A Best Practice That Isn’t Always

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Beginning urban farmers eager to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability include rainwater harvesting in their startup plans. Once they start implementing, they usually find that what sounds good in theory doesn’t work well in practice.

The first downside is the expense in gear – pipes, tanks, fittings. Second is the quality of the water, which is run-off from the roofs of nearby buildings and paved surfaces. Since this can contain bird droppings and contaminants, testing, filtration and treatment of the water is required. Then, because the water collected sits and becomes stagnant, further treatment is required for algae and mosquitoes. After all the effort and expense they’ve built themselves a water source that’s unpredictable and barely amounts to a drop in the bucket.

Over the years, cities have built elaborate systems to deliver potable water whenever it’s needed. Those farmers who, through necessity or strategy, are starting their businesses surrounded by concrete, should consider access to municipal water an advantage and not try and re-invent the wheel.

There’s gotta be a better way than this!
Yeah, there is.

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Farm a Go-Go

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

A post to the SPIN farmer online support group asks, “My home state has an interesting political environment after the elections that has led many people looking for an exit. Not getting political, just looking at options before my wallet is attacked. Has anyone moved their farm?”

For SPIN farmers it’s a straightforward question. Many don’t own much, or any, of the land they farm. SPIN’s production methods are portable and can be adapted to any climate. SPIN’s infrastructure is movable or easily replaceable. So it’s quite feasible to change the shape and size of a farm in response to a range of pressures, possibilities and life changes.

A new SPIN farm can be brought online rapidly. There will be soil and weed issues, as well as acclimating to a different seasonal time frame, but that’s pretty manageable using SPIN’s production segments and relays. Longer season crops is where the main adjustments will need to be made.

The biggest loss is your customer base that has taken time to develop. Researching the market potential of greener pastures done online will give you an idea of  what the new market opportunities or limitations will be. You can anticipate being more dependent on outside income for the first couple of years while you re-invest in market development, but with your experience managing what you’ve been doing, the production and operations end of your farm will come into line rapidly.

Soil building also takes time and does represent sweat equity,but farming is, at its root, an ad hoc and adaptive process. When life, economics or politics compel you to pull up stakes, two of your most important farm assets – SPIN knowledge and infrastructure – can be packed up and taken with you.

LEARN FROM PIONEERING SPIN FARMERS WHO ARE TAKING THEIR BUSINESSES TO NEW AND UNCHARTED PLACES IN THE SPIN ONLINE SUPPORT GROUP. FREE TRIAL MEMBERSHIP WHEN YOU PURCHASE ANY SPIN GUIDE.

Time to Think Big(ger)?

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia, PA

Cutting out the middleman so SPIN farmers put more money in their own pockets was the business model we all started with 10+ years ago. Now, due to the rise of a new food culture, a growing number of grocery shoppers – those don’t have the time to shop farmers markets, don’t want to commit to a CSA, and don’t need to get up close and personal with a farmer – are deciding that eating healthy is worth it, and worth the higher price.

This willingness to pay the real cost of fresh local food is starting to percolate through the supply chain. New-style online grocery delivery services, as well as old-line supermarkets and distributors, are now both vying to serve this new enlightened consumer. But the logistics and economics of large scale food distribution are much the same as they ever were: to maximize efficiency and profitability, buy as much from as few as possible. This was what drove down the cost of food when consumers wanted food cheap, and gave us the supply chain we’re trying to re-engineer.

Now that more consumers want local, and are willing to pay a bit more for it, large scale food distributors are investing in new systems to accommodate the demand. They are open to considering new suppliers, so SPIN farmers now have the opportunity to think bigger. You,too, will need to re-examine how you operate and calculate the tradeoffs between classic SPIN, based on widely diversified production, direct marketing and
premium pricing; and scaled up SPIN that requires specialized production, reliance on a middleman to sell crops, and wholesale pricing.

For one to be right, the other does not have to be wrong, and SPIN farmers can even do both at the same time. You can continue SPIN’s diversified production and direct marketing on part of their farm, while scaling up on one or just a few crops on a larger area of their farm. The mix of diversification, specialization, scale and business models can change over time, to fit you, your circumstances and markets.

Eliminating barriers has always been SPIN’s stock in trade, including mental ones. While small may be beautiful, and a direct connection between farmer and consumer can be fulfilling for both, there is a new opportunity for those who are ready to expand their thinking beyond the CSA and farmers market. Which SPIN model makes sense for you? Classic or Scaled up? Both? The option is yours.

Local limits volume and introduces inefficiencies but the cost can be passed on to the consumer. Small is beautiful when it’s profitable. Scaling up can be beautiful too, if you can do it without killing yourself. That means figuring out different workflow, logistics and economics.

FIND OUT HOW THOSE WHO PIONEERED SPIN-FARMING ARE NOW TAKING IT TO NEW LEVELS IN THE SPIN ONLINE SUPPORT GROUP. FREE TRIAL MEMBERSHIP WHEN YOU PURCHASE ANY SPIN GUIDE.

