How Much Land Do You Need to Support a 100 Member CSA?

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

In the SPIN online support group, business models are debated as hotly as growing practices. A recent topic was CSA’s. Some like the control it gives them over their planning, revenue and customer base. Others feel it limits a farmer’s upside and boxes their thinking. While there are fiercely held opinions, there is no definitive answer. How you make your money is as personal a decision as how you grow. Best way to figure it out is with some soul searching and a few beers.

Once you commit, though, the important questions can be answered by numbers crunching. Like this one: How much land do you need to support 100 CSA members? I have never done a CSA, but since SPIN has some benchmarks, it’s easy to crunch some numbers and get a reasonable answer. Let’s say 1 acre has 400 standard beds. Let’s also say that each standard SPIN bed can produce 50 units, on average. 400 x 50 = 20,000 production units. If you do a bi-relay on 100 of those beds, that’s an extra 5,000 units 25,000 units is therefore a reasonable and conservative production target.

If a share basket had 10 units of production per week, for 20 weeks we are looking at 1,000 production units per week, or 20,000 in total for the season. So 1 acre of SPIN-type production could support a 100 member CSA. Another way to figure this is using SPIN segments. There are 40 segments in 1 acre. Each segment can produce 500 units. If each share has 200 units, each segment would support 2.5 shares.

These numbers probably won’t be exactly right in most situations, but they provide a reasonable answer to make a plan and execute. Then we can review your numbers and see how to improve. More relays? Maybe. But is the extra labor worth it? Let’s run more numbers. Partnering with other farmers on a full diet CSA? Check in with David Elias of Hooligan Farm who’s trying that this year.

SF photo David Elias with juice

He’s probably not down the street from you, so you can’t grab a beer, or a smoothie. But you can catch him in the SPIN forum, which is the next best thing.

Membership SPIN’s online hub for backyard-based growers is available to anyone who purchases our learning programs. Hope you’ll join in! 

Big Ag + Small Ag = A Good Time

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

Here in Saskatoon, our winter market is becoming a destination spot. That’s because we’ve learned over the years how to really make the most of this season, and because we have partnered with big ag on an event called WinterShines. The market provides the venue and hosts inside and outside activities like sleigh and pony rides, ice games, snow park rides and scavenger hunt, igloo art gallery, world class ice sculptures, soup cook off competitions, indie bands and lots of booze, locally brewed and distilled, of course. Think Disney on Ice crossed with South by Southwest, all packed inside and outside the Saskatoon Farmers Market.

SF photo Wintershines ice sculpture

WinterShines’ main corporate sponsor is the world’s largest fertilizer company, which happens to be headquartered right here in Saskatoon – Potash Corp. The event pulls in around 10,000 visitors and spans nine days, including two weekends and weekdays. It is produced by a professional event planning company, and there are a lot of other important players involved in making the event happen, including the city’s tourism agency. The market stays open extra hours on Saturday and Sunday for the event’s concerts. In the early years many of the vendors kept their regular market hours and skipped the evening crowds. But they slowly wised up to the opportunity of capturing some of these new visitors as regular customers, and now the majority of them stay for the extended hours.

SF photo Wintershines

So everyone is happy. Potash Corp, gets to have positive involvement in the community, the market raises its profile far beyond its own neighborhood, and I get some of the thrills of a winter vacation, without having to close my business or leave town. Just goes to show that  good food and fun can be provided by ag businesses of all sizes.

The Saskatoon Market is in the middle of lots of new development, including new condos and a Whole Foods. Here’s how Wally is assessing the opportunity.

Make This the Year of Logistical Thinking

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

When I hear tales of woe like this one,  I wonder if sustainable farming should carry a warning label. The last thing this person needs is more platitudes, but “work harder, not smarter” is what SPIN farmers do every day. Here’s what that means in practice.

SPIN farms are owner-operated. You keep most of the profit. You also do most of the work, and there’s a lot of work to be done. To manage it all without becoming overwhelmed and burning out, you need to think logistically. There are any number of ways your farm can fail logistically. A tool you can use to avoid this is work rate analysis which is knowing how much time it takes to do a specific task.

After you take all of your farm tasks through a work rate analysis you will find that you will become more productive because you will start trying to work at your determined optimal rate. Not too fast, not too slow. Just steady, at a pace you can sustain. Once you determine your individual work rate, that becomes your work rate benchmark. You will find yourself wanting to keep up with that established work rate benchmark. In essence, your work rate benchmark gives you something to target and strive for.

You also use work rate analysis to plan out work sessions. A work session is a period of time that you allocate to accomplish a specific task 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 make farming sustainable from a work flow perspective means that you need to schedule your work sessions so that you get the work done effectively, without
burning yourself out.

Lots of people seem to go into sustainable farming based on magical thinking, but what they need is logistical thinking.

