Newbie SOS: 80 days to market, what’s first?

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

At this time of year, my green thumb gets double duty – I’m not only still growing inside, I’m also responding to lots of messages that start out like this: Help! Only 80 days to my first market. What do I do about….

So I’ll be doing some posts that provide a sampling of recent questions, because some of them may be on your mind, too. Maybe like, what’s first?

With 80 days to market, what is the one thing I need to get done this week? So much to do so little time. If I could have something ready early (right!) I can market it online, or possibly at the unofficial market in my local mall parking one day a week. But what is first?

You need to get some soil worked up, as soon as you can, and plant onion sets and garlic. If you haven’t ordered seed, then get your order secured as soon as possible.

SPIN photo farm stand Gail

Scallions, or green onions, are a good early SPIN crop because they command premium pricing, which justifies the high cost of sets.  Urban growers with the micro climate advantage can often be first at market with them. 

Don’t Psych Yourself Out About Business Planning

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA 

We are frequently asked to assess farm start ups. Long wordy business plans usually indicate a lack of understanding of what is most likely to determine success. For beginning farmers, the shorter the plan the better.

Traditional ag training has made a fetish out of visioning, self-analysis and planning. If you’re trying to decide whether to move to the middle of nowhere, take on 5 or 6 figure debt, or hitch your wagon to government support, it probably is useful to have your head examined. But time-consuming paper exercises and detailed 3 year plans bear little relation to how effective you’ll be at growing vegetables or running a business.

How you plan to make money is what you need to focus on, and to be able to make clear. And that can be thought through on the back of an envelope as follows:

  • List your start up costs. Keep them as minimal as possible.
  • Decide on the number of your marketing weeks, which is the amount of weeks you will have products for sale. Novice SPIN farmers plan on 20 – 30 marketing weeks.
  • Set a benchmark income figure. The benchmark for novice SPIN farmers is $500/week gross for 20 – 30 marketing weeks, for total first year income of $10k – $15k.
  • Divide your total income by the number of your marketing weeks to get your average weekly income total. That’s your targeted weekly cashflow.
  • Budget overhead at no more than 10% of your total income.

What you now have is a framework for pacing and measuring yourself, keeping yourself honest, and eliminating unpleasant surprises, since you can evaluate and gauge your success against your starting benchmarks as you go through the season. At the end you can reset benchmarks based on experience for year two.

For feedback on what is mission critical to your success, spare us your psychological profile. Use your energy for digging deep into your garden beds, not  your psyche. Just show us your numbers. Then use SPIN 2.0 and the online support group to help you implement a production plan that ensures you meet them.

DDG1 photo 2


Can There Be Too Many SPIN Farmers?

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA  

With more SPIN farmers cropping up, we’re being asked, what is the optimal number  that can be supported by the market? Given the growing demand for fresh, local food, saturation should not yet be  a concern in most urban and suburban markets, which is what supports the type of direct to consumer sales that SPIN farmers rely on. Because of the sub-acre scale of SPIN-Farming, the amount of its production does not cause a market to be ” flooded ” with produce. If you gathered and analyzed data on  produce demands for a particular market, and then calculated the amount of local supply, there are still significant gaps.

The best way to tell if there are too many SPIN farms in a certain locality is by simple economics. Too many producers will result in an unstable economic environment, resulting in producers leaving SPIN-Farming. More efficient SPIN farms will be the ones that stay on for the long term. Unlike a franchise which is based on uniformity, farmers adapt the SPIN system to their local markets and climate, and creative improvisation and evolution is SPIN’s modus operandi. There is no typical SPIN farm. Each one is unique, distinguished by each individual farmer’s talents, preferences, and idiosyncrasies. The one
common denominator is that they are being started without major policy changes or government support. They are entirely entrepreneurially driven.

At this point, the production of individual SPIN farms is so small in relation to the totality of
demand, that it will take many, many SPIN farms in any one locality to satisfy it. So the more SPIN farms in a given area the better, since it will make for stronger farmers markets, a vital restaurant scene and fuel even more demand for locally grown produce by an entirely new class of agri-entrepreneurs.

For farmers concerned about competition, the best farming mantra is a new spin on an old one: Get good, or get out.

