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.  

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.

Planting Plan for an Early Spring $1,000 Market Week

Courtesy of Adithya Ramachandran, Kaleidoscope Vegetable Gardens, Dundurn SK, Canada

It looks like spring is arriving early this year in Saskatoon. My first plantings in high tunnels typically go in during the 4th week of March, but I may be able to plant a little earlier this year. Therefore now is a good time for me to start transplants of beets, chard, kale and spinach. In early March, I will turn on my irrigation system and water all my tunnels heavily as they tend to dry out over the winter. Irrigation also speeds up the thawing process inside the tunnels. I also give myself an early-season workout by rolling in wheelbarrow-loads of snow for extra moisture.

SF photo guest blog Adi spring planning


Direct-seeded cool-season crops such as turnips, kohlrabi, radishes, onion sets, dill, cilantro and (more) spinach will go in after the transplants on a staggered basis. Later in April, I will also seed Quick Greens such as sunflowers and broad beans. The combination of all these crops will allow me to target at least a $1000+ marketing week in early May. For that week, I am targeting the following at $3 per unit, or 2 for $5. Because demand is high in spring, I usually don’t offer a 5 for $10 deal.

  • 75+ units of radishes
  • 75+ units of scallions
  • 75+ units of spinach
  • 75+ units of kale
  • 50 units of Quick Greens
  • 50 units of other greens (baby chard, baby beet greens, turnip greens or salad mix).

In mid-April I start transplants of warm-season crops (peppers, eggplants, tomatoes) for my summer relay. Unlike with cool-season crops, I avoid taking risks with these crops and always wait until early June to transplant into tunnels.

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 Adithya.