Vertical Farming, SPIN-Style

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

Farming is inspiring a lot of creative thinking. Planners and academics are envisioning skyscraper farms costing millions of dollars. It remains to be seen whether any of these indoor systems will ever be built, or be sustainable. In the meantime, here’s one of my approaches to vertical farming.

  • Technology: wooden privacy screen trellis
  • Cost: A few hundred dollars, including labor
  • Growing space: 1/10 of a segment
  • Crop: cucumbers
  • Revenue target: $96 – $120 gross over several weeks of harvest

This isn’t going to get me on the cover of Fast Company. But it does illustrate SPIN’s improvisational, low-cost, quick-to-monetize style. It’s how small players can enter the urban agriculture scene, quickly and cheaply. They become the CEOs of their own businesses, without having to  make a huge investment, and they fill in the cracks of local supply and demand in a cost-effective way.

Gee-whiz agriculture is great for students who need to challenge their intellect, or planners looking to add some glitz to their portfolios. But if you want to make money growing food, check out cukes. The above revenue target is based on my conditions in zone 3.There are cukes that produce for a long period of time, and given conditions in different zones, the sky is literally the limit.

SF photo trellis and cucumbers

SEE ALSO: Curtis Stone’s post on how SPIN-Farming economics stack up to vertical farming here.

Find Markets the Same Way You Do Land

Courtesy of Linda B., Abundant Life Farm, Walker Valley NY

A SPIN-Farming workshop I did in Virginia brought up an important point – and that is new markets and ways to market. In the section of Virginia in which I gave the workshop they had a heck of a waiting list to get into farmer’s markets – up to 2 years in some towns. You can’t say you won’t SPIN until you can get a spot. So what did one enterprising SPIN farmer do – created a different meaning for a CSA,  and that was Church Supported Agriculture, and sold through his local church.

Cool right?

I’ve always said that wherever a group of people gather on a regular basis is a good place for a market. That can be in a gas station parking lot if it draws a crowd, and both parties benefit. We can apply the same SPIN concepts that we use in increasing our land base to creating places in which to market our wares. The rent will be minimal or we can barter it for food.

I am in a rural location, so I have to make my markets where I know people are. Anyone can do the same, no matter where they are located.

SF photo Linda Borghi traveling farm stand

Why You Need Farmers Market Liability Insurance

Courtesy of SPIN farmer Brenda Sullivan, and husband Paul, in Glastonbury CT  In today’s litigious society, being adequately insured should be a farmer’s top priority and,  very basically, the purpose and need for insurance is to protect the farmer from financial ruin. As a farmer/producer/vendor you are exposed to two types of risk:

  1. General Liability
  2. Product Liability

General Liability: These are the risks that are an inherent part of being a vendor at a market, which include: Trip and fall (i.e. – an injury resulting from tripping over a tent stake or other object). Unsecured equipment (i.e. an individual is injured when a gust of wind blows a tent onto him/her; display or table collapses onto someone causing injury etc.) In the event of a claim, a farmer could not only be financially responsible for the individual’s injuries but also for associated legal fees, which are often substantial. Bottom line, depending on the circumstances and the severity of the involved injuries, you could easily be exposed for significant damages that could extend into the six – seven $ figure range. Therefore, without sufficient liability insurance, a farmer /vendor could sustain significant losses, including the potential loss of their property / assets.

Product Liability: These risks are associated with the sale of your products at the market.  Typically, the greatest risk involves food with the most common example being food poisoning.    

Why do Markets require their farmers/ producers/vendors to carry liability insurance?   When a claim is made, a frequent reality is that the “kitchen sink” mentality is applied – i.e.  in addition to the individual farmer / vendor, the Market itself is sued as well as the Market Manager and sometimes even the host town / county / State.   If a farmer does not have insurance, the Market and/or Market Manager would then bear the resulting financial responsibility for any claim. Given the all-volunteer nature of most Markets, this reality would significantly dampen the desire for anyone to volunteer as a Manager or Board of Director member.   That’s why in the State of Connecticut, all state certified Farmers’ Markets require every vendor to have a $1 million liability insurance policy, which includes product and general liability insurance.  Farmers should contact the Department of Agriculture in their own state to confirm the specific minimum liability insurance requirements for Farmers Markets.   Note: Private markets on private property may not necessarily require that farmers / vendors carry liability insurance although it’s still a good idea to do so.

