Reality Check for New Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Still high from a full season of farming conferences, and primed by government funded training programs, new farmers are now heading back to the land to pursue their farm dreams. Most often they include a farmstead set amid rolling hills, a lone tractor silhouetted against the sunrise, and many peaceful hours of toil amid fields of plenty. This is what defines traditional farming, and it is what now makes it so challenging as a business. When the thing that makes you is the thing that breaks you, you are in for a tough row to hoe.

Before you strike out to pursue your farm dream, here is a quick reality check:
> the simple life does not come cheap
> you aren’t owed a living just because you choose a certain lifestyle
> the less land you put in production to start, the more success you are likely to have
> the further away you are from your markets, the more dependent you will be on the farm aid industry

For SPIN farmers, the starting point is not creating the perfect lifestyle, but responding to an opportunity where they happen to be. Just ask Wally. His business, Wally’s Urban Market Garden is now celebrating its 25th year. It certainly reflects his ideals and ethics, but he has always let the business drive the farming, rather than the other way around.

If you don’t know how Wally started out, you can read about it here. As he has said, “While the land base and expenses for a sub-acre farm are a fraction of the costs for a  conventional, multi-acre farm, the bottom lines are similar. And counter-intuitive though it seems, a backyard farmer can expect to make the same living as a large-scale farmer, but with less stress and overhead, and with more certainty of success from year to year, because more of the success factors are in a SPIN farmer’s control.

“Had I known about the feasibility of small plot farming when I started my career 20 years ago, I would never have bought large acreage in the country, and would have fulfilled my farming aspirations more easily and with less expense in the city.”

So consider this: when it comes to that farm dream: the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.

SPIN photo Gail and potatoes back forty

With SPIN-Farming, the back forty might be measured in square feet, instead of acres, but the satisfaction that comes from practicing intelligent, dedicated craft and soil -based farming is the same. Plus you make more money with less stress and more control over your operation.

DDG1 photo 13 On Wally’s large farm outside of town he invested in an expensive and elaborate irrigation system that depended on fluctuating river levels. In his backyard plot in the city, his irrigation system is a hose and the water faucet. 

Mod 2 Pest control 3

At Wally’s city-based farm, organic methods are much easier to abide by. With this backyard scale operation most pests can be controlled by hand…

SPIN photo Wally fertilizing

… and soil health is easily managed using local inputs. There is also very little waste. 

DDG6 photo 27 DSC00211

Think before heading for the hills to start your farm. Backyard -based farming offers a number of competitive advantages, micro climate and easy access to water and markets among them.

How SPIN’s Numbers Add Up

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

The advantage of using a system like SPIN-Farming is that it provides benchmarks to guide your business and measure your progress in highly specific terms. Let’s take a look at what comprises SPIN’s benchmarks, and how they all add up.

SPIN’s units of production are:
A bed = 50 sq. ft. (it measures 2 ft. x 25 ft.)
A segment = 1,000 sq. ft. (many backyards can accommodate this size plot, with a typical dimension being  25 ft. x 40 ft.)

SPIN’s revenue benchmarks are:
$100 gross per crop, per bed
$1,300 gross per crop per segment

SPIN’s relay cropping techniques are:
bi-relays in which 2 or more crops are grown in the same bed or segment, per season
intensive relays in which 3 or more crops are grown in the same bed or segment, per season
Relay cropping doubles or triples production and therefore revenue, without expanding the growing space. You can think of it as intensifying your growing space.

Putting these benchmarks into play on a half acre, which is about the size of many suburban backyards, goes something like this.

1 segment = 13 beds and $1,300 gross revenue
a half acre = about 20,000 sq. ft., or 20 segments
20 segments = $26,000 gross revenue

If you intensify the half acre by using relay cropping, you can at least double or triple your revenue, like this:
20 segments in bi-relays (2 crops/season) = $52,000 gross revenue
20 segments in intensive relays (3 crops/season) =$78,000 gross revenue

Since relay cropping is labor intensive, the exercise becomes, how can you intensify your half acre, without incurring labor costs, or keeping them to a minimum? So to make the work load manageable for you and a partner, and occasional help,  you might use your 20,000 sq.ft. to target $55,900, broken down like this:
5 segments in single crop production = $6,500 gross revenue
7 segments in bi-relays = $18,200 gross revenue
8 segments in intensive relays = $31,200 gross revenue

As you can see, the options are many, and the result is a system for generating specific, steady and predictable income throughout the season. But since farming is never steady state, the system is adjustable throughout the season, and from year to year.

