Big rewards from a small market garden


There are a gazillion videos extolling the joys and satisfactions of small farming. Here, however, I will focus on two aspects of small farming that don’t get much attention: the sweat-inducing labor and the meager cash thus earned.

I grow fruits and vegetables in a 10,000-square-foot garden in Orleans. I take my produce to farmers markets on Cape. For a market garden, 10,000 square feet isn’t very big; it’s less than one-quarter of an acre. I look around; I can see that there are opportunities for that size of garden all over town.

My costs are low. I do all the work myself, no hired help. I maintain soil fertility with leaf mulch and cover crops. I irrigate the garden with town water, mainly with drip tapes. I never water the lawn. During 2021 gardening season, April through September, I used about 4,000 gallons of water at a cost of $44.

I began bringing produce to the markets in 2003 when I was 65. Now I’m 83 and still doing them, still enjoying them. Over the past 10 years, 2011 to 2021, I’ve grown 14 tons of produce.

I take physical exercise seriously. Back in the day, in northern Wisconsin, I participated in cross-country ski marathons. Here on the Cape, it’s the garden. The websites of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society tell it like it is. They’d really like you to be doing five hours weekly of a mix of moderate and vigorous exercise. And more than that is even better.

Moderate exercise they say is like a brisk walk or, sure enough, gardening. Vigorous exercise “makes you sweat.” I figure that during the summer I’m in the garden 20 to 30 hours a week, with two-thirds moderate and one-third vigorous exercise. The big thing about the garden is that it forces you keep moving.

Then there’s the money. I’m talking cash, man! Over the past 10 years, I’ve grossed $56,000 in cash. I figure that if I add on about $2,000 annually in produce held back for family use, and deduct about $1,000 annually in costs, the annual take is about $7,000. That certainly is an itty-bitty return on the hard work, the long hours.

It’s way less than you’d get working in a grocery store. But I don’t compare myself with someone getting an hourly wage. I compare myself with the golfer who’s on the links three or four days a week and who spends the winter golfing in Florida or Arizona. He’s retired and I’m retired. But I took in $56,000 while my golfing friend was spending it!

I had long assumed that all the cash I might collect would be from produce sales. But I have recently learned that there could a substantial cash bonus coming to me of the “a penny saved is a penny earned” variety.

Last September, I saw my cardiologist for a checkup. He told me about the growing understanding of the critical significance of exercise: “Stay active!” he exclaimed. “Do not make a friend of the TV! If you avoid the easy chair, if you remain physically active, you may not live longer, but you will not spend the final three to five years of your life in a nursing home!”

Those of us who heed the good doctor’s advice shall avoid the ruinous cost of long-term care. According to the Genworth Financial 2020 Cost of Care Survey, nursing home care in Massachusetts is $12,623 per month for a semiprivate room. One year would be $151,476; five years $757,380. Perhaps what we’ve really been doing during our years of garden labor is to build up an account, a health account to draw on during our final years.

The cohort of men now 60 has a median life expectancy of 82.5 years. Twenty-two years from now, half that cohort will still be coming down to breakfast. Sixty is an excellent age to start building up skills in a home garden. Then, at retirement, there comes the opportunity to ramp it up, as I have during the past 18 years.

David Light lives in Orleans.

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Healthy living and revenue comes from a small Orleans garden.


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