Flexibility Is A Farmer’s Most Valuable Asset

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Saskatoon is losing a farm many never knew was there, especially its neighbors. Wally Satzewich has sold the birthplace of SPIN-Farming, a suburban-style house that served as a backyard farm for over 25 years. Gone are the beds, the greenhouses and the basement grow room. The backyard farm that was built over a quarter of a century took just a few weekends to disassemble. That’s the beauty of SPIN-scale farms. When
life changes, they can too. Here today. Gone tomorrow.

Being rooted to the land is what has defined farming for generations. The practical reason is all the time and effort spent in soil building. But since SPIN farms are typically 40,000 sq. ft.(about an acre) or less, soil doesn’t represent a big investment. The plot in Saskatoon was only one of several Wally uses, and at only 1,000 sq. ft., it’s easily replaced.

Wally is still a full-time farmer. His home base now is Pleasantdale, and it meets two of his biggest farm requirements – municipal water service and a good Internet connection. His grow room is put back together, and the greenhouses may or may not be pressed back into service. He’s figuring out how to structure his new operation now that he has a 2 hour commute to market instead of a 5 minute one. His crop repertoire is getting a revamp.

But he’s got lots of options because he realized long ago that being tied to the land can mean having a noose around your neck. In a time when the ability to change quickly and continually is a competitive advantage, permanency isn’t at all useful. Flexibility, not land, is a small farmer’s most valuable asset.

SF photo fb mobility farm definition



SPIN-Farming in Plain Sight

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA 

The beauty of SPIN-Farming is that it can use spaces that are not suitable for traditional farming. Any remnant of land that measures at least 1,000 sq. ft. can contribute enough production and revenue to be worth a farmer’s time. So when you put on your SPIN glasses you start to see cropland everywhere.

But not everyone thinks farming is beautiful. In fact some communities have bylaws prohibiting the growing of food in front yards. So that means SPIN farmers sometimes need to get creative. Like here.

SF photo Rod Olson front lawn a

At this site, the backyard is a kale forest since the SPIN farmer, Rod Olson, owner/operator of Leaf & Lyre Urban Farms specializes in that crop (varieties: Curly and Red Russian), selling $15k a year to one restaurant alone. But he just couldn’t resist putting the front yard to use, too, so he created a “river of food.” It’s not your standard SPIN beds, but it provides food to the owner throughout the season in exchange for the use of her backyard space. So Rod gets his kale factory and keeps peace with the neighbors. And who knows? It may launch a new business designing food river gardens, once the neighbors see just how beautiful an edible garden can be.

SF photo blog kale

Leaf & Lyre Urban Farms specializes in kale. Other lucrative specialty crops include leafy greens, garlic, carrots and potatoes, and flowers.


Breaking New Ground – Across the Street

Courtesy of Jared Regier, Chain Reaction Urban Farm, Saskatoon SK

We are putting a boulevard space into production this season. It happens to be right across the street from our home and has full sun exposure.

SF photo blog Jared breaking new ground  1

It will take a bit of extra work to roll out and clean up a water line each time we irrigate, but we will save a lot of travel time. We are mindful of the risk involved in having our crops out in the open but we will avoid tempting crops like tomatoes and hopefully minimize theft.

Neighbours have told me that they have seen nothing but grass in this boulevard space for as long as they have lived there. In some cases this means up to 60 years. Some of them admitted to mowing it once in a while but that is about as much action as it has seen. The boulevard garden registration process with the city of Saskatoon simply requires approval from adjacent land owners and compliance with a few height restrictions and setback allowances from the curb. Thankfully, the neighbours have all been on board with our efforts so we have been able to march ahead steadily.

Once the plot was registered officially, I got to work. Here are the steps I followed to prepare the soil for vegetable production. These steps should work pretty well for any new ground if you are starting a garden with a similar piece of land.