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To find out how to put work rate analysis into play on your farm, get the guide. 

If you’re a Backyard Riches member you can join in the Open House where Wally discusses logistical thinking on January 14, or catch the replay in the Free Resources area  at www.backyardriches.com

 

Location, Location, Location

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

Farmers are defined by their location. Crops, growing practices, markets, pricing, all are place-based. Whatever success I have had, though, has come from not allowing myself to be limited by the usual constraints. Take my land base, for instance.

I first started on 20 acres in the country. When I could not make the business work, I downsized to less than an acre using multiple urban backyards, including my own.

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My urban backyard plots have numbered up to 25 and collectively have never totaled more than 2/3 of an acre. Over the years the yards I have farmed have come and gone. I gave up some when they were sold because I did not want to have to deal with new owners. Others proved to be too small. Not having to make a long-term commitment to any of them gave me time to figure out what was optimal.

That’s what led me to take on a few peri-urban sites about 25 miles from my urban backyard.

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I’ve also picked up some properties in a small rural town a few years back because the price was right.

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So right now my farm looks like this:

Urban: (my backyard plot and home base; includes a small plastic unheated greenhouse and indoor grow room)                                                                                                     1,000 sq. ft.  

Peri-urban site: (2 plots owned by others)                                                                     20,000 sq. ft.

Rural: (plot owned by me)                                                                                             15,000 sq. ft.

Growing at these board range of locations simultaneously gives me a full site line of the trade-offs of each. In general, I see now I paid too much money in rent over the years. If I were ever to ramp up my urban production again, I would find owners who recognized the value of what amounts to my providing property maintenance who would not charge me rent. The plot would have to be sizable and in close proximity to my home base to make it worth my while now.

If you want to lump me into the hot new trend of urban farming, you won’t be wrong. Or if you think I belong to the agriburbia or back to land movements, that’s true enough too. I don’t like to be typecast, so I just call myself a SPIN farmer and leave it at that.

New Year, New Condo

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

There is a new 100 + unit condo opening up across the street from the Saskatoon Farmers Market. Starting late spring/early summer hundreds of new customers will be streaming past my stand. The development is called “The Banks”, and it is dubbed ” A New Way of Urban Living.”

SF photo condo sign

Currently the west side Saskatoon where my market is located, is a mixed demographics bag. A lot of rough-side-of-town types and progressive younger people. Up until now there has not been too much in the way of high income, this part of town.

Talking to other market vendors, the consensus seems to be that younger people in their 20’s probably wouldn’t be able to afford these new condos. Instead, these newcomers will most likely be middle-to-high income. Chances are there will be a wide variety of ages, but probably no senior citizens. Probably most won’t have families because the units are too small.

SF photo condos under cosntruction

So what does this mean for me? Reviewing my crop repertoire, I don’t see the need to change what I’ve been offering. But I will need to ramp up production. So my planning for this year will include figuring out the logistics of that. Responding to high demand is a great challenge to have. Quick Greens, such as pea shoots, micro greens and sunflower shoots can easily be ramped up  because they don’t take much space are short turnaround. But SPIN-scale production of longer season crops that require more space is trickier, and I’m in the course of figuring out how to best utilize my larger peri-urban plots.

The rumour mill has it that a Whole Foods will be opening up in this development. I formulated SPIN’s approach to packaging and pricing in response to the big guys, so I’m already positioned to deal with them. take them on. Whole Foods is not cheap, and most of its produce probably is not locally sourced. So my farmer’s market, which is a producer-only, has a clear competitive advantage for us locals, and my stand pricing can stay the same.

There’s actually a big benefit of having Whole Foods as part of the local food scene because it will draw more new people to this part of town, much like an anchor store in a mall. So my market will become, for the first time, part of a destination spot. The new residents will check out Whole Foods, then the farmer’s market, and then get what they need, probably shopping at both.

As you can guess, my farmer’s market is abuzz with high expectations, and management knows it needs to take its marketing to a new level. Plans include a welcoming party and leafletting to all the condo units. My personal marketing will emphasize the chemical-free and hyper-local qualities of my produce, and I’ll be handing out business cards, and engaging customers at my stand. I am anticipating that one person will still be able to handle the customer volume, but there will be much less downtime than in previous years. So I will need to do more pre-bagging at home.

Before I had a chance to complete this post, I learned that there is another set of condo complexes slated to be developed near the market. I am banking on all these people who are embracing a new way of urban living, will also want to embrace this urban farmer.

Getting Back to Business

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Twenty six years ago, when SPIN-Farming creator Wally Satzewich started farming, the predominant model was own large acreage, produce in volume, sell wholesale. After a few very rough years of barely being able to hang on, he was told by other farmers that he’d eventually reach nirvana if he just kept getting bigger. But when he looked down the road his fellow farmers were on, he saw ruin not riches. He ended up going in the extreme opposite direction, and became an urban farmer.