 Food Safety:  By engaging in food safety training, a farmer can demonstrate a pro-active level of responsibility for their products. In some states like Connecticut, food safety training is strongly recommended for all general produce farmers and is legally mandated if a farmer is selling any processed foods like jams, jellies, pickles etc. In addition, completing food safety training / obtaining certification from a nationally recognized organization like SafeServ might lower a farmer’s /vendor’s insurance premium. While there is no guarantee an insurer will offer a premium discount, food safety training is still an excellent investment.

What is a Certificate of Liability Insurance and why do Farmer’s Market Managers require a market’s legal address to be listed in the Certificate Holders Section?  Below is a sample copy of a “Certificate of Liability Insurance”.  When a Market Manager requests a Certificate of Insurance naming the market as “Certificate Holder”, this is the document they are referring to.  Every insurance agent will be familiar with this document as it’s standardized throughout the insurance industry.   An agent will customarily send a copy to you and/or the Market Manager at no additional cost.  If they do charge for this, we recommend you seek insurance elsewhere. It’s important that the Certificate Holder section of the document list the legal address of the venue you are attending.  The Market Manager will always look for this as well as for your policy amounts and the expiration date. The sections that need to be filled out are highlighted in red. However, other sections may also require completion depending on the type and amount of insurance a farmer/vendor may have. SPIN Liability Insurance Certificate Brenda Sullivan is the owner of Thompson Street Farm in South Glastonbury CT and the President/Market Master and one of the founding members of the Glastonbury Farmers Market Coalition Inc.  Prior to starting her SPIN Farm, she was a Legal Assistant in the Legal Department at one of Connecticut’s largest Banks and her duties included working with a litigation attorney preparing cases for trial, many of which were insurance claims.     Brenda is married to Paul Sullivan, Vice President /Sr. Claim Consultant in the Risk Control and Claim Advocacy Practice at an International Insurance Brokerage Firm.  In their respective careers, they have seen some pretty crazy claims made, many of which resulted in large settlements, even when liability was questionable.  

How the Pro’s Compete

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

A point that has gotten lost amid the zeal to reconnect with the source of our food is that farming is a profession. Calling anyone with dirt under their fingernails a farmer does not advance it. Being quirky or philanthropic is no substitute for skill, and a forceful personality or a good cause do not compensate for produce that looks like the cat dragged it in.

The ability to produce food consistently, in significant volume, at commercial grade are the marks of a true professional. It means you have to get good at growing a wide variety of high-quality crops throughout the entire season, and always be working to get better. SPIN-Farming was designed to open up the farming profession to many more people who would not otherwise think it was an option, so we take it as a good sign that farmers markets are becoming more competitive, chefs are even more demanding, and techies are targeting the local food scene for disruption. It means there is opportunity for those who excel, and that markets are developing and operating as they should – ensuring that the best products are available, and that economic rewards flow to those who make them.

Opportunity brings competition, and the first reaction many have is to cut prices. Don’t. It is the lazy way to compete. Price-cutting for the sole purpose of grabbing market share leaves every farmer with lower sales, and it does not attract or maintain regular customers. It is a race to the bottom and ultimately self-defeating. Consumers want a broad choice of products, price and styles. For one business to win another does not have to lose, which is why farmers can maintain a co-operative spirit. But a part from the “everybody has a chance” ethos, the pro’s do have ways to make sure they get their fair share. Here are a few to help you get yours.

Don’t rely on farmers markets. They don’t appeal to, or have the capacity to reach, all the markets interested in buying local foods. Instead, use both old-fashioned shoe leather by leafletting door to door or posting fliers at well-trafficked sites, or become a keyboard commando, identifying and recruiting customers using Facebook and Twitter. Once you have a list of prospects, affordable and easy-to-use software can help turn them into customers and manage them. This gives you a customer base that is totally unique to you.

Use the Network Effect. Alert people you know who are involved in an interest about your business. They can get the word out to their groups. You might be surprised at the networks you are already connected to by “one degree of separation” that will drum up business for you simply by word of mouth.

Recruit customers where they live and work. Get business card templates from Staples, print them up with a fill-in space. Approach people at train stations, in parking lots of local businesses (with their permission)and explain your business and ask them to complete the card with their email address to receive a list of your weekly offerings.

Sell through allied organizations and businesses. Churches, schools, hospitals and doctor’s offices are all on the local food bandwagon because promoting good health is in their best interest. Contact them to work out a customized CSA or weekly farm stand on their premises.

