Farm Start-up Advice

Courtesy of John S, Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin, NC

The single most important thing you said was, “We really need to start bringing in an income as work around here is slim pickins.” If you need income don’t spend capital.

What you need is some reasonably good ground, a strong tiller, a simple watering system, seed, a canopy and table for the market (that is used for your processing center during harvest) and if you have any extra, a cooler storage system (walk-in, convinience store drink cooler, used fridge).

Soil Amendments – If you don’t do a soil test, how do you know what your ground needs? Maybe nothing! Don’t guess. Talk to your county ag agent. Our state does it free (in small amounts) for the citizens with a full chemical analysis. My agent makes recommendations based upon the growing ‘style’-organic in my case.

Soil temperature is important too. I start my early spring plantings at 35+degree soil (spinach, lettuce and onions) 40+ degree soil (peas, radishes, turnips, broccoli, beets and cauliflower) and a strong probability that air temperatures won’t fall below 25 degrees F in the future. (late Feb, early March around here. ZONE 6B/7A). If they freeze out I replant, but with the mixed blessing of climate change it’s unlikely.

Look for free stuff. I have tracked down guys picking up leaves (when I lived in town) and if my yard was closer than the dump I’d get them to dump the leaves in my yard (they got paid by the load or the mile). Now when the highway department is chipping downed trees on roadways I chat up the fellas and often they’ll just drop it in the yard for me. It’s the good ol’ boy network, and it works for girls too. Tips are often appreciated and a ten or twenty won’t offend most.

Tunnels, hoop houses, tents, tee pees etc.- wait a bit. Perhaps you might want to buy those items later, but you can do it from your profits. Personally, I find them too much trouble. I prefer to spend my winter getting fat on all the food I raised.

Ditto for driving to remote acreage. Find the ground closest to your back door, till’er up and plant some seed. Sell the result. Some will work, some won’t. Adjust.

Which brings me to what to plant. Plant what You like to eat. If you sell it you’ll make some money and if you don’t sell it you can eat it, can and freeze the rest or feed it to the chickens…nothing lost.

I love garlic. I hate spending money. The garlic ‘seed’ companies charge $20 a pound or more for their seed stock. Walmart charges $3.89 a pound. I bought it from Walmart…some sort of hybrid white skin. Twenty bucks for 5 pounds. I planted the big cloves on a mild November day and forgot about it till late June of the following season when I harvested enough to go to market and make $100 one morning and eat all I liked. And guess what I have left for seed? Five pounds.

Sure the hybrid reverted to it’s dominant parent stock which was interesting. What had been big fat white bulbs with 3 or 4 fat cloves and a bunch of little tiny cloves (useless!) now became small bulbs with 4 or 5 big fat cloves and NO tiny little cloves in the center. No waste! So that’s how I sold it to the customers. They loved it because everybody buys big fat bulbs with tons of tiny little cloves that they hate! Now I’m the ‘go to’ garlic guy!

Save your seed…mostly you’ll get SOMETHING. Select the ones that do best and you have a unique product. I don’t buy super exotic hybrids but mostly heirloom and some F1 crosses (first generation hybrids) that I select out. Personally I don’t worry about ‘organic seed’. The crop will be organic cause that’s how I grow it and that’s all that really matters. And may Monsanto et al rot in hell for their genetic monstrosities.

Finally, as Wally has stressed for years, it’s about square footage (and time and labor) for the dollar. I learned that lesson my first year at the farmer’s market from my friend Lloyd Allen, long before I found SPIN-Farming. I wondered why nobody was selling sweet corn and I overheard Lloyd say to someone, “Why should I spend a whole season growing sweet corn to make a dollar off that 3 sq. ft. once when I can plant 3 sq ft and make $3  per month for the season with radishes? And do it on a stool?” My kinda guy, Lloyd was!

Finally the best piece of advice I think I ever got was, “When you’re up to your ass in alligators it’s easy to forget that your original intention was to drain the swamp.” Put more plainly, don’t get ‘lost in the weeds’. Plant seeds, sell food, make friends and help your neighbors. You’ll learn as you go.

To sum up, the single most important thing you can do is get a soil test, then get some kind of seed in the ground as soon as possible. When you get a harvest take it to market. We humans have been doing it for 10,000 years at least. It’s in your genes. Like a spider and it’s web. It’s a really good thing. For everybody. You’re going to do great.

Restaurant Sales

Courtesy of Lee McB., Foodscapes Inc. Huntsville, AL
To set restaurant prices, you must know what your costs of production are and your expected return on investment. You can sell at any price, a huge key to sustainability is profit. Restaurants can be goldmines. Restaurants can be a very difficult market. Each sale is chef-driven. At the end of the day knowing what you need and want from the sale of X volume will help you tremendously. Do not let them stretch you out on payment if you do decide to work with them.

