Vive La Niche

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

Aspiring agripreneurs can always count on receiving this advice: never plant anything without first identifying your market. “Grow what you sell, don’t sell what you grow” is pretty much conventional wisdom now, and that’s progress.

But since SPIN farmers are known for taking things to the next level, what does this advice mean to us? Niches. SPIN farmers play on local demographics, and nowadays there are quite a lot of varieties to choose from. Well-heeled émigré communities are becoming the norm in lots of cities. Specialty crops are seen as inclusive, rather than ethnic, and SPIN-scale growers can use their small plots to serve nearby customers with special needs and differentiate themselves at market.

Here’s an anecdote to make the point. A Philly boxer, Bernard Hopkins, is getting ready to meet his next opponent, Sergey Kovalev. The fight will take place in Atlantic City later this fall. The promoters chose AC because of a big Russian demographic on the east coast, to be sure to draw a crowd. So if I were a SPIN farmer on the east coast, I’d be on the lookout for a new demographic in town and start learning some Russian.

The right to food used to be thought of in terms of having sufficient quantities, or proper nutrition. But in a multicultural world, it is also being defined as having diversity of selection. This is right up a SPIN farmer’s alley because identifying and serving niches is what they are all about. They are not only situated close to their customers, but they also have the rapid response capability to capitalize on new markets. Being small and nimble allows you to cater to a broad range of culinary niches. And that’s a big advantage, sort of like punching above your weight.
SF photo horse radish

I had several $10 bags of horseradish in my market cooler yesterday, which I did not set out on my table. Two people who looked eastern European came by and asked,  “Are you Wally?”  I said “Yes”, and they said, “Do you have horseradish?” I told them I had some, $10/bag. They both take a bag. So word is getting out that I have horseradish. Eastern Europeans also crave green garlic.

Use SPIN’s Small Scale Advantage

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

The emails and mailers are starting to come in outlining all the challenges and rewards of organic/eco/sustainable/regenerative farming, so that means workshop season will soon be upon us. A main theme of SPIN-Farming workshops is to understand and use your small scale advantage to out-compete the larger operators. It’s not hard to do, once you learn the tricks of the trade. Here are a few:

 Use the micro climate advantage on small plots, especially in an urban context. This allows you to get into production much earlier and extend production much later into the season. You can therefore offer crops that are not available from other growers, and charge premium pricing for them.

Make small timely plantings that larger growers can’t bother with. Small means not overwhelming and appropriate for your resources and current situation. Timely means properly sequenced to provide consistent supply, selling into periods of production shortfalls and making quick in-season adjustments.

 Experiment continually with  novel or exotic crops. You don’t have to bet the farm to find your next best seller and differentiate yourself at market.

Be on the lookout for new market niches and cater to them. With the world being increasingly mobile, communities are quickly being reshaped by emigres with distinct culinary tastes, and for many of them money is no object. Serving their unique needs for specialty crops is exactly what it means to be market-driven. Most farmers aren’t fans of deviations from a norm. Their plans are typically set by routines that follow long-term trends. But having the rapid response capability to capitalize on unforeseen opportunities is what SPIN-Farming is all about.

A former musician has this take: “SPIN-Farming teaches you the notes and scales and composition. Then it’s all improv.”Another SPIN farmer likens it to being a ninja. Maybe instead of that farming workshop, your time might be better spent exploring music or the martial arts. However you learn about farming, you can forget elaborate business plans that need executive summaries and table of contents. To grow food and make money nowadays, you need to be nimble and quick, and that means size really does matter.

DDG2 photo 1

Design Your Stand for Optimal Sales

Courtesy of Keri F., Green Sister Gardens, Moose Jaw SK 

I have my two tables set up in an L shape (I’ve experimented with all kinds of different  configurations and this has the best flow.) So the hottest spot on the table are the two ends of the tables (one of them is a little better than the other).

