Henderson on the Business of Gardening

Notes based on Gardening for Profit by Peter Henderson.

One of the first things Henderson emphasizes in the introduction is that he’s no phony. He makes a distinction between self-made farmers–practical people who’ve “risen from the ranks”–versus people who have a little hobby garden or farm, spend a few years dabbling, and then write a book. Henderson wanted to let his readers know that he practiced what he preached. This is an interesting distinction because if I’m looking for information on how to farm profitably, I need to pay special attention to people who started off in a similar situation as mine (i.e. from scratch) and who’ve achieved goals that I’m after (sustainability and profitability). Why re-invent the wheel?

I wouldn’t have thought that this book, written in the late 1800s, would be of much value to someone like me, but Henderson must’ve really known his stuff. Sure, some things are outdated, like starting a farm for $300 per acre in the outskirts of NYC (ha!) as well as the hand tools and the horse power (i.e. horses as workers, not as pets). But other elements of the book are as relevant as ever. One example is his view on what it takes for a person to be successful as a farmer. More recent versions of this book have a handy list in the foreword that sums it up quite nicely:

Characteristics of a successful market farmer

1. Raise only high value crops.

2. Farm as close to your markets as possible.

3. Capture the lucrative early and late markets.

4. Weatherproof your farm as much as possible.

5. Farm the best land you can.

6. Have realistic goals and expectations.

7. Know what you’re getting into.

8. Don’t be afraid of lots of hard work.

9. Have enough money to do it right and make it work.

10. Don’t get too big too quickly.

11. Concentrate on freshness and quality.

12. Watch the markets and catch the highest prices.

Henderson also makes some interesting observations about labor and management that are still relevant today. For one thing, good labor’s hard to find. Nearly every farmer I’ve ever spoken to agrees with Henderson on this count. He says only one in a hundred of his hired hands ever show the potential to be a good manager. Thus those rare few are in high demand, and are paid accordingly, so don’t count on hiring one and still expect to turn a good profit (at least not in the beginning). In terms of being a good manager, he emphasizes the importance of being a hands-on person, as opposed to letting others work while you give orders. I’ve witnessed the difference this approach can make, because I’ve worked under people who really would’ve benefited from reading Henderson’s words:

“…in summer planting, when it is of the utmost importance to get the plants in when raining, we repeatedly work for hours in drenching rains, and woe be to the ‘boss,’ or foreman, who would superintend the operation under the protection of an umbrella; he must take his chances with the rank and file, or his prestige, as commander, is gone.”

Another important lesson I gleaned from the first few chapters is that you should always, always, always start with plenty of capital per acre, rather than spread it thinly over too much acreage. This includes funds, equipment, materials, and labor. It makes good sense in terms of risk management. If you invest too much capital per acre, you risk wasting some of your investment; but if you invest too little capital, you risk losing ALL of it. So start small, and take gradual steps from there.

This is a powerful little nugget of wisdom that I’ve heard before. When I visited Indian Ridge Farm in Norwood, CO, Tony and Barclay Daranyi made it clear that: “The biggest lesson we’ve learned is to take it slow.” It’s also something I witnessed the negative consequences of this past year as hired hand. The organic farm I worked for jumped nearly 50% in full CSA shares from the previous year. The increase was based on the bounty of the previous year, a bounty of both crop growth and labor, both of which were short this year. The result was a sobering reminder that it’s better to risk producing too much than producing too little.

Coming soon: Henderson on Soil Preparation

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2 Comments »

  1. Robin said

    The frost free time in my area is June 1 through about September 15, nothing set in stone of course. Last year’s first frost was also a killing frost. Since our time is so short Season Extenders would be my #13.

  2. I think season-extending is what Henderson meant by weatherproofing in #4. My next three entries are going to be in this area (cold frames, hot beds, and greenhouses).

    This part of New Mexico has an amazing growing season. We can start planting in January and Harvest through October. But, the weeds love the climate as well–tumbleweeds (aka Russian thistle) are just…ugh. And, of course, there are always water issues. So it’s a tradeoff no matter where you go. I’d rather fight the weather than fight the government (and the rapidly growing and unsustainable cities they represent) over water rights, personally.

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