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.


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.

To Get the Best Seed Price, Make a Call

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

In niche markets, SPIN farmers can adjust their pricing to cover their seed cost, but you should always try to get your seed costs down as low as possible. That means buying in bulk and shopping around.

Take pea greens. I found that 50 lbs. of peas can vary from $50 to $100, not counting delivery cost. Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds offers pea seed at around $50 for 50 .lbs, but this bulk quantity price is not listed publicly.  You have to call or email them. Johnny’s price is  double -  $100 for 50 lbs. The point is, if you don’t see what you need listed on a company’s website or catalog, pick up the phone. Personal contact with a seed supplier can save you money and establish a relationship that will keep on giving.

DDG5 photo 9 DSC00455

Volume is an important consideration when ordering seeds, since buying in bulk quantities reduces the cost. Here is a delivery of 50 lbs. of peas.   

How do I start SPIN-Farming on 16,000 square feet ?

The post below was in response to an opportunity many dream about, and one lucky guy has actually found. Tom answered a craigslist ad for a farm hand position, but it turns out there is no farm, just residential property that a landowner would like him to turn into vegetables. He explained SPIN-Farming, the practices, tools, expenses and labour necessary, and what is possible to pull out of the ground with that size plot. The landowner was all for it, and will cover the cost of  a BCS tiller, any soil tests/amendments, fencing, irrigation/sprinklers, seeds, starts, etc. Tom knows he’s giving up a lot of autonomy, but he’s also giving up a lot of risk. So after celebrating his good fortune, Tom asked, “Now what?” 

Courtesy of Frank F., Mooseview Farm, Brookfield NH

From your photos it looks like this farm is right on the edge of housing tracts so Wally might call it Peri-Urban. It also looks like it abuts a major highway or road so you have a great opportunity to make it a show place. I would definitely plan on a farm stand. The folks in all those houses are going to look out their windows in mid May and see SPIN beds as far as the eye can see and they will be built in  customers for you.

You are also blessed with what looks like a mostly rectangular lot and the old paddocks with fences are also rectangular. So get out a piece of paper and lay out SPIN segments.

It looks like it is mostly rural going the other way so you will probably have to fence for small animal pressure like rabbits. The humans aren’t the only folks in the hood who will look fondly at your new SPIN beds.

I would start by getting beds for greens, starting with spinach, first. You can simply amend with compost and some light trace minerals even before you soil test. Get those beds going. Go out today and start 20 trays of spinach seedlings to transplant. If you start them literally today you will have spinach to transplant in 10 days and product to sell in say 40 days depending on where you are.

I would focus on early sales to jump start your operation. You have a month or so to worry about tomatoes, potatoes, cukes and the warm weather stuff.

Don’t spend time with hoops houses now – get them ready for the fall season extension. Just go buy a quick hoop bender from Lost Creek Greenhouse and a bunch of 1/2″ emt and have a bunch of hoops ready for early spring protection and some 18 or 15 pound remay row cover again depending on where you are and your elevation. (I saw mountains in the photos). Just plan where the permanent houses will go.

Again because this wonderful property appears to be mostly flat and square I would really suggest you take advantage of that and plan for movable hoop houses like Eliot Coleman. Just look in the front cover of his latest book for his plot map for Four Season’s Farm and copy it. If it were me I would set a goal of how many SPIN beds I would have ready for production every week from today on until you get the whole 16,000 sq ft covered. Make a goal of what ever will work – 10 a week? Stick to that, get them planted and you could be farming (that is selling stuff) in 40 days (greens).

Get your plan done. Find somebody who has some art skills and make up a pretty picture of the plan (again look at the sketches in Coleman’s book) and then make up a little tri-fold flyer or something you can take around to local restaurants. Let the chef’s know that you are coming on line THIS YEAR. Give them an idea of the basic crops you plan and ask them for suggestions. Find out if there is a ready supply of Baby Spinach or Arugula in your metro area and if not go for it.

Make sure your planning includes a prep area. The barn looks like the logical choice. Don’t forget about customer parking and access.

Let the local newspaper know what you are doing. They all need stories and if you get a reporter interested now they might follow you all summer as you build the farm and give you free press.

Get your website and Facebook page started TODAY. Start with the pictures you already have and call them a blank slate. ALWAYS have a camera or your cell phone handy and take and post a lot of pictures. People will be excited about what you are building. Share this gift with them via the web and they will become your customers.

