10 Characteristics of Successful SPIN Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C.,Philadelphia PA

We get asked all the time, “Who is the typical SPIN farmer?” The question comes from those who want to make money farming, but have doubts about whether they have what it takes to succeed. It’s their round-about way of trying to find out if they measure up.

The true readiness of a SPIN farmer can’t be determined by standardized skills assessment sheets or formulaic self-evaluation forms. SPIN farmers, by definition, are doers. If you are serious about becoming a farmer, and are trying to figure out how to go about it, one of the best ways we can help is to give you real-world examples to follow. So each month we host an online meetup with a SPIN farmer who explains how they got started, what their farm is like and how much money they are making.

There really is no typical SPIN farmer, but what is emerging from our meetups are these 10 common characteristics:

1. They are production-driven
2. They sell their products for a premium
3. They understand that the story of their farm can be turned into economic worth in the marketplace
4. They set goals, plan, and identify measurable objectives
5. They track their SPIN numbers
6. They do not take on much, if any, debt
7. They view change as opportunity
8. They innovate new approaches to business arrangements, such as networking, partnerships, and diversification.
9. They keep up to date on food trends
10. They know how to assess, take on and manage reasonable risk

If you can’t find a SPIN farmer in your neck of the woods to learn from, you’re welcome to drop in on our online SPIN member meetups. Follow us on facebook for the schedule. Though every one of our members has a unique story to tell, they all agree on one thing. The best way to get started is to just do it. SPIN makes it low-risk, and you’ll know quickly if you have what it takes. Here’s how well some of them are doing, and they are all eager to tell you how they did it.

SF photo blog characteristics just do it


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.


Getting Back to Business

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Twenty six years ago, when SPIN-Farming creator Wally Satzewich started farming, the predominant model was own large acreage, produce in volume, sell wholesale. After a few very rough years of barely being able to hang on, he was told by other farmers that he’d eventually reach nirvana if he just kept getting bigger. But when he looked down the road his fellow farmers were on, he saw ruin not riches. He ended up going in the extreme opposite direction, and became an urban farmer.

Now new farmers are vulnerable to a similar type of magical thinking. Just change “big” to “sustainable”. Flocking back to the land, large numbers of them are starting farms in the belief that the superior logic and morality of their farming practices will somehow guarantee their success. Then they wring their hands when they find themselves working 12 hour days, the money doesn’t flow in, and they have to work outside  jobs to keep their farms going. But that’s the experience of anyone who starts a business.

Wally did not start full-time. He drove a cab. Other SPIN farmers drive buses, do research, teach jujitsu. They master their production skills until they can grow in significant volume, consistently, at commercial grade. They research their markets, build up a customer base, set  revenue targets and execute their plans. They transition to full-time farming once they’re reaching the income levels they need to support themselves solely by farming.

Most new farms don’t survive. That can be said of lots of other businesses. No one is owed a living just because they choose to farm a certain way. Those who are heeding the call to sustainable farming might also be surprised to learn that there has never been a real tradition of sustainable farming in the US. Our pioneer farming ancestors drained wetlands, cut down forests, decimated ecosystems, and polluted waterways. Even Dan Barber, celebrity chef and board member of the paragon of virtuous farming, the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture,  acknowledges, “We don’t have a history of peasant farming. We have a history of bad farming.”

Many of the practices being developed by the sustainable farming groups are worthy ones, but they don’t necessarily add up to a business. If you  have dug yourself into a hole, SPIN might help you get back back to business.

SPIN photo seed to cash invoice for restaurant

Here is some advice you might not hear from the sustainability crowd.   

Now Is Always the Best Time to Start a Farm

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

The hands down best advice on starting a farm is “Don’t wait.” This Colorado SPIN member’s situation is typical. “I’ve just had a few opportunities fall into my lap where I can actually start my operation (full time freedom status) within the next month. This is about a year earlier than I originally planned where I would have spent the next year interning before starting out on my own.

Bottom Line: I’m very very excited about being able to start my dream NOW instead of some point down the road and I want to make sure I’m making the best informed decisions I can at this point in the season (End of summer, early fall).”

Here’s what other SPIN members are advising him:

1. Lay out and Prep Your Beds. “An absolute rule of farming in general and intense SPIN farming in particular is that there is never enough time in the spring to get everything done you want to. So if you have an opportunity to start laying out your SPIN beds, preparing them, any fencing you need, etc. DO IT! You can then look at them over the winter and you might see where you want to change the layout etc. If you wait until spring it may be too late to make changes and you will have to wait a year.”

2. Plant Greens Under Cover. “In Colorado, greens will grow under a tunnel of some sort/greenhouse if you plant now. They will grow slow due to the short days but you’ll have greens take off after the winter solstice when the days get longer if we don’t get a brutal winter.”

3. Test Plant and Get in Seeder Practice. “Put in some test plantings of radish, spinach, lettuce, and possibly some quick greens. See at least if you can get germination, and see what happens. Try a bed of each. It will start establishing your farmers muscle memory. Do you have a seeder? Might be a good idea to get familiar with a seeder now.”

4. Do Market Research. Define your delivery radius and identify markets within it. Visit them to check out which ones are worth applying to. Or feel out you neighbors for a CSA. Or restaurants. Get your sales channels for next year identified now.”

Probably few would describe farming as low risk, high reward. But SPIN is exactly that. In removing the barriers to entry – land and capital –  it also eliminates all the excuses to not start. You can dream as if you’ll live forever. But farm as if you’ll die today.

SF photo feet up Northern Ice Farms


Just do it.


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.


