Farmers Markets Reality Check

Courtesy of Roxanne C, Philadelphia PA

One the most frequently debated topics in the SPIN online support group is our usually fraught relationships with our farmers markets. They’re the highlight of our weeks, and the most fulfilling part of what we do, where we feel the appreciation and trust of our customers, and get the satisfaction of knowing our products are helping them maintain their health and well-being.

What goes on behind the scenes is also our biggest source of frustration and disillusionment. As one farmer says, “Farmers’ markets are notoriously difficult to run. I’ve been in this business a while, at different farmers’ markets, and there’s been trouble at every single one.” Take your pick. Too few vendors. Not enough of the right ones. Too little traffic. Too much of the wrong kind. True farmers versus resellers. Board intimidation. Financial mismanagement. Too restrictive by-laws. Petty politics. Legal threats.

It’s a rude awakening for some, having to deal with all the things they thought they went into farming to avoid. But to generate income from farming, you need to realize that, being in business for yourself doesn’t mean you can be in business alone. It’s a collaborative endeavor, one that requires trade-offs and compromises.

As the local food movement gathered momentum over the last two decades, farming has attracted those seeking a deeper sense of community, and they’ll find it.But it’s not a refuge. They’ll also find conflict, too. It just comes with the territory.

SF photo blog farmers market blackboard a

10 Characteristics of Successful SPIN Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C.,Philadelphia PA

We get asked all the time, “Who is the typical SPIN farmer?” The question comes from those who want to make money farming, but have doubts about whether they have what it takes to succeed. It’s their round-about way of trying to find out if they measure up.

The true readiness of a SPIN farmer can’t be determined by standardized skills assessment sheets or formulaic self-evaluation forms. SPIN farmers, by definition, are doers. If you are serious about becoming a farmer, and are trying to figure out how to go about it, one of the best ways we can help is to give you real-world examples to follow. So each month we host an online meetup with a SPIN farmer who explains how they got started, what their farm is like and how much money they are making.

There really is no typical SPIN farmer, but what is emerging from our meetups are these 10 common characteristics:

1. They are production-driven
2. They sell their products for a premium
3. They understand that the story of their farm can be turned into economic worth in the marketplace
4. They set goals, plan, and identify measurable objectives
5. They track their SPIN numbers
6. They do not take on much, if any, debt
7. They view change as opportunity
8. They innovate new approaches to business arrangements, such as networking, partnerships, and diversification.
9. They keep up to date on food trends
10. They know how to assess, take on and manage reasonable risk

If you can’t find a SPIN farmer in your neck of the woods to learn from, you’re welcome to drop in on our online SPIN member meetups. Follow us on facebook for the schedule. Though every one of our members has a unique story to tell, they all agree on one thing. The best way to get started is to just do it. SPIN makes it low-risk, and you’ll know quickly if you have what it takes. Here’s how well some of them are doing, and they are all eager to tell you how they did it.

SF photo blog characteristics just do it


Priority # 1 in Year 1

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

If my email is any indication, 2017 might produce another bumper crop of new farmers. Those who are finding their way to me for advice come well-equipped with best practices and lengthy to-do lists. Very little of it has to do with making a go of it as a business. My advice is to keep an open mind about the farming industry’s sacred cows. Here are five that first-year farmers sometimes spend far too much energy on.

Composting is a multi-year process. Segment size production areas will need hundreds of pounds of finished compost. Larger areas, even more. You can start the process in year 1 if you have the space, but you certainly should not feel like a failure if you don’t. And you certainly shouldn’t aim to meet all your soil prep needs by closing any loops. Other soil natural amendments can be used before your composting gets up to speed, and fine tuning your operation’s inputs versus outputs equation can’t be figured out in your first year. You can ease into composting with a modest setup which might include four
or five 4 ‘ by 4 ‘ by 4 ‘ feet bins. Wooden packing crates you can get for free will get you off to a great start.

Seed saving
Seed saving is another worthy practice, but it takes years to develop substantial amounts of seed. Again, you can learn the process and pick up on other’s experience, but for your first few years don’t create extra pressure by trying to aim to become your own seed supplier.