Playing with SPIN numbers is not an academic exercise. It’s the basis for your business, production and operational plans. All you need to do is get with the system.

SPIN photo relay tiller plowing under bed

Here is a bed of spinach past its prime being tilled under and readied for the planting of a second crop.  Planting several crops sequentially, one right after the other, in the same bed throughout the season is called relay cropping. It double or triples the revenue you can make from a single plot.   

Newbie SOS: How do I set up my irrigation?

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

SPIN-Farming does not require elaborate or expensive infrastructure, and that includes irrigation. Everything you need to install an above the ground system that stays permanently in place throughout the season, can be purchased at the garden center and hardware store.  The best advice for newbies like this is don’t over-engineer it.

For my  100’x 50′ rented area, there is no city water, but it is beside a creek.  Can I buy a “good one” pump for $200? I read about the manifold/hose setup in the SPIN guide, and think I can use it for soaker hoses.  But if I have 60+ standard beds, is one pump feasible?  But I guess that is what manifold is for, to only use a certain portion of all the hoses at once? Or is my only option spray heads due to size?

A SPIN irrigation setup needs to be flexible. I would set up your garden in areas, with different irrigation systems tailored to what is grown in each. I am not sure what your typical rain fall patterns are, whether you are dry, or get regular rains. Some crops, like onions and potatoes, can be grown without watering, and just rely on rainfall. Also possibly beans and peas.

I would not invest in a lot of hose. If you can get a pump going, I would just set it up to run one or two sprinklers, or even just water with a brush attachment on your garden hose, and water by hand. For some crops, like potatoes and squash, you can just lay a single hose on the ground and just let it run onto the soil. Just need to move the hose around to another spot every once in a while. So I would say start very simple, and try to dryland as many crops as you can. Not all of your garden needs to be watered at once. Only certain beds and areas. Be sure to check the water quality of that creek.

Mod 2 Irrigation 1

Just a simple split valve is a good starting point for an initial irrigation setup.

 

Mod 2 Irrigation 4

Take water harvesting as far as you can. Sophisticated systems can be put in place, but even primitive techniques can be useful.

 

SPIN photo Wally watering

Because SPIN farms practice relay cropping, which involves a lot of crop diversity with all crops at different stages of growth, an irrigation system must be flexible. For instance, you might have just relayed 5 beds of spinach to carrots, and you just need to water those 5 beds. There is no point having an overhead system that can water the entire plot, when you just need to water a few beds. Instead, you would just water a few beds using a garden hose and hand held brush attachment.

Newbie SOS: Don’t obsess over soil amendments

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

Soil is the number one hang-up I try to get new farmers to ease up a bit on. Sure soil is important, but you don’t need to turn it into a religion. It needs to be understood at a basic gardening level,  respected and treated well. And because you’ll be doing a lot of growing of a lot of different crops throughout the season,  you’ll have lots of chances to learn what works and what doesn’t as you go along.

What do you use to amend soil? I have access to some 8 yr old regularly turned cattle manure probably free if I go get it. I’m getting coffee grounds from local coffee shop, and have been saving eggshells for my compost. But it’s not much volume. What about kelp?

The manure sounds good. Liquid organic fertilizers like kelp, are good to use. My soil amendments are dictated by whatever is locally available for free or at reasonable cost. Contrary to what all the soil doctors tell you, there is no magic potion. Most people over-fertilize. Using SPIN’s bed setup is an advantage because you can spot fertilize throughout the season. At most I spend a few hundred per season on soil amendments.

