A Planning Method to Stick With

Courtesy of Jared Regier, Chain Reaction Urban Farm, Saskatoon SK

So this is what a typical quiet evening at home looks like these days.  My wife Rachel snuck this photo while I was in full head scratching planning mode a few nights ago.

SF photo Jared planning mode

Now that I know how many families we’ll be growing for and what size of memberships they have chosen, I can begin fitting the pieces of the puzzle together.  Across our five plots, we have a total of 86 standard sized beds to work with and over 30 different crops to fit in, all with specific proportions and timing based on the harvests we need for our farm members.  Added to that are the demands of crop rotation and consideration for unique pest pressures and soil differences at each plot.  As Rachel would say, it’s a bit of a tricky pickle!

Spreadsheets have been a crucial part of the planning process but I can only stare at a computer for so long.  This year, I am experimenting with a new hands on planning method using magnets and white boards.

If you’re keen to know how it works, here are a few details.  First, I mapped out each of our plots on a white board to show the number of standard beds that were available.  Then I cut magnets to represent all of the different crops that need to be accounted for throughout the season.  For example, my spreadsheet calculations show that we will need about 12 beds of lettuce throughout the season so I made 12 lettuce magnets. Pretty simple right, but that’s not best part yet.  Planting 12 lettuce beds is pretty easy.  The challenge is timing the harvest of those 12 beds of lettuce and along with all of the other crops so that our members get a nice mix of vegetables over the course of 15 weeks.

Timing the harvest of our crops is the real puzzle and that is the strength of this planning system.  To show the passing of time, all of the black beds are cut to the same length so that each 1/2 inch in length represents one month in time starting in April and ending in October.  The white crop magnets are cut to a length too, and their length represents the amount of time they require in a bed.  That means those lettuce magnets I mentioned earlier are all 1 inch in length to show that they will occupy no more than 60 days in a bed.  The system lets me easily tinker with plots like the one below where many beds will see up to 3 different crops throughout the season.

SF photo Jared Regier magnet farm plots

Once constructed, these little magnet farm plots have made the work of field planning much more enjoyable.  They have also helped me see some crop rotation solutions that I probably would have missed otherwise.  I think this is a method I will stick with for years to come.

Need help with your crop planning? Purchase any of our guides and get free trial membership to the SPIN forum. There, you can pick the brains of the most successful backyard farmers today – like Jared.

Planting Plan for an Early Spring $1,000 Market Week

Courtesy of Adithya Ramachandran, Kaleidoscope Vegetable Gardens, Dundurn SK, Canada

It looks like spring is arriving early this year in Saskatoon. My first plantings in high tunnels typically go in during the 4th week of March, but I may be able to plant a little earlier this year. Therefore now is a good time for me to start transplants of beets, chard, kale and spinach. In early March, I will turn on my irrigation system and water all my tunnels heavily as they tend to dry out over the winter. Irrigation also speeds up the thawing process inside the tunnels. I also give myself an early-season workout by rolling in wheelbarrow-loads of snow for extra moisture.

SF photo guest blog Adi spring planning

 

Direct-seeded cool-season crops such as turnips, kohlrabi, radishes, onion sets, dill, cilantro and (more) spinach will go in after the transplants on a staggered basis. Later in April, I will also seed Quick Greens such as sunflowers and broad beans. The combination of all these crops will allow me to target at least a $1000+ marketing week in early May. For that week, I am targeting the following at $3 per unit, or 2 for $5. Because demand is high in spring, I usually don’t offer a 5 for $10 deal.

  • 75+ units of radishes
  • 75+ units of scallions
  • 75+ units of spinach
  • 75+ units of kale
  • 50 units of Quick Greens
  • 50 units of other greens (baby chard, baby beet greens, turnip greens or salad mix).

In mid-April I start transplants of warm-season crops (peppers, eggplants, tomatoes) for my summer relay. Unlike with cool-season crops, I avoid taking risks with these crops and always wait until early June to transplant into tunnels.

Need help with your crop planning? Purchase any of our guides and get free trial membership to the SPIN forum. There, you can pick the brains of the most successful backyard farmers today – like Adithya.