Step 1: The ground was very compacted so I dug a large part of it by hand with a spade as a first step just to help our
rototiller get a little deeper. I did not remove the grass because it is still valuable as decomposing organic matter in the

Step 2: After spading, I immediately tilled the entire plot thoroughly, just letting the tiller go as deep as it could manage, which which was only 2 to 4 inches at this stage.

Step 3: I waited a couple of weeks to let any surviving grass use up some of its energy to get reestablished. There were a few areas with quack grass that required careful removal of the roots at this point.

Step 4: I broadforked the entire plot to make it possible for my tiller to work a little deeper. This was time consuming but made a big difference.

Step 5: I tilled the plot again thoroughly and was able to get much deeper this time thanks to the broadfork work.

Step 6: I measured and marked the standard sized beds. From this point on, I will never walk on the bed space.

SF photo blog Jared breaking new ground 2

Step 7: Next, I ordered 8 yards of screened compost and top dressed each bed with a layer about 4 inches thick. I simply spread the compost on the surface so it can act as a mulch to suppress new weeds and also still enrich the soil. Worms and water will slowly work for me to distribute the nutrients and organic matter from the compost into the rest of the soil below.

SF photo blog Jared breaking ground 3

There you have it. Now that the soil is prepped for planting, the only setup work left at this plot is the irrigation system. I will be trying a new style of micro sprinkler at this location which I am excited about, but the details will need to wait for another day. I will explain more about this system in the future after I have had some time to use it for a while.
reprinted from Chain Reaction Urban Farm newsletter.

Find out what other unconventional spaces backyard farmers use and how they prep them in the SPIN Online Support group. Receive a free trial membership with the purchase of any SPIN guide.  


Working the Soil is What Farmers Do

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA 

Farmers get attached to their soil for good reason. No soil, no business. They have to treat it right, and there are lots of groups and movements telling them so. They may be overstating their case, however, if farmers are starting to feel guilty, defensive or ashamed whenever they pick up a shovel or fire up the tiller.

A SPIN farmer in Hawaii recently wrote:

Quick question for ya’ll …

I grow arugula here on Maui as you know. You also know it’s essentially a quick crop to grow. I plant it in sections at different times, so I always have available product for sale. My question is with regards to overtilling. After each harvest, every 6 to 7 weeks, I till the area (depth of 5″ +/- inches, composting old plant into soil) and reseed for the next crop. I’ve been reading about the issues of soil disturbance in doing so, but how is this to be avoided? Mahalo for your thoughts.

Agriculture disturbs the soil, always has and always will. You can’t plant without some type of soil disturbance. If you think rototilling is too harmful to the soil, you can pull the spent plants by hand instead of tilling in. Then you can use a hand tool, such as a three pronged cultivator, to bed prep. Then rake the bed, so it is level. So using hand tools, even on acre-size plots is do-able, if you feel the trade-off in time and effort is worth it.

If the question relates to a decrease in productivity, you should consult with a soil expert. But most often it stems from a philosophical concern. Wally has been cropping some of his backyard plots with a tiller for over 20 years and the soil remains healthy and productive. He loses no sleep over soil disturbance.

If the thought of working the soil disturbs you, you might want to consider a different line of work.

SF photo do not disturb sign

Find out how SPIN farmers keep their soil healthy and productive in the SPIN online support group. Free trial membership comes with the purchase of any SPIN guide.

Losing Land is No Tragedy for a SPIN Farmer

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

There was a plot I had been farming for about five years, and now it’s gone. The owner sold her house that it was attached to, and she had no interest in accommodating me as part of the deal. If this were a traditional farming story, I’d be playing the tragic hero-farmer being kicked off his land.

That’s not my story. I can actually say “Good riddance.” It was a good plot. It was about a half hour’s drive north of my Saskatoon home base. It was 7,000 square feet, so 7 segments. I’ve grown my longer season crops there – onions, potatoes, squash, and I could count on it contributing $7K – $12K to my bottom line each year. But over the years, its negatives started outweighing the positives. Traffic on the drive there got crazier, and I obtained other plots in the opposite direction, so logistics were more burdensome.

