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 that local foods is an $8 billion dollar industry, according to the USDA, there is real money to be made.

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. 

 

Newbie SOS: How can I get an early start on the season?

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

There are many options for season extension, but if you are just starting out in farming keep it simple. Don’t bother with it. Take, for instance,  this situation.

I have 4 – 8×4 raised (18″ high) beds here at home that I can easily cover with hoops and plastic (and will probably add more). I’m thinking I should get them covered to warm and use to start carrots for early baby carrots perhaps? Or cucumbers? Or what is best use of them?

I would not recommend covering them. It’s an unnecessary hassle. I am not a big user of season extension structures. Structures are an expense and add to your workload because you have to trouble shoot them. Your beds should warm up quicker than soil, and as soon as you can turn them over with a spade, I would put in two 18 inch wide SPIN beds, and plant onion sets and garlic. These can be planted early, and do not need to be covered.

Onions would be harvestable late May for use as scallion, and then beds can be replanted to warm weather crops, such as cucumbers, which would not need to be covered that time of the year. Garlic can be planted closely, to be used as green garlic. Once harvested, say by mid June, they can be replanted to something like tomatoes.

SPIN photo book Wally watering

 

My backyard in the city gives me the micro climate advantage so I can work beds in early springtime and get to market with crops like green onion and garlic before lots of other farmers. I use greenhouses to start transplants, but I don’t bother with season extension structures to produce my crops.  

Newbie SOS: 80 days to market, what’s first?

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

At this time of year, my green thumb gets double duty – I’m not only still growing inside, I’m also responding to lots of messages that start out like this: Help! Only 80 days to my first market. What do I do about….

So I’ll be doing some posts that provide a sampling of recent questions, because some of them may be on your mind, too. Maybe like, what’s first?

With 80 days to market, what is the one thing I need to get done this week? So much to do so little time. If I could have something ready early (right!) I can market it online, or possibly at the unofficial market in my local mall parking one day a week. But what is first?

You need to get some soil worked up, as soon as you can, and plant onion sets and garlic. If you haven’t ordered seed, then get your order secured as soon as possible.

SPIN photo farm stand Gail

Scallions, or green onions, are a good early SPIN crop because they command premium pricing, which justifies the high cost of sets.  Urban growers with the micro climate advantage can often be first at market with them. 

Don’t Let a Sales Opportunity Go to Waste

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

Food waste is turning into a big cause, and I had a reporter come by my farm stand this last week to interview me about it. SPIN farmers take great care to be sure all their crops are ready for their close-up, but she was scouting out the ugly kind, blemished, and not suitable for sale. So I showed her some examples of lower grade, spoiled produce.

I explained that every week I typically get around 10 lbs. of cull carrots. Same with potatoes, beets,  pumpkin, winter squash and onions. This could be due to harvest damage, which then causes the crop to go bad sooner, or it could also be due imperfect storage conditions in some of my storage area.

What’s a SPIN farmer to do? Well, maybe we should borrow from the big boy’s playbook and try selling them.

This type of product offering and positioning makes it possible to cater to people not willing or able to pay premium prices. If you’ve got an ugly carrot or a disfigured eggplant, you might just be looking at a new product line.

SF photo cull produce

SPIN Bed Sizes Are Not Just Plug and Play

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

We often get asked, “Should I make all of my beds SPIN-size?” SPIN’s “standard size bed“ is a theoretical construct, as well as a practical one. Its dimensions are 2 feet wide by 25 feet long. This bed size is a basic unit of measure in the SPIN-Farming Basics system, and it serves as a reference point for planting, as well as revenue targeting. Having this reference served me well in the initial stages of developing my backyard farming operation because it eliminated a lot of trial and error, and it allowed me to measure my work rates and income.

But with experience came the confidence to adapt and experiment. Now I often use short beds, around 12 feet long. In suburban or rural plots I use what I call long beds, which might be double or triple the length of a standard bed.

SPIN Basics also calls for 1 foot walkways. One foot walkways work for many crops, but not all. You can adjust walkway width to accommodate crops that require different spacing. Walkway width can be two feet or even more for crops that vine out, such as pumpkin. I also use double width beds for crops that are quick growing, require no weeding and can be harvested all in one work session, like radish.

You should not be a slave to SPIN’s concepts, and in fact, those who have become successful, like Curtis Stone at Green City Acres, and Jean Martin Fortier at Les Jardins de la Grelinette have modified the system to suit their own circumstances and exercise their own creativity. Not surprisingly, they’ve been able to surpass SPIN’s main revenue benchmark of $50,000 gross from 20,000 sq. ft.

Both SPIN Basics and SPIN 2.0 provide standardized constructs, but SPIN is not meant to be a plug and play system. Some beginning farmers come to it expecting a template, as one of them put it, “to avoid doing it the long tedious way.” Using a system like SPIN can accelerate progress, but it does not eliminate process. You still have to think, make judgments and use your intuition. SPIN is not farming for dummies. You need to use your s-mall plot in-telligence.

Question: Which of the following are SPIN beds?

DDG3 photo 12 b design

 

DDG6 photo 11 DSC01255

 

DDG2 photo 26

 

SPIN Photo Gail Manitoba

 

Answer: All of them. These are all plots that  Gail and I farm. Some are urban, some are suburban and some are rural . We apply the SPIN system at all of them. 

