SPIN-Farming Certification Means Business


What’s it good for? SPIN-Farming certification doesn’t leave you wondering. Once you’ve earned it, what you’ll have to show for it is a moneymaking farm business. The certification program is focused, rigorous, performance-based and produces a measurable ROI.

Completion time depends on the level you are starting from. Here are the levels:

SPIN-Farming Levels of Achievement

$ Pro 1 (Basics concepts) – Novice ($500 average gross/week)
18 Credits
Covers:                                                                                                                                     >Design
>Production techniques
>Basic, low-cost infrastructure and gear
>Harvesting & prepping practices
>Safe farming practices
Graduation requirement: present the plan that generated $500 average gross/week in revenue- crops grown, unit amounts, sales channels, pricing, number of marketing weeks

completion of this level signifies a novice farmer

$$ Pro 2 (includes 2.0 concepts) – Apprentice ($1,000 average gross/week)
21 Credits
Covers:                                                                                                                     >Equipment investments
>Land base allocation
>Extended marketing period
Graduation requirement: present the plan that generated $1,000 average gross/week in revenue – crops grown, unit amounts, sales channels, pricing, number of marketing weeks

completion of this level signifies an apprentice farmer

$$$ Pro 3 – Experienced ($2,000 average gross/week)
12 Credits
Covers:                                                                                                                                   >Work rate
>Cropping strategies
>Crop repertoire
>Extended marketing period
Graduation requirement: present the plan that generated $2,000 average gross/week in revenue – crops grown, unit amounts, sales channels, pricing, number of marketing weeks

completion of this level signifies an experienced farmer

$$$$ Pro 4 – Expert ( $2,000+ average gross per week)
12 Credits
Covers:                                                                                                                                >Maximized marketing period
>Season extension
>GAP compliance
Graduation requirement: present the plan that generated $2,000+ average gross/week in revenue – crops grown, unit amounts, sales channels, pricing, number of marketing weeks

completion of this level signifies an expert farmer

No grades. No papers. You learn by doing with online guidance from a SPIN mentor and peer-to-peer support.

Here’s how it works:
>Pick the level you are starting from
>Be assigned a SPIN mentor
>Earn SPIN credits (you might already have)!
>Achieve progressively higher levels of proficiency and revenue
>Create a moneymaking farm as you go, at a pace that suits your abilities, time and resources

Here’s graduation requirements:
>Follow our online learning program
>Pass a 25 question test
>Provide key 5 SPIN metrics for each level you complete
>Create a moneymaking SPIN farm

For more details on SPIN-Farming certification, go here.

The Entrepreneurial Advantage Makes All the Difference

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

SPIN-Farming and nonprofits are not a natural fit. Sure, SPIN’s planting plan can be used to maximize yields in a minimum amount of space. But SPIN is primarily a franchise-like business model. Those who have the most success with it use it to become self-employed business owners.

SPIN farmers are ambitious and have a lot, or sometimes everything, on the line. They are just as passionate about their work, and their methods are just as virtuous, as mission-driven growers. But at the end of the day, among their missions is to pay the bills. They have the entrepreneurial advantage.

Nonprofit growers have all their costs covered and they can count on a steady paycheck as long as the grant writers do their jobs. They aren’t vested in their own success. They are really social workers who happen to be growing food.

This differentiation is important when assessing the viability of small scale and urban farming. Skepticism is useful and criticism can be constructive, but it is frequently misplaced. The underachievement and failures of many of the new crop of small and urban farms is not because they can’t be viable. It’s because they lack the entrepreneurial advantage.

SPIN photo Kipp sign


Plant With Your Head as Well as Your Gut

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

“Go with your gut” is sometimes good advice. But if you want to succeed in business, you also have to use your head. Over the years I have developed strategies for each of my crops. Having a cropping strategy is especially important for crops that are pretty common or low value, such as carrots, garlic, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and even greens because you have to differentiate yourself at market from other growers, and you have to turn a low value crop into a high value one. That means having a crop available when others don’t, offering different varieties from others, or targeting different markets, like

For instance, carrots have always been a top money making crop for me. But a carrot is not a carrot is not a carrot. There are different sizes of carrots. There are rainbow carrots. There are novelty carrots. Each one has a different place and time throughout my marketing period.

DDG4 photo 15

Carrots are another big crop because they provide steady cash flow. This year I am growing 10 segments. I sell them steadily throughout the season starting with scallion and then progressing to onion bunches and dry onion in the fall.