Use SPIN as a credential. It’s becoming known as the practice of choice for the savviest, most talented and innovative farmers in the US, Canada, and increasingly the world. It’s proof you are continually perfecting your craft and recognize that high product standards matter.

Collaborate with seed companies.  Find small, off-the-beaten track seed suppliers (find some of them in the suppliers area of the SPIN website) and work with them to bring entirely new crops to market.

Specialize. A specialty can be an entirely new veggie (remember when kholrabi was considered exotic?), or an uncommon variety of a well-known one, like orange cauliflower and purple carrots. A signature product is a calling card, a way for people to remember you.

Be trendy. You can identify a food trend before it happens by noticing what the “tastemakers” are doing. Tastemakers are not just celebrity chefs. They can be doctors, rock stars or your grandmother.

Think like a merchandiser. Go beyond distinctive packaging and creatively organize how your produce is offered, tailored to different types of tastes or customers.

Change it up. Variety is the spice of life. Turning over your crop repertoire many times throughout the season will keep customers satisfied and loyal to you. It’s easy if you practice SPIN-Farming because that’s the basis of your production plan.

Remember these proven best practices. Whether you sell off-line or online or a combination of both,they work.
–Share your story
–Explain how you grow
–Show photos of your farm
–Hand out recipes
–Suggest uncommon uses for common crops
–Tell them how to keep it fresher, longer
–Give samples
–Eat all your own food so you know how it tastes and can offer your subjective opinion
–Clearly indicate pricing
–Design your farm stand strategically, for maximum customer flow
–Place brightly colored veggies in the middle of your table to capture their attention draw them in for a closer look

It’s great that more and more people want to try their hand at growing food. But let’s not conflate intention with performance, or style with substance. When it comes to commercial food production, get good or get out. Farming is not for dummies, and to throw your arugula on the table, you have to earn your place behind it.

 

GAP Is Not Just for the Big Boys

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

Food safety regulations in the US have divided Big Ag and Small Ag into opposing camps, but there is one thing we can all be united on – Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). “Grow Responsibly” should be everyone’s mantra, regardless of size or country.

I attended a GAP workshop in 2011, and it was a real eye opener. I have been looking at and thinking about my business differently ever since. It was clear back then that implementation of GAP standards was being driven by industry groups and chain supermarkets to ensure, through a certification process, the safety of their far-flung supply chain. But what was enlightening to me when I started to wade through the manual was how it clarified the risks in food safety that I intuitively knew, but did not think all that much about.

Sure, the whole point of rebuilding local food systems is to keep the length of the supply chain short, thereby making it easier to monitor and control. “Direct marketing” is exactly that, moving food from farmer’s plot to market to plate. But every farmer faces risks when it comes to food safety, and it’s a worthy exercise for SPIN-scale farmers to identify them and devise strategies to deal with them.

Reviewing the GAP material and evaluating what is most relevant and do-able for your operation will take time. Looking ahead, it will be a good winter project. Or, if you are selling at a farmers market, you might recommend to your manager that they bring in a GAP workshop presenter at the end of this season when business quiets down to help you get started.

A good warm up for GAP is a free online tool developed by Family Farmed which walks you through how to develop a food safety plan for your farm.  It was developed in 2013 when the fight over food safety in the US was raging, and it is obviously designed for the big boys. But we can all benefit from reviewing harvesting and post-harvesting protocols, especially newbie growers. Much of the information is common sense, which nowadays is may not be so common.

However is easiest for you to get up to speed on GAP, I’d highly recommend that you get familiar with the standards and begin to implement as much as you can next year so that you can display a GAP manual at your market stand or on your online storefront. You do not have to claim to be GAP certified; just use it to show you are aware of, and practice, the highest levels of food safety.

The fight over reasonable food safety regulation drags on, but it does not have to drag down your business in the process. The safest attitude to have is “If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.” Farms of all sizes benefit from abiding by GAP standards, and attending a GAP workshop is a worthwhile investment for any farmer who is serious about their business.

SPIN photo post harvesting station Linda

 

These organizations provide standards and administer programs to gain certification that the food you are growing and selling is safe. Certification is voluntary.

