Losing Land is No Tragedy for a SPIN Farmer

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

There was a plot I had been farming for about five years, and now it’s gone. The owner sold her house that it was attached to, and she had no interest in accommodating me as part of the deal. If this were a traditional farming story, I’d be playing the tragic hero-farmer being kicked off his land.

That’s not my story. I can actually say “Good riddance.” It was a good plot. It was about a half hour’s drive north of my Saskatoon home base. It was 7,000 square feet, so 7 segments. I’ve grown my longer season crops there – onions, potatoes, squash, and I could count on it contributing $7K – $12K to my bottom line each year. But over the years, its negatives started outweighing the positives. Traffic on the drive there got crazier, and I obtained other plots in the opposite direction, so logistics were more burdensome.

Now a friend at market has about 6,000 sq. ft. he says I can use which is only a couple of miles from another one of my plots. So I can manage both in one day. To make up the loss of the 1,000 sq. ft. I can intensify production. So this story has a happy ending: I am losing a peri-urban site that was becoming tough to manage, and getting a new site that will be easier to integrate.

That’s the advantage to being a multi-locational SPIN farmer. You have more options to access land (in the US there are 40 million acres of lawn), and you are less likely to get stuck in a rut.

SF photo blog Losing land

Goodbye plot. You served me well, but I won’t be crying in my beer over this breakup.

SPIN farmers have innovative strategies for accessing land. You can find out how they find and manage in the SPIN online support group.  Free trial membership comes with the purchase of any SPIN guide.

Location, Location, Location

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

Farmers are defined by their location. Crops, growing practices, markets, pricing, all are place-based. Whatever success I have had, though, has come from not allowing myself to be limited by the usual constraints. Take my land base, for instance.

I first started on 20 acres in the country. When I could not make the business work, I downsized to less than an acre using multiple urban backyards, including my own.

DDG3 photo 13

My urban backyard plots have numbered up to 25 and collectively have never totaled more than 2/3 of an acre. Over the years the yards I have farmed have come and gone. I gave up some when they were sold because I did not want to have to deal with new owners. Others proved to be too small. Not having to make a long-term commitment to any of them gave me time to figure out what was optimal.

That’s what led me to take on a few peri-urban sites about 25 miles from my urban backyard.

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I’ve also picked up some properties in a small rural town a few years back because the price was right.

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So right now my farm looks like this:

Urban: (my backyard plot and home base; includes a small plastic unheated greenhouse and indoor grow room)                                                                                                     1,000 sq. ft.  

Peri-urban site: (2 plots owned by others)                                                                     20,000 sq. ft.

Rural: (plot owned by me)                                                                                             15,000 sq. ft.

Growing at these broad range of locations simultaneously gives me a full site line of the trade-offs of each. In general, I see now I paid too much money in rent over the years. If I were ever to ramp up my urban production again, I would find owners who recognized the value of what amounts to my providing property maintenance who would not charge me rent. The plot would have to be sizable and in close proximity to my home base to make it worth my while now.

If you want to lump me into the hot new trend of urban farming, you won’t be wrong. Or if you think I belong to the agriburbia or back to land movements, that’s true enough too. I don’t like to be typecast, so I just call myself a SPIN farmer and leave it at that.

Potatoes Are Perfect Peri-Urban Crop

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

I just put in a couple of segments of potatoes this week. Norland and Yukon Gold. I’ll probably plant 10 segments total, or about 10,000 square feet. That should give me  over 600 lbs. of potatoes. My potato cropping strategy is based on extended production throughout the season, so I can sell new potatoes early in the season right through to  storage potatoes in the winter.

SF photo potato planting 2

Peri-urban sites allow you to expand your production to crops you would not otherwise grow in your urban-based plots, like potatoes. These peri-urban plantings of potatoes are easy to maintain, with once a week visits for a couple of hours.

SF photo potato  planting

Using peri-urban sites for low maintenance crops such as potatoes allows you to boost you revenue and diversify your crop repertoire, with little effort or investment. Greens are getting al lot of hype right now, but man does not live by micros alone.

You can learn more about Wally’s cropping strategies for not only potatoes, but also 39 more classic SPIN crops in SPIN’s Crop Profiles guide

So much about SPIN-Farming is counterintuitive, and the multi-locational urban/peri-urban farming model is a prime example. What at first seems obvious is that a land base comprised of many scattered plots, some a 20 minute drive from your home base, would be difficult to assemble and a nightmare to operate. But not only can such a farm be easily created and efficiently managed, it has big advantages. Find out why in SPIN’s 
The Multi-Locational Urban/Peri-urban Farm guide. 

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.

