Here are answers to questions we’ve been asked the most since we began pioneering backyard farming in 2001. Some are posed by aspiring farmers short on cash or land or both. Some come from concerned citizens looking to make their communities more farm-friendly. Others are asked by reporters who know a good story when they see one. Still others are asked by policymakers who are realizing that sustainability is more than just a buzz word. If what’s on your mind is not covered here, contact us, and we’ll either answer your question or make you even more curious.
How is SPIN-Farming learned?
Thousands of self-starting new farmers have launched their businesses by purchasing the SPIN-Farming guides from this site and implementing the system. Anyone who purchases any guide is also invited to join the SPIN farmers online learning hub Backyard Riches for ongoing advice and support.
SPIN’s creators, Wally and Roxanne, as well as SPIN members, are also beginning to collaborate with groups and organizations to develop SPIN-Farming training programs as part of larger economic and community development efforts. Visions, goals and resources vary. From for-profit businesses seeking to expand and diversify; to add-ons to non-profit or community organizations looking to become less grant dependent; to government-sponsored or institutionally-based programs, SPIN-Farming supports many visions. Its one mission is to make the farming profession accessible to many more people who would not otherwise think it was possible for them. Here is initial information on SPIN training .
Can I get a certificate in SPIN-Farming?
Yes. More information is available here.
What is SPIN-Farming’s value proposition?
In farming you learn by doing, so the sooner you get an income-producing operation in and off the ground, the sooner you know how successful you will be at farming. Established agricultural programs costing thousands of dollars make farming more complicated and expensive than it needs to be for beginners. Instead, purchase SPIN-Farming Basics for $83.93 and SPIN 2.0 Production Planning & Crop Profiles guides for $69.98, join the peer-to-peer SPIN farmers learning hub, Backyard Riches,and start farming. You’ll get just what you need to know to start, without being overwhelmed by knowledge that is more appropriate to acquire later in your career. The money you save from not getting entangled in more elaborate programs can be invested in your farm infrastructure, which, following the classic SPIN approach, is simple and affordable.
What type of growing experience do I need before starting SPIN-Farming?
You should know how to prepare the soil, put a seed in the ground and get it to grow. But if you don’t know, you can learn that in tandem with SPIN-Farming. The best sources are local, especially for soil prep, since conditions vary from region to region, or even block to block! There are lots of good sources for basic growing information, including your local agricultural extension office and garden clubs. Our SPIN farmers learning hub, Backyard Riches, can also help you figure it out based on members experience from around the world.
Can the average person do SPIN-Farming?
As near as we can tell, success at SPIN-Farming or any other kind of farming, is not determined by education level or prior work experience. What you do need is a deep and passionate interest in farming, which involves working outside long hours in all kinds of weather (some have described it as a calling to farm), a genuine talent for growing, a good business sense, and a willingness to invest years in learning, training and building a business. If you have all that, SPIN-Farming makes it easier and less risky to get started and increases your chances of success.
If you’re ready to add farming to your resume but don’t know where to start, here are the first 10 questions you need to answer to get your farm business off and in the ground.
I’ve heard that with SPIN-Farming you can grow $50,000 worth of vegetables from a half-acre Is that really possible?
Yes, that is the SPIN benchmark used in our training, and it was proved at Somerton Tanks Farm, the first US test bed for the SPIN-Farming system. Here is a state government funded study that outlines the economics. And since SPIN farmers think in feet, not acres, a half- acre is about 20,000 square feet, the size of many suburban backyards.
Exactly how much money can I make as a SPIN farmer?
Over the years that SPIN-Farming has been on the scene, the marketplace has greatly expanded and become much more sophisticated. According to the USDA, direct marketing of local foods, especially in urban areas, has become a $8 billion+ industry. The resurgent interest in food is creating markets for exotic crops that have never been offered commercially. This gives SPIN farmers increased pricing power and an infinite set of opportunities to differentiate themselves and strengthen their market positions because artisanal niches limit competition. SPIN’s $100 gross per standard size bed benchmark is being broken in many geographical areas. To determine a conservative estimate of income from a backyard-size plot, use this calculator.
What are SPIN-Farming’s margins?
