Seeding Rate Helps Answer Whether A Crop Is Worth Growing

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

The planning questions keep coming, and last week the big one was, “How do I know if a crop is worth growing?” Getting an accurate read on your seed costs is a big part of the answer. In fact, knowing the cost to seed a bed is make or break in planning.

To get an accurate read on your seed costs, you need to determine your seeding rate per bed. To do that, you need to determine the following for the crop in question:

> # of rows per bed
> width of each row
> in-row spacing
> # of seed required per row
> # of seed required per bed

Using benchmarks from SPIN’s Crop Profiles, let’s look at carrots as an example.

> # of rows per standard size bed: 3
> width of each row: 2”
> in-row spacing: 12” apart; 30 seeds per foot
> # of seed required per row: 750 seeds
> # of seed required per bed: 1,125

Next, using the seed cost stats from SPIN’s Crop Profiles, look at what seed costs look like:
> typical cost per 25M quantities: $20 – $40
> cost to seed a bed: $2 per bed for the most expensive varieties

If you use SPIN’s revenue target of $100 per bed, you can see the seed cost per bed is way less than the revenue per bed. And in fact, some types of carrots can generate revenue of close to $200 per bed. So now you can see why SPIN categorizes carrots as a very high value crop.

Do the same calculations for more expensive sprouting microgreens seed, and you could start to see costs of up to $20 to seed a bed. Factoring in other costs and your labor, you need to determine when the answer to, “Is a crop worth growing?” is “No.”

There are lots of variables that can come into play too. You can tweak your seeding rate, raise your prices, or negotiate seed costs. But as with all businesses, at the end of the day it comes down to knowing what calculations to make. Seeding rate is an important, but overlooked one.

DDG3 photo 18You’ll get a feel for the amount of seed you need to use after a few trial plantings. The goal is to figure out the minimum amount of seed you need in order to achieve your targeted yield.  And then record that rate and figure out the cost to seed a bed.  



Plant With Your Head as Well as Your Gut

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

“Go with your gut” is sometimes good advice. But if you want to succeed in business, you also have to use your head. Over the years I have developed strategies for each of my crops. Having a cropping strategy is especially important for crops that are pretty common or low value, such as carrots, garlic, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and even greens because you have to differentiate yourself at market from other growers, and you have to turn a low value crop into a high value one. That means having a crop available when others don’t, offering different varieties from others, or targeting different markets, like restaurants.

For instance, carrots have always been a top money making crop for me. But a carrot is not a carrot is not a carrot. There are different sizes of carrots. There are rainbow carrots. There are novelty carrots. Each one has a different place and time throughout my marketing period.

DDG4 photo 15

Carrots are an important crop because they provide steady cash flow. This year I am growing 10 segments. I sell them steadily throughout the season starting with scallion and then progressing to onion bunches and dry onion in the fall.

Leafy greens are another important crop to think through because there are so many options – chard, collards, kale, lettuces, salad mixes, spinaches. Fresh herbs, such as basil, cilantro and parsley can also be included. And then there are micro greens, orach, purslane and other novelty crops. My greens strategy is based on having anywhere from 100 units to 500 units of some combination of greens throughout the season, especially early on before other producers have them.

Knowing why you are growing a certain crop is as important as knowing how to grow it, and having cropping strategies is what turns growing into a business.


Why Not Just Grow High Value Crops?

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

In planning discussions the question frequently comes up, “If you want to make money, why not just grow the highest value crops?”  It’s easy to go through SPIN 2.0 Crop profiles and pull them out – rainbow carrots, garlic, microgreens, onions, shallots. Specialized operations can work – for a while. But farming is never steady state. What works one year can’t be counted on to work  the next.

The wheels of commerce are greased by trends, which are inherently short-lived. Consumer tastes and the competitive landscape are changing much more rapidly than they used to. A hot trend like micros attracts a lot of new suppliers, and then the market becomes saturated. If succeeding in business were as easy as just selling what’s most expensive, we’d all be as rich as Donald Trump.