SPIN photo Wally fertilizing

 

Here Wally spot fertilizes an area where spinach has just been harvested. The pail contains a mixture of alfalfa pellets, soybean meal, dried molasses, wood ash, bone meal, and blood meal – all ingredients purchased from a local feed store. The soil gets a light dusting, and then this area will be replanted to a different crop.

Mod 2 Soil 1

 

SPIN farmers compost where they can. Here Gail turns the pile in her own backyard. If you’re using neighbor’s plots, composting may not be possible there. No worries. If you don’t always compost, it is not a sin.  

Revenue is the Benchmark to Beat

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

We have said before that SPIN is performance-based, which means that success is measurable. The traditional and often used benchmark in farming is yield.

Certainly the amount of crops you produce is important. But to succeed as a business, what is most important is not the ability to grow in significant volume. It’s the ability to sell, at pricing that makes it worth your while.

Many don’t yet see how this applies to SPIN-scale production because up until the last 10 years or so, there were no markets to support it, so it did not have much of a dollar value. But now there is real money to be made. In the USDA’s 2012  agriculture census valued local food sales at $7 billion.

SPIN’s guide # 18 Crop Profiles is the first attempt to quantify just how lucrative backyard farming can be. These are numbers worth chewing on, and they give farmers different, and highly rewarding, benchmarks to beat.

DDG3 photo 9

SPIN’s small plots generate high yields, but the overall volumes are low compared to conventional farming. 

SPIN photo seed to cash restaurant delivery

 

What is important is that SPIN-scale production can be sold locally at prices that make it worth your while.  

SPIN photo seed to cash invoice for restaurant

 

Even big name hotels and institutions that rely on Sysco are deciding it is worth it to purchase from local farmers because they have less spoilage when they get crops fresh picked. Also, more and more of their customers are demanding it.  

Newbie SOS: How important are organic seeds?

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

Seed sourcing does not need to produce the anxiety it seems to. My advice is to use reputable suppliers who cater to commercial scale growers, and don’t overthink it. That goes for this question, which I get all the time.

How do you feel about organic seeds? I want to use them but do you bother? 

We use organic seed as much as we can. But we will not pay excessively premium prices for them. Suppliers recommended by SPIN farmers can be found here. If you have not made a seed order yet, then you might have to source locally. If you want onion sets/garlic then you need to act quickly. We just bought 500 lbs. of sets, and cleaned them out of their first shipment. I would suggest an ambitious onion/garlic planting in your first year. Say, 50 lbs. of each.

If a supplier is out of the seed you want, see if you can pre-order and pay over the phone and get 50 lbs. of each reserved from their next shipment. A good relationship with seed suppliers is a good asset to have, so make an extra effort to establish them early in your career.

SPIN photo seed packets Frank Frazier

 

This is SPIN farmer Frank Frazier’s main 2015 seed order for Mooseview Farm in Brookfield NH . He’ll be testing out 8 new varieties of lettuce for a new salad mix this year. He likes High Mowing Seeds. 

 

Newbie SOS: How can I get an early start on the season?

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

There are many options for season extension, but if you are just starting out in farming keep it simple. Don’t bother with it. Take, for instance,  this situation.

I have 4 – 8×4 raised (18″ high) beds here at home that I can easily cover with hoops and plastic (and will probably add more). I’m thinking I should get them covered to warm and use to start carrots for early baby carrots perhaps? Or cucumbers? Or what is best use of them?

I would not recommend covering them. It’s an unnecessary hassle. I am not a big user of season extension structures. Structures are an expense and add to your workload because you have to trouble shoot them. Your beds should warm up quicker than soil, and as soon as you can turn them over with a spade, I would put in two 18 inch wide SPIN beds, and plant onion sets and garlic. These can be planted early, and do not need to be covered.

Onions would be harvestable late May for use as scallion, and then beds can be replanted to warm weather crops, such as cucumbers, which would not need to be covered that time of the year. Garlic can be planted closely, to be used as green garlic. Once harvested, say by mid June, they can be replanted to something like tomatoes.

SPIN photo book Wally watering

 

My backyard in the city gives me the micro climate advantage so I can work beds in early springtime and get to market with crops like green onion and garlic before lots of other farmers. I use greenhouses to start transplants, but I don’t bother with season extension structures to produce my crops.  

