Starting and operating a farm on borrowed land

Advantages to being a multi-locational SPIN farmer are you have more options to access  land, can manage risks more easily, and you’re less likely to get stuck in a rut. –Wally Satzewich

Eliminating the land access barrier

Go to any farm conference, or pick up any trade journal, and you’ll hear the same beef – that land is the big barrier to entry for new farmers. It doesn’t have to be.  Wally Satzewich first developed his urban farm in the late 90’s using his own yard and those of some neighbors. At one point he was working 25 yards totaling 20,000 sq. ft. in and around Saskatoon SK. Eventually he traded some for larger peri-urban plots about a half hour away. He’s sustained a  30+year old farm business this way, and his pioneering multi-locational model has been adopted and refined by other SPIN farmers over the years.  We’ve gathered all the best practices and are passing them along to you here, including:

✔ how to advertise for more plots
✔ how to assess potential plots
V how to negotiate with landowners
✔ how to handle neighbor relations

A farm comprised of many scattered plots, some miles apart, may sound difficult to assemble and a nightmare to operate. But it isn’t in practice.  Not only can such a farm be easily created and efficiently managed, it has big advantages. It offers the production potential of the traditional rural farm coupled with the city-based benefits of micro climate and proximity to markets.

Peri-urban sites produce the larger volume, lower maintenance crops that are always in demand at market, while the urban sites provide early and late production of the high-value relay crops. Together they afford diversification and protection against catastrophic crop losses or extreme weather events. If one or more plots get flooded out, your other plots can keep you producing and selling.

So this season, keep your eyes and mind open for prime cropland wherever you happen to be, and leave the traditional farm challenges far behind. Below we explain exactly how to do that.

1.  Finding farmland wherever you are

Farming and cities can form a highly mutually beneficial relationship. Urbanized areas offer all sorts of SPIN-Farming possibilities:  residential yards, community garden plots vacant lots and underutilized corporate and institutionally-owned land

Over the years SPIN farmers have been showing how to establish a farm business by assembling plots located throughout a single neighborhood, or in multiple neighborhoods. Some use  a mix of urban and peri-urban plots. This allows aspiring and practicing farmers to continue to live in the city, using their homes as their farm base, and add larger plots as their business becomes more successful. These new plots can be rented, or often used for free.

We’ve introduced you to some of these multi-locational farmers:
✔ Jared Regier, Chain Reaction Urban Farm  ✔ Kye Kocher, Grand Trunk Veggies, ✔ Keri Fox, Green Sister Gardens  ✔ Max Valyear, Green Wheel Farms ✔ Marcus Riedner, Happiness By the Acre ✔ John Greenwood, JNJ Farms ✔Rod Olson, Leaf & Lyre ✔ Ryan Mason, Reclaim Urban Farm ✔ Rob Miller, Trefoil Gardens ✔ Mark Voss, Voss Organics.

How do they do it?

They have all said it is surprisingly easy, once you put the word out . Options include:
✔ family, friends, neighbors
✔ online community networks
✔ door-to-door fliers in neighborhoods you know well
✔ gardening groups
✔ posters in community gathering places

Here’s what a typical “Land Wanted” solicitation says:

Looking for land in the neighborhood to farm. Yep, farm!
Your local backyard farmer is looking for more land to expand  to feed more people in the neighborhood, from the neighborhood. Will you let me use our yard to do this?  

Benefits to you:
> Less lawn to mow
> Attractive edible landscaping
> Compensation: in cash or vegetables – let’s talk!
> Bragging rights to friends: Look at “my“ beautiful organic garden!
> Be an essential part of the urban farming movement

What I am looking for:
> Large-ish (>1000 sq. ft.) plots in front or back yard with good (8 hours) sun exposure to bring into production in April
> Yards that have NOT had chemical weed killer or fertilizer applied 
> Access to water for drip irrigation (very little water needed)

My commitment to you:
> I will work out a schedule for planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting that is most convenient and least disruptive to your lifestyle.
> I will be courteous and communicative.
>  I will maintain the garden in “showcase” condition – healthy, weeded, mulched, vibrant.
> When I am done with a bed, I will plant a new crop. 

