Roxanne Christensen is a co-creator of SPIN-farming—Small Plot Intensive farming, a system of urban agriculture that is being marketed online—that is able to gross farmers more than $50,000 from a half-acre of terse, city land.
In 2000, Christensen, an online publisher and longtime Philadelphia resident, came across the blog of Wally Satzewich, a Canadian farmer who had recently become a city-based urban farmer.
Satzewich had set up a small, sub-acre plot in the backyard of his home in Saskatoon, a college-town in the Saskatchewan province. He soon realized that the small plot, rife with high-value crops and without large overhead expenses, had the same bottom line as his 20-acre lot outside of town. He ditched the big digs.
Christensen pitched the concept to the Philadelphia Water Department, who had been in touch with her about reducing maintenance costs on land that it owned in the city.
The pitch landed in the form of the Somerton Tanks project, a sub-acre demonstration farm in the Somerton neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia which earned $68,000 gross sales in its fourth year of operation. It has since closed because, as Christensen puts it, “we had proven what we needed to prove there.” Christensen and Satzewich launched the online SPIN-farming learning series in March 2006.
We talked with Christensen to see how the online distribution model has driven the concept and to see if it’s time for Technically Philly to ditch our computers and get our hands dirty.
Transcript of interview was edited for length and clarity.
What are the start-up costs for a SPIN farm?
It depends on the scale. Startups run from $5,000 to $50,000 depending on what you already have. A delivery vehicle is one of the biggest expenses. Another is fencing, which can cost up to $18,000. If you’re farming in a site that’s a backyard, you can eliminate that investment. It depends on how resourceful you are. You can spend as much or as little as you want.
What’s different about SPIN than just buying a plot of land and sowing some seeds?
SPIN provides franchise-ready farming. We provide a business plan, a marketing plan and day-to-day work flow, so business drives agriculture rather than the other way around. Many people who go into farming don’t go into it with the right business framework, and it really works against them and really increases their chances of failure.
How has marketing this online helped the model?
Every day I see more and more first generation farmers—not from traditional farm families—download the guide as entry into the farming profession. There’s a Google group collaborating with contributors from New Zealand, Wisconsin, Sierra Leone, all over the world. They’re improving it and making innovations to it. It’s really combining the best of both worlds—technical agility and the environmental ethos coming together.
What is your vision?
We’re not visionaries, we’re practical people. Our role is to make people believe that they can do anything and being online allows us to do that because we can communicate with anyone and everywhere. I’ve heard the comment several times from spin farmers, ‘how did they farm before the Internet?’
Convince Technically Philly to give up our techie lives and start farming.
I don’t do that. Can the average person do SPIN farming? No. You need to have a calling, a real deep personal connection to farming and nature, and a willingness to work outside in all kinds of weather. You need good business sense, talent for growing and willingness to invest years in trial and error in figuring out how to build a business.
What’s next for SPIN?
We recommended that the city create a farm business park; eight to 10 acres where sub-acre farmers could setup next to each other and share infrastructure. We’re working with a city agency that is still very seriously interested and trying to carry on the Somerton Tanks project to its next phase.
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