Setting Restaurant Pricing

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco CA

Basic wholesale organic pricing for some major metropolitan areas in the USA can be found using the Rodale Institute organic wholesale prices online tool:

The USDA has quite a bit of different kinds of pricing info at:

Find out what restaurants are paying for the crop in your area. If your crop is organic then find out the organic pricing. Then ask some chefs what kind of premium they’d pay for the crop if  they could advertise it as locally grown and freshly harvested: some will pay a premium. Also ask chefs what additional premium they would pay for a special variety of the crop harvested at a specific stage of growth: this is where you tailor your crop and harvesting to suit a specific restaurant client.

Using the above approach you may be able to find some chefs who will pay you retail or higher prices for your crop.

Mantis Tiller Perfect For Some SPIN-Farming Contexts

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco CA

The Mantis comes in two versions.

– Electric
– Gasoline

The electric is the far better choice if you have a power socket nearby. The gasoline version is noisy and not very powerful.

The torque on the electric is enormous. It easily can churn 10 inches deep through hard packed soil and has no problem spitting up large rocks. If you’re using it heavily it may periodically trip its internal circuit breaker when it gets too hot: just wait a few minutes, hit the breaker reset button and resume tilling.

It’s small and light enough to take on a bus carried over one shoulder. A guaranteed conversation starter.

Very sturdy. Have been using one now since 2009 and it’s still going strong.

It’s no substitute for a BCS for larger plots, but for small plots or rooftop use it’s excellent.

Several other SPIN farmers weighed in favorably on the Mantis. Linda Borghi at Abundant Life Farm in Walker Valley NY love love loves hers.

SPIN photo mantis 4


US Regs On Unpaid Labor

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

In most states in the USA it’s illegal for a for-profit farm to utilize volunteers, or interns, to handle routine farm work tasks that would ordinarily be done by paid workers. Many small organic farms have been using farm work volunteers and interns for years and gotten away with it but in recent years the Fed and state labor enforcement organizations have been cracking down and levying huge fines on farms violating the law. Here in California most small organic farms have stopped using volunteers and interns, which has hit many of them hard financially: some were heavily dependent on using such volunteers/interns to keep their labor costs down and be profitable.

Here’s a link to an article in CivilEats, entitled “The Farm Intern Conundrum”, that discusses the issue:

Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) has a section devoted to urban ag law, appropriately called UrbanAgLaw.Org. (FYI: I’m on the Advisory Board for SELC.)

Here’s a link to a section of the website that specifically discusses the law in California related to urban (same for rural) farm use of volunteers and interns:

Discreetly check the laws in your state or province: being levied a $40,000 fine for labor law violations due to improper use of volunteers or interns can ruin your whole day.

Washington state a few years ago passed legislation that enables for-profit small farms to utilize interns if their farm gross sales are under $250,000 a year, but even there the farms must adhere to strict guidelines on the intern use. Efforts are underway in some USA states to pass similar legislation.

SPIN in a Box

Courtesy of James K. , Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

Over the past few years I’ve done a number of consulting projects for innovative hydroponic systems startups. Hydroponic farming is a high-tech system, high startup cost, high operations and maintenance costs, high energy (even with LED) costs, high skills required, high-risk venture … etcetera. It’s not for the faint of heart or anyone without deep pockets. This one is no different, and in fact appears higher risk than most. It is a high-cost unit with limited volume yields relative to higher footrprint hydroponics operations that only succeed (if they do at all) because they can amortize fairly fixed considerable startup and O&M costs over a high volume of produce yields spread across acres of production. I’d say the odds of freightfarms succeeding are slim to none.

As for SPIN being applicable, I’d say that the post-harvest processing, packaging, pricing and marketing aspects of SPIN, could be applied. I don’t see the transformation of people’s front lawns into container farms. Butt ugly. Neighbors would freak. 🙂 Parking lots on the other hand, maybe, but even there ugly doesn’t play well with the commercial neighbors: you’d have to build a pretty shell around the containers at the very least, which is another big cost.

On the other hand, the concept of a shipping container standard system core for a small farm operation is actually intriguing. Imagine a walk-in cooler, post-harvest processing, and value-add processing (say basil to pesto, or tomatoes-chilies to salsa) unit in a shipping container. Sweet. Drop it in a driveway or backyard. Do perennial trellises and pretty canopies the heck out of it and maybe the neighbors would be OK with it. Maybe.

Lots of ideas out there for new ways to do farming. Most of them bad. Skepticism is a good default perspective for this stuff.

