Now Is Always the Best Time to Start a Farm

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

The hands down best advice on starting a farm is “Don’t wait.” This Colorado SPIN member’s situation is typical. “I’ve just had a few opportunities fall into my lap where I can actually start my operation (full time freedom status) within the next month. This is about a year earlier than I originally planned where I would have spent the next year interning before starting out on my own.

Bottom Line: I’m very very excited about being able to start my dream NOW instead of some point down the road and I want to make sure I’m making the best informed decisions I can at this point in the season (End of summer, early fall).”

Here’s what other SPIN members are advising him:

1. Lay out and Prep Your Beds. “An absolute rule of farming in general and intense SPIN farming in particular is that there is never enough time in the spring to get everything done you want to. So if you have an opportunity to start laying out your SPIN beds, preparing them, any fencing you need, etc this fall -> DO IT! You can then look at them over the winter and you might see where you want to change the layout etc. If you wait until spring it may be too late to make changes and you will have to wait a year.”

2. Plant Greens Under Cover. “In Colorado, greens will grow under a tunnel of some sort/greenhouse if you plant now. They will grow slow due to the short days but you’ll have greens take off after the winter solstice when the days get longer if we don’t get a brutal winter.”

3. Test Plant and Get in Seeder Practice. “Put in some test plantings of radish, spinach, lettuce, and possibly some quick greens. See at least if you can get germination, and see what happens. Try a bed of each. It will start establishing your farmers muscle memory. Do you have a seeder? Might be a good idea to get familiar with a seeder now.”

4. Do Market Research. Define your delivery radius and identify markets within it. Visit them to check out which ones are worth applying to. Or feel out you neighbors for a CSA. Or restaurants. Get your sales channels for next year identified now.”

Probably few would describe farming as low risk, high reward. But SPIN is exactly that. In removing the barriers to entry – land and capital –  it also eliminates all the excuses to not start. You can dream as if you’ll live forever. But farm as if you’ll die today.

SF photo feet up Northern Ice Farms

 

Just do it.

Right Size Your Ambitions and Your Plots

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

Now that farmer’s markets are getting in full swing and CSA boxes are piled high at pick up points all over town, those who have been contemplating backyard farming suddenly become motivated to turn their intentions into action. I hear from two extremes – those who are overly ambitious, and those who are too cautious.

Interestingly, those with the least amount of land are the ones who are overly ambitious. They understand SPIN at its very basic level, which is commercial farming on an acre or less. Since that size land base is so dramatically less than a typical farm, they think it must be a cinch to start. So they figure they will start with an acre. Or, if they think they are being conservative, they want to tackle a half acre. But you can burn out on a half-acre just as easily and quickly as you can on 10 or 20 acres.

Start out with a few thousand square feet, say up to 5,000 sf max. It’s a very manageable amount of space for one person to initially prep and keep in top growing shape. For beginners, it’s an optimal size to gain experience with intensive relay cropping, which is the continual planting of different crops in the same plots throughout the season. And the amount of production and post-production can be managed without any outside
labor. Once you have mastered relay cropping you can expand confidently and quickly, even in the same season.

The opposite extreme is those who have multi-acre spreads who think they need to prep their land and let it sit over the winter, putting off any production for an entire year. They are right that it takes time to bring a larger land base online. But again,I offer the same advice. Put aside a small plot, prep it, and start growing and selling immediately. The key to earning income from backyard farming is the ability to grow continuously, in significant volume, at commercial grade. And that can be mastered just as well, and in fact more quickly, on a small space. This is the rationale for our new program Seed to Cash in 14 Days or Less. Three new guides provide step-by-step instructions on how to progress
through 3 different levels of production, starting with as little as 100 square feet.

It’s been said that farms are started by idealists and run by realists. You just need to last long enough to get from the one phase to the other. That means not being an overachiever or an underachiever. SPIN helps you hit the ground running at just the right pace so that you can go the distance.

Mod 1 landbase 4

Even if you have acres of land, fencing off a plot close to the house will get you growing and selling more quickly and successfully than if you tried to put a larger piece of land into production. This plot is easy to maintain, and can be used for intensive relays, in which 3 or more crops are grown in the same beds throughout the season. In essence, you are cutting by two thirds the amount of land you need for that same amount of production.

