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SPIN Farming Basics: a book review

I have something to share in this post which I think is hugely exciting and which I think you are going to enjoy. A while ago I was sent a book called ‘SPIN farming basics: how to grow commercially on under an acre’ by Wally Satzewich and Roxanne Christensen. The book describes itself as a “step-by-step learning guide to the sub-acre production system that makes it possible to gross $50,000+ from a half-acre”. SPIN, which stands for Small Plot Intensive’ (their website is here), has the feel of an important, big, and timely idea, and it is one that fits into Transition beautifully. So what is it?

At the moment, when contemplating urban food production, the models that are used tend to be allotments, community gardens, planting productive trees or forest gardens, private gardens or even, perhaps, rooftop gardens. Commercial urban market gardens tend to be thought of as needing to be on a larger scale and requiring significant infrastructure. SPIN is based on the idea of ‘patchwork farming’, of seeing unused areas of urban land as having the potential to be worked commercially, viewed through the eyes of a commercial grower rather than someone growing for a hobby. This is a profound shift of emphasis and one that I find very exciting. Here is a short talk by SPIN farmer Paula Sobie of City Harvest which gives her take on what SPIN farming is:

SPIN farming strips out any talk of politics or ideology that underpins approaches such as organics or permaculture, stating “think in terms of a production system, not a belief system”, although it does employ organic techniques. It can start on parcels of land as small as 1,000 square feet, and can be spread across a number of pieces of land. It is a commercial operation, albeit a small and decentralised one.

Its focus is on maximising output and profit for the grower. It weaves in intensive relay cropping practices, achieving a balance between high-value and low-value crops, “highly regimented harvesting techniques” and direct marketing. Unlike conventional farming, its start-up costs are low. The authors argue that the key to viability is focusing on high-value crops, such as spinach, carrots, fresh herbs, lettuce, a variety of leafy greens, radishes, scallions and chard, direct selling and being based within the community you are feeding.

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.

If the Transition of our local economies is going to work, it will need to find ways of creating a new resilient and more localised infrastructure in such a way that it is commercially viable, creates livelihoods, creates reskilling and employment opportunities for young people and which feels like it adds to a place, makes it more beautiful, more interesting, more diverse. You can easily imagine Transition initiatives identifying potential SPIN sites, training young people in the techniques, providing a central resource of tools, and helping with the marketing.

At the 2011 Transition Network conference at Hope University in Liverpool, I walked around the site each day looking at the huge areas of lawns and thinking in these days where students are expected to leave university with a debt of over £50,000, rethinking those lawns as SPIN farming plots would tick many, many boxes. A while ago I gave a talk at the Environment Agency in Bristol about Transition. Their site sits surrounded by masses of lawn, and I remember telling them that in 10 years it might be that the fact they now operate as a market garden is the only reason anyone still comes to work for them. Again, SPIN farming, more than anything I have come across yet, sets out how that could become a reality. As you can tell by now, I am quite fired up about it.

‘SPIN farming basics’ is just one of the books that SPIN produce. It isn’t a step-by-step growing guide, rather it is an overview book on how to run such an operation. I have no way of gauging whether their figures are accurate and how they might translate into the UK context. I’m also not sure what they do about slugs. There is also, I guess, a distant danger that should this really take off it might edge out more egalitarian forms of urban land use, such as allotments and community gardens. But even if they are only half right about their potential yields, it is still an impressive approach, and it calls for a powerful shift in focus for urban growers. In the wake of the recent riots in a number of English cities, I am struck by the potential of this approach to shift thinking about how to create viable social enterprises and a sense of purpose for young people. It has certainly got my brain ticking over pretty rapidly.

As the authors put it, “once you put on SPIN glasses, you start seeing dollar signs all over vacant and underutilised patches of land”. As economic contraction worsens, and peak oil starts to bite, this form of land use will become the norm, as it has done every time in history that societies have faced similar sets of circumstances. The obstacle to getting started has always been how to make this stuff viable. That obstacle, thanks to the work of the SPIN folks, would appear to no longer exist, or at least to be greatly diminished. If you don’t do it someone else will, and they likely won’t do it in a way rooted in social justice, community benefit, food security and Transition. This is an important window in time to get moving on this.

This is a revolutionary text, an incendiary call to rethink urban land use in a way that ticks everyone’s boxes. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Here is another film about SPIN farmer Curtis Stone in Kelowna, BC, Canada:

It is rather hard to tell from the SPIN website which of the books they offer is this one… so for the last time ever, here is a link to the book on Amazon…. it is quite pricey, but one to get and share with as many people as you can…

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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