Savour Food – SPIN farming – Small Plot INtensive farming

This is an article I wrote for City Palate Magazine last year and I’m sharing it here because I’m writing a lot about gardening and farming this week in preparation for my Alberta at Noon column on CBC Radio One this Thursday. The information about this “urban agriculture” movement, for those of you interested in such things, will round out your knowledge of current trends in all things green and growing right now. My next post will be about seed saving, permaculture and farming workshops with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms.

SPIN City – how Calgary is becoming more sustainable one urban SPIN farm at a time
By Karen Anderson (as originally published in City Palate Magazine, July/August, 2012)

Rod Olson & Chad Kile
Rod Olson & Chad Kile

In Food and the City: Urban Agricultural and the New Food Revolution,(Prometheus, 2012) author Jennifer Cockrall-King highlights the perils of our industrial food system: food shortages, food scares related to contamination, the controversy around genetically modified organisms, peak oil, peak water and peak farming knowledge. While closing the door on any doubts of industrial farming’s viability she also opens a window of hope by reporting on innovations being made to meet the challenge of feeding the world’s 7 billion hungry mouths. SPIN farming is one of those rays of hope.

People typically think of “spin” as a public relations tactic used to sway opinion, often in highly manipulative ways. In this article, SPIN is an acronym for Small Plot INtensive farming, a method of urban agriculture developed in Saskatoon over the last twenty years.

Wally Satzewich and Gail Vandersteen were urbanites living in Saskatoon but dreaming of a country acreage devoted to growing vegetables to sell at the city’s farmer’s market. They bought their piece of rural dreamland, planted 10 acres of crops but after a few years of dealing with deer, bugs and wind on the open prairie and some meticulous record keeping they realized that the protected, well cared for, lower pestilent inner city plots they had kept were the source of most of their income. They sold their rural farm and started to mentor others about the most successful small plot crops and intensive growing methods. Enter Roxanne Christensen a writer who famously proved SPIN methods would work when she turned an inner city Philadelphia plot into an economically viable urban half-acre farm in just two years. Christensen partnered with Satzewich to develop “How-To” manuals which sell for a modest $19.95 here. Christensen told me that one of the most important aspects of their work is the mentoring their SPIN farming system offers. She explained, “at least one or two generations have opted out of the farming profession, so there is a lack of sufficient mentors and the type of farming being practiced has not kept up with the times, so that much of the knowledge base that is available is out-of-touch with current economic and cultural realities.” The website currently has 684 SPIN farmers enrolled in their free online support group.

Rod Olson and Chad Kile, the owners of Leaf and Lyre Urban Farms, were Calgary’s first SPIN farmers. Olson, who was raised on a farm near Camrose, stumbled across the SPIN farming website when he was pondering how to incorporate his love of the land with his now urban setting. SPIN gave him an “aha” moment and with brother-in-law Kile he attended a “Local 101” conference in March of 2010 and heard Tony Marshall, owner of Highwood Crossing Organic Farms, talk about how Cubans utilized SPIN farming® to feed themselves in response to being cut off from oil supplies. Marshall also highlighted Satzewich’s work so that attendees of Local 101 would believe SPIN practices could be applied in our Northern Prairie climate.

Olson and Kile became convinced that SPIN would be both the way back to a lifestyle they loved and the way forward in terms of a progressive form of agriculture that would be sustainable and adaptable to Calgary. Kile agreed to be the brawn of the operation while Olson would do all the marketing and business development. Kile is an introverted academic who when not working on his PhD actually likes nothing better than digging in the dirt for hours. The CPO Chorus’s Principal Tenor and part-time youth leader Olson excels in community connection and networking. The next challenge was finding land.

Fortunately, they had also met Julie Van Rosendaal at Local 101 and she was able to facilitate an interview on CBC Radio One’s The Calgary Eyeopener where she is the resident food and nutrition expert. Offers of garden plots began to flow in and Leaf & Lyre roto-tilled their first plot in April of 2010.

The profile of SPIN plot lenders tends to fall in three categories. There are aged widows who are happy to have their backyards cared for again, there are young families who want their children to be exposed to backyard gardening but that don’t have the time or the know-how themselves and there are young people who have the land and would like to feel part of the movement and have more ties to their community. Olson and Kile are now up to their goal of 25 plots and the half-acre needed to fulfill their business plan which could see them make up to $72,000 per year according to the SPIN farming® website. They now refer ongoing land offers to a program that connects would-be growers with willing lenders at a website called Land Share Canada.

Leaf and Lyre’s specialty is greens as they are the plants best suited to Calgary’s climate and because they provide the best return on investment. They sell directly to restaurants and also have a weekly booth at the Hillhurst Sunnyside Farmer’s Market where patrons will find spinach, mizuna, tahtsoi, kale, onions, arugula, spring mesclun mix, red oak leaf lettuce, chard, unique carrot varietals and potatoes throughout the season.

A mere two years ago Leaf and Lyre were the only SPIN farmers in Calgary but 2012 will see at least three others join this urban agriculture cum sustainability movement (See Sidebar – The New SPINners). The Calgary Food Committee released its initial assessment and action plan on June 6, 2012 to help the City of Calgary formulate a plan for sustainability and food security in the decades to come. Part of that plan could include identifying land that could facilitate SPIN farming. In the meantime, Olson and Kile hope to band with “the new SPINners” to develop and share much-needed resources for coordinating the cleaning, storage and distribution of crops that could keep our city in fresh food for the future. Calgary could become known as a great SPIN city.

Sidebar – The new SPINners

Leaf Ninjas

Kai Boettcher, Luke Kimmel, Dave Carlton of The Leaf Ninjas
Kai Boettcher, Luke Kimmel, Dave Carlton of The Leaf Ninjas

Contact: Luke Kimmel, Dave Carlton, Tim Kessler, Kai Boettcher and Andrew Renaux
403-830-7229 or
Produce: leafy greens, micro-greens, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, and onions, and a variety of herbs grown in plots throughout Inglewood and Ramsay in the city’s southwest. Leaf Ninjas are also in the business or permaculture design and installation
Available at: The Area in Inglewood, 1119 – 10 Ave SE & The Market Collective (various locations)

Urban City Farms and CSA

Will Carnegie and Chris Kostashuk
Will Carnegie and Chris Kostashuk

Contact: Will Carnegie and Chris Kostashuk, 403-973-6035 or
Produce: many leafy greens and lettuces, beets, peas, beans, carrots, cucumbers, squashes, corn, leeks, watermelon, Brussel sprouts and onions grown in both the southwest quadrant of the city and on a 1 acre lot in Chestemere.
Available at: by CSA subscription and check the website for market locations throughout the summer.

Urban Sunflower Apiary and Market Garden

Contact: Jerremie or Rita Clyde, 403-483-7816 or
Produce: pesticide and chemical-free bee products, vegetables and 10 kinds of potatoes for 2012 grown in plots in the northwest and at Paradise Hill Farms in Nanton.
Available at: Hillhurst-Sunnyside Farmers Market each Wednesday, May 30 – October 3 sharing a booth with Leaf & Lyre Urban Farm.


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