A Cool Return On Investment

Courtesy of Wally Satzewich, Wally’s Market Garden, Pleasantdale, SK

Consumers first started paying attention to food miles in the mid-90’s. Shortening the distance from plot to plate was seen as better for the environment because it reduced pollution. SPIN farmers focus on another distance - plot to cooler. Most of them have a cooler a short distance from their growing space.

Why that’s important is that produce starts to degrade as soon as it is picked. Shortening the time from harvesting to cooling locks in a crop’s nutritional value, taste and freshness. That provides a higher quality product, which in turn supports premium pricing. SPIN farmers plots are garden-size, but they produce and harvest in much larger quantities. Having commercial-grade refrigeration capacity allows them to do that. A walk-in cooler is an insulated room with the temperature range being just above freezing to around 39° F. A common size is 8 feet by 8 feet by 6 feet high. It can be free standing, or constructed in a garage or outbuilding. The cost can be $5k or more. That kind of investment makes sense when you know you can target $50k+ in annual revenue.

If you are just starting out, you may be bootstrapping your business like most SPIN farmers do. What some beginning farmers choose to do is build their own cooler. SPIN farmer Ray Derksen says, “You can’t beat a Cooltbot for making an affordable walk-in cooler. My unit has been running for 6 years without trouble. Throughout the season we do markets Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. This puts us under constant pressure.”

According to Ray, who is now in his eighth year of farming, Tuesday and Thursday markets are high-volume where he averages $900 in total sales. “To move close to a thousand dollars of vegetables in $5 units requires ALOT of picking and prep work. I couldn’t do it all in one day.” The cooler allows him to spread out his harvesting throughout the week, and enables him to bring a lot more to market when he goes.

Ray learned SPIN’s harvesting lessons well. When I do training these are some of the weekly harvesting and sales targets for some classic SPIN crops that I provide. These are benchmarks a beginning farmer could gauge their progress by working at a steady, not overly strenuous pace while also handling other farm tasks:
✔ arugula -5 to 10 lbs. $100 to $200
✔ carrots -75 lbs., $300
✔ dill -6 lbs. , $200
✔ green onions - 20 lbs., $100
✔ peas-20 lbs., $150
✔new potatoes -70lbs., $300
✔ radish -a couple hundred bunches, $500
✔ salad mix -5 to 10 lbs., $50 to $100
✔ spinach -5 to 10 lbs., $500 to $100

While building your own cooler is a good option for some, if you farm is in an urban context, that kind of structure might not be that practical or even legal. There’s a simpler option that may not cost any more than the DIY kind, and can save time and labor-an upright, reach-in cooler. You can see these coolers at any grocery or convenience store. They store everything from drinks, to milk, to produce. A common size is around 30″ deep, 4 feet across, and around 6 feet high. They have glass doors and shelving. The cost for a used one should be around $2,000, or even less, if you look around. Restaurants use these types of coolers in their kitchens, and if they go out of business, they can often be gotten cheaply at a liquidation auction. They can also be purchased at any commercial refrigeration outlet.

Their electrical requirements are similar to a home refrigerator, and all you have to do is plug them in. They can fit in a kitchen, if you don’t have a garage or outbuilding to put it in. It has significant capacity, and can accommodate the volumes outlined above. A single upright produce cooler can support a farm operation ranging in size from a few thousand square feet up to 20,000 sq. ft., depending on its crop repertoire. A big advantage is the units are modular. As your operation grows, you can simply buy another upright cooler. If you have a garage, there is no reason why you couldn’t run two or even three coolers.

If you have multiple upright coolers, it gives you flexibility. If you have a small amount of spring produce that you want to store, then you only need to plug in one cooler, instead of having to use an entire walk-in cooler. Once you get into summer, and have expanded production, then you can put your second cooler into play. I am currently using an upright reach-in cooler I bought cooler in 2010. for $3k. Over the years it has supported up to $30k annual production. Not a bad ROI.