Getting Overwhelmed by My Garden

By Cam Mather

My garden is a daunting thing at this time of year. In fact I often stand looking at it in stark terror, the way that I would look at the prospect of crossing one of those decrepit rope bridges over a gorge of sharp rocks while being chased by zombies.

It never used to be this way. I think it’s a combination of factors this year, but mostly the weather. We basically had rain every day in May. And lots in April too. My sandy soil, which can look like a desert during an August drought, has been saturated. The lower part of my garden near the dug well is basically a quagmire. It’s like quicksand and I worry that my boots will be pulled off my feet when I try to walk through it.

Even the upper parts of the garden that usually dry out quickly have been too wet to inspire me to plant. Plants need some sun, and heat, and got next to none of it in May. So while I usually start planting as soon as I can in the spring, this year it was so wet I was afraid the seeds would rot.

garden-spring-2011

At this time of year everyone that I meet asks, “So have you got your garden in yet?” It’s usually non-gardeners who would ask this, because they view rain as something that requires you to take an umbrella to work as opposed to something that can prevent you from getting your vegetable garden planted.

seeds-take-over-the-kitchen

At the beginning of March our kitchen was taken over by the new three-shelf grow light and seed table. We just moved the grow light to storage in the barn since at this time of year we move our seedlings from the back porch to the back lawn and then back to the porch on cold nights. Our nights here are still as low as 7 or 8° Celsius (40°F) so I’m still keeping my heat-loving plants like peppers, eggplants, sweet potatoes and tomatoes, inside. I have planted some tomatoes under cloches but I’ve discovered after many, many years of gardening that even if I put a few tomato plants in early, they produce ripe tomatoes at about the same time as the plants that I put in later. I think the reality is that they just need a certain number of heat units to mature so you’re not much further ahead putting them in earlier.

There is still an enormous amount to be done otherwise and I’m overwhelmed. When I spend the whole day in the garden on the weekends I start to feel like I’m making progress. But during the workweek when I get out there by 6 am and have to stop at 9 or 10 am to head to my home-office to work on the computer, I feel like I’ve hardly made a dent. That’s when I ask myself, “If I worked in the garden all day, every day, how much money could I make?” Unfortunately I realize that at my scale it would be very difficult to support my meager lifestyle by just growing food. I would really have to scale up the gardens to the point where all the cleared land around the house was in production. It’s a huge task, especially without a tractor. And a tractor would cost me $20,000 or $30,000. I’d have to sell a lot of garlic to pay for a tractor.

spring-garden-2011-2

Then I would need to find a way to sell it. I could go the Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) route but the question is how many people could I get to join and what could I charge? There are a number of them operating in Kingston but it’s almost an hour’s drive, so the economics of that is questionable. I could try to get local people to join a CSA but there is a much smaller population within an easy drive and many have their own vegetable gardens. We will be selling in town on Saturdays but right now that’s an unknown commodity in terms of what we’ll be able to make in a day.

To a certain extent I believe with growing food I’m in the “go big or go home” zone and being a fair drive from a reasonable population center, it seems I’m still advised to not quit my day job. Not that it’s a real job. Running your own electronic publishing does not guarantee a paycheck. Not in this economy anyway.

I have thousands of dollars worth of computer equipment and sophisticated software to lay out books and produce DVDs and to do websites, so this is where I should be concentrating my efforts. But my heart’s not in it anymore. I still believe in spreading the word about renewable energy and living sustainably, but what I really want to do when I grow up (i.e. now) is to earn a living growing food.

I think this is kind of unfortunate. I believe our society is misdirected in terms of who gets rewarded financially. The most important people in the economy are caregivers who look after children and people who grow food, and most often the people who perform these jobs receive the lowest pay. Who does get paid well in our society? Guys (people) in suits. People who don’t DO anything really.  They push paper around, or bits of digital information on a computer. Any business has an impact on the planet; so the people we pay the most, tend to have the greatest impact. They make “stuff”. They sell “stuff”. They mine stuff from the earth and take from nature to make that “stuff.” And pretty much all of it is “stuff” that we can do without. Food, like air and water though, we need.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining,  “Oh woe is me, wannabe farmer who can’t figure out how to make enough money while growing food.” I am extremely grateful to even own the land and have the luxury of dreaming about such a prospect. I just know how much easier it is for me to earn an income on a computer. And safer. I’m not at the mercy of the sun and wind and insects and commodity prices. Or raccoons when the corn’s ripe.

I believe this paradigm is about to change though and peak oil is bringing it on. You can’t pick up a paper without reading an article warning about how much food prices are going up. And in the process farmers are making more money. And there’s a real movement with many consumers to want to know where and how their food was grown, and to try and eat as sustainably as possible. And that just makes it that much easier for young, smaller scale farmers to make a go of it.