What I do with the vegetables grown:
> I am an urban farmer. I sell the produce at the downtown farmers market and to the finest local restaurants
> Oh, and my family and the neighbors (that’s you) eat it!
Interested? Contact me at (email and phone number here) 

Once SPIN farmers get going, they sometime run into a different kind of problem: more offers of land than they were planning for. Rod Olson’s(Leaf & Lyre Farm) solution: never say no. At one point he was up to 30 city plots, with 50% of the yards just a few minutes’ walk from his home. He cycles them through the business so he always has backup plots. He devotes many to kale to support a $15k restaurant contract, and those not needed for immediate business use are planted to potatoes. He and other SPIN farmers have also expanded to rural plots, with some eventually re-locating to far outside their city roots.

Assessing farmland
Negotiating points
Lease agreements

2.  Assessing Plots

Once the offers of plots start coming in, deciding which ones make for prime cropland isn’t complicated. A SPIN farmer’s growing needs are no different than that of a gardener’s: good soil, lots of sun, access to water. If you start working multiple plots, size and distance between them are additional important factors. Here’s some tactical pointers multi-locational farmers have developed over the years for identifying and working prime crop land:

✔ Segment-size plots (1,000 sq.ft.) are the optimal size

✔If a single yard does not meet the minimum size, create yard clusters in the same area

✔ Keep yards in as tight clusters as you can to reduce travel time. For beginners farmers full of enthusiasm and flooded with support, it’s sometimes hard to turn down a plot. To avoid getting in over your head, set a radius, and stay within it.

✔ Starting out, use mostly hand tools, and add in square footage as appropriate based on what you are able to handle

✔ Document work rate and that way you will know whether or not adding that next 1,000 sq. ft. of production will drive you insane or not

✔ Organize and store gear so it’s always ready to grab and go. Keep your vehicle or a pull cart pre-packed

✔ Do outreach to a 5 house radius in all directions around any yard you work – distribute mail box fliers explaining: what you do, generally how you do it, what your vehicle looks like, how they can participate if they want (adding in their yard, buying from you, working for you)

✔ Keep a yard owners mailing list that has contact info for everyone offering yard space for future reference and to share with other farmers

For those who don’t have a home base to work from, vacant lots or open space that are either privately or municipally owned can be an option, depending on where your city is on the urban ag curve, and how much bureaucracy you can tolerate. The same basic criteria applies, along with these additional considerations:

✔ Size – a site’s total footprint will need to accommodate some infrastructure, such as a commercial cooler, post-harvesting processing station, storage shed and parking, in addition to growing space. For ½ acre of growing space, a ¾ to 1 acre size lot is optimal.

✔ Topography/physical conditions – relatively flat terrain is optimal. The site should have good drainage and not be susceptible to flooding. Farming can be done on a slope or even possibly on a hillside but issues of soil and water runoff then pose complications.

✔ Soil condition – basic soil tests need to determine that the soil is within the range of state agricultural soil averages, or that it can be improved to achieve this range through the use of organic inputs. Former brownfields and industrial sites should not be used to grow food. The soil contains contaminants which are a health risk.

✔ Utility access – the site should have existing water and electric hookups. If not, city policies allowing for these site improvements at a relatively low cost might be available.

✔ Relationship to community and nearby residences – support of neighbors, community associations and elected officials is critical. In addition, if the farm site is adjoined by residences, a buffer between the farm and those residences may be essential to avoid conflicts over noise and other farming activities that could be perceived as disruptive.

✔ Buffer from non-residential uses – in some situations a buffer may be necessary to protect the organic nature of the field in cases where chemicals are applied or emitted by neighboring uses. Large buffering requirements may greatly expand the size of site needed. Guidelines provided by a state’s organic association should be followed.

