Long Haul Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Reporters who really dig into the local food movement ask, “Will this time be different?” We don’t know the answer. But those who do the research find that the long term track record of volunteer-based gardening efforts is not good, and the amount community gardens contribute to the food supply has never amounted to even a rounding error. Gardening advocates try to strengthen their case with the statistic that during World War II US Victory Gardens produced 40% of the country’s food needs. But the fact that these gardens went fallow after the war ended can hardly be claimed as proof of concept.

In the end success is defined by staying power, not growing power. It is easy to inspire people to grow food, and it is easy to help people grow food. What’s hard is to keep them doing it, in significant volume, over the long haul. Unless there is a way to keep lots of people committed and productive, this good food revolution will go the way of Victory Gardens – a temporary fix to get through challenging times that disappears as soon as economic and social conditions improve.

Observers of professional farming admit to the same challenge. Kelvin Leibold, farm and ag business management specialist at Iowa State University, is quoted in a recent article entitled “Challenges Facing Beginning Farmers” on Agriculture.com: “All of my life, people have been saying we’d run out of farmers. The big issue today isn’t getting more people started. It’s keeping those who started in the last 10 years profitable enough to stay in ag.” Mr. Leibold was talking about large scale farmers, but it’s a challenge we all share.

That leads to a point about SPIN-Farming that continues to be missed. SPIN not only makes it easy for new farmers to get started by removing the 2 big barriers to entry – land and capital – it also increases the chances of long term success. How many new farmers are defeating themselves by following the old model and being forced to give up, when they might otherwise have succeeded if they weren’t initially overburdened
financially by debt and operationally by large acreage and overhead?

As we have said before, what makes this time different is the financial incentive. So while we are focused on shortening the distance from farm to plate, let’s be sure we also help new gardeners and farmers go the distance. One way is to teach them how to make growing food pay.

SF photo prices on sign Mooseview Farm

 

This time could be different if the enthusiasm and interest in local foods leads to the establishment of businesses…

SF photo staying power

that have staying power. Peer-to-peer online networks,which provide ongoing support and continual professional development can help. SPIN-Farming is unbound by ideology or the status quo, and is market-driven.  

Right Size Your Ambitions and Your Plots

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

Now that farmer’s markets are getting in full swing and CSA boxes are piled high at pick up points all over town, those who have been contemplating backyard farming suddenly become motivated to turn their intentions into action. I hear from two extremes – those who are overly ambitious, and those who are too cautious.

Interestingly, those with the least amount of land are the ones who are overly ambitious. They understand SPIN at its very basic level, which is commercial farming on an acre or less. Since that size land base is so dramatically less than a typical farm, they think it must be a cinch to start. So they figure they will start with an acre. Or, if they think they are being conservative, they want to tackle a half acre. But you can burn out on a half-acre just as easily and quickly as you can on 10 or 20 acres.

Start out with a few thousand square feet, say up to 5,000 sf max. It’s a very manageable amount of space for one person to initially prep and keep in top growing shape. For beginners, it’s an optimal size to gain experience with intensive relay cropping, which is the continual planting of different crops in the same plots throughout the season. And the amount of production and post-production can be managed without any outside labor. Once you have mastered relay cropping you can expand confidently and quickly, even in the same season.

The opposite extreme is those who have multi-acre spreads who think they need to prep their land and let it sit over the winter, putting off any production for an entire year. They are right that it takes time to bring a larger land base online. But again,I offer the same advice. Put aside a small plot, prep it, and start growing and selling immediately. The key to earning income from backyard farming is the ability to grow continuously, in significant volume, at commercial grade. And that can be mastered just as well, and in fact more quickly, on a small space. This is the rationale for our new program Seed to Cash in 14 Days or Less. Three new guides provide step-by-step instructions on how to progress through 3 different levels of production, starting with as little as 100 square feet.

It’s been said that farms are started by idealists and run by realists. You just need to last long enough to get from the one phase to the other. That means not being an overachiever or an underachiever. SPIN helps you hit the ground running at just the right pace so that you can go the distance.

Mod 1 landbase 4

Even if you have acres of land, fencing off a plot close to the house will get you growing and selling more quickly and successfully than if you tried to put a larger piece of land into production. This plot is easy to maintain, and can be used for intensive relays, in which 3 or more crops are grown in the same beds throughout the season. In essence, you are cutting by two thirds the amount of land you need for that same amount of production.