Then there are the environmental concerns. Unanticipated weed pressure or dry conditions can make the growing of some higher value crops tricky. Disease and insects are also a risk. If all your business is dependent on one or just a few crops, and you have crop failures, just ask the Big Ag farmers how that goes. Boom and bust.

I’ve always followed the “steady Eddy” strategy by experimenting with a wide variety of crops and developing an extensive crop repertoire that includes lower value crops. Green beans, peas, potatoes, and winter squash are easier to grow in heavier weed pressure conditions.

If you sell at market, it is better to have a selection of produce so that you can be a one stop shop. Your regular customers will usually buy whatever you have, so that means more sales to your regulars. Also you will be better able to lure new customers. You also stand a better chance of developing a more consistent cash flow with a more diverse offering of produce. If you want to offer a CSA, a variety of items is usually part of the deal.

Specialized operations can simplify start up or work well as part-time operations. But they also increase your risks and limit your opportunities. As I said, farming is never steady state, and you can expand or narrow your operation as you go through different life stages. Adapt and prosper!

SPIN photo microgrees and field

Man does not live by micros alone. 


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.  

How to Scope Your Startup When Land Is Not an Issue

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

SPIN is closely associated with urban farming because it requires little space to support a farm business, and you don’t have to own the land you grow on. But it’s equally valuable in a situation like this:

Hi. We have purchased 18 acres and expect to move to it later this summer. I have no experience in farming and very little in gardening.  Your guides have helped me tremendously as I layout my farm. However there is one question I haven’t figured out yet.  I need to establish some realistic goals on exactly how much we can do.  Equipment isn’t much of an issue. I plan on buying a big BCS with most of the gardening implements. In your experience how many standard beds can two people realistically expect to manage full time?

For landowners of sizable acreage, these six factors are the ones to consider when defining how ambitious you should be in your first year.

  • Age and fitness of growers
  • Gardening/farming background
  • Motivation
  • Financial goal
  • Readiness of plots
  • Land base allocation

If the land you have is ready to farm, you might put in about an acre of production, and control your effort through strategic land base allocation. Put a small percent of that acre in intensive relay production, some in bi-relay and most in single crop production with relatively easy to grow crops. Your innate ability to grow will be big variable in your first year or two.The more you do it, the better you get. As the years go on, you can re-balance the intensity of your production, putting more of your initial acre into intensive relays, and expanding to multiple acres with single crop production.

Success at any scale of farming requires mastering production, which means growing consistently, in significant volume, at commercial grade, over an extended period of time. The speed that you master production is dictated by the size of land you have in production. The smaller your growing space, the faster and easier you will master production.

SPIN Photo Gail's place in Manitoba5000sf

If you have lots of acres, you’ll stack the deck in favor of your long term success by thinking and operating like a SPIN farmer.


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.

For Staggered Plantings, Ignore the Spreadsheet

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

Success at any scale of farming requires continuous production of certain crops, such as green beans and onions, leafy greens and radish. Staggered plantings are the way to accomplish that. Some call it succession planting. But don’t confuse this with relay planting. Here’s the difference:

  • Relay planting is the planting of different crops in the same plot, one right after the other, during a single season.
  •  Staggered or succession planting is the planting of the same crop in different plots throughout the season.

Staggered plantings need to be timed properly. To put in a proper stagger, you can’t rely on spread sheet dates. Why? Because of weather variables. Your planned spreadsheet plantings and the reality on the ground frequently diverge. Let’s take spinach. Say you want to have steady production during your cool weather spring. LSF dates are irrelevant. You can plant as soon as you can work the soil.

For me in Zone 3, that is usually the first week of April, when the snow is gone from the ground. Though spinach germinates in cool soil conditions, it can take up to 10 days +. If your spreadsheet calls for another planting a week from your initial planting, do you hit the plots? No, because planting before emergence and development of your initial crop will more than likely mean that your two plantings will coincide and you will be oversupplied when it comes time to harvest. Wait until you get germination, crop emergence, and some development on your initial crop. Then you put in your next staggered planting.

