A Best Practice That Isn’t Always

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Beginning urban farmers eager to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability include rainwater harvesting in their startup plans. Once they start implementing, they usually find that what sounds good in theory doesn’t work well in practice.

The first downside is the expense in gear – pipes, tanks, fittings. Second is the quality of the water, which is run-off from the roofs of nearby buildings and paved surfaces. Since this can contain bird droppings and contaminants, testing, filtration and treatment of the water is required. Then, because the water collected sits and becomes stagnant, further treatment is required for algae and mosquitoes. After all the effort and expense they’ve built themselves a water source that’s unpredictable and barely amounts to a drop in the bucket.

Over the years, cities have built elaborate systems to deliver potable water whenever it’s needed. Those farmers who, through necessity or strategy, are starting their businesses surrounded by concrete, should consider access to municipal water an advantage and not try and re-invent the wheel.

There’s gotta be a better way than this!
Yeah, there is.

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Farm a Go-Go

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

A post to the SPIN farmer online support group asks, “My home state has an interesting political environment after the elections that has led many people looking for an exit. Not getting political, just looking at options before my wallet is attacked. Has anyone moved their farm?”

For SPIN farmers it’s a straightforward question. Many don’t own much, or any, of the land they farm. SPIN’s production methods are portable and can be adapted to any climate. SPIN’s infrastructure is movable or easily replaceable. So it’s quite feasible to change the shape and size of a farm in response to a range of pressures, possibilities and life changes.

A new SPIN farm can be brought online rapidly. There will be soil and weed issues, as well as acclimating to a different seasonal time frame, but that’s pretty manageable using SPIN’s production segments and relays. Longer season crops is where the main adjustments will need to be made.

The biggest loss is your customer base that has taken time to develop. Researching the market potential of greener pastures done online will give you an idea of  what the new market opportunities or limitations will be. You can anticipate being more dependent on outside income for the first couple of years while you re-invest in market development, but with your experience managing what you’ve been doing, the production and operations end of your farm will come into line rapidly.

Soil building also takes time and does represent sweat equity,but farming is, at its root, an ad hoc and adaptive process. When life, economics or politics compel you to pull up stakes, two of your most important farm assets – SPIN knowledge and infrastructure – can be packed up and taken with you.

LEARN FROM PIONEERING SPIN FARMERS WHO ARE TAKING THEIR BUSINESSES TO NEW AND UNCHARTED PLACES IN THE SPIN ONLINE SUPPORT GROUP. FREE TRIAL MEMBERSHIP WHEN YOU PURCHASE ANY SPIN GUIDE.

Surprises Galore! What to Expect on a SPIN Farm Tour

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Farm tours are a hot ticket these days, especially ones that offer entertainment. Many SPIN farmers are hard pressed to provide hay rides, and their plots don’t provide an Instagram-ready backdrop for weddings. But they do show people how to make significant money growing crops in their backyards.Even those who are already familar with the concept of backyard commercial farming are astonished when they visit SPIN farms. Here’s some of the thrills and surprises in store.

So where is the farm? You are at it, on it and in it. It sometimes consists not only of the front and back yards, but also the garage, basement, sometimes a few greenhouses. Those who visit multi-locational SPIN farms also get some nice tours of several neighborhoods.

Where are the weeds? SPIN farms are disappointing in that regard. There really aren’t many. SPIN farmers pend about 6 hours a week initially weeding their various plots, and towards the end of the season they really don’t have to spend any time weeding at all. SPIN’s intensive production makes it hard for weeds to become established, so SPIN farmers really don’t have to pay them much mind.

Where is the compost pile? Out of respect for the neighbors, SPIN farmers compost very discretely, so their bins don’t have pride of place. They usually aren’t very big anyway because there is very little waste at backyard-scale SPIN farms to compost.

What’s the secret to the soil? Many SPIN farmers have been working many of their plots for many years and even though they are planted intensively, they really don’t have an exotic secret sauce to maintaining their soil. They spot fertilize just specific plots when they need it, depending on what is grown. At SPIN scale, they can micro-manage my soil, so it turns out to be not much maintenance at all.

The drive time to market is just 5 minutes? Yes, for some lucky SPIN farmers, they just roll out of bed, and they are there. For others they may have to drive across town or to the next town over. But under an hour is usually the norm.