SPIN Bed Sizes Are Not Just Plug and Play

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

We often get asked, “Should I make all of my beds SPIN-size?” SPIN’s “standard size bed“ is a theoretical construct, as well as a practical one. Its dimensions are 2 feet wide by 25 feet long. This bed size is a basic unit of measure in the SPIN-Farming Basics system, and it serves as a reference point for planting, as well as revenue targeting. Having this reference served me well in the initial stages of developing my backyard farming operation because it eliminated a lot of trial and error, and it allowed me to measure my work rates and income.

But with experience came the confidence to adapt and experiment. Now I often use short beds, around 12 feet long. In suburban or rural plots I use what I call long beds, which might be double or triple the length of a standard bed.

SPIN Basics also calls for 1 foot walkways. One foot walkways work for many crops, but not all. You can adjust walkway width to accommodate crops that require different spacing. Walkway width can be two feet or even more for crops that vine out, such as pumpkin. I also use double width beds for crops that are quick growing, require no weeding and can be harvested all in one work session, like radish.

You should not be a slave to SPIN’s concepts, and in fact, those who have become successful, like Curtis Stone at Green City Acres, and Jean Martin Fortier at Les Jardins de la Grelinette have modified the system to suit their own circumstances and exercise their own creativity. Not surprisingly, they’ve been able to surpass SPIN’s main revenue benchmark of $50,000 gross from 20,000 sq. ft.

Both SPIN Basics and SPIN 2.0 provide standardized constructs, but SPIN is not meant to be a plug and play system. Some beginning farmers come to it expecting a template, as one of them put it, “to avoid doing it the long tedious way.” Using a system like SPIN can accelerate progress, but it does not eliminate process. You still have to think, make judgments and use your intuition. SPIN is not farming for dummies. You need to use your s-mall plot in-telligence.

Question: Which of the following are SPIN beds?

DDG3 photo 12 b design

 

DDG6 photo 11 DSC01255

 

DDG2 photo 26

 

SPIN Photo Gail Manitoba

 

Answer: All of them. These are all plots that  Gail and I farm. Some are urban, some are suburban and some are rural . We apply the SPIN system at all of them. 

A Multi-locational Farm is a Realistic Ideal

 

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

Whenever I see farming conference programs at this time of year I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. The hot topics are always the same. Land access. Farm succession. Risk management. I just don’t relate because years ago I left these issues behind me. I became an urban farmer long before it was trendy. I have been supporting myself growing on multiple scattered plots for 13 years. The number of plots that comprise my farm have ranged from 25 to 11, with a land base that never totals more than 2/3 of an acre, or around 30,000 square feet. Plots have come and gone, depending on various circumstances.

Urbanized areas offer all sorts of farming possibilities, much more than is even now realized. In most cities, residential backyard plots are abundant, just waiting to be used for your farm. The multi-locational farm is a SPIN-Farming concept that has not yet been widely implemented, but it’s ripe for the picking. It is, simply, a farm that is located on many garden plots. These plots can be located throughout a single neighborhood, or in multiple neighborhoods, or they can even be a mix of urban and peri-urban plots. It allows aspiring and practicing farmers to continue to live in the city, using their homes as their farm base, and add new plots as their business becomes more successful. These new plots can be rented, or often used for free.

“What?”, you say. “A land base comprised of many scattered plots, some a 20 minute drive from my home, will be difficult to assemble and a nightmare to operate.” Not really. Not only can such a farm be easily created and efficiently managed, it has big advantages. It offers the growing potential of the traditional rural farm coupled with the city-based benefits of micro climate and proximity to markets. Peri-urban sites produce the larger volume, lower maintenance crops that are always in demand at market, while the urban sites provide early and late production of the high-value relay crops. Together they afford diversification and protection against catastrophic crop losses or extreme weather events. If one or more plots get flooded out, your other plots can keep you producing and selling.

Here is my “home base” plot in the city behind my house.

DDG2 photo 2

Here is one of my peri-urban plots about a 25 minute drive from my house.

DDG2 photo 26

Family farmsteads passed down from generation to generation. A lone tractor silhouetted against the horizon. Rolling hills of corn and grain. These idyllic images of farming are rooted deep in our consciousness. But in the first urbanized century, food production is beginning to occur wherever it makes the most sense. And for SPIN farmers what makes sense is in the middle of urban jungles and on the suburban fringe. They are turning to their gardens and neighborhood lots, not with the romantic notion of “returning to the land”, but to make a buck growing food. The point is that SPIN farmers make cropland wherever they happen to be and leave the traditional farm challenges far behind.

Find out how a multi-locational urban/peri-urban farm is equipped and operated in Dig Deeper Guide # 2.

 

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.