I will put whatever item I have the most of that week or if I have a new item that I want people to try I will put it in that spot. I also put radishes and other highly colored veggies in the middle of my tables because the colors capture people’s attention and they come in for a closer look usually :)

SF photo Keri Fox Green Sisters Garden farm stand design

The Secret Ingredient to Salad Mix Success

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

It’s high summer for many of us now, but go to your standard grocery or corner store and check out what is on the shelf. Chances are it’s spring mix. And therein lies the secret to creating the best salad mix. The most important ingredient is change. Selling the same product day in and day out, year round, is no way to get people excited to pay top dollar for a premium product.

Change is an economic driver, and it fits very well with a SPIN farmer’s highly dynamic production plan. Components for salad mixes should change frequently, reflecting the seasons, what is ready to be harvested, what seeds are available and reasonably priced. You should continually add unusual greens to your mixes, because they distinguish you at market and can lead to a best seller that you would not  otherwise have discovered. Many customers consider salad mixes to be a staple now, and buy them week after week. So marketing unusual greens as a salad mix breaks down people’s resistance to buying a new type of green that they might not be familiar with.

OK, so now that you have the concept behind creating successful salad mixes, what is the secret recipe? Pretty easy. There are 2 basic ingredients – base crops and novelty crops. Base crops are high yielding, quick to harvest crops like peas, radish and sunflowers. Novelty crops are inexpensive, and may be lower yielding or slower to mature, and are used to add color or texture, like red cabbage or broccoli. Right now I am just using peas and radish. I am also starting to grow yellow peas, which produces a “tendril“ pea. I have also added lentil greens, when I grow them.

Many a SPIN farmer’s career has been built on a signature salad mix. To find out how to get started, check out this case study and then start mixing it up.

SPIN photo Wally and salad mix

Psych Yourself Up for Farmer’s Market Sales

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

First year SPIN farmers are signing up for their farmers markets, and this is when I get what I call emails of doubt. “How will I stack up? How can I compete? I’m just a small fish in a big pond. Who will buy my produce?” If you, too, are facing your first season jitters, here’s how to psych yourself into a $500 market week – and beyond.

 Use your small growers advantage: Being SPIN-scale allows you to be more adaptable than larger growers. larger growers frequently have one time plantings of crops. They sell them, and they are done. Being small means you will have the time for frequent, even weekly plantings of certain crops, such as salad greens and fresh herbs, when they are in short supply at market, especially mid to late season.

 Scarcity confers higher value: Other vendors may have greater volumes of produce than you, but your lower volume creates exclusivity, which supports premium pricing. Also, look closely at what others are offering. It might be of lower quality. Establish your reputation on smaller volumes of higher quality produce. People will feel great that they scored that last bag of arugula from you.

 Foodie is mainstream: The Food Network has turned food into entertainment, and the most interesting developments in the food world are at everybody’s fingertips on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter. Government policies and health advocates are also turning up the volume on nutrition. So customers are becoming much more adventurous in their tastes, and appreciative of quality. This gives SPIN farmers increased pricing power and  infinite opportunities to differentiate themselves from other growers.

 You’re embedded in your market: Unlike many growers who retreat to the middle of nowhere when the market is done, your always just a stone’s throw from the action. You just have to look and listen to what’s around you. Follow the lunch trucks around to see what they are offering. Read the trendy menus conveniently placed for you outside the door or on the sidewalk. Check out the pop-up restaurant in a warehouse. Ask neighbors, friends and family what they need and want. Then go grow it. Being market responsive gives you a real big advantage.

Think like a retailer: Make your stand and your marketing stand out. Pre-bag produce. Loose produce makes for slow processing time and frustrated customers. Come up with a pricing system that makes it easy for customers to spend their money. Create your own price, using SPIN’s mix and match unit pricing. Unitizing and packaging can take many forms. Come up with your own deals, like combining recipe-ready crops in a single bag or bundle and sell at special price. Change up the presentation of some of your crops from week to week, and tie them in with commonly celebrated holidays or local events.