But that’s not easy enough? Not for some.They have to haul produce from the car and keep it cool with ice packs. That takes time and can be onerous, especially if you have multiple markets per week. So some develop an online business to diversify and make delivery and fulfillment easier. It also allows them to match supply to demand precisely and develop close and lasting relationships with their customers.  .

You use a tiller? SPIN farmers know tilling is controversial, and any discussion about it quickly morphs into big questions about the meaning of life, and the universe. It’s best discussed in a bar over a few cold ones, rather than at the farm. The farm to glass movement is starting to bear fruit so hops looks to be an interesting niche crop to develop if you have the right conditions. Combining a brewery with a SPIN farm does have its appeal.

Ah, this is it? SPIN farm tours can get crowded.

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Time to Think Big(ger)?

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia, PA

Cutting out the middleman so SPIN farmers put more money in their own pockets was the business model we all started with 10+ years ago. Now, due to the rise of a new food culture, a growing number of grocery shoppers – those don’t have the time to shop farmers markets, don’t want to commit to a CSA, and don’t need to get up close and personal with a farmer – are deciding that eating healthy is worth it, and worth the higher price.

This willingness to pay the real cost of fresh local food is starting to percolate through the supply chain. New-style online grocery delivery services, as well as old-line supermarkets and distributors, are now both vying to serve this new enlightened consumer. But the logistics and economics of large scale food distribution are much the same as they ever were: to maximize efficiency and profitability, buy as much from as few as possible. This was what drove down the cost of food when consumers wanted food cheap, and gave us the supply chain we’re trying to re-engineer.

Now that more consumers want local, and are willing to pay a bit more for it, large scale food distributors are investing in new systems to accommodate the demand. They are open to considering new suppliers, so SPIN farmers now have the opportunity to think bigger. You,too, will need to re-examine how you operate and calculate the tradeoffs between classic SPIN, based on widely diversified production, direct marketing and
premium pricing; and scaled up SPIN that requires specialized production, reliance on a middleman to sell crops, and wholesale pricing.

For one to be right, the other does not have to be wrong, and SPIN farmers can even do both at the same time. You can continue SPIN’s diversified production and direct marketing on part of their farm, while scaling up on one or just a few crops on a larger area of their farm. The mix of diversification, specialization, scale and business models can change over time, to fit you, your circumstances and markets.

Eliminating barriers has always been SPIN’s stock in trade, including mental ones. While small may be beautiful, and a direct connection between farmer and consumer can be fulfilling for both, there is a new opportunity for those who are ready to expand their thinking beyond the CSA and farmers market. Which SPIN model makes sense for you? Classic or Scaled up? Both? The option is yours.

Local limits volume and introduces inefficiencies but the cost can be passed on to the consumer. Small is beautiful when it’s profitable. Scaling up can be beautiful too, if you can do it without killing yourself. That means figuring out different workflow, logistics and economics.

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Which irrigation methods work for which crops?

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

This is a burning question among new and experienced SPIN farmers alike.Get ready for the answer that drives everyone inside and outside of farming crazy: It depends. Your choice of irrigation will depend on lots of factors, including your type of soil and operation.

I use hand watering methods most of the time. I am not a big fan of mechanized systems  and specialized hoses because they are expensive and require management and maintenance. They might make you feel clever, but if you analyze the effort that goes into them, you might find they don’t really earn their keep.

Another factor to consider is potable water.  Many of you know my story, and that a big reason for my becoming an urban farmer was to ditch my expensive and elaborate irrigation system that depended on fluctuating river levels.  Now, I just turn on the tap. Potable water is the single most important issue when selling produce that is eaten fresh, because water can be the source of contamination, and using municipal water greatly reduces this risk.

Below is how I handle it for my multi-locational  an urban/peri-urban  11,000 sq.ft. farm.  But just because I prefer to hand water doesn’t mean other methods are not viable. These are the broad categories of crops just as a starting point.

