Backyard Farming CAN Bring Home the Green!

SPIN Farming stands for Small Plot Intensive farming, a profitable, small plot (under an acre) urban farming technique codified by Wally Satzewich, a farmer from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Their annual workshop, where Wally himself will show attendees how to replicate his success, is coming up February 28th – 29th at The Mitchell Park Pavilion at the Domes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (where I hope to be despite the usual sub zero temperatures). I spoke to Roxanne Christensen, co-founder and President of the Institute for Innovations in Local Farming, the co-author of SPIN Farming and a contributor to this site.

Leslie Berliant: I am so excited about SPIN farming, I want to take the course!

Roxanne Christensen: Well, we’ve been really excited about the cross section of people that come to SPIN farming. We have over 750 people that have downloaded the guides and they don’t fit any profile. We ask a few demographic questions when they download, and we have found that it spans ages, experience, ideology, geography. What excites me is that it’s a great unifier or leveler. There are all sorts of people that are practicing it and taking up farming.

LB: How did SPIN Farming first come about?

RC: Wally Satzewich is a farmer in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He started out growing in his backyard like many farmers in Saskatoon. Like most farmers, though, he thought he had to get bigger in order to be successful. Eventually he had 20 acres, invested in equipment, and irrigation system, etc., but he also kept farming in his backyard in Saskatoon and commuted to his bigger rural farm. What’s interesting is that he was growing high value crops in the city, such as salad, radishes, etc. and low value crops in the country, like potatoes, peas, etc. It got him thinking about the advantages of city based farming. In the city, he used the water faucet for irrigation, the work crew was himself and his wife. When he looked at the finances, he realized that overhead and effort in a sub acre operation is a fraction of a large scale operation but the bottom line is similar. Eventually, he sold all his acreage in the country and committed to farming in the city in residential backyards. This became the basis for SPIN farming. I got connected because I have been an urban agriculture advocate in Philadelphia since the 90’s. The social and environmental benefits are easy to understand. After years of advocating urban farming, however, we saw that the quality of life benefits were not resonating with the people in a position to help urban agriculture succeed. We needed to make the economic case for urban agriculture. Around that time, I got a call from the Philadelphia Water Department. They have about 100 acres surrounding storage and treatment facilities that they kept as grassy lawn. They were looking for ways to cut down on maintenance and Nancy Weissman, the Economic Development Director for the Philadelphia Water Department wanted to see if any economic activity could come from the land. She and I decided to embark on yet another experiment in urban agriculture. Although there have been many, few had tackled the task of proving the economic benefits. We focused solely on proving that urban agriculture could be economically viable. The second thing was that, whatever we did it would be able to be replicated by others. An agriculture advisor referred us to Wally and because his system is geared to sub acre, it makes it suitable for densely populated areas. It has revenue targeting formulas, translates land utilization to specific dollar production and focuses on generating income. Wally became an advisor to what became Somerton Tanks Farm. We set a sales goal the first year of $25,000. Actually, it was $50,000 but folks who knew farming said it was impossible and that Wally was a nut. The average revenue from a conventional half acre farm is $3000. We decided to still do $50,000, but to set a goal of taking 5 years to get there. The first year we generated $26,000. You have to understand that the first year, we went from grassy lawn to a fully functional farm, none of us had any experience in sub acre farming, so there was a steep learning curve, as well as the need to build infrastructure. The 2nd year, we did $38,000 and the 3rd year, we did $52,000, so we did it in 3 years. The purpose of the SPIN guides is to shorten the learning curve for other people.

LB: How much land does one need?

RC: It really depends. We have a 1/8th acre part time hobby farm that generates $10,000 – $20,000 a year. We have an intermediate, full time, half acre farm (20,000 square feet) that generates $54,000. Somerton Tanks is in its 4th year and is at $68,000 with just over a half acre. We also utilized season extension. We have a deluxe, 1 acre farm model (40,000 square feet) that generates $50,000 – $65,000 a year. The income varies depending on season extension, crop selection and whether the person wants to do it part or full time. All the models are geared to an acre or less with people using front and back yards and scattered sites around neighborhoods and cities.

LB: Where do you find that kind of land in a city?

