Move Forward by Thinking Backwards

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

Every bit of advice I encountered about starting a farm suggested not starting with any kind of CSA program in the first year.  I did it anyway because it just seemed like the right fit for our farm scale and values.  The SPIN system gave us the confidence to dive in.

We knew that to keep our members happy, we had to have steady production and a balance of crop selection to harvest throughout the season, but accomplishing this is a challenge.  When the average gardener thinks about growing a tomato, they start with the tomato seed.  CSA farmers start with the tomato sale.  This shift in mindset makes all the difference.  In order to plan effectively, we need to start with the end result and work backwards.  Anyone can follow the same algorithm if you know your weekly box value, your units of sale (ie,1/2lb bag of lettuce for $5), and your expected yields per standard bed.  Just layout a new spreadsheet and follow the steps below:

  1. Decide on the weekly and total value you want to offer your members for the season. This year, we decided on a $35 weekly value for our Standard Share memberships and we will offer this for a 15 week season from the first week of July to mid October.  That leaves us with a membership price of $525.
  2. Determine the contents of the first of your weekly boxes and be specific. Write down the quantity and value of each crop that each box will contain.  Most of our units are $5.00, so I generally need a combination of about 7 items per week.
  3. Repeat #2 for each of the remaining weeks of the season. Change the combinations as you expect new crops to be ready for harvest.  Your members will appreciate your boxes more if you consider combinations that would work well for meal preparation.
  4. For each crop, total the units of production needed for the entire season for one member. This will show you both the quantity of crop you need to produce and the value of each crop your members will be receiving.  For example, I can see that out of the $525 total share price, $40 will go towards 8 lbs of heirloom tomatoes.
  5. Decide how many members you would like to serve and calculate your total production needed for each crop. If you don’t know, do the math for 10 or 20 and see what things look like.  Just multiply all of the totals by 10.  This step is simple, but important because it transforms your quantities into numbers that are on the same scale as your standard bed production numbers.  If 10 members all need 8 lbs of tomatoes, I need 80 lbs in total.
  6. Determine the number of standard beds you need to plant for each crop using your crop totals and the expected yield per standard bed. For example, with tomatoes I can calculate that based on at least 100 lbs of production per 50 sq ft bed, I will need 0.8 of a bed to serve 10 members.  I always round up to make the math easy and for a bit of production insurance.  The SPIN 18 guide is extremely helpful for this stage!
  7. Add up all of the beds to determine the total number of beds you would need for 10 members.

That’s it.  Do you have enough land?  Can you add another 10 members?  Can you adjust your crop proportions to make better use of your land base?

SF photo Jared blog Move Forward

Need help with your production planning? Then hang out in the SPIN forum where you can pick the brains of the most successful backyard farmers today – like Jared. A free trial membership is available with the purchase of any SPIN guide.  

How Much Land Do You Need to Support a 100 Member CSA?

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

In the SPIN online support group, business models are debated as hotly as growing practices. A recent topic was CSA’s. Some like the control it gives them over their planning, revenue and customer base. Others feel it limits a farmer’s upside and boxes their thinking. While there are fiercely held opinions, there is no definitive answer. How you make your money is as personal a decision as how you grow. Best way to figure it out is with some soul searching and a few beers.

Once you commit, though, the important questions can be answered by numbers crunching. Like this one: How much land do you need to support 100 CSA members? I have never done a CSA, but since SPIN has some benchmarks, it’s easy to crunch some numbers and get a reasonable answer. Let’s say 1 acre has 400 standard beds. Let’s also say that each standard SPIN bed can produce 50 units, on average. 400 x 50 = 20,000 production units. If you do a bi-relay on 100 of those beds, that’s an extra 5,000 units 25,000 units is therefore a reasonable and conservative production target.

If a share basket had 10 units of production per week, for 20 weeks we are looking at 1,000 production units per week, or 20,000 in total for the season. So 1 acre of SPIN-type production could support a 100 member CSA. Another way to figure this is using SPIN segments. There are 40 segments in 1 acre. Each segment can produce 500 units. If each share has 200 units, each segment would support 2.5 shares.

These numbers probably won’t be exactly right in most situations, but they provide a reasonable answer to make a plan and execute. Then we can review your numbers and see how to improve. More relays? Maybe. But is the extra labor worth it? Let’s run more numbers. Partnering with other farmers on a full diet CSA? Check in with David Elias of Hooligan Farm who’s trying that this year.

SF photo David Elias with juice

He’s probably not down the street from you, so you can’t grab a beer, or a smoothie. But you can catch him in the SPIN forum, which is the next best thing.

Membership in SPIN’s online hub for backyard-based growers is available to anyone who purchases our learning programs. Hope you’ll join in! 

Are You Over-delivering?

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

Deliveries are killers. They are a huge time suck and expense.I’m hearing from other farmers that the fuel and labour costs are getting harder to justify, no matter how valuable the face time with customers is. I feel your pain.

My solution is to have my customers come to me, with my stand at the farmers market being the hub. My CSA customers come to me. They have a running credit at my stand, which also greatly simplifies logistics. Chefs come to me. I post chef visits on social media to promote how they are sourcing local. They re-post, getting cross-marketing going, and if you promote them, that’s even more incentives for them, and other chefs, to buy from you. Creates a virtuous circle.

The point is to turn your farmers market stand into a storefront, with all your marketing channels converging at that single location. You never have a slow day.