Which irrigation methods work for which crops?

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Market Garden, Pleasantdale SK

This is a burning question among new and experienced SPIN farmers alike.Get ready for the answer that drives everyone inside and outside of farming crazy: It depends. Your choice of irrigation will depend on lots of factors, including your type of soil and operation.

I use hand watering methods most of the time. I am not a big fan of mechanized systems  and specialized hoses because they are expensive and require management and maintenance. They might make you feel clever, but if you analyze the effort that goes into them, you might find they don’t really earn their keep.

Another factor to consider is potable water.  Many of you know my story, and that a big reason for my becoming an urban farmer was to ditch my expensive and elaborate irrigation system that depended on fluctuating river levels.  Now, I just turn on the tap. Potable water is the single most important issue when selling produce that is eaten fresh, because water can be the source of contamination, and using municipal water greatly reduces this risk.

Below is how I handle it for my multi-locational  an urban/peri-urban  11,000 sq.ft. farm.  But just because I prefer to hand water doesn’t mean other methods are not viable. These are the broad categories of crops just as a starting point.

IRRIGATION METHODS FOR SPECIFIC CROPS

Carrots                                                                                                                          > Overhead for germination                                                                                                  > > Flood  irrigate during growing stage

Cucumbers                                                                                                                              > > Overhead hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Leafy greens: Lettuce, chard, spinach, others                                                                       > > Flood  irrigate by letting the hose with brush attachment lay on the ground.  Move around to cover area.  (mostly).                                                                                               > > Overhead hand watering (sometimes)

Night shades: Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, egg plant                                                         >> Flood irrigate                                                                                                                       > > Do no use overhead since it can cause disease issues with these crops

Pumpkin                                                                                                                                   > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Summer squash                                                                                                                       > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Winter squash                                                                                                                           > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Pumpkin                                                                                                                                 > > Overhead, hand water with brush attachment  around the plant

Radish                                                                                                                                      > > Overhead hand water with brush attachment

Fresh herbs                                                                                                                            > > Overhead, hand water                                                                                                        >  > Dryland

SF photo Wally watering 2

Wally’s approach to irrigation is to keep it simple. He hand waters, mostly.

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Rhubarb Has Sales Versatility

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Market Garden, Pleasantdale, SK

Rhubarb can be a valuable crop for single crop production areas of a SPIN farm. My sales of rhubarb have been building for several years, and it is now in demand not only at my farmer’s market but also among chefs and bakers. I sell about 1,000 lbs. to an ice cream maker and also sold quite a bit to a wine maker.

I have plantings in many of my scattered plots. Here is one that will be harvested for my mid-week farmer’s market. I harvested about 25 1.25 lb. bunches from this plot. Work rate is about 1 hour to harvest and prep. Bunches go for $2.50. Crops that can be sold through multiple channels should take precedent in any crop repertoire.

SPIN Photo rhubarb

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Quick easy money: Potting up volunteer plants

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Market Garden, Pleasatndale SK

In early spring when your cash flow is still not developed,  your sales can get a boost from a source many growers overlook or toss out: volunteer plants from around your property. Typical plants that do well in pots are catmint, chives, horseradish, mint, rhubarb,  sunflowers and  violets, but you can try just about anything. So instead of weeding them out out, look at them as an early season cash crop.

Once potted up these plants  can be sold within a couple of weeks, after they have established themselves in the container. Typical price points for containers can be SPIN’s usual mix and match pricing scheme of  $3.00 per container, or  2 for $5.00, or even $5.00 or $10.00 each. I know for a fact people will pay $10 for potted up rhubarb. Mint is a big seller of mine, too. Containers can be the typical clay pot or  recycled deli containers.

Money does not grow on trees, but sometimes  it can be found under your feet.

SF photo easy money 1

Volunteers around the garden can be potted up. Basically, just about anything works. This is catnip.

SF photo easy money 2

Here is catnip on its way to market. Mint and rhubarb are easy sells, too.

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Jumpstart an Herb Business on 1,200 Sq. Ft.

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Market Garden, Pleasantdale SK

A SPIN member just joined the online support group looking to fast track some fresh herb sales. He wrote:

“Hello All. I plan to combine the sale of herbs only at two or three of my local farmers markets along with Pre-Packaged Nuts/ Seeds and Spices. My hope is to promote the sales of the nut and seed business with the fresh herb offerings. I have had success growing basil, chives, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage and lavender on a small scale over the past three seasons and am ready to commit approximately x 1200 sq ft of garden space to this effort. Any feedback on what to focus on in order to maximize my effort would be greatly appreciated. I am a one man show, growing in Northeast PA. Zone 6a. Thanks in advance.”

Herbs are a great addition to diversify or compliment a product line,especially for solo operators because they are easy to plant, harvest and prep. Cilantro, dill,and parsley are good bets. You can get 2 -3 cuts of cilantro before it goes to seed. So you will need several staggered plantings to take you through the season. You can get even more cuts from baby/green dill, but again, you need staggered plantings. Parsley is all season, so there is no need for staggered plantings.

