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?

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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.

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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.

 

How GMO Literate Are You?

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

It’s that time of year again when SPIN farmers cuddle up to the fires or their computers to browse seed catalogs. It’s also the time social media fire off the question “How do you know if you are buying GMO seeds?”

A better question might be, “How GMO literate are you?” Most new farmers, consumers, and gardeners have a lot of misconceptions about GMO seed, some of it created by seed companies, and we’re not talking Monsanto. Here are two facts for SPIN farmers to consider that can take some of the angst out of their seed buying this year.

First, there are very few SPIN crops that have a GMO version. According to a 2012 report on NPR, these are the crops that are currently GMO:

1. Alfalfa (for animal feed)
2. Corn
3. Canola (a source for oil)
4. Cotton (for oil)
5. Soybeans
6. Papaya
7. Squash
8. Sugar beets (which aren’t eaten directly, but refined into sugar).

GMO versions of tomatoes, potatoes, and rice have been created and approved by government regulators,  but they aren’t commercially available. A SPIN farmer would have to work really hard to get their hands on GMO seed.

Second, organic seed proponents proclaim organic seed as GMO-free, which may imply that non-organic seed is GMO. But non-organic seed is GMO-free also.

There are good reasons to know the source of your seed – we’ve been saying for a while that farmers should have as close a relationship with their seed suppliers as their chefs. And there are good reasons to be aware of the controversy over genetically modified organisms. But when it comes to GMO’s, let’s learn our P’s and Q’s.

SF photo Brenda fireside catalogs

 

Here’s the seed ordering station for SPIN farmer Brenda Sullivan of Thompson Street Farm in Glastonbury CT. 

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 pored over the past 8 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 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 Curtis Stone or Brenda Sullivan
  • Intensify my land base
  • Jumpstart a Quick Green business in 14 days or less
  • Keep better records
  • Learn GAP
  • 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 biodynamic SPIN farmer LInda Broghi at Abudnant Life Farm
  • Work with a high profile chef
  • X-pand my CSA
  • Year to learn
  • Zip up my farm stand sales

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

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Ring Up Holiday Sales

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

If you are in a year round farmers market like I am, you have the opportunity to fill your stocking with some extra Christmas cash. Markets have gotten much more sophisticated about attracting additional shoppers at this time of year, those who want gifts that are craftsy,  not made in China.

For the last several years, the Saskatoon Farmers Market has been promoting itself as a go-to destination for the holidays, with special events like a Gingerbread House contest (“all team sizes and ages welcome”). This year a special night market in early December became a much anticipated event , and the Dinner in the Dark, that laid out a farmers’ market sourced meal served under gradually dimming light and culminating with dessert in total darkness, sold out weeks in advance.

It’s fun and lucrative to play Santa. Handmade candles, soaps, baked goods, basically any non-produce item will sell, if you put a ribbon around it. To give you a flavor of our market this time of year, come along with Gail and I on a behind the scenes tour of this year’s holiday market.
Merry Xmas.
Wally

SPIN photo holiday Gail at market

Year round indoor markets are in the unique position to capture extra sales at the holidays by attracting gift shoppers. But as a vendor you need to step up your game in terms of product offerings.

SPIN photo holiday tree

Decorating the tree has become a yearly ritual for vendors. We put forth a team effort and bond over some spiked hot cocoa. This tree is not local, and it’s not even alive. When it comes to marketing, we do what’s practical.  

SPIN photo holiday bakers

Bakers really cash in. Platters of homemade cookies can go for as much as $50. Sometimes people gift themselves. At this time of year, you don’t have to twist any arms.

SPIN photo holiday candles

Candles and soaps are other sure bets. Diversifying your produce operation with value added items like these eliminates the hassle of having to have a commercial kitchen.

SPIN photo holiday bird feeder

Another sure bet, tried and tested for several years by Gail. Bird feeder gifts are always the right size and color.

SPIN photo holiday book signing

A book signed by the author is a very personal gift. One you won’t get from a big box store. And whenever you are looking for a gift that is 100% pure how-to, always keep in mind a SPIN guide.

