Getting to Know the Chef
Shared From MOTHER EARTH NEWS Written by: Mort Mather
Chefs in northern climates love to talk to farmers in the winter. They are dying for good produce. So I drove to a natural food restaurant thirty-five miles away in Portland, Maine to talk with the chef. She told me they used eight cases of lettuce a week, three cases of zucchini, tomatoes, basil, parsley, onions (the big red ones), cauliflower, broccoli, a couple of hundred pounds of carrots, green beans, wax beans, chard, and the list went on. Yes, she would love organic produce if the price wasn’t too much higher. I vowed to match the price of her usual supplier. I had a market. All I had to do was supply it.
So it was back to the books as I tried to plan my first market garden to meet the needs of my primary buyer. How many feet of row would it take to produce 200 pounds of carrots a week? Carrots were actually the easiest one to figure because I could store them in the root cellar and market them throughout the winter. Perishables like lettuce were more of a challenge. A ten-foot row of romaine might yield a case, but how many feet would it take to fill a case with buttercrunch? And how many days could I harvest until the lettuce started to bolt? I had been keeping records of happenings in my garden over the years but I didn’t have that information. Would it be the same from one year to the next? Seed catalogs are an excellent place to find answers to questions like these.
As I look at the plot for the first year market garden, I want to say that it was planned as an experiment. As such I look brilliant. The fact of the matter was that I was hoping to make some money. I planted about half an acre, and half of that was in carrots and onions, crops that could be stored in the fall until sold. Decent planning. Another chunk of the market garden was planted in flint corn for corn meal and chicken feed. I was taking advantage of having land under cultivation that was far enough distant from the rest of the garden so corn would not crosspollinate. I planted quite a few tomatoes but the rest of the half acre was a little bit of everything my chef wanted.
When the cauliflower was ready to harvest, nothing else was. I couldn’t justify a trip to sell just cauliflower, especially when I wouldn’t have anything to sell the next week. If I wanted customers who thought I knew what I was doing, I’d have to do better than wander in every other week or so with who-knew-what. It wasn’t until fall that I had enough of anything to make the trip to Portland worthwhile.
I figured that if I called to try and get an order over the phone the cost of the phone call might eat up any potential income. I was also pretty sure my chef would have forgotten who I was by that time. I washed and bagged fifty pounds of carrots and put them in two bags. At the end of summer my chef was not nearly as pleased to see me as she had been in winter. She was tired from overwork and she had been getting reasonably good produce all summer. It was a hassle for her to write out a check for a small order when she could be billed weekly by a supplier who always gave her what she ordered. She took a bag of car rots because of the look on my face. I’ve been told I have a very good lost puppy dog look. The lost puppy asked if it would be all right to bring some more next week and received an unenthusiastic OK.
The next week when I arrived at the delivery entrance to the restaurant with two bags of carrots, everyone from the dishwasher to the chef told me what good carrots they were. The chef wanted two hundred pounds a week as long as the supply held, and did I have anything else? They took as many tomatoes and zucchini as I could supply until frost ended the fun.
The chef wanted to know when I would start delivering next year. She was already looking forward to more organic produce. I told her of my problem of not having enough to deliver to make the trip worthwhile. We found a wonderful solution. Barbara developed a maple walnut pie with all natural ingredients. We delivered as many as a dozen of these a week which meant the vegetables could ride for free.
The bottom line for that first market garden? I spent $537 and took in $497 for a loss of $40. However, $178 was for lime and rock phosphate which would not have to be reapplied to the field for at least three years. I am still using a pitch fork, fence posts, and fence for the peas purchased that year. So I actually made some money.
To continue reading about Mort Mather’s market gardening success, check out Starting a Market Garden on MOTHER EARTH NEWS.