Work Rate Puts “Labor Saving” in Perspective

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

I have never been a big fan of labor saving devices. SPIN-Farming is labor intensive, with many farm tasks being done by hand, so it is certainly wise to find ways to work more efficiently, without having to hire workers. My go-to labor saving device is a rototiller, and the savings are pretty dramatic. It can reduce bed prep from hours to minutes. But it requires gas and maintenance.

DDG1 photo 11

Although the tiller allows for quick work rates, in certain situations a tiller is not possible or even efficient. Prepping beds by hand can certainly seem like a daunting task. Turning over the soil with a spade is a farm technique that has been around forever, and for a reason. The tool required is inexpensive and universally available. It doesn’t need gas and rarely breaks down. It is also quiet, which can be an important consideration in an urban context. So hand digging in certain situations may be the wiser, or only, choice.

This labor saving device has caught the attention of SPIN farmers. It is a greens harvester, and at face value it looks pretty slick.

But for the volume amount being harvested, it looks like overkill. I can harvest 10 lbs. of greens in about five minutes with a knife. I don’t have to expend time and expense lugging around and maintaining a device. I have calculated work rates for all my farming tasks, from watering to plug tray production. Work rate is an important SPIN concept not yet widely applied, and it is useful beyond just evaluating what is truly labor saving, and what is not.

Knowing work rates allows you to schedule your weekly workflow, determine when it’s worthwhile to bring in outside workers, and how to evaluate whether you are getting the most of them. People have joked that I am the only farmer they know who takes a stopwatch into the field with them. But figuring out my work rates has left me lots more time for kicking back and enjoying a beer. I’ve been able to sample a fair number over
25 years.

Learn how you can calculate and use work rates so you have more time to drink beer or whatever else you’d like to do beyond just farming, here.

Use yardsharing to create an orchard

Courtesy of Ben Klempner, Unity Farm, Moshav Yishi IS

Although I have not been successful in acquiring land through yardshare for the growing of vegetables, I have been very successful in “yard sharing” fruit trees. In others words, knocking on a door with a fruit tree in the yard and asking the owner if I can harvest the fruit from their tree. They are usually more than happy to have me pick that fruit otherwise it just ends up rotting on their lawn. A different type of “yardsharing,” but this type of yardshare has become my “orchard” of sorts.

I have not analyzed the cost/benefit of this type of foraging,but it’s fun. And it seems that there is an excitement around it and that excitement brings with it an economic value. Also, aside from the time harvesting and a few basic pieces of equipment (which are good to have around the house anyway) there seems to be little investment cost. No seeds, no water, no soil amendments, no time, effort, and energy taking care of the trees and soil. Just harvesting from neighborhood trees that would otherwise go unharvested with fruit left to rot. My CSA people like that they’re getting more than just vegetables.They also like the idea of foraged produce in their CSA bags (it makes them feel very avant garde).

SF photo Binyamin foraging

Here is Ben foraging oranges from a neighbor’s yard. He transitioned to full-time farming using the SPIN-Farming system in Spring of 2014, creating Unity Farm in a former industrial zone using 900 Earthboxes. In SPIN’s online forum he has addressed such topics as crowdfunding, dealing with closed-minded extension agents, and how to build a profitable customer base, and has been a guest on SPIN’s semi-monthly Open Houses. 

Follow  Ben and Unity Farm a thumbs up at: and visit his website at

Thumbs up to the first SPIN farmer in Israel!

For SPIN forum membership information, email SPIN co-founder Roxanne Christensen at

Standing Up To Drought

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

Most farmers usually try to plan based on following long terms trends. They aren’t fans of deviations from the norm. SPIN farmers like to change things up and experiment, and our scale of operation makes it low risk to do so. That’s a big advantage when it comes to extreme weather, which is now becoming the new normal for many of us. Here’s how I am starting to cope with it.

In the upper left of this photo you can see how my potato plot looked in mid-June.

SF photo potatoes before rain

No growth at all, because of drought. I have not seen it this dry here in years. I thought about terminating the plot, but I did not know how to go about it. Till it in, and you just have more small-sized seed potatoes. So I left it, and just did minimal irrigation, by hand, with a hose and brush attachment.

After 3 inches of rain at the end of July,  I visited the plot, and it looked like this.

