Back to the Future Doesn’t Work

Courtesy of Roxanne C.,Philadelphia PA

A new year and the same old hard luck farmers story. Once again it recounts the woeful tale of failing beginning farmers – you know the type. No farming background. Go to college. Run up debt. Quit unsatisfying city jobs. Escape to the country, Get a small piece of property.Buy a few assorted animals.Try to sell organic vegetables. Bills mount.Sales don’t happen. And the blaming starts. Agribusiness. The government. Changing weather. Lack of a level playing field. Brutal economics.

The root cause of their failure is their choice of an outdated “back to the land” startup model. You know, the one based on the agrarian ideal. The one that requires many acres, loads of overhead, debt and risk. The one that makes it harder and more expensive than it needs to be. The one that increases the chances of failure. The one that makes no business sense.

The successful 21st century farmers we know and helped train, honed their production skills on backyard size plots and serviced whatever types of markets they could access the quickest and easiest, using the least amount of gear they could afford or barter for. Some move around. Some scale up. Some specialize in certain crops. Some branch out into processed food. More and more of them who we do online meetups with have passed the 5 years in business milestone. A few have now passed the 10 year mark. What they all have in common is they aren’t trying to create the future of farming by returning to the past.

SF photo farm caution sign business sense


Advice You Won’t Hear At Farming Conferences
Reality Check for New Farmers
Farming Has A New Narrative
Make This the Year of Logistical Thinking
Getting Back to Business                                                                                                    Are You Ready for Self-Employment?


Advice You Won’t Get at Farm Conferences

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK

This time of year I hear from a lot of aspiring farmers. They are filled with passion and enthusiasm and are eager to glomm on to role models. I’m a pretty easy target. I have been at the farmers market in Saskatoon, Sask. Zone 3 Canada for 20 + years, and right now I sell year round, at about 150 market days a year. I see farmers come and go all the time. Typically they last one or two years, then move on to something else. Why? They can’t  seem to figure things out, or make things go their way, because they bought into the hard way.

If you are looking to push yourself to the edge, you can do trampoline bridge jumping or traditional farming. But if you want to start a profitable business growing food, traditional farming is not the way to accomplish it. Instead, keep it simple. In Year 1, you don’t need to buy land or a tractor. Use what land you have or can borrow. Keep your investments minimal. Don’t get sidetracked with grow tunnels or aquaponics. That can happen, after you have mastered basic production, which is growing consistently, in volume, at commercial grade.

Also think revenue. Weeks of revenue, total revenue, bill paying revenue, going to
Mexico on a holiday revenue, and how your farm is going to pay for everything. Get grounded in reality quickly in the game. How about refrigeration for your produce. Have you thought about that? Have you researched your local markets/restaurant scene to see where the opportunities are? How about logistics? How are you going to make everything happen? It’s not rocket science, but it does require thought and planning to make an owner/operated farm work.

What helps is a platform for your thinking. That is what you can use SPIN-Farming for. It makes things easier for you by organizing your thinking and keeping you focused on what matters most to your initial success.

So when newbies come to me and say they want grow and sell produce at a farmers market, I say great, but also ask, How many marketing weeks are you targeting? What will be your average weekly cash flow? And I expect an answer, and a pretty good one. Again, SPIN-Farming can help you with this. This is the way I want to get you to start thinking, very early in your career. Notice I use the term career. That is the way you have to look at it, since you are entering a profession and building a business. You have to take it seriously, but that does not mean you have to die trying.

SF photo fb labor teach us


What’s Your Pricing Power? Just Ask.

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Pleasantdale SK

Pricing is one of the most important elements of marketing. We all know that. The pricing benchmark I set when I first developed the SPIN system was $3 per item or 2/$5. The idea was to use multiple unit pricing to get customers away from thinking about buying in quantity and to buy more items, and make convenient for them to grab and go without having to wait for items to be weighed out.

Customers liked it, and it worked for me. It kept a lot of $5 bills coming my way, and I didn’t have to give out change. Problem was a lot of customers seemed to limit their purchase at $5. So I decided to target $10 purchases. The best way was to make each unit smaller, and change the price to $3 per item, 2/$5 or any 5/$10. This seemed to work, and started getting more $10 sales. Believe it or not, many of my customers said this was too generous.