In Canada  GAP standards were originally devised by the Canadian Horticultural Society in 2000. They are currently administered by a non-profit corporation called CanAgPlus.   http://www.canadagap.ca

In the US GAP standards are administered by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/GAPGHPAuditVerificationProgram

Internationally GAP standards are administered by CODEX Alimentarius Commission, established in 1963 by the World Health Organization and  the  Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). http://www.codexalimentarius.org/

Design Your Stand for Optimal Sales

Courtesy of Keri F., Green Sister Gardens, Moose Jaw SK 

I have my two tables set up in an L shape (I’ve experimented with all kinds of different  configurations and this has the best flow.) So the hottest spot on the table are the two ends of the tables (one of them is a little better than the other).

I will put whatever item I have the most of that week or if I have a new item that I want people to try I will put it in that spot. I also put radishes and other highly colored veggies in the middle of my tables because the colors capture people’s attention and they come in for a closer look usually :)

SF photo Keri Fox Green Sisters Garden farm stand design

Competition is Healthy

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

A new vibe is now part of the local foods scene – competition. According to the USDA, local foods was a $7 billion industry in 2011, and it is now starting to attract those who are not  looking for a cause,  but for a business opportunity. They have no pre-conceived notions about farming, may not be aware of  any of the politics surrounding sustainability, organics or local foods, or if they are, they are not  consumed by them. They are people who, instead of opening a dry cleaners, or a hair salon, or a printing franchise, are thinking instead that they like working outdoors, they like physical work, they like the idea of producing a product everyone wants and needs, they see lots of people flocking to the farmer’s market and farm to table restaurants, so they think they would like to try farming to see if they can make a buck.

SPIN-Farming is right down their alley because it provides a low cost and fast entrée into this multi-billion dollar market. Its practitioners are now multiplying throughout backyards and neighborhood lots in several countries. Farmers markets are increasingly occupied not by Mr. Hayseed Farmer from the middle of nowhere, but the tattooed hipster from across town, or the retired IBM’er pursuing his encore career.

These non-traditional backyard farmers understand that to thrive in this rapidly developing and increasingly competitive marketplace they have to think beyond the farmers market. Some of the most interesting developments in the food industry are happening in a pop-up restaurant in a warehouse somewhere, or via our mobile phones. Opportunities can be low tech and grassroots like these, compliments of Keri Fox who operates Green Sister Gardens in Moose Jaw SK and is in her third year of SPIN-Farming.

  • A friend of mine teaches yoga, and she invited me to come to her class and promote my business so I took each person in the class a bag of pea and radish greens mix to try and gave a little talk at the beginning of class about my product and where to get it.
  • I had one of my CSA members ask me if I would come and set up a table at the local college in the cafeteria over the lunch hour and sell greens. So I am planning to do this in September when classes resume.
  • I helped organize a recycling/composting program at an event in the park called Park Art. I put totes out with signs attached to them. The signs had my logo and business name as well as instructions on what could be put into the bins and a blurb explaining that the compost would be turned into soil to grow veggies for Green Sister Gardens. Next year I will set up a booth and sell greens at the event as well.
  • A friend has a natural path clinic on Main Street and she will let me set up a stand a couple times a month (or more) to sell greens. It is located in between our two local health food stores (neither of them sell greens mixes).
  • I took salad mix samples into a local coffee shop (that saves me their used coffee grounds) and followed up with the owner today. She really likes them and is currently waiting for me to send her pricing.

Or opportunities can be more high-tech and scalable like these three:

  • Farmigo’s new Champion Initiative platform that enables direct sellers to run their own food communities, like an Avon for food. In exchange for their work, Champions receive a 10 percent cut of their community’s sales, as well as discounts on food. Farmigo estimates that managing the community typically amounts to 3-4 hours of work with an hourly earning potential of at least $20 for the Champion.
  • ÜbrLocal, a virtual farmers market where consumers can order online and have their purchases delivered via bicycles. ÜbrLocal takes 25% of sales.
  • Farmwell is cloud-based software that enables farmers to build and service a local customer base online. Farmers keep 100% of the sales, and pay a modest monthly fee.

Whatever else it has become in today’s culture – activist cause, political hot potato or star-studded entertainment – food remains a necessity of life. And for those in the business of growing it, it is not a zero sum game. When one business wins, another does not have lose. As SPIN farmers and entrepreneurs reshape the local foods scene to their own ends, competition drives innovation and professionalism, and it is a healthy, and welcome, part of the scene.

So how do the pro’s compete? See here.