Cipollini Onions Earn Their Keep This Time of Year

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

In SPIN-Farming, every crop has to earn its keep, especially in winter. Onions need to make  me at least $3 lb. I am not going to get that with the standard large onions that  supermarkets offer. And I’m not going to get that from consumers looking to buy a 5 lb. bag for $3 twice a year. That’s why I grow cipollini onions. Here is a $30 order I am about to deliver to a high-profile local restaurant.

SF photo Wally onions tips blog

It took me about 5 minutes to assemble this 10 lbs. bag. The chef is content with the price. At the farmer’s market, I am the only one now with onions, and I keep them in the small to mid-size range, with 4 – 5 onions per bag, to differentiate them from supermarket fare. I sell 1/2 lb. bags at SPIN’s mix-and-match multiple unit pricing of $3.00 each, 2/$5.00, or any five items for 10. I expect to hold my prices at this type of level, and I have never had any one complain.

Cipollini onions have a lot going for them. They are easy to plant, tend, harvest and store. These were from onion sets planted last May/June and harvested last fall, and I’ll have product for at least another two months. Compared to the supermarket, these are mighty expensive onions. But for those who aspire to serve 4 star restaurant meals at home, they’re worth every dollar.

Performance-Based Farming: How Well Are You Doing?

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

SPIN-Farming does not look at all like agribusiness’s vast fields of monoculture crops. But both SPIN and big ag show how farming, in a systematic way, makes itself more productive, efficient, and profitable. While agribusiness relies on capital and mechanization, SPIN’s asset is people, and how well they perform. And to judge performance, it needs to be quantifiable.

Certainly there is much about farming that can’t be standardized. But SPIN identifies what can be. With its emphasis on quantifying results and achieving income benchmarks, SPIN brings a new rigor to small-scale farming. Financial performance is now something farmers can brag about, if they know they measure up. Do you know how well you’re doing? Do you know if it’s possible to do better? How much better?

You can start to get at the answers by measuring yourself against SPIN’s benchmarks. They aren’t achievable in every situation. Some have already been far surpassed. The specific numbers don’t really matter. What does is the recognition that farming is a whole new game now, one you can actually make money at. But you have to know how to keep score.

SPIN photo Thumbs up

To see how you measure up, start with the benchmarks in SPIN’s guide # 18, Crop Profiles. And let us know how they measure up based on your experience.

A Carrot By Any Other Name

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

When people ask me what my favorite crop is, my answer is always the same. It’s whatever is selling best at market that week. Carrots are always among my best sellers, so I aim to have early carrots by the first week or two of July, and then have them to sell every week, right into the winter. But I change it up throughout the season, and even within the season. With so many varieties to choose from, that’s easy.

Right now I have about 1,000 lbs. left in my cooler. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to give me cash flow into March. These are the varieties, and each is guaranteed to bring a different type of customer.

SF photo Wally Carrots

The purple carrots are an imperator type, Deep Purple, or Purple Rain. Their long roots make them difficult to harvest, but it’s worth it because customers come asking me for it. They appreciate its high nutritional value and consider it a super-food.

The middle carrot is Bolero, a Nantes type. It has good storage qualities. and is traditional looking, so it’s easy to market as a staple crop, good for cooking and kid’s snacks.

The third one is the Paris Market carrot. It’s a good novelty carrot that has developed a cult following. It’s dense texture and intense flavor makes it ideal for stews and is favored by foodies. I have been offering it for several years, and many customers buy only this type. I will be making larger plantings of this type this year. This type an really distinguish you at market .

Carrots come in all shapes and sizes, just like customers. The only trick is to match ‘em up!

Check out more tips on selling carrots in  SPIN’s Dig Deeper guide # 4  on rainbow carrots.  

Temperature Control for Winter Storage Crops

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

More and more consumers go to year round farmers markets so they can know where their food comes from, even in winter. What they find at my stand are storage crops, like beets, carrots and potatoes.

Part of the challenge of year round marketing of produce in cold weather winters is keeping your storage vegetables in good physical condition for several months. Just as in the summer, I take SPIN’s high road by using a cooler. Keeping it at the right storage temperature is key. My cooler is on average around 35 F, or few degrees above freezing celsius. It’s in my garage, along with a work area for prepping produce. I keep it in my garage, which is heated with a small plug in radiant space heater. The thermostat is set to 50 F.

A few nights ago it was -35 Celsius overnight. Just made a celsius to fahrenheit calculation and ironically this is the temperature where the two scales converge: -35 C is the same as -35 F. So I have to deal with the outdoor temperature, the garage temperature and cooler temperature. The heater keeps the garage at 50 F., but the question is how do I keep the cooler at the desired temperature? I find just partially opening the cooler door allows air to seep in from the garage, when it is very cold outside. When temperatures outside get warmer, I can shut off the heater for certain periods of time and close the door for the cooler. Right now the cooler temperature is 34 F, which is about optimal. The aim is to keep it above freezing, and below 40 F.

SF photo Wally temp2

 

This is not a high tech method for sure, but it works, as long as I keep an eye on things happening inside and outside. So you don’t need an elaborate setup to keep your farm stand stocked with the staples that keep your customers coming, and your cash flowing,  when the snow is flying.