Pumpkins and Squash Are Fall’s New Moneymakers

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

Pumpkins and winter squash have become a bigger part of my crop repertoire over the years, and this year chefs are buying them by the wagon loads.

SF photo pumpkins and squash wagonload

I am using $1.00 per pound as the base line, but I give chefs a price break on the larger ones, say in the 40 pound range. They want the heirloom types – Cinderella, Boston Marrow, Amish pie, Australian Butter. Now is the time to plan on capturing this market, ahead of other vendors.

So as you start thinking about your 2016 crop repertoire, be sure to include these types of crops along with the classic SPIN storage crops of beets, carrots, onions and potatoes. If I can manage to get off a good crop in zone 2, which has an early FFF (first fall frost) date, growers with longer seasons will make out even better. And next year, when autumn leaves start to fall, it won’t mean your sales will too.


Which irrigation methods work for which crops?

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

This was the burning question at  our recent online Open House on irrigation.  Get ready for the answer that drives everyone inside and outside of farming crazy: It depends. Your choice of irrigation will depend on lots of factors, including your type of soil and operation.

I use hand watering methods most of the time. I am not a big fan of mechanized systems  and specialized hoses because they are expensive and require management and maintenance. They might make you feel clever, but if you analyze the effort that goes into them, you might find they don’t really earn their keep.

Another factor to consider is potable water.  Many of you know my story, and that a big reason for my becoming an urban farmer was to ditch my expensive and elaborate irrigation system that depended on fluctuating river levels.  Now, I just turn on the tap. Potable water is the single most important issue when selling produce that is eaten fresh, because water can be the source of contamination, and using municipal water greatly reduces this risk.

Below is how I handle it for my multi-locational  an urban/peri-urban  11,000 sq.ft. farm.  But just because I prefer to hand water doesn’t mean other methods are not viable. These are the broad categories of crops just as a starting point.  We’re starting a member-sourced project in our online support group for best irrigation practices.  So consider this a work in progress.


Carrots                                                                                                                          > Overhead for germination                                                                                                  > > Flood  irrigate during growing stage

Cucumbers                                                                                                                              > > Overhead hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Leafy greens: Lettuce, chard, spinach, others                                                                       > > Flood  irrigate by letting the hose with brush attachment lay on the ground.  Move around to cover area.  (mostly).                                                                                               > > Overhead hand watering (sometimes)

Night shades: Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, egg plant                                                         >> Flood irrigate                                                                                                                       > > Do no use overhead since it can cause disease issues with these crops

Pumpkin                                                                                                                                   > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Summer squash                                                                                                                       > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Winter squash                                                                                                                           > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Pumpkin                                                                                                                                 > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Radish                                                                                                                                      > > Overhead hand water with brush attachment

Fresh herbs                                                                                                                            > > Overhead, hand water                                                                                                        >  > Dryland

SF photo Wally watering 2

Wally’s approach to irrigation is to keep it simple. He hand waters, mostly.

Now Is Always the Best Time to Start a Farm

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

The hands down best advice on starting a farm is “Don’t wait.” This Colorado SPIN member’s situation is typical. “I’ve just had a few opportunities fall into my lap where I can actually start my operation (full time freedom status) within the next month. This is about a year earlier than I originally planned where I would have spent the next year interning before starting out on my own.

Bottom Line: I’m very very excited about being able to start my dream NOW instead of some point down the road and I want to make sure I’m making the best informed decisions I can at this point in the season (End of summer, early fall).”

Here’s what other SPIN members are advising him:

1. Lay out and Prep Your Beds. “An absolute rule of farming in general and intense SPIN farming in particular is that there is never enough time in the spring to get everything done you want to. So if you have an opportunity to start laying out your SPIN beds, preparing them, any fencing you need, etc this fall -> DO IT! You can then look at them over the winter and you might see where you want to change the layout etc. If you wait until spring it may be too late to make changes and you will have to wait a year.”