Farming is not like a grocery store, which buys produce and resells it at a markup. With entrepreneurial farming, it’s more helpful to think of yearly overhead, or expenses.The SPIN-Farming system provides ways to reduce expenses because of its home-based, backyard scale. Examples include using your personal vehicle as a farm vehicle; creating an inexpensive irrigation system from standard grade garden hoses; minimal mechanization; local sources of supply for fertilizer; an inexpensive post-harvesting setup; and minimizing or even eliminating the need for outside labor, which is the single biggest expense of any farm operation.
How many hours per week does a SPIN farmer work?
SPIN-Farming does not have to include season extension, so many operations span about 8 months. In the SPIN hobby farm model, during peak season, which is mid-summer for most, a farmer will put in 40 – 50 hours each week, spread out over 7 days. During non-peak months, the number of hours drop to about 30 hours each week, spread out over 7 days.
In a SPIN full-time half-acre farm model, during peak season, a farmer couple will put in 40 – 50 hours each week, spread out over 7 days. They may have occasional outside help. During non-peak months, the number of hours will be about 30 hours each week, spread out over 7 days.
In a SPIN full-time 1 acre farm model, during peak season a farmer couple will be putting in about 50-60 hours each week, spread out over 7 days. They may have occasional outside help. During non-peak months, the number of hours will be about 35 hours each week, spread out over 7 days.
A key point to understand is that farming is not a job. It is self-employment, so expect to put in the type of hours that any other small business owner does. Meaning: a lot, if you want to build a full-time business. To see exactly what it’s like to have your own farm at various scales of operation, buy our case studies here.
How much land should I initially put into production?
SPIN-Farming is based on allocating your land base to different areas of production intensity. The system is based on the 1-2-3 layout, where the 1 area of your farm is the least intensive and is devoted to lower value single crops per season, like cabbage, onion, potatoes or squash. The 2 area of your farm is devoted to bi-relay crops, in which 2 higher-value crops per bed per season are grown sequentially. And the 3 area of your farm is where you are doing your intensive relays in which 3 or more high-value crops per bed per season are grown sequentially. Each of these areas contribute a different amount to your total income, with the 3 high-value area obviously contributing the most.
SPIN-Farming is an exercise in figuring out how much money you want to make, determining the amount of your operation that needs to be put in the most intensive form of production to generate that income, and the labor needed to support that. This is not figured out in one season. It takes years of experience to find the optimum balance.
You can’t reinvent farming. What is so new about SPIN?
We agree that many of farming’s best practices date back quite a ways and don’t need improvement. But much of the current disconnect about food is due to the geographical separation between where we grow it and where we live and work. In an increasingly urbanized world, segregating food production outside of cities and towns no longer makes sense, so the scale of commercial farming has to adapt to become compatible with the built environment. Here’s how SPIN is doing that.
I want to take SPIN’s low risk approach to starting out by using SPIN’s multi-locational model. What do I have to work out with yard owners to use their yards?
Backyard farming is becoming less exotic, so chances are you will get a good reception. Here are the main negotiating points that need to be addressed.
How do I handle neighbor relations?
While some are eager to turn farming into a political act, for SPIN farmers it is a profession, not a cause. It is much easier to farm without distractions or discomfort, so the main objective is to have your farming activities be a non-issue. Working farms in the city may still be rare, so curiosity or skepticism is a natural reaction to expect, and you should not take it personally. There is no reason your farming activities should negatively impact neighbors, and you can demonstrate that to them.
Establishing any new relationship requires a leap of faith by both sides, but you have more going for you than just “Trust me.” You’ve got SPIN-Farming. Though home-based backyard, urban farming is a fairly new concept, SPIN-Farming has been around for nearly 15 years. Enough people are having success with it, so it provides a track record. You can use it as a credential and proof of concept to help neighbors understand what you are doing and how you are doing it. Send them to this site to show them what you’re a part of and why more and more are starting to support it.
Here are some guidelines we’ve developed over the years to handle home-based, backyard urban farming diplomacy.
Why does SPIN-Farming make business sense?
