A Best Practice That Isn’t Always

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Beginning urban farmers eager to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability include rainwater harvesting in their startup plans. Once they start implementing, they usually find that what sounds good in theory doesn’t work well in practice.

The first downside is the expense in gear – pipes, tanks, fittings. Second is the quality of the water, which is run-off from the roofs of nearby buildings and paved surfaces. Since this can contain bird droppings and contaminants, testing, filtration and treatment of the water is required. Then, because the water collected sits and becomes stagnant, further treatment is required for algae and mosquitoes. After all the effort and expense they’ve built themselves a water source that’s unpredictable and barely amounts to a drop in the bucket.

Over the years, cities have built elaborate systems to deliver potable water whenever it’s needed. Those farmers who, through necessity or strategy, are starting their businesses surrounded by concrete, should consider access to municipal water an advantage and not try and re-invent the wheel.

There’s gotta be a better way than this!
Yeah, there is.

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Farm a Go-Go

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

A post to the SPIN farmer online support group asks, “My home state has an interesting political environment after the elections that has led many people looking for an exit. Not getting political, just looking at options before my wallet is attacked. Has anyone moved their farm?”

For SPIN farmers it’s a straightforward question. Many don’t own much, or any, of the land they farm. SPIN’s production methods are portable and can be adapted to any climate. SPIN’s infrastructure is movable or easily replaceable. So it’s quite feasible to change the shape and size of a farm in response to a range of pressures, possibilities and life changes.

A new SPIN farm can be brought online rapidly. There will be soil and weed issues, as well as acclimating to a different seasonal time frame, but that’s pretty manageable using SPIN’s production segments and relays. Longer season crops is where the main adjustments will need to be made.

The biggest loss is your customer base that has taken time to develop. Researching the market potential of greener pastures done online will give you an idea of  what the new market opportunities or limitations will be. You can anticipate being more dependent on outside income for the first couple of years while you re-invest in market development, but with your experience managing what you’ve been doing, the production and operations end of your farm will come into line rapidly.

Soil building also takes time and does represent sweat equity,but farming is, at its root, an ad hoc and adaptive process. When life, economics or politics compel you to pull up stakes, two of your most important farm assets – SPIN knowledge and infrastructure – can be packed up and taken with you.

LEARN FROM PIONEERING SPIN FARMERS WHO ARE TAKING THEIR BUSINESSES TO NEW AND UNCHARTED PLACES IN THE SPIN ONLINE SUPPORT GROUP. FREE TRIAL MEMBERSHIP WHEN YOU PURCHASE ANY SPIN GUIDE.

Time to Think Big(ger)?

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia, PA

Cutting out the middleman so SPIN farmers put more money in their own pockets was the business model we all started with 10+ years ago. Now, due to the rise of a new food culture, a growing number of grocery shoppers – those don’t have the time to shop farmers markets, don’t want to commit to a CSA, and don’t need to get up close and personal with a farmer – are deciding that eating healthy is worth it, and worth the higher price.

This willingness to pay the real cost of fresh local food is starting to percolate through the supply chain. New-style online grocery delivery services, as well as old-line supermarkets and distributors, are now both vying to serve this new enlightened consumer. But the logistics and economics of large scale food distribution are much the same as they ever were: to maximize efficiency and profitability, buy as much from as few as possible. This was what drove down the cost of food when consumers wanted food cheap, and gave us the supply chain we’re trying to re-engineer.

Now that more consumers want local, and are willing to pay a bit more for it, large scale food distributors are investing in new systems to accommodate the demand. They are open to considering new suppliers, so SPIN farmers now have the opportunity to think bigger. You,too, will need to re-examine how you operate and calculate the tradeoffs between classic SPIN, based on widely diversified production, direct marketing and
premium pricing; and scaled up SPIN that requires specialized production, reliance on a middleman to sell crops, and wholesale pricing.

For one to be right, the other does not have to be wrong, and SPIN farmers can even do both at the same time. You can continue SPIN’s diversified production and direct marketing on part of their farm, while scaling up on one or just a few crops on a larger area of their farm. The mix of diversification, specialization, scale and business models can change over time, to fit you, your circumstances and markets.

Eliminating barriers has always been SPIN’s stock in trade, including mental ones. While small may be beautiful, and a direct connection between farmer and consumer can be fulfilling for both, there is a new opportunity for those who are ready to expand their thinking beyond the CSA and farmers market. Which SPIN model makes sense for you? Classic or Scaled up? Both? The option is yours.