2. Plant Greens Under Cover. “In Colorado, greens will grow under a tunnel of some sort/greenhouse if you plant now. They will grow slow due to the short days but you’ll have greens take off after the winter solstice when the days get longer if we don’t get a brutal winter.”

3. Test Plant and Get in Seeder Practice. “Put in some test plantings of radish, spinach, lettuce, and possibly some quick greens. See at least if you can get germination, and see what happens. Try a bed of each. It will start establishing your farmers muscle memory. Do you have a seeder? Might be a good idea to get familiar with a seeder now.”

4. Do Market Research. Define your delivery radius and identify markets within it. Visit them to check out which ones are worth applying to. Or feel out you neighbors for a CSA. Or restaurants. Get your sales channels for next year identified now.”

Probably few would describe farming as low risk, high reward. But SPIN is exactly that. In removing the barriers to entry – land and capital –  it also eliminates all the excuses to not start. You can dream as if you’ll live forever. But farm as if you’ll die today.

SF photo feet up Northern Ice Farms


Just do it.

Storage Crops – Boring But Big Moneymakers

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

One of the mistakes I now see among SPIN farmers is they quit too soon. Once you get beyond the traditional end of season mentality you can add hundreds or thousands of dollars more, to your income, without much sweat. How?

You’re probably thinking micros. Sure, they are a lucrative crop, and versatile. They can be grown indoors or outdoors. I actually find outdoor micros are more profitable once you consider the hassle factor of trayed indoor production. Pea shoots make the most money for me, and that’s all I grow now indoors.

My go-to moneymaker is storage crops. They’re not new or trendy, but they have a big impact on my bottom line. Here’s what they have going for them:

  • they are easy to grow; most aren’t bother by pests, and they don’t require much watering
  • they don’t require the TLC that micros do; storage practices are fairly easy to master
  • they are perfect for larger plots further from your home base, since they need space to sprawl, and don’t need much tending
  • they give you product to sell long after many other growers have hung it up for the season
  • they help you lock in customer relationships you made early in the season, and can forge new ones
  • no season extension gear required

Storage Crops Income Target:                                                                                         Carrots: 50 bags @ $3, or 2 for $5                                                                            Potatoes: 50 bags @ $3, or 2 for $5                                                                             Garlic: 50 bags @ $3, or 2 for $5                                                                                    Onion: 50 bags @ $3, or 2 for $5                                                                                      TOTAL INCOME: $500 – $600/week

If you want a stretch goal you can target $1,000 a week by adding crops like beets and tomatoes. Restaurants, indoor farmer’s markets, institutions or a winter CSA are all good sales channels, especially the later the season gets, because there is less competition. You can consider it like an end of the year bonus you are giving yourself. How you use it is up to you. Splurge on an island vacation or maybe that new tiller you’ve had your eye on for a few years.

SPIN photo storage crops in cooler


Here we’re looking at $xx worth of storage crops that…

SPIN photo storage crops marketing  …fly off the shelves at the end of the season because  fair weather farmers have packed it in.

Long Haul Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Reporters who really dig into the local food movement ask, “Will this time be different?” We don’t know the answer. But those who do the research find that the long term track record of volunteer-based gardening efforts is not good, and the amount community gardens contribute to the food supply has never amounted to even a rounding error. Gardening advocates try to strengthen their case with the statistic that during World War II US Victory Gardens produced 40% of the country’s food needs. But the fact that these gardens went fallow after the war ended can hardly be claimed as proof of concept.

In the end success is defined by staying power, not growing power. It is easy to inspire people to grow food, and it is easy to help people grow food. What’s hard is to keep them doing it, in significant volume, over the long haul. Unless there is a way to keep lots of people committed and productive, this good food revolution will go the way of Victory Gardens – a temporary fix to get through challenging times that disappears as soon as economic and social conditions improve.

Observers of professional farming admit to the same challenge. Kelvin Leibold, farm and ag business management specialist at Iowa State University, is quoted in a recent article entitled “Challenges Facing Beginning Farmers” on Agriculture.com: “All of my life, people have been saying we’d run out of farmers. The big issue today isn’t getting more people started. It’s keeping those who started in the last 10 years profitable enough to stay in ag.” Mr. Leibold was talking about large scale farmers, but it’s a challenge we all share.