RC: It’s interesting, when cities do land inventories, they find they have a lot more vacant land then they’re even aware they have. I’m speaking about the experience in Philadelphia, but I think it can be transferred to other places. Because of our breakthroughs with Somerton Tanks, the state funded a study to document the model and provide a road map to expand it throughout Philadelphia. Our study involved a land survey and there is a lot of government owned land that is kept in grassy lawn that could be converted to food production. There is a lot of blighted land, as well, that cities have had as a burden and liability that could be converted to food production, too.

LB: You write that you need a rototiller and commercial cooler. How much money does one need to invest to get started?

RC: At Somerton Tanks, the major infrastructure investments were a 9x9 walk in cooler which we got for $3,300 used and a rototiller, which we got for $1500, also used. Our post harvesting station where we do all our post harvesting work, which was a tarp with polls, some sinks we scrounged, shelves we built and a table, cost $1,200. We put up a shed that cost $900 and measures 9 x 12 feet. We had some basic hand tools and garden tools, which were about $1,000 and eventually we added some inexpensive unheated hoop houses, we had 2, but only put one up last year, and those cost $1,200 each.

LB They don’t need to be heated?

RC: Not here. Because of climate change, all season growing is becoming much more viable.

LB: How many people are needed at harvest?

RC: Somerton employs 2 and a half people. A husband and wife operate it year round and employ 1 part time seasonal worker for 6 months during the peak season, May – November.

LB: What about areas that are currently experiencing droughts, is this a reasonable endeavor?

RC: I think it is. Again, the main appeal to cities is that the water infrastructure is already there, you’re not depending on river levels, wells and natural rain fall.

LB: How many SPIN farms are there?

RC: We don’t know. We have an active e-mail group of 105 people and the interesting thing is that they come from all over the country; the Midwest, west, east. We have our first SPIN farm in Australia, in Armadale. They are ripping up tennis courts and converting them to half acres of production.

LB: What has been your most successful SPIN farm?

RC: It’s sort of interesting, there’s no on profile of that. Some people are doing it that have had other careers, some are just starting out. It’s really a very wide ranging endeavor.

LB: What makes for a good farmer?

RC: Creativity, perseverance, a willingness to work hard, enjoying physical labor and being outside. And you have to be a good business person.

LB: Have you had any farmers fail?

RC: I’m sure we have but we don’t know who they are, because we don’t hear from them anymore. I’m sure a lot of people still have a very idealistic notion about what it takes to farm. If we can help them through that, then we are really helping them in the long term, as well.

LB: Where is the produce sold?

RC: At Somerton Tanks, we use four sales channels:

  • Community Supported Agriculture, we have 45 members
  • we sell at farmer’s markets, two throughout the week
  • we sell to a handful of restaurant and catering clients
  • and we have an onsite farm stand

LB: What about pests?

Praying Mantis - cheap labour. Invite them over for supper!

RC: You have them and you make peace with them. We had a rabbit. We let him alone and left some clover growing in between the beds and it seemed to liked that. It nibbled a little at the carrots. We also had a ground hog and that didn’t seem to bother us much either. We hand pick pests and do crop rotation to disrupt the larvae cycle so we haven’t had much of a problem. No problems with deer either, which is a big issue in rural areas. That’s the beauty of the scale, you can literally be out there working crops and monitoring every day and be very aware of imbalances and rectify them quickly. Plus, you’re growing 60 kinds of crops, 100 varieties. You can afford to lose a crop and not be set back financially all that much.

LB: I rent a small house and I have a small yard in front. How do I sign up?

RC: First off, what are your markets? Before you put a shovel in the ground, think about how you will sell your produce.

LB: Here in Southern California, probably restaurants and farmer’s markets.

RC: Go to the farmer’s market and hang out and see what is selling well there. Talk to restaurants and see what they find hard to get or what they would like that isn’t available and then start plotting out your product line. The system itself calls for a special layout of the farm and intensive relay practices in selecting crops and plotting out production of the beds, so then you have to get into the system itself to plot out the land base. You can purchase and download our guides to get started. Guides 1 – 7 go through the basics; land base, tools, crops, laying out your farm, work flow and marketing. Guides 8 – 11 offer models of specific sizes of operation and also outline specialty farms; leafy greens for example, or salad mixes. We have one that just sells garlic, one is just carrots and potatoes, one that just sells flowers. Soon, we will also have a guide for a specialty farm of leafy greens, scallions, radishes and lettuce.

LB: How often do you hold workshops?