When It Comes To Harvesting, Take Five

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

My post last week on how farming is no different than any other small business prompted a lot of questions on what my secret was to managing it all. It’s no secret and can be learned by anyone through the SPIN online learning series.One of the most important concepts  you’ll to learn is  to take five when it comes to your harvesting protocol. It will ease your stress and may even save your career. This example shows why.

Let’s say you sell at a single Saturday farmer’s market. You are targeting a $1,000 day, which is a SPIN benchmark. At $2.50 per unit, that calls for at least 400 units. Now, would you rather harvest, wash and prep 400 units the day before market, which means working well into the night, and maybe even having to get up before dawn the day of market to finish off? Believe me, this is not fun, and it is a major reason why farmers burn out and give up.

Instead, here’s what happens when you have a commercial cooler and implement SPIN’s five day harvest work week. You can start as early as Monday, harvesting green garlic. On Tuesday you can do red onion, green onion on Wednesday, spinach on Thursday and lettuce and salad mix on  Friday. Your harvest/prep sessions are over by noon each day, so you have plenty of time for other farm tasks. Friday night you can relax so not
only are your veggies fresh for market. So are you.

SF photo Wally relaxing  at concert


Late at Night is Alanna Gurr & The Greatest State‘s latest album, not Wallly’s harvest routine. During farming season he has time to catch local bands at  Vangelis Tavern. Gail makes sure he doesn’t stay out too late though. 

Hey, I’m Just a Farmer

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

I used to get asked if farming was a 9 to 5 job. That was back in 2006 when we first launched the SPIN online learning series, and when my experience in downsizing was starting to get attention. One of my big points back then was that on a Friday night, before my big market day, I took in a movie or was at home nursing some beers, unwinding from the week just like any other working stiff. Farming for me was not all-consuming.

That’s still true today, and it is probably why I am still in business 25 years later. My staying power has mostly to do with having never bought into the martyr complex that surrounds so much of farming nowadays. It pervades the farming “movement” and is perpetuated by the media – you know, that farmers are somehow special, that they take a vow of selfless devotion to their work; that they exist in a state of grace that compensates them for the ungodly hours and hardships they endure; that all their sacrifices somehow makes them loftier than everyone else.

I did not want to give up my life to farming. I wanted to fit farming into my life. Here’s how I did it:
> made my home base in the city to take advantage of its unique growing conditions and municipal water and to be close to markets (I’m 5 minutes away from my farmers market)
> expanded strategically to a few peri-urban plots that are about a 20 minute drive from home base, with the total kept close to an acre or less in size
> incorporated a commercial cooler (what SPIN calls taking the high road) into my operation to allow for 5 day a week harvesting so I am not out until after dark the day before market, and up before dawn harvesting the day of
> developed workflow management so that all the farming tasks can be done in short intervals throughout the week so that no one task becomes overwhelming

Sure in peak growing season I put in long hours, but so does everyone else who is in business for themselves. Instead of cutting hair, doing taxes, developing websites, or cleaning clothes, I’m growing food. I enjoy my work, but it’s not a cause. What I’ve been committed to these past 25 years is building a self-sustaining business. Success for me has been measured by one thing – is what I produce valued enough that people will pay me what I think it’s worth? I am not at all conflicted by that. It has been a very effective way to establish many good and lasting relationships.

Maybe I should be flattered that so many want to exalt what I do. But I know my place. So let’s just have a few beers. And if you’re interested in becoming a backyard farmer like me, I’d be glad to teach you how. This I can promise:
> you’ll find farming does not have to be as hard as it is usually made out to be
> you’ll know relatively quickly and inexpensively if farming is right for you
> you won’t kill yourself trying

You might also learn to lighten up.

SF photo Wally relaxing with beer 2

Wally chillin’ after a tough day at work. 



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:

Newbie SOS: How do I set up my irrigation?

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

SPIN-Farming does not require elaborate or expensive infrastructure, and that includes irrigation. Everything you need to install an above the ground system that stays permanently in place throughout the season, can be purchased at the garden center and hardware store.  The best advice for newbies like this is don’t over-engineer it.

For my  100’x 50′ rented area, there is no city water, but it is beside a creek.  Can I buy a “good one” pump for $200? I read about the manifold/hose setup in the SPIN guide, and think I can use it for soaker hoses.  But if I have 60+ standard beds, is one pump feasible?  But I guess that is what manifold is for, to only use a certain portion of all the hoses at once? Or is my only option spray heads due to size?

A SPIN irrigation setup needs to be flexible. I would set up your garden in areas, with different irrigation systems tailored to what is grown in each. I am not sure what your typical rain fall patterns are, whether you are dry, or get regular rains. Some crops, like onions and potatoes, can be grown without watering, and just rely on rainfall. Also possibly beans and peas.

I would not invest in a lot of hose. If you can get a pump going, I would just set it up to run one or two sprinklers, or even just water with a brush attachment on your garden hose, and water by hand. For some crops, like potatoes and squash, you can just lay a single hose on the ground and just let it run onto the soil. Just need to move the hose around to another spot every once in a while. So I would say start very simple, and try to dryland as many crops as you can. Not all of your garden needs to be watered at once. Only certain beds and areas. Be sure to check the water quality of that creek.

Mod 2 Irrigation 1

Just a simple split valve is a good starting point for an initial irrigation setup.


Mod 2 Irrigation 4

Take water harvesting as far as you can. Sophisticated systems can be put in place, but even primitive techniques can be useful.


SPIN photo Wally watering

Because SPIN farms practice relay cropping, which involves a lot of crop diversity with all crops at different stages of growth, an irrigation system must be flexible. For instance, you might have just relayed 5 beds of spinach to carrots, and you just need to water those 5 beds. There is no point having an overhead system that can water the entire plot, when you just need to water a few beds. Instead, you would just water a few beds using a garden hose and hand held brush attachment.