Season extension
This is an obsession that has grown in recent years. But starting out you should beware of anything that will add complexity to your operation – and structures that require significant expense and specialized expertise make production more challenging. Instead, try extending your season with strategic crop selection – choosing crops that do well in cool weather conditions, timing of plantings, frost tolerance. You will be surprised with how far “simple” growing will take you.

Rain water harvesting
Rain water harvesting is another worthy practice, but consider this. Elaborate water harvesting systems can increase efficiency – until they break down or malfunction. And they require investment, specialized knowledge and time to set up. It’s better to start simply and perfect more sophisticated systems over several years. Very basic watering methods using only a hose and some hardware store valves is all you need to start.

Cover cropping
Cover cropping can be important for weed control and soil building. But on typical SPIN-scale plots, it really isn’t practical. On larger areas it can also be difficult to work the crops back into the soil if you don’t have the right equipment. So proceed slowly, getting familiar with various techniques. In the meantime, use alternate methods that are much
simpler, like scuffle hoeing an area when the weeds are still at an early stage for weed control, and use local “feed store“ fertilizers like alfalfa pellets, blood meal and oil seed meals for soil building.

What should be the priorities of a first year farmer? There’s only one. Production. You need to develop the ability to grow consistently, in significant volume, at commercial grade. Few master it in year 1. If you also try to make your farm a showplace for all the latest and greatest farming practices, you might never master it at all. And a farm that’s not
producing is just a heap of compost. So keep those emails coming. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll end up with a shorter 2017 to-do list than what you start with.

Maximizing production from small plots is what SPIN-Farming is all about. Relays is how you do that.

Maximizing production from small plots is what SPIN-Farming is all about. Relays is how you do that.



How Do you Project Market Share?

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

With selling season almost upon us, one first year urban SPIN farmer writes:

“At this point I am taking a stab in the dark and estimating 5-10% of my local farmer’s market 3,000 weekly customers might pick up a 1/2 lb unit of salad mix or baby greens = 75-150 lbs. of greens a week. I have been shopping at this market for 15 years and it has grown very popular. Most vendors have fairly conventional fair and I haven’t yet seen microgreens and baby salad and greens mixes, which will be our focus. We are aiming for the ‘instant salad’ niche with salad mix, sunflower shoots, herbs, small table bouquets and tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, carrots and baby roots as the season progresses. Is this a realistic range or way off?” 

I never think in terms of market share because it is too hard to pin down. There are too many variables in play for a projection like that to be made. These variables include:

> > what your produce looks like – quality and packaging
> > what your stand looks like
> > how well you connect personally with customers
> > the appeal of your niche crops
> > how successful you can be at capturing early season sales– customers stick with             who they buy from first
> > how well you differentiate yourself from other growers at market – if most aren’t city-            based that could be a huge selling point for you

You just have to go in ready to compete.

SF photo local foods 1

Related posts: How the Pros CompeteCompetition is Healthy


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.


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. 


Move Forward by Thinking Backwards

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

Every bit of advice I encountered about starting a farm suggested not starting with any kind of CSA program in the first year.  I did it anyway because it just seemed like the right fit for our farm scale and values.  The SPIN system gave us the confidence to dive in.

We knew that to keep our members happy, we had to have steady production and a balance of crop selection to harvest throughout the season, but accomplishing this is a challenge.  When the average gardener thinks about growing a tomato, they start with the tomato seed.  CSA farmers start with the tomato sale.  This shift in mindset makes all the difference.  In order to plan effectively, we need to start with the end result and work backwards.  Anyone can follow the same algorithm if you know your weekly box value, your units of sale (ie,1/2lb bag of lettuce for $5), and your expected yields per standard bed.  Just layout a new spreadsheet and follow the steps below:

