Make Your New Farm Implement a Stop Watch

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

It’s planning season for many, and over the years an increasing number of aspiring/new/hobby farmers have been coming to me to share their thinking. Every year I see that they spend too much time focused on the things that matter least to their success. While it’s fun to draw up a growing plan and a garden layout for the new year, what is crucial to having these plans actually work out is logistics. If I had to name one make or break factor to both short and long term success, it is logistics. Logistics simply means how are you going to get the job done?

Right now I am planning out spring work weeks as well as going through the seed catalogues to develop my planting plan. You need both types of planning happening side by side. I’m looking at planting 500 lbs. of onion sets this spring. Fine, how am I going to make it happen? What you need is a plan for your logistical work flow. Building blocks for your plan include work rate, work session, and work flow, and the tool you need for this is a stop watch. You use it to determine the amount of time required to accomplish a specific task, which is your work rate.

Usually work rate is thought of in terms of a unit of time, such as a minute. One minute work rates are easy to track and make notes on. Work rate can also be defined as the total time required to accomplish one task. Whichever approach is used, the point is to figure out how long it takes to accomplish a small unit of work because that will allow you to figure out how long it will take to accomplish a larger amount of work, which is the type of work you will get done in a work session.

A work session is a period of time that you allocate to accomplish a specific task from beginning to end, 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 get the work done effectively, without burning yourself out, you need to schedule your work sessions, and to do that you need to know your work rate. So this is how all three concepts are interrelated.

“But,” you say. “I am just starting out. I have no idea what my work rate is.” No problem. Guess. Set your own benchmarks, and adjust them as you get experience. What you will find is that you will get faster and more efficient as the season progresses. These benchmarks will also help you decide if and when to use outside labor. If the people helping you are not achieving work rate benchmarks, then you will know that it is not worth your while to have them help you.

The fun part of SPIN-Farming is being both the brains and the brawn of an operation. Use your brain – and a stopwatch – to figure out how to make the brawn happen.

DDG1 photo 26

Here the classic SPIN straddle makes quick and easy work of planting a 4-row standard size bed. According to the stop watch, it took Gail about 15 minutes to plant one 25 foot row. So she knows to schedule about an hour to plant the whole bed.

Find out how to become master of your farming fate by controlling all aspects of your work flow in Dig Deeper # 1.

Tips for selling at market for first timers

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

This time of year we hear from two kinds of farmers – those who are new, and those who are making new plans. Here is a good question from a new farmer, starting out with 80 rural acres in northern Michigan.  “Because of your guides, we’re looking to put only a small section into production. Probably more than half an acre, because we have eight people to put to work. ;-).

The markets are definitely the question. We’re considering all of the options mentioned in the SPIN materials (CSA, farmer’s markets, restaurants, businesses), as well as a friend’s small produce/flower stand in town.

We have 6 small farmer’s markets nearby (+/- 25 miles), and a very large one about 75 miles away (they say they get 11,000 people per week, over four days). However, marketing is currently the big hole in our plan. We’ve got a decent amount of experience gardening, and have been studying production for a long time, so we’re not very scared of growing marketable product. However, we’re very worried about showing up at our first market with a beautiful stand, piles of shining produce, and still having it all sitting there at the end of the day.”

Here’s my advice for those who are pursuing the farm dream but are having nightmares about their first market.

Stick with the basics
You can evaluate markets based on the amount of traffic they get and proximity to your operation. But don’t forget to analyze actual sales activity.  Look  to see what produce items are most sought after at market, and go with those. Niche marketing is more for experienced growers, once you have created a ” base ” with more common produce. For beginners, I’d stick with spinach, lettuce, salad mix, scallion, onion, garlic, green garlic, carrots, rainbow carrots, potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes.

Get creative with pricing

Unsold produce is always a concern, even for experienced farmers. So think about how you can move more produce. One way is the SPIN-Farming practice of pre-unitizing into bags/bunches because having loose produce that you weigh out at market makes your product move slower, causing backups at your stand, and lost business. So don’t take a scale to market. Pre-unitize. I often say that my competition is not other farmers at market. It is the supermarket. People place value on the convenience of being able to grab and go.