Newbie SOS: 80 days to market, what’s first?

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

At this time of year, my green thumb gets double duty – I’m not only still growing inside, I’m also responding to lots of messages that start out like this: Help! Only 80 days to my first market. What do I do about….

So I’ll be doing some posts that provide a sampling of recent questions, because some of them may be on your mind, too. Maybe like, what’s first?

With 80 days to market, what is the one thing I need to get done this week? So much to do so little time. If I could have something ready early (right!) I can market it online, or possibly at the unofficial market in my local mall parking one day a week. But what is first?

You need to get some soil worked up, as soon as you can, and plant onion sets and garlic. If you haven’t ordered seed, then get your order secured as soon as possible.

SPIN photo farm stand Gail

Scallions, or green onions, are a good early SPIN crop because they command premium pricing, which justifies the high cost of sets.  Urban growers with the micro climate advantage can often be first at market with them. 

Don’t Let a Sales Opportunity Go to Waste

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

Food waste is turning into a big cause, and I had a reporter come by my farm stand this last week to interview me about it. SPIN farmers take great care to be sure all their crops are ready for their close-up, but she was scouting out the ugly kind, blemished, and not suitable for sale. So I showed her some examples of lower grade, spoiled produce.

I explained that every week I typically get around 10 lbs. of cull carrots. Same with potatoes, beets,  pumpkin, winter squash and onions. This could be due to harvest damage, which then causes the crop to go bad sooner, or it could also be due imperfect storage conditions in some of my storage area.

What’s a SPIN farmer to do? Well, maybe we should borrow from the big boy’s playbook and try selling them.

This type of product offering and positioning makes it possible to cater to people not willing or able to pay premium prices. If you’ve got an ugly carrot or a disfigured eggplant, you might just be looking at a new product line.

SF photo cull produce

SPIN Bed Sizes Are Not Just Plug and Play

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

We often get asked, “Should I make all of my beds SPIN-size?” SPIN’s “standard size bed“ is a theoretical construct, as well as a practical one. Its dimensions are 2 feet wide by 25 feet long. This bed size is a basic unit of measure in the SPIN-Farming Basics system, and it serves as a reference point for planting, as well as revenue targeting. Having this reference served me well in the initial stages of developing my backyard farming operation because it eliminated a lot of trial and error, and it allowed me to measure my work rates and income.

But with experience came the confidence to adapt and experiment. Now I often use short beds, around 12 feet long. In suburban or rural plots I use what I call long beds, which might be double or triple the length of a standard bed.

SPIN Basics also calls for 1 foot walkways. One foot walkways work for many crops, but not all. You can adjust walkway width to accommodate crops that require different spacing. Walkway width can be two feet or even more for crops that vine out, such as pumpkin. I also use double width beds for crops that are quick growing, require no weeding and can be harvested all in one work session, like radish.

You should not be a slave to SPIN’s concepts, and in fact, those who have become successful, like Curtis Stone at Green City Acres, and Jean Martin Fortier at Les Jardins de la Grelinette have modified the system to suit their own circumstances and exercise their own creativity. Not surprisingly, they’ve been able to surpass SPIN’s main revenue benchmark of $50,000 gross from 20,000 sq. ft.

Both SPIN Basics and SPIN 2.0 provide standardized constructs, but SPIN is not meant to be a plug and play system. Some beginning farmers come to it expecting a template, as one of them put it, “to avoid doing it the long tedious way.” Using a system like SPIN can accelerate progress, but it does not eliminate process. You still have to think, make judgments and use your intuition. SPIN is not farming for dummies. You need to use your s-mall plot in-telligence.

Question: Which of the following are SPIN beds?

DDG3 photo 12 b design

 

DDG6 photo 11 DSC01255

 

DDG2 photo 26

 

SPIN Photo Gail Manitoba

 

Answer: All of them. These are all plots that  Gail and I farm. Some are urban, some are suburban and some are rural . We apply the SPIN system at all of them.