Reap what you sow - in your own back yard
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)- Don Pollard is counting the months _ 18 _ till he can leave Philadelphia and head home to Georgia, where he'll begin an adventure some might characterize as a midlife flight of fancy.
But for the 53-year-old registered nurse, who moved north decades ago to get a good job, it's way more than that. It's the culmination of years of yearning to return to roots and family and thinking about how to support himself off the five acres he bought in Grovetown, Ga., outside Augusta, in preparation.
Pollard, who now lives in North Philadelphia, believes something called SPIN-farming is his answer. That's "S" for small, "P" for plot, "IN" for intensive, and it simply means growing as many potentially profitable crops as possible, as densely as possible, on one acre or less, to be sold quickly and locally.
"You can do it any which way you want. It's all based on what your objective is," says Pollard, a master gardener who dreams of dividing his Southern acreage into smaller plots for boutique salad mixes, unusual melons, blueberries and grapes, and maybe pecans, mushrooms and nursery trees.
Increasingly, the system Pollard hopes will support his life's next chapter is being promoted for people with a different objective _ home gardeners interested in growing fresh vegetables for their families.
"Not everyone is cut out for farming, or even food gardening," says Roxanne Christensen of Center City Philadelphia, "but we often joke, we're like the next best thing to Grandma. All of what we say about SPIN-farming is based on this: Does it make sense?"
Christensen is president of the nonprofit Institute for Innovations in Local Farming, which is dedicated to making Philadelphia a leader in urban agriculture. She also owns the for-profit SPIN-Farming L.L.C., which helps new farmers in cities, suburbs and rural areas.
As long as we're talking sense here, how did farming become Christensen's thing?
She's not much of a gardener, she says, and her culinary skills are limited to being "a good boiler." But being able to buy fresh, locally grown food, with its attendant benefits of good nutrition and taste, has been a longtime personal and professional goal.
Who among us hasn't longed for buttery, homegrown lettuces or carrots that taste like the earth itself? And there are other considerations: Produce is expensive, pesticides are scary, and every other week, it seems, there's a salmonella warning.
"The distinction between city and country is an outmoded concept," Christensen says. "There's no reason you can't grow your own anymore."
In 2001, that was the idea behind the micro-farming system Wally Satzewich of Saskatchewan, central Canada, christened SPIN.
This enterprising urban farmer, who's also Christensen's business partner, grows salad mix, radishes, carrots and about a dozen other high-value crops in 25 rented backyard plots that total a half-acre. He makes enough of a living selling his organic harvest at a local farmers market and to restaurants that he takes January, February and March off every year. No second job.
Now, like Christensen, he's an advocate for applying SPIN principles to home gardens.
"It's a matter of figuring out how to get the most bang for your buck from a small land base," he says, suggesting that small backyard yields can be augmented by using front yards, patio space or containers, and renting or bartering space from neighbors, as he does.
"SPIN-gardeners are always thinking of ways to creatively expand, just like SPIN-farmers," Satzewich says.
The SPIN system involves "relay planting," densely sowing one crop after another to keep the beds perpetually full; growing short-season, high-end crops consumers will pay a premium for; modest investment in equipment, with most work done by hand; efficient cooling, prepping and bagging of produce and stretching the growing season by planting selected crops earlier or later than conventional guidelines dictate.
"You have to kind of lose the home-gardening baggage in terms of planting dates," Satzewich says. "We plant spinach as soon as the ground thaws."
Spinach seedlings are growing now in new hoop houses at Awbury Arboretum in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, where Weavers Way Co-op of Mount Airy has a 1-Ľ-acre organic farm. While not strictly a SPIN operation, the farm does incorporate some of the core principles: The beds are thickly planted, in succession, with spicy greens, scallions, arugula, bok choy, chard, mesclun, spinach and radishes.
The farm made $45,000 in 2007 (its first season), $65,000 last year, and will be expanding this year to W.B. Saul High School in Roxborough, Pa., says farm educator David Siller, who also runs the half-acre Seeds for Learning farm at Martin Luther King High School in East Germantown.
The Saul farm will operate as a CSA, or community-supported agriculture, offering subscriptions for weekly produce baskets that likely will include one of the co-op's favorites: "Easter Egg" radishes, which, like their namesake, come in red, pink, lavender and white and can be picked in just four weeks.
"Radishes are quick-growing and very easy to harvest, and we can get a lot of them off a small patch of land," Siller says.
The Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia may soon be banking on radishes, too.
With Christensen's help, officials there are planning to create a one-third-acre urban SPIN-farm in 2010, as part of the organization's new $69 million community center. Work has already started on the 12.4-acre site, part of the old Budd Co. property in Nicetown that was once envisioned as a casino venue.
Dottie Wells, the project's business manager, says the farm will probably start with restaurant-quality salad greens, selling to food cupboards and other customers. "But we're not into this to make money," she says.
The farm also will help educate children and adults about nutrition, healthy lifestyle and self-sufficiency. For example, rainwater collected in rooftop cisterns will irrigate the farm.
"To me, this is win-win," Wells says.
That's pretty much what Pollard is thinking about his Georgia farm adventure, which may someday include a children's weight-loss camp and environmental education center.
"I can't wait," he says.
Here are some SPIN-farming ideas that translate well to backyard vegetable gardens:
Spend some time thinking and reading about what you'd like to plant, with an emphasis on crops you can't get easily or inexpensively _ salad greens, for example, which are easy to grow from seed. "Don't waste time growing corn or potatoes. Grow exotic stuff," says SPIN advocate Roxanne Christensen.
Make beds two feet wide, so you can straddle them for planting, weeding and picking. Keep length in line with your family's produce needs, preferably no more than 12 feet.
Keep walkways to about 12 inches, so weeding is easier and you don't waste space. You'll have to navigate by putting one foot in front of the other. (Ballet training helps.)
Plant in relays. For example, you can sow _ in the same spot _ spring peas followed by carrots. Or start with spinach, and when that's done, put in radishes, then carrots. The idea is to make the most of the space you've got, rather than planting one crop per season per bed. No need for your plot to lie fallow. "You should be constantly planting and harvesting," Christensen says.
Think of what you're doing as "home-based food production. You create a produce aisle in your cooler," she adds. That means harvesting in a timely way and immediately washing and storing everything in a cooler or freezer. Even if you aren't selling to restaurants, this makes retrieval a snap.
Pass on the fancy tools. Christensen makes an exception for rototillers (although some gardeners blame them for stirring up weeds) and seeders, which are more efficient than sowing by hand. Probably depends on how big your garden is.
Make "inputs equal outputs." Though experts typically emphasize the primacy of healthy soil, SPIN-farmers are less fussy. "You have to be aware of soil health," says Christensen, "but you don't need exotic or expensive 'amendments.' Spot-fertilize."
And remember that SPIN-gardening, or farming, "doesn't have to be all-consuming." Unless, like Don Pollard, the nurse who can't wait to hit the dirt in Georgia, you want it to be.
Learning to SPIN
Information about SPIN-gardening or farming can be found at these Web sites:
http://www.spingardening.com/, http://www.spinfarming.com/ or http://www.somertontanksfarm.org/.
The last highlights Somerton Tanks Farm, a demonstration SPIN-farm on a half-acre of city Water Department property in the Far Northeast. Now closed, the farm produced more than $68,000 in gross sales in 2006, its fourth, and last, year.
To reach the Institute for Innovations in Local Farming, call 610-505-9189.
© 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer.