GAP Is Not Just for the Big Boys

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK

Food safety regulations in the US have divided Big Ag and Small Ag into opposing camps, but there is one thing we can all be united on – Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). “Grow Responsibly” should be everyone’s mantra, regardless of size or country.

I attended a GAP workshop in 2011, and it was a real eye opener. I have been looking at and thinking about my business differently ever since. It was clear back then that implementation of GAP standards was being driven by industry groups and chain supermarkets to ensure, through a certification process, the safety of their far-flung supply chain. But what was enlightening to me when I started to wade through the manual was how it clarified the risks in food safety that I intuitively knew, but did not think all that much about.

Sure, the whole point of rebuilding local food systems is to keep the length of the supply chain short, thereby making it easier to monitor and control. “Direct marketing” is exactly that, moving food from farmer’s plot to market to plate. But every farmer faces risks when it comes to food safety, and it’s a worthy exercise for SPIN-scale farmers to identify them and devise strategies to deal with them.

Reviewing the GAP material and evaluating what is most relevant and do-able for your operation will take time. Looking ahead, it will be a good winter project. Or, if you are selling at a farmers market, you might recommend to your manager that they bring in a GAP workshop presenter at the end of this season when business quiets down to help you get started.

A good warm up for GAP is a free online tool developed by Family Farmed which walks you through how to develop a food safety plan for your farm.  It was developed in 2013 when the fight over food safety in the US was raging, and it is obviously designed for the big boys. But we can all benefit from reviewing harvesting and post-harvesting protocols, especially newbie growers. Much of the information is common sense, which nowadays is may not be so common.

However is easiest for you to get up to speed on GAP, I’d highly recommend that you get familiar with the standards and begin to implement as much as you can next year so that you can display a GAP manual at your market stand or on your online storefront. You do not have to claim to be GAP certified; just use it to show you are aware of, and practice, the highest levels of food safety.

The fight over reasonable food safety regulation drags on, but it does not have to drag down your business in the process. The safest attitude to have is “If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.” Farms of all sizes benefit from abiding by GAP standards, and attending a GAP workshop is a worthwhile investment for any farmer who is serious about their business.

SPIN photo post harvesting station Linda


These organizations provide standards and administer programs to gain certification that the food you are growing and selling is safe. Certification is voluntary.

In Canada  GAP standards were originally devised by the Canadian Horticultural Society in 2000. They are currently administered by a non-profit corporation called CanAgPlus.

In the US GAP standards are administered by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

Internationally GAP standards are administered by CODEX Alimentarius Commission, established in 1963 by the World Health Organization and  the  Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Design Your Stand for Optimal Sales

Courtesy of Keri F., Green Sister Gardens, Moose Jaw SK 

I have my two tables set up in an L shape (I’ve experimented with all kinds of different  configurations and this has the best flow.) So the hottest spot on the table are the two ends of the tables (one of them is a little better than the other).

I will put whatever item I have the most of that week or if I have a new item that I want people to try I will put it in that spot. I also put radishes and other highly colored veggies in the middle of my tables because the colors capture people’s attention and they come in for a closer look usually :)

SF photo Keri Fox Green Sisters Garden farm stand design

Competition is Healthy

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

A new vibe is now part of the local foods scene – competition. According to the USDA, local foods was a $7 billion industry in 2011, and it is now starting to attract those who are not  looking for a cause,  but for a business opportunity. They have no pre-conceived notions about farming, may not be aware of  any of the politics surrounding sustainability, organics or local foods, or if they are, they are not  consumed by them. They are people who, instead of opening a dry cleaners, or a hair salon, or a printing franchise, are thinking instead that they like working outdoors, they like physical work, they like the idea of producing a product everyone wants and needs, they see lots of people flocking to the farmer’s market and farm to table restaurants, so they think they would like to try farming to see if they can make a buck.

SPIN-Farming is right down their alley because it provides a low cost and fast entrée into this multi-billion dollar market. Its practitioners are now multiplying throughout backyards and neighborhood lots in several countries. Farmers markets are increasingly occupied not by Mr. Hayseed Farmer from the middle of nowhere, but the tattooed hipster from across town, or the retired IBM’er pursuing his encore career.

These non-traditional backyard farmers understand that to thrive in this rapidly developing and increasingly competitive marketplace they have to think beyond the farmers market. Some of the most interesting developments in the food industry are happening in a pop-up restaurant in a warehouse somewhere, or via our mobile phones. Opportunities can be low tech and grassroots like these, compliments of Keri Fox who operates Green Sister Gardens in Moose Jaw SK and is in her third year of SPIN-Farming.

