Seeding Rate Helps Answer Whether A Crop Is Worth Growing

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

The planning questions keep coming, and last week the big one was, “How do I know if a crop is worth growing?” Getting an accurate read on your seed costs is a big part of the answer. In fact, knowing the cost to seed a bed is make or break in planning.

To get an accurate read on your seed costs, you need to determine your seeding rate per bed. To do that, you need to determine the following for the crop in question:

> # of rows per bed
> width of each row
> in-row spacing
> # of seed required per row
> # of seed required per bed

Using benchmarks from SPIN’s Crop Profiles, let’s look at carrots as an example.

> # of rows per standard size bed: 3
> width of each row: 2”
> in-row spacing: 12” apart; 30 seeds per foot
> # of seed required per row: 750 seeds
> # of seed required per bed: 1,125

Next, using the seed cost stats from SPIN’s Crop Profiles, look at what seed costs look like:
> typical cost per 25M quantities: $20 – $40
> cost to seed a bed: $2 per bed for the most expensive varieties

If you use SPIN’s revenue target of $100 per bed, you can see the seed cost per bed is way less than the revenue per bed. And in fact, some types of carrots can generate revenue of close to $200 per bed. So now you can see why SPIN categorizes carrots as a very high value crop.

Do the same calculations for more expensive sprouting microgreens seed, and you could start to see costs of $20+ to seed a bed. Factoring in other costs and your labor, you need to determine when the answer to, “Is a crop worth growing?” is “No.”

There are lots of variables that can come into play too. You can tweak your seeding rate, raise your prices, or negotiate seed costs. But as with all businesses, at the end of the day it comes down knowing what calculations to make. Seeding rate is an important, but overlooked one.

DDG3 photo 18You’ll get a feel for the amount of seed you need to use after a few trial plantings. The goal is to figure out the minimum amount of seed you need in order to achieve your targeted yield.  And then record that rate and figure out the cost to seed a bed.  

 

Here’s a Crop That Grow Itself – Onions

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

Want a crop that grows and sells itself? Onions come close. I call them a “fire and forget it” crop. Because it does not require much watering or weeding, it’s perfect for one of my peri-urban sites that I don’t visit very often throughout the season.

We planted about 1.5 segments of onion sets yesterday (a segment is 1,000 sq. ft.) I’ll plant three or four other sites for a total production of about 5 segments.

SF photo banner onion planting

 

Bed prep is done with a 8 HP BCS tiller. Three row beds are then marked out with a wheel hoe.

SF photo onion planting

When planting, the straddle method can be a little hard on the knees. Kneeling down, or sitting, on the walkways for slow motion work rates work very well.Two people can plant three beds at a time in about a half hour, using a tag team method. For a task like this, a three person crew can put in nine hours of work, virtually a full day’s work, in less than half a day’s time.

SPIN classifies onions as a very high value crop. It costs about $5 cost to seed a bed, and targeted revenue per bed is around $187. It’s  an easy crop to sell, and there is always demand for it at market.

Onions should have a prominent place in your crop repertoire, if you have the space. If you don’t have the space, it might be worth it to find it.

Looking ahead to see how Wally will harvest and preps his onions, join him in at his multi-locational farm here:

SPIN Is Gardening as a Business – Plan Your Production

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

In part 1 of this blog I explained that SPIN turns a garden into a cash generator by showing gardeners how to value their production and set a revenue target. Now I’ll explain how to turn that revenue target into a production plan.

As an example, let’s say you’ve already got two or three different businesses going, and you want to start out farming your yard part-time. So you think if you gross $2,000 from your garden this year you’ll be doing fantastic. Using the SPIN system, the first step is:

> decide the number of your marketing weeks                                                                  Marketing weeks is the amount of weeks you will have crops for sale. You can make it easiest on yourself by choosing many weeks to sell, because that means you have to make less in any given week. $2,000 becomes more feasible, the more marketing weeks you have. So you decide to attend a 10 week farmers market, and average $200 in sales per week.

> use SPIN’s mix and match pricing scheme of $3 per item, or any 2 items for $5
This way you are unitizing your produce and selling it all at the same price, with the average price being about $2.50. If you are targeting $2,000, that means you have to sell 800 total units of production. In terms of your weekly targeted revenue, if you have 10 marketing weeks, then that means 80 units of production per week, which, at $2.50 per item, will get you to your weekly targeted revenue of $200.

> decide on your SPIN crop repertoire
This is the complete range of crops that you plan on growing and marketing. The smaller your operation, the simpler your crop repertoire will probably be, but if you start targeting 10’s of thousands of dollars, you will need a wider range of produce to achieve your revenue target. Criteria for selecting crops includes demand, competition and growing conditions.

> plan production
Using the idea of units of production required to achieve revenue, and your crop repertoire, you plan like this, using 80 units of production per week and $200 in sales per week.

A spring market day would require something like this:
– 30 bags of spinach
– 20 bunches radish
– 20 bunches green onion
– 10 bags of pea greens
– 80 total units of production

Your weekly produce mix changes through your 10 week marketing period, but you are always aiming to have 80 units per week and sell $200 per week.

What makes SPIN-Farming different than gardening is you need to grow consistently, in significant volume at commercial grade, throughout the entire season. While this takes time to master, you’ll get a lot further a lot faster if you put a plan in play rather than if you just play around.

To see a further explanation of these concepts and others from the SPIN Lexicon, watch these five 1 minute videos on our youtube channel:

SPIN is Gardening as a Business – Set a Revenue Target

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

SPIN-Farming reduces the amount of land needed for commercial crop production to garden size plots. It is therefore sometimes confused with square foot gardening, but SPIN involves something new. It provides gardeners with a way to put an economic value on what they grow. What this means in practice is that gardening can easily be turned into a business. All you have to do is set a revenue target and plan your garden’s production to meet it.

Say you want to make $2,000 gross from your garden in a season. Here’s how to think through how that can be done, using the SPIN benchmark of $1,000 per 1,000 sq. ft., which is called a segment.

OPTION 1
You might use 2 segments of garden space, totaling 2,000 sq. ft. and grow one crop worth $1,000 on each of the segments. With this option it’s important to first determine if there are enough markets to buy that much of one single crop.

OPTION 2
By using SPIN’s bi-relay cropping, which is the growing of 2 crops in the same garden space per season, you can half the amount of garden space you need to 1,000 sq. ft., or one segment. That means you will be growing 2 crops worth $1,000 each, one right after the other, in the same 1,000 sq. ft. garden space.

Again, it’s important to first determine if there are enough markets to buy the two crops you choose, in the volume you’ll be producing them in.
>> So with the bi-relay option, you have halved your space, but maintained your revenue.

STRETCH GOAL OPTION
By using SPIN’s intensive relay cropping, which is the growing of 3 or more crops in the same garden space per season, you can maintain your 1,000 sq. ft. and increase your revenue to $3,000 in a season.
>>So with the intensive relay option, you have increased your revenue by a third, without having to expand your garden space.

What’s important to note is $1,000 gross per 1,000 sq. ft. is a conservative benchmark for those just starting out. Those who have mastered relay cropping, and who have strong markets, have been able to push these revenue targets to $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 and $5,000 per segment. This is where backyard plots become serious profit centers, and gardening crosses over into farming. SPIN makes it and an easy and lucrative transition.

Targeted revenue is the starting point, but it is just an abstract number without a production plan to back it up. In part 2 of this post, we’ll specify how you make your numbers a reality.

To see a further explanation of these concepts and others from the SPIN Lexicon, watch these five 1 minute videos on our youtube channel:

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.