Half of the garlic crop

Half of the garlic crop

So be advised that come the third week of July I’m going to be turning this blog into one big advertisement for our “mail order garlic”. You can think of it as a contribution to the “Cam Mather attempt to make money growing food project” and you will get some of the most delicious and amazing garlic in return! I grow great garlic. I take infinite pride in it. We process every head with love. It has countless proven health benefits like lowering your cholesterol, and best of all, you’ll feel good, helping out that wannbe farmer who lives off the grid in the woods in Eastern Ontario fulfill his love long dream. I don’t want a sports car, I don’t want to walk to Manchu Pichu, I don’t want to go Disney World, I just want to grow food.

Veggies in trays ready to plant

Veggies in trays ready to plant

9 Responses to “Getting Overwhelmed by My Garden”

  • Erin Middlebrooks:

    Hi Cam, Erin again. I am a relative newbie. I am going to be planting my first ever garlic in September. (I live on Vancouver Island) can you tell me how far apart you plant? I was going to space mine about 5-6 inches, but yours look much closer.

  • We are growing food as part of our wish not to be suits. We also have a recycled and upcycled craft stall we just started. It seems in this changing time, a diversity of income streams will work for us. One of the things I have noticed already is that it’s a lot cheaper to learn how to make your own packaging than to buy it in. Making tiny boxes is quick and about 6 cents each compared to 40+ for buying them. Stamping your own brown paper bags is a lot cheaper than buying them stamped. Diversify would be my key thought.

  • Lorna:

    This one resonates with me as well. My husband is working in the Middle East right now (too hot and desert-y to grow anything over here!) but we are making plans to move back to a temperate climate, buy our house/land and start our great homesteading adventure. We just want to grow food too!
    One idea-what about hosting a WWOOFer(s)? You get some extra help when you need it most, and some other future farmer gets the experience you have and they need. If you really did want to quit your day job and expand the gardening enterprise, you might consider finding a grant/funding + enlisting the help of WWOOFers and/or taking on an intern (or two or three or more). You have a great set-up with a potential separate living space for your interns. They would get access to your knowledge and experience that they desperately want and need, and you would have a lot of extra help to get things done.

  • Del:

    An additional thought: make up a gift box of all the above, plus a pound of garlic. Size the package to ship economically via USPS Priority Mail. With more items the additional cost of postage will be less burdensome for your customers. Have the price include the postage.

  • Del:

    Garlic flakes, garlic powder, garlic paste. I think your loyal readers would be glad to buy these products from you. Check with your state government for their requirements for a food producer.

    Work out your prices to be competitive, somewhere between gourmet store prices and every day food market prices.

  • Cam, would it help if you looked at adding value? You grow great garlic. Focus on that and think of creative ways to add value: garlands, garlic ice cream, garlic wine, and I don’t know what else! There should be more money downstream, a processing step or two in the adding value stream, where most of the money is in agriculture. And garlic + added value could be an online business. How’s that sound?

    gerrit
    Sustainable Living Blog
    http://www.gerritbotha.com

  • Larry:

    Does one of your neighbours have a tractor? Maybe you could made a deal with him, 10-20 lbs of tomatoes if he will roto-till your garden?

    Just a thought.

    Larry

  • Debbie:

    Ah Spring – that time of year that can really kick your butt after being dormant during the winter for 6 months! I guess that’s why Mother Nature let’s us rest during that season because there surely isn’t time for rest in the early part of spring/summer when you have a garden. I can totally co-miserate with you. There are days when I’ll work my tail off and feel like I’ve accomplished things only to turn around and see another project. Words to remember – There’s only one way to eat an elephant – One bite at a time…
    Hang in there!

  • Greetings from the Las Vegas desert.

    Wow, you and I really resonate on this one. I wanna be a farmer, too. I just want to grow food for my family and for others. I don’t necessarily want to live as far out as you do, I’m a city guy. I focus on producing on my urban “Stealth Farm.” I’m ‘negotiating’ with the county bureaucrats so I can add hens. I’m going to have to ‘negotiate’ with them to be able to sell my produce, too, but I’m leaving that fight until later.

    My tomatoes are already producing, and they are the sweetest, most intensely flavored tomatoes I’ve ever grown. I’m doing them in sub-irrigated buckets this year as a trial and it has been a resounding success.

    But I just want to grow food. My ‘day job’ is fun, but it’s not that challenging and certainly not as rewarding as my garden. My job title is Management Analyst. Doesn’t that sound like a ‘suit’ job for you?

    I’ve written a couple of volumes on the subject of urban farming and they are in the editing process now. I would much rather write about what I’m doing in my garden than smash numbers together and make pretty charts and graphs. But, I’ve got a family and I’m still working through my frustrations on why I didn’t get into farming when I was younger (you and I are the same age) and had fewer ties (anchors) to the city.

    But we do what we can do and we do the best we can at doing it. Keep the dream alive and let me know how I can buy some of your garlic.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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