Getting Back to Business

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Twenty six years ago, when SPIN-Farming creator Wally Satzewich started farming, the predominant model was own large acreage, produce in volume, sell wholesale. After a few very rough years of barely being able to hang on, he was told by other farmers that he’d eventually reach nirvana if he just kept getting bigger. But when he looked down the road his fellow farmers were on, he saw ruin not riches. He ended up going in the extreme opposite direction, and became an urban farmer.

Now new farmers are vulnerable to a similar type of magical thinking. Just change “big” to “sustainable”. Flocking back to the land, large numbers of them are starting farms in the belief that the superior logic and morality of their farming practices will somehow guarantee their success. Then they wring their hands when they find themselves working 12 hour days, the money doesn’t flow in, and they have to work outside  jobs to keep their farms going. But that’s the experience of anyone who starts a business.

Wally did not start full-time. He drove a cab. Other SPIN farmers drive buses, do research, teach jujitsu. They master their production skills until they can grow in significant volume, consistently, at commercial grade. They research their markets, build up a customer base, set  revenue targets and execute their plans. They transition to full-time farming once they’re reaching the income levels they need to support themselves solely by farming.

Most new farms don’t survive. That can be said of lots of other businesses. No one is owed a living just because they choose to farm a certain way. Those who are heeding the call to sustainable farming might also be surprised to learn that there has never been a real tradition of sustainable farming in the US. Our pioneer farming ancestors drained wetlands, cut down forests, decimated ecosystems, and polluted waterways. Even Dan Barber, celebrity chef and board member of the paragon of virtuous farming, the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture,  acknowledges, “We don’t have a history of peasant farming. We have a history of bad farming.”

Many of the practices being developed by the sustainable farming groups are worthy ones, but they don’t necessarily add up to a business. If you  have dug yourself into a hole, SPIN might help you get back back to business.

SPIN photo seed to cash invoice for restaurant

Here is some advice you might not hear from the sustainability crowd.   

Are You Ready for Self-Employment?

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

It’s widely recognized that a lot of new small-scale farmers don’t come from farm families. That is certainly one reason why so many of them are  having a hard time. But when you look at their complaints, most are not particular to farming. They’re just what any independent business owner has to deal with. Financial stress, uncertainty, worry, self-doubt, emotional exhaustion, all that goes with starting and running any small business.

Most of the up and comers don’t seem prepared to face up to the realities of self-employment. When you couple that with the missionary mindset many of them have, they’re trying to not only keep their businesses going, they also have to solve the problems of injustice, inequality, and oppression. It’s no wonder their bottom lines aren’t as solid as they could be.

A good percentage of all new small businesses struggle and fail, and there’s no reason to think farming should be any different. When farms fail, those in the farm movement worry that they are falsely developing new farmers without any place for them to go. The real problem is that new farmers are either being encouraged to believe farming needs to right the world’s wrongs, or that it is just a job.

I’ll leave it to the macro economists to explain when and why farming got tied up with the NGO aid industry. But those who are following the calling to farm expecting to find a higher purpose might have an easier time of it if they just joined the ministry. Those expecting to find a livelihood need to ask themselves if they are ready to be self-employed. If they are, there hasn’t been a better time to be a small scale farmer or market gardener.

SPIN photo farm stand GAIL Great


Long Haul Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Reporters who really dig into the local food movement ask, “Will this time be different?” We don’t know the answer. But those who do the research find that the long term track record of volunteer-based gardening efforts is not good, and the amount community gardens contribute to the food supply has never amounted to even a rounding error. Gardening advocates try to strengthen their case with the statistic that during World War II US Victory Gardens produced 40% of the country’s food needs. But the fact that these gardens went fallow after the war ended can hardly be claimed as proof of concept.

In the end success is defined by staying power, not growing power. It is easy to inspire people to grow food, and it is easy to help people grow food. What’s hard is to keep them doing it, in significant volume, over the long haul. Unless there is a way to keep lots of people committed and productive, this good food revolution will go the way of Victory Gardens – a temporary fix to get through challenging times that disappears as soon as economic and social conditions improve.

Observers of professional farming admit to the same challenge. Kelvin Leibold, farm and ag business management specialist at Iowa State University, is quoted in a recent article entitled “Challenges Facing Beginning Farmers” on “All of my life, people have been saying we’d run out of farmers. The big issue today isn’t getting more people started. It’s keeping those who started in the last 10 years profitable enough to stay in ag.” Mr. Leibold was talking about large scale farmers, but it’s a challenge we all share.