Farming Has a New Narrative

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Egged on by the ever-expanding ecosystem of farm advocacy groups, farmers seem compelled to explain how exceptional they are. Here is a recent example titled “Here’s What I Need You to Know About Farming.” As we’ve come to expect, it includes the oft-repeated narrative about how hard farmers work.

SF photo hard

Many people work hard. Think of your local dry cleaner. Hair dresser. Roofer. Plumber. Print shop owner. Their days are long, their stresses are rigorous. That is the reality of self-employment, but they don’t try to use that to promote their businesses.And what are customers supposed to do with that information? Should they feel respect? Sympathy? Guilt? If you want commiseration, there are support groups and services, including the SPIN online forum and Open Houses, where you’ll find plenty of understanding and even more problem solving.

Recent topics have included:

  • why yardowners want SPIN farmers to use their land
  • selling social capital along with your veggies
  • whether to go all-in or start part-time
  • why you have to sometimes say no to restaurants
  • how to grow more on less land
  • how to raise $2,100 through crowdfunding
  • binding customers to you via email marketing
  • growing lettuce throughout 100° summers

The new narratives that are emerging in the SPIN group aren’t about how hard farming is, or how exceptional farmers are. They’re  that you can build a business based on how exceptional your products are. They’re about what customers want, and the best way to
deliver it. And they’re about making farming easier in the process.

SPIN photo Wally straddling spinach beds

Have you heard? Farming doesn’t have to be as hard as it used to be.

 

For Staggered Plantings, Ignore the Spreadsheet

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

Success at any scale of farming requires continuous production of certain crops, such as green beans and onions, leafy greens and radish. Staggered plantings are the way to accomplish that. Some call it succession planting. But don’t confuse this with relay planting. Here’s the difference:

  • Relay planting is the planting of different crops in the same plot, one right after the other, during a single season.
  •  Staggered or succession planting is the planting of the same crop in different plots throughout the season.

Staggered plantings need to be timed properly. To put in a proper stagger, you can’t rely on spread sheet dates. Why? Because of weather variables. Your planned spreadsheet plantings and the reality on the ground frequently diverge. Let’s take spinach. Say you want to have steady production during your cool weather spring. LSF dates are irrelevant. You can plant as soon as you can work the soil.

For me in Zone 3, that is usually the first week of April, when the snow is gone from the ground. Though spinach germinates in cool soil conditions, it can take up to 10 days +. If your spreadsheet calls for another planting a week from your initial planting, do you hit the plots? No, because planting before emergence and development of your initial crop will more than likely mean that your two plantings will coincide and you will be oversupplied when it comes time to harvest. Wait until you get germination, crop emergence, and some development on your initial crop. Then you put in your next staggered planting.

SPIN photo crop production guide spinach 10

Spread sheet planting dates can be useful. But for staggered plantings, conditions on the ground trump planning.

 

 

A Campus Pilot Project with Big Potential

Courtesy Julianna Tan, Those Girls at the Market, Saskatoon SK 

Last weekend we participated in our first on-campus farmers’ market pilot project held at the University of Saskatchewan. As a pilot, this was a one-time event to test whether or not an on-campus market would be successful. Initially, the project started when Wally passed on an e-mail to me after he received it from a group of nutrition students who were interested in piloting an on-campus market. I reached out to the students and the pilot developed from there.

Realizing that although e-mail is often quick and convenient, it has not been an effective way to get responses from our vendors, I decided to hand-deliver a letter to each vendor and explain our goal face-to-face of bringing a market to the students. Since we were crunched for time, I provided a specific date that vendors were welcome to express interest to me via phone, e-mail, or in person at the market. Within five days, I had filled every vendor spot available (14 spots).

SF photo blog Julianna campus market 1

Myron showcasing his locally grown garlic bulbs and homemade blackcurrant jams & jellies to students, faculty, and staff.

