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.


Scaling Up SPIN-Farming to 4 Acres

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia, PA 

While SPIN-Farming may be most closely associated with an urban and backyard multi-locational model, its system of land base allocation, relay cropping and revenue targeting can be applied to larger land bases. Ed Garrett put on his SPIN glasses to take a look at 4 acres and here’s what he saw.

It is very hard not to get drawn into low return crops when you have the “extra” area. Once that happens, the farm starts committing too much time to low net production and loses operational efficiency. The “tractor” mentality assumes larger crop segments that destroy the produced “on demand” nature of SPIN-Farming.

If the same 4 acres was farmed SPIN-style, it would be organized in different sites as independent work units feeding separate markets or market channels. Production deficits at one site could be made up by trading with other production sites on the property.

Changing market behavior away from bulk purchases, especially working with retailers to trust on-demand refill of their stocks to increase freshness of produce is key here. Keeping production units relatively small while increasing their numbers
allows for daily harvest to meet day-to-day demands.

SPIN-Farming on larger land bases requires a more sophisticated strategy than “plant it and forget it.” But the reality of today’s markets is that the more things change, the more they keep changing. SPIN allows for frequent, continual in-season planting plan adjustments based on market demand and weather challenges. It presents a farmer with many decisions, continually throughout the season. It also presents him with opportunities for continual self-correction, and increases his options. And whether you are farming a few thousand square feet or 4 acres, that’s a huge advantage.

SF photo blog 4 acres.Just how big can you get with SPIN? Wally found that the size of his land base had an inverse correlation to the size of his bank account. That’s what led him to downsize to his backyard and develop the SPIN-Farming system. We don’t know what the optimal farm size is, but scaling up sure doesn’t make the same sense it used. to.


New Year, New Condo

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

There is a new 100 + unit condo opening up across the street from the Saskatoon Farmers Market. Starting late spring/early summer hundreds of new customers will be streaming past my stand. The development is called “The Banks”, and it is dubbed ” A New Way of Urban Living.”

SF photo condo sign

Currently the west side Saskatoon where my market is located, is a mixed demographics bag. A lot of rough-side-of-town types and progressive younger people. Up until now there has not been too much in the way of high income, this part of town.

Talking to other market vendors, the consensus seems to be that younger people in their 20’s probably wouldn’t be able to afford these new condos. Instead, these newcomers will most likely be middle-to-high income. Chances are there will be a wide variety of ages, but probably no senior citizens. Probably most won’t have families because the units are too small.

SF photo condos under cosntruction

So what does this mean for me? Reviewing my crop repertoire, I don’t see the need to change what I’ve been offering. But I will need to ramp up production. So my planning for this year will include figuring out the logistics of that. Responding to high demand is a great challenge to have. Quick Greens, such as pea shoots, micro greens and sunflower shoots can easily be ramped up  because they don’t take much space are short turnaround. But SPIN-scale production of longer season crops that require more space is trickier, and I’m in the course of figuring out how to best utilize my larger peri-urban plots.

The rumour mill has it that a Whole Foods will be opening up in this development. I formulated SPIN’s approach to packaging and pricing in response to the big guys, so I’m already positioned to deal with them. take them on. Whole Foods is not cheap, and most of its produce probably is not locally sourced. So my farmer’s market, which is a producer-only, has a clear competitive advantage for us locals, and my stand pricing can stay the same.

There’s actually a big benefit of having Whole Foods as part of the local food scene because it will draw more new people to this part of town, much like an anchor store in a mall. So my market will become, for the first time, part of a destination spot. The new residents will check out Whole Foods, then the farmer’s market, and then get what they need, probably shopping at both.

As you can guess, my farmer’s market is abuzz with high expectations, and management knows it needs to take its marketing to a new level. Plans include a welcoming party and leafletting to all the condo units. My personal marketing will emphasize the chemical-free and hyper-local qualities of my produce, and I’ll be handing out business cards, and engaging customers at my stand. I am anticipating that one person will still be able to handle the customer volume, but there will be much less downtime than in previous years. So I will need to do more pre-bagging at home.

Before I had a chance to complete this post, I learned that there is another set of condo complexes slated to be developed near the market. I am banking on all these people who are embracing a new way of urban living, will also want to embrace this urban farmer.