That leads to a point about SPIN-Farming that continues to be missed. SPIN not only makes it easy for new farmers to get started by removing the 2 big barriers to entry – land and capital – it also increases the chances of long term success. How many new farmers are defeating themselves by following the old model and being forced to give up, when they might otherwise have succeeded if they weren’t initially overburdened
financially by debt and operationally by large acreage and overhead?

As we have said before, what makes this time different is the financial incentive. So while we are focused on shortening the distance from farm to plate, let’s be sure we also help new gardeners and farmers go the distance. One way is to teach them how to make growing food pay.

SF photo prices on sign Mooseview Farm


This time could be different if the enthusiasm and interest in local foods leads to the establishment of businesses…

SF photo staying power

that have staying power. Peer-to-peer online networks,which provide ongoing support and continual professional development can help. SPIN-Farming is unbound by ideology or the status quo, and is market-driven.  

There’s A Bigger Issue Besides Organic

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

We often get asked if SPIN is organic. Usually it’s by aspiring farmers who want to do the right thing. We don’t dictate how to grow. We explain that SPIN calls for organic-based methods because they are cheaper and more appropriate for densely populated areas, where most SPIN farmers set up their businesses. On a practical level, organic is much easier to implement on the small land bases SPIN farmers use, than on larger farms.

In addition, because SPIN’s business model is direct marketing, SPIN farmers learn soon enough that customers want food that is grown free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and will pay the price for crops produced that way. So for SPIN farmers organic becomes the result of everyday practicalities, market demand and economics, not just an abstract moral imperative.

Sometimes, however, the question is a setup to draw us into an issue those inside and outside farming have been chewing on for decades – can organic feed the world? Those who say “no” claim organic yields are too low, and it limits innovation. Those who say “yes” claim organic is as productive and more sustainable than industrial agriculture. We say who cares, and here’s why.

The food system we have was not created by some vast corporate conspiracy. It was the result of fewer people wanting to farm. So we needed to make it faster and easier for those who did. The capital and chemical intensive agriculture we now have is based on doing more with fewer people and less complex management. This has been the reality in the U.S. since World War II. And the rest of the world has aspired to this goal, as well. While this large-scale industrialized system is efficient, we’re learning that it has some big negatives: it’s energy and resource intensive; in some cases, its by-products harm the environment; much of the food it produces is not nutritious; and it’s susceptible to supply disruption and sabotage.

To address this, we have started re-engineering the system to create regional food sheds that are easier to control and monitor, contribute positively to the environment and produce healthier food. But almost none of these efforts address the most obvious obstacle to any of this actually happening – new farmers. Some say we are going to need hundreds of thousands, other say millions. Whatever the number is, it’s big.

Until we figure out where all these additional farmers are going to come from, organic/regional/local/sustainable/ ag will remain a relatively small part of our massive production system. So SPIN stays focused on helping create and support new farmers, those who are turning to their gardens and neighborhood lots, not with the romantic notion of “returning to the land”, but to provide a product that consumers want because it is good for them and the planet. They don’t fit the traditional profile, but they do represent a vast pool from which the country’s new farmers will come. They span generations, geography and socio-economic backgrounds, but what unites them all is a desire to make money by meeting the demand for local food.

As I conclude this, I see another order for the SPIN online learning series coming in from Rockford, Illinois from a woman who has a little a growing experience and who is over 40 years old. Look for her behind the table with all the garlic next year at the local farmer’s market…

SF photo Wally and millions 4

SPIN Farmers Use a Business Model, Not Provocation

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

A reporter called recently to ask us about guerrilla gardening. It was a short interview. We don’t know much about it, though it does have some similarities with SPIN. Both use overlooked or neglected spaces to grow food. Both are practiced by free-thinkers. Both try to push boundaries.Neither can be controlled because they are used by all sorts of people in many different places.

But whereas guerrilla gardeners look to “Occupy”, SPIN farmers are establishing an occupation. Unlike quick-hit protests or fleeting bursts of self-expression, they are building, not protesting. Powered by a backyard-scale business model. these entrepreneurs are creating viable farm businesses without corporate or government support or major policy changes. They’re showing how to take the conflict out of being grassroots and profit-driven. SPIN farmers operate as serious business people, not outlaws. Because they contribute to their local economies, local authorities
are more likely to regard them as an asset and work to support them, not thwart them.

SPIN may actually have more in common with another enthusiasm of outsiders that was gaining a significant cultural toehold about the same time as guerrilla gardening – skateboarding. SPIN is different from traditional farming, and skateboarding is different from other sports, because of low barriers to entry. Both combine a high level of skill with improvisation. Both have well-developed codes, but allow for plenty of creativity. Neither require a team to  make work.