That leads to a point about SPIN-Farming that continues to be missed. SPIN not only makes it easy for new farmers to get started by removing the 2 big barriers to entry – land and capital – it also increases the chances of long term success. How many new farmers are defeating themselves by following the old model and being forced to give up, when they might otherwise have succeeded if they weren’t initially overburdened
financially by debt and operationally by large acreage and overhead?

As we have said before, what makes this time different is the financial incentive. So while we are focused on shortening the distance from farm to plate, let’s be sure we also help new gardeners and farmers go the distance. One way is to teach them how to make growing food pay.

SF photo prices on sign Mooseview Farm


This time could be different if the enthusiasm and interest in local foods leads to the establishment of businesses…

SF photo staying power

that have staying power. Peer-to-peer online networks,which provide ongoing support and continual professional development can help. SPIN’s is unbound by ideology or the status quo, and is market-driven.  

Pumpkin Patch is Serious Business

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

You’ve probably heard the joke that it’s time for pumpkin flavored everything. But my pumpkin patch is no joke. It’s a big contributor to my income. Different criteria come into play in deciding whether a crop is worth growing – cost, ease of growing, market demand, space, and weather risks. Pumpkins and winter squash mostly weigh in on the plus side. One negative is they require a lot of space, but that means they are perfect  for my larger per-urban plot. The big headache to growing them is weather risk. Every year is a battle with the FFF – First Fall Frost.

Right now I have 7 SPIN segments planted (a total of 7,000 square feet). The plot is about a half hour from my home base.

SF photo pumpkin patch

It’s too big to cover with row cover, so the crop just has to tough it out as the temperature drops. There are about 500 pumpkins and winter squash in the plot now,  widely varying in size. If the current weather holds until the end of the month, my expected yield is 3,000 – 4,000 lbs. Varieties include Cinderella, Boston Marrow and Pink Jumbo.

I harvest them and then put them into storage. All of my sales are direct market. Chefs will buy whole large heirloom pumpkins for around $25 each. I price smaller ones between $5 and $20 for sale at the farmer’s market. I also cut up the largest ones, and sell by the slice. That way I can make $30 + per pumpkin. So there are a lot of different ways to make money from this crop. Jack-o-lanterns isn’t one of them.

SF photo pumpkin face


The one downside to growing pumpkins for Wally is he has to hope  Mother Nature delivers a treat rather than a trick. 

Are You Over-delivering?

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

Deliveries are killers. They are a huge time suck and expense.I’m hearing from other farmers that the fuel and labour costs are getting harder to justify, no matter how valuable the face time with customers is. I feel your pain.

My solution is to have my customers come to me, with my stand at the farmers market being the hub. My CSA customers come to me. They have a running credit at my stand, which also greatly simplifies logistics. Chefs come to me. I post chef visits on social media to promote how they are sourcing local. They re-post, getting cross-marketing going, and if you promote them, that’s even more incentives for them, and other chefs, to buy from you. Creates a virtuous circle.

The point is to turn your farmers market stand into a storefront, with all your marketing channels converging at that single location. You never have a slow day.

SF photo chef at Wallys stand

More and more chefs are coming to Saskatoon Farmers’ Market . This one is from is Dale Mackay’s Ayden Kitchen & Bar. Ayden is one of my steady customers, and Dale was winner of Top Chef Canada a few years ago. Now you know one of the reasons why. Sourcing locally and getting to know your producer. Here one of his chefs is  getting golden and candy cane beets and broad beans. Sometimes they come to the market a couple times a day. For all you foodies out there, here’s how Dale does it. 


Honest Work/Honest Pay Part 2

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

In farming, volunteerism has a long history. “Back in the day” traditions were passed down this way, and there were no great economic consequences. Then internships became more organized, with the quid pro quo being trading labor for learning.