Now new farmers are vulnerable to a similar type of magical thinking. Just change “big” to “sustainable”. Flocking back to the land, large numbers of them are starting farms in the belief that the superior logic and morality of their farming practices will somehow guarantee their success. Then they wring their hands when they find themselves working 12 hour days, the money doesn’t flow in, and they have to work outside  jobs to keep their farms going. But that’s the experience of anyone who starts a business.

Wally did not start full-time. He drove a cab. Other SPIN farmers drive buses, do research, teach jujitsu. They master their production skills until they can grow in significant volume, consistently, at commercial grade. They research their markets, build up a customer base, set  revenue targets and execute their plans. They transition to full-time farming once they’re reaching the income levels they need to support themselves solely by farming.

Most new farms don’t survive. That can be said of lots of other businesses. No one is owed a living just because they choose to farm a certain way. Those who are heeding the call to sustainable farming might also be surprised to learn that there has never been a real tradition of sustainable farming in the US. Our pioneer farming ancestors drained wetlands, cut down forests, decimated ecosystems, and polluted waterways. Even Dan Barber, celebrity chef and board member of the paragon of virtuous farming, the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture,  acknowledges, “We don’t have a history of peasant farming. We have a history of bad farming.”

Many of the practices being developed by the sustainable farming groups are worthy ones, but they don’t necessarily add up to a business. If you  have dug yourself into a hole, SPIN might help you get back back to business.

SPIN photo seed to cash invoice for restaurant

Here is some advice you might not hear from the sustainability crowd.   

Are You Ready for Self-Employment?

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

It’s widely recognized that a lot of new small-scale farmers don’t come from farm families. That is certainly one reason why so many of them are  having a hard time. But when you look at their complaints, most are not particular to farming. They’re just what any independent business owner has to deal with. Financial stress, uncertainty, worry, self-doubt, emotional exhaustion, all that goes with starting and running any small business.

Most of the of the up and comers don’t seem prepared to face up to the realities of self-employment. When you couple that with the missionary mindset many of them have, they’re trying to not only keep their businesses going, they also have to solve the problems of injustice, inequality, and oppression. It’s no wonder their bottom lines aren’t as solid as they could be.

A good percentage of all new small businesses struggle and fail, and there’s no reason to think farming should be any different. When farms fail, those in the farm movement worry that they are falsely developing new farmers without any place for them to go. The real problem is that new farmers are either being encouraged to believe farming needs to right the world’s wrongs, or that it is just a job.

I’ll leave it to the macro economists to explain when and why farming got tied up with the NGO aid industry. But those who are following the calling to farm expecting to find a higher purpose might have an easier time of it if they just joined the ministry. Those expecting to find a livelihood need to ask themselves if they are ready to be self-employed. If they are, there hasn’t been a better time to be a small scale farmer or market gardener.

SPIN photo farm stand GAIL Great

 

Farmers Working Things Out

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

While tech and farming are often pitted against each other, SPIN-Farming was very much a creation of the Internet. Wally knew his way of farming and selling could be systematized. He also knew farming is “experiential”, and that it had to be learned by doing.

But the reality was, if the only way aspiring farmers could get started with SPIN was by trailing him around in his backyard plots, it would get pretty crowded up there in Saskatoon. What he needed was to codify the system and then make it accessible to anyone, anywhere. Launched in March of 2006, the SPIN-Farming learning series is now being used by thousands of new farmers to get started, and stay, in business.

But farming can’t be reduced to just a system. It takes ongoing re-thinking and tinkering. . And that’s where another feature of SPIN comes into play – its Open Houses. Conducted as online meetups, they are where backyard growers get together to offer advice, problem solve and pioneer new ideas. Some don’t even interrupt their workflow. They just click on while bagging up their quick greens or cracking garlic. Others schedule a visit to Starbucks for some quiet time to get paper work done  and, as one member put it, kick back with some good coffee and learning

For one hour twice a month, SPIN members congregate to brainstorm with those who have “been there”, or are willing to help figure it out if they haven’t. Most, like Wally, do not come from farm families and don’t want to take on the traditional burdens of owning lots of land, investing piles of money and making a big lifestyle change. They just want to make money growing food to meet local demand. Here are some of the dynamics at work in these Open Houses.

Say something – Verbalizing how you are going to turn a plan into action is like making a contract with yourself and creates a higher level of commitment and accountability.

Say it to others – The best way to gain confidence in an area is to explain it to someone else. In the monthly meetups, a member will explain how their farm operates, their business model, their revenue goals, and plans for achieving them to an audience that takes them seriously. That makes them take their business goals more seriously.