 

Hey, I’m Just a Farmer

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

I used to get asked if farming was a 9 to 5 job. That was back in 2006 when we first launched the SPIN online learning series, and when my experience in downsizing was starting to get attention. One of my big points back then was that on a Friday night, before my big market day, I took in a movie or was at home nursing some beers, unwinding from the week just like any other working stiff. Farming for me was not all-consuming.

That’s still true today, and it is probably why I am still in business 25 years later. My staying power has mostly to do with having never bought into the martyr complex that surrounds so much of farming nowadays. It pervades the farming “movement” and is perpetuated by the media – you know, that farmers are somehow special, that they take a vow of selfless devotion to their work; that they exist in a state of grace that compensates them for the ungodly hours and hardships they endure; that all their sacrifices somehow makes them loftier than everyone else.

I did not want to give up my life to farming. I wanted to fit farming into my life. Here’s how I did it:
> made my home base in the city to take advantage of its unique growing conditions and municipal water and to be close to markets (I’m 5 minutes away from my farmers market)
> expanded strategically to a few peri-urban plots that are about a 20 minute drive from home base, with the total kept close to an acre or less in size
> incorporated a commercial cooler (what SPIN calls taking the high road) into my operation to allow for 5 day a week harvesting so I am not out until after dark the day before market, and up before dawn harvesting the day of
> developed workflow management so that all the farming tasks can be done in short intervals throughout the week so that no one task becomes overwhelming

Sure in peak growing season I put in long hours, but so does everyone else who is in business for themselves. Instead of cutting hair, doing taxes, developing websites, or cleaning clothes, I’m growing food. I enjoy my work, but it’s not a cause. What I’ve been committed to these past 25 years is building a self-sustaining business. Success for me has been measured by one thing – is what I produce valued enough that people will pay me what I think it’s worth? I am not at all conflicted by that. It has been a very effective way to establish many good and lasting relationships.

Maybe I should be flattered that so many want to exalt what I do. But I know my place. So let’s just have a few beers. And if you’re interested in becoming a backyard farmer like me, I’d be glad to teach you how. This I can promise:
> you’ll find farming does not have to be as hard as it is usually made out to be
> you’ll know relatively quickly and inexpensively if farming is right for you
> you won’t kill yourself trying

You might also learn to lighten up.

SF photo Wally relaxing with beer 2

 

Wally chillin’ after a tough day at work. 

Reality Check for New Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Still high from a full season of farming conferences, and primed by government funded training programs, new farmers are now heading back to the land to pursue their farm dreams. Most often they include a farmstead set amid rolling hills, a lone tractor silhouetted against the sunrise, and many peaceful hours of toil amid fields of plenty. This is what defines traditional farming, and it is what now makes it so challenging as a business. When the thing that makes you is the thing that breaks you, you are in for a tough row to hoe.

Before you strike out to pursue your farm dream, here is a quick reality check:
> the simple life does not come cheap
> you aren’t owed a living just because you choose a certain lifestyle
> the less land you put in production to start, the more success you are likely to have
> the further away you are from your markets, the more dependent you will be on the farm aid industry

For SPIN farmers, the starting point is not creating the perfect lifestyle, but responding to an opportunity where they happen to be. Just ask Wally. His business, Wally’s Urban Market Garden is now celebrating its 25th year. It certainly reflects his ideals and ethics, but he has always let the business drive the farming, rather than the other way around.

If you don’t know how Wally started out, you can read about it here. As he has said, “While the land base and expenses for a sub-acre farm are a fraction of the costs for a  conventional, multi-acre farm, the bottom lines are similar. And counter-intuitive though it seems, a backyard farmer can expect to make the same living as a large-scale farmer, but with less stress and overhead, and with more certainty of success from year to year, because more of the success factors are in a SPIN farmer’s control.

“Had I known about the feasibility of small plot farming when I started my career 20 years ago, I would never have bought large acreage in the country, and would have fulfilled my farming aspirations more easily and with less expense in the city.”

So consider this: when it comes to that farm dream: the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.

SPIN photo Gail and potatoes back forty

With SPIN-Farming, the back forty might be measured in square feet, instead of acres, but the satisfaction that comes from practicing intelligent, dedicated craft and soil -based farming is the same. Plus you make more money with less stress and more control over your operation.