So I changed my price point yet again. Instead of $3 per unit, I increased it to $5 per unit, keeping unit quantities more or less the same. To make the new price point easier to accept, I made it $5 per unit or 3/$10. That worked. So instead of 5 units for $10, I was selling 3/$10. So less produce for more money. And no complaints from customers. Bottom line is that you have to keep on tweaking your price points. You don’t want to change too often, but don’t get stuck with the same price tier for too long either.

It also underscores the advantage SPIN farmers have over other retailers. Most retail is cut off from any significant dialogue about pricing decisions with those directly affected – customers. So retailers are left with only numbers to try and interpret. We have a HUGE advantage here, selling face to face, especially after you build up a repeat customer base because they’re a group that feels some loyalty and want to see you stay in business!  .

SF photo fb pricing power a

Being able to talk face to face with your customers is much better than looking at sales numbers and trying to wring meaning out of them at the end of a market. So when it comes to pricing, use your direct marketing advantage. Just ask. You might be surprised at how much power you have!


Farmers Working Things Out

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

While tech and farming are often pitted against each other, SPIN-Farming was very much a creation of the Internet. Wally knew his way of farming and selling could be systematized. He also knew farming is “experiential”, and that it had to be learned by doing.

But the reality was, if the only way aspiring farmers could get started with SPIN was by trailing him around in his backyard plots, it would get pretty crowded up there in Saskatoon. What he needed was to codify the system and then make it accessible to anyone, anywhere. Launched in March of 2006, the SPIN-Farming learning series is now being used by thousands of new farmers to get started, and stay, in business.

But farming can’t be reduced to just a system. It takes ongoing re-thinking and tinkering. . And that’s where another feature of SPIN comes into play – its Open Houses. Conducted as online meetups, they are where backyard growers get together to offer advice, problem solve and pioneer new ideas. Some don’t even interrupt their workflow. They just click on while bagging up their quick greens or cracking garlic. Others schedule a visit to Starbucks for some quiet time to get paper work done  and, as one member put it, kick back with some good coffee and learning

For one hour twice a month, SPIN members congregate to brainstorm with those who have “been there”, or are willing to help figure it out if they haven’t. Most, like Wally, do not come from farm families and don’t want to take on the traditional burdens of owning lots of land, investing piles of money and making a big lifestyle change. They just want to make money growing food to meet local demand. Here are some of the dynamics at work in these Open Houses.

Say something – Verbalizing how you are going to turn a plan into action is like making a contract with yourself and creates a higher level of commitment and accountability.

Say it to others – The best way to gain confidence in an area is to explain it to someone else. In the monthly meetups, a member will explain how their farm operates, their business model, their revenue goals, and plans for achieving them to an audience that takes them seriously. That makes them take their business goals more seriously.

Play with the numbers – Quantifying goals is a core concept of SPIN, but members come to understand that the specific numbers don’t matter. SPIN benchmarks are a starting point, but they aren’t right for everyone. Group members make assumptions, take guesses if they have no experience, prove them out, and and create their own benchmarks.

Get pushed – Wally and other experienced group members provides the reality check, pushing members if they are underachieving. For instance, Wally urged one member who was planning to double his revenue from $25K to $50K in 2 years, and told him how to do it in by adding a market day and extending his season. Another member, who had planned on just continuing his internship was convinced by the group to at least start some test plots and target $10K.

Farming has always been a collaborative profession. Granges, associations, extension services and conferences continue to be important connectors. But the speed and reach of online platforms provide entirely new inputs, bringing together farmers with vastly different experiences, perspectives, cultures and traditions. And even though the meeting place is virtual, the bonds formed there are very real, and lasting.

SPIN photo computer 1

Wally sending off some market intel on the going rate for garlic and parsnips right after Christmas.   

SF photo Ad Thanksgiving 7

Here’s some of the members who share their business plans and goals in SPIN’s Open Houses. Want to meet up with them and  hundreds of others who represent the brightest and most innovative minds in farming today? Sign up for SPIN’s online community here. 


Putting a Lawn Mower to Good Use

Courtesy of Christian K, 3 Crows Farm Cranbrook BC

I use a battery powered lawn mower to even out my harvests of arugula, lettuce and mesclun mix, and spinach. I do my initial harvest with a Farmers Friend Quick Greens cutter, but find that my 2nd, 3rd and maybe 4th cut are much improved if I run the mower over the bed to even out the cuttings and help remove the missed leaves. It takes about 30 seconds, and the next cutting comes in with full leaves and no crusty dried leaves to pick out.

When it’s time to clear the bed, I put on a ‘dethatching’ blade and lower the deck to 2″, and it scalps the bed well enough that there is little debris remaining and I can sometimes just use the Johnny Seeds tilther to prep for the next seeding or transplanting.