Local limits volume and introduces inefficiencies but the cost can be passed on to the consumer. Small is beautiful when it’s profitable. Scaling up can be beautiful too, if you can do it without killing yourself. That means figuring out different workflow, logistics and economics.

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Which irrigation methods work for which crops?

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Market Garden, Pleasantdale SK

This is a burning question among new and experienced SPIN farmers alike.Get ready for the answer that drives everyone inside and outside of farming crazy: It depends. Your choice of irrigation will depend on lots of factors, including your type of soil and operation.

I use hand watering methods most of the time. I am not a big fan of mechanized systems  and specialized hoses because they are expensive and require management and maintenance. They might make you feel clever, but if you analyze the effort that goes into them, you might find they don’t really earn their keep.

Another factor to consider is potable water.  Many of you know my story, and that a big reason for my becoming an urban farmer was to ditch my expensive and elaborate irrigation system that depended on fluctuating river levels.  Now, I just turn on the tap. Potable water is the single most important issue when selling produce that is eaten fresh, because water can be the source of contamination, and using municipal water greatly reduces this risk.

Below is how I handle it for my multi-locational  an urban/peri-urban  11,000 sq.ft. farm.  But just because I prefer to hand water doesn’t mean other methods are not viable. These are the broad categories of crops just as a starting point.

IRRIGATION METHODS FOR SPECIFIC CROPS

Carrots                                                                                                                          > Overhead for germination                                                                                                  > > Flood  irrigate during growing stage

Cucumbers                                                                                                                              > > Overhead hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Leafy greens: Lettuce, chard, spinach, others                                                                       > > Flood  irrigate by letting the hose with brush attachment lay on the ground.  Move around to cover area.  (mostly).                                                                                               > > Overhead hand watering (sometimes)

Night shades: Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, egg plant                                                         >> Flood irrigate                                                                                                                       > > Do no use overhead since it can cause disease issues with these crops

Pumpkin                                                                                                                                   > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Summer squash                                                                                                                       > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Winter squash                                                                                                                           > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Pumpkin                                                                                                                                 > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Radish                                                                                                                                      > > Overhead hand water with brush attachment

Fresh herbs                                                                                                                            > > Overhead, hand water                                                                                                        >  > Dryland

SF photo Wally watering 2

Wally’s approach to irrigation is to keep it simple. He hand waters, mostly.

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Rhubarb Has Sales Versatility

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Market Garden, Pleasantdale, SK

Rhubarb can be a valuable crop for single crop production areas of a SPIN farm. My sales of rhubarb have been building for several years, and it is now in demand not only at my farmer’s market but also among chefs and bakers. I sell about 1,000 lbs. to an ice cream maker and also sold quite a bit to a wine maker.

I have plantings in many of my scattered plots. Here is one that will be harvested for my mid-week farmer’s market. I harvested about 25 1.25 lb. bunches from this plot. Work rate is about 1 hour to harvest and prep. Bunches go for $2.50. Crops that can be sold through multiple channels should take precedent in any crop repertoire.

SPIN Photo rhubarb

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Mix It Up

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

It’s winter. Are you selling “Spring Mix”? What you call, and put into, your salad mix 
shouldn’t always be the same. SPIN farmers change their salad ingredients  to reflect the changing seasons and keep customer interest stoked. 

How much variety and creativity they put into their salad mixes is dictated by how adventurous their customers are, and how big a revenue generator it is for them. Some ingredients like chard and kale can be grown all season long. Other ingredients like Bull’s blood beets, mache, orach, purslane and radicchio are relayed at different times in the season. 

Edible flowers also add a wow factor. SPIN farmer Chris Kimber, owner/operator of of 3 Crows Farm, recommends  adding nasturtiums to a Mesclun Mix. Just 2 or 3 per bag near the top will distinguish yourself from other vendors. They bloom all season long,and taste great, leaves and blooms – zippy, peppery burst. Another plus is they grow well in hanging planters so you don’t have to take up valuable plot space.

In spring, Rob Miller of Trefoil Gardens, adds violets to his mixes. He is one of Georgia’s few certified foragers and he includes wildlings to his mixes, in addition to the crops he grows. Check out his Wild Salad Mix:

SPIN’s guide # 14 details how to build a $30k business with specialty salad mixes as a key part of a crop repertoire. Get it here, and remember that what distinguishes your salads from the assembly line salads in the grocery aisle are its ingredients. Make sure its name conveys the creativity and character that you put in it so your customers get the message. 