Most importantly, skateboarding has managed to make the leap from marginal to mainstream, without selling out. And that is a trick worth mastering.

SF photo skateboarding

Skateboarders have some things in common with SPIN farmers including….

SF photo Skateboard SPIN

good balance. 

Scaling Up

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Ever since SPIN-Farming was introduced seven years ago, one question has come up repeatedly. Entrepreneurs out to make a buck in such wide ranging places as Miami, Ulster and Nairobi ask, “Can SPIN work here?” The answer is that SPIN can work wherever there are markets to support it.

SPIN is a business model, not a growing method. It produces the net income levels of traditional farming, while eliminating much of its costs, complexity and uncertainty. It achieves this by recasting farming as a highly skilled service in a city or town. That is the point agricultural economists and consultants and academics who want to “scale SPIN up” miss. Sure they can apply SPIN’s intensive growing practices to 20 acres or 30 acres, or beyond. But in doing so, they run smack into the dis-economies of scale that have dug farming into a hole – long distances from markets, heavy debt loads, staggering land costs, significant overhead, the need for additional labor, high energy use. Not only is this dead ending many new farming careers, it  is also exclusionary, keeping farming off limits to all but the privileged few who can afford land and access capital.

SPIN turns farming into a business opportunity that anyone can pursue right in their own backyards or neighborhoods. They don’t have to be interested in the politics surrounding food, sustainability or organics. They can quickly learn the SPIN system and get an income producing business in and off the ground in months, with a low four figure investment.

Not surprisingly, then, there is no one profile of a SPIN farmer. Some are young and just starting out. Others are on their third or fourth careers, and still others are retired and looking for extra income and something productive to do. Some are doing it in the urban jungle and others on the suburban fringe. Some have been avid gardeners, while others have never had dirt under their fingernails. Some always had the money they wanted. Others never had as much as they needed. They span generations, geography and socio- economic backgrounds, but what unites them all is a desire to make money by meeting the demand for local food.

If you are trying to scale up SPIN, we understand the temptation, but don’t waste your time. The optimal farm size is getting smaller, and the status quo is moving towards making more from less. What’s important is scaling up the number of new farmers. As I write this I see orders for SPIN guides coming in from Porterville CA, Bredbo NSW, Portugal Cove, NL, and Cape Coral FL. They are from people who see an opportunity to grow food and make money. And that, remember, is what farming is about.


SPIN photo Wally house

DDG1 photo 13SPIN photo crop production guide garlic 7SPIN photo Gail relaxing

How do I start SPIN-Farming on 16,000 square feet ?

The post below was in response to an opportunity many dream about, and one lucky guy has actually found. Tom answered a craigslist ad for a farm hand position, but it turns out there is no farm, just residential property that a landowner would like him to turn into vegetables. He explained SPIN-Farming, the practices, tools, expenses and labour necessary, and what is possible to pull out of the ground with that size plot. The landowner was all for it, and will cover the cost of  a BCS tiller, any soil tests/amendments, fencing, irrigation/sprinklers, seeds, starts, etc. Tom knows he’s giving up a lot of autonomy, but he’s also giving up a lot of risk. So after celebrating his good fortune, Tom asked, “Now what?” SF photo fb startup truck aCourtesy of Frank F., Mooseview Farm, Brookfield NH

From your photos it looks like this farm is right on the edge of housing tracts so Wally might call it Peri-Urban. It also looks like it abuts a major highway or road so you have a great opportunity to make it a show place. I would definitely plan on a farm stand. The folks in all those houses are going to look out their windows in mid May and see SPIN beds as far as the eye can see and they will be built in  customers for you.

You are also blessed with what looks like a mostly rectangular lot and the old paddocks with fences are also rectangular. So get out a piece of paper and lay out SPIN segments.

It looks like it is mostly rural going the other way so you will probably have to fence for small animal pressure like rabbits. The humans aren’t the only folks in the hood who will look fondly at your new SPIN beds.

I would start by getting beds for greens, starting with spinach, first. You can simply amend with compost and some light trace minerals even before you soil test. Get those beds going. Go out today and start 20 trays of spinach seedlings to transplant. If you start them literally today you will have spinach to transplant in 10 days and product to sell in say 40 days depending on where you are.

I would focus on early sales to jump start your operation. You have a month or so to worry about tomatoes, potatoes, cukes and the warm weather stuff.

Don’t spend time with hoops houses now – get them ready for the fall season extension. Just go buy a quick hoop bender from Lost Creek Greenhouse and a bunch of 1/2″ emt and have a bunch of hoops ready for early spring protection and some 18 or 15 pound remay row cover again depending on where you are and your elevation. (I saw mountains in the photos). Just plan where the permanent houses will go.

