As long as people need to eat, there will be vegetable farming. But before you fervently start putting seedlings in the ground to try and make a living from it, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions.
We compiled a list of factors aspiring vegetable farmers need to consider before they start, as provided by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC).
How far is it to the market?
For Anastasia Smith, a vegetable farmer from Atlantis in the Western Cape, knowing for whom you are growing the vegetables is of the utmost importance. Smith has close to a decade of farming experience.
“Make sure you have [a market] in place before you even place a seed in the ground. This could come in the form of your formal market or informal markets. I started off with my informal markets at first, and as my knowledge grew, I slowly started expanding into herbs and high-end crops.”
Is your area suitable for vegetable farming?
The ARC recommends that you analyse your climate and soil to check if it is suitable for the vegetables you want to produce.
Sandy loam and clay loam soil work best for vegetable production. Soils that are too sandy may not work due to the excessive drainage of water and nutrients and the presence of nematodes (tiny parasitic worms, some of which drain the nutrients from your crops). These factors can cause stress in your crops and reduce your yields.
What about soil nutrients and water quality?
Regularly check the nutrient levels in your soil and make sure that the water available on your land is of good quality. Poor water quality is bad for your soil and ultimately has negative effects on your crops.
According to the ARC, if a borehole is the only available water source for your operation and it does not supply water at a rate of at least 1 litre/second, you cannot grow vegetables. Remember, water and soil analysis services are offered by the Institute for Soil, Climate and Water (ISCW) at the ARC.
Keeping your soil nutrient rich means investing in the correct fertilisers. These fertilisers should be applied in the correct quantities after a soil analysis, as this allows the vegetable operation to be more economical. If you do not know the status of the soil, over-fertilising could become a great expense.
For Smith, using organic matter as fertiliser works best. “I started off with using pesticides and chemicals. I found this [required] way too much administration, as you have to record all watering schedules, all pesticide schedules and fertilising schedules, whereas I find with organic farming, there is very little record keeping to be done. It’s not so intense.”
What is the water economy?
Using municipal water for vegetable production can be incredibly expensive. The ARC estimates that vegetables cultivated on 1 000m² land (which is very small-scale) requires up to 15 000 litres (or 15 kilolitres to 20 kilolitres) a week. That means, a crop that grows for 90 days, will require between 192 000 and 262 000 litres (or 192 to 262 kilolitres) per 1 000 m². This is a huge volume of water, so the cost of water is something you need to calculate in the planning phase of your vegetable business.
Smith says, depending on the land available to you, you may also need to obtain rights to use the water sources on the land. “Do you have rights to the use of water with the landlord? Do you need a permit for the use of water? And if so, how much water can you use?”
Do you have the infrastructure?
Your infrastructure is critical to a successful vegetable operation, and it includes transport, mechanisation, irrigation systems and packing sheds or stores. Transportation is essential to your business in terms of moving or obtaining resources. Mechanisation, like tractors, is required to cultivate your land if there are large tracts of it. Your irrigation system needs to be suited to your operation so your yields can flourish. And if you are growing a high-quality product, you need a packing shed or store.
Tips from a farmer
Smith provides two additional tips to aspiring farmers.
1. Get a mentor
Smith recommends that newer farmers find someone to mentor them in the early stages of their business. Another farmer’s expertise can help minimise a new farmer’s mistakes.
“It’s essential that you have a mentor, and he or she understands your views and where you’d like to see your business in five years’ time. Communication, mutual respect for each other’s opinions and views are key tools for a successful business relationship with your mentor.”
2. Connect with other farmers for your seasonal labour
As a small-scale farmer, Smith does not have a large permanent labour force. She arranges with her mentor and fellow farmer to have workers from his farm also work on hers. “It is so much easier for me because I didn’t need to do any training with them. They knew what to do, so it made my planning and business relationship so much easier.”
Ultimately, for a vegetable operation to produce a profit, it requires high input and labour costs. Setting up and maintaining a vegetable farm tends to be expensive and profitability also requires high yields. In other words, in order to make your vegetable operation work, you need to have money available for all the inputs that you need.
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