✔ Relationship to adjacent non-residential uses – certain adjacent activity can also negatively impact farming. Ideally adjacent uses would have minimal nighttime lighting and low traffic volume. If outside interferences do exist, additional open space or other buffers may be necessary.

✔ Vehicle access – adequate access must be available for a van, mini – truck, or similar-sized vehicle

✔ Perceived security – given that farmers work mainly outdoors and their products are outdoors, the neighborhood should offer a reasonable sense of safety for both the farmer and the farm

✔ Site access – nearby public transit access is desirable

✔ Site control and term of site availability – the effort and investment needed to bring a site up to productive use should be commiserate to lease terms that are available. If you can’t purchase or get long-term use of the land, you have to accept that your farming will be considered an interim use and be prepared to shut down at any time. If you manage to get a long term lease (3 -5 years) you can request compensation to reward you financially for any rise in land value that can be attributed to your activity once the lease agreement is over. Looking ahead, cities could designate sites which for varying reasons can never be developed, as permanent agriculture sites, but none are there yet.

No matter how supportive a yard or land owner seems to be, few know what backyard farming entails. Thinking it through with them so they understand their commitment and what to expect will make sure what starts out as a positive experience remains one.

3.  Points to Negotiate

What gets landowners excited about developing a relationship with a SPIN farmer is they want to contribute positively to the environment, reduce food miles, increase healthy food access. Some also have a practical motivation: reducing lawn maintenance, To help them realize what that means in practice, here are the main points that should be covered.

TERM – Clarify that your use is for an entire season, and that if the the property is sold midseason, that you be allowed to finish out the current season. Specify a start and end date.

RENT/BARTER/UPKEEP – Specify what the landowner wants in return for your use of the land. Typically it is cash, or a weekly supply of vegetables, or keeping the land maintained.

APPEARANCE – Commit to keeping the plot you work neat and weeded.

INSURANCE – Clarify what insurance you have and what it covers. Many SPIN farmers obtain basic business liability coverage.

CROPS GROWN – Specify that you will maintain a working garden consisting of common vegetables, herbs and flowers, and that one or many different crops may be growing at one time.

GROWING PRACTICES – Specify that you adhere to organic farming practices.

ACCESS – Clarify how you will gain access to the yard.

WORK SCHEDULE – Set agreed upon times when you’ll be working in the plot. Ask to be granted some latitude with these times. If you do need to work at an unscheduled time, you can offer to do your best to give a half day’s advance notice by phone and/or email.

UNDERGROUND CABLES OR PIPES – If you plan to operate a rototiller, have the owner investigate to be sure there is nothing under the ground where you will be using it in your plot.

WATER USAGE – Specify that you require the use of the landowner’s water and describe the type of irrigation setup you will be using. Assure them you will make every effort to use water wisely. If cost is an issue, you can suggest that they monitor it and offer to pay the difference between their usual bill and any increase that would be attributed to your operation.

EQUIPMENT – Specify that most work will be completed with simple hand tools such as hoes, shovels, scissors, knives, wheel hoes, seeders and other common manually operated garden tools. If you do plan to operate a rototiller advise the landowner on what that entails and verify that there are no utility lines near where you will be rototilling.

NOT U-PICK – Ask that the landowner not pick vegetables from the garden because you depend on them for your livelihood. If there is a particular vegetable they would like, you can request that they let you know.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS – Situational factors that would impact an operation like kids, pets, herbicide or pesticide use by the owner on areas adjacent to the plot should be identified and addressed.

CLOSEDOWN – Agree that at the end of each season you will leave the plot tilled and leveled.

The best way to know you and your prospective landlord are on the same page  get, and stay, on the same page, is to put  an agreement in writing.

