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You’ve spent your summer enjoying perfect gardening weather, and now you’re in a pickle—there’s too much produce. Overabundant gardens can be both a blessing and a curse, but there are many ways you can put your surplus to use. Of course, there is always the option of donating surplus produce, which we will cover here as well, but for some families, the organic tomatoes, zucchini’s, and peppers they grow in their backyards can bring in extra money that comes in handy when times are tight, or that offers valuable experience running a small business.
Regardless of whether you’re merely looking to offload a few extra zucchini or want to start a profitable vegetable-selling side business, these tips will give you the inspiration to start. My family lives on a 33 acre hobby farm that we tend to with love (and occasional frustration) and many of the ideas listed here have been useful for us as we gain experience growing our own food and tending to a farm.
Join a Small Farmers’ Market
If you’re willing to commit to a full season, selling at a farmers’ market is the traditional way to make money from surplus produce. I recommend researching the options in your area to find what market makes sense for your growing scale.
Generally, the larger the market, the harder it can be to get in and the more likely you’ll need to commit to showing up a certain number of market days over the season. For example, the biggest farmers’ markets near me in West Michigan have waiting lists over a year long, and new growers must commit to selling twice per week throughout the season. Or, they may only get a spot on a “standby basis” if another vendor fails to show. You will likely need to fill out an application and pay a deposit to secure your spot at any market.
In contrast, the smaller markets are much more lenient and let you only pay for a table on the days you attend. This offers a far better deal for growers who expect to have varying amounts of produce over the growing season and don’t want to commit to selling every Saturday. But as you would expect, these smaller markets get much less foot traffic, and vendors tend to set lower prices.
Set Up a Front Yard Farm Stand
If you’re looking for a selling strategy with lower barriers to entry, it’s hard to beat a farm stand. Yours can be a simple as a propped open cooler near the end of your driveway or a weatherproof wooden structure equipped with a mini-fridge.
You’ll need to decide whether you’re comfortable having your stand unmanned and operating on the honor system or whether someone will need to be present to handle every transaction. Keep in mind that some produce tolerates farmstand conditions better than others. For example, hardy crops like cucumbers and tomatoes are more likely to look good after a few hours in the heat than delicate greens.
Note: research your local ordinances to ensure this selling structure is legal before starting.
Not interested (or able) to set up shop in your own yard? Consider joining forces with another farm stand. Many growers struggle to maintain a consistent supply of produce to sell and would love to fill out their stand with your fresh, locally-grown bounty. You can deliver your surplus vegetables to the stand when convenient and pay the seller a pre-determined percentage from the profits. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
Harness the Power of Social Media
Find ways to share your garden bounty with those around you through the power of crop swap sites. Take advantage of websites like BigBarn (primarily available in the UK) and RipeNearMe to share your locally grown produce with those nearby. Both sites make it easy to list what you have available and scope out the competition to determine your prices.
Another online option is Nextdoor, a social networking site for neighborhoods. Post about your surplus, and those in your vicinity can get in touch if interested.
You can also list your surplus through ads on Freecycle or Craigslist. Both are sure to drum up interest from local food enthusiasts nearby.
Make and Sell Value Added Products
If you’re struggling to sell for your surplus garden harvests, the secret might be to transform them into a value-added product. Depending on your local ordinances, you might be able to sell jams, pickles, and other preserved foods. Note that rules tend to be stricter for canned goods without a high sugar or salt content because there are serious health risks associated with processing them incorrectly.
Another option is to sell fresh veggies in bundles that correspond to specific recipes for easy dinner ideas. For example, sell everything needed for a batch of fresh salsa, or a collection of fresh herbs and heirloom tomatoes for homemade pizza night. Make sure to include the recipe card with the produce.
Herb garden out of control? Consider drying the excess to make homemade herbal teas and seasoning blends. Not only are dried herbs hot sellers at farmers’ markets, but they have a long shelf life and are easy to ship, meaning you can process them now and wait to sell until it’s convenient.
Donate Produce to Those in Need
If money isn’t your primary goal, consider giving your extra garden bounty away. This can take many forms, from a “free” sign in your front yard to cooking a meal for an elderly neighbor. You can also keep used and cleaned plastic bags on hand to gift fresh veggies to everyone who visits your home.
If you’re looking for a more formalized donation method, consider working with an organization like Ample Harvest or the Food Rescue Locator. These free nationwide registries help gardeners connect with nearby food panties for easy donations. Food pantries can even specify what they most need, so you can ensure you send your extra tomatoes where they will be the most appreciated.
Sell to Specialty Restaurants
If you’re struggling to know what to do with small amounts of specialty vegetables, the solution might be found with a chef. Many restaurants love the opportunity to put local produce on the menu, and they are often willing to buy even small amounts to highlight in their specials.
You’ll have the best luck finding a home for your excess if you grow something unique or superior when eaten fresh, such as heirloom tomatoes, okra, watercress, asparagus, or chili peppers.
It’s also best to reach out to restaurants at the beginning of the growing season rather than when everything is ready for harvest. This gives more time for menu planning and increases the odds you’ll find a buyer.
If all else fails, there’s nothing wrong with turning your garden bounty back into dirt. Compost is a rich garden amendment that leaves your growing space better than before. Make sure you get a healthy mix of both “green” and “brown” materials to ensure your pile has the proper moisture ratio, and soil microbes will quickly break down those unwanted tomatoes into nutrient-rich garden gold.
Final Tips for Successfully Selling Garden Produce
Here are some final tips to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed and help ensure your harvests are ones worth paying for.
- If planting for the farmers’ market, keep things as simple as possible. Grow no more than five varieties to sell at first so you can master them without getting overwhelmed. You can add one or two additional varieties to the roster every season.
- When harvesting zucchini, beans, okra, or cucumbers, err on the side of harvesting too small instead of oversized to ensure you’re selling your produce extra tender.
- Think through your storage and distribution strategy. Many of the highest value crops (like lettuce and fresh berries) only look good for a day or two after harvesting. Will you need to invest in a second refrigerator or another form of cold storage?
- Sell only the best. While it may be tempting to keep the choicest vegetables for yourself, it’s better form to only sell or give away produce that is perfect. Earn a reputation for selling inferior garden goods, and you might never bounce back.
- Presentation is everything. Think through how you want to arrange things at the farmers’ market or your farm stand. Wicker baskets and nice tablecloths can go a long way towards putting your garden bounty in the best light to encourage sales.
- Pay attention to the niche you can fill. The best way to make money from the garden is to grow something no one else has. Do some local research to learn what gap you can fill. Is there a market for dried Indian corn or winter squash? Are people clamoring for vegetable starts in the spring? Plan your growing strategy accordingly.
- Establish a U-pick. It might sound counter-intuitive, but many people will pay a premium to harvest their own vegetables. Think of the appeal of u-pick apple orchards—people love putting in a little labor to feel extra connected to their food. If you’re comfortable letting customers into your garden, you can let them pick what they want and pay by the pound at the end.
There’s no reason to feel overwhelmed by your own garden’s success. Whether you’re looking to make some money or merely want to bless others with your bounty, there are plenty of ways to take care of any garden surplus without waste. Be intentional about your extra produce plan now, and you’ll be making big strides to help us all enjoy a more localized, sustainable food system.