DD1 indoor market 14 stocked stand with Gail

You can also take a tip from the big guys on pricing. Selling at a single price tier will make it more likely you will sell your produce. Right now, at our Wednesday/Sunday markets I am selling produce $3.00 or 2 for $5.00. Then I say I have a Sunday or Wednesday special where you can have any 5 items for $10.00. So on those days I am making a lot of $10 sales. So this is a two tiered system and having 5 for $10 makes it look like you are getting a deal. And it works.

Leave the laptop home
You also need to engage customers by explaining what your pricing is, and then talk a bit about the produce. Your enthusiasm will be contagious. People aren’t just buying vegetables. They are buying your farming practices and positive outlook. And while it’s great that farmers have entered the 21st century, don’t bring your lap top/tablet to market because it will distract you from your customers. They shop at farmer’s markets as a respite from technology, so the last thing they want to see is a wired farmer.

Expand Your Land Base Without Acquiring More Land With Intensification

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

This time of year farmers begin to think about how they can ramp up production, and that  leads most to think of expanding their land base. Sometimes it makes sense to do this, but many times it is cheaper and easier to make better use of the land you already have. SPIN-Farming calls this intensification.

How  do you intensify your land base? You might tighten up your spacings, if they are too loose. That way you can plant more crops in that area. Or you might intensify by doing more relay cropping. Many times you will have land that isn’t replanted, after it has just been harvested of a crop. If you plant another crop there, and get two crops instead of one, on the same piece of land, that in essence doubles the area of that area replanted.

Let’s do the math like a SPIN farmer. If you have one acre of production, and just plant one crop per year on that land, then you are getting one acre of production. To expand production without buying more land, you can figure out a cropping strategy where you are getting two crops per year on the land you have. That now means you are getting two acres of production from one acre. Three crops per year means you are getting the equivalent of three acres of production. You don’t have to find or buy more land, you just ” intensified ” your production. So in essence, when planting more than one crop per year, which SPIN-Farming calls relay cropping, you are multiplying the size of your land base, without acquiring more land.

SPIN photo intensification spinach
Short season crops, such as spinach, which can be harvested in late spring are perfect crops for intensification. If you are going to plant a segment (1,000 square feet in SPIN-Farming)  to tomatoes on June 15, why not plant that area to spinach first, say around April 1? This will boost your revenue in that segment by possibly several thousand dollars. You can boost the revenue with short season crops in areas that will see long season summer crops.

SPIN photo intensification field
Areas like this, which will have potatoes and onions planted, have plenty of possibilities for intensification. Once some early new potatoes are harvested, say in mid-summer, start thinking of crops you can plant for late summer/fall harvest. This plot is shown in early spring, so start thinking of  the relay potential. You should never have bare areas in mid- summer. As soon as something has been harvested, start setting up those areas for new plantings.

Once you do math the SPIN-way, you can get more from less, and you also can see why  SPIN stands for s-mall p-lot in-tensive. For a quick 5 minute primer on all of SPIN’s core concepts including relay cropping, check out the video series Let’s Talk SPIN on youtube.

Go for Four Season Marketing

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

Hey everyone, merry Xmas.

This week we are pushing hard to get things together for a $1000 – $1500 marketing weekend this Sat/Sun. Gail will be coming on strong with her bird feeder craft items, which will probably account for about 20% of sales, or even more.

Produce items will be as follows: All items are $3.00 or 2/$5.00

1/2 lb. bags orange baby carrots – 50 units
1/2 lb. bags mid size orange carrots – 50 units
1/2 lb. bags rainbow carrots -100 units
.10 lb. bags pea greens – 50 units
.10 lb. bags micro mix – 50 units
.07 lb. bags micro greens – 25 units
1 lb. bags fingerling potatoes – 50 units
1 lb. bags purple Peruvian potatoes – 50 units
1 lb. bags onions – 50 units
1 lb. squash/pumpkin slices – 50 units
1 lb. bags beets – 25 units

Also whole squash pumpkin/squash at $1.50 per lb.