SPIN photo crop production guide spinach 10

Spread sheet planting dates can be useful. But for staggered plantings, conditions on the ground trump planning.



Are Transplants Worth the Effort?

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

A frequent forum topic is whether to start your own transplants or buy them. Sounds like a simple cost/benefit analysis, and some forum members just expect a software program to give them an answer. But, as with most things farming-related, the answer is “It depends”, so a computer program won’t help much.  And don’t ask Mr. Google on this one. Your search will lead you to a punk rock band or a bunch of bald guys.

If you want to DIY, you need to cost out the materials and your labor to determine if it’s worth your while. No software is needed. Just pen and paper. In the Seed Savers Exchange Catalogue, the cost of $500 seeds is usually less than $15. A very minor cost per seed. If you were doing a few hundred transplants, the labor required is not great. You could seed directly into 3” – 4” jiffy pot. So you need to price out those. Ditto for the potting mix, though cost here can be brought down by using your own compost.

You’ll need some drip trays, but those are reusable. If you are doing transplants indoors, say in your basement, you’ll need to set up a lighting system, of say a few shelving units with and some grow lights. So you need to price that out, but consider that this type of shelving unit system would be good for many other applications and would last for many years. You would have to tend these plant around 6 weeks. So you need to factor in the cost of the labor involved, and the extra cost to run the lights.

If you buy transplants, they will cost more than the DIY approach, but you do not have other material costs or labor inputs. And you can plant them soon after buying them. Also, the selection of transplants is limited and won’t include most of the interesting, and lucrative, heirloom varieties. Plus, if you get too reliant on transplants, you might loose your skill in starting your own, should you ever need it. Starting your own transplants is something every grower should know how to do.

Sorry I can’t give a definitive answer, and that’s why the SPIN forum will always have a place. Some decisions require that you think your way to an answer, and sometimes several experienced heads are better at thinking things through than one. But if you want to expand your musical horizons, you might want to check out The Transplants.SF photo transplants peppers Jared

SPIN member Jared Regier’s pepper transplants in one of his backyard plots at Chain Reaction Urban Farm.

How Much Land Do You Need to Support a 100 Member CSA?

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

In the SPIN online support group, business models are debated as hotly as growing practices. A recent topic was CSA’s. Some like the control it gives them over their planning, revenue and customer base. Others feel it limits a farmer’s upside and boxes their thinking. While there are fiercely held opinions, there is no definitive answer. How you make your money is as personal a decision as how you grow. Best way to figure it out is with some soul searching and a few beers.

Once you commit, though, the important questions can be answered by numbers crunching. Like this one: How much land do you need to support 100 CSA members? I have never done a CSA, but since SPIN has some benchmarks, it’s easy to crunch some numbers and get a reasonable answer. Let’s say 1 acre has 400 standard beds. Let’s also say that each standard SPIN bed can produce 50 units, on average. 400 x 50 = 20,000 production units. If you do a bi-relay on 100 of those beds, that’s an extra 5,000 units 25,000 units is therefore a reasonable and conservative production target.

If a share basket had 10 units of production per week, for 20 weeks we are looking at 1,000 production units per week, or 20,000 in total for the season. So 1 acre of SPIN-type production could support a 100 member CSA. Another way to figure this is using SPIN segments. There are 40 segments in 1 acre. Each segment can produce 500 units. If each share has 200 units, each segment would support 2.5 shares.

These numbers probably won’t be exactly right in most situations, but they provide a reasonable answer to make a plan and execute. Then we can review your numbers and see how to improve. More relays? Maybe. But is the extra labor worth it? Let’s run more numbers. Partnering with other farmers on a full diet CSA? Check in with David Elias of Hooligan Farm who’s trying that this year.

SF photo David Elias with juice

He’s probably not down the street from you, so you can’t grab a beer, or a smoothie. But you can catch him in the SPIN forum, which is the next best thing.

Membership in SPIN’s online hub for backyard-based growers is available to anyone who purchases our learning programs. Hope you’ll join in!