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A New Farming System

Saskatoon market gardener Wally Satzewich is selling a growing program that claims to generate as much as $50,000 from just half an acre. /9c4/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/farmsystem.jpg

An innovative market gardener from Saskatoon claims to have developed a market gardening system capable of generating $50,000 in annual sales from as little as half an acre. Wally Satzwich’s Small Plot Intensive (SPIN) program, developed by Satzwich and his wife, Gail, over years of raising and selling flowers and vegetables in Saskatoon, is based on low capital investment, quick rotation of crops and, perhaps most remarkably, on using free or near-free urban plots.

Satzwich’s system is being marketed in a series of booklets to farmers looking for new ways of production or to new farmers who need a detailed introduction to growing and marketing. Costing $11.99 each, the SPIN Farming booklets cover topics such as SPIN Concepts, Grower’s Guide, Work Flow Practises and Marketing as well as models for small, medium and large operations.

While the Satzwich is clearly hopeful that the booklets will become a source of revenue, he admits that many SPIN concepts are refinements of techniques already known to veteran market gardeners. Still, his ideas may have merit for people new to farming and even to those veteran market gardeners who would like to increase their revenue.

SPIN is based on several keys concepts, developed by Satzwich over time. The first concept is that it is better to intensively use a small acreage than it is to grow crops less intensely on a larger acreage. In fact, Satzwich’s own experience is that too much land is actually a drawback. After developing a successful small-plot market gardening business in the 1990s, he bought a 160 acre farm outside of Saskatoon. Trouble with labour, equipment and irrigation all lead him to realize, after just a few years, that he was better off growing in town.

Satzwich raises produce and flowers in 15 small urban lots—often less than 3,000 square feet—spread throughout town. Most of these plots are free, sometimes he’ll pay for them with produce in what he calls “stand credit.” Many landlords are all too happy to have their land used productively. Furthermore, he says, urban growers get a jump on the growing season because cities hold heat. Even in chilly Saskatoon he is first to market with lettuce, spinach and greens by the third week in May.

SPIN is also premised on growing high value crops. Fresh herbs, spinach, radish and bags of salad mix account for much of the revenues in the SPIN program, especially early in the growing season. One SPIN plan calls for the sale of 200 bunches of radishes, at $1.50/bunch, as part of an estimated $1,500 day at a farmer’s market. When asked if that is a reasonable expectation, Satzwich says that he has sold as many as 400 bunches of radishes in a single day.

Since part of the program is based on box delivery, lower end vegetables, like potatoes, have to be grown to round out the menu. Even so, Satzwich tries to grow specialty varieties that carry a premium.

A key component of the SPIN program is a walk-in cooler. Instead of staying up late or getting up obscenely early, as many market gardeners do to pick, clean and bunch their produce, Satzwich picks and prepares produce several days in advance and stores them in a walk-in cooler he has built. “We don’t like working until midnight,” he says. “We try to create regular working lives.” A self-confessed urbanite, Satzwich says the SPIN program allows him to live in the city yet make a living growing food.

So, how much revenue can the SPIN farming program generate? Satzwich’s literature claims that revenues ranging from $15,000-$60,000 are possible. The most successful SPIN farm is in Philadelphia, where Steve and Nicole Shelly generated $52,200 in 2005 from a half acre located on water department land in the heart of the city. Satzwich says he and Gail make approximately $30,000 per year. To do this they work 10-12 hours per day (with breaks), 6-7 days per week, from May to mid December. Based on even their minimum working days and hours, that works out to $6.25/hour per person. Hardly wages that are going to hoist market gardeners into middle class income levels but, considering that some farmers lose money every hour they work, perhaps it isn’t too bad either.

A SPIN Sampler
According to the SPIN handbook for an Intermediate Farm Model (grossing $54,000/year) the following start-up investments are required:
Pick up truck $5,000
Walk-in cooler (10’ x 10’) $3,500
Rototiller $2,000
Farm shed $1,000
Irrigation $1,000
Farm stand set up $350
Bins $200
Post-harvest area $200
Tools $200
Garden seeder $100
Total $13,550
The same farm would reasonably expect to incur the following operating expenses:
Rent for farm plots $1,000
Seeds $1,000
Gas $1,000
Stall fees $400
Sales bags $300
Total $3,700

Old Vs New
According to the SPIN website, the differences between traditional farming and their new system can be summarized as follows:
Old Way

  • A land base spanning hundreds or thousands of acres
  • Substantial financial investment and crushing debt burdens
  • Reliance on mechanized equipment that is costly to maintain
  • Dependence on elaborate irrigation systems that are expensive to maintain
  • Significant operating overhead that dilutes profits
  • Far-flung markets that are hard and costly to access

New Way

  • A sub-acre land base purchased inexpensively, or accessed and farmed at no cost at all
  • Modest financial start-up costs because of minimal infrastructure
  • Reliance on hand labor to accomplish most farming tasks
  • Utilizes existing water sources to meet all irrigation needs
  • Minimal operating overhead produces a strong bottom line
  • Situated close to markets, saving time and money
  • Bottom line: little or no debt