SF photo potatoes after rain

Up until now, onions were my go-to crop for my peri-urban plots that needed to go for extended periods without irrigation and could get by with little rainfall. Now that drought may be my new normal, I’m going to have to push the envelope on other crops to see which ones hold up in extended dry spells. So far, it’s onions and potatoes that are helping me stand up to drought.

My Farmers Market Provides the Best of Both Worlds

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

I have lived in two worlds at our local farmers market. For the last several years, I sold year round indoors at our fixed stand. But in early May, Gail and I switched to an outdoor stand in front of the market. The spots are about the same in price, and each has pro’s and con’s.

The obvious advantage to an indoor market is you don’t have to think about weather. No wrestling with canopies in the wind or trying to salvage rain-soaked produce. The disadvantage is having to haul your produce indoors, which can be grueling. We addressed that by installing a reach-in cooler at our stand, so we could store any unsold produce in there until the next market day.

An outside market poses the logistical headache of having to lug your stand to each market and set it up. We have a van that we leave our tables and canopy in. And I find once you establish a set routine for stand set up and take down, you get good at it, and it soon becomes a non-issue. Outside, there is also the pressure of having to lug unsold produce back home, so projecting sales volume becomes much more exacting.

But the good news is that our move outside has actually resulted in increased sales. We make much higher sales at Wednesday’s outside market than we did inside. Sometimes we make just as much money that day as we do on the big market days, Saturday and Sunday. So I find I am doing better outdoors right now than I would be if I were inside. Here is the dynamic I think is in play.

Most of the fresh produce vendors are outside, whereas the inside is dominated by food-court like vendors who sell prepared foods. It seems in the summer, serious shoppers expect to buy their produce outside. In fact, many prefer it. They don’t even go inside. It is much easier for them to grab and go without having to navigate through those who come to the market more for entertainment. Those types hang out inside or on the outside terrace. So the inside/outside areas are a natural way to segment the two different types of customers, and eliminate any conflict between their market behaviors.

My current strategy is to swing both ways, depending on the season. Outside in summer. Inside in winter. So be observant and be sure that you are following your customers, instead of making it hard for them to get to you. And if there are tensions at your market between the grocery shoppers and those just making the scene, let your management know there is a way to create the best for both worlds. My market here in Saskatoon is a great model.

SF photo market 1

This summer, I am an outsider at market …

SF photo market 2

along with the other fresh produce sellers…

.SF photo market 5who cater to the grocery shoppers…

SF photo market 4t

who find it quicker and more convenient to shop outdoors…. 

SF photo market 3

while those who just want to enjoy the scene can hang out  inside the market or out on the terrace over  a leisurely snack, breakfast or lunch.  Having both inside and outside areas is a great way for farmers markets to cater to two different types of customers.   

Full Spectrum Sustainability

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

When we put on SPIN glasses we see food growing everywhere – backyards, front lawns, community gardens, rooftops, public spaces. But we aren’t looking through rose-colored lenses. We know SPIN farmers alone can’t supply all their communities’ food needs. That’s why we cheer the investments and advances in Big Ag tech. Many find this surprising, but some of us at SPIN are techies, and we never saw the rise of SPIN-Farming being a struggle against Big Ag.

In spite of what many are advocating, Big Ag is not just going to slink off into Monsanto monocropped cornfields. Thousands of big farm owners account for a third of U.S. farmland, and they are increasingly buying up land from smaller farming operations. Sure, it can be argued that Big Ag is less sustainable than a local organic CSA – but with the help of new tech it’s becoming more so.

New software and computing power are starting to help industrialized farmers manage their farms more efficiently and make them less dependent on information from their suppliers. By enabling them to tap into detailed data about how their farms operate in real time, tech helps them to use less water and fertilizer, save money and reduce their negative environmental impacts. As extreme weather becomes the norm, tech will
help these large scale farmers exert even more control over their operations and become as nimble as SPIN-scale farmers are.

Rather than looking at the world in black and white, we see it as a spectrum of ‘good’ that everybody’s on. Some may not be as far toward the positive end of that spectrum as others would like. And that could include SPIN farmers. If they were using draft horses for all their mechanical cultivation and feeding them with hay they grew themselves, they’d be extolled as pillars of sustainability. They’d also go out of business.