Leafy greens are another important crop to think through because there are so many options – chard, collards, kale, lettuces, salad mixes, spinaches. Fresh herbs, such as basil, cilantro and parsley can also be included. And then there are micro greens, orach, purslane and other novelty crops. My greens strategy is based on having anywhere from 100 units to 500 units of some combination of greens throughout the season, especially early on before other producers have them.

Knowing why you are growing a certain crop is as important as knowing how to grow it, and having cropping strategies is what turns growing into a business.


Why Not Just Grow High Value Crops?

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

In planning discussions the question frequently comes up, “If you want to make money, why not just grow the highest value crops?”  It’s easy to go through SPIN 2.0 Crop profiles and pull them out – rainbow carrots, garlic, microgreens, onions, shallots. Specialized operations can work – for a while. But farming is never steady state. What works one year can’t be counted on to work  the next.

The wheels of commerce are greased by trends, which are inherently short-lived. Consumer tastes and the competitive landscape are changing much more rapidly than they used to. A hot trend like micros attracts a lot of new suppliers, and then the market becomes saturated. If succeeding in business were as easy as just selling what’s most expensive, we’d all be as rich as Donald Trump.

Then there are the environmental concerns. Unanticipated weed pressure or dry conditions can make the growing of some higher value crops tricky. Disease and insects are also a risk. If all your business is dependent on one or just a few crops, and you have crop failures, just ask the Big Ag farmers how that goes. Boom and bust.

I’ve always followed the “steady Eddy” strategy by experimenting with a wide variety of crops and developing an extensive crop repertoire that includes lower value crops. Green beans, peas, potatoes, and winter squash are easier to grow in heavier weed pressure conditions.

If you sell at market, it is better to have a selection of produce so that you can be a one stop shop. Your regular customers will usually buy whatever you have, so that means more sales to your regulars. Also you will be better able to lure new customers. You also stand a better chance of developing a more consistent cash flow with a more diverse offering of produce. If you want to offer a CSA, a variety of items is usually part of the deal.

Specialized operations can simplify start up or work well as part-time operations. But they also increase your risks and limit your opportunities. As I said, farming is never steady state, and you can expand or narrow your operation as you go through different life stages. Adapt and prosper!

SPIN photo microgrees and field

Man does not live by micros alone. 


Is Organic Certification Worth It?

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

The question frequently comes up, Do SPIN farmers get organic certification? The real question is, Is organic certification worth it?  Let’s think it through from a SPIN farmer’s perspective.

Organic certification has cost and effort associated with it, so you need to determine if there is a business advantage to having it. SPIN is a direct marketing model so growers sell direct to their customers. They can explain their methods, show photos of their operation and even have customers come visit their plots. That is how they build trust, and it is what has driven the growth of farmer’s markets over the last 15 years. People want to know the color of their farmers eyes. That is the advantage SPIN farmers have – they can build trust directly. Organic certification is more useful for growers who can’t do that because they sell through middlemen. They have to outsource trust building to certification agencies.

The bottom line is that for SPIN farmers, it probably makes more sense to put the cost and effort of certification into building relationships with customers instead.

SF photo blog certification John at farm stand

Here John Greenwood of JNJ Farms in Macomb IL sells to a customer who always knows where to find him. His plots are 5 minutes from the market. 


How Much Land Do You Need to Support a 100 Member CSA?

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

In the SPIN online support group, business models are debated as hotly as growing practices. A recent topic was CSA’s. Some like the control it gives them over their planning, revenue and customer base. Others feel it limits a farmer’s upside and boxes their thinking. While there are fiercely held opinions, there is no definitive answer. How you make your money is as personal a decision as how you grow. Best way to figure it out is with some soul searching and a few beers.

Once you commit, though, the important questions can be answered by numbers crunching. Like this one: How much land do you need to support 100 CSA members? I have never done a CSA, but since SPIN has some benchmarks, it’s easy to crunch some numbers and get a reasonable answer. Let’s say 1 acre has 400 standard beds. Let’s also say that each standard SPIN bed can produce 50 units, on average. 400 x 50 = 20,000 production units. If you do a bi-relay on 100 of those beds, that’s an extra 5,000 units 25,000 units is therefore a reasonable and conservative production target.

If a share basket had 10 units of production per week, for 20 weeks we are looking at 1,000 production units per week, or 20,000 in total for the season. So 1 acre of SPIN-type production could support a 100 member CSA. Another way to figure this is using SPIN segments. There are 40 segments in 1 acre. Each segment can produce 500 units. If each share has 200 units, each segment would support 2.5 shares.

