Play Your Crops Like Poker

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

Now that the season is in full swing I’m hearing from beginning SPIN farmers who have their relays in play. One recently wrote:

“For loose leaf lettuces and spinach, I know they will produce for a long while after they are planted as long as you leave at least 1/4 of the plant. Are you saying that we should harvest the entirety of the plant at once and proceed with the next plant in the relay? With spinach and lettuce I know they  will continuously produce, and I just can’t see where it makes sense financially to harvest the lot at once and relay. I’m just trying to look at it from a profit standpoint “

There’s no better way to look at it, and the way to play relays is this. Once a bed is finished being harvested, then it is relayed. The harvesting of the bed may occur over several weeks, or longer, say in the case  of dill. You should make as much income as you can from that bed, and get as many harvests as you can, but when the crop is harvested to “completion”, at that point you relay.

Some crops do  wear out. In my experience, spinach does not produce continuously. I usually takes two cuts, spaced a week or two apart. Then I relay to a different crop.

SPIN photo rototilling a

Another category of crop are those that typically produce for the entire summer and into fall, such as chard and kale. No relay, just perpetual harvest. These are planted in the single crop area of a SPIN farm.

With any system, including SPIN, you always need to be thinking and adapting it to what makes sense to you, and what works for you in your particular situation. With crops, once you get a feel for when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, you’ll be well on your way to a winning season.

Make Money from the Unexpected

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

Farmers spend so much time and effort on their crop plans that they sometimes fail to capitalize on the unexpected. For instance, I had a sub-segment of garden space slated for green garlic. Problem is I have some volunteer greens coming up.

SF photo volunteer orach

Do I weed it all out just to stick with my plan? Well, those are pretty valuable weeds. It’s orach, a highly versatile crop. It produces in both cool and hot weather, and is a  great substitute for spinach. It actually has more body and flavor, and it is an easy sell at market.  So I figure I might as well make some money from this area now. I’ll just water the plot and harvest for market. I’ll terminate the crop later and put the garlic in then.

SF photo volnuteer orach 2Orach in the hand is worth more than garlic in the plan.

Right Size Your Ambitions and Your Plots

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

Now that farmer’s markets are getting in full swing and CSA boxes are piled high at pick up points all over town, those who have been contemplating backyard farming suddenly become motivated to turn their intentions into action. I hear from two extremes – those who are overly ambitious, and those who are too cautious.

Interestingly, those with the least amount of land are the ones who are overly ambitious. They understand SPIN at its very basic level, which is commercial farming on an acre or less. Since that size land base is so dramatically less than a typical farm, they think it must be a cinch to start. So they figure they will start with an acre. Or, if they think they are being conservative, they want to tackle a half acre. But you can burn out on a half-acre just as easily and quickly as you can on 10 or 20 acres.

Start out with a few thousand square feet, say up to 5,000 sf max. It’s a very manageable amount of space for one person to initially prep and keep in top growing shape. For beginners, it’s an optimal size to gain experience with intensive relay cropping, which is the continual planting of different crops in the same plots throughout the season. And the amount of production and post-production can be managed without any outside
labor. Once you have mastered relay cropping you can expand confidently and quickly, even in the same season.

The opposite extreme is those who have multi-acre spreads who think they need to prep their land and let it sit over the winter, putting off any production for an entire year. They are right that it takes time to bring a larger land base online. But again,I offer the same advice. Put aside a small plot, prep it, and start growing and selling immediately. The key to earning income from backyard farming is the ability to grow continuously, in significant volume, at commercial grade. And that can be mastered just as well, and in fact more quickly, on a small space. This is the rationale for our new program Seed to Cash in 14 Days or Less. Three new guides provide step-by-step instructions on how to progress
through 3 different levels of production, starting with as little as 100 square feet.

It’s been said that farms are started by idealists and run by realists. You just need to last long enough to get from the one phase to the other. That means not being an overachiever or an underachiever. SPIN helps you hit the ground running at just the right pace so that you can go the distance.

Mod 1 landbase 4

Even if you have acres of land, fencing off a plot close to the house will get you growing and selling more quickly and successfully than if you tried to put a larger piece of land into production. This plot is easy to maintain, and can be used for intensive relays, in which 3 or more crops are grown in the same beds throughout the season. In essence, you are cutting by two thirds the amount of land you need for that same amount of production.


The Lexicon of Profitability

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Advocates inside and outside the farming industry are getting more and more creative with the words they use to instigate debate, engage supporters and propel change. There is even a lexicon of sustainability to help understand them all.

SPIN salutes all these words, and the concepts behind them. But our favorite word is profitability. It’s easy to explain, and it’s not as hard to live up to as many think. The same skills and effort to produce food at home can also be used to start a business, for those who have the desire or need.

Thanks to the ever-expanding ecosystem of food activists, bloggers, chefs, techies and pundits, a growing number of eaters at all socio-economic levels are deciding that eating healthy is worth it and are re-prioritizing their budgets accordingly. This is a business opportunity, one that SPIN is showing people with ambition and a couple of thousand, or even a couple of hundred, square feet, how to pursue. It teaches them to set an income target and figure out how many units, at what price, of which crops are needed to generate a specific income goal, and then how to market those crops. It even has a lexicon of its own.