Beta Map

Psych Yourself Up for Farmer’s Market Sales

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

First year SPIN farmers are signing up for their farmers markets, and this is when I get what I call emails of doubt. “How will I stack up? How can I compete? I’m just a small fish in a big pond. Who will buy my produce?” If you, too, are facing your first season jitters, here’s how to psych yourself into a $500 market week – and beyond.

 Use your small growers advantage: Being SPIN-scale allows you to be more adaptable than larger growers. larger growers frequently have one time plantings of crops. They sell them, and they are done. Being small means you will have the time for frequent, even weekly plantings of certain crops, such as salad greens and fresh herbs, when they are in short supply at market, especially mid to late season.

 Scarcity confers higher value: Other vendors may have greater volumes of produce than you, but your lower volume creates exclusivity, which supports premium pricing. Also, look closely at what others are offering. It might be of lower quality. Establish your reputation on smaller volumes of higher quality produce. People will feel great that they scored that last bag of arugula from you.

 Foodie is mainstream: The Food Network has turned food into entertainment, and the most interesting developments in the food world are at everybody’s fingertips on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter. Government policies and health advocates are also turning up the volume on nutrition. So customers are becoming much more adventurous in their tastes, and appreciative of quality. This gives SPIN farmers increased pricing power and  infinite opportunities to differentiate themselves from other growers.

 You’re embedded in your market: Unlike many growers who retreat to the middle of nowhere when the market is done, your always just a stone’s throw from the action. You just have to look and listen to what’s around you. Follow the lunch trucks around to see what they are offering. Read the trendy menus conveniently placed for you outside the door or on the sidewalk. Check out the pop-up restaurant in a warehouse. Ask neighbors, friends and family what they need and want. Then go grow it. Being market responsive gives you a real big advantage.

Think like a retailer: Make your stand and your marketing stand out. Pre-bag produce. Loose produce makes for slow processing time and frustrated customers. Come up with a pricing system that makes it easy for customers to spend their money. Create your own price, using SPIN’s mix and match unit pricing. Unitizing and packaging can take many forms. Come up with your own deals, like combining recipe-ready crops in a single bag or bundle and sell at special price. Change up the presentation of some of your crops from week to week, and tie them in with commonly celebrated holidays or local events.

Finally, don’t look at fellow vendors as competition, but rather as colleagues. It takes more than just a few vendors to create a destination point farmers market. More vendors means more product, and that means customers have a better chance of having a satisfying experience. That will keep them coming back to the market, and to you, you farmer rock star.

SF photo Keri Fox Green Sister GardensKerri Fox  of Green Sister Gardens rockin’ out in Moose Jaw SK. 

What if you don’t have Madonna’s  chutzpah? Here’s some tips for the shy farmer.


How do I start SPIN-Farming on 16,000 square feet ?

The post below was in response to an opportunity many dream about, and one lucky guy has actually found. Tom answered a craigslist ad for a farm hand position, but it turns out there is no farm, just residential property that a landowner would like him to turn into vegetables. He explained SPIN-Farming, the practices, tools, expenses and labour necessary, and what is possible to pull out of the ground with that size plot. The landowner was all for it, and will cover the cost of  a BCS tiller, any soil tests/amendments, fencing, irrigation/sprinklers, seeds, starts, etc. Tom knows he’s giving up a lot of autonomy, but he’s also giving up a lot of risk. So after celebrating his good fortune, Tom asked, “Now what?” SF photo fb startup truck aCourtesy of Frank F., Mooseview Farm, Brookfield NH

From your photos it looks like this farm is right on the edge of housing tracts so Wally might call it Peri-Urban. It also looks like it abuts a major highway or road so you have a great opportunity to make it a show place. I would definitely plan on a farm stand. The folks in all those houses are going to look out their windows in mid May and see SPIN beds as far as the eye can see and they will be built in  customers for you.

You are also blessed with what looks like a mostly rectangular lot and the old paddocks with fences are also rectangular. So get out a piece of paper and lay out SPIN segments.

It looks like it is mostly rural going the other way so you will probably have to fence for small animal pressure like rabbits. The humans aren’t the only folks in the hood who will look fondly at your new SPIN beds.