DDG1 photo 13 On Wally’s large farm outside of town he invested in an expensive and elaborate irrigation system that depended on fluctuating river levels. In his backyard plot in the city, his irrigation system is a hose and the water faucet. 

Mod 2 Pest control 3

At Wally’s city-based farm, organic methods are much easier to abide by. With this backyard scale operation most pests can be controlled by hand…

SPIN photo Wally fertilizing

… and soil health is easily managed using local inputs. There is also very little waste. 

DDG6 photo 27 DSC00211

Think before heading for the hills to start your farm. Backyard -based farming offers a number of competitive advantages, micro climate and easy access to water and markets among them.

How SPIN’s Numbers Add Up

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

The advantage of using a system like SPIN-Farming is that it provides benchmarks to guide your business and measure your progress in highly specific terms. Let’s take a look at what comprises SPIN’s benchmarks, and how they all add up.

SPIN’s units of production are:
A bed = 50 sq. ft. (it measures 2 ft. x 25 ft.)
A segment = 1,000 sq. ft. (many backyards can accommodate this size plot, with a typical dimension being  25 ft. x 40 ft.)

SPIN’s revenue benchmarks are:
$100 gross per crop, per bed
$1,300 gross per crop per segment

SPIN’s relay cropping techniques are:
bi-relays in which 2 or more crops are grown in the same bed or segment, per season
intensive relays in which 3 or more crops are grown in the same bed or segment, per season
Relay cropping doubles or triples production and therefore revenue, without expanding the growing space. You can think of it as intensifying your growing space.

Putting these benchmarks into play on a half acre, which is about the size of many suburban backyards, goes something like this.

1 segment = 13 beds and $1,300 gross revenue
a half acre = about 20,000 sq. ft., or 20 segments
20 segments = $26,000 gross revenue

If you intensify the half acre by using relay cropping, you can at least double or triple your revenue, like this:
20 segments in bi-relays (2 crops/season) = $52,000 gross revenue
20 segments in intensive relays (3 crops/season) =$78,000 gross revenue

Since relay cropping is labor intensive, the exercise becomes, how can you intensify your half acre, without incurring labor costs, or keeping them to a minimum? So to make the work load manageable for you and a partner, and occasional help,  you might use your 20,000 sq.ft. to target $55,900, broken down like this:
5 segments in single crop production = $6,500 gross revenue
7 segments in bi-relays = $18,200 gross revenue
8 segments in intensive relays = $31,200 gross revenue

As you can see, the options are many, and the result is a system for generating specific, steady and predictable income throughout the season. But since farming is never steady state, the system is adjustable throughout the season, and from year to year.

Playing with SPIN numbers is not an academic exercise. It’s the basis for your business, production and operational plans. All you need to do is get with the system.

SPIN photo relay tiller plowing under bed

Here is a bed of spinach past its prime being tilled under and readied for the planting of a second crop.  Planting several crops sequentially, one right after the other, in the same bed throughout the season is called relay cropping. It double or triples the revenue you can make from a single plot.   

Don’t Psych Yourself Out About Business Planning

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA 

We are frequently asked to assess farm start ups. Long wordy business plans usually indicate a lack of understanding of what is most likely to determine success. For beginning farmers, the shorter the plan the better.

Traditional ag training has made a fetish out of visioning, self-analysis and planning. If you’re trying to decide whether to move to the middle of nowhere, take on 5 or 6 figure debt, or hitch your wagon to government support, it probably is useful to have your head examined. But time-consuming paper exercises and detailed 3 year plans bear little relation to how effective you’ll be at growing vegetables or running a business.

How you plan to make money is what you need to focus on, and to be able to make clear. And that can be thought through on the back of an envelope as follows:

  • List your start up costs. Keep them as minimal as possible.
  • Decide on the number of your marketing weeks, which is the amount of weeks you will have products for sale. Novice SPIN farmers plan on 20 – 30 marketing weeks.
  • Set a benchmark income figure. The benchmark for novice SPIN farmers is $500/week gross for 20 – 30 marketing weeks, for total first year income of $10k – $15k.
  • Divide your total income by the number of your marketing weeks to get your average weekly income total. That’s your targeted weekly cashflow.
  • Budget overhead at no more than 10% of your total income.

What you now have is a framework for pacing and measuring yourself, keeping yourself honest, and eliminating unpleasant surprises, since you can evaluate and gauge your success against your starting benchmarks as you go through the season. At the end you can reset benchmarks based on experience for year two.

