by Jane Primerano
The saying is “small is beautiful,” but it could be “small is profitable.”
Jean-Martin Fortier, owner-operator of Broadfork Farm in Quebec, is a firm believer in that.
Fortier was keynote speaker at the 27th Annual Winter Conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association – New Jersey. He spoke about his success with the 10-acre farm he has been running for several years.
Farming wasn’t Fortier’s first goal. He studied environmental science and then decided he wanted to do something “hands-on and positive.” That led to travel and work on a small organic farm and then to Santa Fe, NM. He visited Santa Fe’s Farmers’ Market where he met the Salad King of Santa Fe and found himself amazed at how much profit he was making.
A stint at a Montessori School with a farm attached came next. Then he went back to his native Quebec inspired to start a market farm. He rented land and put up a tipi, which he moved into. It wasn’t the ideal location: “I chose the site for the view, but it was a north slope,” he said.
He didn’t do badly, making $12,000 the first year and $30,000 the second.
He didn’t like the idea of overwintering in a tipi in Quebec, so he did some off-season traveling. “I went to Cuba because there is no fossil fuel after the Soviet Union fell. They had to reinvent farming,” he said. Once there he found he liked their use of raised beds of dense crops. A trip to France was another lesson in intensive farming. Because so much of France is built up, land cannot be left fallow.
Back in Canada, Fortier found the 10 acres of land, which became Broadfork Farm. A rabbit house on the property lent itself to a winter project by Fortier and his wife, Maude-Helene Desroches, to turn it into their home.
Fortier had a definite goal to have the farm produce two incomes and to not take a winter job.
He believes the cornerstone of the system that makes this work is the permanent raised beds, he told the audience. He chose a 30-inch width for the beds and 18 inches for the paths. The paths are perfect for wheelbarrows and he chose tools suitable for the beds.
Fortier also relies on natural methods. “The employee of the month is always the earthworm,” he said. “I get the earthworms to till. I replaced mechanical tillage with biologic tillage,” he said. He explained he doesn’t keep a no-till farm, but rather a “minimum till farm.”
To have a profitable farm, Fortier said he had to plan everything for maximum efficiency. He has a two-wheel walk-behind tractor, a power harrow and a flail mower rather than any bigger power equipment. He is an advocate of simple hand tools. His house and storage building are in the middle of the property and he made sure all field lots are close to the washing station. Early on, Fortier built a greenhouse. Later he added several hoop houses to help extend his season.
He is an advocate of good design, especially on a small parcel of land where every square inch of space must be utilized. He compared a farm to a kitchen which is more functional with well-designed workstations. “At least understand design and do what you can to make changes,” he recommended. “Most farms kind of grow haphazardly,” he said.
Conserving space is one reason to plant crops close together, but such planting also provides a canopy to shade against weeds and retain moisture in the soil. “The leaves of the crop touch each other at three-quarters growth,” he said.
He keeps the soil structure in tact by using a rotary plow then a broadfork. He also advocates a cover crop or a tarp in the fall. He has a tarp for each field and uses a lot of landscape fabric.
Fortier keeps the soil in good shape by using compost with woodchips, he said.
The one place Fortier diverts from certified organic practices is his use of a paper pot transplanter with adjustable spacing for 2-, 4- and 6-inches. The paper is biodegradable but it has a glue on it that is not 100 percent organic.
His deer prevention system is a dog, but “he’s not as efficient as he gets older.”
His methods work. With 1 1/2 acres in permanent beds, he operates a 140-family CSA and attends two farm markets 20-weeks out of the year.
Broadfork Farm grosses $150,000 with a 45 percent profit margin.
Four people work on the farm from March through December, he said.
“I used to travel in the winter until my book tour,” he said, referring to The Market Gardener, which was a best-seller. “Now I go to conferences.”
Over the years he has qualified what he means by success: “You must try to strike a balance between making a good livelihood and a satisfying life.” He also reminded farmers they need to prepare for a stage in their lives when they “won’t want to work so much.”
“Time is the limiting factor, there is always a solution to money,” he said.
Fortier made changes in how he spent his time in year six of running Broadfork Farm. He and his wife had a 5-year-old son and a new baby so he decided to commit to working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. He claims when he decided to put a limit on the workday, he almost doubled his production. For one thing, he learned to prioritize and realized some things were worth his time and others weren’t.
“Obviously, I’m not totally off at five,” he admitted. He emphasized the importance of carefully planning the next day at the end of each day and he does that after 5 p.m. He also said, “I never work on Sundays unless something must be harvested.”
Fortier gave examples of prioritizing time over money. He rejected the least expensive solution for bringing irrigation to the fields from a dug pond in a woodlot. He would have saved money by installing a gas-powered pump. An electric pump is more expensive because of the cost of the wire, but Fortier installed a switch in the main building, so in case of a problem he or an employee wouldn’t have to run down to the pond to turn off the pump. Since a pump can require repairs several times in a season, it is more efficient to use an electric pump, Fortier said.
Another place for efficiency is the washing station, Fortier said. He wanted to set up a washing station for 40 crops in four-season farming in a cold climate. A washing station needs good lighting, two bathtubs side by side and a concrete floor. A friend helped Fortier rig up a washing machine with a food-grade basket for spinning salad greens for maximum efficiency.
He noted of the advantages of a small farm is having relationships with customers that big agriculture can’t match. “Very few people can scale up their farms and keep the relationships,” Fortier said.