OK, you asked. Gosh, I need to get off the computer and get busy with my farm!

Think Spring. Think $1,000 Revenue Target.

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

Round about now many are thinking about spring. If you don’t go to a winter market, or have winter sales of any type, then you will be looking ahead to what SPIN-Farming calls a ” spring debut ” week. For many farmers, sales during this week are very meager, usually in the low hundreds, and significant cash flow usually doesn’t start until late spring/early summer.

SPIN-Farming shows you how to set your sights higher. A good revenue target  for your spring debut week is $1,000. To achieve it you have to plan out the appropriate plantings that will give you a variety of offerings in significant volume.

Many farmers don’t realize lettuce and spinach crops, as well as other greens, can be grown in early spring, without protection. Seed will germinate in cool soil conditions, and crops will stand many frosts. Same with onion sets, and spring planted garlic.

To reach a revenue target of $1,000 in your debut week, you need to decide which crops and in what unit quantities you will need to achieve that income, using SPIN’s pricing per unit strategy. SPIN’s 2.0 crop profiles give you benchmarks on revenue/yields per bed and per segment. $1,000 becomes an obtainable number if you plan it out this way. Plantings to support $1,000 need not be large, and the size of your plantings is what you need to figure out. Couple your outdoor production with indoor plantings of pea/ micro/sunflower greens as described in the Quick Greens guide, and $1,000 your first week will be a slam dunk.

SPIN Photo farm stand $1000 spring produce

Here is an example of what a $1,000 weekly spring product line looks like.

Take your farm to the next level – the basement

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
Now that there are some seasoned SPIN farmers out there, I’m seeing lots of plans for taking their operations to the next level. Many involve expanding their land base or investing in season extension. Both are good ideas. But accomplishing them the traditional way – by acquiring more land or investing in complicated structures – makes it harder and more expensive than it needs to be.

A few years ago when I wanted to expand my operation, I headed to the basement. The investment was under $1,000, and included some shelving and lights. Since I am already spending to heat that room, the overhead is just the cost of lights, which is minimal. Bottom line: you don’t need to invest in a new structure, or find space for it.

SPIN photo grow table shoots

Right now in one of my basement grow rooms I have 50 trays of  pea and micro greens, with turn around of less than two weeks. I will also be growing live garlic in containers, starting this week, in another grow room. Bedding plants are scheduled for next month. Other possibilities for indoor grow room production are fresh herbs, something I will try soon.

My basement grow room now adds $10,000+ to my bottom line, and supports a year round operation in zone 3 Canada. Being an urban farmer, I also appreciate its discretion. In my neighborhood, a 50 foot high tunnel in the backyard would not go unnoticed. Using underutilized residential spaces I already have is an easier option.

This type of indoor setup allows you to grow consistent volumes of crops year round, regardless of whether you are having a hot summer, or a cold, hard winter. Being able to provide steady supply locks in restaurant customers. Year round restaurant orders of indoor crops of say, $200 per week, means an extra $10,000 per year, with minimal time and labor. That can pay a lot of bills, making your farmers market and CSA sales even more profitable.

So those wanting to take their SPIN farmers to the next level should think about heading to the basement or den or any other underutilized space in their home, and keep their commute time to 0.

Find out how to set up a lucrative micro greens business in your basement in Dig Deeper Guide # 5.

A Multi-locational Farm is a Realistic Ideal


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

Whenever I see farming conference programs at this time of year I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The hot topics are always the same. Land access. Farm succession. Risk management. I just don’t relate because years ago I left these issues behind me. I became an urban farmer long before it was trendy. I have been supporting myself growing on multiple scattered plots for 13 years. The number of plots that comprise my farm have ranged from 25 to 11, with a land base that never totals more than 2/3 of an acre, or around 30,000 square feet. Plots have come and gone, depending on various circumstances.

Urbanized areas offer all sorts of farming possibilities, much more than is even now realized. In most cities, residential backyard plots are abundant, just waiting to be used for your farm. The multi-locational farm is a SPIN-Farming concept that has not yet been widely implemented, but it’s ripe for the picking. It is, simply, a farm that is located on many garden plots. These plots can be located throughout a single neighborhood, or in multiple neighborhoods, or they can even be a mix of urban and peri-urban plots. It allows aspiring and practicing farmers to continue to live in the city, using their homes as their farm base, and add new plots as their business becomes more successful. These new plots can be rented, or often used for free.

