How to Troubleshoot Crop Problems

Courtesy of Lois Thompson, Sprout Consultant, Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds

A SPIN farmer who has gotten off to an impressive start with a microgreens business, Mary Ackley of Little Wild Things City Farm in Washington DC, posted an SOS in the Backyard Riches forum about yellowing micro basil. She has both an indoor and field grown operation, and reported that suddenly two different batches of tray grown micro basil have exhibited yellowing leaves. There is no sign of infectious diseases (fungi or bacteria) or any pests.

SF photo basil micros yellowing

If you can’t get advice from someone who has experienced your exact problem, you may have to troubleshoot crop problems like this one your own. Lois Thompson the sprout consultant at Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds,outlines a 6 step troubleshooting  process which involves reviewing  soil, light, watering and atmosphere to identify changes in any of these condition which would cause a good crop to become a bad one.

>>Starting premise: If 2 kinds of seeds have the same problem, it is likely not the seed.

Assess what has changed from when you were able to grow the leaves green. The change can be subtle.

1. Start with the soil.
– Did you get in a new lot of soil?                                                                                             – Anything new about the soil?                                                                                               –

Yellowing could be a nutrient deficiency in iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc, or nitrogen, due to high or low soil ph.

o if there is an strange pattern to the yellowing, like if the veins on the leaves are green        and the tissue is yellow then it is almost always a nutrient problem.
o Try some kelp fertilizer
o Try some worm castings or compost into the soil

2. Look at the roots.                                                                                                               – –   – Damaged roots, compacted roots, injured roots, poor root growth could lead to nutrient deficiencies showing up in leaves
– Try adding a  soil amendment like mycorrhiza                                                                       – Try adding sugar to the water or the soil try different concentrations

3. Look for moisture stress                                                                                                           – Any new drainage problems?

4. Look at your watering                                                                                                             – Any signs of the crop getting too much or too little water?                                                   – Any change in water temperature?                                                                                         – Call the city to ask if the water has changed? Has salt been added to the water?                –  Any subtle seasonal water changes?

5. Look at your light                                                                                                                   – Has the light changed? Try some extra light. Try additional LED lights

6. Look at air circulation and temperature
– Have there been seasonal changes in temperature?

Farming is never steady state, and disciplined experimentation is a tool of the trade. It’s much easier to deal with SPIN-scale production challenges, and it’s important to note that while indoor production has been extolled as the 21st century solution to feeding the world, controlled climate growing does not mean that the grower is always in control.

Plan to Extend 2016 Sales by Observing Market Conditions Now

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

Crop repertoires always vary from year to year. SPIN farmers aim to change up their offerings, experimenting with exotic crops, and providing those not offered by their competition. Keep an eye out, too, for crops that are in short supply. Right now at my market, onions are in short supply. So my plan for 2016 will include more plantings for storage onions. The demand for garlic is exceeding my supply also, so I will increase my production there too.

There is no cabbage at market, so even though it is a difficult crop to grow for me, I’ll put in a cabbage planting for next year. My carrots and pumpkins/winter squash are selling steadily so I see no need to increase 2016 plantings of those crops.

SF photo winter market

My point is that you can continue to make money during what is considered the off-season by observing and responding to local food supply. By keeping your customers happy longer, you not only keep your cash flowing, you also ensure their loyalty. You can even gain new customers once their usual farmer is missing in action.

SPIN Apprenticeship Lesson: Respond to Seasonal Trends and Supply/Demand

Courtesy of Bryon, Saskatoon SK

Over the last two weekends at the Saturday farmers market I learned creative ways to increase exposure and sales. The first one was the transition from being an outdoor vendor to an indoor vendor. The challenge was notifying as many customers as possible that Wally’s Urban Market Garden would continue selling indoors throughout the fall and winter. Leading up to this weekend, we mentioned this to customers at the outdoor

Last Saturday was the transition, where we set up a stand both indoors and outdoors. The satellite outdoor space cost an additional $15, but its sales quickly covered this expense. In addition to sales, we guided many customers inside to the indoor stand.