The pilot market was set up in a way to accommodate the vendors as much as possible, providing no fees for setting up a table and free parking for the day. Social media posts were made on behalf of both the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market and the university in the few days leading up to the event. Aside from a few hiccups at the beginning of the day (i.e., the organizers were not present on time, vendors getting lost on-campus), itdidn’t take long before the market was packed with vendors, students, faculty, and staff. The first hour set the tone for the rest of the day- vendors were constantly making exchanges with customers. Several vendors sold out- not only once, but twice or even three times. We had vendors making runs back to the bakery to re-stock, just to sell out again within hours.

SF photo blog Julianna campus market

Facebook post on the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market updating followers on the on-campus market.

Vendors announced that the on-campus market was one of their busiest days- even surpassing Saturday markets at our traditional farmers’ market, which tends to be our busiest market day. The general feedback from customers was a hope that we would establish a regular recurring market day on campus. Students expressed a great interest for connecting and supporting local producers and artisans, but pointed out that getting to the market posed quite a challenge. Issues that prevented students from getting to the market included limited parking and limited hours. With over 20,000 students on campus each day, it’s a win-win situation bringing the market to the students, faculty, and staff who are already present on the university campus. This removes the major barriers that prevent this population from supporting local vendors at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, while also providing the opportunity to promote what the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market has to offer. We allowed each customer to enter a draw for every purchase, with 10 gift certificates valued at $5 as a prize for 10 different winners. Multiple vendors offered coupons and incentives to encourage customers to visit the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. Taken together, the hope was to encourage new visitors and customers to experience the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market.

SF photo blog Julianna campus market 3

Good Spirit Bakery lifting students’ spirits with freshly baked organic breads, rolls, and goodies.

Moving forward, although this event was a huge success for everyone involved, a few things have to be considered if we are to put a regular recurring on-campus market in place:
1. How often would the market occur and which day of the week?
2. What would the charge be for setting up a booth?
3. Where and how much would vendors pay to park?
4. Would the on-campus market be in the same location (i.e. Agriculture Atrium) or should it be in a more central location or travel to different faculties?
5. How do we decide who gets a spot if demand exceeds space?
6. Would the regulations and restrictions of the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market also apply to the on-campus market? (prohibition of selling “swag”, such as T-shirts, hats, etc.)

These are only a handful of the many considerations that would be discussed- but I think the key to taking advantage of this exciting and important time of positive change and growth for the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market is testing out the waters and being a little bit fearless. I think we need to keep the momentum going- this is an opportunity which has a lot of potential to energize our vendors, reach a new population, and scale up our presence in this growing city of Saskatoon.

Julianna Tan owns and operates Those Two Girls at the Market at the Saskatoon Farmers Market with her sister Ying. They specialize in healthy, raw organic chocolate that is vegan-friendly and free of lactose and gluten.  They use ethically farmed and certified organic ingredients. Their passion is combining tantalizing taste with superfood nutrition. Check them out here.

Want to pick the brains of people like Julianna Tan? Become a member of SPIN’s online hub for backyard-based growers, Backyard Riches. You’ll meet up with and learn from some of the most progressive and entrepreneurial minds in the local foods scene today.  Membership  is available to anyone who purchases our learning programs Hope you’ll join in! 

Defining Your Niche

Courtesy of Jared Regier, Chain Reaction Urban Farm, Saskatoon SK

Starting out as a young farmer in a market with many seasoned veterans is a challenge. We have a thriving farmer’s market here in Saskatoon these days and the large crowds alone nearly enticed me to join in the fun if they’d have me.  There was just one thing I couldn’t quite wrap my head around.  As a small farmer, why would I want to take my carrots to the market only to sell them right beside another farmer with the same carrots?

Whether I attended the market or not, I needed a way to stand out if I was going to be successful. I spent a significant amount of time thinking about the factors that could potentially set our farm apart from the rest. There are popular vendors at our market that no doubt increase their sales by dishing out jolly remarks all day long, but I am not particularly boisterous or outgoing so it didn’t seem wise to count on my charisma to draw in costumers. I am, however, strong willed, motivated, organized, reliable, and committed to the vision of sustainable local food production. I enjoy pushing my own limits and challenging societal norms. With those strengths in mind, I laid out some parameters for operating our farm:

1. All farm work would be done by bike.
2. All public sales would be membership based.
3. All food would be grown within city limits and without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Each of these standards of operation takes extra effort on our part but they also define our niche in the market place so we’ve been intentionally transparent about our methods. Now a thoughtful consumer is faced with the choice of carrots, carrots, carrots, or carrots grown by bike right here in Saskatoon. The choice is easy because we’ve given them a story to tell and a chance to be a part of our journey. Will we attract the average customer? Probably not. Thankfully, we don’t want the average customer. We want the ones who already care and standing out is the best way to find them. Define your niche, tell your story, and let the customers come to you.

