Relays Are DIY

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

As people move into planning mode for the new year, we start getting asked for a list of relay examples. There are some in the SPIN guides, but  the possibilities are endless. What is more useful to know is the thinking behind relays so you can design your own.

The point of relays is to get more production without expanding your land base. If you intensify your production on a lot of your land base,you’ll be able to extend your marketing period and establish cash flow early in the season, before many other vendors have produce available. You’ll also be able to grow later in the season, especially if you are in an urban area and have the micro climate advantage.

I’ve practiced relay cropping on some of my plots for over 25 years, without cover cropping, and have never had a problem with soil depletion. The reason is that I can easily spot fertilize my small plots between plantings. Crop rotation on large acreages has been practiced for generations, and it is important in that context because it’s much harder to keep the soil in good shape as you grow. It is really less of a factor in relay cropping of SPIN-size plots, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to know how to apply crop rotation.

Here is how SPIN farmer Adithya Ramachandran of Kaleidoscope Vegetables Gardens plots it out, with his rule of thumb being not to repeat the same family twice in one year in one bed:

Cool season crop families
Spinach, chard, beets
Brassicas, carrots
Onion and garlic

Warm season crop families

Legume family
Contains both cool-season (peas and broad beans) and warm-season (bush and pole beans) crops.

If you want to skip the nightshades and cucurbits, you can use the middle of your growing season for cool-season crops that can tolerate some heat, such as beets.

In a broad sense, cool season crops can precede warm weather crops, and then you can relay to cool season, like this:
                   cool season crop > warm season crop > cool season crop
For instance,  tomatoes are a big late spring/summer crop. But during the two month period in early spring, you can plant a cool season crop like spinach. So a relay could be:
                 spinach > tomatoes> radish

And remember, relays don’t have to be limited to three crops. If your season permits, you can do four and five member relays. If you live in a year-round growing region, can you do continuous relays? Don’t ask a guy from Canada. You tell me.

SPIN photo seeder a

Plan to Extend 2016 Sales by Observing Market Conditions Now

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

Crop repertoires always vary from year to year. SPIN farmers aim to change up their offerings, experimenting with exotic crops, and providing those not offered by their competition. Keep an eye out, too, for crops that are in short supply. Right now at my market, onions are in short supply. So my plan for 2016 will include more plantings for storage onions. The demand for garlic is exceeding my supply also, so I will increase my production there too.

There is no cabbage at market, so even though it is a difficult crop to grow for me, I’ll put in a cabbage planting for next year. My carrots and pumpkins/winter squash are selling steadily so I see no need to increase 2016 plantings of those crops.

SPIN photo crop production guide cabbage large head

My point is that you can continue to make money during what is considered the off-season by observing and responding to local food supply. By keeping your customers happy longer, you not only keep your cash flowing, you also ensure their loyalty. You can even gain new customers once their usual farmer is missing in action.

Week After Week Cropping Strategy Helps You Achieve Steady Production

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

Because many SPIN farms, including mine, just look like a really big garden, I often get asked the difference between a gardener and a backyard farmer. To turn your garden into a business, you need to grow a wide variety of crops, consistently, in significant volume, at commercial grade. In other words, you need product, and lots of it, for a long period of time.

SPIN farmers use the “week after week “strategy for many of their crops to achieve steady production of a crop throughout the entire season. With highly marketable crops that are considered to have short seasons, that takes some strategizing. Here is how a “week after week” cropping strategy works for a typically cool weather crop like spinach.

Early in the season when it is cool, I plant several staggered plantings of a common variety like Bloomsdale and Tyee. Because of my urban backyard microclimate, some of these plantings even overwinter here in zone 3, allowing me to get to market very early. I follow up with harvests from my early spring plantings to keep a steady offering of spinach going.

While I continue to harvest and sell my spring plantings of spinach, I get transplants going of New Zealand/Malabar spinach, which grows well in warm to hot conditions, and plant them out in late spring for a summer harvest, to sell once the early plantings of spinach are spent.

SF photo spinach 1

So a “week after week” spinach strategy would include several staggered early plantings of regular spinach, and then transplant-based production of alternate warm-weather types. Then later staggered summer plantings of regular spinach, which take me right into cooler fall like conditions. This way it is possible to have “spinach” most of your marketing weeks, including right through hot summers.

With the steady introduction of new and exotic varieties of crops by my seed company friends, there is an ever-increasing number of crops that can be used in this type of strategy. So consider this a warm-up for your 2016 planning, when all those seed catalogs start arriving.

Some Sage Advice on Parsley Production

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

We always get asked if SPIN can work in (name your location here). We always reply that  SPIN is not place-based. No matter what zone, or country you are in, as long as you are approaching growing as a business, SPIN has something to offer. For instance, this question was just posted in our forum:

Hey everybody! Greetings from New Orleans! It’s hot but I have a feeling it is where most of yawl are too 🙂 A chef just asked us to grow parsley for him, and I’m wondering.. anybody know how much square footage it would take to grow 10 lbs weekly?

