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.

DDG5 photo 45 DSC00574

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

 

Don’t Psych Yourself Out About Business Planning

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA 

We are frequently asked to assess farm start ups. Long wordy business plans usually indicate a lack of understanding of what is most likely to determine success. For beginning farmers, the shorter the plan the better.

Traditional ag training has made a fetish out of visioning, self-analysis and planning. If you’re trying to decide whether to move to the middle of nowhere, take on 5 or 6 figure debt, or hitch your wagon to government support, it probably is useful to have your head examined. But time-consuming paper exercises and detailed 3 year plans bear little relation to how effective you’ll be at growing vegetables or running a business.

How you plan to make money is what you need to focus on, and to be able to make clear. And that can be thought through on the back of an envelope as follows:

  • List your start up costs. Keep them as minimal as possible.
  • Decide on the number of your marketing weeks, which is the amount of weeks you will have products for sale. Novice SPIN farmers plan on 20 – 30 marketing weeks.
  • Set a benchmark income figure. The benchmark for novice SPIN farmers is $500/week gross for 20 – 30 marketing weeks, for total first year income of $10k – $15k.
  • Divide your total income by the number of your marketing weeks to get your average weekly income total. That’s your targeted weekly cashflow.
  • Budget overhead at no more than 10% of your total income.

What you now have is a framework for pacing and measuring yourself, keeping yourself honest, and eliminating unpleasant surprises, since you can evaluate and gauge your success against your starting benchmarks as you go through the season. At the end you can reset benchmarks based on experience for year two.

For feedback on what is mission critical to your success, spare us your psychological profile. Use your energy for digging deep into your garden beds, not  your psyche. Just show us your numbers. Then use SPIN 2.0 and the online support group to help you implement a production plan that ensures you meet them.

DDG1 photo 2

 

Can My 2,700 Sq. Ft. Garden Support a 20 Member CSA?

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

SPIN farmers are starting to plan for the 2015 season, so let me share a typical Q&A that might help you in starting to look ahead.

Q: I have 54 2 ft x25 ft SPIN beds. Nest season I am hoping to subscribe 20 families for $20.00 worth of produce for 25 weeks…mid-April to mid-October. Is that feasible from this amount of space?

A: I would say your plan is very do-able, and I see no reason why you couldn’t achieve the $10k revenue you are targeting. Here’s some tips on how best to go about it.

  • For a CSA you need a steady supply of produce to satisfy your families, from spring until fall. This means you need consistent weekly production of a variety of crops.
  • You can relay crop the entire area, about half in intensive, and half bi. That will ensure steady production production throughout the entire season, and it should be managable by one person.
  • Make use of crops like chard, which is many people know how to use now, and which can be planted once, and harvested throughout the entire season.
  • You need to have a strong spring line coming on stream sometime in May, or even earlier. This means plantings of classic crops like lettuce, onions, radish, and spinach.
  • Instead of using SPIN’s standard size beds, you might consider using short beds for your production purposes, which might put your weekly production for some crops more in line with your weekly demands. A short bed is 10 feet long and 2 feet wide. If you planned your production on the basis of short beds, you would have 100 beds to plan with.
  • For instance, a short bed of spinach should yield 20 1/2 lb. bags, or 20 bunches of radish. But working with standard beds will work also, especially if you are thinking of generating a surplus of produce to sell at a farmer’s market.
  • If you have not already, consider buying an upright produce cooler,especially if you are a solo operator. It will make your workflow much more manageable because you can harvest steadily throughout the week rather than having it all gang up the day before delivery. This could be a make or break investment.
  • Use SPIN 2.0 Crop Profiles guide for production planning, to figure out which crops to plant, and in which quantities, in order to achieve the necessary yields. It contains in-bed plant spacing, seed required per bed, seed cost, yields per bed, among other data,  for 40 SPIN crops. You can use it to plan out your relays to be sure you have a wide variety crops, in the required volume, throughout your 6 month CSA.