Then, rather than growing healthy food for a community using some gas or diesel fuel, they’d be trying to figure out how to avoid buying conventional processed food on sometimes limited budgets. As it is, they are doing more good than harm, leaving their immediate environment better off than they found it, and producing and selling good products.

While the organic/local/regional/sustainable food movement is strong and growing, it is still very, very small in the bigger picture. To keep moving forward it needs to bring in the vast majority who still don’t know where their food comes from, or don’t care, or don’t think to ask. This is the big change SPIN strives for, and it does not require squaring off against Big Ag. Change comes incrementally to a large system. So we welcome progress wherever it comes from, and do not make perfect the enemy of the good food movement.

SPIN photo green and red We like red and green…  

SPIN photo Big Ag yellow field

and yellow’s looking better and better all the time.

For related thought please see this post on why we don’t care whether organic can feed the world here. 


There’s A Bigger Issue Besides Organic

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

We often get asked if SPIN is organic. Usually it’s by aspiring farmers who want to do the right thing. We don’t dictate how to grow. We explain that SPIN calls for organic-based methods because they are cheaper and more appropriate for densely populated areas, where most SPIN farmers set up their businesses. On a practical level, organic is much easier to implement on the small land bases SPIN farmers use, than on larger farms.

In addition, because SPIN’s business model is direct marketing, SPIN farmers learn soon enough that customers want food that is grown free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and will pay the price for crops produced that way. So for SPIN farmers organic becomes the result of everyday practicalities, market demand and economics, not just an abstract moral imperative.

Sometimes, however, the question is a setup to draw us into an issue those inside and outside farming have been chewing on for decades – can organic feed the world? Those who say “no” claim organic yields are too low, and it limits innovation. Those who say “yes” claim organic is as productive and more sustainable than industrial agriculture. We say who cares, and here’s why.

The food system we have was not created by some vast corporate conspiracy. It was the result of fewer people wanting to farm. So we needed to make it faster and easier for those who did. The capital and chemical intensive agriculture we now have is based on doing more with fewer people and less complex management. This has been the reality in the U.S. since World War II. And the rest of the world has aspired to this goal, as well. While this large-scale industrialized system is efficient, we’re learning that it has some big negatives: it’s energy and resource intensive; in some cases, its by-products harm the environment; much of the food it produces is not nutritious; and it’s susceptible to supply disruption and sabotage.

To address this, we have started re-engineering the system to create regional food sheds that are easier to control and monitor, contribute positively to the environment and produce healthier food. But almost none of these efforts address the most obvious obstacle to any of this actually happening – new farmers. Some say we are going to need hundreds of thousands, other say millions. Whatever the number is, it’s big.

Until we figure out where all these additional farmers are going to come from, organic/regional/local/sustainable/ ag will remain a relatively small part of our massive production system. So SPIN stays focused on helping create and support new farmers, those who are turning to their gardens and neighborhood lots, not with the romantic notion of “returning to the land”, but to provide a product that consumers want because it is good for them and the planet. They don’t fit the traditional profile, but they do represent a vast pool from which the country’s new farmers will come. 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.

As I conclude this, I see another order for the SPIN online learning series coming in from Rockford, Illinois from a woman who has a little a growing experience and who is over 40 years old. Look for her behind the table with all the garlic next year at the local farmer’s market…

SF photo Wally and millions 4

Some Sage Advice on Parsley Production

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

We always get asked if SPIN can work in (name your location here). We always reply that  SPIN is not place-based. No matter what zone, or country you are in, as long as you are approaching growing as a business, SPIN has something to offer. For instance, this question was just posted in our forum:

Hey everybody! Greetings from New Orleans! It’s hot but I have a feeling it is where most of yawl are too :) A chef just asked us to grow parsley for him, and I’m wondering.. anybody know how much square footage it would take to grow 10 lbs weekly?

Well, right now the temperature here in Sas is 68 °, and where this guy’s at it is 89 °. But I’m growing parsley too. So to answer his question I just harvested one parsley plant and made some rough calculations to get him in the ball park. Here’s what I told told him:

It will probably take about 20 plants to give you a pound. So you would need around 200 plants to give you 10 lbs. You can fit about 200 transplants into a three row standard SPIN bed.