LEARN FROM OTHER NONCONFORMING SALAD GROWERS LIKE CHRIS KIMBER AND ROB MILLER IN THE SPIN ONLINE SUPPORT GROUP. FREE TRIAL MEMBERSHIP WITH THE PURCHASE OF ANY SPIN GUIDE. 

 

To Get the Best Seed Price, Make a Call

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Market Garden, Pleasantdale, SK

In niche markets, SPIN farmers can adjust their pricing to cover their seed cost, but you should always try to get your seed costs down as low as possible. That means buying in bulk and shopping around.

Take pea greens. I found that 50 lbs. of peas can vary from $80 to $165, not counting delivery cost. A seed company I have built up a close relationship with over the years offers pea seed at around $80 for 50 .lbs, but this bulk quantity price is not listed publicly.  You have to call or email them. Johnny’s price is  double –  $165 for 50 lbs. The point is, if you don’t see what you need listed on a company’s website or catalog, pick up the phone. Personal contact with a seed supplier can save you money and establish a relationship that will keep on giving.

DDG5 photo 9 DSC00455

Volume is an important consideration when ordering seeds, since buying in bulk quantities reduces the cost. Here is a delivery of 50 lbs. of peas.   

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Priority # 1 in Year 1

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s  Market Garden, Pleasantdale SK

If my email is any indication, 2019 might produce another bumper crop of new farmers. Those who are finding their way to me for advice come well-equipped with best practices and lengthy to-do lists. Very little of it has to do with making a go of it as a business. My advice is to keep an open mind about the farming industry’s sacred cows. Here are five that first-year farmers sometimes spend far too much energy on.

Composting
Composting is a multi-year process. Segment size production areas will need hundreds of pounds of finished compost. Larger areas, even more. You can start the process in year 1 if you have the space, but you certainly should not feel like a failure if you don’t. And you certainly shouldn’t aim to meet all your soil prep needs by closing any loops. Other soil natural amendments can be used before your composting gets up to speed, and fine tuning your operation’s inputs versus outputs equation can’t be figured out in your first year. You can ease into composting with a modest setup which might include four or five 4 ‘ by 4 ‘ by 4 ‘ feet bins. Wooden packing crates you can get for free will get you off to a great start.

Seed saving
Seed saving is another worthy practice, but it takes years to develop substantial amounts of seed. Again, you can learn the process and pick up on other’s experience, but for your first few years don’t create extra pressure by trying to aim to become your own seed supplier.

Season extension
This is an obsession that has grown in recent years. But starting out you should beware of anything that will add complexity to your operation – and structures that require significant expense and specialized expertise make production more challenging. Instead, try extending your season with strategic crop selection – choosing crops that do well in cool weather conditions, timing of plantings, frost tolerance. You will be surprised with how far “simple” growing will take you.

Rain water harvesting
Rain water harvesting is another worthy practice, but consider this. Elaborate water harvesting systems can increase efficiency – until they break down or malfunction. And they require investment, specialized knowledge and time to set up. It’s better to start simply and perfect more sophisticated systems over several years. Very basic watering methods using only a hose and some hardware store valves is all you need to start.

Cover cropping
Cover cropping can be important for weed control and soil building. But on typical SPIN-scale plots, it really isn’t practical. On larger areas it can also be difficult to work the crops back into the soil if you don’t have the right equipment. So proceed slowly, getting familiar with various techniques. In the meantime, use alternate methods that are much
simpler, like scuffle hoeing an area when the weeds are still at an early stage for weed control, and use local “feed store“ fertilizers like alfalfa pellets, blood meal and oil seed meals for soil building.

What should be the priorities of a first year farmer? There’s only one. Production. You need to develop the ability to grow consistently, in significant volume, at commercial grade. Few master it in year 1. If you also try to make your farm a showplace for all the latest and greatest farming practices, you might never master it at all. And a farm that’s not producing is just a heap of compost. So keep those emails coming. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll end up with a shorter 2019 to-do list than what you start with.

Maximizing production from small plots is what SPIN-Farming is all about. Relays is how you do that.
Maximizing production from small plots is what SPIN-Farming is all about. Relays is how you do that.

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