SPIN photo holiday ice sculptures

 

The competitive spirit moves from gingerbread houses to ice sculptures. Even outside events draw crowds.

 

SPIN photo holiday blues snowman

HAVE A COOL YULE EVERYBODY!

 

 

How Much Goes into a Unit?

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

Unlike selling wholesale, there are no established unit sizes in SPIN-Farming, and no standards to go by. So how much to put in a unit is an ever popular topic in our online support group.

To take the mystery out of it for beginning farmers, I tell them to first decide how much money they want to make per bed. Then determine the price/unit combination that will generate that revenue, based on their yields and current market conditions. So the exercise for establishing a price/unit combo goes like this:

  • Set your targeted revenue per bed. SPIN’s benchmark is $100 gross per standard size bed.
  • Set pricing. SPIN’s benchmark of $3.00 per unit, or 2 for $5.00.
  • Calculate how many units you need to sell at the pricing you’ve set  to reach your targeted revenue.
  • Given your yield, calculate how much you can put into each unit.

After going through this exercise, you have arrived at your best guess on a price/unit combo to go to market with. Over time, your guesses will turn into better judgment based on your market experience. For  instance, if you have good yields, but sell out early because you are putting too much in a unit, reduce the unit size so you can sell more. Eventually you will get a good feel for the ranges your customers are willing to pay for a unit.

Also, remember that you should always strive to make the most money you can from whatever size plots you have. If your market conditions are highly favorable because you don’t have much competition, and you are producing hard-to-get, high quality crops, $100 per bed may be under achieving.

As a farmer selling direct to consumers, you should always be adjusting your price/unit combo according to the volume of your production and your current marketing conditions. Above all, you’ve got to make it worth your while. When it comes to pricing and unitizing, your needs – not the customer’s – come first.

hc-ct-3micro-farmingphoto courtesy of SPIN farmer Brenda Sullivan, Thompson Street Farm, Glastonbury CT 

Beginner’s Catch -22: There are no hard and fast rules in farming, so you always need to use your best judgment. But judgment is based on experience, and as a beginner, you don’t have much yet. What to do?

SPIN Crop Profiles to the rescue! They give you yield and pricing benchmarks on 40 classic SPIN crops you can use to make informed assumptions when just starting out. They are also useful for experienced growers. These benchmarks will give you a kick in the pants if you are underachieving. Or, if you have busted pass them, let us know. Stretch goals are what keep SPIN-Farming moving forward.

Winter Markets Keep the Cash Flowing

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

My operation in zone 3 Canada has been a year round one for many years. Now I’m starting to hear from other SPIN farmers who are usually trading their tillers for a snow blowers about now, that winter markets are booming, and that they, too, plan to keep production going.

For instance, a nursery owner in Minnesota is setting up a room to do 36 10×20 trays indoors under lights, and is planning to provide microgreens to his customers from November to May. He wants to know what kind of yield to project from each 10 x 20 tray, and the pricing he should set.  Here’s what I suggest:

  •  Try doing about 10 trays per week for starters.
  •  Think about adding micro radish to the peas for a salad mix. Very popular. Can also sell them as stand alone greens.
  •  I get about 1/2 lb. of micro radish per tray. About 1 lb. of pea greens.
  •  Stay with SPIN’s mix and match pricing of $3.00 2/$5.00, and unitize accordingly, with the idea of targeting at least $20 of revenue per tray. [Note that in some markets SPIN farmers are reporting they have been able to push SPIN’s pricing benchmark to $4 or 2/$8].  
  •  To see if you can save on costs, try growing without lights initially, just room light.
  •  Add lights, say to a max of 8 hours per day, and observe what it does for your production, and determine whether you need them.
  • Some commercial growers grow pea greens/micros in darkness, to get a yellow looking product, which chefs like.

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There are many ways SPIN farmers can continue to make hay while the snow flies. Here are the SPIN guides that can give you some more ideas on how to keep your cash flow going during the winter months:  Indoor Farming with MicroGreens  Four Season Marketing