SPIN-farming – Let’s Grow Our Own Food

The info in this article for city and town folk who want to buy local or farm their own Small Plot Intensive (SPIN) food is a beautiful gift – they’ve even considered how to minimize pollution! I hope that some of you take the opportunity to try it out… and share your stories with us.

Good Clean Food for Everyone!

SPIN Farming and Soup Service Are Yielding Profits

by Elaine Morin; Alternatives Magazine, 35:1 (2009); www.alternativesjournal.ca.

What happens when food production moves to the city and downsizes in the process? Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen of Wally’s Urban Market Garden, a Saskatoon farming operation, are showing that some 30 backyard plots totaling less than half a hectare can be as profitable as, and more ecologically sustainable than, their old eight-hectare agribusiness in rural Saskatchewan. The program they’ve developed, Small Plot Intensive or SPIN farming, aims to maximize crop yields of smaller gardens. “The key,” Satzewich says, “is to produce high-quality niche crops.” The enterprising duo grows garlic, spinach, salad greens and other produce, which they sell at city markets and to local restaurants. Reduced transportation costs and less food spoilage help boost profits, as does their low overhead since they have no tractor or paid work crews. Another advantage of co-opting backyard gardens is that many urban homeowners don’t have time to till, and will often rent their backyards for little or no fee.

“One acre [less than half a hectare] is about the right size for one couple to farm,” says Satzewich, who has no plans to expand. “You can always intensify production, if necessary.”

With the majority of Canadians living in cities, urban agriculture makes sense. Shrinking the distance between food production and markets means fewer trucks on the road and thus fewer carbon emissions. At a time when most food travels vast distances to get to the table, local food production can drastically cut the need for processing, packaging, refrigeration and hauling. And local, just-produced food can be fresher too, an important benefit.

Market gardens scattered throughout the inner-city, on abandoned lots for instance, can improve air quality and help offset urban heat buildup. Captured rain and wastewater, if deemed safe, can be used in place of treated municipal water, and organic solid waste can be composted to fertilize crops. And then there’s the issue of food security. More local agriculture reduces dependence on uncertain global food and fuel supplies.

Small-scale farming has its challenges. Urban gardens compete with municipalities for freshwater supplies. Rain and wastewater can help, but must be free of toxins. Abandoned lots must also be cleared of contamination before food crops are grown. And uncertain tenure on abandoned lots and borrowed backyards makes long-term projects a challenge. Satzewich’s and Vandersteen’s success comes from competence, dedication and hard work, but what they produce is a drop in the bucket beside the capacity of massive agribusiness. Still, city gardens have a long precedent and small plots are plentiful. Toronto’s Annex Organics, for instance, uses a warehouse roof for its garden.

A commercial market garden within Calgary would be a boon to Carmie Nearing’s business. A professional chef and owner of Spoon Fed Soup Company, Nearing uses local organic ingredients as often as possible, but with growing demand for her soups, it’s not always easy to find suppliers. In the last five years her company has burgeoned from a tiny home operation to a viable, thriving business. “At each step of the way, I’ve thought long and hard about how to expand,” says Nearing. For instance, she’s kept her original mandate to minimize the size of the area she services. She delivers her soup three times a week, up from once weekly, and only to inner-city Calgary addresses. And on one delivery day, soup will one day be shuttled to downtown customers via cargo bicycle.

In the beginning, Nearing developed recipes in her inner-city home kitchen, peddling them to friends and neighbours. She then borrowed a catering company’s kitchen, producing soups on weekends and delivering Mondays. Since then, she’s moved to a brand new kitchen. As the scale of her operation has increased, Nearing has worked hard to uphold the same principles of sustainability. For instance, she still uses one-litre canning jars, and the $1 deposit encourages a high rate of return. Though she’s careful about expansion, Nearing expects to make her soups available at two local food markets.

Can local, small-scale food producers replace massive agribusinesses and factory-food manufacturers? For a generation habituated to fast-food joints and big-box supermarkets, and with little knowledge of gardening, it’s hard to imagine. Yet the benefits of local food production are difficult to ignore. Interestingly, Satzewich and Vandersteen have been welcoming interns to their operation, some of them families with young children. Interns provide manual labour in exchange for learning the techniques of small-plot farming. Perhaps for the next generation, a major shift is on its way.

Elaine Morin is a Calgary-based freelance writer and recipient of the 2007 Brenda Strathern Writing Prize. She has been frequenting inner-city markets since she was four years old.

Start your own SPIN-farm! Check out http://www.spinfarming.com for do-it-yourself guidelines and examples of several SPIN cities and neighbourhoods. Visit http://www.cityfarmer.org and http://www.metrofarm.com to plug into urban agriculture communities from coast to coast. And if you live or work in Calgary, don’t forget to visit http://www.spoonfedsoup.com to order a healthy and sustainable soup-lunch.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wonderful!

  2. This is pure genius!!!! what else can I say? This not only provides clean healthy living, but clean healthy PROFITS!!!! YEAH!!!! PROFITS! Who could imagine being eco-friendly and making money at the same time? This is modern life…get on board or be one of the suckers paying $2/litre for fuel and everything transported with fuel…..


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