SPIN Apprenticeship Lesson Learned: How to Market an Ugly Crop

Courtesy of Bryon H., Saskatoon SK

This week I had quite an interesting experience. Wally took me out to one of his backyard plots to harvest horseradish. What I was expecting was a typical looking SPIN plot with beds. When we got there it was barely noticeable what we were going to harvest! Once we walked to a back corner of the lot Wally pointed out the horseradish patch,an area that was teeming with plants.
SF photo Bryon horse radish plot
The more shocking event was actual harvesting. The harvestable part of horseradish is the root portion. They establish very deep roots which are very difficult to harvest completely. The good thing is that those unharvested portions will grow back aggressively the next year. Being a perennial, horseradish is a very low maintenance crop.
SF photo Bryon horse radish harvesting
Now the difficulty with this crop is the marketing and selling. A lot of people have never purchased and processed fresh horseradish. I’ve had some success at market today with offering a small sample to cook with and explaining a simple recipe. Two of the customers I did this with ended up actually purchasing a bag of horseradish.

Alternatively this is a much more marketable crop to restaurants. A chef who is a regular at the farmers market picked up five pounds and said he wanted another five pounds on the weekend!
SF photo Bryon horse radish crop

One thing I’d like to touch on that is a huge SPIN farming principle, workflow. Yesterday Wally and I were slicing  pumpkins for sale, and he commented on something I really took notice of. Ideally your work flow once organized should be fast and efficient, but as Wally had to remind me today is that it’s never worth working panicked.When you are rushing it is too easy to miss details or steps which could result in inferior quality produce being sold or damaging some of your own equipment. The former possibly resulting in a poor first impression, reducing the chances of customers returning and probably eliminating the chance of them becoming a word of mouth advertiser for you.

SF photo Bryon horse radish with Wally


It was a lot of fun trying to sell a niche product like horseradish. I noticed that the cultures who traditionally cooked horseradish were much more comfortable buying it. It is probably worth it to do some research on your city’s demographics and see which vegetables are used in those cuisines when deciding which new crops to test out.

My Farmers Market Provides the Best of Both Worlds

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

I have lived in two worlds at our local farmers market. For the last several years, I sold year round indoors at our fixed stand. But in early May, Gail and I switched to an outdoor stand in front of the market. The spots are about the same in price, and each has pro’s and con’s.

The obvious advantage to an indoor market is you don’t have to think about weather. No wrestling with canopies in the wind or trying to salvage rain-soaked produce. The disadvantage is having to haul your produce indoors, which can be grueling. We addressed that by installing a reach-in cooler at our stand, so we could store any unsold produce in there until the next market day.

An outside market poses the logistical headache of having to lug your stand to each market and set it up. We have a van that we leave our tables and canopy in. And I find once you establish a set routine for stand set up and take down, you get good at it, and it soon becomes a non-issue. Outside, there is also the pressure of having to lug unsold produce back home, so projecting sales volume becomes much more exacting.

But the good news is that our move outside has actually resulted in increased sales. We make much higher sales at Wednesday’s outside market than we did inside. Sometimes we make just as much money that day as we do on the big market days, Saturday and Sunday. So I find I am doing better outdoors right now than I would be if I were inside. Here is the dynamic I think is in play.

Most of the fresh produce vendors are outside, whereas the inside is dominated by food-court like vendors who sell prepared foods. It seems in the summer, serious shoppers expect to buy their produce outside. In fact, many prefer it. They don’t even go inside. It is much easier for them to grab and go without having to navigate through those who come to the market more for entertainment. Those types hang out inside or on the outside terrace. So the inside/outside areas are a natural way to segment the two different types of customers, and eliminate any conflict between their market behaviors.

My current strategy is to swing both ways, depending on the season. Outside in summer. Inside in winter. So be observant and be sure that you are following your customers, instead of making it hard for them to get to you. And if there are tensions at your market between the grocery shoppers and those just making the scene, let your management know there is a way to create the best for both worlds. My market here in Saskatoon is a great model.

SF photo market 1

This summer, I am an outsider at market …

SF photo market 2

along with the other fresh produce sellers…

.SF photo market 5who cater to the grocery shoppers…

SF photo market 4t

who find it quicker and more convenient to shop outdoors…. 

SF photo market 3

while those who just want to enjoy the scene can hang out  inside the market or out on the terrace over  a leisurely snack, breakfast or lunch.  Having both inside and outside areas is a great way for farmers markets to cater to two different types of customers.   

Revenue is the Benchmark to Beat

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

We have said before that SPIN is performance-based, which means that success is measurable. The traditional and often used benchmark in farming is yield.

Certainly the amount of crops you produce is important. But to succeed as a business, what is most important is not the ability to grow in significant volume. It’s the ability to sell, at pricing that makes it worth your while.

Many don’t yet see how this applies to SPIN-scale production because up until the last 10 years or so, there were no markets to support it, so it did not have much of a dollar value. But now there is real money to be made. In the USDA’s 2012  agriculture census valued local food sales at $7 billion.

SPIN’s guide # 18 Crop Profiles is the first attempt to quantify just how lucrative backyard farming can be. These are numbers worth chewing on, and they give farmers different, and highly rewarding, benchmarks to beat.

DDG3 photo 9

SPIN’s small plots generate high yields, but the overall volumes are low compared to conventional farming. 

SPIN photo seed to cash restaurant delivery


What is important is that SPIN-scale production can be sold locally at prices that make it worth your while.  