  • A friend of mine teaches yoga, and she invited me to come to her class and promote my business so I took each person in the class a bag of pea and radish greens mix to try and gave a little talk at the beginning of class about my product and where to get it.
  • I had one of my CSA members ask me if I would come and set up a table at the local college in the cafeteria over the lunch hour and sell greens. So I am planning to do this in September when classes resume.
  • I helped organize a recycling/composting program at an event in the park called Park Art. I put totes out with signs attached to them. The signs had my logo and business name as well as instructions on what could be put into the bins and a blurb explaining that the compost would be turned into soil to grow veggies for Green Sister Gardens. Next year I will set up a booth and sell greens at the event as well.
  • A friend has a natural path clinic on Main Street and she will let me set up a stand a couple times a month (or more) to sell greens. It is located in between our two local health food stores (neither of them sell greens mixes).
  • I took salad mix samples into a local coffee shop (that saves me their used coffee grounds) and followed up with the owner today. She really likes them and is currently waiting for me to send her pricing.

Or opportunities can be more high-tech and scalable like these three:

  • Farmigo’s new Champion Initiative platform that enables direct sellers to run their own food communities, like an Avon for food. In exchange for their work, Champions receive a 10 percent cut of their community’s sales, as well as discounts on food. Farmigo estimates that managing the community typically amounts to 3-4 hours of work with an hourly earning potential of at least $20 for the Champion.
  • ÜbrLocal, a virtual farmers market where consumers can order online and have their purchases delivered via bicycles. ÜbrLocal takes 25% of sales.
  • Farmwell is cloud-based software that enables farmers to build and service a local customer base online. Farmers keep 100% of the sales, and pay a modest monthly fee.

Whatever else it has become in today’s culture – activist cause, political hot potato or star-studded entertainment – food remains a necessity of life. And for those in the business of growing it, it is not a zero sum game. When one business wins, another does not have lose. As SPIN farmers and entrepreneurs reshape the local foods scene to their own ends, competition drives innovation and professionalism, and it is a healthy, and welcome, part of the scene.

SF photo City Grown Seattle truck sign

 SF photo City Grown Seattle porch shop


Photos courtesy of City Grown Seattle


The Secret Ingredient to Salad Mix Success

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK

It’s high summer for many of us now, but go to your standard grocery or corner store and check out what is on the shelf. Chances are it’s spring mix. And therein lies the secret to creating the best salad mix. The most important ingredient is change. Selling the same product day in and day out, year round, is no way to get people excited to pay top dollar for a premium product.

Change is an economic driver, and it fits very well with a SPIN farmer’s highly dynamic production plan. Components for salad mixes should change frequently, reflecting the seasons, what is ready to be harvested, what seeds are available and reasonably priced. You should continually add unusual greens to your mixes, because they distinguish you at market and can lead to a best seller that you would not  otherwise have discovered. Many customers consider salad mixes to be a staple now, and buy them week after week. So marketing unusual greens as a salad mix breaks down people’s resistance to buying a new type of green that they might not be familiar with.

OK, so now that you have the concept behind creating successful salad mixes, what is the secret recipe? Pretty easy. There are 2 basic ingredients – base crops and novelty crops. Base crops are high yielding, quick to harvest crops like peas, radish and sunflowers. Novelty crops are inexpensive, and may be lower yielding or slower to mature, and are used to add color or texture, like red cabbage or broccoli. Right now I am just using peas and radish. I am also starting to grow yellow peas, which produces a “tendril“ pea. I have also added lentil greens, when I grow them.

Many a SPIN farmer’s career has been built on a signature salad mix. To find out how to get started, check out this case study and then start mixing it up.

SPIN photo Wally and salad mix

SPIN Pricing 101

Although backyard-scale growing produces much higher volume than a typical garden, the volume is much less compared to multi-acre farms. So because you have a limited amount to sell, you need to get good prices to make it worth your time and effort. Low production and low prices are a recipe for failure.

Getting good pricing takes innovative thinking. Never take pricing as something that is fixed. Fixed pricing is more common to larger scales of production. As a farmer selling directly to the public, you have the ability to vary your pricing according to what’s available or scare at market, the volume of your production, and your needs.

Look at what other vendors are setting their prices at. Chances are they using fixed pricing and selling at the low end. Set your prices higher, and never reduce your prices towards the end of the market to sell out. This will hurt you and the other vendors by training people to come late and haggle. Take surplus produce home or donate it to a food bank. As you gain experience, you will more likely sell out before market’s end, rather than have leftovers.

Always question your own pricing scheme. This year I have re-arranged my pricing. With SPIN’s old mix and match pricing of 2 for $5.00 I had too many people spending just $5.00. Now I have $3.00 for one, 2 for $5.00, and any five for $10.00.