Once you harvest a plant, you need two to three weeks before another harvest of that plant. Since you are targeting weekly production, you’ll need more than one bed. To play it safe I would say if you had around 5 standard beds in parsley, that should give you what you need. Five standard beds would take up a space of around 400 sq. ft.

Best way to seed parsley is to use plug trays. Start them in the trays, and then transplant. So try planting around ten 96 cell plug trays. Won’t take you long and easy to manage. And won’t cost you much.

Maybe some day I’ll get down to NOLA and and this guy can take me to the restaurant where I can taste what they’re doing with that parsley Round about when it’s -25 ° here will be a good time to work that in.

SF photo parsley

SPIN Farmers Use a Business Model, Not Provocation

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

A reporter called recently to ask us about guerrilla gardening. It was a short interview. We don’t know much about it, though it does have some similarities with SPIN. Both use overlooked or neglected spaces to grow food. Both are practiced by free-thinkers. Both try to push boundaries.Neither can be controlled because they are used by all sorts of people in many different places.

But whereas guerrilla gardeners look to “Occupy”, SPIN farmers are establishing an occupation. Unlike quick-hit protests or fleeting bursts of self-expression, they are building, not protesting. Powered by a backyard-scale business model. these entrepreneurs are creating viable farm businesses without corporate or government support or major policy changes. They’re showing how to take the conflict out of being grassroots and profit-driven. SPIN farmers operate as serious business people, not outlaws. Because they contribute to their local economies, local authorities
are more likely to regard them as an asset and work to support them, not thwart them.

SPIN may actually have more in common with another enthusiasm of outsiders that was gaining a significant cultural toehold about the same time as guerrilla gardening – skateboarding. SPIN is different from traditional farming, and skateboarding is different from other sports, because of low barriers to entry. Both combine a high level of skill with improvisation. Both have well-developed codes, but allow for plenty of creativity. Neither require a team to  make work.

Most importantly, skateboarding has managed to make the leap from marginal to mainstream, without selling out. And that is a trick worth mastering.

SF photo skateboarding

Skateboarders have some things in common with SPIN farmers including….

SF photo Skateboard SPIN

good balance. 

Play Your Crops Like Poker

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

Now that the season is in full swing I’m hearing from beginning SPIN farmers who have their relays in play. One recently wrote:

“For loose leaf lettuces and spinach, I know they will produce for a long while after they are planted as long as you leave at least 1/4 of the plant. Are you saying that we should harvest the entirety of the plant at once and proceed with the next plant in the relay? With spinach and lettuce I know they  will continuously produce, and I just can’t see where it makes sense financially to harvest the lot at once and relay. I’m just trying to look at it from a profit standpoint “

There’s no better way to look at it, and the way to play relays is this. Once a bed is finished being harvested, then it is relayed. The harvesting of the bed may occur over several weeks, or longer, say in the case  of dill. You should make as much income as you can from that bed, and get as many harvests as you can, but when the crop is harvested to “completion”, at that point you relay.

Some crops do  wear out. In my experience, spinach does not produce continuously. I usually takes two cuts, spaced a week or two apart. Then I relay to a different crop.

SPIN photo rototilling a

Another category of crop are those that typically produce for the entire summer and into fall, such as chard and kale. No relay, just perpetual harvest. These are planted in the single crop area of a SPIN farm.

With any system, including SPIN, you always need to be thinking and adapting it to what makes sense to you, and what works for you in your particular situation. With crops, once you get a feel for when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, you’ll be well on your way to a winning season.

Make Money from the Unexpected

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

Farmers spend so much time and effort on their crop plans that they sometimes fail to capitalize on the unexpected. For instance, I had a sub-segment of garden space slated for green garlic. Problem is I have some volunteer greens coming up.

SF photo volunteer orach

Do I weed it all out just to stick with my plan? Well, those are pretty valuable weeds. It’s orach, a highly versatile crop. It produces in both cool and hot weather, and is a  great substitute for spinach. It actually has more body and flavor, and it is an easy sell at market.  So I figure I might as well make some money from this area now. I’ll just water the plot and harvest for market. I’ll terminate the crop later and put the garlic in then.

SF photo volnuteer orach 2Orach in the hand is worth more than garlic in the plan.