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SPIN farming: agricultural business planning on micro-scale land bases

Posted: September 29, 2009

At the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s Farming for the Future Conference this past February, there were no doubt a lot of people in attendance who were inspired by the growing enthusiasm for local and sustainable food systems to pursue farming as a business and livelihood. But would-be growers often encounter two seriously intimidating entry barriers to making a go in farming: access to the land and capital that starting a farm venture requires. Fortunately, opportunities in urban and peri-urban environments may offer a way around these barriers and a path towards viable, small-scale agricultural enterprises.
SPIN farming takes advantage of available land in urban backyards.

SPIN farming takes advantage of available land in urban backyards.

SPIN (Small Plot INtensive) farming offers a blueprint to success in urban agriculture and was the subject of a workshop at the 2010 PASA conference.  The workshop was hosted by Andy Pressman of the National Center for Appropriate Technologies (NCAT, www.ncat.org) and was well attended by a variety of home gardeners and entrepreneurs excited by the possibility of starting a business in urban agriculture.

The SPIN brand is the trademark of SPIN farming LLC, an outfit that Pressman describes as a “multinational diversified cottage industry,” and is itself an interesting example of entrepreneurship in the sustainable agriculture movement. Drawing on the expertise of renowned urban grower Wally Satzewich and other pioneers in the area of urban and small scale agriculture, SPIN farming LLC director Roxanne Cristensen and colleagues have developed a set of practices, technologies, and business models that can lead to successful farm ventures on sub-acre land bases with small amounts of start-up capital. SPIN markets this knowledge as a for-profit venture through a series of publications, seminars, and workshops that assist growers in launching new businesses. SPIN maintains a website at www.spinfarming.com which serves as clearing house for information and resources on small scale urban agriculture.

Although SPIN methods can be integrated with other concepts in sustainable agriculture including organic and biodynamic farming, Mr. Pressman points out that SPIN is a “production system not a belief system.”  Key features of the SPIN method include thoughtfully sequenced rotations of high value crops that maximize revenues from small areas as well as template business models that aid growers with budgets and financing.  SPIN boasts that its practices make it possible to run a viable fresh market vegetable operation on as little as 1000 square feet of land or to gross over $50,000 in sales from a half acre farm.   SPIN enterprises have been started up in many cities across the US, Canada, Australia, the EU, and South Africa.  Growers in all these places take from SPIN ideas that make sense for their markets and environments, and develop new techniques on their own to help their businesses work.

To spur adoption of SPIN methods and the growth of urban agriculture more broadly, NCAT has recently partnered with SPIN farming LLC.  NCAT is a federal program targeting the advancement of a wide range of sustainable energy and agricultural approaches, and Mr. Pressman serves as the spokesperson for the project with SPIN.

Although Mr. Pressman did not have access to statistics on the number of successful business using SPIN methods nationally, he expressed confidence that SPIN practices and urban agriculture business will enjoy increased growth in the future.  The SPIN website includes a list of successful farms in locations ranging from Atlanta, GA to Newark, NJ.  These farms are growing a wide variety of fresh market vegetables on land bases ranging from large urban lots to distributed networks of backyards and micro-scale plots.  These businesses take advantage of a range of market opportunities available in cities, including farmers markets, CSAs, and restaurant contracts.

Although there was plenty of enthusiasm at the PASA session, several attendees did express skepticism about some inherent challenges in urban agriculture.  These included concerns about contaminated soils or industrial legacies on vacant lots and issues with finding viable land tenure agreements on properties that may frequently change owners or be developed for alternate uses.  Pressman responded that many “cities and municipalities are very interested in urban agriculture and sustainable practices, especially during these hard economic times.”  He was confident that if enthusiasm for urban agriculture is maintained, urban communities and governments would be able to work out a variety of solutions for these challenges.

With an increasing proportion of the world’s population concentrated in big cities, making urban agriculture successful will likely emerge as a fundamental piece of the sustainable agriculture puzzle.   And while urban environments may seem like unlikely places to pursue a career in farming, many cities do have an abundance of vacant lots or even backyards that could be put immediately to productive use.  SPIN has developed tested methods for how to use small land bases productively and capitalize on resources that urban areas offer in abundance, including a variety of easily accessible markets, and micro-level financing sources. As the need for fresh, nutritious food in major cities continues to increase, SPIN and NCAT offer a promising example of a public/private partnership that is working to find solutions.

By Franklin Egan, Graduate Student, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences

Information in this article is from a presentation given at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Farming for the Future Conference by Andy Pressman, NCAT Agriculture Specialist. Mr. Pressman can be reached at andyp@ncat.org.