“What?”, you say. “A land base comprised of many scattered plots, some a 20 minute drive from my home, will be difficult to assemble and a nightmare to operate.” Not really. Not only can such a farm be easily created and efficiently managed, it has big advantages. It offers the growing potential of the traditional rural farm coupled with the city-based benefits of micro climate and proximity to markets. Peri-urban sites produce the larger volume, lower maintenance crops that are always in demand at market, while the urban sites provide early and late production of the high-value relay crops. Together they afford diversification and protection against catastrophic crop losses or extreme weather events. If one or more plots get flooded out, your other plots can keep you producing and selling.

Here is my “home base” plot in the city behind my house.

DDG2 photo 2

Here is one of my peri-urban plots about a 25 minute drive from my house.

DDG2 photo 26

Family farmsteads passed down from generation to generation. A lone tractor silhouetted against the horizon. Rolling hills of corn and grain. These idyllic images of farming are rooted deep in our consciousness. But in the first urbanized century, food production is beginning to occur wherever it makes the most sense. And for SPIN farmers what makes sense is in the middle of urban jungles and on the suburban fringe. They are turning to their gardens and neighborhood lots, not with the romantic notion of “returning to the land”, but to make a buck growing food. The point is that SPIN farmers make cropland wherever they happen to be and leave the traditional farm challenges far behind.

Find out how a multi-locational urban/peri-urban farm is equipped and operated in Dig Deeper Guide # 2.


Make Your New Farm Implement a Stop Watch

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

It’s planning season for many, and over the years an increasing number of aspiring/new/hobby farmers have been coming to me to share their thinking. Every year I see that they spend too much time focused on the things that matter least to their success. While it’s fun to draw up a growing plan and a garden layout for the new year, what is crucial to having these plans actually work out is logistics. If I had to name one make or break factor to both short and long term success, it is logistics. Logistics simply means how are you going to get the job done?

Right now I am planning out spring work weeks as well as going through the seed catalogues to develop my planting plan. You need both types of planning happening side by side. I’m looking at planting 500 lbs. of onion sets this spring. Fine, how am I going to make it happen? What you need is a plan for your logistical work flow. Building blocks for your plan include work rate, work session, and work flow, and the tool you need for this is a stop watch. You use it to determine the amount of time required to accomplish a specific task, which is your work rate.

Usually work rate is thought of in terms of a unit of time, such as a minute. One minute work rates are easy to track and make notes on. Work rate can also be defined as the total time required to accomplish one task. Whichever approach is used, the point is to figure out how long it takes to accomplish a small unit of work because that will allow you to figure out how long it will take to accomplish a larger amount of work, which is the type of work you will get done in a work session.

A work session is a period of time that you allocate to accomplish a specific task from beginning to end, and involves an hour or multi-hour periods of time. The way you schedule your work sessions in any given farm week is work flow. To get the work done effectively, without burning yourself out, you need to schedule your work sessions, and to do that you need to know your work rate. So this is how all three concepts are interrelated.

“But,” you say. “I am just starting out. I have no idea what my work rate is.” No problem. Guess. Set your own benchmarks, and adjust them as you get experience. What you will find is that you will get faster and more efficient as the season progresses. These benchmarks will also help you decide if and when to use outside labor. If the people helping you are not achieving work rate benchmarks, then you will know that it is not worth your while to have them help you.

The fun part of SPIN-Farming is being both the brains and the brawn of an operation. Use your brain – and a stopwatch – to figure out how to make the brawn happen.

DDG1 photo 26

Here the classic SPIN straddle makes quick and easy work of planting a 4-row standard size bed. According to the stop watch, it took Gail about 15 minutes to plant one 25 foot row. So she knows to schedule about an hour to plant the whole bed.

Find out how to become master of your farming fate by controlling all aspects of your work flow in Dig Deeper # 1.

Tips for selling at market for first timers

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

This time of year we hear from two kinds of farmers – those who are new, and those who are making new plans. Here is a good question from a new farmer, starting out with 80 rural acres in northern Michigan.  ”Because of your guides, we’re looking to put only a small section into production. Probably more than half an acre, because we have eight people to put to work. ;-) .