SF photo Bryon outside market stand

The indoor stand has some big advantages, like heat, since temperatures are now barely above freezing. Others are:
>> extending your marketing period
>> less logistical steps without full stand take down

SF photo Bryon inside market stand

This past Saturday happened to fall on Halloween! Not the regular market day for sure, and everyone had a good time. I was dressed as a stack of pancakes and was quite satisfied with the laughs I got.

SF photo BryonHalloween


In addition to the permanent inside stand, our satellite stand this time consisted of a temporary pair of tables featuring many heirloom pumpkin and squash varieties. If some of you out there grow or plan to grow unique pumpkin/squash (esp. large ones) you should sell of slices using SPIN’s price tier structure. These work very well for customers who are curious but intimidated to commit to an entire pumpkin.

Our Halloween pumpkin table could not have been timed better. Apparently the grocery stores in the city had sold out the day before and couldn’t restock due to an American crop failure in Illinois. As soon as the market opened we had numerous people buying multiple pumpkins. Some of these were customers who had never shopped from us before. So splitting up and having multiple inside stands definitely increased our sales.
The lesson I learned was to into get stuck in a rut with your farm stand, and always be looking for ways to change up your display and positioning, take advantage of seasonal trends, and be responsive to supply/demand issues. The more creative you are, the more people you reach.


Weather Can Be Made To Help With Your Prep Work

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

Weather is always a critical factor in farming, and SPIN farmers look for ways to use it to their advantage. Take today for instance. It’s an atypical fall day. Just before Halloween, and there is no snow on the ground. Late afternoon temperature is still conducive to outside work, if you bundle up a bit. So for me this is great weather for getting a significant volume of root crops washed and put into short term storage in the cooler.

It is much more efficient to do this task outside than inside. Setting up an outdoor workstation takes a few minutes. Only gear needed is a spray gun and wash buckets.

SF photo blog weather prepping

Single digit day time highs C. are perfect for letting the crops dry out during the day. Night time temperatures of 0 C. requires just a few tarps to cover the prepped crops. Once the washed crops dry out, they will last for many weeks in the cooler. I just take out what I need as I need it for market days throughout the winter.

We all know how uncooperative weather can sometimes be, so when there are days when you can make it work for you, go with it.

DDG4 photo 20Rainbow carrots really brighten up those dull winter days at market and are a very high value crop for SPIN farmers. If the aren’t already part of your crop repertoire, find out all about them in this guide.


SPIN Apprenticeship Lesson: Making A Bed with a Rototiller

Courtesy of Bryon, Saskatoon SK

I am now starting to appreciate the phrase repeated by so many experienced farmers about the need to get your hands in the dirt. It has been very exciting these past few days, as I’m being exposed to more aspects of the occupation. The one I want to talk about in particular is operating a rototiller, and how to use it for bed prep.
SF photo Bryon 1
I loved being being able to physically experience what it’s like to implement this basic SPIN concept, preparing a bed. Doing and seeing what’s necessary to divide a segment into beds was really helpful. One thing that Wally stressed to me was that using strings and other cumbersome set ups are simply not worth the time and effort. Extra care must go into the first lines made in bed prep, though, to ensure uniformity.
SF photo Bryon 2
It was great to get a feel for the workings/mobility of a rototiller. We were using a 5hp briggs and Stratton BCS 710 with an 18 inch tiller implement. Wally has recommended I purchase a larger model with 8 hp and variable work speeds. I have done some initial sourcing for a BCS 722 and will hopefully find one locally on my trip to Ontario. I will update the situation on here as details arise.
SF photo Bryon 3
First we went through an area preparation, tilling the leftover vegetation into the ground. Two passes over the area was good. It was done in quite a small area, 250 sq feet so I got practice with tiller mobility.

Next we marked the edge of the far bed by pushing an Earthway seeder without seeds. This was the first line in the area, and it’s worth taking your time to make this one very straight. This initial line acts as the quide for your tiller and therefore determines the rest of your beds.
SF photo Bryon 4

By the fifth bed I felt quite a bit more comfortable and confident with the machine. The beds after being rototilled have a valley in the middle. Wally impressed me with a little trick of using a flipped over garden rake and dragging it lightly across the surface to flatten it.

I am more excited now to find my own rototiller and start putting it to work!