Scaling Up

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Ever since SPIN-Farming was introduced seven years ago, one question has come up repeatedly. Entrepreneurs out to make a buck in such wide ranging places as Miami, Ulster and Nairobi ask, “Can SPIN work here?” The answer is that SPIN can work wherever there are markets to support it.

SPIN is a business model, not a growing method. It produces the net income levels of traditional farming, while eliminating much of its costs, complexity and uncertainty. It achieves this by recasting farming as a highly skilled service in a city or town. That is the point agricultural economists and consultants and academics who want to “scale SPIN up” miss. Sure they can apply SPIN’s intensive growing practices to 20 acres or 30 acres, or beyond. But in doing so, they run smack into the dis-economies of scale that have dug farming into a hole – long distances from markets, heavy debt loads, staggering land costs, significant overhead, the need for additional labor, high energy use. Not only is this dead ending many new farming careers, it  is also exclusionary, keeping farming off limits to all but the privileged few who can afford land and access capital.

SPIN turns farming into a business opportunity that anyone can pursue right in their own backyards or neighborhoods. They don’t have to be interested in the politics surrounding food, sustainability or organics. They can quickly learn the SPIN system and get an income producing business in and off the ground in months, with a low four figure investment.

Not surprisingly, then, there is no one profile of a SPIN farmer. Some are young and just starting out. Others are on their third or fourth careers, and still others are retired and looking for extra income and something productive to do. Some are doing it in the urban jungle and others on the suburban fringe. Some have been avid gardeners, while others have never had dirt under their fingernails. Some always had the money they wanted. Others never had as much as they needed. They span generations, geography and socio- economic backgrounds, but what unites them all is a desire to make money by meeting the demand for local food.

If you are trying to scale up SPIN, we understand the temptation, but don’t waste your time. The optimal farm size is getting smaller, and the status quo is moving towards making more from less. What’s important is scaling up the number of new farmers. As I write this I see orders for SPIN guides coming in from Porterville CA, Bredbo NSW, Portugal Cove, NL, and Cape Coral FL. They are from people who see an opportunity to grow food and make money. And that, remember, is what farming is about.


SPIN photo Wally house

DDG1 photo 13SPIN photo crop production guide garlic 7SPIN photo Gail relaxing

Expand Your Land Base Without Acquiring More Land With Intensification

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

This time of year farmers begin to think about how they can ramp up production, and that  leads most to think of expanding their land base. Sometimes it makes sense to do this, but many times it is cheaper and easier to make better use of the land you already have. SPIN-Farming calls this intensification.

How  do you intensify your land base? You might tighten up your spacings, if they are too loose. That way you can plant more crops in that area. Or you might intensify by doing more relay cropping. Many times you will have land that isn’t replanted, after it has just been harvested of a crop. If you plant another crop there, and get two crops instead of one, on the same piece of land, that in essence doubles the area of that area replanted.

Let’s do the math like a SPIN farmer. If you have one acre of production, and just plant one crop per year on that land, then you are getting one acre of production. To expand production without buying more land, you can figure out a cropping strategy where you are getting two crops per year on the land you have. That now means you are getting two acres of production from one acre. Three crops per year means you are getting the equivalent of three acres of production. You don’t have to find or buy more land, you just ” intensified ” your production. So in essence, when planting more than one crop per year, which SPIN-Farming calls relay cropping, you are multiplying the size of your land base, without acquiring more land.

SPIN photo intensification spinach
Short season crops, such as spinach, which can be harvested in late spring are perfect crops for intensification. If you are going to plant a segment (1,000 square feet in SPIN-Farming)  to tomatoes on June 15, why not plant that area to spinach first, say around April 1? This will boost your revenue in that segment by possibly several thousand dollars. You can boost the revenue with short season crops in areas that will see long season summer crops.

SPIN photo intensification field
Areas like this, which will have potatoes and onions planted, have plenty of possibilities for intensification. Once some early new potatoes are harvested, say in mid-summer, start thinking of crops you can plant for late summer/fall harvest. This plot is shown in early spring, so start thinking of  the relay potential. You should never have bare areas in mid- summer. As soon as something has been harvested, start setting up those areas for new plantings.

Once you do math the SPIN-way, you can get more from less, and you also can see why  SPIN stands for s-mall p-lot in-tensive. For a quick 5 minute primer on all of SPIN’s core concepts including relay cropping, check out the video series Let’s Talk SPIN on youtube.