Location, Location, Location

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

Farmers are defined by their location. Crops, growing practices, markets, pricing, all are place-based. My success, though, has come from not allowing myself to be limited by the usual constraints. Take my land base, for instance.

I first started on 20 acres in the country. When I could not make the business work, I downsized to less than an acre using multiple urban backyards, including my own. My urban backyard plots have numbered up to 30 and collectively have never totaled more than about 2/3 of an acre. Over the years the yards I farmed have come and gone. Not having to make a long-term commitment to any of them gave me time to figure out what was optimal.

That’s what led me to take on a few peri-urban sites about 25 miles from my urban backyard. It was a reasonable transit time, and it didn’t have a negative impact on my workflow. At one point I farmed a peri-urban plot for five years, and then lost it when the owner sold her house that it was attached to. She had no interest in accommodating me as part of the deal. If this were a traditional farming story, I’d be cast as the tragic hero-farmer being kicked off his land. But that’s not my story.

I actually said good riddance. It was a good plot. It was about a half hour’s drive north of my home base in the city. It was 7,000 square feet, so 7 segments where I grew my longer season crops - onions, potatoes, squash. They were low-value crops, but they required minimal maintenance and I could count on them contributing $7K - $12K to his bottom line each year.

Over the years, its negatives started outweighing the positives. Traffic on the drive there got crazier, and I obtained other plots in the opposite direction, so logistics became burdensome. I picked up another 6,000 sq. ft. a friend of mine at market let me use which was only a couple of miles from another one of my plots. I could manage both in one day. To make up the loss of the 1,000 sq. ft. I used SPIN’s relay cropping system to intensify production.

So this story had a happy ending: I lost a peri-urban site that was becoming tough to manage, and gained a new site that was easy to integrate into my existing operation. That’s the advantage to being a multi-locational SPIN farmer. You have more options to access land, and you are less likely to get stuck in a rut.

At one point I started buying up some properties in a small rural town because the price was right. My operation then looked like this:
>> Urban: (my backyard plot which served as my home base; included a small plastic unheated greenhouse and indoor grow room and cooler: 1,000 sq. ft.
>> Peri-urban: (2 plots owned by others) 20,000 sq. ft.
>> Rural: (plot owned by me) 15,000 sq. ft.

Growing at these broad range of locations simultaneously gave me a variety of positives and negatives I used to manage risks. The urban plot offered a microclimate advantage to give me an early start to the season. If one plot underperformed due to pests, flooding or weather, another could compensate for the lost production.

As a multi-locational farmer, one lesson I’ve learned over the years was that I often paid too much money in rent. If I were ever to ramp up urban production again, I would find owners who recognized the value of what amounts to my providing property maintenance who would not charge me rent. The plot would have to be 1,000 sq. ft. minimum, and in close proximity to my home base to make it worth my while.

Farming is never steady state. The land that is farmed doesn’t have to be either. There are advantages to moving around on multiple plots, and became a key part of the SPIN-Farming system that I developed in the late 90’s. It’s worked well for me ever since. For a while I was considered the pioneer of urban farming, but then became part of another called agriburbia. That was true enough too. I don’t like to be typecast, so I just call myself a SPIN farmer and leave it at that.