MEET SPIN'S CREATORS
Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen
Wally Satzewich operates Wally's Urban Market Garden which is a multi-locational sub-acre urban farm. It is dispersed over 25 residential backyard garden plots in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, that are rented from homeowners. The sites range in size from 500 sq. ft. to 3000 sq. ft., and the growing area totals a half acre. The produce is sold at The Saskatoon Farmers Market.
Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen initially started farming on an acre-sized plot outside of Saskatoon 20 years ago. Thinking that expanding acreage was critical to their success, they bought some farmland adjacent to the South Saskatchewan river 40 miles north of Saskatoon where they eventually grew vegetables on about 20 acres of irrigated land. "This was a site to die for," Ms. Vandersteen said. "It was incredibly beautiful, but the pestilence was incredible too! We couldn't believe what the bugs and deer could do. Not to mention the wind."
"We still lived in the city where we had a couple of small plots to grow crops like radishes and salad mix, which were our most profitable crops. We could grow three crops a year on the same site, pick and process on-site and put the produce into our cooler so it would be fresh for the market."
After six years farming their rural site, the couple realized there was more money to be made growing multiple crops intensively in the city, so they sold the farm and became urban growers. "People don't believe you can grow three crops a year in Saskatoon," observes Vandersteen. "They think it's too much work, but the truth is, this is much less work than mechanized, large-scale farming. We used to have a tractor to hill potatoes and cultivate, but we find it's more efficient to do things by hand. Other than a rototiller, all we need is a push-type seeder and a few hand tools."
Mr. Satzewich points out that city growing provides a more controlled environment, with fewer pests, better wind protection and a longer growing season. "We are producing 10-15 different crops and sell thousands of bunches of radishes and green onions and thousands of bags of salad greens and carrots each season. Our volumes are low compared to conventional farming, but we sell high-quality organic products at very high-end prices. "The SPIN method is based on their successful experiment in downsizing which emphasizes minimal mechanization and maximum fiscal discipline and planning.
Brian Halweil, a food issues writer and researcher at the Washington-DC-based Worldwatch Institute, interviewed Mr. Satzewich and referenced his farming approach in Eat Here, which documents worldwide initiatives in building a locally-based food industries.
Roxanne Christensen is co-founder and President of the Institute for Innovations in Local Farming. In partnership with the Philadelphia Water Department, the Institute operates Somerton Tanks Farm, a prototype sub-acre urban farm that serves as the U.S. test bed for the SPIN-FARMING method. The farm has received the support of the Pennsylvania Dept. Of Agriculture, the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp., the City Commerce Department, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
Ms. Christensen contends that the separation of country and city is an outmoded concept. "As development erodes the rural way of life, agriculture is creeping closer and closer to metropolitan areas. SPIN-FARMING leverages this trend in a positive way – by capitalizing on limited resources and space. Creating Somerton Tanks Farm using the SPIN method required minimal upfront investment, and it keeps operating overhead low.
"For aspiring farmers, SPIN eliminates the 2 big barriers to entry – sizeable acreage and substantial startup capital. At the same time, its intensive relay growing techniques and precise revenue targeting formulas push yields to unprecedented levels and result in highly profitable income."
In 2003, its first year of operation, Somerton Tanks Farm, located in Northeast Philadelphia, the sixth largest city in the U.S, produced $26,000 in gross sales from a half-acre of growing space. In 2006 gross sales reached $68,000. In just four years of operation this demonstration farm achieved levels of productivity and financial success that many agricultural professionals claimed was impossible.
Ms. Christensen's role at the Institute is to attract and support new farming talent. "The farming profession has been on the decline – and for good reasons. The global economy favors agribusinesses, the amount of available farmland is rapidly shrinking, and family farms are going out of business at an unprecedented rate. It is not an opportune time to become an independent farmer."
But, Christensen contends, SPIN-FARMING is a method uniquely suited to entrepreneurs, and it provides a new career path for those who have a calling to farm. It is enticing a new breed of farmer who is keenly interested in matters of principle, but who understands that to have a significant positive impact, they have to function within the existing system, pushing their cause while paying their bills.
As SPIN becomes established and is practiced more and more widely, Christensen says, it will create new farmland closer to metropolitan areas, which, in turn will produce environmental, economic and social benefits. "It offers a compelling value proposition."