Well, right now the temperature here in Sas is 68 °, and where this guy’s at it is 89 °. But I’m growing parsley too. So to answer his question I just harvested one parsley plant and made some rough calculations to get him in the ball park. Here’s what I told told him:

It will probably take about 20 plants to give you a pound. So you would need around 200 plants to give you 10 lbs. You can fit about 200 transplants into a three row standard SPIN bed.

Once you harvest a plant, you need two to three weeks before another harvest of that plant. Since you are targeting weekly production, you’ll need more than one bed. To play it safe I would say if you had around 5 standard beds in parsley, that should give you what you need. Five standard beds would take up a space of around 400 sq. ft.

Best way to seed parsley is to use plug trays. Start them in the trays, and then transplant. So try planting around ten 96 cell plug trays. Won’t take you long and easy to manage. And won’t cost you much.

Maybe some day I’ll get down to NOLA and and this guy can take me to the restaurant where I can taste what they’re doing with that parsley Round about when it’s -25 ° here will be a good time to work that in.

SF photo parsley

Make Money from the Unexpected

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

Farmers spend so much time and effort on their crop plans that they sometimes fail to capitalize on the unexpected. For instance, I had a sub-segment of garden space slated for green garlic. Problem is I have some volunteer greens coming up.

SF photo volunteer orach

Do I weed it all out just to stick with my plan? Well, those are pretty valuable weeds. It’s orach, a highly versatile crop. It produces in both cool and hot weather, and is a  great substitute for spinach. It actually has more body and flavor, and it is an easy sell at market.  So I figure I might as well make some money from this area now. I’ll just water the plot and harvest for market. I’ll terminate the crop later and put the garlic in then.

SF photo volnuteer orach 2Orach in the hand is worth more than garlic in the plan.

SPIN Is Gardening as a Business – Plan Your Production

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

In part 1 of this blog I explained that SPIN turns a garden into a cash generator by showing gardeners how to value their production and set a revenue target. Now I’ll explain how to turn that revenue target into a production plan.

As an example, let’s say you’ve already got two or three different businesses going, and you want to start out farming your yard part-time. So you think if you gross $2,000 from your garden this year you’ll be doing fantastic. Using the SPIN system, the first step is:

> decide the number of your marketing weeks                                                                  Marketing weeks is the amount of weeks you will have crops for sale. You can make it easiest on yourself by choosing many weeks to sell, because that means you have to make less in any given week. $2,000 becomes more feasible, the more marketing weeks you have. So you decide to attend a 10 week farmers market, and average $200 in sales per week.

> use SPIN’s mix and match pricing scheme of $3 per item, or any 2 items for $5
This way you are unitizing your produce and selling it all at the same price, with the average price being about $2.50. If you are targeting $2,000, that means you have to sell 800 total units of production. In terms of your weekly targeted revenue, if you have 10 marketing weeks, then that means 80 units of production per week, which, at $2.50 per item, will get you to your weekly targeted revenue of $200.

> decide on your SPIN crop repertoire
This is the complete range of crops that you plan on growing and marketing. The smaller your operation, the simpler your crop repertoire will probably be, but if you start targeting 10’s of thousands of dollars, you will need a wider range of produce to achieve your revenue target. Criteria for selecting crops includes demand, competition and growing conditions.

> plan production
Using the idea of units of production required to achieve revenue, and your crop repertoire, you plan like this, using 80 units of production per week and $200 in sales per week.

A spring market day would require something like this:
– 30 bags of spinach
– 20 bunches radish
– 20 bunches green onion
– 10 bags of pea greens
– 80 total units of production

Your weekly produce mix changes through your 10 week marketing period, but you are always aiming to have 80 units per week and sell $200 per week.

What makes SPIN-Farming different than gardening is you need to grow consistently, in significant volume at commercial grade, throughout the entire season. While this takes time to master, you’ll get a lot further a lot faster if you put a plan in play rather than if you just play around.

To see a further explanation of these concepts and others from the SPIN Lexicon, watch these five 1 minute videos on our youtube channel:

SPIN is Gardening as a Business – Set a Revenue Target

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

SPIN-Farming reduces the amount of land needed for commercial crop production to garden size plots. It is therefore sometimes confused with square foot gardening, but SPIN involves something new. It provides gardeners with a way to put an economic value on what they grow. What this means in practice is that gardening can easily be turned into a business. All you have to do is set a revenue target and plan your garden’s production to meet it.

Say you want to make $2,000 gross from your garden in a season. Here’s how to think through how that can be done, using the SPIN benchmark of $1,000 per 1,000 sq. ft., which is called a segment.

You might use 2 segments of garden space, totaling 2,000 sq. ft. and grow one crop worth $1,000 on each of the segments. With this option it’s important to first determine if there are enough markets to buy that much of one single crop.

By using SPIN’s bi-relay cropping, which is the growing of 2 crops in the same garden space per season, you can half the amount of garden space you need to 1,000 sq. ft., or one segment. That means you will be growing 2 crops worth $1,000 each, one right after the other, in the same 1,000 sq. ft. garden space.

Again, it’s important to first determine if there are enough markets to buy the two crops you choose, in the volume you’ll be producing them in.
>> So with the bi-relay option, you have halved your space, but maintained your revenue.