SPIN Apprenticeship Lesson Learned: Market Day Selling

Courtesy of Bryon Hall, Saskatoon SK

One of the most beneficial things I’ve done with Wally has been market day selling. Very quickly I realized it wasn’t as simple as it looked. However there are some key things I have noticed make a difference.

Engagement covers all of these things and is something Wally told me was important from Day 1. Once a customer takes a look at your stand you have an opportunity to make a sale. A positive, energetic greeting is a great start that every customer will pick up on. Knowledge of your product is also something the customer will sense right away. Not simply what types you grow and their benefits. Customers always appreciate hearing how you have personally prepared vegetables you’ve grown and speaking on flavor profiles/pairings is something more informed consumers will take notice of. This is much more important on varieties that are more exotic and will ease their concerns of cooking something unfamiliar.

Keep the market day objectives in focus, this is pay day! One of the most effective things I have noticed is how easy and effective an “upsell” can be. What is meant by an upsell is that when a customer comes to the stand for something you suggest something else they can buy. This can be done either through a recommendation for a meal plan or for economic benefit. The economic benefits are much easier to portray if you have a tiered pricing structure as Wally employs. This also gives you a nice goal to reach with individual customers always trying to get them to purchase a full tier.  Hopefully this will help you develop some of your own marketing strategies to deploy on market days!

IMG_20151014_110320 (1)


For SPIN farm apprentices, pay day is market day. 

SPIN Apprenticeship Lesson Learned: How to Market an Ugly Crop

Courtesy of Bryon H., Saskatoon SK

This week I had quite an interesting experience. Wally took me out to one of his backyard plots to harvest horseradish. What I was expecting was a typical looking SPIN plot with beds. When we got there it was barely noticeable what we were going to harvest! Once we walked to a back corner of the lot Wally pointed out the horseradish patch,an area that was teeming with plants.
SF photo Bryon horse radish plot
The more shocking event was actual harvesting. The harvestable part of horseradish is the root portion. They establish very deep roots which are very difficult to harvest completely. The good thing is that those unharvested portions will grow back aggressively the next year. Being a perennial, horseradish is a very low maintenance crop.
SF photo Bryon horse radish harvesting
Now the difficulty with this crop is the marketing and selling. A lot of people have never purchased and processed fresh horseradish. I’ve had some success at market today with offering a small sample to cook with and explaining a simple recipe. Two of the customers I did this with ended up actually purchasing a bag of horseradish.

Alternatively this is a much more marketable crop to restaurants. A chef who is a regular at the farmers market picked up five pounds and said he wanted another five pounds on the weekend!
SF photo Bryon horse radish crop

One thing I’d like to touch on that is a huge SPIN farming principle, workflow. Yesterday Wally and I were slicing  pumpkins for sale, and he commented on something I really took notice of. Ideally your work flow once organized should be fast and efficient, but as Wally had to remind me today is that it’s never worth working panicked.When you are rushing it is too easy to miss details or steps which could result in inferior quality produce being sold or damaging some of your own equipment. The former possibly resulting in a poor first impression, reducing the chances of customers returning and probably eliminating the chance of them becoming a word of mouth advertiser for you.

SF photo Bryon horse radish with Wally


It was a lot of fun trying to sell a niche product like horseradish. I noticed that the cultures who traditionally cooked horseradish were much more comfortable buying it. It is probably worth it to do some research on your city’s demographics and see which vegetables are used in those cuisines when deciding which new crops to test out.

Rake in Sales With Fall’s New Moneymakers

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

Pumpkins and winter squash have become a bigger part of my fall crop repertoire over the years, and this year chefs are buying them by the wagon loads.


I am using $1.00 per pound as the base line, but I give chefs a price break on the larger ones, say in the 40 pound range. They want the heirloom types – Cinderella, Boston Marrow, Amish pie, Australian Butter. Now is the time to plan on capturing this market, ahead of other vendors.

As you start thinking about your 2016 crop repertoire, be sure to include these types of crops along with the classic SPIN storage crops of beets, carrots, onions and potatoes. If I can manage to get off a good crop in zone 2, which has an early FFF (first fall frost) date, growers with longer seasons will make out even better.

SF photo pumpkins and squash wagonload

The chef from Ayden Kitchen and Bar hauls away a $100  order of pumpkins and squash. This crop is keeping my sales going strong right through fall.