These numbers probably won’t be exactly right in most situations, but they provide a reasonable answer to make a plan and execute. Then we can review your numbers and see how to improve. More relays? Maybe. But is the extra labor worth it? Let’s run more numbers. Partnering with other farmers on a full diet CSA? Check in with David Elias of Hooligan Farm who’s trying that this year.

SF photo David Elias with juice

He’s probably not down the street from you, so you can’t grab a beer, or a smoothie. But you can catch him in the SPIN forum, which is the next best thing.

Membership in SPIN’s online hub for backyard-based growers is available to anyone who purchases our learning programs. Hope you’ll join in! 

New Year, New Condo

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

There is a new 100 + unit condo opening up across the street from the Saskatoon Farmers Market. Starting late spring/early summer hundreds of new customers will be streaming past my stand. The development is called “The Banks”, and it is dubbed ” A New Way of Urban Living.”

SF photo condo sign

Currently the west side Saskatoon where my market is located, is a mixed demographics bag. A lot of rough-side-of-town types and progressive younger people. Up until now there has not been too much in the way of high income, this part of town.

Talking to other market vendors, the consensus seems to be that younger people in their 20’s probably wouldn’t be able to afford these new condos. Instead, these newcomers will most likely be middle-to-high income. Chances are there will be a wide variety of ages, but probably no senior citizens. Probably most won’t have families because the units are too small.

SF photo condos under cosntruction

So what does this mean for me? Reviewing my crop repertoire, I don’t see the need to change what I’ve been offering. But I will need to ramp up production. So my planning for this year will include figuring out the logistics of that. Responding to high demand is a great challenge to have. Quick Greens, such as pea shoots, micro greens and sunflower shoots can easily be ramped up  because they don’t take much space are short turnaround. But SPIN-scale production of longer season crops that require more space is trickier, and I’m in the course of figuring out how to best utilize my larger peri-urban plots.

The rumour mill has it that a Whole Foods will be opening up in this development. I formulated SPIN’s approach to packaging and pricing in response to the big guys, so I’m already positioned to deal with them. take them on. Whole Foods is not cheap, and most of its produce probably is not locally sourced. So my farmer’s market, which is a producer-only, has a clear competitive advantage for us locals, and my stand pricing can stay the same.

There’s actually a big benefit of having Whole Foods as part of the local food scene because it will draw more new people to this part of town, much like an anchor store in a mall. So my market will become, for the first time, part of a destination spot. The new residents will check out Whole Foods, then the farmer’s market, and then get what they need, probably shopping at both.

As you can guess, my farmer’s market is abuzz with high expectations, and management knows it needs to take its marketing to a new level. Plans include a welcoming party and leafletting to all the condo units. My personal marketing will emphasize the chemical-free and hyper-local qualities of my produce, and I’ll be handing out business cards, and engaging customers at my stand. I am anticipating that one person will still be able to handle the customer volume, but there will be much less downtime than in previous years. So I will need to do more pre-bagging at home.

Before I had a chance to complete this post, I learned that there is another set of condo complexes slated to be developed near the market. I am banking on all these people who are embracing a new way of urban living, will also want to embrace this urban farmer.

How Good a Boss Are You?

Courtesy of Roxanne C, Philadelphia PA

Among the top reasons people become SPIN farmers is they want to be their own boss. But that doesn’t mean they are good ones. Managing yourself requires a different skill set from managing employees, but it’s a skill set just the same.

What are the signs that you’re not being a good boss of yourself? Vague commitments:  “I want this to flow into a full-time business some day.” Frequent excuses: “No one will buy a CSA share from me in my first year in business.” Cop-outs: “I can skip the market just this once.”  Indulgences: “Acquaponics is so cool, and I have the space.” Complacency: “As long as I cover the bills, I’m ok.”

Whether you need to get over the first hump, or take your business to the next level, one way to make sure 2016 is all you want it to be is follow these 7 steps:
1) quantify your goals
2) be sure they are realistic
3) write them down
4) share them with someone else
5) break them down to specific tasks
6) create a timetable for completing them
7) meet regularly with someone who’s been over much the same ground to review your   progress

Where there is a way, there is not always the will. Beginners and pro’s alike can benefit from having someone other than themselves to be accountable to, whether that be a SPIN coach or a mentor. Look for someone who is experienced enough to know what is possible, so that you don’t under or overachieve, and what is practical, so that you work towards being effective rather than perfect.

In 2016, celebrate your s-mall p-lot in-dependence, but don’t always go it alone.

SPIN photo Thumbs up

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.