The pitch is you buy 4 bags/units get one free. Making unit sizes smaller to compensate. Now I am getting many more $10 – $20 purchases. So for my green garlic, even at $2.00 per bunch, that makes a row $50, with a 15 foot bed worth $250, with five rows per bed.

SF photo Wally green garlic test crop harvest

As a small business owner, which is how you should think of yourself, you have to find price points that not only please your customers, but that also please you.


New Cropping Strategy, Courtesy of My Local Chain Store

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
My garlic cropping strategy has been dictated by the limited availability of garlic seed. But now I’ve found a way to support significant green garlic sales this time of year, thanks to my  local chain store. I have been buying California and Mexican garlic there for around $3/lb., which is a significant discount to the typical $5+/lb price, and it’s been performing well. The key is to test whether or not it has been treated. I put it into the soil, and see if within a week or so it sends out roots.

As long as I can continue to get untreated garlic, I can continue planting for green/fresh garlic sales all summer and into the fall. I planted this first bed in April and will start harvesting it soon.

SF photo Wally green garlic

I will plant every week going into mid/late summer, as long as the store bought garlic remains viable. I have about 15 SPIN beds in production now, and will try to plant about one bed per week.

I am harvesting the whole plant and selling it in bunches at $3 or 2/$5.

I’ll also be planting more garlic in containers, and selling them for $5.00, but they require a hard sell at market. You need to say they can be used as a cutting green. Stems/leaves give a nice robust flavor without the garlic hangover taste, so that’s the sales pitch. I give them a sample by cutting off with scissors a bit of stem. For your apartment/condo customers another sales point is that it can be grown in room light or on a balcony. You can sell to them many times in the season.

Thanks to SuperStore I am completely changing my green garlic strategy this season.

Season Off-track, Sales On-track

SPIN farmers work with Nature, rather than against her. Sometimes she returns the favor, and sometimes she doesn’t. That is what makes farming so thrilling. In essence, you’re working with a business partner that always keeps you guessing. For me, this spring has been a real nail biter.

What I can do in most years, and what my plan this year was based on, is to begin planting the first week of April. In go my crops for early season cash flow – scallion, green garlic and spinach. Then it turned rainy and cool right through last week and I did not get those crops in.

But thanks to my grow rooms and my strategy of always expanding my product line, I’m still on track to hit SPIN’s early spring sales benchmark of $1k per week, selling 3 days at the Saskatoon Farmers Market. In spite of not having outside early spring production, here’s what my stand looks like this week.

SF photo Wally early spring $1k market

Below is what I am offering – all grown by me. It’s represents full-out grow room production (four grow rooms, one in the basement, one in the heating room, and two in the garage; 300 sq. ft. of growing space total), and my storage crops from last fall, which are still paying dividends.


  • Storage potatoes
  • Storage carrots
  • pea greens
  • Pea green/micro salad mix

Live plants:

  • Garlic
  • Beets
  • Cat grass
  • Onions
  • Sugar peas

Bedding plants:

  • Heirloom tomatoes ( 15 types)
  • Hot peppers ( 10 types )
  • Basil
  • Parsley
  • Rhubarb
  • Tomatilloes

Today is a glory day for a farmer here, sunny and in the 60′s.

SF photo Wally glory day at peri urban plot

We’re getting our peri-urban plot ready for the planting of two onion varieties. But you can’t base a business on being a fair weather farmer. When Nature does not co-operate, start the season without her.

Psych Yourself Up for Farmer’s Market Sales

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK

First year SPIN farmers are signing up for their farmers markets, and this is when I get what I call emails of doubt. “How will I stack up? How can I compete? I’m just a small fish in a big pond. Who will buy my produce?” If you, too, are facing your first season jitters, here’s how to psych yourself into a $500 market week – and beyond.

 Use your small growers advantage: Being SPIN-scale allows you to be more adaptable than larger growers. larger growers frequently have one time plantings of crops. They sell them, and they are done. Being small means you will have the time for frequent, even weekly plantings of certain crops, such as salad greens and fresh herbs, when they are in short supply at market, especially mid to late season.

 Scarcity confers higher value: Other vendors may have greater volumes of produce than you, but your lower volume creates exclusivity, which supports premium pricing. Also, look closely at what others are offering. It might be of lower quality. Establish your reputation on smaller volumes of higher quality produce. People will feel great that they scored that last bag of arugula from you.

 Foodie is mainstream: The Food Network has turned food into entertainment, and the most interesting developments in the food world are at everybody’s fingertips on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter. Government policies and health advocates are also turning up the volume on nutrition. So customers are becoming much more adventurous in their tastes, and appreciative of quality. This gives SPIN farmers increased pricing power and  infinite opportunities to differentiate themselves from other growers.