Again because this wonderful property appears to be mostly flat and square I would really suggest you take advantage of that and plan for movable hoop houses like Eliot Coleman. Just look in the front cover of his latest book for his plot map for Four Season’s Farm and copy it. If it were me I would set a goal of how many SPIN beds I would have ready for production every week from today on until you get the whole 16,000 sq ft covered. Make a goal of what ever will work – 10 a week? Stick to that, get them planted and you could be farming (that is selling stuff) in 40 days (greens).

Get your plan done. Find somebody who has some art skills and make up a pretty picture of the plan (again look at the sketches in Coleman’s book) and then make up a little tri-fold flyer or something you can take around to local restaurants. Let the chef’s know that you are coming on line THIS YEAR. Give them an idea of the basic crops you plan and ask them for suggestions. Find out if there is a ready supply of Baby Spinach or Arugula in your metro area and if not go for it.

Make sure your planning includes a prep area. The barn looks like the logical choice. Don’t forget about customer parking and access.

Let the local newspaper know what you are doing. They all need stories and if you get a reporter interested now they might follow you all summer as you build the farm and give you free press.

Get your website and Facebook page started TODAY. Start with the pictures you already have and call them a blank slate. ALWAYS have a camera or your cell phone handy and take and post a lot of pictures. People will be excited about what you are building. Share this gift with them via the web and they will become your customers.

OK, you asked. Gosh, I need to get off the computer and get busy with my farm!



SPIN’s Point – Targeting Revenue

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

So many people are reluctant to ask the first question that should be answered before starting a new farm. And it’s probably not the question you are thinking. It’s not: “How much money can I make?” It’s: “How much money do I want to make?”

The subtle change in wording represents a huge change in thinking. A farmer once said: “It’s certainly an exciting time on the farm as it is the culmination of all of the year’s efforts. The speculation will be over and we will know just what our production turns out to be. It’s kind of like working all year but having no idea what you’ll get paid until the end.”

Who would want to go into a business where you have no idea how much money you’ll make? The point behind the SPIN system is it gives you control over your income. Sure, the challenge of overcoming unforeseen variables is one of the attractions of farming. But income does not have to be one of them.

So after I turn around the question for new farmers, here’s what I tell  them: Using the SPIN system, crops can be selected so that you can achieve targeted revenue. If you want to make $50K, you plan accordingly. If you want to make $100K, then you put another plan into play. Once you have your targeted revenue figure, you start breaking it down.

Let’s say you want to make $50K. If CSA’s are on your mind, as well as farmer’s markets, a 20 member CSA in your first year sounds realistic. 20 x $500 is $10K. Then you need to make another $40K. Let’s say you have a 20 week marketing period, from early June to late fall. $40K divided by 20 weeks means you have to make $2,000 per week, on average. If you are doing two markets per week, that means $1,000 per market per week. To make $1,000 per market you need to sell 400 units of produce at $2.50 per unit. Two markets per week, means 800 produce units per week.

Early summer might see this sort of production:
200 units of spinach
200 units of scallion
200 units salad mix
100 units radish
50 units pea greens
50 units green garlic

Mid summer might see this:
150 units carrots
100 units salad mix
150 units potatoes
100 units fresh herbs
100 units green/yellow beans
50 units pea greens
100 onion bunches
50 buches garlic

So you plan to get that sort of production into play. If those weekly sales numbers are not attainable at your farmers markets, then you might need to have a larger CSA, or consider restaurants. A handful of weekly restaurant sales can account for a good chunk of your weekly sales.

Of course, unforeseen variables will affect your targeted revenue, either downwards, and sometimes upwards, and you’ll make mid-course corrections accordingly. But if you use revenue targeting, you’ll be in control of your business. For suspense,  go to the movies, not your farm plot.

To see  SPIN’s revenue targeting formula in action, have a look at this youtube video series.  

Rooftop SPIN-Farming

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco

There are two types of green roofs, identified by their soil depths:

– extensive (usually 2″ to 4″ in soil depth)
– intensive (“8 inches on up)

For SPIN farming purposes the intensive type is obviously the way to go, though it’s conceivable that in some limited circumstances one  might be able to do greens, such as lettuce, in shallow extensive  green roof soils.

There are also two different approaches to covering the rooftop with soil:

– membrane
– container

The membrane approach basically involves covering the roof with layers of waterproof membrane and drainage materials topped off by soil.