Now a friend at market has about 6,000 sq. ft. he says I can use which is only a couple of miles from another one of my plots. So I can manage both in one day. To make up the loss of the 1,000 sq. ft. I can intensify production. So this story has a happy ending: I am losing a peri-urban site that was becoming tough to manage, and getting a new site that will be easier to integrate.

That’s the advantage to being a multi-locational SPIN farmer. You have more options to access land (in the US there are 40 million acres of lawn), and you are less likely to get stuck in a rut.

SF photo blog Losing land

Goodbye plot. You served me well, but I won’t be crying in my beer over this breakup.

SPIN farmers have innovative strategies for accessing land. You can find out how they find and manage in the SPIN online support group.  Free trial membership comes with the purchase of any SPIN guide.

Raised Beds May Work Against You

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia, PA

When you get serious about production, the first thing to go are those raised beds. Recently SPIN farmer Rex Landings cleared out the last of his.

SF photo Raised beds Rex

When you turn a garden into a business, you start using time and labor saving tools the average gardener does not, like a tiller and a seeder. So you’ll need to consider how well they work with raised beds. They are expensive to build, cumbersome to work, not water efficient, and can dry out quickly in arid climates. They don’t work in every context, for instance, when you are renting a plot without a long term agreement.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is they are permanent. That means you can’t change your layout to grow crops that aren’t suitable for beds or put in very large scale plantings.

Raised beds can have their place, mostly for smaller-sized plots. Some advantages are they warm up earlier, and drain better during periods of heavy rain. The wood frames also can serve as anchors for row covers or low tunnels. But unless the soil you have is contaminated or your site has poor drainage, there’s no good reason to use them. They only limit your design options, and your thinking. If you don’t have to use them to solve problems, raised beds may actually create ones.



What is the Best Way to Prep Land?

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

Early springs around the US and Canada means discussions are heating up in the SPIN online support group on the best way to prep land. As with so many farming questions, the answer is, “It depends.” There is no right answer.

For instance, the best answer in this case is not necessarily the obvious one. A large multi-segment area in the country can be prepped with just a spade, growing on a staggered basis over time.

SF photo fb spade

A small backyard area can be put into play with a rototiller in a few minutes.

SF photo fb tiller

It all depends on the logistical and practical concerns a farmer is dealing with at any one time. So whenever the answer is “It depends”, that is not a cop out. It means whoever is answering the question operates in the real world and knows that the right answer is not a dictate, but a process.


How to Scope Your Startup When Land Is Not an Issue

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

SPIN is closely associated with urban farming because it requires little space to support a farm business, and you don’t have to own the land you grow on. But it’s equally valuable in a situation like this:

Hi. We have purchased 18 acres and expect to move to it later this summer. I have no experience in farming and very little in gardening.  Your guides have helped me tremendously as I layout my farm. However there is one question I haven’t figured out yet.  I need to establish some realistic goals on exactly how much we can do.  Equipment isn’t much of an issue. I plan on buying a big BCS with most of the gardening implements. In your experience how many standard beds can two people realistically expect to manage full time?

For landowners of sizable acreage, these six factors are the ones to consider when defining how ambitious you should be in your first year.

  • Age and fitness of growers
  • Gardening/farming background
  • Motivation
  • Financial goal
  • Readiness of plots
  • Land base allocation

If the land you have is ready to farm, you might put in about an acre of production, and control your effort through strategic land base allocation. Put a small percent of that acre in intensive relay production, some in bi-relay and most in single crop production with relatively easy to grow crops. Your innate ability to grow will be big variable in your first year or two.The more you do it, the better you get. As the years go on, you can re-balance the intensity of your production, putting more of your initial acre into intensive relays, and expanding to multiple acres with single crop production.