By using SPIN’s intensive relay cropping, which is the growing of 3 or more crops in the same garden space per season, you can maintain your 1,000 sq. ft. and increase your revenue to $3,000 in a season.
>>So with the intensive relay option, you have increased your revenue by a third, without having to expand your garden space.

What’s important to note is $1,000 gross per 1,000 sq. ft. is a conservative benchmark for those just starting out. Those who have mastered relay cropping, and who have strong markets, have been able to push these revenue targets to $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 and $5,000 per segment. This is where backyard plots become serious profit centers, and gardening crosses over into farming. SPIN makes it and an easy and lucrative transition.

Targeted revenue is the starting point, but it is just an abstract number without a production plan to back it up. In part 2 of this post, we’ll specify how you make your numbers a reality.

To see a further explanation of these concepts and others from the SPIN Lexicon, watch these five 1 minute videos on our youtube channel:

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.   

Can My 2,700 Sq. Ft. Garden Support a 20 Member CSA?

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

SPIN farmers are starting to plan for the 2015 season, so let me share a typical Q&A that might help you in starting to look ahead.

Q: I have 54 2 ft x25 ft SPIN beds. Nest season I am hoping to subscribe 20 families for $20.00 worth of produce for 25 weeks…mid-April to mid-October. Is that feasible from this amount of space?

A: I would say your plan is very do-able, and I see no reason why you couldn’t achieve the $10k revenue you are targeting. Here’s some tips on how best to go about it.

  • For a CSA you need a steady supply of produce to satisfy your families, from spring until fall. This means you need consistent weekly production of a variety of crops.
  • You can relay crop the entire area, about half in intensive, and half bi. That will ensure steady production production throughout the entire season, and it should be managable by one person.
  • Make use of crops like chard, which is many people know how to use now, and which can be planted once, and harvested throughout the entire season.
  • You need to have a strong spring line coming on stream sometime in May, or even earlier. This means plantings of classic crops like lettuce, onions, radish, and spinach.
  • Instead of using SPIN’s standard size beds, you might consider using short beds for your production purposes, which might put your weekly production for some crops more in line with your weekly demands. A short bed is 10 feet long and 2 feet wide. If you planned your production on the basis of short beds, you would have 100 beds to plan with.
  • For instance, a short bed of spinach should yield 20 1/2 lb. bags, or 20 bunches of radish. But working with standard beds will work also, especially if you are thinking of generating a surplus of produce to sell at a farmer’s market.
  • If you have not already, consider buying an upright produce cooler,especially if you are a solo operator. It will make your workflow much more manageable because you can harvest steadily throughout the week rather than having it all gang up the day before delivery. This could be a make or break investment.
  • Use SPIN 2.0 Crop Profiles guide for production planning, to figure out which crops to plant, and in which quantities, in order to achieve the necessary yields. It contains in-bed plant spacing, seed required per bed, seed cost, yields per bed, among other data,  for 40 SPIN crops. You can use it to plan out your relays to be sure you have a wide variety crops, in the required volume, throughout your 6 month CSA.

There is a bigger point to made here, and that is the potential to use a backyard to achieve specific financial goals. This person can gross $10k in 2,700 sq. ft. in a season. Think what that money could be used  for. Maybe an exotic vacation. Or finance a wedding, or build up a college fund. You don’t have to commit to a full-time career change, or give up the opera for crickets, to make money growing food. You don’t even need to don a hair shirt. A microgreens vest works just dandy.

SF photo BUG Farms micorgreens vest Peggy Helvig Alspaugh

photo courtesy of BUG Farms in Salt Lake City UT

Think Spring. Think $1,000 Revenue Target.

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

Round about now many are thinking about spring. If you don’t go to a winter market, or have winter sales of any type, then you will be looking ahead to what SPIN-Farming calls a ” spring debut ” week. For many farmers, sales during this week are very meager, usually in the low hundreds, and significant cash flow usually doesn’t start until late spring/early summer.

SPIN-Farming shows you how to set your sights higher. A good revenue target  for your spring debut week is $1,000. To achieve it you have to plan out the appropriate plantings that will give you a variety of offerings in significant volume.

Many farmers don’t realize lettuce and spinach crops, as well as other greens, can be grown in early spring, without protection. Seed will germinate in cool soil conditions, and crops will stand many frosts. Same with onion sets, and spring planted garlic.

To reach a revenue target of $1,000 in your debut week, you need to decide which crops and in what unit quantities you will need to achieve that income, using SPIN’s pricing per unit strategy. SPIN’s 2.0 crop profiles give you benchmarks on revenue/yields per bed and per segment. $1,000 becomes an obtainable number if you plan it out this way. Plantings to support $1,000 need not be large, and the size of your plantings is what you need to figure out. Couple your outdoor production with indoor plantings of pea/ micro/sunflower greens as described in the Quick Greens guide, and $1,000 your first week will be a slam dunk.

SPIN Photo farm stand $1000 spring produce

Here is an example of what a $1,000 weekly spring product line looks like.