By Gary Brock
DAYTON — Some people will discourage you from trying to make a success of vegetable growing, but Milan Karcic of Columbus told a gathering of farmers and would-be vegetable growers that he was there to tell them the opposite.
“I am here to tell you that you can succeed.”
Karcic, operator of Peace, Love and Freedom Farm earns a living full time in his northeast Columbus yard.6 tenths of an acre, vegetable garden is half of that 3 tenths of an acre
“Just jump into it,” was his message.
At the annual Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association annual meeting in Dayton Feb. 9, Karcic gave a presentation on “Urban Farm Planting and Management” as part of the Central State University Extension Urban Agriculture education series of programs.
While telling those at the seminar that making a business of vegetable farming will not be easy, determination and planning will lead to success. “People are going to tell you left and right that it can’t be done. But I am here to tell you that it can be done. There will be people who will try to discourage you, in addition to those who will encourage you,” he cautioned.
“It is one of the challenges we face as urban farmers – how much food we can grow on the amount of land you have to make the most money, with the least amount spent with the least amount of effort?” he said.
“It is plenty of work, labor intensive,” he said. On his farm, they have six-inch raised beds. “Better drainage. Soil heats better in the spring. Gets colder in the winter, which is a disadvantage. Keeps weeds back. They are six inches off the grown, which is an advantage. But the disadvantage is that you can’t straddle the bed, unless it is narrow,” he pointed out.
Karcic has a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and this year he plans to grow it to 40 members, all delivered to the doorsteps of the customers.
“We sell at the Clintonville Farmer’s Market. We also sell to restaurants in the Columbus area. In dealing with restaurants, the most important thing is to find a chef who modifies and changes his menu daily,” he advised.
He suggested to would-be vegetable farmers to set outlines and goals for what you want to achieve, “then just jump into it. I had never worked on a farm prior to starting this business. There are some things I had to learn the hard way. Just jump in, and you will meet people who will become your saviors along the way. Take their sound advice and run with it. I owe a lot to my mentors and my peers over the years.”
He said it is amazing how much people will help you, even though they should not – it is a competitive business, but they will anyway.
“If you already have a job, do you keep your job and jump into it part time or go full time into farming? I personally think you should jump into it full time. Because you will only be putting part of your effort into it. You would be doing the most noble work on earth – feeding people,” Karcic said.
Why go full time? “I started with no saving and debt. If you have any savings at all, I think you are wasting your time going anything less than full time. If you want to be a farmer, be a farmer,” he said.
“You have to have the desire to do it. It is brutal at times, absorbing at times. You will question yourself at times. Without that desire and drive, chances are you will have a less chance of making it.”
But he added that it is a very rewarding job. “For me, it is the best job there is. When I started making a little money at it, it was the best job in the world. But you have to stay healthy. If you twist your ankle, you can’t work. If you are not drinking water, you will end up in the hospital. You have to take care of yourself, eat the vegetables you are growing. It is essential that you are healthy.”
What is his advice for city vegetable growers?
“You are going to want a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight on your garden each day. At minimum. My technique for growing lettuce is different than some. One way is “cut and come again,” but we don’t do it that way.
We start in early spring with a 128-cell tray, one to two seeds in each cell. Covering it, getting it and keeping it wet the whole process. You are always much better growing outside than inside. The best light bulbs you can buy cannot replace the sun.
When you start later in the summer, we put four seeds per cell because it is so hot and difficult to germinate. Once the seeds are up you need lots and lots of sunshine. If inside, they need 18 hours of the light but six hours of darkness.
Plant them in garden six inches apart in each direction, harvesting the large outer leaves first. When we get those large outer leaves they are crunchy. And that is great. This will go on for months until the heat of summer, when they get bitter and taste awful. We prefer growing colorful and wavy greens to give texture.”
How is the best way to harvest?
“Streamline your effort and be efficient,” he said. “We are trying to make as much money as we can working as little as possible and spending as little as possible. That’s not greedy, because you will be working your tail off.
