Fall vegetable transplants offer new market for small farmers

ETTRICK—Growing fall vegetable starter plants is a virtually untapped market for smaller-scale Virginia farmers.

"You could do as good on a half acre as some people do on 20," said Clifton Slade, a Surry County farmer and agriculture management agent at Virginia State University’s Randolph Farm. "There’s a wonderful market for someone who wants to grow transplants."

Slade told participants at VSU’s Aug. 23 Agriculture Field Day that there are few places to find fall vegetable starter plants in Virginia. Farmers with a small amount of land can easily grow starter broccoli, collard greens, kale, lettuce, spinach, sweet potatoes and Swiss chard and sell them for $2 each. On one acre of land, that could net up to $20,000.

Ideally, fall vegetables should be planted in mid-summer so that they are ready for Thanksgiving, Slade said. But those planted now will be ready for the Christmas season.

The beauty of fall vegetable production is that nature offers weed control in the form of frost, he said.

"Once the first frost hits, usually in October, your weed control is taken care of," Slade explained. "So you get a lot from these plants without a lot of extra weeding."

Planting the seeds for fall vegetable plants can be done with a hand-pushed seeder. Slade compared three different kinds of seeders and got the best results from a $400 model. "The extra income you can get from selling transplants would make up for the cost of the seeder the first year," Slade said.

Traditionally, produce plants are set in rows about three feet apart, but if you grow them for transplants you don’t need that much space. So, you can maximize your growing space by placing the rows closer together.

Slade recently grew bok choy, cabbage, romaine lettuce and spinach in a 500-square-foot garden with only 1 foot in between rows. He fertilized with organic compost and chicken manure and said he "beat everyone to market."

He sold starter plants at a farmers’ market for $2 each. "There’s nowhere else I know of where you can get $400 for growing something in 500 square feet of space," he said.

Contact Slade at 757-357-9269.

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