Backyard food growing always surges during times of world wars and economic downturns to help communities get through hard times. What makes this time different is that there is money to be made. SPIN’s message is that by practicing the type of farming the reformers are preaching, you can put money in your pocket. And people who have been implementing the SPIN system in widely varying circumstances have been generating income. How much SPIN farmers make is up to them and their markets. What they all have in common, and what SPIN shows them how to do, is to turn backyard-scale growing into a business. In addition to advancing a good cause and improving your lifestyle, it’s another good reason to walk the talk.

Beta Dylan Greer making a sale

 Sixteen year old Dylan Greer started a backyard SPIN farm on his summer vacation. When it comes to green, he likes being it, and bringing it home. His parents are glad that he knows how to put good on the table, one way or another. 

When It Comes To Harvesting, Take Five

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

My post last week on how farming is no different than any other small business prompted a lot of questions on what my secret was to managing it all. It’s no secret and can be learned by anyone through the SPIN online learning series.One of the most important concepts  you’ll to learn is  to take five when it comes to your harvesting protocol. It will ease your stress and may even save your career. This example shows why.

Let’s say you sell at a single Saturday farmer’s market. You are targeting a $1,000 day, which is a SPIN benchmark. At $2.50 per unit, that calls for at least 400 units. Now, would you rather harvest, wash and prep 400 units the day before market, which means working well into the night, and maybe even having to get up before dawn the day of market to finish off? Believe me, this is not fun, and it is a major reason why farmers burn out and give up.

Instead, here’s what happens when you have a commercial cooler and implement SPIN’s five day harvest work week. You can start as early as Monday, harvesting green garlic. On Tuesday you can do red onion, green onion on Wednesday, spinach on Thursday and lettuce and salad mix on  Friday. Your harvest/prep sessions are over by noon each day, so you have plenty of time for other farm tasks. Friday night you can relax so not
only are your veggies fresh for market. So are you.

SF photo Wally relaxing  at concert


Late at Night is Alanna Gurr & The Greatest State‘s latest album, not Wallly’s harvest routine. During farming season he has time to catch local bands at  Vangelis Tavern. Gail makes sure he doesn’t stay out too late though. 

Speed Weeding

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

Just did a first weeding at my peri-urban onion plot. Weeding seems to be a big challenge for farmers, but on SPIN-scale farms it is easily managed. I use a Gardena draw hoe which allows you to weed standing up.

SF photo weeding hoe

I’ve had it for at least 10 years. It’s light, easy to use and versatile. Good for walkway and in-bed weeding. This segment (1,000 square feet) took about a half hour. Because of SPIN’s standard size bed, all parts are within easy reach.

SPIN photo Wally weeding inrow

Here it is is in action in a small urban plot. The trick is to get weeds at the micro stage, before they look like much. Just a light pull between the rows takes care of the first weed flush, and it helps if conditions are dry. You don’t have to eradicate weeds. You just need to control them enough so they don’t interfere with your crops.SPIN uses four weeding strategies, corresponding to each of the different areas of the farm. Use the right tool for each one, and you might even start looking forward to taking some weeds for a spin.

Have a look at some other SPIN production techniques here.



Hey, I’m Just a Farmer

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

I used to get asked if farming was a 9 to 5 job. That was back in 2006 when we first launched the SPIN online learning series, and when my experience in downsizing was starting to get attention. One of my big points back then was that on a Friday night, before my big market day, I took in a movie or was at home nursing some beers, unwinding from the week just like any other working stiff. Farming for me was not all-consuming.

That’s still true today, and it is probably why I am still in business 25 years later. My staying power has mostly to do with having never bought into the martyr complex that surrounds so much of farming nowadays. It pervades the farming “movement” and is perpetuated by the media – you know, that farmers are somehow special, that they take a vow of selfless devotion to their work; that they exist in a state of grace that compensates them for the ungodly hours and hardships they endure; that all their sacrifices somehow makes them loftier than everyone else.

I did not want to give up my life to farming. I wanted to fit farming into my life. Here’s how I did it:
> made my home base in the city to take advantage of its unique growing conditions and municipal water and to be close to markets (I’m 5 minutes away from my farmers market)
> expanded strategically to a few peri-urban plots that are about a 20 minute drive from home base, with the total kept close to an acre or less in size
> incorporated a commercial cooler (what SPIN calls taking the high road) into my operation to allow for 5 day a week harvesting so I am not out until after dark the day before market, and up before dawn harvesting the day of
> developed workflow management so that all the farming tasks can be done in short intervals throughout the week so that no one task becomes overwhelming

Sure in peak growing season I put in long hours, but so does everyone else who is in business for themselves. Instead of cutting hair, doing taxes, developing websites, or cleaning clothes, I’m growing food. I enjoy my work, but it’s not a cause. What I’ve been committed to these past 25 years is building a self-sustaining business. Success for me has been measured by one thing – is what I produce valued enough that people will pay me what I think it’s worth? I am not at all conflicted by that. It has been a very effective way to establish many good and lasting relationships.

