What’s Missing From Seed Catalogs

Business sense.

SPIN farmers transform garden-size plots to earn farm size-income. As they start cracking open and scrolling around seed catalogs this time of year, they need to transform the marketing copy and planting recommendations into a seed order that will make them money. Take squash, as an example. Four online pages and 69 varieties to choose from. SPIN farmers turn that into 2 cropping strategies, 7 varieties, $35 total seed cost, $5k revenue potential.

To do that requires 1) using small plot intensive standards and strategies; 2) translating conventional planting recommendations in seed catalogs to fit the standards; and 3) knowing a crop’s revenue potential. Using this systematic process, SPIN farmers create a production plan that includes their total revenue target, revenue target for each crop they plan to grow, and the number of beds or segments they will be planting of each crop. Here’s some of the general guidelines they use.

Standardize production space
Using standard bed and plot sizes makes it easy to quantify and evaluate production and revenue results. That makes records for planning, budgeting and spending more meaningful as the season progresses, as well as year-to-year. In the SPIN-Farming system these standard production spaces are 50 sq. ft. beds (2′ x 25′) and 1,000 sq. ft. segments.

Prioritize high-value crops
Grow veggies worth at least $100 retail per SPIN-Farming’s standard size bed (50 sq. ft.), or $1k per segment (1,000 sq. ft.). Examples are:
✔ Salad greens
✔ Leafy greens
✔ Golden beets
✔ Novelty carrots
✔ Spinach

Balance out with lower value crops
There are strategic reasons to also grow lower value crops, because staples like onions and common varieties of potatoes are always in demand at market. It is also better to have a varied selection of produce so that you can be a one-stop shop. Regular customers will usually buy whatever you have, so that means more sales to your regulars. Also you will be better able to lure new customers. You also stand a better chance of developing a more consistent cash flow with a more diverse offering of produce. If you want to offer a CSA, a variety of items is usually part of the deal.

Lower value crops can also help in managing larger land bases and work flow, as well as help with pest and weed control. Crops like green beans, peas, and winter squash are easier to grow in heavier weed pressure conditions.

Have a strategy for every crop
A carrot is not a carrot is not a carrot. There are small, crunchy, showy carrots meant for eating fresh that are great for snacks. There are the humbler, larger-sized carrots for cooking. There are novelty carrots for progressive eaters and chefs. Each serves a different kind of customer and contributes differently to revenue. SPIN farmers think through what they need to achieve with each crop, like early season cash flow or low maintenance for a plot not close to home. There can be multiple strategies for the same crop. Strategies can be categorized by: seasonal timing (early, main, late varieties); market appeal (mainstream or niche) days to harvest (short or long season crops).

Track seeding rate
Here’s where you start to see the value of standardization. Tracking how much seed is used, which is called seeding rate, is based on how many rows are planted and how many seeds are planted in each row. As an example, here is the information you need to track for carrots:
> # of rows per standard size bed: 3
> width of each row: 2”
> in-row spacing: 12” apart; 30 seeds per foot
> # of seed required per row: 750 seeds
> # of seed required per SPIN bed: 2,250
> # of seed required per SPIN segment: 29,250

Grow one crop per bed or segment
Growing one type of crop in each bed or segment, per planting, makes it much easier to calculate yields and seeding rate. It is also easier to turn over a growing space to another crop and simplifies pest management.

Practice relay cropping
Relay cropping is the sequential growing of multiple crops in a single growing space to intensify production and achieve a specific revenue target. Some examples of relays are:
spinach > radish > carrots
scallion > lettuce > spinach
lettuce > baby dill > lettuce > radish

Relays are planned at the beginning of the season, but more importantly, they can be changed throughout the season to deal with unexpected pest or weather pressure or market demand, without having to re-think or rip up the entire farm.

Develop a no-grow list
Luring growers to blow money on new crops they’d otherwise never think of is the seed marketers bread and butter. Avoid buyer’s remorse by writing down all the crops that, for whatever reason, don’t work. It could be soil, climate or skill challenges, or lack of a market. Here’s an example:
– arugula ( pest issues )
– all brassicas ( pest issues )
– eggplant ( low yields/poor marketability )
– melons ( low yields/poor marketability )
– peas ( poor profitability )
– summer squash ( poor marketability )
– tomatoes ( poor marketability )
– turnips/rutabaga ( pest issues )

Set aside “mad money” for test planting
To further curb seed-buying enthusiasm, decide how much test planting with experimental crops you can afford to do. Then put aside a “mad money” line item in the seed budget to cover it, and orders those experimental crops last. That way you aren’t forced to shortchange on seeds for the crops that pay the bills, or to overspend.

Place a call
Work through all the variables in seed buying by calling the seed company direct. Sometimes shortages can be anticipated and bulk pricing worked out. At certain seed order thresholds, delivery costs are waived. Sometimes cheaper varieties can be substituted. Seed company reps are also a good source for market intelligence on which crops are strong sellers, or what promises to be the hot new trend.

Organic seed? Farmers choice
There is another call you have to make, and that is whether or not organic seed is worth the extra cost. Some farmers will not pay excessively premium prices for them. Here’s an example for potatoes:
non-organic: $33 for 50 lbs.
organic: $100 for 50 lb.

SPIN farmers think through whether their market pricing will cover the higher cost of organic seed. They also know when catalog prices are too high and have alternate sources of supply, including local. Having relationships with multiple suppliers also comes in handy during seed shortages. Pre-ordering and paying in advance is a common way to guarantee an order.

Don’t sweat GMO’s
There are very few crops in a backyard-scale farmers repertoire that have a GMO version. Here’s a list from the USDA website:
1. Alfalfa (for animal feed)
2. Corn
3. Canola (a source for oil)
4. Cotton (for oil)
5. Soybeans
6. Papaya
7. Squash
8. Sugar beets (which aren’t eaten directly, but refined into sugar)
9. Apple

GMO versions of tomatoes, potatoes, and rice have been created and approved by government regulators, but they aren’t commercially available. SPIN-scale farmers would have to work really hard to get their hands on GMO seed. Some organic seed proponents proclaim organic seed as GMO-free, which may imply that non-organic seed is GMO. But non-organic seed is GMO-free also.

Ignore catalog copy
SPIN farmers know there are some varieties that are bred to be talking points and try not to be influenced by catalog copy. Example: the Parisian Carrot which Harris Seeds says “evokes pure joy upon pulling it out of the ground.” Unless there’s a market for them, they won’t be a joy to sell. Many exotic crops often take more care to grow, don’t store as well, or have inferior taste or unpredictable yields. Getting overweight in niche crops is also risky for business.

Buying seed for business requires more than just impulse control. Every purchase should start by answering the question, “Why grow this crop?” Thinking through a seed order based on a standard system and revenue potential is a way to make sure every crop is earning its keep, and gives you a revenue target that is predictable and easy to manipulate. And your mad money allows a splurge on a few indulgences — like komi chrysanthemum or celtuce. Or maybe even Parisienne carrots?