There is a bigger point to made here, and that is the potential to use a backyard to achieve specific financial goals. This person can gross $10k in 2,700 sq. ft. in a season. Think what that money could be used  for. Maybe an exotic vacation. Or finance a wedding, or build up a college fund. You don’t have to commit to a full-time career change, or give up the opera for crickets, to make money growing food. You don’t even need to don a hair shirt. A microgreens vest works just dandy.

SF photo BUG Farms micorgreens vest Peggy Helvig Alspaugh

photo courtesy of BUG Farms in Salt Lake City UT

Bed Rest Is Not Always the Best Prescription

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

My beds will soon be resting, due to Saskatoon’s sub-zero winters, but if it were up to me I’d keep them going all year round. There is a widespread belief in “letting beds rest” after about 3 to 5 years of production. This notion has its roots in the English countryside, and in the practice there of using leys, which rebuild the soil’s content of organic matter and restores the biological process. This approach works for a large acreage, but it’s not practical in an urbanized/intensive context.

SPIN-scale farmers need to make full use of their land base, and they need to keep an open mind when it comes to keeping their soil healthy and productive. Several of my urban garden plots in Saskatoon have been cropped for a half century, or more, and I am still getting good production. Most serious home gardeners crop their garden continuously, adding manure or compost every year. And certain crops, such as legumes, help rebuild the soil, and they can be incorporated into a SPIN crop repertoire. Classic high-value crops like green beans, broad beans, and peas fall into this category.

When it comes to soil, letting beds rest is not always the best prescription. With proper selection of crops, and the addition of soil amendments, continuous production is entirely feasible. SPIN farmers need to work their judgment and common sense, as hard as their beds, and know which farming practices to hold onto and which ones to let go.

SPIN photo bare plot system a

Vive La Niche

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

Aspiring agripreneurs can always count on receiving this advice: never plant anything without first identifying your market. “Grow what you sell, don’t sell what you grow” is pretty much conventional wisdom now, and that’s progress.

But since SPIN farmers are known for taking things to the next level, what does this advice mean to us? Niches. SPIN farmers play on local demographics, and nowadays there are quite a lot of varieties to choose from. Well-heeled émigré communities are becoming the norm in lots of cities. Specialty crops are seen as inclusive, rather than ethnic, and SPIN-scale growers can use their small plots to serve nearby customers with special needs and differentiate themselves at market.

Here’s an anecdote to make the point. A Philly boxer, Bernard Hopkins, is getting ready to meet his next opponent, Sergey Kovalev. The fight will take place in Atlantic City later this fall. The promoters chose AC because of a big Russian demographic on the east coast, to be sure to draw a crowd. So if I were a SPIN farmer on the east coast, I’d be on the lookout for a new demographic in town and start learning some Russian.

The right to food used to be thought of in terms of having sufficient quantities, or proper nutrition. But in a multicultural world, it is also being defined as having diversity of selection. This is right up a SPIN farmer’s alley because identifying and serving niches is what they are all about. They are not only situated close to their customers, but they also have the rapid response capability to capitalize on new markets. Being small and nimble allows you to cater to a broad range of culinary niches. And that’s a big advantage, sort of like punching above your weight.
SF photo horse radish

I had several $10 bags of horseradish in my market cooler yesterday, which I did not set out on my table. Two people who looked eastern European came by and asked,  “Are you Wally?”  I said “Yes”, and they said, “Do you have horseradish?” I told them I had some, $10/bag. They both take a bag. So word is getting out that I have horseradish. Eastern Europeans also crave green garlic.

Use SPIN’s Small Scale Advantage

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

The emails and mailers are starting to come in outlining all the challenges and rewards of organic/eco/sustainable/regenerative farming, so that means workshop season will soon be upon us. A main theme of SPIN-Farming workshops is to understand and use your small scale advantage to out-compete the larger operators. It’s not hard to do, once you learn the tricks of the trade. Here are a few:

 Use the micro climate advantage on small plots, especially in an urban context. This allows you to get into production much earlier and extend production much later into the season. You can therefore offer crops that are not available from other growers, and charge premium pricing for them.