The mower is tidy, doesn’t foul the neighbouring beds, is light, quick, gas free, relatively
quiet and way less effort. It’s like a poor man’s power harrow – works with a cheap gas mower too if that’s what you’ve got.

SF photo blog lawn mower power harrow


2019 Trends and Who’s Setting Them

Here’s SPIN-Farming’s Alphabet List of 2019 Trends to look forward to, culled from all the presentations at this year’s Member Meetups. Thanks to all of the forward thinking SPIN farmers listed below who presented their business plans, how they implemented them and the revenue they targeted and achieved.

SPIN’s online Member Meetups are THE place to get in on the latest entrepreneurial farming trends as they are happening and learn from the real-world experience of those who are using SPIN-Farming to create and develop successful businesses. If starting a farm business, or learning the business of growing food, is on your New Year’s to-do list, you’re welcome to join in. (see below).

SPIN’s Alphabet of 2019 Trends
Agrihood – free land access and captive market
Buying clubs – gets around the bad rep of CSA’s
Compostable containers – consumers want them and will pay for them
Demographics – need to target customers more accurately, now that local is such a large market
EBT’s –  catering to the underserved is a big opportunity
Food safety – using it as a competitive advantage
Ginger – new niche crop which works pretty far north
Hiring – some actually need a parking lot for their workers
Ingredient analysis – big part of value added products
Jackfruit – reselling non-local fruits leads customers to your local vegetables
KETO – the special diet crowd becomes a sizable market
Loofa – diversifying with health/beauty products
Moving the farm – not hard to do, is being prompted by search for better markets
Nutrition information – consider it a value add
Onsite farm stands – more are doing them
Pricing power – average unit pricing  is increasing to $4, 3 for $10                                  Quick freeze- farm to freezer is the next big opportunity to expand the local food market
Rural –  urban farmers are giving up the city to expand
Snacking – lots of new product opportunities and customers here
Transit stops – farmers markets are setting up there
Unit prices – the average is creeping up to $3
Vistaprint – your partner for brand building; great for sings, business cards, banners
Weddings – brides want local flowers
X-piration date – prepared foods have a shelf life that needs to be stated
York Fresh Foods – new urban farm role model that is more sustainable
Zoning – city governments are finally taking commercial urban farming seriously

SPIN Farming 2018 Start Performers

SF photo Trends 2019 a

Chris Kimber, 3 Crows Farm, Cranbrook BC                                                                   Lisa Patton, Hope Rising Farm, Garden City MO
Steve Patton, Hope Rising Farm, Garden City MO                                                        Ryan Doan, Urban Greens, Cincinnati OH 
Nick van Riper  Urban Greens, Cincinnati OH                                                                Tom Hinman, Sweet Harvest, New Hartford CT                                                      Blythe Woods, Maggie’s Farm Gettysburg, Gettysburg PA                                          Rex Landings, Cackleberry Farms, Meridian ID                                                Courtney Tchida, Cornercopia Organic Student Farm, Univ. of MN, St.Paul  MN      Cathy LeValley, New Earth Micro Farm, Unionville, MI                              Lourdes Casañares, Masagana Flower Farm, La Broquerie MB 
Bruce Manns, York Fresh Foods, York PA

There are two options. You can purchase membership here, to participate in our online support group and get access to all past and future Member Meetups as well as monthly instant learning sessions conducted by SPIN-Farming’s creator, Wally Satzewich.

If you are committed to starting a business, purchase our learning program here which also comes with a trial membership. Be on trend and in the money in 2019!

Ring Up Holiday Sales

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

If you are in a year round farmers market like I am, you have the opportunity to fill your stocking with some extra Christmas cash. Markets have gotten much more sophisticated about attracting additional shoppers at this time of year, those who want gifts that are craftsy,  not made in China.

The Saskatoon Farmers Market promotes itself as a go-to destination for the holidays, with special events like a Gingerbread House contest (“all team sizes and ages welcome”). This year a special night market in early December became a much anticipated event , and the Dinner in the Dark, that laid out a farmers’ market sourced meal served under gradually dimming light and culminating with dessert in total darkness, sold out weeks in advance.

It’s fun and lucrative to play Santa. Handmade candles, soaps, baked goods, basically any non-produce item will sell, if you put a ribbon around it. To give you a flavor of our market this time of year, come along with Gail and I on a behind the scenes tour of this year’s holiday market.
Merry Xmas.