The container approach is just like it sounds. You garden in containers, though the containers on most green roofs are tray-shaped, often 2′ x 4′ width and length. 8″ or deeper depth trays are available.

In the membrane approach the green roof membrane is the roof surface. In the container approach the container/trays rest on top of the roof surface.

One way to do a tray-based green roof system is to buy commercial trays. Below are links to a couple green roof tray companies that have 2’x4’x8″ trays:


Tournesol Siteworks

Green roof containers/trays can be homemade. Commercial trays can also be modified to better suit the standard 2’x25′ SPIN bed.

At first glance the membrane approach might seem like the best way to go, and in a few situations it might be the best: for instance, you can create 2’x25′ continuous beds like you would on ground level. But, except for new construction projects willing to redesign the
planned roof, or for existing buildings willing to spend the money to essentially reroof their building with a soil membrane green roof, the container/tray approach enables a building builder/owner to test the green roof concept without needing to make any significant
changes to the designed or built roof surface.

Soil has weight, especially when wet. This usually doesn’t matter at ground level … unless you’re on a slippery slope or plagued by caverns.

Roofs have weight load limits. All legal roofs in USA and Canada have two load specifications:

– Dead Load
– Live Load

Dead load is the weight of the roof itself. Obviously a roof must be capable of handling its own weight. Live load is the ability of a roof to handle the weight of things that may come and go such as people or snow, or are there to stay such as PV panels or container plants.

In snow country it’s normal for roofs to have a minimum Live Load requirement of 30 lbs/psf (per square foot).

A 12″ depth of normal soil (not lightweight vermiculite etc) when saturated weighs about 100 lbs/psf: that exceeds a 30 lb/psf roof live load by 70 lbs/psf: definitely Oops!

And just imagine 12” of rooftop saturated soil in late Fall or Early Spring that unfortunately gets further loading from a heavy snowstorm. More Oops! By the way, for those of you who experience major winter snowfall, the trays can be removed from much or all of
the rooftop during the winter months.  WORTH NOTING! This is a good moment to mention how nice it is to have freight elevator access directly to a green roof farm, such elevator access not unusual on large mid- and high-rise office buildings. Also, moving soil-filled trays around or off of a roof is easiest done using a standard pallet jack.

So one of the main things you must be aware of when considering a green roof is the Live Load of the roof and how best to deploy the green roof trays to accommodate the Live Load situation in your climate.

The container/tray approach enables the rooftop SPIN farmer to put  soil only where you want it. Path areas can be soil-free and therefore not contribute to live load. Trays can be spread out to lower the average roof Live Load to a safe average and point-load
level. The heaviest concentration of trays can be on top of the load-bearing walls and columns rather than over long unsupported roof spans.

As you’re no doubt realizing, rooftop SPIN farming is somewhat different from ground level SPIN. There are aspects of rooftop farming that a ground level farmer would never have to deal with and vice versa. Imagine farming that never ever has problems with
gophers, moles or deer, or via the elevator delivering the rooftop farm produce directly to your customers on the floors of a large high-rise building. Sweet!

SPIN in a Box

Courtesy of James K. , Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

Over the past few years I’ve done a number of consulting projects for innovative hydroponic systems startups. Hydroponic farming is a high-tech system, high startup cost, high operations and maintenance costs, high energy (even with LED) costs, high skills required, high-risk venture … etcetera. It’s not for the faint of heart or anyone without deep pockets. This one is no different, and in fact appears higher risk than most. It is a high-cost unit with limited volume yields relative to higher footrprint hydroponics operations that only succeed (if they do at all) because they can amortize fairly fixed considerable startup and O&M costs over a high volume of produce yields spread across acres of production. I’d say the odds of freightfarms succeeding are slim to none.

As for SPIN being applicable, I’d say that the post-harvest processing, packaging, pricing and marketing aspects of SPIN, could be applied. I don’t see the transformation of people’s front lawns into container farms. Butt ugly. Neighbors would freak. 🙂 Parking lots on the other hand, maybe, but even there ugly doesn’t play well with the commercial neighbors: you’d have to build a pretty shell around the containers at the very least, which is another big cost.

On the other hand, the concept of a shipping container standard system core for a small farm operation is actually intriguing. Imagine a walk-in cooler, post-harvest processing, and value-add processing (say basil to pesto, or tomatoes-chilies to salsa) unit in a shipping container. Sweet. Drop it in a driveway or backyard. Do perennial trellises and pretty canopies the heck out of it and maybe the neighbors would be OK with it. Maybe.

Lots of ideas out there for new ways to do farming. Most of them bad. Skepticism is a good default perspective for this stuff.