Can you have them market you through to the restaurant patron? Advertizing and the inferred excellence that can be conveyed to the patrons are well worth a discount on what is usually a low to mid level volume sale. Provide them with stock photos of you and your family farm let them spend the money to create posters or table top informational pieces on you and your farm.

Take it slow, evaluate one restaurant at a time.

Drought, Raised Beds and Irrigation

Courtesy of John S. , Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin NC

There is no one solution that always works for every problem, and there are often several different solutions to any single problem.

Wally is dead on. The two big advantages to formal raised beds are elevating the soil temperature sooner and quicker, and better drainage for overly wet soils. If drought is your problem, raised beds certainly aren’t the solution.  Additionally they make tilling with machines difficult if not impossible. If your soil is ‘ideal’ you could till with a broad fork, but still that can be a pain.

Over head sprinklers have huge water loss due to evaporation and are usually ‘non-specific’, IE: water everywhere. Your best bet, in my view, is a well designed drip system.

I knew nothing about them, called up DripDepot ( and a lovely young lady helped me design a perfect system for my quarter acre of blueberry bushes in about 20 minutes on the phone. She sent me the stuff, and it took an afternoon to install – no tools but scissors and a hand punch, all hand tightened joints. Now I water 200+ berry bushes effortlessly, whreeas before it had taken all day (8 hours) once every week or two for the season. The system I have is convertible to gravity feed if I wish (I have low water pressure), by simply removing the pressure regulator from the line. I bought it 3 years ago and spent $239 including freight from Oregon to the east coast.

As we all know, the SPIN principle is to reduce labor, reduce costs, increase efficiency and increase profitability. It works from the Great White North to equatorial Africa and Central America because those principles make sense to everyone everywhere on the planet.

You need a tiller because it is cost effective and efficient (money and labor), you need a cooler of some type for the same reason, you need a watering system (see your SPIN intro book) for exactly the same reason. You can install a drip system for about the same price as the good quality hose you would need to drag around.

If I want a raised bed (some years are very dry and I don’t, some years it’s very wet and I do) I use a simple iron rake and rake the soil up in to 10″ high beds (low mounds) that keep their shape for the season. No boards, or walls so I can till and reconfigure whenever I need to. It seems somewhere along the line raised beds  became the default setting for anyone wanting to grow food. But there is no production advantage to them, and in fact, they mostly work against you, not with you.

Getting Legal

Courtesy of John S. , Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin NC

A good place to check in on legal issues is your state’s dept of Agriculture. They will have info on marketing and possible legal issues that may affect you. Food safety is an increasingly important issue as it affects your customers and how you handle and market your products.

You might also check with your local county’s ag extension agent. They are a wealth of information and at least can point you in the right direction. As long as you don’t ship out of state the USDA probably won’t affect your activities. Our state people are great.

Babies, Tillers and Cooler

Courtesy of John S., Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin NC
Babies plus anything else. BIG change. Give yourself and Viola the opportunity to get acquainted. Her patterns will emerge. I had one that never slept and one that never woke up and one in between…hard to say. She will rule your schedule for a while. Quite a while.

Fall is a great time to buy used tillers. (“Fred get that Damn thing out of the garage-you never use it!”) My vote is for the Troy built…parts are readily available, and 8 HP is a great size to start with. Unless your super tiny yourself you should be able to handle it as well. If it’s in great shape I’d offer $300 to start and go down from there if problems are present (dirty plug, old filters, dirty oil, hard to start, heavily used and worn, bent tines). If it won’t run I’d off the scrap steel price for the weight of the thing. It can probably be repaired. I’d offer more if it was ‘cherry’ and essentially new. Can’t comment on the others as I am unfamiliar.

Taking the high road by investing in a  cooler is really important as your operation grows, as it evens out the labor load really well. But if you are starting with your own back yard,  and perhaps pick up one or two more this season, you should be able to manage your first year without one. Check the SPIN guide for low road options.

The one thing you didn’t ask about is sales and marketing at the farmers markets in your area. Perhaps you’re experienced, but if not that is really a key area to focus in on for next season. As with most things in life, there is more there than meets the eye. Signage, display, salesmanship, product demand in your market…a whole raft of possibly new skills and knowledge. I would recommend that you spend lots of market days getting acquainted with the other farmers who sell…offer to help, make friends, ask questions, learn. What stalls are you attracted to (or possibly repelled by?). Why? Who is attracting a crowd and built strong relationships with their customers? What are the various vendors
doing (or not doing) to build their business? Watch the successful ones for voice tone, facial expressions, body language and social skills…those are the ones you want to learn from.

Most of the folks in this group are outstanding growers, most of them have always had an entrepreneurial attitude, but not all have had experience in sales and marketing and so there is a learning curve. There’s always a learning curve, isn’t there? Welcome to the party!