Year round indoor markets are in the unique position to capture extra sales at the holidays by attracting gift shoppers. But as a vendor you need to step up your game in terms of product offerings.

SPIN photo holiday tree

Decorating the tree has become a yearly ritual for vendors. We put forth a team effort and bond over some spiked hot cocoa. This tree is not local, and it’s not even alive. When it comes to marketing, we do what’s practical.  

Bakers really cash in. Platters of homemade cookies can go for as much as $50. Sometimes people gift themselves. At this time of year, you don’t have to twist any arms.

Blog holiday bakers

Candles are another sure bet. Diversifying your produce operation with value added items like these eliminates the hassle of having to have a commercial kitchen.

Blog holiday candles


SPIN photo holiday bird feeder

Another sure bet, tried and tested for several years by Gail. Bird feeder gifts are always the right size and color.

SPIN photo holiday book signing

A book signed by the author is a very personal gift. One you won’t get from a big box store. And whenever you are looking for a gift that is 100% pure how-to, always keep in mind a SPIN guide.

Even outside events draw crowds.

Blog holiday ice sculpture


SPIN photo holiday blues snowman




How Good a Boss Are You?

Courtesy of Roxanne C, Philadelphia PA

Among the top reasons people become SPIN farmers is they want to be their own boss. But that doesn’t mean they are good ones. Managing yourself requires a different skill set from managing employees, but it’s a skill set just the same.

What are the signs that you’re not being a good boss of yourself? Vague commitments:  “I want this to flow into a full-time business some day.” Frequent excuses: “No one will buy a CSA share from me in my first year in business.” Cop-outs: “I can skip the market just this once.”  Indulgences: “Acquaponics is so cool, and I have the space.” Complacency: “As long as I cover the bills, I’m ok.”

Whether you need to get over the first hump, or take your business to the next level, one way to make sure 2019 is all you want it to be is follow these 7 steps:
1) quantify your goals
2) be sure they are realistic
3) write them down
4) share them with someone else
5) break them down to specific tasks
6) create a timetable for completing them
7) meet regularly with someone who’s been over much the same ground to review your   progress

Where there is a way, there is not always the will. Beginners and pro’s alike can benefit from having someone other than themselves to be accountable to, whether that be a SPIN coach or a mentor. Look for someone who is experienced enough to know what is possible, so that you don’t under or overachieve, and what is practical, so that you work towards being effective rather than perfect.

In 2019, celebrate your s-mall p-lot in-dependence, but don’t always go it alone.

SPIN photo Thumbs up

A New Role Model for Urban Farms

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Bruce Manns says, “It’s not a bad thing to be a business person in the inner city.” He doesn’t sound like your typical urban farmer do-gooder, and he isn’t. Sure, his York Fresh Food Farms shares the same mission as other non-profit farms, but he’s following a different playbook. He knows grant funding is fickle, and believes inner cities need commerce as much as charity. So he’s developing a business around a mobile market in York PA.

Zero competition in a market usually means no one has been able to figure out how to make money in it. When it comes to building a food business in underserved areas, few have really tried. But Bruce is using SPIN-Farming to figure it out, and is applying commercial farming practices and standards at his non-profit urban farm. He’s made impressive progress since he started up two years ago. This year he’s on track to gross $25k on 80,000 sq.ft. Next year is goal is to double that.

Urban farming is hot, so finding land and funding his farm’s startup weren’t hard. With Bruce’s gardening background, growing high quality food wasn’t either. So far this tracks the stories of lots of for-profit SPIN farmers.

But instead of setting up a stand at either one of the city’s three well-established indoor farmers markets, and catering to middle and upper income demographics, Bruce is bringing his crops to those who want healthy food, have no way to get to it, and are really strapped for cash. His 3 point business model: professional grade, predictable, affordable. His 3 success factors: respect, pragmatism, team work.

His new best practice? It’s not composting. It’s not rain water harvesting. It’s not cover cropping. It’s making money. The lesson here is that while your customers may be the underserved and hungry, that doesn’t mean you can’t make money. Bruce is planning to cover 100% of his operating expenses in 2019 which, he says, is remarkable for a non-profit farm. It doesn’t have to be. The more money you make, the more you can spend. The better you get at farming, the less time you have to spend grant writing. The less dependent you are on grants, the more sustainable your farm becomes. It’s a valuable lesson for all farmers, especially those trying to do good.  .

SF photo PPT Bruce Manns in the field tour