IRRIGATION METHODS FOR SPECIFIC CROPS

Carrots                                                                                                                          > Overhead for germination                                                                                                  > > Flood  irrigate during growing stage

Cucumbers                                                                                                                              > > Overhead hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Leafy greens: Lettuce, chard, spinach, others                                                                       > > Flood  irrigate by letting the hose with brush attachment lay on the ground.  Move around to cover area.  (mostly).                                                                                               > > Overhead hand watering (sometimes)

Night shades: Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, egg plant                                                         >> Flood irrigate                                                                                                                       > > Do no use overhead since it can cause disease issues with these crops

Pumpkin                                                                                                                                   > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Summer squash                                                                                                                       > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Winter squash                                                                                                                           > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Pumpkin                                                                                                                                 > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Radish                                                                                                                                      > > Overhead hand water with brush attachment

Fresh herbs                                                                                                                            > > Overhead, hand water                                                                                                        >  > Dryland

SF photo Wally watering 2

Wally’s approach to irrigation is to keep it simple. He hand waters, mostly.

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Rhubarb Has Sales Versatility

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

Rhubarb can be a valuable crop for single crop production areas of a SPIN farm. My sales of rhubarb have been building for several years, and it is now in demand not only at my farmer’s market but also among chefs and bakers. I sell about 1,000 lbs. to an ice cream maker and also sold quite a bit to a wine maker.

I have plantings in many of my scattered plots. Here is one that will be harvested for my mid-week farmer’s market. I harvested about 25 1.25 lb. bunches from this plot. Work rate is about 1 hour to harvest and prep. Bunches go for $2.50. Crops that can be sold through multiple channels should take precedent in any crop repertoire.

SPIN Photo rhubarb

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Quick easy money: Potting up volunteer plants

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

In early spring when your cash flow is still not developed,  your sales can get a boost from a source many growers overlook or toss out: volunteer plants from around your property. Typical plants that do well in pots are catmint, chives, horseradish, mint, rhubarb,  sunflowers and  violets, but you can try just about anything. So instead of weeding them out out, look at them as an early season cash crop.

Once potted up these plants  can be sold within a couple of weeks, after they have established themselves in the container. Typical price points for containers can be SPIN’s usual mix and match pricing scheme of  $3.00 per container, or  2 for $5.00, or even $5.00 or $10.00 each. I know for a fact people will pay $10 for potted up rhubarb. Mint is a big seller of mine, too. Containers can be the typical clay pot or  recycled deli containers.

Money does not grow on trees, but sometimes  it can be found under your feet.

SF photo easy money 1

Volunteers around the garden can be potted up. Basically, just about anything works. This is catnip.

SF photo easy money 2

Here is catnip on its way to market. Mint and rhubarb are easy sells, too.

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Jumpstart an Herb Business on 1,200 Sq. Ft.

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

A SPIN member just joined the online support group looking to fast track some fresh herb sales. He wrote:

“Hello All. I plan to combine the sale of herbs only at two or three of my local farmers markets along with Pre-Packaged Nuts/ Seeds and Spices. My hope is to promote the sales of the nut and seed business with the fresh herb offerings. I have had success growing basil, chives, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage and lavender on a small scale over the past three seasons and am ready to commit approximately x 1200 sq ft of garden space to this effort. Any feedback on what to focus on in order to maximize my effort would be greatly appreciated. I am a one man show, growing in Northeast PA. Zone 6a. Thanks in advance.”

Herbs are a great addition to diversify or compliment a product line,especially for solo operators because they are easy to plant, harvest and prep. Cilantro, dill,and parsley are good bets. You can get 2 -3 cuts of cilantro before it goes to seed. So you will need several staggered plantings to take you through the season. You can get even more cuts from baby/green dill, but again, you need staggered plantings. Parsley is all season, so there is no need for staggered plantings.

SF photo blog herb dill cilantro

Plant cilantro and dill with tight spacings using an Earthway seeder in 4 – 5 row standard beds, using the chard plate. Use transplants for parsley.

You should target units of production on the 100 to 200 bunches in total of the three herbs on a weekly basis. If you have a 20 marketing week period, you’ll produce 2,000 to 4,000 bunches. At $2.00 per bunch, you can target revenue of $4K to $8K.

Herbs are very high value, are always in demand at market and their fragrance adds a sensual dimension to your stand. So if you have some unused space next to the barbie, or can rig up some containers on a patio, you can make profitable use of it by growing the useful plants.

SF photo blog herb parsely in tubs cropped

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