  1. Decide on the weekly and total value you want to offer your members for the season. This year, we decided on a $35 weekly value for our Standard Share memberships and we will offer this for a 15 week season from the first week of July to mid October.  That leaves us with a membership price of $525.
  2. Determine the contents of the first of your weekly boxes and be specific. Write down the quantity and value of each crop that each box will contain.  Most of our units are $5.00, so I generally need a combination of about 7 items per week.
  3. Repeat #2 for each of the remaining weeks of the season. Change the combinations as you expect new crops to be ready for harvest.  Your members will appreciate your boxes more if you consider combinations that would work well for meal preparation.
  4. For each crop, total the units of production needed for the entire season for one member. This will show you both the quantity of crop you need to produce and the value of each crop your members will be receiving.  For example, I can see that out of the $525 total share price, $40 will go towards 8 lbs of heirloom tomatoes.
  5. Decide how many members you would like to serve and calculate your total production needed for each crop. If you don’t know, do the math for 10 or 20 and see what things look like.  Just multiply all of the totals by 10.  This step is simple, but important because it transforms your quantities into numbers that are on the same scale as your standard bed production numbers.  If 10 members all need 8 lbs of tomatoes, I need 80 lbs in total.
  6. Determine the number of standard beds you need to plant for each crop using your crop totals and the expected yield per standard bed. For example, with tomatoes I can calculate that based on at least 100 lbs of production per 50 sq ft bed, I will need 0.8 of a bed to serve 10 members.  I always round up to make the math easy and for a bit of production insurance.  The SPIN 18 guide is extremely helpful for this stage!
  7. Add up all of the beds to determine the total number of beds you would need for 10 members.

That’s it.  Do you have enough land?  Can you add another 10 members?  Can you adjust your crop proportions to make better use of your land base?

SF photo Jared blog Move Forward

Need help with your production planning? Then hang out in the SPIN forum where you can pick the brains of the most successful backyard farmers today – like Jared. A free trial membership is available with the purchase of any SPIN guide.  

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.


A Planning Method to Stick With

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

So this is what a typical quiet evening at home looks like these days.  My wife Rachel snuck this photo while I was in full head scratching planning mode a few nights ago.

SF photo Jared planning mode

Now that I know how many families we’ll be growing for and what size of memberships they have chosen, I can begin fitting the pieces of the puzzle together.  Across our five plots, we have a total of 86 standard sized beds to work with and over 30 different crops to fit in, all with specific proportions and timing based on the harvests we need for our farm members.  Added to that are the demands of crop rotation and consideration for unique pest pressures and soil differences at each plot.  As Rachel would say, it’s a bit of a tricky pickle!

Spreadsheets have been a crucial part of the planning process but I can only stare at a computer for so long.  This year, I am experimenting with a new hands on planning method using magnets and white boards.

If you’re keen to know how it works, here are a few details.  First, I mapped out each of our plots on a white board to show the number of standard beds that were available.  Then I cut magnets to represent all of the different crops that need to be accounted for throughout the season.  For example, my spreadsheet calculations show that we will need about 12 beds of lettuce throughout the season so I made 12 lettuce magnets. Pretty simple right, but that’s not best part yet.  Planting 12 lettuce beds is pretty easy.  The challenge is timing the harvest of those 12 beds of lettuce and along with all of the other crops so that our members get a nice mix of vegetables over the course of 15 weeks.

Timing the harvest of our crops is the real puzzle and that is the strength of this planning system.  To show the passing of time, all of the black beds are cut to the same length so that each 1/2 inch in length represents one month in time starting in April and ending in October.  The white crop magnets are cut to a length too, and their length represents the amount of time they require in a bed.  That means those lettuce magnets I mentioned earlier are all 1 inch in length to show that they will occupy no more than 60 days in a bed.  The system lets me easily tinker with plots like the one below where many beds will see up to 3 different crops throughout the season.

SF photo Jared Regier magnet farm plots

Once constructed, these little magnet farm plots have made the work of field planning much more enjoyable.  They have also helped me see some crop rotation solutions that I probably would have missed otherwise.  I think this is a method I will stick with for years to come.

Need help with your crop planning? Purchase any of our guides and get free trial membership to the SPIN forum. There, you can pick the brains of the most successful backyard farmers today – like Jared.