Two reasons: SPIN removes the 2 big barriers to entry for new farmers – land and capital
SPIN’s backyard scale provides a way to locate vegetable farming operations close to markets, and it also reduces a farmer’s expenses. By locating close to markets, farmers can direct market, which eliminates the middleman and allows a farmer to keep 100% of his/her sales. Examples of lower expenses in the SPIN-Farming system include: using a personal vehicle as a farm vehicle – a mini or cargo van or mini-truck is adequate in size for backyard scale farming; creating an inexpensive irrigation system from standard grade garden hoses; using minimal mechanization – no expensive equipment is necessary; using organic-based, local sources of supply for fertilizer which eliminates the use of expensive chemicals; using an inexpensive post-harvesting setup; and minimizing or even eliminating the need for outside labor. The aim with SPIN-Farming is to keep expenses at 10% to 20% of total sales. So if you target $50,000 in sales then you should target $5,000 to $10,000 in expenses. The high end would account for some hired labor. Labor is the single biggest expense in any farm operation, so SPIN farmers carry on the tradition of conventional farming of tapping into the low-cost, no-cost network of family and friends and barters labor for produce when possible.
What makes SPIN different from other farming approaches?
SPIN-Farming is as close to a franchise-ready farming system as you can get while still accommodating the creative and place-based nature of farming. SPIN’s growing techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you’d expect from a good franchise: a business concept, marketing advice, financial benchmarks and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn’t any different from McDonalds. By offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm, wherever they live, as long as there are nearby markets to support them
Here is what distinguishes the SPIN-Farming system:
— It is geared toward making significant income from farming on a backyard (less than an acre) land base; this means you don’t have to own much – if any – land. To get started you can use your yard, or those of neighbors, a community garden plot or vacant lot.
— It is low capital intensive – you do not need to invest in a lot of expensive equipment, which increases your bottom line.
— It is entirely market-driven, meaning it shows you how to plant strategically based on what sells at market and provides precise revenue targeting formulas so that you run your farming operation like any other type of small business; this way you have a steady and predictable income.
— It outlines a five day a week harvesting work flow, so that you do not burn yourself out keeping a typical “farmer” schedule of 90 hour work weeks
Doesn’t SPIN’s intensive growing techniques deplete the soil?
Intensive relay cropping will give your soil a work out, but because of the backyard scale of SPIN-Farming, it is much easier to keep your soil healthy, at a reasonable cost. You can use your rototiller to work in compost, and individual beds can be amended on a case-by-case basis. Locally-sourced, all organic amendments can be used that would not be feasible on larger scale farms. Many of these amendments are available at local animal feed stores in 50 pound bags, and they are not laborious, or hazardous, to apply.
Many of the crops in SPIN’s intensive relays are not heavy feeders, and even though you are growing 3 or more crops per bed per growing season in the intensive relay area, the demands on the soil are not as great as some single long season crops such as corn. When growing crops in the relay area you often do so in series. For instance, you might have a section where you have 10 beds of carrots. Carrots, in fact, do not like an overly fertile soil, so you need not go on a “fertilizing binge” prior to planting. Also, some relay crops are nitrogen fixers, such as beans and peas. So although the relay areas see a lot of production, burning out your soil can be avoided with modest soil amendments and strategic planting. Just follow the guideline that “inputs need to equal outputs” and amend on an ongoing basis by lightly fertilizing after each crop, as well as side dressing long season crops, especially garlic. Again, keep in mind that some crops, such as carrots, lettuce, radish and fresh herbs, are light feeders while others, such as spinach, garlic, onions and beets are heavier feeders, and adjust your amending appropriately.
What impact will economic downturns have on SPIN farmers?
Economic downturns will have impact in three areas of relevance to SPIN farmers:
Sustainability – Now that we have seen the consequences of the financial system breakdown that occurred in 2008, and the negative health and environmental impacts of large scale industrial agriculture, sustainability has more currency and legitimacy. It is no longer just an abstract, moral imperative, and it is spurring permanent changes in how our country operates. This can only help SPIN and other farm systems that are based on sound economic and environmental practices.
Entrepreneurship – Establishing independent businesses will be more attractive since incentives for joining the corporate system have been undermined or removed. Striking out on your own carries less risk than it used to, and some of this unleashed new entrepreneurship can be channeled into farming.
Staying put – For many, the costs and disruption of mobility have become too much to bear. So value will be shifted closer to home, resulting in re-investment in local communities. Economics will become more place-based, and this will help the re-establishment of more locally-based food systems. Overall, we’d say the future is in the SPIN farmer’s favor.