Finally, don’t look at fellow vendors as competition, but rather as colleagues. It takes more than just a few vendors to create a destination point farmers market. More vendors means more product, and that means customers have a better chance of having a satisfying experience. That will keep them coming back to the market, and to you, you farmer rock star.

SF photo Keri Fox Green Sister GardensKerri Fox  of Green Sister Gardens rockin’ out in Moose Jaw SK. 

What if you don’t have Madonna’s  chutzpah? Here’s some tips for the shy farmer.

 

To Get the Best Seed Price, Make a Call

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, 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 $50 to $100, not counting delivery cost. Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds offers pea seed at around $50 for 50 .lbs, but this bulk quantity price is not listed publicly.  You have to call or email them. Johnny’s price is  double –  $100 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.   

Take your farm to the next level – the basement

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
Now that there are some seasoned SPIN farmers out there, I’m seeing lots of plans for taking their operations to the next level. Many involve expanding their land base or investing in season extension. Both are good ideas. But accomplishing them the traditional way – by acquiring more land or investing in complicated structures – makes it harder and more expensive than it needs to be.

A few years ago when I wanted to expand my operation, I headed to the basement. The investment was under $1,000, and included some shelving and lights. Since I am already spending to heat that room, the overhead is just the cost of lights, which is minimal. Bottom line: you don’t need to invest in a new structure, or find space for it.

SPIN photo grow table shoots

Right now in one of my basement grow rooms I have 50 trays of  pea and micro greens, with turn around of less than two weeks. I will also be growing live garlic in containers, starting this week, in another grow room. Bedding plants are scheduled for next month. Other possibilities for indoor grow room production are fresh herbs, something I will try soon.

My basement grow room now adds $10,000+ to my bottom line, and supports a year round operation in zone 3 Canada. Being an urban farmer, I also appreciate its discretion. In my neighborhood, a 50 foot high tunnel in the backyard would not go unnoticed. Using underutilized residential spaces I already have is an easier option.

This type of indoor setup allows you to grow consistent volumes of crops year round, regardless of whether you are having a hot summer, or a cold, hard winter. Being able to provide steady supply locks in restaurant customers. Year round restaurant orders of indoor crops of say, $200 per week, means an extra $10,000 per year, with minimal time and labor. That can pay a lot of bills, making your farmers market and CSA sales even more profitable.

So those wanting to take their SPIN farmers to the next level should think about heading to the basement or den or any other underutilized space in their home, and keep their commute time to 0.

Find out how to set up a lucrative micro greens business in your basement in Dig Deeper Guide # 5.

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.

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

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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.

 

Make Your New Farm Implement a Stop Watch

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

It’s planning season for many, and over the years an increasing number of aspiring/new/hobby farmers have been coming to me to share their thinking. Every year I see that they spend too much time focused on the things that matter least to their success. While it’s fun to draw up a growing plan and a garden layout for the new year, what is crucial to having these plans actually work out is logistics. If I had to name one make or break factor to both short and long term success, it is logistics. Logistics simply means how are you going to get the job done?

Right now I am planning out spring work weeks as well as going through the seed catalogues to develop my planting plan. You need both types of planning happening side by side. I’m looking at planting 500 lbs. of onion sets this spring. Fine, how am I going to make it happen? What you need is a plan for your logistical work flow. Building blocks for your plan include work rate, work session, and work flow, and the tool you need for this is a stop watch. You use it to determine the amount of time required to accomplish a specific task, which is your work rate.

Usually work rate is thought of in terms of a unit of time, such as a minute. One minute work rates are easy to track and make notes on. Work rate can also be defined as the total time required to accomplish one task. Whichever approach is used, the point is to figure out how long it takes to accomplish a small unit of work because that will allow you to figure out how long it will take to accomplish a larger amount of work, which is the type of work you will get done in a work session.

