a diversity of crops and a relationship with local markets.

    Market gardening is a form of intensive farming, meaning it has a high input of labor (and/or money) relative to the land being farmed, in expectation of a high output of agricultural products. Because market gardens tend to be small, every little bit of space matters; market gardeners look for ways to make their small farms more efficient.

    Other forms of intensive farming include plantation agriculture and mixed crop and livestock systems. Remember these for the AP Human Geography exam!

    Characteristics of Market Gardening

    Characteristics of market gardening include:

    • Relatively small in area

    • Manual labor instead of mechanized labor

    • Commercial in nature

    • A diversity of crops

    • A presence in local markets as opposed to global markets

    A market garden may be just a couple of acres. Some are little more than a single greenhouse. For this reason, the use of large, expensive agricultural machinery is not cost-effective. Most farm labor must be done by hand, though larger market gardens may require the use of a truck or two. Market gardens are therefore sometimes called "truck farms." We'll discuss the tools of the trade a little more in-depth later.

    Market gardens are explicitly designed to generate a profit. Subsistence farms may have similar set-ups, but are, by definition, not "market" gardens, because subsistence farmers have no intention of selling their crops at a market.

    Will an individual market garden become profitable? That largely boils down to the proclivities of local consumers. Most market gardens try to cater to the wants and needs of locals—a local restaurant, a local co-op grocery store, customers at a local farmer's market, or customers who visit the farm itself. Success is largely determined by whether market gardens can find a niche in the local market, and whether they can find a balance between expenses and profits. A market garden must be able to offer something a grocery chain cannot, whether that's better prices, better quality, or a better buying experience. Some restaurants even maintain their own market gardens.

    As always, there are exceptions to every rule: some market gardens may ship their products nationally or even globally if there's sufficient demand.

    Market Gardening, Characteristics of Market Gardening, Farmer's Market, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A farmer's market

    Market gardens can be found around the world. Reasons for maintaining market gardens vary wildly. In areas of dense urban growth, like Hong Kong or Singapore, market gardens are one of the only feasible options for local commercial crop cultivation. In less densely populated areas, market gardens are a relatively accessible way to generate income through agriculture, since market gardens do not require the same start-up and maintenance costs as other types of commercial farming.

    In September 1944, Allied forces conducted Operation Market Garden against Nazi Germany. This was a military offensive during which US and UK paratroopers were tasked with seizing bridges in the Netherlands (Operation Market) so that conventional land forces could cross those bridges (Operation Garden). This historical military operation may have been named after market gardening, but it had nothing to do with agriculture! Remember to keep things straight as you prepare for your AP exams.

    Market Gardening Crops

    Many large commercial farms mass produce just one or two different products to sell them in bulk. Farms in the US Midwest, for example, produce large amounts of corn and soybeans. A market garden, on the other hand, may grow 20 or more different types of crops.

    Market Gardening, Market Gardening Crops, Market Garden, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A small market garden in Spain. Notice the diversity of crops

    Some of the crops cultivated in a market garden do not scale up well to large-scale crop cultivation. Others are specifically grown to meet a local need. Market gardening crops include, but are not limited to:

    • Mushrooms

    • Bamboo

    • Lavender

    • Chives

    • Carrots

    • Cabbage

    • Arugula

    • Squash

    • Cherry tomatoes

    • Ginseng

    • Peppers

    • Garlic

    • Potatoes

    • Basil

    • Microgreens

    Market gardens may also specialize in purely ornamental plants, like bonsai trees or flowers.

    Market Gardening Tools

    As we mentioned earlier, the size of the average market garden precludes the possibility of using most large modern heavy agricultural machinery, like combines and big tractors. The smaller the farm, the more true this is: you might be able to get some use out of a smaller tractor if your market garden is a few acres in size, but you surely can't drive one into a greenhouse!

    Most market gardens rely on manual labor with the use of "traditional" farm and gardening tools, including spades, shovels, and rakes. Resin silage tarps can be placed on top of crops when they are most vulnerable, either in lieu of, or in conjunction with, chemical pesticides and herbicides (remember, on a farm this size, every plant counts).

    Larger market gardens may benefit from small riding tractors or even walk-behind tractors—essentially miniature tractors pushed by hand—to help with tillage or weed removal.

    Market Gardening, Market Gardening Tools, BCS Tractor, StudySmarterFig. 3 - An Italian farmer operates a walk-behind tractor

    Market Gardening Examples

    Let's take a look at a couple places with well-established market garden practices.

    Market Gardening in California

    California is one of the biggest agricultural producers in the US and a hotbed for market gardening.

    In the 19th century, market gardens in California tended to cluster around San Francisco.1 Largely driven by a desire for localized self-sufficiency and a need to avoid high transportation costs, the spread of market gardening grew in California alongside the spread of large-scale commercial agriculture. It is not uncommon to find small market gardens scattered in and around major cities and suburbs, growing food to sell at a local farmer's market. In fact, at around 800 , California has more farmer's markets than any other state in the US.

    Market Gardening in Taiwan

    In Taiwan, space is limited. Market gardening is practiced alongside large-scale crop cultivation and vertical farming to establish a network of local food sources.

    Market gardens service farmer's markets and food stands throughout the island. These market gardens are closely linked to Taiwan's extensive agritourism industry.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Market Gardening

    Practicing market gardening comes with a number of advantages:

    • Reduced transportation costs and transportation-related pollution; the food is being grown, sold, and consumed in a relatively small area

    • Relatively smaller start-up investment (in terms of both money and space) makes market gardening more approachable for newcomers than other forms of agriculture

    • Allows commercial crop cultivation to remain viable near urban environments

    • Can create local self-sufficiency and food security

    Market gardening is not perfect:

    • Most market gardens can cause soil erosion over time

    • As they are now, market gardens on their own cannot meet global, national, and often even local food needs; populations are just too large

    • Market gardens are not as efficient as large-scale crop cultivation

    We have dedicated huge swathes of the planet to large-scale crop cultivation. As large-scale farm soil continues to deteriorate and our population continues to grow, it remains to be seen if market gardening will be viewed as a practical option or an exercise in inefficient futility.

    Market Gardening - Key takeaways

    • A market garden is a relatively small commercial farm characterized by a diversity of crops and a relationship with local markets.
    • Market gardening is a form of intensive farming.
    • Market gardening crops include crops that do not typically scale well to large-scale crop cultivation, crops that are in high demand, and/or ornamental plants.
    • Market gardening precludes the use of most types of heavy machinery and requires more manual labor with the use of tools like rakes and spades.
    • Market gardens can help meet the food needs of local markets, but ultimately they do not do the heavy lifting of helping most people stay fed.

    References

    1. Gregor, H. F. (1956). The Geographic Dynamism of California Market Gardening. Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, 18, 28–35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24042225
    Frequently Asked Questions about Market Gardening

    What is market gardening?  

    Market gardening is the practice of maintaining a relatively small commercial farm that is characterized by a diversity of crops and, typically, a relationship with local markets. 

    Why is it called market gardening? 

    The "market" in market gardening refers to the fact that this is a commercial endeavor; the crops are being raised to sell at a market. 

    Where is market gardening practiced? 

    Market gardening is practiced all over the world. In population-dense urban areas, market gardening may be the only real option for local commercial crop cultivation. 

    Is market gardening profitable?  

    Market gardening is meant to generate a profit, but the actual profitability of any single market garden will depend on business efficiency and customer demand. 

    Is market gardening intensive or extensive?  

    Market gardening is intensive farming. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following best describes market gardening? 

    Market gardening is a form of: 

    Of the following, which is a market garden MOST LIKELY to cater to? Select all that apply. 

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