SF photo chef at Wallys stand

More and more chefs are coming to Saskatoon Farmers’ Market . This one is from is Dale Mackay’s Ayden Kitchen & Bar. Ayden is one of my steady customers, and Dale was winner of Top Chef Canada a few years ago. Now you know one of the reasons why. Sourcing locally and getting to know your producer. Here one of his chefs is  getting golden and candy cane beets and broad beans. Sometimes they come to the market a couple times a day. For all you foodies out there, here’s how Dale does it. 


Can My 2,700 Sq. Ft. Garden Support a 20 Member CSA?

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

SPIN farmers are starting to plan for the 2015 season, so let me share a typical Q&A that might help you in starting to look ahead.

Q: I have 54 2 ft x25 ft SPIN beds. Nest season I am hoping to subscribe 20 families for $20.00 worth of produce for 25 weeks…mid-April to mid-October. Is that feasible from this amount of space?

A: I would say your plan is very do-able, and I see no reason why you couldn’t achieve the $10k revenue you are targeting. Here’s some tips on how best to go about it.

  • For a CSA you need a steady supply of produce to satisfy your families, from spring until fall. This means you need consistent weekly production of a variety of crops.
  • You can relay crop the entire area, about half in intensive, and half bi. That will ensure steady production production throughout the entire season, and it should be managable by one person.
  • Make use of crops like chard, which is many people know how to use now, and which can be planted once, and harvested throughout the entire season.
  • You need to have a strong spring line coming on stream sometime in May, or even earlier. This means plantings of classic crops like lettuce, onions, radish, and spinach.
  • Instead of using SPIN’s standard size beds, you might consider using short beds for your production purposes, which might put your weekly production for some crops more in line with your weekly demands. A short bed is 10 feet long and 2 feet wide. If you planned your production on the basis of short beds, you would have 100 beds to plan with.
  • For instance, a short bed of spinach should yield 20 1/2 lb. bags, or 20 bunches of radish. But working with standard beds will work also, especially if you are thinking of generating a surplus of produce to sell at a farmer’s market.
  • If you have not already, consider buying an upright produce cooler,especially if you are a solo operator. It will make your workflow much more manageable because you can harvest steadily throughout the week rather than having it all gang up the day before delivery. This could be a make or break investment.
  • Use SPIN 2.0 Crop Profiles guide for production planning, to figure out which crops to plant, and in which quantities, in order to achieve the necessary yields. It contains in-bed plant spacing, seed required per bed, seed cost, yields per bed, among other data,  for 40 SPIN crops. You can use it to plan out your relays to be sure you have a wide variety crops, in the required volume, throughout your 6 month CSA.

There is a bigger point to made here, and that is the potential to use a backyard to achieve specific financial goals. This person can gross $10k in 2,700 sq. ft. in a season. Think what that money could be used  for. Maybe an exotic vacation. Or finance a wedding, or build up a college fund. You don’t have to commit to a full-time career change, or give up the opera for crickets, to make money growing food. You don’t even need to don a hair shirt. A microgreens vest works just dandy.

SF photo BUG Farms micorgreens vest Peggy Helvig Alspaugh

photo courtesy of BUG Farms in Salt Lake City UT

Subscription Model Without the Pressure

Courtesy of SPIN farmer Linda B. Abundant Life Farm, Walker Valley NY                        Here is a twist on the classic community supported agriculture (CSA) offering that might be worth a try, especially for new farmers who want to try a subscription model without the pressure of having to supply a set amount of produce each week: don’t provide boxed shares. Instead,  offer exclusive pickup hours at your farmstand each week. Here is how Victory Farms in Richmond VA did it.

Shareholders paid into the CSA at $500 and got $600 worth of buying credit. Most farmers markets in Richmond are open from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. At the Victory Farms booth, only shareholders were allowed to buy produce until 11 a.m. After 11 a.m. the remaining produce goes on sale for anyone at the market. Shareholders purchases are deducted from their available credit and when they run out of credit, they simply pay out of pocket during shareholder hours for any produce they want. In essence, this is a “flexible CSA” that  allows shareholders to choose what and how much produce they want each week without having to take any more. The window of purchasing time insures that shareholders have first access to weekly produce. And allowing a running credit relieves the farmer’s worry about being short of produce for any one week.

Dealing with CSA Shortfall

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

Is there one or more people in your area who might back up your offerings of your CSA box? In other words, who are farmer friends who’d be willing to sell at or near cost to you the veggies you need to make up any weekly shortfall in your CSA box distribution? In lieu of cash for these shortfall veggies you might be able to balance the favor with veggies you had in excess, or do some other favors in return. If it was mostly or entirely cash veggies shortfall transactions would should plan to keep an adequate cash reserve during your harvest season to buy what you needed to make up any box shortfall. At the end of the season hopefully all or most of the cash reserve would still remain and could then be released and treated as true income.

Also, is there one or more local people (perhaps same people as above) who can mentor you in operating a successful CSA?

Having a backup for delivering shortfall veggies, and mentors, can go a long way towards helping you not feel crazy or stressed, and to deliver a reliable high-quality weekly CSA box your first harvest season.

Experimental CSA

Courtesy of Barb M. Elbert, Mountain View Meadows Farm, CO

I’m doing a trial CSA for several trusted friends/family. I’m doing a discounted price, and I’m going to try all sorts of different varieties out on them in trade for their unbiased opinion. There are five families so far who are willing to be my guinea pigs. That way, I get  to play at being a CSA, yet still have market goals for every Saturday.