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Growing For Food, Fun, And Money

If you enjoy gardening—flowers, vegetables, or both—you might want to consider turning your hobby into a source of additional income for you and your family.

Turning your green thumb into green in your bank account isn’t as difficult as you might think. And surprisingly, it doesn’t always require acres of land and expensive equipment. Before you start digging, though, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. You need to remember that growing for profit is a business and that you should make decisions and conduct yourself accordingly. And just like any other business venture, you need to have a growing plan, expect to put in a good amount of manual labor and know you will have a marketing plan for selling what you grow.

Your Growing-For-Profit Plan

If you’ve made the decision to grow for profit, it is probably safe to assume you have the necessary gardening implements and machinery for doing so. These would include a tiller, rakes, hoes, sprayers, hand tools and shovels. If you are going to focus on bedding plants or exotics grown in a greenhouse, you’ll obviously need the greenhouse and the necessary growing supplies such as plant cells, trays, soil, pots, lighting, and climate control. If you don’t have a greenhouse already in place, you will need to purchase one or build your own. Once you have determined where to focus your attention, you will be ready to continue.

What Not To Grow. If your mindset of growing vegetables for profit is centered on corn, cucumbers, green beans, and tomatoes, you need to think again. Every farmer’s market and roadside stand in the country has an abundance of these garden staples. You want to stand out from the rest. If you have the garden space to grow a variety of veggies in quantity, then it’s fine to offer a token amount of these staples, but if you are serious about making a profit, you want to offer something that is a bit more off the grid.

What To Grow. You can grow tomatoes, peppers and beans, but grow uncommon varieties to stake your claim in the market. For instance, if you live in the lower Midwest or southern regions of the country, where the growing seasons are longer, you can grow cee gwa (Chinese okra). Its nutty flavor and absence of prickly “hair” make it a delightful and popular hit among market-goers. If you don’t have that capability and you like growing peppers, tomatoes, or greens, then grow some unique varieties that will excite and arouse the curiosity of market-goers and keep them coming back to you.

Maybe You Prefer Flowers. Growing flowers for profit is usually done by selling bedding plants (seedlings), fresh-cut flowers, or perennials, such as flowering shrubs, bushes, or tuber flowers such as lilies and iris. Again, when it comes to growing for profit, stay away from the common and ordinary varieties. Petunias and marigolds are a dime a dozen. Instead, go for zinnias, succulents, rose moss, non-hybrid daisies, and peonies, ornamental peppers, and other unusual blooms.

Or You Might Want To Consider Specialty Crops. Specialty crops include herbs used for seasonings and teas, ornamental gourds, exotic house plants (grown in a greenhouse), berries, and, if you have the land and machinery necessary for working the ground, popcorn can be a highly profitable crop.

How Much To Grow. Knowing how much to grow often stymies people. The answer to that question depends on several things. But most importantly, grow enough to make a profit. What’s a profit? A profit is making back in sales everything you spent in production, including paying yourself for your time and all expenses in marketing and selling your product. Sounds straightforward enough, right? It is. There are a few other “growing points,” however, to keep in mind…

  1. The amount you grow will be dependent on the size of your growing space. A space as small as eight feet by ten feet can easily sustain up to forty pepper plants, enough flowers to sell twenty to thirty bouquets of fresh-cut flowers per week, a plethora of herbs, or a season’s worth of a variety of greens or other veggies. The same size greenhouse will enable you to grow hundreds of bedding plants. Remember, maximizing your space is key to your profitability.
  2. Your growing potential will also be dictated by how much time you are willing and able to devote to weeding, watering, fertilizing, marketing, and selling your product. Don’t get in over your head—it will only lead to poor quality product and burn out on your part.
  3. Do you have marketing potential? Are you putting all your eggs in one basket, or do you have multiple markets? The potential outlets for sales need to be varied to sustain your business through the ups and downs that come with any business venture.

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Manual Labor

Gardening is a hands-on venture. While it’s true Mother Nature plays a major role in growth and production, you have the responsibility of keeping your plants weed-free, healthy, pest-free, and pruned to produce to their maximum potential. You’ll also need to be vigilant in harvesting your product at its prime for selling.

Manual labor will also be required in selling your products. Remember, no one has as much to gain or lose from your success as you do, so you are the best person for the job. This will require your presence and your people skills to be in top-notch condition at farmer’s markets, a roadside stand, as a wholesale salesman to local businesses, or a combination of any or all of these. Like my Grandpa always said, “If you want something done the way you think it should be done, then do it yourself.”

Marketing Plan

This is the fun part. Selling what you grow—reaping the benefits and rewards for your hard work—brings your garden to business status. When you sell, you are no longer a hobbyist—you are a businessman or woman.

The first step you need to take when putting together your marketing plan is to determine what you need to turn a profit. When determining your cost of production, you need to look at the cost of equipment, seed, soil, containers (if growing seedlings or transplants from perennials), fertilizer, your time (you may need to work cheaply the first year or so, but not for free), fees for selling at markets, transportation to and from the markets, advertising, labeling, etc.

Once you have determined your costs, you will need to set your price. Setting your price will depend on if you are selling retail (to the public) or wholesale (to businesses which will in turn resell your product). Usually, wholesale prices are a bit lower to allow the buyer to recoup their costs and because you can afford to take a bit less because you are selling in quantity and will not have the overhead of selling at markets.

And always be looking for ways to keep cost down. For instance, don’t buy your seed in little packets from the local lawn and garden center. Buy seed in bulk, re-use containers that have been properly cleaned and disinfected, grow non-hybrid varieties so you can harvest your own seed for the next growing season, use your state’s agriculture department resources that are available for free or very little cost, and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.

You also need to know where to sell. If you want to take the retail route, you will need to take advantage of local farmer’s markets, set up a roadside stand, and possibly take advantage of selling via online markets. The most comprehensive and seller-friendly online market is Local Harvest. And again, your state’s department of agriculture may be one of the nation’s many states that has its own grower support programs that include help with advertising and marketing materials and funds, markets that sell only state-grown/produced goods, helpful seminars, and other resources.

Selling wholesale is an often-untraveled avenue by small producers. They feel as if they have nothing to offer. Au contraire! Visit your local cafes, day-care providers, and local sorority and fraternity houses to offer the sale of fresh, locally grown produce. Those same daycares and Greek organizations, along with civic organizations, youth clubs, and school clubs, may be interested in buying your bedding plants or specialty crops to sell as a fundraising project or for class/group projects. A local funeral home or office complex may be interested in fresh-cut flower arrangements or exotic houseplants, and real estate offices or banks may find your plants the perfect gift to give new customers.

The last major marketing plan element (but definitely not the least) is confidence. Your confidence in yourself and in your product has to show. If you don’t think your product is worth buying, no one else will either.

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