SPIN: A New Small-Scale, Adaptable, Locally-Based Farming System

Guest Article: So What’s the Buzz on SPIN?

By Roxanne Christensen Co-author, SPIN-Farming (http://www.spinfarming.com)

For farming to fit into an urbanized 21st century, it needs to downsize, and it needs to be accessible to many more people. SPIN-Farming's highly replicable system offers an example of how this is starting to happen.

There is an interesting tension, now, surrounding farming. Food is being extolled as the very essence of life at the same time as farmers are being put on the defensive to explain their methods. Rhetoric-laden food has replaced chemical-laden food. While intellectualization may help advance the cause of the local food movement, to re-establish robust, locally-based farm businesses that can hold their own with industrialized agriculture, we have to get beyond discussion and debate and make farming attractive and viable as a profession.   Much of the current unease with our food system is caused by the geographical separation between where we grow our food and where we live and work, and it can be alleviated by re-integrating food production back into cities and towns. That requires not only a new vision of farming, but also new farming  practices that compliment, rather than conflict with, densely populated areas. For farming to fit into an urbanized 21st century, it needs to downsize, and it needs to be accessible to many more people. Sub-acre farming was developed by Canadian farmer Wally Satzewich. His system, called SPIN-Farming (S-mall P-lot IN-tensive) makes it possible to earn significant income from land bases under an acre in size by growing common vegetables. Minimal infrastructure, reliance on hand labor to accomplish most farming tasks, utilization of existing water sources to meet irrigation needs, and operating close to markets all keep investment and overhead costs low. SPIN therefore removes the two big barriers to entry for first generation farmers – land and capital –  and shows how to incorporate agriculture into the built environment in an economically viable manner.

By growing on a sub-acre scale to meet consumer tastes, SPIN-style farms are not the huge, monochromatic blocks of golden wheat and tasseled cornstalks that have defined America’s heartland for the past century. Instead a more intricate pattern is woven by their individual rows of greens, radishes, carrots, potatoes, scallion, spinach and hundreds of other kinds of crops. Planting a strategically-chosen, wide diversity of plants not only makes a pretty picture; it also benefits the environment by eliminating the need for pesticides.  Reliance on biological cooperation keeps operating expenses low. Most farm inputs are generated onsite, and there is very little waste.

In contrast to industrial agriculture’s aim to produce predictable and uniform results from soils and plants, SPIN-style farming unleashes a natural set of variables and is based on continual adaptation and innovation. Sub-acre farmers can be out constantly tending their plots and be ever-vigilant to soil health. Some of the biological principles they abide by are:  healthy soil produces healthy plants; natural resources such as water and biomass are meant to be conserved and recycled; and stable ecosystems are diverse. By respecting natural forces, SPIN demonstrates that the more organic a farm’s agricultural practices, the more economically viable its business is. Sustainability becomes the result of every day actions, not an abstract moral imperative.

SPIN-style farming is also free enterprise farming. By recasting farming as a small business in a city or town, it contributes directly to local economies. Because money flows directly from consumer to grower, sub-acre farmers can earn a viable income. Farmers in rural areas can downsize and diversify their operations without downsizing their incomes. By serving the fresh food needs of their nearby communities, they become an integral part of small town economies rather than something a part from them.

But what distinguishes SPIN-style farming, and makes it uniquely suited to entrepreneurs, is that it is a highly replicable farming system that also accommodates the creative and place-based nature of farming. SPIN’s growing techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. Contained in the seven SPIN-Farming Basics Guides is everything you’d expect from a good franchise: a business concept, marketing advice, financial benchmarks and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process, it really isn’t any different from McDonald’s. While most other farming systems focus primarily if not exclusively on agricultural practices, SPIN emphasizes the business aspects and provides a financial and management framework for having the business drive the agriculture, rather than the other way around. It is up to each individual SPIN farmer to apply the system based on their own markets, climate and preferences.

The SPIN system has its own lexicon and is based on allocating a land base to different areas of cropping intensity. The system is based on the 1-2-3 layout, where the 1 area of the farm is the least intensive and is devoted to single, lower-value single season crops.  The 2 area of the farm is devoted to bi-relay crops and is where 2 higher-value crops per standard size bed per season are grown sequentially. And the 3 area of the farm is devoted to intensive relay cropping where 3 or more high-value crops per standard size bed per season are grown sequentially. Each of these areas are planted using standard size beds tie to a revenue targeting formula so that cashflow can be planned and generated in a predictable manner.