And Gail’s bird feeder items. Photos of one of her bird feeder wreaths and her making her pine cone feeder are below. The point is to offer a range of items at various price points from $5 to $35.

This should support sales of $1,000 – $1,500, over the course of two marketing days. Work load is moderate in terms of preparation.  Should have plenty of time to catch some boxing matches on TV. Much of the work was done yesterday and Monday, such as washing carrots and potatoes, in preparation for this weekend. Greens will be cut Thursday and and Friday, with a lot of the bagging done over those two days too.

I’d encourage everyone, especially those who are CSA-based, to get beyond the typical “three season” thinking and push for income by selling throughout the winter at an indoor market. Expanding repertoires to storage crops and micro greens, and diversifying into a craft product line are two good ways to do that. Farming can be a year round occupation, even here in  zone 3 Saskatoon.

Find out how to implement a 4 season plan in SPIN guide # 16.   SPIN Photo bird seed wreaths SPIN photo pine cone lathering seed

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.  

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



Pumpkins Can Be Worth $40 – $50 Each

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
One of the aims of SPIN is to turn low value crops into high value ones. Pumpkins are a good example. I harvested heirloom pumpkins from a 4,000 sq. ft. plot at a peri-urban site this weekend with the help of some friends. Gail put the harvest into our storage facility we have in Pleasantdale,SK. It was around 130 units, with average weight of 20 to 30 lbs.  So that means total weight of around 2,000 – 3,000 lbs.from only 4,000 sq. ft Each unit will be cut into pieces and sold at market, with some being worth $40 to $50 each. This pumpkin probably weighs about 40 lbs., so it earns its keep. It is called Boston Marrow pumpkin and is great for pies.

SPIN photo crop pumpkin 40lbBoston marrow

Grow Tables for Shoot Production

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
I’m finding these indoor grow tables to be great for continuous tray-based production.  indoor trays allows for predictable production, especially important for standing orders from  restaurants, since you can’t let them down.  Table is the size of a pool table, 4 ft. by 8 ft. Allows for 16 trays with a two week turn over. Trays go for about $20 on average. I am hearing from chefs this is probably under priced, but I am happy with it. That’s $320, every two weeks. A 30 week marketing period grosses $9,600. So this type of production can add significantly to your bottom line.

This type of production is also much more reliable than soil-based production, though I do that as well.

SPIN photo grow table shoots

Chick Peas Arouse Customer Passions

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
I thought I would try growing some chick peas, harvest them at the green stage and test market them. They  are considered a delicacy in much of the world. Pods are shelled and the green chick pea can be eaten raw or cooked in stews.

I took them to market this last week, where I sold them using SPIN’s classic mix and match pricing, in 1/4 lb. bags for $3, or 2 for $5. Customers responded very well. Gail said one guy got mad when he discovered we had sold out, and just about tipped over our stand in rage. So it could be a good crop to consider. A 1,000 sq. ft. could make for a good trial planting. It should definitely create a buzz at your market.

SPIN photo chick peas

Dealing witn Weed Pressures

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

I have to deal with weed pressure with some of my crops, but I find simplest is best. With squash, I find weekly hoeings or tillings between squash plants, once they are showing, keeps the weeds at bay until plants develop. At a certain point the leaves of the plant are pretty good at suppressing weed growth. I am also finding a certain amount of weeds are okay, as squash plants use them to anchor and support the vines as they spread out.

I know some people use intercropping for weed control and pest management, but I’ve found that is more trouble than it is worth, and it can actually cause different problems. Again, simplest is usually best. I’m expecting a great crop of heirloom squash and pumpkin this year, even in zone 3. Here’s what my squash crop looks like now.

SPIN photo squash plot

SPIN photo squash plot 2