Maybe I should be flattered that so many want to exalt what I do. But I know my place. So let’s just have a few beers. And if you’re interested in becoming a backyard farmer like me, I’d be glad to teach you how. This I can promise:
> you’ll find farming does not have to be as hard as it is usually made out to be
> you’ll know relatively quickly and inexpensively if farming is right for you
> you won’t kill yourself trying

You might also learn to lighten up.

SF photo Wally relaxing with beer 2


Wally chillin’ after a tough day at work. 

Potatoes Are Perfect Peri-Urban Crop

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

I just put in a couple of segments of potatoes this week. Norland and Yukon Gold. I’ll probably plant 10 segments total, or about 10,000 square feet. That should give me  over 600 lbs. of potatoes. My potato cropping strategy is based on extended production throughout the season, so I can sell new potatoes early in the season right through to  storage potatoes in the winter.

SF photo potato planting 2

Peri-urban sites allow you to expand your production to crops you would not otherwise grow in your urban-based plots, like potatoes. These peri-urban plantings of potatoes are easy to maintain, with once a week visits for a couple of hours.

SF photo potato  planting

Using peri-urban sites for low maintenance crops such as potatoes allows you to boost you revenue and diversify your crop repertoire, with little effort or investment. Greens are getting al lot of hype right now, but man does not live by micros alone.

You can learn more about Wally’s cropping strategies for not only potatoes, but also 39 more classic SPIN crops in SPIN’s Crop Profiles guide

So much about SPIN-Farming is counterintuitive, and the multi-locational urban/peri-urban farming model is a prime example. What at first seems obvious is that a land base comprised of many scattered plots, some a 20 minute drive from your home base, would be difficult to assemble and a nightmare to operate. But not only can such a farm be easily created and efficiently managed, it has big advantages. Find out why in SPIN’s 
The Multi-Locational Urban/Peri-urban Farm guide. 

SPIN and Livestock: Finding the Best Fit

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Established livestock farmers looking to diversify into crop production find their way to SPIN-Farming for the same reasons new vegetable farmers do – SPIN-type operations are quick to set up and produce income. But before established SPIN farmers diversify into livestock, they should apply the same ROI analysis. When they do, they’ll see livestock farming is a much different animal.

SPIN’s relay cropping system has relatively few inputs — capital, labor or land — which makes a quick return possible. No such quick returns exist in most livestock operations with the exception of small meat animals that can be produced in a short time, like broilers and rabbits. But more infrastructure is required for rabbits, or more land for poultry. And these businesses are much more regulated.

What about selling eggs from your backyard chickens? Here’s how SPIN farmer Andrew Bennett lays out those economics: “Let’s say it takes 5 months to raise a chick just to the point that it’s laying small eggs. I spend about $2.50 per dozen eggs just in organic feed costs. A typical hen costs $5 as a chick, $10-$15 in feed to raise to 5 months old, and about $5-$20 in labor. Once I start selling eggs, I need a margin of $1 per dozen to pay back the initial cost of the bird, so you are looking at 20-40 dozen eggs for the bird to finally pay itself off. For most birds, that’s half to a whole lifetime’s worth of eggs, so eggs aren’t profitable unless you can do about 400 hens or more.” You’ll need a pretty big backyard to accommodate them all. That will force your operation further from core markets inside cities and towns. The further you are from population centers, the less sales channels you have, and the more limited your business model options become.

Farming, perhaps more than other businesses, constantly tempts you with ways to spread yourself too thin. Some say that even though livestock might not make sense as a solo enterprise, it compliments other parts of a farming operation. Everything has its price, and it’s up to you to  decide if it’s worth it. SF photo chickens

These chickens belong to SPIN farmer Erik Halvorson who began in 2013, leasing 5 acres from his parents. He started with livestock, offering pork, turkey and eggs. In 2015, Erik  is diversifying to include crops from a ¾ acre plot. He has access to 5 markets within a 30 minute drive. You can read more about Halvorson Farms here.



Quick easy money: Potting up volunteer plants

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

In early spring when your cash flow is still not developed,  your sales can get a boost from a source many growers overlook or toss out: volunteer plants from around your property. Typical plants that do well in pots are catmint, chives, horseradish, mint, rhubarb,  sunflowers and  violets, but you can try just about anything. So instead of weeding them out out, look at them as an early season cash crop.

Once potted up these plants  can be sold within a couple of weeks, after they have established themselves in the container. Typical price points for containers can be SPIN’s usual mix and match pricing scheme of  $3.00 per container, or  2 for $5.00, or even $5.00 or $10.00 each. I know for a fact people will pay $10 for potted up rhubarb. Mint is a big seller of mine, too. Containers can be the typical clay pot or  recycled deli containers.

Money does not grow on trees, but sometimes  it can be found under your feet.

SF photo easy money 1

Volunteers around the garden can be potted up. Basically, just about anything works. This is catnip.

SF photo easy money 2

Here is catnip on its way to market. Mint and rhubarb are easy sells, too.