SF photo City Grown Seattle truck sign

 SF photo City Grown Seattle porch shop

 

Photos courtesy of City Grown Seattle

 

The Secret Ingredient to Salad Mix Success

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

It’s high summer for many of us now, but go to your standard grocery or corner store and check out what is on the shelf. Chances are it’s spring mix. And therein lies the secret to creating the best salad mix. The most important ingredient is change. Selling the same product day in and day out, year round, is no way to get people excited to pay top dollar for a premium product.

Change is an economic driver, and it fits very well with a SPIN farmer’s highly dynamic production plan. Components for salad mixes should change frequently, reflecting the seasons, what is ready to be harvested, what seeds are available and reasonably priced. You should continually add unusual greens to your mixes, because they distinguish you at market and can lead to a best seller that you would not  otherwise have discovered. Many customers consider salad mixes to be a staple now, and buy them week after week. So marketing unusual greens as a salad mix breaks down people’s resistance to buying a new type of green that they might not be familiar with.

OK, so now that you have the concept behind creating successful salad mixes, what is the secret recipe? Pretty easy. There are 2 basic ingredients – base crops and novelty crops. Base crops are high yielding, quick to harvest crops like peas, radish and sunflowers. Novelty crops are inexpensive, and may be lower yielding or slower to mature, and are used to add color or texture, like red cabbage or broccoli. Right now I am just using peas and radish. I am also starting to grow yellow peas, which produces a “tendril“ pea. I have also added lentil greens, when I grow them.

Many a SPIN farmer’s career has been built on a signature salad mix. To find out how to get started, check out this case study and then start mixing it up.

SPIN photo Wally and salad mix

SPIN Pricing 101

Although backyard-scale growing produces much higher volume than a typical garden, the volume is much less compared to multi-acre farms. So because you have a limited amount to sell, you need to get good prices to make it worth your time and effort. Low production and low prices are a recipe for failure.

Getting good pricing takes innovative thinking. Never take pricing as something that is fixed. Fixed pricing is more common to larger scales of production. As a farmer selling directly to the public, you have the ability to vary your pricing according to what’s available or scare at market, the volume of your production, and your needs.

Look at what other vendors are setting their prices at. Chances are they using fixed pricing and selling at the low end. Set your prices higher, and never reduce your prices towards the end of the market to sell out. This will hurt you and the other vendors by training people to come late and haggle. Take surplus produce home or donate it to a food bank. As you gain experience, you will more likely sell out before market’s end, rather than have leftovers.

Always question your own pricing scheme. This year I have re-arranged my pricing. With SPIN’s old mix and match pricing of 2 for $5.00 I had too many people spending just $5.00. Now I have $3.00 for one, 2 for $5.00, and any five for $10.00.

The pitch is you buy 4 bags/units get one free. Making unit sizes smaller to compensate. Now I am getting many more $10 – $20 purchases. So for my green garlic, even at $2.00 per bunch, that makes a row $50, with a 15 foot bed worth $250, with five rows per bed.

SF photo Wally green garlic test crop harvest

As a small business owner, which is how you should think of yourself, you have to find price points that not only please your customers, but that also please you.

 

New Cropping Strategy, Courtesy of My Local Chain Store

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
My garlic cropping strategy has been dictated by the limited availability of garlic seed. But now I’ve found a way to support significant green garlic sales this time of year, thanks to my  local chain store. I have been buying California and Mexican garlic there for around $3/lb., which is a significant discount to the typical $5+/lb price, and it’s been performing well. The key is to test whether or not it has been treated. I put it into the soil, and see if within a week or so it sends out roots.

As long as I can continue to get untreated garlic, I can continue planting for green/fresh garlic sales all summer and into the fall. I planted this first bed in April and will start harvesting it soon.

SF photo Wally green garlic

I will plant every week going into mid/late summer, as long as the store bought garlic remains viable. I have about 15 SPIN beds in production now, and will try to plant about one bed per week.

I am harvesting the whole plant and selling it in bunches at $3 or 2/$5.

I’ll also be planting more garlic in containers, and selling them for $5.00, but they require a hard sell at market. You need to say they can be used as a cutting green. Stems/leaves give a nice robust flavor without the garlic hangover taste, so that’s the sales pitch. I give them a sample by cutting off with scissors a bit of stem. For your apartment/condo customers another sales point is that it can be grown in room light or on a balcony. You can sell to them many times in the season.

Thanks to SuperStore I am completely changing my green garlic strategy this season.