Standing Up To Drought

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

Most farmers usually try to plan based on following long terms trends. They aren’t fans of deviations from the norm. SPIN farmers like to change things up and experiment, and our scale of operation makes it low risk to do so. That’s a big advantage when it comes to extreme weather, which is now becoming the new normal for many of us. Here’s how I am starting to cope with it.

In the upper left of this photo you can see how my potato plot looked in mid-June.

SF photo potatoes before rain

No growth at all, because of drought. I have not seen it this dry here in years. I thought about terminating the plot, but I did not know how to go about it. Till it in, and you just have more small-sized seed potatoes. So I left it, and just did minimal irrigation, by hand, with a hose and brush attachment.

After 3 inches of rain at the end of July,  I visited the plot, and it looked like this.

SF photo potatoes after rain

Up until now, onions were my go-to crop for my peri-urban plots that needed to go for extended periods without irrigation and could get by with little rainfall. Now that drought may be my new normal, I’m going to have to push the envelope on other crops to see which ones hold up in extended dry spells. So far, it’s onions and potatoes that are helping me stand up to drought.

Potatoes Are Perfect Peri-Urban Crop

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

I just put in a couple of segments of potatoes this week. Norland and Yukon Gold. I’ll probably plant 10 segments total, or about 10,000 square feet. That should give me  over 600 lbs. of potatoes. My potato cropping strategy is based on extended production throughout the season, so I can sell new potatoes early in the season right through to  storage potatoes in the winter.

SF photo potato planting 2

Peri-urban sites allow you to expand your production to crops you would not otherwise grow in your urban-based plots, like potatoes. These peri-urban plantings of potatoes are easy to maintain, with once a week visits for a couple of hours.

SF photo potato  planting

Using peri-urban sites for low maintenance crops such as potatoes allows you to boost you revenue and diversify your crop repertoire, with little effort or investment. Greens are getting al lot of hype right now, but man does not live by micros alone.

You can learn more about Wally’s cropping strategies for not only potatoes, but also 39 more classic SPIN crops in SPIN’s Crop Profiles guide

So much about SPIN-Farming is counterintuitive, and the multi-locational urban/peri-urban farming model is a prime example. What at first seems obvious is that a land base comprised of many scattered plots, some a 20 minute drive from your home base, would be difficult to assemble and a nightmare to operate. But not only can such a farm be easily created and efficiently managed, it has big advantages. Find out why in SPIN’s 
The Multi-Locational Urban/Peri-urban Farm guide. 

Storage Crops Provide Winter Cashflow

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
Finally got to unload the 8,000 lbs. of storage potatoes that we harvested from our peri-urban plot. Did it with a few friends in about an hour, just before market on Sunday. Gail says there are still about 3,000- 4,000 lbs. to harvest, but the weather is holding here in Zone 3, so hopefully we can get the rest out. These potatoes we have in storage is like money in the bank.

The key storage temperature for long term storage of root vegetables is around 40 F. , or just above freezing.  We use an above ground storage room in our heated garage. See photo below. We have an old compressor, probably dating from the 1960’s. Compressors won’t run in cool temperatures, so we heat the garage to allow for the compressor to run all winter. Basement storage can be good for short term storage, for a couple of months, but it is unreliable for long term winter storage.

Storage crops provide good cashflow in the winter when you can’t be growing, and if you want to do it seriously you should have above ground refrigerated storage capacity.

SPIN photo storage 8000lbs potatoes


Banana Potatoes Make for a Profitable Late Season Offering

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

SPIN farmers try to have offerings of potatoes throughout the season, and banana potatoes are a good one for this time of year. At market, I price 1 lb. bags at $2.50. I am also selling 1 lb. bags to restaurants for $1.00. It can be high yielding under good conditions, and carries a premium price to more common potatoes.

SPIN photo crop potato banana



Early Bintje Potatoes Are Another “Just Great” Crop

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

My early potatoes are later than usual, but better late than never. This is a double segment size peri-urban site, (2,000 sq. ft.). that I will harvest this week. This crop should increase my market sales by 30%. I’ll sell them in 1 lb. bags using SPIN’s mix-and-match pricing  – $3.00 each, or 2/$5.00. The variety is called Bintje, probably one of the best tasting, so it is an easy sell.

I have other potato plantings that will come into play in August on other plots. In the back ground you see carrots and pumpkin/winter squash. Scare crow in the middle is me.

