Farming’s Alternate Reality Is a Moneymaker

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

The story of the aging American farmer is getting old. Every time a new agricultural census report is released it documents how the age of farmers is rising. According to results of the latest census, the average age of primary producers increased from 58.3 in 2012 to 59.4 in 2017.

This is the reality that has been captured by the census for the past 30 years. The average age of U.S. farmers has grown by nearly eight years, from 50.5 years to 58.3 years. The conclusion is that fewer individuals are choosing farming as an occupation than before. This elicits the same well-worn response from advocacy groups, media and the industry that bemoan the barriers to entry for new farmers: inability to access farmland and high cost of startup capital. This reality is concerning to the profession for good reasons, but it’s discouraging people from entering the profession for bad ones.

Land and money don’t have to be the insurmountable challenges the status quo make them out to be. SPIN farmers start in backyards, either their own or others, or find other unused space. They start generating cashflow within the first few months. Once they they have mastered production and established a customer base using garden-size plots, they can expand to a half acre, and then multiple acres, continuing to fine tune their systems, expand their markets and increase their investment as they go.

Over a dozen years of training SPIN farmers, this is the reality we see. Some practice SPIN in their backyards in the city. Others do it on front lawns in the suburbs. Still others do it on large acreages in the country. Some do it part-time, others full-time, alone or with family and friends. Some are young and just starting out, while others are older and on their third or fourth careers, or starting a lifestyle business in retirement. Some have more money than they know what to do with, and others have less than they need.They span geographies, generations and circumstances.

Here’s what they do have in common: they’re looking for a business opportunity they can develop right in their own backyard. They like working outdoors, they like physical work, they like the idea of producing a product everyone wants and needs, they see lots of people flocking to the farmer’s market and owner/operated restaurants, and lugging around CSA boxes and they decide to try growing food to make some money. This is SPIN-Farming’s alternate reality, and it’s creating a working alternative for those who, at any age, are willing to defy worn-out expectations.


GAP Is Not Just for the Big Boys

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

Food safety regulations in the US have divided Big Ag and Small Ag into opposing camps, but there is one thing we can all be united on – Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). “Grow Responsibly” should be everyone’s mantra, regardless of size or country.

I attended a GAP workshop in 2011, and it was a real eye opener. I have been looking at and thinking about my business differently ever since. It was clear back then that implementation of GAP standards was being driven by industry groups and chain supermarkets to ensure, through a certification process, the safety of their far-flung supply chain. But what was enlightening to me when I started to wade through the manual was how it clarified the risks in food safety that I intuitively knew, but did not think all that much about.

Sure, the whole point of rebuilding local food systems is to keep the length of the supply chain short, thereby making it easier to monitor and control. “Direct marketing” is exactly that, moving food from farmer’s plot to market to plate. But every farmer faces risks when it comes to food safety, and it’s a worthy exercise for SPIN-scale farmers to identify them and devise strategies to deal with them.

Reviewing the GAP material and evaluating what is most relevant and do-able for your operation will take time. Looking ahead, it will be a good winter project. Or, if you are selling at a farmers market, you might recommend to your manager that they bring in a GAP workshop presenter at the end of this season when business quiets down to help you get started.

A good warm up for GAP is a free online tool developed by Family Farmed which walks you through how to develop a food safety plan for your farm.  It was developed in 2013 when the fight over food safety in the US was raging, and it is obviously designed for the big boys. But we can all benefit from reviewing harvesting and post-harvesting protocols, especially newbie growers. Much of the information is common sense, which nowadays may not be so common.

However is easiest for you to get up to speed on GAP, I’d highly recommend that you get familiar with the standards and begin to implement as much as you can next year so that you can display a GAP manual at your market stand or on your online storefront. You do not have to claim to be GAP certified; just use it to show you are aware of, and practice, the highest levels of food safety.

The fight over reasonable food safety regulation drags on, but it does not have to drag down your business in the process. The safest attitude to have is “If you can’t beat ’em join ’em.” Farms of all sizes benefit from abiding by GAP standards, and attending a GAP workshop is a worthwhile investment for any farmer who is serious about their business.

SPIN photo post harvesting station Linda

Here are 5 good resources to help you think through your food safety practices:

USDA checklist:

 Canada GAP manuals

 CODEX List of standards:

On-Farm Food Safety Project (OFFS):  an online program that identifies and helps you assess various aspects of food safety:

 Farm Food Safety Decision Tree Project: an online program that helps you identify and evaluate food safety risks from Cornell University:

 These organizations provide standards and administer programs to gain certification that the food you are growing and selling is safe. Certification is voluntary.

In Canada  GAP standards were originally devised by the Canadian Horticultural Society in 2000. They are currently administered by a non-profit corporation called CanAgPlus.

In the US GAP standards are administered by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

Internationally GAP standards are administered by CODEX Alimentarius Commission, established in 1963 by the World Health Organization and  the  Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO).