Make This the Year of Logistical Thinking

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

When I hear tales of woe like this one,  I wonder if sustainable farming should carry a warning label. The last thing this person needs is more platitudes, but “work smarter, not harder” is what SPIN farmers do every day. Here’s what that means in practice.

SPIN farms are owner-operated. You keep most of the profit. You also do most of the work, and there’s a lot of work to be done. To manage it all without becoming overwhelmed and burning out, you need to think logistically. There are any number of ways your farm can fail logistically. A tool you can use to avoid this is work rate analysis which is knowing how much time it takes to do a specific task.

After you take all of your farm tasks through a work rate analysis you will find that you will become more productive because you will start trying to work at your determined optimal rate. Not too fast, not too slow. Just steady, at a pace you can sustain. Once you determine your individual work rate, that becomes your work rate benchmark. You will find yourself wanting to keep up with that established work rate benchmark. In essence, your work rate benchmark gives you something to target and strive for.

You also use work rate analysis to plan out work sessions. A work session is a period of time that you allocate to accomplish a specific task and involves an hour or multi-hour periods of time. The way you schedule your work sessions in any given farm week is work flow. To make farming sustainable from a work flow perspective means that you need to schedule your work sessions so that you get the work done effectively, without
burning yourself out.

Lots of people seem to go into sustainable farming based on magical thinking, but what they need is logistical thinking.

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To find out how to put work rate analysis into play on your farm, get the guide. 

If you’re a Backyard Riches member you can join in the Open House where Wally discusses logistical thinking on January 14, or catch the replay in the Free Resources area  at


Weather Can Be Made To Help With Your Prep Work

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

Weather is always a critical factor in farming, and SPIN farmers look for ways to use it to their advantage. Take today for instance. It’s an atypical fall day. Just before Halloween, and there is no snow on the ground. Late afternoon temperature is still conducive to outside work, if you bundle up a bit. So for me this is great weather for getting a significant volume of root crops washed and put into short term storage in the cooler.

It is much more efficient to do this task outside than inside. Setting up an outdoor workstation takes a few minutes. Only gear needed is a spray gun and wash buckets.

SF photo blog weather prepping

Single digit day time highs C. are perfect for letting the crops dry out during the day. Night time temperatures of 0 C. requires just a few tarps to cover the prepped crops. Once the washed crops dry out, they will last for many weeks in the cooler. I just take out what I need as I need it for market days throughout the winter.

We all know how uncooperative weather can sometimes be, so when there are days when you can make it work for you, go with it.

DDG4 photo 20Rainbow carrots really brighten up those dull winter days at market and are a very high value crop for SPIN farmers. If the aren’t already part of your crop repertoire, find out all about them in this guide.


Are You Over-delivering?

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

Deliveries are killers. They are a huge time suck and expense.I’m hearing from other farmers that the fuel and labour costs are getting harder to justify, no matter how valuable the face time with customers is. I feel your pain.

My solution is to have my customers come to me, with my stand at the farmers market being the hub. My CSA customers come to me. They have a running credit at my stand, which also greatly simplifies logistics. Chefs come to me. I post chef visits on social media to promote how they are sourcing local. They re-post, getting cross-marketing going, and if you promote them, that’s even more incentives for them, and other chefs, to buy from you. Creates a virtuous circle.

The point is to turn your farmers market stand into a storefront, with all your marketing channels converging at that single location. You never have a slow day.

SF photo chef at Wallys stand

More and more chefs are coming to Saskatoon Farmers’ Market . This one is from is Dale Mackay’s Ayden Kitchen & Bar. Ayden is one of my steady customers, and Dale was winner of Top Chef Canada a few years ago. Now you know one of the reasons why. Sourcing locally and getting to know your producer. Here one of his chefs is  getting golden and candy cane beets and broad beans. Sometimes they come to the market a couple times a day. For all you foodies out there, here’s how Dale does it. 


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?

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Does volunteer and subsidized labor undermine the farming business?

Read Part 1 of this post by Wally Satzewich  here. 