4.  Seal the deal in writing

For SPIN farmers just starting out, getting on the same page with a yard owner can literally be a single page memo or letter. It is not meant to be a contract or legally binding. In fact it can even preclude legal entanglements.  Here is a simple example:

1. The (fill in name, the Property owner) hereby agrees to allow (fill in your name, the Farmer) to farm on their premises for the 2021 growing season (March – November).
2. It is agreed that any major changes made to the property by the Farmer or Property owner shall be discussed by both parties before any work is commenced.
3. The Farmer agrees to provide a weekly delivery of farm fresh produce.
4. The Farmer agrees to manage and maintain the aesthetic integrity of the premises throughout the season. The Property owner agrees to bring any specific requirements or concerns of this nature to the attention of the Farmer in advance of the growing season and/or as soon as they arise.
5. This agreement may be terminated by either party at the end of the 2021 growing season (November) unless otherwise agreed. Upon termination, the Farmer agrees to restore the premises to its original form.

Here is an example that spells out more details:

(Fill in your name, the Farmer) wishes to utilize a portion of the yard space of (enter the address of the yard’s or land’s location) for the purpose of for profit farming in the 2021 growing season and going forward on a year-by-year basis.

Portions of the yard will be altered physically to allow for these farming activities, including the removal of lawn, gravel, cement, or other ground obstructions. Trees and shrubs will be maintained or altered on a case by case basis. Returning alterations of the yard to original state is not within the scope of this understanding.

The Farmer will be responsible for all labor in soil and bed preparation, weed control within the used space, crop selection, crop planting, watering, pile based onsite composting, and  harvesting.

Crops are the property of the Farmer

(Fill in name, the Property owner) is responsible for maintaining functional watering systems, providing water, the cost of soil amendments should they be needed (peat moss, manures, ph balancers, compost), providing easy access to the yard site between the hours of 7am and 7pm.

In exchange for usage of the yard as outlined above the Farmer will provide ONE CSA share , consisting of various greens and vegetables. In cases of crop failure the CSA share contents will be reduced as needed to ensure all members of the CSA, including  the Property owner, receive an equal amount of the harvest.

The Farmer cannot guarantee specific CSA share amounts. The planned CSA is for 15 weeks, beginning approximately mid- June and ending approximately mid-September. CSA share size changes during the growing season based on harvest size and crop availability. Unseasonably late or early frost events may affect harvests at any time. The Farmer will keep all CSA members fully informed about weather related delays or losses.

Both the Property owner and the Farmer agree to a non-litigation situation,. Should there be an intractable dispute by either party neither will move to litigation, rather the relationship will simply be ended.

At some point you may want a long term setup on a larger plot of land that will require an even more serious commitment from both you and a property owner, Here is an example of an agreement for a plot of land that is not necessarily inhabited by the property owner, and which may require investment in infrastructure. Get advice from a lawyer to be sure it is a legally binding contract.     .

1. The Tenant Farmer shall have the right to use and access the Property at (fill in address) for the purpose of growing vegetables, grasses (“green manures”) hay and to pasture small livestock.

2. The Lease term shall be as follows:
A fixed term lease beginning on (fill in date here) and ending on (fill in date here) for a total period of 2 years, reverting to a year to year lease beginning on (fill in date here) unless another fixed term lease is arranged by mutual agreement by the Tenant Farmer and Landlord.

3. The Lease rent shall be as follows:
Cash rent: The Tenant Farmer agrees to pay the Landlord (fill in dollar amount here) for the Property located at fill in location here  every year as rent. The rent shall be payable upon the beginning and every subsequent anniversary of this Lease.

4. Any future improvements to the leased land shall be at the expense of the Tenant Farmer. Prior negotiations will take place before any improvements to the land are implemented between the Landlord and Tenant Farmer.

5. The Landlord shall have the right to enter the Property to inspect the Property, provided that he/she does not impair the Tenant Farmer’s agricultural activities on the Property.

6. The Tenant Farmer may not sublet this Property or assign this Lease to any other persons without the written consent of the Landlord.

