$50,000 From a Backyard Farm? The Enticing Promise of SPIN Farming

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A small farm with vegetables growing in a garden surrounded by a picket fence.

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In these days of recession-ready frugal green living and personal green stimulus plans, many folks are looking for new sources of primary or secondary income. While farming may sound like it needs major capital investment, increasing numbers of people are growing surprising amounts of food on surprisingly small plots of land. Some are renting, others own land. Some are growing in backyard urban plots, others in small rural parcels.

Now one small group of market gardeners and micro-farmers claims it can teach anyone, anywhere to grow significant amounts of food, and make money doing it, on less than an acre. So is this for real? From backyard slaughter in West Oakland to the urban aquaponics of Growing Power, the idea that many farmers are stepping outside the conventional 20th Century model of large acreage, high capital costs and heavy energy use is hardly likely to be surprising to most TreeHugger readers. But what makes the notion of SPIN-farming (or Small Plot Intensive farming) notable is that its creators have given it a name, and they have focused not just the cultivation techniques, but the business side of things too.

SPIN was created by Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen of Wally's Urban Market Garden in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada—who started growing in an urban environment, expanded to 20 acres in the country, and then rapidly realized that they made more money growing in town after all—and by Rozanne Christensen of Somerton Tanks Farm, who acted as an early test-bed for the SPIN concept and claims to have achieved $68,000 in gross sales from a half-acre plot in just 4 years. The creators have put together a series of SPIN online learning guides sharing their experiences and methodologies, covering everything from specific crops and business models to marketing and sales. But do they work?

Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement, reviews the SPIN basics guide and is impressed both with the level of detail and the practical approach to getting started. While he can't verify the actual income figures being claimed, he does suggest that there is a real sense of possibility that comes through in the potential for reinventing food growing as a business that any of us can actually engage in:

What is so brilliant about 'SPIN Basics' is that it is not just an idea, an aspiration, rather it is set out as a 'read-this-then-get-to-it' guide for the would-be grower, which itemises costs and the kinds of returns you can expect from successful SPIN plots on a range of scales. It is here that the reader starts to get a sense of the potential of all of this to underpin a revolutionary rethink in how urban land use is conceived. Although the figures given are all in dollars, they are compelling. One person, working 1,000 -5,000 square feet could expect a potential gross revenue of $3,900 - $18,000. Two people working fulltime on 10,000 to 20,000 square feet could expect a potential gross revenue of $36,000 -$72,000.

As Rob argues, if concepts like Transition are going to take off, then we need to find practical ways for people to make a living, and for communities to feed themselves. This is not explicitly about ideology—but simply taking stock of the new political, economic, cultural and environmental realities we find ourselves in, and trying to figure out what we can do with the resources available to us to get by. And here's a video (also found via Rob Hopkins' review) of one SPIN farmer who is making it work. We'd love to hear from anyone else who is employing the SPIN system.