Which irrigation methods work for which crops?

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

This was the burning question at  our recent online Open House on irrigation.  Get ready for the answer that drives everyone inside and outside of farming crazy: It depends. Your choice of irrigation will depend on lots of factors, including your type of soil and operation.

I use hand watering methods most of the time. I am not a big fan of mechanized systems  and specialized hoses because they are expensive and require management and maintenance. They might make you feel clever, but if you analyze the effort that goes into them, you might find they don’t really earn their keep.

Another factor to consider is potable water.  Many of you know my story, and that a big reason for my becoming an urban farmer was to ditch my expensive and elaborate irrigation system that depended on fluctuating river levels.  Now, I just turn on the tap. Potable water is the single most important issue when selling produce that is eaten fresh, because water can be the source of contamination, and using municipal water greatly reduces this risk.

Below is how I handle it for my multi-locational  an urban/peri-urban  11,000 sq.ft. farm.  But just because I prefer to hand water doesn’t mean other methods are not viable. These are the broad categories of crops just as a starting point.  We’re starting a member-sourced project in our online support group for best irrigation practices.  So consider this a work in progress.


Carrots                                                                                                                          > Overhead for germination                                                                                                  > > Flood  irrigate during growing stage

Cucumbers                                                                                                                              > > Overhead hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Leafy greens: Lettuce, chard, spinach, others                                                                       > > Flood  irrigate by letting the hose with brush attachment lay on the ground.  Move around to cover area.  (mostly).                                                                                               > > Overhead hand watering (sometimes)

Night shades: Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, egg plant                                                         >> Flood irrigate                                                                                                                       > > Do no use overhead since it can cause disease issues with these crops

Pumpkin                                                                                                                                   > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Summer squash                                                                                                                       > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Winter squash                                                                                                                           > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Pumpkin                                                                                                                                 > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Radish                                                                                                                                      > > Overhead hand water with brush attachment

Fresh herbs                                                                                                                            > > Overhead, hand water                                                                                                        >  > Dryland

SF photo Wally watering 2

Wally’s approach to irrigation is to keep it simple. He hand waters, mostly.

Now Is Always the Best Time to Start a Farm

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

The hands down best advice on starting a farm is “Don’t wait.” This Colorado SPIN member’s situation is typical. “I’ve just had a few opportunities fall into my lap where I can actually start my operation (full time freedom status) within the next month. This is about a year earlier than I originally planned where I would have spent the next year interning before starting out on my own.

Bottom Line: I’m very very excited about being able to start my dream NOW instead of some point down the road and I want to make sure I’m making the best informed decisions I can at this point in the season (End of summer, early fall).”

Here’s what other SPIN members are advising him:

1. Lay out and Prep Your Beds. “An absolute rule of farming in general and intense SPIN farming in particular is that there is never enough time in the spring to get everything done you want to. So if you have an opportunity to start laying out your SPIN beds, preparing them, any fencing you need, etc this fall -> DO IT! You can then look at them over the winter and you might see where you want to change the layout etc. If you wait until spring it may be too late to make changes and you will have to wait a year.”

2. Plant Greens Under Cover. “In Colorado, greens will grow under a tunnel of some sort/greenhouse if you plant now. They will grow slow due to the short days but you’ll have greens take off after the winter solstice when the days get longer if we don’t get a brutal winter.”

3. Test Plant and Get in Seeder Practice. “Put in some test plantings of radish, spinach, lettuce, and possibly some quick greens. See at least if you can get germination, and see what happens. Try a bed of each. It will start establishing your farmers muscle memory. Do you have a seeder? Might be a good idea to get familiar with a seeder now.”

4. Do Market Research. Define your delivery radius and identify markets within it. Visit them to check out which ones are worth applying to. Or feel out you neighbors for a CSA. Or restaurants. Get your sales channels for next year identified now.”

Probably few would describe farming as low risk, high reward. But SPIN is exactly that. In removing the barriers to entry – land and capital –  it also eliminates all the excuses to not start. You can dream as if you’ll live forever. But farm as if you’ll die today.

SF photo feet up Northern Ice Farms


Just do it.