 You’re embedded in your market: Unlike many growers who retreat to the middle of nowhere when the market is done, your always just a stone’s throw from the action. You just have to look and listen to what’s around you. Follow the lunch trucks around to see what they are offering. Read the trendy menus conveniently placed for you outside the door or on the sidewalk. Check out the pop-up restaurant in a warehouse. Ask neighbors, friends and family what they need and want. Then go grow it. Being market responsive gives you a real big advantage.

Think like a retailer: Make your stand and your marketing stand out. Pre-bag produce. Loose produce makes for slow processing time and frustrated customers. Come up with a pricing system that makes it easy for customers to spend their money. Create your own price, using SPIN’s mix and match unit pricing. Unitizing and packaging can take many forms. Come up with your own deals, like combining recipe-ready crops in a single bag or bundle and sell at special price. Change up the presentation of some of your crops from week to week, and tie them in with commonly celebrated holidays or local events.

Finally, don’t look at fellow vendors as competition, but rather as colleagues. It takes more than just a few vendors to create a destination point farmers market. More vendors means more product, and that means customers have a better chance of having a satisfying experience. That will keep them coming back to the market, and to you, you farmer rock star.

SF photo Keri Fox Green Sister GardensKerri Fox  of Green Sister Gardens rockin’ out in Moose Jaw SK. 

What if you don’t have Madonna’s  chutzpah? Here’s some tips for the shy farmer.


Scaling Up

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Ever since SPIN-Farming was introduced seven years ago, one question has come up repeatedly. Entrepreneurs out to make a buck in such wide ranging places as Miami, Ulster and Nairobi ask, “Can SPIN work here?” The answer is that SPIN can work wherever there are markets to support it.

SPIN is a business model, not a growing method. It produces the net income levels of traditional farming, while eliminating much of its costs, complexity and uncertainty. It achieves this by recasting farming as a highly skilled service in a city or town. That is the point agricultural economists and consultants and academics who want to “scale SPIN up” miss. Sure they can apply SPIN’s intensive growing practices to 20 acres or 30 acres, or beyond. But in doing so, they run smack into the dis-economies of scale that have dug farming into a hole – long distances from markets, heavy debt loads, staggering land costs, significant overhead, the need for additional labor, high energy use. Not only is this dead ending many new farming careers, it  is also exclusionary, keeping farming off limits to all but the privileged few who can afford land and access capital.

SPIN turns farming into a business opportunity that anyone can pursue right in their own backyards or neighborhoods. They don’t have to be interested in the politics surrounding food, sustainability or organics. They can quickly learn the SPIN system and get an income producing business in and off the ground in months, with a low four figure investment.

Not surprisingly, then, there is no one profile of a SPIN farmer. Some are young and just starting out. Others are on their third or fourth careers, and still others are retired and looking for extra income and something productive to do. Some are doing it in the urban jungle and others on the suburban fringe. Some have been avid gardeners, while others have never had dirt under their fingernails. Some always had the money they wanted. Others never had as much as they needed. They span generations, geography and socio- economic backgrounds, but what unites them all is a desire to make money by meeting the demand for local food.

If you are trying to scale up SPIN, we understand the temptation, but don’t waste your time. The optimal farm size is getting smaller, and the status quo is moving towards making more from less. What’s important is scaling up the number of new farmers. As I write this I see orders for SPIN guides coming in from Porterville CA, Bredbo NSW, Portugal Cove, NL, and Cape Coral FL. They are from people who see an opportunity to grow food and make money. And that, remember, is what farming is about.


SPIN photo Wally house

DDG1 photo 13SPIN photo crop production guide garlic 7SPIN photo Gail relaxing

Thinking of Spring, and Squash for Winter Markets

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK

SPIN farmers are always looking ahead, so now that spring is coming, I’m thinking of winter squash plantings. I’ll use transplants, start them in mid – May, and put them into the ground in early June. Our short season here in Saskatoon ( zone 3 ) is often over in mid-September, at least for warm weather crops. So I find these things, called Kozy Coats or Walls of Water, help get squash plants off to a quick start.

SPIN photo squash Kozy Coats

They are filled with water and help keep the plants warmer at night. We place a tomato cage inside the coat which allows for extra support. Plants are watered with a hose once or twice a week, and the crater like depression around each plant means the water will stay around the plant. We have also had a problem with gophers at this site, and the coats keep these pests away. I keep them on all summer. The plants just explode out of the coats in a few weeks.

Squash is a good crop for winter’s farmers markets when offerings are more limited. Selling them in sections increases their per head value. Using the SPIN system you can target $1,000 – $2,000 gross per segment, which is 1,000 sq.ft.

You can see Gail’s take on turning squash and pumpkins into high value crops on SPIN’s youtube channel here.