SF photo blog Jared niche logo

Meet and learn from Jared Regier and other SPIN members at our online hub for backyard-based growers, Backyard Riches. Membership  is available to anyone who purchases our learning programs. Hope you’ll join in!

Make This the Year of Logistical Thinking

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

When I hear tales of woe like this one,  I wonder if sustainable farming should carry a warning label. The last thing this person needs is more platitudes, but “work smarter, not harder” is what SPIN farmers do every day. Here’s what that means in practice.

SPIN farms are owner-operated. You keep most of the profit. You also do most of the work, and there’s a lot of work to be done. To manage it all without becoming overwhelmed and burning out, you need to think logistically. There are any number of ways your farm can fail logistically. A tool you can use to avoid this is work rate analysis which is knowing how much time it takes to do a specific task.

After you take all of your farm tasks through a work rate analysis you will find that you will become more productive because you will start trying to work at your determined optimal rate. Not too fast, not too slow. Just steady, at a pace you can sustain. Once you determine your individual work rate, that becomes your work rate benchmark. You will find yourself wanting to keep up with that established work rate benchmark. In essence, your work rate benchmark gives you something to target and strive for.

You also use work rate analysis to plan out work sessions. A work session is a period of time that you allocate to accomplish a specific task and involves an hour or multi-hour periods of time. The way you schedule your work sessions in any given farm week is work flow. To make farming sustainable from a work flow perspective means that you need to schedule your work sessions so that you get the work done effectively, without
burning yourself out.

Lots of people seem to go into sustainable farming based on magical thinking, but what they need is logistical thinking.

DDG1 photo 1

To find out how to put work rate analysis into play on your farm, get the guide. 

If you’re a Backyard Riches member you can join in the Open House where Wally discusses logistical thinking on January 14, or catch the replay in the Free Resources area  at www.backyardriches.com

 

Location, Location, Location

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

Farmers are defined by their location. Crops, growing practices, markets, pricing, all are place-based. Whatever success I have had, though, has come from not allowing myself to be limited by the usual constraints. Take my land base, for instance.

I first started on 20 acres in the country. When I could not make the business work, I downsized to less than an acre using multiple urban backyards, including my own.

DDG3 photo 13

My urban backyard plots have numbered up to 25 and collectively have never totaled more than 2/3 of an acre. Over the years the yards I have farmed have come and gone. I gave up some when they were sold because I did not want to have to deal with new owners. Others proved to be too small. Not having to make a long-term commitment to any of them gave me time to figure out what was optimal.

That’s what led me to take on a few peri-urban sites about 25 miles from my urban backyard.

DDG4 photo 7

I’ve also picked up some properties in a small rural town a few years back because the price was right.

DDG3 photo 6

So right now my farm looks like this:

Urban: (my backyard plot and home base; includes a small plastic unheated greenhouse and indoor grow room)                                                                                                     1,000 sq. ft.  

Peri-urban site: (2 plots owned by others)                                                                     20,000 sq. ft.

Rural: (plot owned by me)                                                                                             15,000 sq. ft.

Growing at these broad range of locations simultaneously gives me a full site line of the trade-offs of each. In general, I see now I paid too much money in rent over the years. If I were ever to ramp up my urban production again, I would find owners who recognized the value of what amounts to my providing property maintenance who would not charge me rent. The plot would have to be sizable and in close proximity to my home base to make it worth my while now.

If you want to lump me into the hot new trend of urban farming, you won’t be wrong. Or if you think I belong to the agriburbia or back to land movements, that’s true enough too. I don’t like to be typecast, so I just call myself a SPIN farmer and leave it at that.

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