The markets are definitely the question. We’re considering all of the options mentioned in the SPIN materials (CSA, farmer’s markets, restaurants, businesses), as well as a friend’s small produce/flower stand in town.

We have 6 small farmer’s markets nearby (+/- 25 miles), and a very large one about 75 miles away (they say they get 11,000 people per week, over four days). However, marketing is currently the big hole in our plan. We’ve got a decent amount of experience gardening, and have been studying production for a long time, so we’re not very scared of growing marketable product. However, we’re very worried about showing up at our first market with a beautiful stand, piles of shining produce, and still having it all sitting there at the end of the day.”

Here’s my advice for those who are pursuing the farm dream but are having nightmares about their first market.

Stick with the basics
You can evaluate markets based on the amount of traffic they get and proximity to your operation. But don’t forget to analyze actual sales activity.  Look  to see what produce items are most sought after at market, and go with those. Niche marketing is more for experienced growers, once you have created a ” base ” with more common produce. For beginners, I’d stick with spinach, lettuce, salad mix, scallion, onion, garlic, green garlic, carrots, rainbow carrots, potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes.

Get creative with pricing

Unsold produce is always a concern, even for experienced farmers. So think about how you can move more produce. One way is the SPIN-Farming practice of pre-unitizing into bags/bunches because having loose produce that you weigh out at market makes your product move slower, causing backups at your stand, and lost business. So don’t take a scale to market. Pre-unitize. I often say that my competition is not other farmers at market. It is the supermarket. People place value on the convenience of being able to grab and go.

DD1 indoor market 14 stocked stand with Gail

You can also take a tip from the big guys on pricing. Selling at a single price tier will make it more likely you will sell your produce. Right now, at our Wednesday/Sunday markets I am selling produce $3.00 or 2 for $5.00. Then I say I have a Sunday or Wednesday special where you can have any 5 items for $10.00. So on those days I am making a lot of $10 sales. So this is a two tiered system and having 5 for $10 makes it look like you are getting a deal. And it works.

Leave the laptop home
You also need to engage customers by explaining what your pricing is, and then talk a bit about the produce. Your enthusiasm will be contagious. People aren’t just buying vegetables. They are buying your farming practices and positive outlook. And while it’s great that farmers have entered the 21st century, don’t bring your lap top/tablet to market because it will distract you from your customers. They shop at farmer’s markets as a respite from technology, so the last thing they want to see is a wired farmer.

Advice You Won’t Get at Farm Conferences

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

This time of year I hear from a lot of aspiring farmers. They are filled with passion and enthusiasm and are eager to glomm on to role models. I’m a pretty easy target. I have been at the farmers market in Saskatoon, Sask. Zone 3 Canada for 20 + years, and right now I sell year round, at about 150 market days a year. I see farmers come and go all the time. Typically they last one or two years, then move on to something else. Why? They can’t  seem to figure things out, or make things go their way, because they bought into the hard way.

If you are looking to push yourself to the edge, you can do trampoline bridge jumping or traditional farming. But if you want to start a profitable business growing food, traditional farming is not the way to accomplish it. Instead, keep it simple. In Year 1, you don’t need to buy land or a tractor. Use what land you have or can borrow. Keep your investments minimal. Don’t get sidetracked with grow tunnels or aquaponics. That can happen, after you have mastered basic production, which is growing consistently, in volume, at commercial grade.

Also think revenue. Weeks of revenue, total revenue, bill paying revenue, going to
Mexico on a holiday revenue, and how your farm is going to pay for everything. Get grounded in reality quickly in the game. How about refrigeration for your produce. Have you thought about that? Have you researched your local markets/restaurant scene to see where the opportunities are? How about logistics? How are you going to make everything happen? It’s not rocket science, but it does require thought and planning to make an owner/operated farm work.

What helps is a platform for your thinking. That is what you can use SPIN-Farming for. It makes things easier for you by organizing your thinking and keeping you focused on what matters most to your initial success.

So when newbies come to me and say they want grow and sell produce at a farmers market, I say great, but also ask, How many marketing weeks are you targeting? What will be your average weekly cash flow? And I expect an answer, and a pretty good one. Again, SPIN-Farming can help you with this. This is the way I want to get you to start thinking, very early in your career. Notice I use the term career. That is the way you have to look at it, since you are entering a profession and building a business. You have to take it seriously, but that does not mean you have to die trying.