Expanding Your Land Base

Courtesy of John S.,Blue Ribbon Eggs,  Franklin NC
So you’ve got access to an acre that is 1 hour and 15 minutes away? You don’t mention what type of vehicle you would be driving, but a two and one half hours round trip drive,  two to four times a month, is going to burn a lot of fuel. Assuming a vehicle sufficient to haul a worthwhile amount of produce once you harvest, it would add up. My SUV would cost $25 a trip (2 to 4 times monthly). Plus non-productive hours commuting, not to mention the cost of 43,560 sq feet of green house plastic and your drip system. And the best crops for a remote plot are low value ones.

And an acre is a BIG hunk of land to work with hand tools. Are you going be hauling -or have access to- large equipment? Once you make that drive (even two times a month) you are going to have a lot of work to do, and that will take quite a bit of time. Labor (time plus sweat) is money.

I would do the math on this one really closely before I committed. The conditions you describe are the whole reason that Wally started SPIN-Farming in the first place. Near at hand, small, manageable and profitable. My favorite picture in the SPIN books is a photo of Wally driving his tiller through his OWN neighborhood to till a back yard. What can you see from your window? There’s your expansion opportunity.


Potatoes in Bags

Courtesy of John S., Blue RIbbon Eggs, Franklin NC

Your complaint about low yields is a common one for ‘Potatoes in Bags’ (or barrels or any other elevated growing system). My theory is that potatoes are a natural mountain crop evolving in very cool soils at high elevation, and we need to mimic that condition, or at least come close. Additionally, when you elevate your growing platform you inevitably raise the soil temperature in the daytime and create greater cooling at night. As a result there are greater temperature swings in a 24 hour period as well as over a season. It appears to me that potatoes need a very stable temperature profile with little variation in a 24 hour period and over a season to make well formed tubers. That means “In the Ground”.

I’m not sure that “I saved on labor’ is really true given the assumed extra attention that type of growing would entail. I grew four 60′ rows by planting 60 or so pounds of seed. In the first two rows I harvested 250 pounds of potatoes and still have two more rows to harvest.
Planting is work. After tilling I dug Four 60′ trenches 12″x12” with a grub hoe. Took days to dig. Next season I’ll just till and furrow.

My beloved bride, The Smoky Mountain Queen, who was raised in the old ways (wood stove, grow your own food, no indoor plumbing, medicine from weeds by the creek) never refers to “Harvesting potatoes”. She calls in “Grubbin’ Tatters”. And that’s what it is. On your hands and knees, digging with your bare hands down the row, emptying the trench you dug four months ago and tossing the ‘tatters’ off to the side to pick up and store. Not really a big deal, but do this before you get your nails done.

On the other hand, I figure I’ve spent a total of 5 or 6 days of labor(planting in a trench
and harvest-or ‘grubbin’-) and 4 months of benign neglect as Mother Nature did her thing.
And I got a ten fold return on my investment of seed-down right biblical.
If I figure that I spend 25 hours planting and harvesting those first two rows (and virtually no
maintenance time involved at all) that’s 12.5 minutes of labor per foot of row and I got over 2 pounds per foot so that’s ten pounds per hour of labor.

I think Gro-bags are cool as can be, but I’d use’m for tomatoes and peppers.

Just Do It

Courtesy of John S., Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin NC
You mentioned that you’re already gardening. If that’s the case, apply SPIN principles to what you’re already doing,  and go sell some stuff.  Earn some extra income, learn the business and marketing side and build.

SPIN Farming has the lowest capital investment cost of any legitimate business I am aware of that will gross $25K+ in the first season. In terms of net, that’s up to you man, not the business model. If you follow the SPIN system you will do very well. If you’re like some of my friends (dumpster divers and all round scroungers), you’ll do extremely well.

SPIN’s Keys to Success

Courtesy of John S., Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin NC

I was talking with my Ag extension agent about the SPIN-Farming  program. Before I started he said, “I’ve been in Agriculture for decades, and I can tell you that it takes two things to succeed in farming. Strong management skills and strong marketing skills. If you have only one of them you’ll probably fail, if you have both of them you’re almost certain to succeed.” After our talk, he bought the SPIN-Farming books. Imagine, I made my Ag extension agent a SPIN Farmer! Why you ask? Because SPIN isn’t about growing lettuce or how many times to turn your compost pile. It’s about those management and marketing skills.

Tiller Recommendation

Courtesy of John S., Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin NC                                                                                                     Go to this web site – they are BCS experts – implements, attachments – the site is an education and a great place to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon.

If you’re really serious about SPIN -Farming and want to make a living at it you probably need a 8+ HP machine…plus it’ll take all the attachments. I’m using an outstanding Husqsvarna 8.5 HP that tills great, but that’s all it does. You can do everything but wrap birthday presents with a BCS. And you could probably do that with the bale maker.
Check out the model number you’re being offered on the site-bet the owner wants to upgrade to the 8+ HP model too.

Best advice I ever got on motorized machines was from a motorcycle salesmen when I was in college, “Get more horse power than you think you need, you’ll want it soon enough”. “Don’t get the least you think you need, get the most you can afford.”