Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen
Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen operate Wally’s Market Garden which is a multi-locational sub-acre urban farm. It was originally dispersed over 25 residential backyard garden plots in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, that were rented from homeowners. Over the years they have dropped and added yards, ranging in size from 500 sq. ft. to 3,000 sq. ft., with their growing area ranging from 20,00 sq. ft. to 40,000 sq. ft. Their produce is sold at The Saskatoon Farmers Market and restaurants in the city.
Wally and Gail initially started farming on an acre-sized plot outside of Saskatoon 25 years ago. Thinking that expanding acreage was critical to their success, they bought some farmland adjacent to the South Saskatchewan river 40 miles north of Saskatoon where they eventually grew vegetables on about 20 acres of irrigated land. The farmland was considered an idyllic farming site on its riverfront location. However, the crops were perpetually challenged by wind and hail, insect infestation, rodents, and deer. Fluctuating water levels inhibited irrigation during dry spells. “We still lived in the city where we had a couple of small plots to grow crops like radishes, green onion and salad mix, which were our most profitable crops. We could grow three crops a year on the same site, pick and process on-site and put the produce into our cooler so it would be fresh for the market,” Vandersteen says.
After six years farming their rural site, the couple realized there was more money to be made growing multiple crops intensively in the city, so they sold the farm and became urban growers. Growing vegetable crops in the city was less complicated than mechanized, large-scale farming. They used to have a tractor to hill potatoes and cultivate, but they discovered it’s more efficient to do things by hand. Other than a rototiller, all they need is a push-type seeder and a few hand tools.
They have recently expanded their multi-locational vegetable and flower gardens in the hamlet of Pleasantdale, Saskatchewan which will serve as the home base for training programs on SPIN-Farming.
Satzewich points out that urban growing provides a more controlled environment, with fewer pests, better wind protection and a longer growing season. “We are producing 10-15 different crops and sell thousands of bunches of radishes and green onions and thousands of bags of salad greens and carrots each season. Our volumes are low compared to conventional farming, but we sell high-quality organic products at very high-end prices.” The SPIN-Farming method is based on Satzewich’s successful experiment in downsizing and emphasizes minimal mechanization and maximum fiscal discipline and planning.
Roxanne Christensen co-founded Somerton Tanks Farm, a half acre demonstration urban farm that served as the U.S. test bed for the SPIN-Farming method from 2003 to 2006. The farm, which was operated in partnership with the Philadelphia Water Department, received the support of the Pennsylvania Dept. Of Agriculture, the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp., the City Commerce Department, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
In 2003, its first year of operation, the farm, located in the sixth largest city in the U.S, produced $26,000 in gross sales from 20,000 square feet of growing space. In 2006 gross sales reached $68,000. In just four years of operation this demonstration farm achieved levels of productivity and financial success that many agricultural professionals claimed was impossible.
Based on the agricultural and financial breakthroughs that were demonstrated at Somerton Tanks Farm, the state of Pennsylvania funded an economic feasibility study that documented the urban farm’s economics and projected its maximum income potential to be $120,000 from under an acre of growing space.
As co-author of the SPIN-Farming online learning series, Ms. Christensen’s current role is to attract and support new farming talent. She says SPIN-Farming is uniquely suited to entrepreneurs and provides a career path for those who have a calling to farm, but who can’t, or don’t want to, take on the traditional commitments of owning lots of land and making sizeable investments. It is enticing first generation farmers who are keenly interested in matters of principle, but who understand that to have a significant positive impact, they have to function within the existing system, pushing their cause while paying their bills.
“For aspiring farmers, SPIN-Farming eliminates the 2 big barriers to entry – sizeable acreage and substantial startup capital. At the same time, its intensive relay growing techniques and precise revenue targeting formulas push yields to unprecedented levels and result in highly profitable income,” Christensen says. “While most other farming systems focus primarily if not exclusively on agricultural practices, SPIN-Farming emphasizes the business aspects and provides a financial and management framework for having the business drive the agriculture, rather than the other way around.”
As SPIN-Farming becomes established and is practiced more widely, Christensen says, it will create new farmland and businesses in and around cities that will produce environmental, economic and social benefits. “It offers a compelling value proposition.”