Couple puts right SPIN into farming business

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IN an era where thousand-acre farms are pegged as on the small side, it's hard to wrap your head around a successful commercial farm built solely on backyard gardens and vacant lots.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/03/2007 (5640 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

IN an era where thousand-acre farms are pegged as on the small side, it’s hard to wrap your head around a successful commercial farm built solely on backyard gardens and vacant lots.

Welcome to the world of SPIN farming, a technique that lets urban farmers grow a large amount of food on a surprisingly small amount of land, often within city limits.

In the case of SPIN’s pioneering couple, Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen, that farm amounts to only half an acre — just over a dozen organic plots scattered around residential Saskatoon.

“I wouldn’t want it to be any other way,” said Vandersteen, who along with Satzewich will give a free presentation tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Crossways in Common, 222 Furby St., presented by the Manitoba Food Charter.

When it comes to small-scale production, it’s hard to get much smaller than SPIN farming. SPIN, which stands for Small Plot Intensive, takes conventional methods and applies them to sub-acre farms — no heavy equipment or vast fields required.

Satzewich and Vandersteen have done so well that Vandersteen recently resigned from the University of Saskatchewan after 23 years as a library technician, in favour of full-time market gardening.

“It was just more lucrative,” laughed Vandersteen, who first met Satzewich as a farmers’ market customer before the two wed in 1991.

The couple started farming together on an acre of land outside Saskatoon. Eventually they decided to expand, and bought up 20 acres along the South Saskatchewan River.

But as the farm grew, they discovered problems with the model. It was hard to gather work crews, and fluctuating river levels meant they were constantly relocating irrigation pumps.

They also couldn’t grow many high-value farmers’ market crops. Leafy greens, spinach, and radishes were quickly snapped up by deer and other wildlife.

“That sort of operation is more or less suited for large family operations, or a corporate type set-up,” said Satzewich. “As a couple of people, we just weren’t prepared for what it entailed.”

Eventually they sold the land to a neighbour and moved to Saskatoon, where Vandersteen worked, to start planning a new kind of urban farming.

Satzewich began with his home garden plot and a few others offered by neighbours and friends, and decided to focus on higher-value crops.

“After a while, word-of-mouth just sort of took over,” he said. Neighbours swapped land for produce, money or in some cases, nothing at all, and landlords liked seeing the weedy backyards of rental properties transformed into gardens.

Wally’s Urban Market Garden has evolved in the seven or eight years since it began, from a high of 30 plots to 15 higher-quality plots this year.

The work is steady but manageable, and despite running a farm that’s miniature by industry standards, Vandersteen and Satzewich make a comfortable living with home-grown food and low overhead costs.

lindsey.wiebe@freepress.mb.ca

Want to know more?

For more information on tonight’s event, call 943-0822 or e-mail paul@mbfoodcharter.ca. Details on SPIN farming can be found at www.spinfarming.com.

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