Conveyor belts might not be the usual route to farming, says ANDREW MOLE. But when Ben Mitchell dipped his toes in the irrigated water of a Merbein block he was hooked — and has never looked back.

When you’ve spent a career in conveyor belts because following your dad’s footsteps into a commercial vineyard doesn’t cut the mustard, what comes next?

Market gardening, of course.

Ben Mitchell has got into the game with great enthusiasm, rattling off crops such as lettuce, spinach, rocket, beets, capsicum — and it goes on and on and on.

Seasons in and seasons out.

Sort of like a conveyor belt, with stuff going past your eyes as you plant it, tend it, harvest it and sell it.

With 0.8 hectares under production at his Merbein property, in Victoria’s Sunraysia region, Ben has set up a year-round market garden.

And with the assistance of two part-time helpers he is supplying product to downstream users, from the Dareton IGA to Mildura’s Out of the Box social food program.

Out of the Box featured in a recent edition of Small Farms, and is all about local people getting fresh food from local farmers.

But most of all, Ben feels a bit like he has gone back to school, because market gardening has put him on a seriously uphill learning curve since he went full-time about two years ago.

“I guess you could say I am just starting to figure it out,” he explained.

“But the plan is to have year-round production, with the most crop I can achieve.”

Ben still looks fondly on Out of the Box — it was a foundation customer for him after he saw posts on Facebook looking for suppliers.

He now sends them selections from as many as six varieties on a weekly basis and depending on their orders.

The sizes change every week, depending on season, quality and, at Out of the Box, the demand for the packaged goods.

And all along, Ben has kept learning.

“I guess one of the bigger challenges, biggest learning experiences, has been mostly doing it all on my own, not having someone to work with, who has already done it all and has plenty to offer,” he said.

“I spent my first couple of years doing this part-time before making the decision to go full-time — and I have also spent a lot of time on YouTube looking at how other people go about growing crops in a business like mine.

“Unfortunately, most of the stuff there comes out of the US, so I found I was then having to reinterpret their seasons with ours.

“Dad runs a conventional vineyard, which is a long way from an organic market garden.”

One thing he was determined on — and has been reinforced by his cyber searches — is to keep changing things all the time, “to do it better”.

Which is still a little tricky for a basically one-man band.

“It’s hard to do trials on a small block like mine, because I only have so much land (which is irrigated and fertigated) to do everything so need to get it right with how much is out of the production system at any given time.”

And when he’s not busy on his block, Ben also has to find time for bookwork, planning, budgeting, marketing, sales, client liaison — and switching the lights off as the last one out each day.

But as much as he is revelling in the challenge of becoming an even better market gardener, Ben is also loving the front end of the business, where he gets to mix with his customers.

“It’s perhaps the best thing about this business, what you put into it is what you also get out of it — you can be responsible for reaching your full potential.

“Which is why I love the Sunraysia Farmers’ Market, held twice a month, where I get to mix with so many people who buy my crops.

“I hear what they like, what they think about certain lines and because it’s your stand, you aren’t forced to pick what someone else wants, you pick what is the best you have that week.

“But farmers’ market or supermarket, you still have to be spot-on with your quality because the customers also have a choice where they go.”

Life isn’t always beer and skittles in the market garden game. Ben still pulls a face when he recalls a 40℃ day during Christmas-New Year when a poly pipe in his seedling nursery burst and he didn’t pick it up quickly enough.

He said a bit of complacency later, it was too late as the shade mesh wasn’t enough to save the water-starved seedlings and “I lost the lot, had to start again”.

“I’m looking to specialise in greens, especially, such as lettuces, spinaches, etc — and maybe also specialist tomatoes,” Ben said.

“I’m pretty sure I have made the right decision with this farming, and have a good and loyal client base, and get plenty of product feedback from them, which is really helpful.

“And I would like to get a bit more land, and see how I could grow my market off the back of 20 to 30 acres [8 to 12ha] with organic certification.”

No doubt about it, Ben Mitchell is growing into the business of growing a bigger and better business.