Check List For Buying a Used Tiller

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco

If you are considering buying a used tiller, ask to take it for a spin for an hour where you can till some deep soil.
Tighten up all the bolts you can find and then check to be sure they’re not loose after the hour of  tilling.
Test all the accessories to make sure they work.
Look for any oil or fuel leaks at seals and tubing.
Check to be sure the engine exhaust is clean.
Inspect the tires.
Listen for any odd noises, especially squeals or grinding sounds.

Sonic Repellers Can Control Rodents

Courtesy of James K. ,Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

In 2007 I had a project establishing a small SPIN farm pilot project on about 4,000 sq ft of land in a suburban mobile home park. The plot of land was a ground squirrel city. There were literally burrow entrances every foot or two, and ground squirrels running around in daylight. The crew tilled up the heavy clay soil, added compost and set about establishing beds and initial plantings. Of course the ground squirrels decimated the plantings. We tried traps, various odor-based repellents, fumigation, etc: nothing worked.

Finally I decided to try something squirrely. Heh.

I ordered two different sonic spike gopher and mole repellers on Amazon. It was a long shot but I figured worth a try.

– Vibrasonic Mole Chaser (P7906 model)
– Solar Mole & Gopher Chaser (0400RM1 model)

I loaded the Vibrasonic with batteries and stuck it in the center of the plot. The STI unit was solar powered so no batteries required: I stuck in a couple feet from the Vibrasonic.

A couple days later the crew called me and claimed that the ground squirrels had disappeared. I thought they were joking but they insisted it was true. I drove out to the site and couldn’t find a single burrow entrance open (the crew had been closing them with dirt routinely) and no ground squirrels were up and running around. A week later on my next visit still no squirrels. They never came back.

I think that the two units, operating at different sonic frequencies, together created an intolerable underground audio environment that drove the squirrels away. Since then I used the same products at another site, plagued also by ground squirrels: it worked there too. So no guarantees that it’ll work in all situations. but I figure it’s worth a try. It’s non-toxic and cheap: just remember to change the batteries in the Vibrasonic occasionally.

Chinese Design for Passive Solar Greenhouse

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

In northern China, solar passive commercial greenhouses cover over 1.8 million acres. These greenhouses typically use no supplemental lighting, and little or no heating, to produce vegetables from Fall through Spring. It’s a highly evolved and very commercially successful design, and virtually unknown in North America.

One of the central design precepts of the greenhouse is a high volume to surface area ratio, which ensures a large interior thermal mass in the soil, air and back walls relative to the surface area of the glazing.  At the end of a day of Winter sunlight you close the thermal blankets and the internal large volume of thermal mass efficiently retains the sun’s heat.

The Chinese designs are typically from 26′ to 46′ in width.  The 26′ width though is considered less than optimal, with most of the greenhouses closer to the 46′ width:  these wider greenhouses have much more favorable volume to surface area ratios than the narrower ones and they maintain higher and more uniform soil and air interior temperatures.

In a Calgary winter a 10′ x 10′ design won’t give you enough volume to surface area to maintain an adequately warm and stable interior soil and air temperature for optimal, or even adequate, plant growth.  And a 50′ x 14′ design is suboptimal because it’s so narrow:  You should consider widening it to at least 30′, and even wider if you can.

I work with cities and counties in the USA regarding zoning and building codes routinely.  I definitely don’t recommend building a greenhouse in a city where one grumpy neighbor can bring the codes officials down on your head and perhaps hit you with a hefty fine or shut you down.  Plus, of course I think the solar passive design won’t work well at 10′ x 10′ anyway.

So I recommend building your Chinese solar passive greenhouse outside of town and widening it to at least 30′, or wider if you can.

Johnny’s Quick Cut Greens Harvester

Courtesy of Didacus R., Haywood, CA

I remember your critique of the original Johnny’s quick greens harvester.  This one looks better if only for the oscillating cutters and the macrame rope beaters. Still I note while they claim the operator is upright, he actually is hyper extended. Perhaps a telescoping handle like on a rolling suitcase would correct that. Also the skids below it. They look very small. Perhaps bent wood at least 2 inches wide the length of the sides like a sled? Now you would have a super tool!


Dealing with Zoning

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA 
Over the years I’ve helped a number of neighborhood gardeners and farmers get variances to zoning or laws. Zoning laws are a mixed blessing. While they prohibit your residential neighbor from doing auto wrecking or a hog farm in her front yard, they also may contain legacy regulations that prohibit small-scale food growing for sale or even front yard gardening. Your encounter with a city staffer might result in nothing happening or a subsequent notice or visit.