I would start by getting beds for greens, starting with spinach, first. You can simply amend with compost and some light trace minerals even before you soil test. Get those beds going. Go out today and start 20 trays of spinach seedlings to transplant. If you start them literally today you will have spinach to transplant in 10 days and product to sell in say 40 days depending on where you are.

I would focus on early sales to jump start your operation. You have a month or so to worry about tomatoes, potatoes, cukes and the warm weather stuff.

Don’t spend time with hoops houses now – get them ready for the fall season extension. Just go buy a quick hoop bender from Lost Creek Greenhouse and a bunch of 1/2″ emt and have a bunch of hoops ready for early spring protection and some 18 or 15 pound remay row cover again depending on where you are and your elevation. (I saw mountains in the photos). Just plan where the permanent houses will go.

Again because this wonderful property appears to be mostly flat and square I would really suggest you take advantage of that and plan for movable hoop houses like Eliot Coleman. Just look in the front cover of his latest book for his plot map for Four Season’s Farm and copy it. If it were me I would set a goal of how many SPIN beds I would have ready for production every week from today on until you get the whole 16,000 sq ft covered. Make a goal of what ever will work – 10 a week? Stick to that, get them planted and you could be farming (that is selling stuff) in 40 days (greens).

Get your plan done. Find somebody who has some art skills and make up a pretty picture of the plan (again look at the sketches in Coleman’s book) and then make up a little tri-fold flyer or something you can take around to local restaurants. Let the chef’s know that you are coming on line THIS YEAR. Give them an idea of the basic crops you plan and ask them for suggestions. Find out if there is a ready supply of Baby Spinach or Arugula in your metro area and if not go for it.

Make sure your planning includes a prep area. The barn looks like the logical choice. Don’t forget about customer parking and access.

Let the local newspaper know what you are doing. They all need stories and if you get a reporter interested now they might follow you all summer as you build the farm and give you free press.

Get your website and Facebook page started TODAY. Start with the pictures you already have and call them a blank slate. ALWAYS have a camera or your cell phone handy and take and post a lot of pictures. People will be excited about what you are building. Share this gift with them via the web and they will become your customers.

OK, you asked. Gosh, I need to get off the computer and get busy with my farm!



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.  

Farm Start-up Advice

Courtesy of John S, Blue Ribbon Eggs, Franklin, NC

The single most important thing you said was, “We really need to start bringing in an income as work around here is slim pickins.” If you need income don’t spend capital.

What you need is some reasonably good ground, a strong tiller, a simple watering system, seed, a canopy and table for the market (that is used for your processing center during harvest) and if you have any extra, a cooler storage system (walk-in, convinience store drink cooler, used fridge).

Soil Amendments – If you don’t do a soil test, how do you know what your ground needs? Maybe nothing! Don’t guess. Talk to your county ag agent. Our state does it free (in small amounts) for the citizens with a full chemical analysis. My agent makes recommendations based upon the growing ‘style’-organic in my case.

Soil temperature is important too. I start my early spring plantings at 35+degree soil (spinach, lettuce and onions) 40+ degree soil (peas, radishes, turnips, broccoli, beets and cauliflower) and a strong probability that air temperatures won’t fall below 25 degrees F in the future. (late Feb, early March around here. ZONE 6B/7A). If they freeze out I replant, but with the mixed blessing of climate change it’s unlikely.

Look for free stuff. I have tracked down guys picking up leaves (when I lived in town) and if my yard was closer than the dump I’d get them to dump the leaves in my yard (they got paid by the load or the mile). Now when the highway department is chipping downed trees on roadways I chat up the fellas and often they’ll just drop it in the yard for me. It’s the good ol’ boy network, and it works for girls too. Tips are often appreciated and a ten or twenty won’t offend most.

Tunnels, hoop houses, tents, tee pees etc.- wait a bit. Perhaps you might want to buy those items later, but you can do it from your profits. Personally, I find them too much trouble. I prefer to spend my winter getting fat on all the food I raised.

Ditto for driving to remote acreage. Find the ground closest to your back door, till’er up and plant some seed. Sell the result. Some will work, some won’t. Adjust.