My local farmer’s market is requiring insurance. What is that all about?
As farmers markets become professionalized, more farmers are having to get liability insurance. Here’s what a certificate of insurance looks like along with some pointers on how what that involves from SPIN farmer and market manager Brenda Sullivan of Thompson Street Farm in Glastonbury CT.
Maybe thanks to you, my local farmers market is turning away farmers. But I know my produce tastes as good, and sometimes looks even better than what they sell. How can I break into the market?
No need to resort to force. Here’s some suggestions on options beyond the farmers market.
Again, maybe thanks to you, there now seems to be a farmer on every corner. How do I compete?
Opportunity brings competition. But because food is so essential, the market for it is steady and predictable, and for one business to win another does not have to lose. That is why farmers can maintain such a co-operative spirit. But a part from the “everybody has a chance” ethos, the pro’s do have ways to make sure they get their fair share. Here are a few to help you get yours, and stay competitive.
What is urban agriculture?
Because SPIN’s efforts are focused on providing a business case for urban agriculture, we define it as for-profit food production within or in close proximity to metropolitan areas.
Where is my city on the urban ag adoption curve?
At this point, there is no curve. Just about every city is starting from square one when it comes to developing agricultural industries. So the good news is no one is late to the party or too far ahead of the curve, but the bad news is there is no set of best practices or implementation plan that can be plugged in and followed. Ever city is making it up as they go along. None of them want to re-invent the wheel and seek out models that they can replicate, which is what leads them to SPIN-Farming.
We tell cities that we can guarantee they already have 3 of the critical success factors for urban agriculture, and the other 2 are theirs for the asking.
What cities have is land, though they often find this hard to believe. But once they adopt SPIN’s small plot mindset, they start to see lots of possibilities. Cities also have a variety of easily accessible markets and financing sources for the micro level financing that is all backyard scale farmers need.
Entrepreneurial farmers are theirs for the asking, as more and more first generation farmers are eager to recast farming as a small business inside cities. Some of these aspiring farmers are native born city dwellers that can be cultivated with the proper training, while others can be attracted from outside cities’ borders. The other thing that is theirs for the asking is appropriately scaled farming systems, and SPIN provides one model.
As agricultural self reliance factors into more and more urban sustainability plans, cities are starting to move commercial food production closer to home. One way to do that is by establishing farm incubators. Here are some basic starting points for starting an incubator in your city.
Can SPIN-Farming work in (name any place in the world)?
SPIN is not placed-based. It is currently being practiced throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and South Africa. Each SPIN farmer adapts the system to his or her climate, markets, talents and available resources. There are two things all SPIN farmers do have in common – markets to support them, and an entrepreneurial spirit. They are creating their farm businesses without major policy changes or government support. They are highly s-mall p-lot in-dependent.
Can SPIN work with other growing systems?
SPIN is a production system, not a belief system. It is not predicated on any one set of life principals or philosophy, or any one method of soil prep or maintenance. It can be combined with biointensive, biodynamic, permaculture, vermaculture, acquaculture, double dig, no till. We recommend the use of a rototiller because it increases efficiency which results in high income. But if a rototiller does not fit in with the way you think the world should work and you are willing to accept the consequences to your bottom line, you can choose not to use it.
I’m ready to grow more than backyard crops. I want to grow my business. Where can I go for guidance and financing?
If you are a seasoned SPIN farmer looking to upgrade or expand your operation, your local Farm Credit Association wants to get to know you. Their loan officers can not only provide funding, but also ideas and advice, and they know that by funding a SPIN farmer, they are helping to create the future of farming. Here is some information on when you’re ready to get beyond bootstrapping.
So is SPIN a movement?
Ask those who are doing it.
SPIN is helping people around the world pioneer a new way to farm. It is backayrd in scale and entrepreneurial in spirit. It is unencumbered by dogma and grounded in local communities. Those who practice it are showing how to make more from less. Those who support it are accelerating the shift back to common sense, free enterprise farming. SPIN is both a call-to-farm and a call to good eating. Join us!
Download SPIN FAQ’s as a PDF for printing or reference.