For feedback on what is mission critical to your success, spare us your psychological profile. Use your energy for digging deep into your garden beds, not  your psyche. Just show us your numbers. Then use SPIN 2.0 and the online support group to help you implement a production plan that ensures you meet them.

DDG1 photo 2

 

Fast Track Farming

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
It’s the time of year when I get inundated with URGENT!!! messages from those who are suddenly motivated to begin their farming careers this season. While planning is the hallmark of SPIN-Farming, I can’t resist a challenge. How do you fast track farm startup? Well, you need to know the difference between mission critical and distractions. Distractions are double digging, high tunnels, and designer rain catchment systems. Below is the information I’m requesting of a late starting first year SPIN farmer in
Ottawa ON to get him focused on what is mission critical.

  • What is the current size of land base you plan on putting into production.
  • Is the land ready to plant?
  • Do you have access to water?
  • Do you have/have access to a rototiller?
  • Do you have garden tools and a seeder?
  • Do you live in the city, or on the outskirts?
  • Describe your ” home base.”
  • Do you have post harvest cooling capacity?
  • Can you get potato seed/onion sets/garlic quickly?
  • Where will you be selling? A farmers market?
  • Have you considered restaurant sales for crops such as pea greens/sunflower greens?
  • Have you considered indoor tray production of pea/micro greens?

Note: if you want to get into the game really quickly this season, Quick Greens (Dig Deeper guide 3) and indoor production (Dig Deeper guide 5) explains this type of “fast track” production.

DDG3 photo 35DDG5 photo 61 DSC00641

Why and How Wally Developed SPIN

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

This is the story of Wally Satzewich. He did not come from a farm family. Thirty years ago he began growing in his backyard in Saskatoon, SK, a city of about 220,000. He began selling at the Saskatoon Farmers Market, and that sealed his fate. He realized he was a farmer, and like most farmers back then, he thought that to become successful, he had to get bigger.

So Wally acquired 20 acres outside of Saskatoon, along the Saskatchewan River, and invested in an expensive irrigation system and brought in outside work crews. But he continued to live in Saskatoon and grow in his small yard there.

Over time Wally realized he was growing high value crops, like carrots, spinach and salad mix in his small backyard, and he was growing low value crops, like potatoes and onions, on his larger acreage in the country. This distinction between a high value and low value crop made him realize the other advantages to city-based sub-acre farming.

Wally could grow high value crops in the city because he was not losing them to pests, like deer and large scale insect infestations. His irrigation system in the city was the water faucet, he did not have to depend on fluctuating river levels or worry about water quality. His work crew in the city was he and his wife. He did not have to depend on outside labor.

When Wally looked at the financials is when his head really got turned around because what he saw was that, even though the land base and overhead of a sub-acre farming operation is a fraction of that of a large-scale farm, their bottom lines are similar. So a sub-acre farmer can earn as much, or more, income as a large scale farmer, but with a lot less stress and overhead, and with a lot more control over their operation and with a lot more certainty of success from year to year. So Wally sold off all his acreage in the country, Futility Farm as he called it, and became an urban farmer.

Now, the only land Wally owns in the city is his own small backyard, and he rents or barters other backyards to make up his land base. He has been supporting himself farming this way for over 15 years.

Based on his experience in downsizing Wally realized how effective a systematized approach to farming could be. While he knew that farming was “experiential”, and that farmers had to learn by doing, he also knew that if the only way aspiring farmers could launch their careers was by trailing him around in his backyard plots, it would get pretty crowded up there in Saskatoon. What he needed was to document the system in some way. Together we wrote and produced the SPIN-Farming online learning series.

Launched in March of 2006, it is now being used by thousands of new farmers to get started – and stay – in business. Most, like Wally, do not come from traditional farm families. That may be why they appreciate SPIN’s systematic approach and can make it work. It makes it easier to get started by eliminating the routine trial and error, providing benchmarks to gauge progress, by keeping farmers focused on what matters most to their success. We hope this is where you enter the story…

SPIN photo book Wally in yard sub-acre in scale

  Wally created the SPIN-Farming system after downsizing. Like, really downsizing. Like, from 20 acres  to less than 1 acre. He’s been farming this way for over 15 years.