Thursday 19 January 2012

Urban, Small Plot Intensive (SPIN) Farming

“You can have big aspirations on an urban acre of land”

Farming can be productive and profitable without owning land or living in the country.

Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen, the owners of Wally’s Urban Market Garden, have been growing and selling vegetables at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market for over 20 years. They grow their crops on small garden plots in and around Saskatoon. In some cases, they own the land; in other cases, they rent it.

“We need to redefine what it means to be a farmer,” Wally says. “You can be a farmer even though you’re small. You don’t have to own a large, sprawling farm.”

Getting Started
Wally and Gail started farming on an acre-sized plot outside of Saskatoon. They thought they would need a larger acreage in order to succeed, so they purchased a parcel of farmland and grew on 20 acres.

It should have been the perfect spot, but they were challenged by the weather, wildlife, fluctuating water levels, and labour shortages. After six years, they sold the acreage and went back to urban farming on small plots of land.

Their success at sub-acre farming prompted Gail and Wally to help found SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) Farming, an organization dedicated to helping people who are new to farming, or who want to farm in a new way, to get started. They describe SPIN Farming as a non-technical, easy-to-learn, and inexpensive-to-implement vegetable farming system that makes it possible to earn significant income from land bases under an acre in size.

Wally believes that sub-acre farms have many advantages over large-scale operations. First of all, you don’t need to own land. You can rent or barter a small piece of land in the city or the country. And you’re not locked into one structure: it can change according to circumstances.

Urban farming provides a more controlled environment with fewer pests, better wind protection, and a longer growing season. You don’t need large, expensive equipment. Wally and Gail use simple tools, such as a rototiller, a push-type seeder, and a few hand tools.

SPIN farmers have greater flexibility. “If you own a large market garden, you typically plant once, and you don’t plant again as you’re too busy looking after your crop,” Wally explains. “We focus on small weekly plantings of crops such as arugula and pea greens as well as conventional one-time plantings of carrots and potatoes.” As a result, Wally’s Urban Market Garden can provide fresh, new produce that is not typically available on a weekly basis, and crop failure is often only a temporary setback.

Find Your Niche
Success as a SPIN farmer depends on finding your niche so that you can compete effectively with large-scale operations and enhance the market environment.

Wally’s Urban Market Garden focuses on crops that provide higher value per plot size, such as fresh greens, as well as crops that aren’t normally available, such as heritage carrots in every colour of the rainbow.

The vegetables are cleaned and bagged so that they are ready to use. Shoppers can buy a small chunk of squash rather than an entire pumpkin that is large and messy to deal with.

An innovative pricing system – any two bags for $5.00 – encourages customers to make additional purchases.

Invest in Success
Wally believes that too many novice farmers focus on the soil and the style of gardening but neglect the business side of their operation. “You have to be prepared to make some investments early in your career,” he says. “A large cooler is essential in order to avoid inefficient work flow.”

Wally and Gail have a large walk-in cooler at home as well as a smaller one at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. As a result, they are able to harvest continuously rather than doing everything immediately before the market. “We take a staged approach, starting with the carrots and finishing with the leafy greens,” Wally says.

Not only does this method rescue you from burnout (no more all-nighters harvesting vegetables before a full day at the market), but it also ensures that the vegetables are in good condition. “You have to remove the field heat from leafy greens so that they have some shelf life,” Wally explains.

The cooler at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market means that Wally doesn’t have to haul produce back and forth every market day. If there are leftovers, they can be stored in the cooler until the next market.

Financial Success
Wally says that you can make a good living as a SPIN farmer. He points to Curtis Stone of Green City Acres in Kelowna who has a three-quarter acre urban farm spread over seven different sites. An $8,000 investment in his first year yielded $20,000 in profit. The following year he invested an additional $5,000 and finished the season with over $65,000 in sales.

Before starting his urban farm in 2009, Curtis had no experience in farming or even gardening. He uses a cargo bike to take his products to market and to collect compost.

Becoming a SPIN Farmer
The SPIN Farming website provides a wealth of useful information. Learning guides cover SPIN Farming basics, work flow practices, marketing, and farming specialties (greens, garlic, carrots and potatoes, flowers). Once you have purchased a learning guide, your name is added to the list serve and you can obtain more detailed information by phone or email from established SPIN farmers.

“I’m very accessible,” Wally says. “I’ve helped people all over Canada and the United States. This coming summer, I’ll have two interns, and I’m encouraging them to launch their own sub-acre farms.”

SPIN Farming is a growing trend in Canada, particularly Victoria, Vancouver, and Kelowna. There is no reason why Saskatoon cannot participate. “The urban farming potential in Saskatoon is huge as we have a large land base,” Wally says. It’s an opportunity to grow fresh, healthy food close to home and create employment with a very minimal initial investment.