Which brings me to what to plant. Plant what You like to eat. If you sell it you’ll make some money and if you don’t sell it you can eat it, can and freeze the rest or feed it to the chickens…nothing lost.

I love garlic. I hate spending money. The garlic ‘seed’ companies charge $20 a pound or more for their seed stock. Walmart charges $3.89 a pound. I bought it from Walmart…some sort of hybrid white skin. Twenty bucks for 5 pounds. I planted the big cloves on a mild November day and forgot about it till late June of the following season when I harvested enough to go to market and make $100 one morning and eat all I liked. And guess what I have left for seed? Five pounds.

Sure the hybrid reverted to it’s dominant parent stock which was interesting. What had been big fat white bulbs with 3 or 4 fat cloves and a bunch of little tiny cloves (useless!) now became small bulbs with 4 or 5 big fat cloves and NO tiny little cloves in the center. No waste! So that’s how I sold it to the customers. They loved it because everybody buys big fat bulbs with tons of tiny little cloves that they hate! Now I’m the ‘go to’ garlic guy!

Save your seed…mostly you’ll get SOMETHING. Select the ones that do best and you have a unique product. I don’t buy super exotic hybrids but mostly heirloom and some F1 crosses (first generation hybrids) that I select out. Personally I don’t worry about ‘organic seed’. The crop will be organic cause that’s how I grow it and that’s all that really matters. And may Monsanto et al rot in hell for their genetic monstrosities.

Finally, as Wally has stressed for years, it’s about square footage (and time and labor) for the dollar. I learned that lesson my first year at the farmer’s market from my friend Lloyd Allen, long before I found SPIN-Farming. I wondered why nobody was selling sweet corn and I overheard Lloyd say to someone, “Why should I spend a whole season growing sweet corn to make a dollar off that 3 sq. ft. once when I can plant 3 sq ft and make $3  per month for the season with radishes? And do it on a stool?” My kinda guy, Lloyd was!

Finally the best piece of advice I think I ever got was, “When you’re up to your ass in alligators it’s easy to forget that your original intention was to drain the swamp.” Put more plainly, don’t get ‘lost in the weeds’. Plant seeds, sell food, make friends and help your neighbors. You’ll learn as you go.

To sum up, the single most important thing you can do is get a soil test, then get some kind of seed in the ground as soon as possible. When you get a harvest take it to market. We humans have been doing it for 10,000 years at least. It’s in your genes. Like a spider and it’s web. It’s a really good thing. For everybody. You’re going to do great.

Getting Legal

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
Talk to some vendors at your local farmers market or the market manager. Even if local farmers markets are not open yet for the season in your area, there should be some contact information. You might also want to think about some liability insurance, so maybe also call your insurance agent and say you want to sell produce. They will offer you some advice on that issue.

Getting Legal

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

A good place to check in on legal issues is your state’s dept of Agriculture. They will have info on marketing and possible legal issues that may affect you. Food safety is an increasingly important issue as it affects your customers and how you handle and market your products.

You might also check with your local county’s ag extension agent. They are a wealth of information and at least can point you in the right direction. As long as you don’t ship out of state the USDA probably won’t affect your activities. Our state people are great.

Newbie Advice

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden,  Saskatoon, SK
If you are just starting out your first year, you need to know about the customers who come to the farmers markets you are going to be selling at. What kind of income do they have? For first year crops I’d focus on just orange carrots, until you develop a feel for your markets. Most new farmers under estimate how popular orange carrots can be, how much you can sell, and how big their plantings should be. I would also suggest scallion, garlic, onions, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes.

You might consider indoor/outdoor pea/micro green production, but you’ll increase your chances of success on this if you wait until Year 2. Same with low and high tunnels. I would suggest simple open air growing in your first year, and see how that goes so you don’t get sidetracked from just basic growing.

5,000 sq. ft. can be managed by one person on a full-time basis, no problem. Man hours required will vary according your revenue target, types of crops, and intensity of production.

Your production most likely will be limited this year, so don’t plan on selling anything in bulk quantities. To make the most money from what you have, you will need to sell in small units, using SPIN’s mix-and-match pricing, say $3.00 per unit or 2/$5.00. I suggest selling all your produce at the same price  tier the first year.