SF photo blog herb dill cilantro

Plant cilantro and dill with tight spacings using an Earthway seeder in 4 – 5 row standard beds, using the chard plate. Use transplants for parsley.

You should target units of production on the 100 to 200 bunches in total of the three herbs on a weekly basis. If you have a 20 marketing week period, you’ll produce 2,000 to 4,000 bunches. At $2.00 per bunch, you can target revenue of $4K to $8K.

Herbs are very high value, are always in demand at market and their fragrance adds a sensual dimension to your stand. So if you have some unused space next to the barbie, or can rig up some containers on a patio, you can make profitable use of it by growing the useful plants.

SF photo blog herb parsely in tubs cropped

FIND OUT OTHER WAYS TO JUMPSTART A BUSINESS GROWING FOOD IN THE SPIN ONLINE SUPPORT GROUP. FREE TRIAL MEMBERSHIP WHEN YOU PURCHASE ANY SPIN GUIDE.

 

Mix It Up

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

It’s winter. Are you selling “Spring Mix”? What you call, and put into, your salad mix 
shouldn’t always be the same. SPIN farmers change their salad ingredients  to reflect the changing seasons and keep customer interest stoked. 

How much variety and creativity they put into their salad mixes is dictated by how adventurous their customers are, and how big a revenue generator it is for them. Some ingredients like chard and kale can be grown all season long. Other ingredients like Bull’s blood beets, mache, orach, purslane and radicchio are relayed at different times in the season. 

Edible flowers also add a wow factor. SPIN farmer Chris Kimber, owner/operator of of 3 Crows Farm, recommends  adding nasturtiums to a Mesclun Mix. Just 2 or 3 per bag near the top will distinguish yourself from other vendors. They bloom all season long,and taste great, leaves and blooms – zippy, peppery burst. Another plus is they grow well in hanging planters so you don’t have to take up valuable plot space.

In spring, Rob Miller of Trefoil Gardens, adds violets to his mixes. He is one of Georgia’s few certified foragers and he includes wildlings to his mixes, in addition to the crops he grows. Check out his Wild Salad Mix:

SPIN’s guide # 14 details how to build a $30k business with specialty salad mixes as a key part of a crop repertoire. Get it here, and remember that what distinguishes your salads from the assembly line salads in the grocery aisle are its ingredients. Make sure its name conveys the creativity and character that you put in it so your customers get the message. 

LEARN FROM OTHER NONCONFORMING SALAD GROWERS LIKE CHRIS KIMBER AND ROB MILLER IN THE SPIN ONLINE SUPPORT GROUP. FREE TRIAL MEMBERSHIP WITH THE PURCHASE OF ANY SPIN GUIDE. 

 

The Farm Startup Story No One Tells

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Here’s the biggest untold story in farming today: starting out urban and small, greatly increases the chances of success. Stats? It’s too early yet, but over our 10 years of guiding farm startups, the anecdotal evidence is mounting.

SPIN-Farming members have always been clued in. Unlike the popular press that highlights the gloom and doom stories, we connect them in online meetups with those like Ryan Mason who are making it all work by the most important measurement of all – how much money they’re making.

Ryan’s urban farm startup story is now a cliché: Well-traveled, university-educated idealist takes up pedal-powered farming to address society’s ills. But what he’s accomplished is not well understood, and it illustrates what we’ve been pioneering for over 10 years.

Following the SPIN-Farming system, Ryan created Reclaim Urban Farm in Edmonton AB to shake up the status quo. Due to strong demand for local food by the community, his business flourished, plots and new sales channels multiplied, and his revenue steadily increased. Surpassing the critical 5 years in business mark last year, Ryan was ready to reclaim his family’s 50 acre farm. The sales channels he established as an urban farmer continue to be serviced at a greater scale with the larger rural operation. They include 2 farmers markets, a 30 member CSA and 55 wholesale customers.

Ryan has traded his bike for a Hino truck and is rebranding the business because he’s not urban any more. Reclaim Urban Farm has become Reclaim Organics. His principles have stayed the same along with his farming practices. He’s still working his plots intensively. It’s just that there are a lot more of them now. And there are a lot more zeroes in his revenue. Ryan’s gone from the rallying cry of “No more empty lots!” to managing payroll. The irony? He had to leave his family farm to come back to save it. The lesson?  Starting out urban, and small, greatly increases the chances of success. Because once you master production on a small space, establish sales channels that can continue to be serviced at greater scale, and start making a little money, you greatly increase your odds of figuring out how to make even more.

LEARN FROM THOSE LIKE RYAN MASON, WHO ARE STAYING IN BUSINESS LONG ENOUGH TO SCALE UP IN THE SPIN ONLINE SUPPORT GROUP. FREE TRIAL MEMBERSHIP WHEN YOU PURCHASE ANY SPIN GUIDE