Work Rate Puts “Labor Saving” in Perspective

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

I have never been a big fan of labor saving devices. SPIN-Farming is labor intensive, with many farm tasks being done by hand, so it is certainly wise to find ways to work more efficiently, without having to hire workers. My go-to labor saving device is a rototiller, and the savings are pretty dramatic. It can reduce bed prep from hours to minutes. But it requires gas and maintenance.

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Although the tiller allows for quick work rates, in certain situations a tiller is not possible or even efficient. Prepping beds by hand can certainly seem like a daunting task. Turning over the soil with a spade is a farm technique that has been around forever, and for a reason. The tool required is inexpensive and universally available. It doesn’t need gas and rarely breaks down. It is also quiet, which can be an important consideration in an urban context. So hand digging in certain situations may be the wiser, or only, choice.

This labor saving device has caught the attention of SPIN farmers. It is a greens harvester, and at face value it looks pretty slick.

But for the volume amount being harvested, it looks like overkill. I can harvest 10 lbs. of greens in about five minutes with a knife. I don’t have to expend time and expense lugging around and maintaining a device. I have calculated work rates for all my farming tasks, from watering to plug tray production. Work rate is an important SPIN concept not yet widely applied, and it is useful beyond just evaluating what is truly labor saving, and what is not.

Knowing work rates allows you to schedule your weekly workflow, determine when it’s worthwhile to bring in outside workers, and how to evaluate whether you are getting the most of them. People have joked that I am the only farmer they know who takes a stopwatch into the field with them. But figuring out my work rates has left me lots more time for kicking back and enjoying a beer. I’ve been able to sample a fair number over
25 years.

Learn how you can calculate and use work rates so you have more time to drink beer or whatever else you’d like to do beyond just farming, here.

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.



Make Your New Farm Implement a Stop Watch

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

It’s planning season for many, and over the years an increasing number of aspiring/new/hobby farmers have been coming to me to share their thinking. Every year I see that they spend too much time focused on the things that matter least to their success. While it’s fun to draw up a growing plan and a garden layout for the new year, what is crucial to having these plans actually work out is logistics. If I had to name one make or break factor to both short and long term success, it is logistics. Logistics simply means how are you going to get the job done?

Right now I am planning out spring work weeks as well as going through the seed catalogues to develop my planting plan. You need both types of planning happening side by side. I’m looking at planting 500 lbs. of onion sets this spring. Fine, how am I going to make it happen? What you need is a plan for your logistical work flow. Building blocks for your plan include work rate, work session, and work flow, and the tool you need for this is a stop watch. You use it to determine the amount of time required to accomplish a specific task, which is your work rate.

Usually work rate is thought of in terms of a unit of time, such as a minute. One minute work rates are easy to track and make notes on. Work rate can also be defined as the total time required to accomplish one task. Whichever approach is used, the point is to figure out how long it takes to accomplish a small unit of work because that will allow you to figure out how long it will take to accomplish a larger amount of work, which is the type of work you will get done in a work session.

A work session is a period of time that you allocate to accomplish a specific task from beginning to end, and involves an hour or multi-hour periods of time. The way you schedule your work sessions in any given farm week is work flow. To get the work done effectively, without burning yourself out, you need to schedule your work sessions, and to do that you need to know your work rate. So this is how all three concepts are interrelated.

“But,” you say. “I am just starting out. I have no idea what my work rate is.” No problem. Guess. Set your own benchmarks, and adjust them as you get experience. What you will find is that you will get faster and more efficient as the season progresses. These benchmarks will also help you decide if and when to use outside labor. If the people helping you are not achieving work rate benchmarks, then you will know that it is not worth your while to have them help you.

The fun part of SPIN-Farming is being both the brains and the brawn of an operation. Use your brain – and a stopwatch – to figure out how to make the brawn happen.

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Here the classic SPIN straddle makes quick and easy work of planting a 4-row standard size bed. According to the stop watch, it took Gail about 15 minutes to plant one 25 foot row. So she knows to schedule about an hour to plant the whole bed.

Find out how to become master of your farming fate by controlling all aspects of your work flow in Dig Deeper # 1.