7. It is agreed that this Lease shall not create a partnership relationship between the Landlord and Tenant Farmer.

8. The Landlord and Tenant Farmer may mutually agree to terminate this lease at any time.

Here is an example that is more detailed.

Signatory Parties:
A)    Farm operator:_____________________________________

B)    Landowner:___________________________________

The purpose of this lease agreement is to establish the common goals, outcomes, and responsibilities between the farm operator (A) and the landowner, (B) as part of the land use agreement pertaining to (fill in location address here). This includes start date, contract termination allowances, and definition of payment.

This lease agreement is valid for 5 full years from the date of signing, and is to be renewed annually thereafter. All terms are negotiable at that time.

After the initial 2 year term, either party can terminate the contract with 60 day’s notice in advance during the off-season (fill in dates here). Notice can be given during the on-season (fill in dates here), but operations and contract terms must be allowed to continue until no later than (fill in date here) due to planting/harvesting schedules and associated investments. Therefore, notice to cease operations within 60 days must be given by or to either party no later than (fill in date here), and no earlier than (fill in date here).

Farm operator (A) is responsible for securing general liability insurance covering the plot at (fill in address here).

Plot Size:
The plot size under contract will cover (fill in plot size here).

Growing Practices:
Farm operator (A) agrees to use only organic, non-toxic farming methods.

Farm operator (A) agrees to keep the plot neat and weeded. Farm operator (A) also agrees to use little to no machinery, other than a rototiller periodically throughout the season, and brush cutters or larger equipment during initial plot preparation.

Landowner (B) agrees to the use of water for the plot whenever needed by Farm Operator (A). Farm Operator (A) agrees to use the best water conservation practices, and within municipal water use restrictions.

Any infrastructure and inputs required as part of farm operations, such as irrigation equipment, greenhouse(s)/low tunnels, gardening tools, compost bins, imported soil, wash station, etc., will be provided and maintained by Farm Operator (A). As such, all said infrastructure and inputs remain the property of Farm Operator (A) upon dissolution of the agreement.

Landowner (B) agrees to grant Farm Operator (A) full access to the plot during daylight hours, Monday to Sunday, during the on-season, as of (fill in date here).

Farm Operator (A) agrees to compensate Landowner (B) (fill in dollar amount here)

Farm Operator (A) agrees to leave the plot mulched and levelled at the end of every season. Farm Operator (A) also agrees to either return the plot under contract to its previous state, (leveled and left to overgrow) or leave as-is, upon end of contract, if desired.

Once your agreement is in place, getting a lay of the land goes beyond its topography and microclimate.  There is also the neighbors to consider, especially if they are only a stone’s throw away. While your landlord may be a proud supporter of local farming, 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.  That’s why farm diplomacy ranks up there with soil maintenance and food safety as a best practice.  Here’s what that invovles.

5. Handling neighbor relations

The most important point to realize is that not everyone is a fan of farming. 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. Here are some guidelines we’ve developed over the years to handle home-based, backyard farming diplomacy.

✔ Just as you would like neighbors to come to respect you as a professional farmer, you should respect them as neighbors of the farm, and not try to turn them into customers of the farm.

✔ Save your sales pitches for the farmers market. Neighbors of the farm did not  ask for a working farm to be in their midst, so keep business out of it.

✔Be generous. If you come back from market with unsold produce, give it to the neighbors every now and then. Your crops are high value, but goodwill is priceless.

Although SPIN-Farming is a-political, SPIN farmers are in many ways ambassadors of agriculture. Working farms in cities and towns are still somewhat exotic, so curiosity or skepticism is a natural reaction to expect, and you should not take it personally. There is no reason your farming activity should negatively impact the neighbors, and you can demonstrate that to them over time. So be patient and don’t expect the same level of enthusiasm from everyone, or try to convert them. The aim should be simple acceptance, not fervent fandom.

Though home-based backyard, urban farming is a new concept to many, SPIN-Farming has been around for 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.