Success at any scale of farming requires mastering production, which means growing consistently, in significant volume, at commercial grade, over an extended period of time. The speed that you master production is dictated by the size of land you have in production. The smaller your growing space, the faster and easier you will master production.

SPIN Photo Gail's place in Manitoba5000sf

If you have lots of acres, you’ll stack the deck in favor of your long term success by thinking and operating like a SPIN farmer.


Location, Location, Location

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

Farmers are defined by their location. Crops, growing practices, markets, pricing, all are place-based. Whatever success I have had, though, has come from not allowing myself to be limited by the usual constraints. Take my land base, for instance.

I first started on 20 acres in the country. When I could not make the business work, I downsized to less than an acre using multiple urban backyards, including my own.

DDG3 photo 13

My urban backyard plots have numbered up to 25 and collectively have never totaled more than 2/3 of an acre. Over the years the yards I have farmed have come and gone. I gave up some when they were sold because I did not want to have to deal with new owners. Others proved to be too small. Not having to make a long-term commitment to any of them gave me time to figure out what was optimal.

That’s what led me to take on a few peri-urban sites about 25 miles from my urban backyard.

DDG4 photo 7

I’ve also picked up some properties in a small rural town a few years back because the price was right.

DDG3 photo 6

So right now my farm looks like this:

Urban: (my backyard plot and home base; includes a small plastic unheated greenhouse and indoor grow room)                                                                                                     1,000 sq. ft.  

Peri-urban site: (2 plots owned by others)                                                                     20,000 sq. ft.

Rural: (plot owned by me)                                                                                             15,000 sq. ft.

Growing at these broad range of locations simultaneously gives me a full site line of the trade-offs of each. In general, I see now I paid too much money in rent over the years. If I were ever to ramp up my urban production again, I would find owners who recognized the value of what amounts to my providing property maintenance who would not charge me rent. The plot would have to be sizable and in close proximity to my home base to make it worth my while now.

If you want to lump me into the hot new trend of urban farming, you won’t be wrong. Or if you think I belong to the agriburbia or back to land movements, that’s true enough too. I don’t like to be typecast, so I just call myself a SPIN farmer and leave it at that.

SPIN Apprenticeship Lesson: Making A Bed with a Rototiller

Courtesy of Bryon, Saskatoon SK

I am now starting to appreciate the phrase repeated by so many experienced farmers about the need to get your hands in the dirt. It has been very exciting these past few days, as I’m being exposed to more aspects of the occupation. The one I want to talk about in particular is operating a rototiller, and how to use it for bed prep.
SF photo Bryon 1
I loved being being able to physically experience what it’s like to implement this basic SPIN concept, preparing a bed. Doing and seeing what’s necessary to divide a segment into beds was really helpful. One thing that Wally stressed to me was that using strings and other cumbersome set ups are simply not worth the time and effort. Extra care must go into the first lines made in bed prep, though, to ensure uniformity.
SF photo Bryon 2
It was great to get a feel for the workings/mobility of a rototiller. We were using a 5hp briggs and Stratton BCS 710 with an 18 inch tiller implement. Wally has recommended I purchase a larger model with 8 hp and variable work speeds. I have done some initial sourcing for a BCS 722 and will hopefully find one locally on my trip to Ontario. I will update the situation on here as details arise.
SF photo Bryon 3
First we went through an area preparation, tilling the leftover vegetation into the ground. Two passes over the area was good. It was done in quite a small area, 250 sq feet so I got practice with tiller mobility.

Next we marked the edge of the far bed by pushing an Earthway seeder without seeds. This was the first line in the area, and it’s worth taking your time to make this one very straight. This initial line acts as the quide for your tiller and therefore determines the rest of your beds.
SF photo Bryon 4

By the fifth bed I felt quite a bit more comfortable and confident with the machine. The beds after being rototilled have a valley in the middle. Wally impressed me with a little trick of using a flipped over garden rake and dragging it lightly across the surface to flatten it.

I am more excited now to find my own rototiller and start putting it to work!