SPIN photo potato plot 2 segments

SPIN photo potatoes Bintje early

Selling Fall-Harvested Potatoes in June

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

An upgrade of my cooling capacity last fall has enabled me to approach my spring potato sales entirely differently. My fall-harvested storage potatoes have all the appeal of freshly harvested new potatoes, so I don’t have to pressure myself to get an early start on new potatoes.  I can offer storage potatoes instead. These are potatoes I harvested last October that I am taking to my June market.

SPIN photo potatoes from storage for spring sales


Seed Potatoes

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

This is the first year in a while that we did not have to buy seed potatoes. We will be using the ones we kept all winter in the cooler that have had greening. It’s a good way to get use out of them. Gail will be planting them at one of our peri-urban plots this week, and this will  be our main planting of potatoes for this season. We will harvest them in late September/early October for winter sales.

SPIN Photo potatoes green

I have found that many consumers do not realize that any greening on a potato should not be eaten. It’s a good idea to alert your customers to this, as well as giving them instructions on how to properly store potatoes to avoid it. For a quick primer on greening of potatoes see this backgrounder from the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension.

Potatoes in Bags

Courtesy of John S., Blue RIbbon Eggs, Franklin NC

Your complaint about low yields is a common one for ‘Potatoes in Bags’ (or barrels or any other elevated growing system). My theory is that potatoes are a natural mountain crop evolving in very cool soils at high elevation, and we need to mimic that condition, or at least come close. Additionally, when you elevate your growing platform you inevitably raise the soil temperature in the daytime and create greater cooling at night. As a result there are greater temperature swings in a 24 hour period as well as over a season. It appears to me that potatoes need a very stable temperature profile with little variation in a 24 hour period and over a season to make well formed tubers. That means “In the Ground”.

I’m not sure that “I saved on labor’ is really true given the assumed extra attention that type of growing would entail. I grew four 60′ rows by planting 60 or so pounds of seed. In the first two rows I harvested 250 pounds of potatoes and still have two more rows to harvest.
Planting is work. After tilling I dug Four 60′ trenches 12″x12” with a grub hoe. Took days to dig. Next season I’ll just till and furrow.

My beloved bride, The Smoky Mountain Queen, who was raised in the old ways (wood stove, grow your own food, no indoor plumbing, medicine from weeds by the creek) never refers to “Harvesting potatoes”. She calls in “Grubbin’ Tatters”. And that’s what it is. On your hands and knees, digging with your bare hands down the row, emptying the trench you dug four months ago and tossing the ‘tatters’ off to the side to pick up and store. Not really a big deal, but do this before you get your nails done.

On the other hand, I figure I’ve spent a total of 5 or 6 days of labor(planting in a trench
and harvest-or ‘grubbin’-) and 4 months of benign neglect as Mother Nature did her thing.
And I got a ten fold return on my investment of seed-down right biblical.
If I figure that I spend 25 hours planting and harvesting those first two rows (and virtually no
maintenance time involved at all) that’s 12.5 minutes of labor per foot of row and I got over 2 pounds per foot so that’s ten pounds per hour of labor.

I think Gro-bags are cool as can be, but I’d use’m for tomatoes and peppers.

Buy Seed Potatoes and Unusual Varieties

Courtesy of Bob B., The Fresh Veggies, Toronto, ON
I used store bought potatoes in 2008, and the yield was low. Last year I ordered seed potato, and the yield was almost three times higher. I planted following the varieties with exceptional results: Norland Red, Yukon Gold, Banana Fingerling, Lindzer Fingerling, Peanut Fingerling and Russian Blue.Paying extra for seed or seed potatoes pays well at market because you know exactly what variety it is, you can explain to customers the best way to use them and you distinguish yourself with a better product. Almost everyone else has the same varieties, one that anyone can buy at stores, organic or conventional. In SPIN-Farming, we have to standout with a better product. Our customers appreciate that, and always come back for more.

Seed Potatoes Sourced from Local Co-op

Courtesy of Ed G., Fresh SPIN Farms, Davis CA

We have a local source for fingerling seed … our local food co- op.  You can cut potatoes into “seed” by making sure you have at least one eye and enough potato to “feed” the runner until it surfaces to get sunlight. If you have anyone selling the kind of potatoes nearby that you want to grow, you can buy “edible” ones and use them as seed potatoes… what I paid for seed was about the same as what I pay for fingerlings at our farmers market or co-op.