When you are harvesting, put lettuce in a tub full of freezing cold water, slightly agitating it to get the dirt off, then into a 5-gallon spinner, then drying, bagging, weighing, put in the cooler, then in the truck. Conserve your motions.”
Insect problems? “There are studies that show that bug-bitten food is more healthy for you. It produces chemicals to defend itself from bugs that are good for you. There are people who say to me – that’s what a farmer would say,” Karcic said, laughing.
He said hopefully the soil temperature is 60 degrees or higher before planting. “Grow plants in the tray for five weeks, then into the ground. These start in trays of 128. he said do this as early as possible in season.
“You want to get these plants to market earlier than anyone else. As an urban farmer, we have the advantage because our city temperature is 12 degrees higher at night than in the country.”
Marketing and selling: “It is constantly our goal to get the best price for our vegetables. This means not selling to retailers; it means selling directly to the customers. You can sell to customers through a CSA, and also some to restaurants.
My goal this year is $23,000 in sales. That’s shooting very high. The first year I sold $5,000, and went more into debt. We do winter growing for our personal use.”
But for him, the greatest advantage to vegetable farming is quality of life.
“After finishing my work for the day – I am done. I have not spent an hour driving, frustrated at the job, then drive home. I am at home with my family. Money is important of course. But eating the best food in the world, having a healthy lifestyle is incalculable. I did not buy a house to spend all my time away from it.”
He cautioned that organization is key to working less and making more; not getting yourself frustrated.
“You will constantly think of ways to streamline the process to save time and money. Keep your area clean. Don’t fall behind. Keep your gardening and home separate – keep the farming outside – and your life inside. The most important priority is the soil. Our job is to maintain soil quality not just for the year but for the long haul. We are trying to improve the earth that we are inheriting.”
He urged constant use of compost and to have rotation. “We need to use composting, cover crops and avoid compaction of the soil. We just let the compost pile sit for three years. We don’t turn it. You want to be making as much compost as you can, because it is free. We also buy compost,” he said.
“Run the farm as a commercial enterprise first, then as a farm enterprise. Keep detailed notes, spreadsheets. You may be a farmer, but you are a vegetable salesman. Any time you let crops go to waste, then you are doing something wrong.
I have always had a problem making supply meet demand. I am always in a constant struggle to make as much food as I can. If you waste food in the garden, you are wasting time and money.”
He also recommends going organic. “Get organic certification. OEFFA makes the process super easy and is there to answer all your questions.”
He recommended selling at farmer’s markets. “Our number one sales venue is a very busy farmer’s market. You want to have a clean booth – people taste with their eyes. You want the food to look beautiful, it will sell itself.”
Help on the farm? “Getting help is hit or miss. Sometimes people fall in love with the idea of being a farmer, but then when they get out there, they think, ‘This is awful!’” Karcic said.
His final word of advice to those wanting to start a vegetable farm business?
“Farm as if you are sure to succeed. Farming is a mental game. Use your head and stay focused and you will succeed.”
Karcic’s presentation at OEFFA was part of the CSU Urban Agriculture program. It was designed to address the specific challenges and issues that face urban farmers. CSU was recently designated an 1890 land-grant institution, creating the Central State University (CSU) Cooperative Extension.
“Urban Agriculture has the ability to transform our urban and blighted communities by becoming a practical solution,” said Dr. Clarence Bunch, Associate Director at CSU Cooperative Extension Service. “Food security has been identified as a critical need by Central State University Extension. Our sponsorship of the urban agriculture workshop track and OEFFA Conference provides the support needed to offer practical solutions that benefit families and the local community.”
Other workshops in the six-part series were:
• Safe Handling and Use of Organic Approved Pesticides — Terry Grace, Ohio Central Community Co-op;
• Business Planning for Ag Entrepreneurs — Stephen Washington, Central State University;
• Water Quality’s Role in Sustainability on Small and Urban Farms — Krishnakumar Nedunuri, Central State University;
• Low-Tech Farm Hacks and DIY Infrastructure — Lisa Helm, Dayton Urban Green; and
• Growing Efficiently Through Technology — Cadance Lowell, Central State University Extension.
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.