SPIN photo seed to cash invoice for restaurant


Even big name hotels and institutions that rely on Sysco are deciding it is worth it to purchase from local farmers because they have less spoilage when they get crops fresh picked. Also, more and more of their customers are demanding it.  

Don’t Let a Sales Opportunity Go to Waste

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

Food waste is turning into a big cause, and I had a reporter come by my farm stand this last week to interview me about it. SPIN farmers take great care to be sure all their crops are ready for their close-up, but she was scouting out the ugly kind, blemished, and not suitable for sale. So I showed her some examples of lower grade, spoiled produce.

I explained that every week I typically get around 10 lbs. of cull carrots. Same with potatoes, beets,  pumpkin, winter squash and onions. This could be due to harvest damage, which then causes the crop to go bad sooner, or it could also be due imperfect storage conditions in some of my storage area.

What’s a SPIN farmer to do? Well, maybe we should borrow from the big boy’s playbook and try selling them.

This type of product offering and positioning makes it possible to cater to people not willing or able to pay premium prices. If you’ve got an ugly carrot or a disfigured eggplant, you might just be looking at a new product line.

SF photo cull produce

Vive La Niche

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

Aspiring agripreneurs can always count on receiving this advice: never plant anything without first identifying your market. “Grow what you sell, don’t sell what you grow” is pretty much conventional wisdom now, and that’s progress.

But since SPIN farmers are known for taking things to the next level, what does this advice mean to us? Niches. SPIN farmers play on local demographics, and nowadays there are quite a lot of varieties to choose from. Well-heeled émigré communities are becoming the norm in lots of cities. Specialty crops are seen as inclusive, rather than ethnic, and SPIN-scale growers can use their small plots to serve nearby customers with special needs and differentiate themselves at market.

Here’s an anecdote to make the point. A Philly boxer, Bernard Hopkins, is getting ready to meet his next opponent, Sergey Kovalev. The fight will take place in Atlantic City later this fall. The promoters chose AC because of a big Russian demographic on the east coast, to be sure to draw a crowd. So if I were a SPIN farmer on the east coast, I’d be on the lookout for a new demographic in town and start learning some Russian.

The right to food used to be thought of in terms of having sufficient quantities, or proper nutrition. But in a multicultural world, it is also being defined as having diversity of selection. This is right up a SPIN farmer’s alley because identifying and serving niches is what they are all about. They are not only situated close to their customers, but they also have the rapid response capability to capitalize on new markets. Being small and nimble allows you to cater to a broad range of culinary niches. And that’s a big advantage, sort of like punching above your weight.
SF photo horse radish

I had several $10 bags of horseradish in my market cooler yesterday, which I did not set out on my table. Two people who looked eastern European came by and asked,  “Are you Wally?”  I said “Yes”, and they said, “Do you have horseradish?” I told them I had some, $10/bag. They both take a bag. So word is getting out that I have horseradish. Eastern Europeans also crave green garlic.

Use SPIN’s Small Scale Advantage

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

The emails and mailers are starting to come in outlining all the challenges and rewards of organic/eco/sustainable/regenerative farming, so that means workshop season will soon be upon us. A main theme of SPIN-Farming workshops is to understand and use your small scale advantage to out-compete the larger operators. It’s not hard to do, once you learn the tricks of the trade. Here are a few:

 Use the micro climate advantage on small plots, especially in an urban context. This allows you to get into production much earlier and extend production much later into the season. You can therefore offer crops that are not available from other growers, and charge premium pricing for them.

Make small timely plantings that larger growers can’t bother with. Small means not overwhelming and appropriate for your resources and current situation. Timely means properly sequenced to provide consistent supply, selling into periods of production shortfalls and making quick in-season adjustments.

 Experiment continually with  novel or exotic crops. You don’t have to bet the farm to find your next best seller and differentiate yourself at market.

Be on the lookout for new market niches and cater to them. With the world being increasingly mobile, communities are quickly being reshaped by emigres with distinct culinary tastes, and for many of them money is no object. Serving their unique needs for specialty crops is exactly what it means to be market-driven. Most farmers aren’t fans of deviations from a norm. Their plans are typically set by routines that follow long-term trends. But having the rapid response capability to capitalize on unforeseen opportunities is what SPIN-Farming is all about.

A former musician has this take: “SPIN-Farming teaches you the notes and scales and composition. Then it’s all improv.”Another SPIN farmer likens it to being a ninja. Maybe instead of that farming workshop, your time might be better spent exploring music or the martial arts. However you learn about farming, you can forget elaborate business plans that need executive summaries and table of contents. To grow food and make money nowadays, you need to be nimble and quick, and that means size really does matter.

DDG2 photo 1

Find Markets the Same Way You Do Land

Courtesy of Linda B., Abundant Life Farm, Walker Valley NY

A SPIN-Farming workshop I did in Virginia brought up an important point – and that is new markets and ways to market. In the section of Virginia in which I gave the workshop they had a heck of a waiting list to get into farmer’s markets – up to 2 years in some towns. You can’t say you won’t SPIN until you can get a spot. So what did one enterprising SPIN farmer do – created a different meaning for a CSA,  and that was Church Supported Agriculture, and sold through his local church.

Cool right?

I’ve always said that wherever a group of people gather on a regular basis is a good place for a market. That can be in a gas station parking lot if it draws a crowd, and both parties benefit. We can apply the same SPIN concepts that we use in increasing our land base to creating places in which to market our wares. The rent will be minimal or we can barter it for food.

I am in a rural location, so I have to make my markets where I know people are. Anyone can do the same, no matter where they are located.

SF photo Linda Borghi traveling farm stand