Play with the numbers – Quantifying goals is a core concept of SPIN, but members come to understand that the specific numbers don’t matter. SPIN benchmarks are a starting point, but they aren’t right for everyone. Group members make assumptions, take guesses if they have no experience, prove them out, and and create their own benchmarks.

Get pushed – Wally and other experienced group members provides the reality check, pushing members if they are underachieving. For instance, Wally urged one member who was planning to double his revenue from $25K to $50K in 2 years, and told him how to do it in by adding a market day and extending his season. Another member, who had planned on just continuing his internship was convinced by the group to at least start some test plots and target $10K.

Farming has always been a collaborative profession. Granges, associations, extension services and conferences continue to be important connectors. But the speed and reach of online platforms provide entirely new inputs, bringing together farmers with vastly different experiences, perspectives, cultures and traditions. And even though the meeting place is virtual, the bonds formed there are very real, and lasting.

SPIN photo computer 1

Wally sending off some market intel on the going rate for garlic and parsnips right after Christmas.   

SF photo Ad Thanksgiving 7

Here’s some of the members who share their business plans and goals in SPIN’s Open Houses. To meet up with them and  hundreds of others who represent the brightest and most innovative minds in farming today, sign up to join the community at www.backyardriches.com

 

Relays Are DIY

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

As people move into planning mode for the new year, we start getting asked for a list of relay examples. There are some in the SPIN guides, but  the possibilities are endless. What is more useful to know is the thinking behind relays so you can design your own.

The point of relays is to get more production without expanding your land base. If you intensify your production on a lot of your land base,you’ll be able to extend your marketing period and establish cash flow early in the season, before many other vendors have produce available. You’ll also be able to grow later in the season, especially if you are in an urban area and have the micro climate advantage.

I’ve practiced relay cropping on some of my plots for over 25 years, without cover cropping, and have never had a problem with soil depletion. The reason is that I can easily spot fertilize my small plots between plantings. Crop rotation on large acreages has been practiced for generations, and it is important in that context because it’s much harder to keep the soil in good shape as you grow. It is really less of a factor in relay cropping of SPIN-size plots, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to know how to apply crop rotation.

Here is how SPIN farmer Adithya Ramachandran of Kaleidoscope Vegetables Gardens plots it out, with his rule of thumb being not to repeat the same family twice in one year in one bed:

Cool season crop families
Spinach, chard, beets
Brassicas, carrots
Lettuces
Onion and garlic

Warm season crop families
Nightshades
Cucurbits

Legume family
Contains both cool-season (peas and broad beans) and warm-season (bush and pole beans) crops.

If you want to skip the nightshades and cucurbits, you can use the middle of your growing season for cool-season crops that can tolerate some
heat, such as beets.

In a broad sense, cool season crops can precede warm weather crops, and then you can relay to cool season, like this:
                   cool season crop > warm season crop > cool season crop
For instance,  tomatoes are a big late spring/summer crop. But during the two month period in early spring, you can plant a cool season crop like spinach. So a relay could be:
                 spinach > tomatoes> radish

And remember, relays don’t have to be limited to three crops. If your season permits, you can do four and five member relays. If you live in a year-round growing region, can you do continuous relays? Don’t ask a guy from Canada. You tell me.

SPIN photo seeder a

Getting Better at Getting Better

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

SPIN farmers are always looking ahead, so the end of one year and the beginning of another is a great time.  We’ve poured over the past 9 years of the SPIN online support group to come up with an alphabet of New Year’s Resolutions, based on some of the goals that have been shared and accomplished there over the years. Whichever ones are on your list this year, the SPIN online support group can help you stick with ’em. The group is a collaborative platform for self-improvement, professional development, and enhancing the SPIN system, and it offers peer-to-peer guidance from the brightest and  most innovative minds in farming today. We hope you’ll join us, where every year is a year to get better at getting better.

SPIN’s Alphabet of New Year’s Resolutions

  • Achieve a $1k early spring market day
  • Build a walk-in cooler – check in with SPIN Farmer Paul Hoepfner-Homme
  • Concentrate on high value crops
  • Design a more efficient workstation
  • Even out my harvesting
  • Figure out how to use the Earthway
  • Get to a workshop by Linda Borghi or Brenda Sullivan
  • Intensify my land base
  • Jumpstart a Quick Green business in 14 days or less
  • Keep better records
  • Learn appropriate GAP protocols
  • Master my relays
  • Nourish my soil
  • Open a mobile farm stand
  • Put in a commercial kitchen
  • Quantify the value of every crop I grow
  • Remember to bring enough change to market
  • Specialize in a particular crop
  • Track my work rates
  • Update my pricing scheme
  • Visit the SPIN training center at Spence Family Farms in Spring Lake NC
  • Work with a high profile chef
  • X-pand my CSA
  • Yearn to learn
  • Zip up my farm stand sales

Here’s to getting started, from all of us at SPIN-Farming…

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