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Natalie K. Gould/MEDILL

SPIN farmers can sell their produce to grocery stores and restaurants.Trader Joe's in River North sells organic produce.

A new farming system tempts urbanites with promises of big bucks

by Natalie K. Gould
Nov 09, 2011


Natalie K. Gould/MEDILL



Natalie K. Gould/MEDILL

What the first 10 years of SPIN farming could look like on the books. 

Some city dwellers have hung up their corporate suits and pulled on their work boots as they make their way back to the farm. A recent trend shows younger families preferring open spaces to high rises. But is it possible to farm inside city limits and make a decent living? It is, say advocates of a certain type of high-intensity urban farming called SPIN.

SPIN stands for Small Plot Intensive farming, and it’s just that—narrow, long crop beds with three varieties of produce in each, an usual planting configuration. There are an estimated 650 practicing SPIN farms in the U.S. and Canada, and 3,000 people have downloaded the online program since its launch in 2006.

“Farmers ask me ‘What the heck are you doing?’” said Michigan SPIN farmer Marianne Christy. “It’s different from anything I’ve ever known.”

Roxanne Christensen has co-authored an online series titled “SPIN-Farming” that explains the entire program. People can attend workshops to learn the fundamentals but they also are prompted to purchase the tools, seeds and equipment to start their own SPIN farm.

Don Larson, a SPIN farmer in downstate Roscoe, purchased the system four years ago after attending a workshop. He said the system works, but it’s not as profitable as marketed. In his last six years of farming, he has broken even or come out ahead a little bit.

SPIN’s founders claim farmers can gross $50,000 in revenue from half an acre of land. While the website doesn’t say how long that would take, Christensen clarifies that it could take up to 10 years.

Larson and his wife wouldn’t be able to afford their farm business if she wasn’t working. “We get the health insurance. If I had to buy my own health insurance, we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Larson said.

“Very few make $50,000 in the first year,” Christensen confirms. First-time growers should aim to gross $500 per week. After four or five years, SPIN farmers could sell $1,000 in produce per week. That revenue projection is based on a 20- to 30-week selling season, which usually wraps up in November.

Christy said the system turns a profit, but it requires patience the first few years. “Last year I expected $10,000, but the weather didn’t work out.” She says she will try to hit that goal again next year.

Larson said SPIN doesn’t account for weather variables. “What do you do when you have weeks of heat, weeks of rain and severe weather?” He said it’s possible to gross upwards of $50,000 if the weather conditions are just right. After last summer’s extreme weather, Midwest farmers struggled to grow seasonal crops and were forced to wait to plant until June in some cases.

While traditional farming encourages one crop per bed and sometimes several feet between plants, SPIN farming fills the beds with three crop varieties planted very close together. SPIN farms are small, usually less than one acre.

“It’s translating farming into more of a small business,” said Christensen. “It provides a professional identity for people . . . and helping farming become a small business in an urban setting.” The farms are classified as small businesses in the U.S. tax code.

In the early years, costs can range from a few thousand dollars to $50,000, Christensen said. After the big equipment such as tillers and refrigerators have been purchased, ongoing expenses should amount to 10 to 20 percent of revenue, depending on the size of the plot.

SPIN farmers market and sell their produce to farmer’s markets, community-supported agriculture groups and restaurants. “Go to the chef, take them samples, have them try it,” Christensen said. Some farmers become regular contract producers for restaurants.

With farms under an acre, two or three people can usually do all the weeding and harvesting, eliminating the expense of hired help, but that means long days of manual labor.

To maximize profit and make up for the smaller harvest, SPIN outlines pricing for produce, recommending farmers sell produce prewashed and prepackaged—$3 per bag or two for $5. Selling prepackaged produce is a way for farmers to charge more for the items. “As long as people are selling at the market and earning significant income, that’s SPIN farming,” she said.

Larson sells his produce to restaurants and local supermarkets. Social, a restaurant in Rockford, purchases his crops. Head chef Thorton Hall said Larson’s produce is incorporated in many dishes on the menu. “His beets are awesome. His carrots are great,” Hall said. “If we need an ingredient right away, we can call him and he’ll bring it right over.”

Hall said 90 to 95 percent of ingredients the restaurant uses during the summer are from the area. “We find ways of preserving so we can use local produce all the time,” Hall said of the winter months. “We’ll come out and tell the customer exactly where we got the ingredients in the meal.”

“We keep the money here and strengthen the community,” Hall said of why Social focuses so heavily on local products. “He [Larson] helps us, and we get to help him a lot too.”

Larson said the only way to succeed as a farmer is to have financial—and emotional—reserves. “Do your homework, talk to a lot of people, stick to the plan,” he said. “Have them try to talk you out of it. If you still want to do it, then good for you.”

Larson said one of the most difficult things is competing with “Big Ag” and corporate farms. “I genuinely do enjoy doing this work,” he said. “The hard part is trying to make it economically viable in a place that supports corporate farms and imports from other countries.”

Christensen said there’s plenty of room for competition. “City-based food production is not going to feed the whole city,” she said. “This won’t replace large-scale farms. It’s one part of the puzzle.”

Some SPIN farmers say it is hard to sell organic produce when consumers can walk to the nearest grocery store and purchase it for a fraction of the price. “Lots of people don’t want to pay the extra for local, organic produce,” Larson said. “I farm for the people who appreciate real, local, good food.”

Christy disagrees that there is a big price disadvantage. She says SPIN farming “is a way to get people to eat good food without paying an enormous price.”

Students at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania used SPIN as a model for organic urban farming in 2008. Professor Ellen Flint helped students maintain the plot for two years—it eventually turned into a neighborhood community garden. “Sustainable agriculture is possible in an urban setting,” she said. “We achieved our goal.”

The SPIN plot came from a grant by the university. Three students were paid during the summer to work about 20 hours per week. “A lot of time was taken up with watering,” Flint said. The students took home the produce they wanted, and the rest was sold to the university’s dining service. “They learned the value of labor and collaboration.” The work was done without mechanized tools.

Flint said the plot, which included 28 rows of vegetables, was successful in her eyes. The enterprise didn’t turn a profit although it might have in the third year.

Most SPIN farmers don’t bother with organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but they do grow their produce sans herbicides or fertilizers.

For some, farming is a way to become established in the small-business world. In addition to her farm, Christy owns a bakery where she produces pies, cookies and cakes from scratch.

She also uses farming to keep healthy. “It’s one of the best and cheapest exercise programs anyone could ever do,” she said. “I have more stability than I’ve ever had in my entire life.”