A yeoman’s guide to opening a farmstand: Part 1

I’ve had a few people ask me about the nitty gritty of running a small-scale farmstand. Is it worth the effort? Can you earn a living?

The answer is, well, mixed. Personally I enjoy doing it. It doesn’t earn a lot of money. But there is some money to be made, and if nothing else it scratches your itch to grow things.

I’m going to write up a three-part blog on the nitty gritty of what I’ve experienced in my 3 seasons of running a farmstand. Here’s the first part — we’ll take a look at your land and your zoning.

Your very first consideration is the amount of farmable land. Under ideal circumstances you have plenty of open ground — fertile soil, no trees, no shading, no obstacles, relatively flat and close to a water supply. But I don’t know anyone who has all that.

So instead, you have to work with what you’ve got. Do you have enough arable land to grow enough food to sustain a farmstand? If you have at least 5,000 square feet of farmable land, I’d say yes.

Another key consideration is zoning. Does your community allow you to operate a farmstand? You might be surprised to find out what the answer is. Around here there are several towns that have adopted the state’s Right to Farm bylaws, which give generous property rights to people who want to grow food and/or raise animals on their land. My town isn’t one of them — in fact it’s quite restrictive. Even though we live on a 2-acre property that has been farmed since the mid 1600s, we are very limited in what we can do.

Here’s a Google Maps view of my land. You can see the cultivated area along the right-hand border (the nearly square parcel), plus 3 rows of berries to the immediate left of the cultivated area. Overall there’s about 2 acres of land. I have about a quarter acre under cultivation. I place the farmstand out on the street, in front of the barn (big building in the 
lower middle of this photo.

Assessing your land

If you’ve decided that you have enough land for a farmstand and you have zoning on your side, take a walk around your property with a critical eye. What’s good and what’s going to cause you headaches? On my land I have a few positives and a few negatives. First, here are the negatives:

  • The entire property is on a north-facing slope, which tends to keep the soil cooler in the spring than I’d ideally like to see, and also allows for some erosion in the spring. Also, the northern quarter of the property is a swamp (in the photo, that’s the top section).
  • The open land where I have created my farm space (about 10,000 square feet) is boxed in by trees, which limits the size of the arable land. I can potentially double my growing area and max out at about 20,000 square feet without removing a single tree. If I were to take the trees down, I’d probably be able to get another 10,000 to 15,000 square feet, but that would be a major hassle. So I’m sticking with what I have now — about 10,000 square feet. It’s about all I can manage.
  • From a farmstand perspective, I’m not in the ideal place for marketing and exposure purposes. I live on an extraordinarily narrow dead-end street, and due to zoning restrictions I can’t put up a sign at the busy end of the street to get customers to find me. Zoning also restricts the location and structure of the farmstand itself. I have to have a temporary structure, so I built a small farmstand on wheels that I bring out in the morning and store in the barn at night (and off season).

Now the positives;

  • The soil is excellent. Very fertile, no rocks — that’s a minor miracle for New England — plus it drains well, and there are minor springs throughout the property that keep the moisture levels consistent. The north-facing slope also allows for excellent air drainage.
  • There are plenty of farm-friendly resources onsite, such as a dug well for water, a big barn, a field for harvesting grass clippings, and plenty of room for expansion if I chose to make significant investment in opening up and fencing in new land. I also have a huge bonus — 70-year-old blueberry bushes that produce an enormous yield.
  • There’s a built-in demand here for fresh and local organics, especially if the produce is priced right. People are willing to drive a long distance for the right produce at the right price. We have a half dozen large scale farmstands within 10 miles of us, and even with that intensity of competition there is still a demand for small scale farmstands.

So that’s my assessment of my own farmstand potential. There are 3 important positives to pick out of it — I have enough arable land (5,000+ square feet), I am permitted to have a farmstand under the zoning laws, and I have a strong local demand. If you are thinking about operating a farmstand and you can check off those 3 boxes, you’ve got the start of the “right stuff.”

That’s it for part one. In part two, I’ll talk about product and marketing strategies.

John Macone operates an organic farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. You can reach him at jmacone@gmail.com.

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