RC: Right now, just once a year in Milwaukee (as you've mentioned in your opening passage above, the next one is coming up February 28th – 29th). Now we are embarking on developing a manual to train the trainers so we can scale up on the workshop. We are looking for force multiplier on this so the information can be disseminated much more widely.

LB: February in Milwaukee, are you nuts?

RC: I know, I just turned down Alberta in February, just too much going on. Right now, February is the best time because it’s when farmers have the season off. To sign up for the workshop, contact Roxanne Christensen at 610-505-9189 or rchristensen@infocommercegroup.com or register here.

The SPIN Lexicon:

Sub-acre land base – SPIN transfers commercial farming techniques to sub-acre (less than an acre) land masses. Farmers do not need to own much, or any land, to start their operations, and they can be single or multi-sited.

Direct marketing - SPIN bases crop selection on what local markets want. Being close to markets allows for constant product feedback and ensures a loyal and dependable customer base. Grow what you sell, don’t sell what you grow, is the SPIN farmer’s mantra.

Mix-and-match multiple unit pricing – SPIN’s marketing approach is to pre-bag produce items and sell them at certain price tiers – for example, $3.00/unit or any 2 for $5.00.

Commercial refrigeration capacity – SPIN calls for commercial refrigeration capacity because cooling crops immediately after they are harvested retains their quality which supports premium pricing. It also provides control over the harvest schedule and allows for a manageable work flow.

Minimal mechanization and infrastructure – SPIN’s most important and costly equipment is a rototiller and a walk-in cooler or upright produce cooler. All other SPIN implements and infrastructure can be sourced at local garden supply or hardware stores.

“Home-based” work crew – Supplemental labor requirements for a SPIN farm are minimal and can be readily obtained within the network of family, friends, or within the local community.

Utilization of existing water sources – SPIN relies on local water service or wells for all of its irrigation needs.

Low capital intensive – Minimal infrastructure and minimal overhead keeps SPIN farm’s start-up and operating expenses manageable. The bottom line is little or no debt.

Standard size beds – SPIN utilizes beds measuring 2 feet wide by 25 feet long.

Organic-based – SPIN relies on all-organic farming practices. There are minimal off-farm inputs and very little waste.

Structured work flow practices – SPIN outlines a deliberate and disciplined day-by-day work routine so that the wide variety of farm tasks can be easily managed without any one task becoming overwhelming.

High-road/Low-road – SPIN distinguishes between different harvesting techniques. High-road utilizes commercial refrigeration equipment. Low-road harvesting does not.

High-value crops - SPIN devotes most of its land base to the production of high value crops, defined as one that generates at least $100 per crop/per bed.

Relay cropping – SPIN calls for the sequential growing of crops in a single bed.

Intensive relays – 3-4 crops per bed/per season are grown.

Bi-relays – 2 crops per bed per season are grown.

Single relay – 1 crop per bed per season are grown.

1-2-3 bed layout – Refers to the 3 different areas of a SPIN farm devoted to the different levels of production intensity.

75/25 land allocation – Dictates how much land is assigned to the different levels of production on a SPIN farm. The aim is to balance production between high-value and low-value crops to produce a steady revenue stream and to target revenue based on farm size.

Farm layout - SPIN provides guidelines for segmenting a land base into a series of beds, separated by access alleys, which are small 2 feet strips, just wide enough for a rototiller. An acre accommodates approximately 400 standard size beds, including the necessary paths and access alleys. SPIN can also incorporate more traditional approaches to land allocation.

Revenue targeting formula – By growing high-value crops worth $100 per harvest/per bed, and by practicing intensive relay cropping which produces at least 3 crops per bed/per season, SPIN targets $300 in gross sales per bed per season. With 400 beds per acre, the maximum revenue potential is 400 beds x $300 per bed per season = $120,000 gross sales per acre. When farming is approached in terms of beds instead of acres, the result is a very precise idea of how much growing space can be utilized, and how that space can be managed to generate predictable and steady income.

Crop Diversity - A SPIN product line contains a much wider diversity of crops, with some SPIN farms producing over 100 different varieties and 50 different types of crops per season. However, SPIN also provides models that specialize in a particular crop.

Season extension is optional – SPIN does not rely on season extension to expand production; however season extension can be utilized to push SPIN yields and income significantly higher.

1 comment

If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

Dona Boley (anonymous)

Did the city have to change their zoning laws to allow SPIN farms in backyards and in residential areas?

Written in April 2010

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  • Posted on Dec. 26, 2007. Listed in:

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