Not paying workers in the US is illegal, and farmers have been walking a fine line to stay on the right side of the law for some time, but we’re hearing from farmers who are voicing other concerns. One has written about a farmer she knows who has a great knack for getting people to work for her for free. They make labels for her for free, they make signs for her for free, they work farmer’s market for free, they prep her products for free. Every single volunteer is doing a business critical task. And the farmer then sells her products for less since she is not paying for labor.

Another farmer points out the amount of state and federal funding available for training programs which, in essence, pays for labor on non- profit farms. The non-profits then turn around and sell produce grown with public money and compete with private business. These stipend interns or paid students give the non-profit (ostensibly a service organization) a competitive advantage over private farms. Basically, these
well-intended programs are biting the hands that feed us.

This raises the question we all should be giving careful consideration to: Is the new food system we are all striving to create sustainable, if the farms that it is made up of can’t stay in business without relying on unpaid labor?

DDG6 photo 18 DSC01266


Does volunteer and subsidized labor undermine the farming business?

Read Part 1 of this post by Wally Satzewich  here. 

Honest Work/Honest Pay

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

Labor is the single biggest expense in any farm operation. Big ag’s reliance on migrant labor has been a source of controversy for a while, but use of unpaid help by small scale farmers is also starting to gain attention. That is why SPIN-Farming is viable. It is owner-operated, and the owner does most of the work, with occasional help from family and friends. When the need for outside labor does arise, SPIN farmers can afford to pay a living wage rate because they are savvy about how they use labor.

For instance, three hour work sessions focused on specific tasks a few times a week is optimal. Managing labor is a big time suck for a farm owner, so the less of it you have to do, the better. Short, focused work sessions eliminates the need for much oversight, and you don’t have to factor in a lunch break.

A few years ago we did a guide on how to make productive use of those who want to volunteer, and the management efficiencies it outlines are just as applicable to paid labor. As we said back then, more and more people are realizing that making the world a better place is up to them, and many of these enterprising and visionary do-it-yourselfers are finding their way to SPIN farmers. How to meet their goals and a farmer’s needs, while also following local labor rules and regulations, is up to each SPIN farmer to figure out. The important point to understand is that the cost of labor has to be factored into the cost of production and prices, and if a farm operation can’t afford to pay a living wage to workers when they are needed, it’s not a viable business.

DDG2 photo 32

Have a savvy labor day!

See part 2 of Honest Work/Honest Pay here.

Week After Week Cropping Strategy Helps You Achieve Steady Production

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

Because many SPIN farms, including mine, just look like a really big garden, I often get asked the difference between a gardener and a backyard farmer. To turn your garden into a business, you need to grow a wide variety of crops, consistently, in significant volume, at commercial grade. In other words, you need product, and lots of it, for a long period of time.

SPIN farmers use the “week after week “strategy for many of their crops to achieve steady production of a crop throughout the entire season. With highly marketable crops that are considered to have short seasons, that takes some strategizing. Here is how a “week after week” cropping strategy works for a typically cool weather crop like spinach.

Early in the season when it is cool, I plant several staggered plantings of a common variety like Bloomsdale and Tyee. Because of my urban backyard microclimate, some of these plantings even overwinter here in zone 3, allowing me to get to market very early. I follow up with harvests from my early spring plantings to keep a steady offering of spinach going.

While I continue to harvest and sell my spring plantings of spinach, I get transplants going of New Zealand/Malabar spinach, which grows well in warm to hot conditions, and plant them out in late spring for a summer harvest, to sell once the early plantings of spinach are spent.

SF photo spinach 1

So a “week after week” spinach strategy would include several staggered early plantings of regular spinach, and then transplant-based production of alternate warm-weather types. Then later staggered summer plantings of regular spinach, which take me right into cooler fall like conditions. This way it is possible to have “spinach” most of your marketing weeks, including right through hot summers.

With the steady introduction of new and exotic varieties of crops by my seed company friends, there is an ever-increasing number of crops that can be used in this type of strategy. So consider this a warm-up for your 2016 planning, when all those seed catalogs start arriving.