A work session is a period of time that you allocate to accomplish a specific task from beginning to end, and involves an hour or multi-hour periods of time. The way you schedule your work sessions in any given farm week is work flow. To get the work done effectively, without burning yourself out, you need to schedule your work sessions, and to do that you need to know your work rate. So this is how all three concepts are interrelated.

“But,” you say. “I am just starting out. I have no idea what my work rate is.” No problem. Guess. Set your own benchmarks, and adjust them as you get experience. What you will find is that you will get faster and more efficient as the season progresses. These benchmarks will also help you decide if and when to use outside labor. If the people helping you are not achieving work rate benchmarks, then you will know that it is not worth your while to have them help you.

The fun part of SPIN-Farming is being both the brains and the brawn of an operation. Use your brain – and a stopwatch – to figure out how to make the brawn happen.

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Here the classic SPIN straddle makes quick and easy work of planting a 4-row standard size bed. According to the stop watch, it took Gail about 15 minutes to plant one 25 foot row. So she knows to schedule about an hour to plant the whole bed.

Find out how to become master of your farming fate by controlling all aspects of your work flow in Dig Deeper # 1.

Tips for selling at market for first timers

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

This time of year we hear from two kinds of farmers – those who are new, and those who are making new plans. Here is a good question from a new farmer, starting out with 80 rural acres in northern Michigan.  “Because of your guides, we’re looking to put only a small section into production. Probably more than half an acre, because we have eight people to put to work. ;-).

The markets are definitely the question. We’re considering all of the options mentioned in the SPIN materials (CSA, farmer’s markets, restaurants, businesses), as well as a friend’s small produce/flower stand in town.

We have 6 small farmer’s markets nearby (+/- 25 miles), and a very large one about 75 miles away (they say they get 11,000 people per week, over four days). However, marketing is currently the big hole in our plan. We’ve got a decent amount of experience gardening, and have been studying production for a long time, so we’re not very scared of growing marketable product. However, we’re very worried about showing up at our first market with a beautiful stand, piles of shining produce, and still having it all sitting there at the end of the day.”

Here’s my advice for those who are pursuing the farm dream but are having nightmares about their first market.

Stick with the basics
You can evaluate markets based on the amount of traffic they get and proximity to your operation. But don’t forget to analyze actual sales activity.  Look  to see what produce items are most sought after at market, and go with those. Niche marketing is more for experienced growers, once you have created a ” base ” with more common produce. For beginners, I’d stick with spinach, lettuce, salad mix, scallion, onion, garlic, green garlic, carrots, rainbow carrots, potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes.

Get creative with pricing

Unsold produce is always a concern, even for experienced farmers. So think about how you can move more produce. One way is the SPIN-Farming practice of pre-unitizing into bags/bunches because having loose produce that you weigh out at market makes your product move slower, causing backups at your stand, and lost business. So don’t take a scale to market. Pre-unitize. I often say that my competition is not other farmers at market. It is the supermarket. People place value on the convenience of being able to grab and go.

DD1 indoor market 14 stocked stand with Gail

You can also take a tip from the big guys on pricing. Selling at a single price tier will make it more likely you will sell your produce. Right now, at our Wednesday/Sunday markets I am selling produce $3.00 or 2 for $5.00. Then I say I have a Sunday or Wednesday special where you can have any 5 items for $10.00. So on those days I am making a lot of $10 sales. So this is a two tiered system and having 5 for $10 makes it look like you are getting a deal. And it works.

Leave the laptop home
You also need to engage customers by explaining what your pricing is, and then talk a bit about the produce. Your enthusiasm will be contagious. People aren’t just buying vegetables. They are buying your farming practices and positive outlook. And while it’s great that farmers have entered the 21st century, don’t bring your lap top/tablet to market because it will distract you from your customers. They shop at farmer’s markets as a respite from technology, so the last thing they want to see is a wired farmer.