Make small timely plantings that larger growers can’t bother with. Small means not overwhelming and appropriate for your resources and current situation. Timely means properly sequenced to provide consistent supply, selling into periods of production shortfalls and making quick in-season adjustments.

 Experiment continually with  novel or exotic crops. You don’t have to bet the farm to find your next best seller and differentiate yourself at market.

Be on the lookout for new market niches and cater to them. With the world being increasingly mobile, communities are quickly being reshaped by emigres with distinct culinary tastes, and for many of them money is no object. Serving their unique needs for specialty crops is exactly what it means to be market-driven. Most farmers aren’t fans of deviations from a norm. Their plans are typically set by routines that follow long-term trends. But having the rapid response capability to capitalize on unforeseen opportunities is what SPIN-Farming is all about.

A former musician has this take: “SPIN-Farming teaches you the notes and scales and composition. Then it’s all improv.”Another SPIN farmer likens it to being a ninja. Maybe instead of that farming workshop, your time might be better spent exploring music or the martial arts. However you learn about farming, you can forget elaborate business plans that need executive summaries and table of contents. To grow food and make money nowadays, you need to be nimble and quick, and that means size really does matter.

DDG2 photo 1

Can There Be Too Many SPIN Farmers?

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA  

With more SPIN farmers cropping up, we’re being asked, what is the optimal number  that can be supported by the market? Given the growing demand for fresh, local food, saturation should not yet be  a concern in most urban and suburban markets, which is what supports the type of direct to consumer sales that SPIN farmers rely on. Because of the sub-acre scale of SPIN-Farming, the amount of its production does not cause a market to be ” flooded ” with produce. If you gathered and analyzed data on  produce demands for a particular market, and then calculated the amount of local supply, there are still significant gaps.

The best way to tell if there are too many SPIN farms in a certain locality is by simple economics. Too many producers will result in an unstable economic environment, resulting in producers leaving SPIN-Farming. More efficient SPIN farms will be the ones that stay on for the long term. Unlike a franchise which is based on uniformity, farmers adapt the SPIN system to their local markets and climate, and creative improvisation and evolution is SPIN’s modus operandi. There is no typical SPIN farm. Each one is unique, distinguished by each individual farmer’s talents, preferences, and idiosyncrasies. The one
common denominator is that they are being started without major policy changes or government support. They are entirely entrepreneurially driven.

At this point, the production of individual SPIN farms is so small in relation to the totality of
demand, that it will take many, many SPIN farms in any one locality to satisfy it. So the more SPIN farms in a given area the better, since it will make for stronger farmers markets, a vital restaurant scene and fuel even more demand for locally grown produce by an entirely new class of agri-entrepreneurs.

For farmers concerned about competition, the best farming mantra is a new spin on an old one: Get good, or get out.

Beta Map

Invasive Horse Radish Earns Its Keep

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

For permie-minded farmers who are looking to put some of their growing space into permanent single crop production, horse radish is a good bet. I harvested about 5 lbs. from just 25 square feet. I could have gotten more but the soil was hard, and I just had a spade, so could not get that deep.

I’ll sell it for $10 – $15 per lb. I also have two special orders, one for $30 and the other for $20. Many customers come from an eastern European background, and horse radish is a big part of their culinary culture.  Money seems to be no object for them. But this crop can be made to appeal to a much larger market as well.

Here I have separated the roots, which will be sold, from the crowns, which will be replanted.

SF photo horse radish

Horse radish is known to be an invasive crop, but SPIN farmers should use that to their advantage. Put it in place where you can allow it to take over, and you end up with a crop that pretty much grows itself. Can’t have too much of those.

 

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.