SPIN-Farming is an exercise in deciding a revenue target and determining the amount of the operation that needs to be put in the most intensive form of production to generate that revenue, balanced against the amount of labor needed to support that.  Labor is the single biggest expense in any farm operation, so SPIN farmers aim to minimize or even eliminate the need for outside labor.

Other examples of lower expenses in the SPIN-Farming system include: using a personal vehicle as a farm vehicle – a mini or cargo van or mini-truck is adequate in size for sub-acre scale farming; creating an inexpensive irrigation system from standard grade garden hoses; using minimal mechanization – a rototiller is the only mechanized equipment that is necessary; using organic-based, local sources of supply for fertilizer which eliminate the use of expensive chemicals; and using an inexpensive post-harvesting setup. The aim with SPIN-Farming is to keep expenses at 10% to 20% of total revenue. So if the revenue target is $50,000, expenses should be budgeted between $5,000 and $10,000.

This systematized approach to farming greatly reduces development and startup time, eliminates much initial trial and error, and increases the chances of success. By offering a non-technical, non-dogmatic, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, SPIN allows many more people to begin their farming careers, right where they live. Whether they establish their farm operations in the middle of urban jungles, on the suburban fringe, or as part of large acreages in the country, they unite behind a system that advances engaged, rather than escapist, agriculture. They make food production visible and palatable and deliver the well-documented redemptive power of agriculture to their communities in a commercially viable manner. The perception of farming can be changed from that of a marginal occupation for the downwardly mobile to that of a mainstream highly-skilled profession.

This is starting to happen already. What is supporting new farm creation is a rapidly expanding and increasingly sophisticated marketplace. The value of locally grown food is beginning to be recognized by a much broader audience, and the resurgent interest in food is creating markets for exotic crops that have never been offered commercially. This gives farmers increased pricing power and an infinite set of opportunities to differentiate themselves and strengthen their marketplace positions because artisanal niches limit competition. Since its launch in 2006, the SPIN-Farming online learning series has helped hundreds of new farmers, who want to seize this opportunity, get started in business. Some have been educated in other professions, or have had other careers. Some have home or community gardening experience, while others have never had dirt under their fingernails. Some come from traditional farm families, but most do not.  They are refugees from unsatisfying jobs. Or they are seeking to balance their mentally demanding computer-oriented work with more purposeful exercise. Some are pursuing farming full-time, others part-time. They span age groups, demographics and locations. What unites them all is an ability to view and practice farming in a new way.

Those who are beginning to practice SPIN have a desire to re-think not only how to farm, but what it means to be a farmer today. They are showing how to make more from less, how to live large yet be small, and they are leading a farming revival that cuts across geography, generations, incomes and ideologies to provide common ground, quite literally, beneath everyone’s feet. Though tarnished in recent years, farming persists as an ideal. If we re-formulate it, position, package and promote it differently – and SPIN offers an example – farming can capture the spirit of our times and become, once again, second nature to many. As I conclude this, I see another SPIN order coming in from Rockford, Illinois from a woman who has a little  farming experience and who is over 40 years old. You might look for her behind the table with all the garlic next year at the local farmer’s market….

2 Comments on SPIN: A New Small-Scale, Adaptable, Locally-Based Farming System

  1. Dr. Murukesan Krishnapillai // July 13, 2010 at 12:37 am // Reply

    We carry out a more or less similar approach for vegetable production using simplified hydroponics techniques in Yap, one of the remote islands in western Pacific. Back in 2002, I was introduced to this technique by Peggy Bradley of Institute of Simplified Hydroponics (www.carbon.org) and since then we have successfully tested several low cost vegetable production models using local resources. I am very much interested in the SPIN farming and would love to introduce this technique among the outer island community that I serve.

    Dr. Murukesan Krishnapillai
    Agricultural Experiment Station
    College of Micronesia-FSM, Yap Campus

  2. I have been looking at spin articles and see nothing new or special enough to justify the cost of the manuals. go to a used bookstore and get a copy of Mel Bartholomews Square Foot Gardening and the companion book Cash From Square Foot Gardening for $10.00 to $20.00 and save your self $60.00 to $120 on this rehash of others work. Also check out the books of Elliot Coleman, he has been doing this kind of farming for more then 40 years and he does’t charge a totaly crazy price for the information.

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