Most of the regs that prohibit growing for sale or front yard gardens were enacted early in the last century, when ethnic minorities were moving into neighborhoods and brought their home market garden traditions with them. Their front yards were often not neatly mowed lawns with trimmed shrubbery, but rather wall to wall veggie beds and trellises of beans and berries that outraged prissy uptight neighbors. These laws are often legacies of ethnic discrimination.

Any effort to rescind such regs should remember this. Heck, my Portuguese/Italian grandma’s front yard was one such, plus both side yards and the back yard. She had an adobe bread baking oven in the back, chickens and turkeys, the whole nine yards. Her town was largely ethnic minorities so this was OK, but the next town over was not and so. Her friends there were unable to do anything other than ornamentals in their front yards.

Go online to the city website, or visit city library, and look through the city zoning ordinances to see if there’s anything prohibiting you from doing your home farm. There may be nothing prohibiting you. You may only need a simple business license or permit that’s a formality to get.

Now that you may be on the planning department radar I suggest a nice polite visit to the city to discuss what you’re doing. But don’t start with the planning dept. Ask at the front desk which department  would be the right one to talk with about healthy food, green jobs and food security? Go talk to them and say Hi. Be friendly and share your excitement about what you’re doing that’s so obviously good for your city. Stop in and visit with your city council people too. It’s not unlikely one of them lives nearby too. Invite city dept and elected officials to come and visit your urban farm. Have local news and TV reporters drop by too. Suggest you’d like to do city-sponsored tours of your home farm to encourage others to garden and farm. In other words, various people in the city government will love what you’re doing and be prepared to say so and support you. This certainly won’t hurt your CSA membership either: I bet one or more city staff and officials join as members!

Call your local gardening and farming groups too and ask for their help and advice. You can find yourself with loads of good friends who pitch in on this issue, and join your CSA and show up for volunteer work as well on your farm. Lots of good things can come of this situation.

If you get any visit or notice from a city planning department or other such enforcement individual, be polite. My first year out of college I worked at a city planning department as an aide. I can tell you that like pretty much any group or organization, it had its share of good people and jerks. Some are eager to solve problems and help people do innovative and worthy things. Others are generally depressed individuals who act out their own personal unhappiness at your expense. Be courteous and helpful even if perhaps they aren’t.

You can use your new contacts with other city staff and officials to work the system to your advantage, including the city Planning Commission. If you are energetic and sincere it’s not unlikely that a city council person will author a Proclamation honoring and supporting people who garden and farm in the city.

Most of the above is also just good marketing for your home urban farm. It can also be loads of fun.

Growing on Concrete

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

If you’re planning to bring in topsoil and do raised beds I suggest you consider putting down a layer of heavy duty woven weed cloth over the entire 20K sq. ft. site.

First do a thorough weed wacking of the existing weeds over the entire site. Rake up the wacked weeds. Scour the site looking for sharp objects, such as concrete chunks, glass, etc, that might pierce the cloth. Then lay down the weed cloth. Some people lay down a few inches of coarse sand before laying the weed cloth down to help prevent piercing it, especially where there’s foot or wheel traffic.

Next frame up your raised beds on top of the layer of weed cloth.

For added insurance, lay down another layer of weed cloth on the bottom of your raised beds. Then put down the topsoil in your raised beds. I recommend at least 18″ of topsoil if possible, and 24″ is
better: deeper of course if you’re going for root crops, like potatoes. It’s wise to lay something down over the weed cloth visible between your raised beds, to protect the cloth from puncture from feet or wheels as well as from sunlight UV damage. A soft bark mulch is good.

Protected from sunlight UV and gardening punctures the weed cloth approach described above could last 20 years with little or no problems. You might have to do minor occasional repairs to pathways but that should be all.

Here’s a couple websites that discuss weed cloth installation:

Keep in mind that not all weed cloths are not created equal.  Many of the 3 oz or less weed cloths on the market are understrength for handling dock or ailanthus.  You’d need a heavy duty cloth.  Check out Dewitt Weed Barrier Pro.  It’s a multi-layer cloth with some great industrial strength specs.

It’s from a company that’s been around for a while.  You’ll no doubt enjoy hearing they have a 100% No Weeds guarantee on their weed cloth.  You might buy a small roll of Dewitt Weed Barrier Pro and test it on a few spots around your property.