Tooling up

Every year we focus on improving one aspect of the farm in earnest. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision, other times, I see the theme of the year emerge only upon reflection.  Some examples of these in recent years have been 1. An accounting overhaul which helped illuminate our profitability; 2. An attempt to document everything for our employees and create solid protocols for how we do things; 3. Long-term planning for financial and personal sustainability. None of these areas is ever complete, and it doesn’t mean we don’t work on all areas of the business all the time, but with some extra focus and prioritization, it’s amazing how much more we can accomplish.

This year, the theme seems to be acquiring and using new tools. We all love new tools, don’t we? I mean, buying them is the easy part. But often I find I am really excited about a new system, tool or piece of equipment only to find we don’t really end up using it all that much. Or we hit a roadblock and I don’t have the time to overcome the obstacle to get to a good working flow with the new tool. Other times I am just afraid to try new things. We have our system, and our crew knows the systems, and it’s just overwhelming to change the whole thing. This year, we have taken the plunge on quite a few tools that I have had my eye on for a while. While I don’t know yet how useful in the long run each one of them will be, I would love to tell you a little more about them, in case it inspires you to investigate or try any of them out.

The Paper Pot Transplanter

This is a unique system for producing transplants and getting them into the ground. If you have never seen a video, go to YouTube and watch, it’s quite mesmerizing. The overall goal is labor saving with faster transplanting time, and this tool definitely makes that happen. But there are some pros and cons to consider. I will be quick about it and just give you the bullet points. There is plenty of information about the tool on the sites that sell them, such as Smallfarmworks.com and Paperpot.co, and lo and behold—Johnny’s now carries them, too.

Pros

•Faster transplant time, saves on labor.
•A system that all works together: bottoms trays, paper pots, dibble board, drop seeder, transplanter.
•Transplant from a standing position—who doesn’t love that concept?
•Ability to transplant crops that don’t like their roots disturbed. Since you don’t dislodge the plants from their trays, there is little root disturbance.
•Faster time from seed to transplant stage (since you don’t dislodge plants, you can get them out quicker to the field) freeing up greenhouse space.
•Human powered, quiet, no fossil fuel use.
•Good at almost any scale from small to large farm.

Cons

•Plants can’t linger as long in their trays once they are up to size.
•Cost:  you have to buy the whole system and there is the ongoing expense of buying the paper pot trays.
•Can be challenging with certain soil conditions; you really need a seed bed free of rock and debris.
•Easy for new transplants to dry out, need to take extra precaution to keep soil moist.
•Limitations on in-row spacing and only one size of pot.

We have been using this tool for only a few months, but I have to say I love it. I have heard a lot of other farmers both praise and curse it, so do your homework and ask around to see how this system might work for you. While I love the speed with which it transplants, I also love that we can transplant crops we normally either struggle extracting from their cells, or don’t transplant at all because they don’t handle root disturbance, such as edible peas and beets, or that would be too tedious to transplant at a close spacing, like scallions and turnips. The number one reason we bought this tool was to help with production of Salanova for cut salad mix. We plan to plant a bed every single week. But since we were going to have it anyway, I started dreaming big on everything we could use it for.

Here are the flowers we are using it for this year; I will give you an end of year update on how it all goes.

•Sunflowers
•Celosia
•Ornamental grasses
•Bachelor buttons
•Basil
•Calendula
•Amaranth
•Cress
•Ammi
•Strawflower
•Daucus
•Zinnias

Germination Chamber

This one is so easy, every one of you could build one.

My husband is a big believer in saving all the things. He takes all kinds of hand-me- downs, needed or not, plus saves every old thing for the “someday this could be useful” scenario. It drives me nuts because I feel as though I live in a junkyard. But I have come to accept it, because marriage is a compromise.

And there are many times when one of those pieces of junk comes to the rescue. Case in point:  Two non-working commercial refrigerators, which someone gave us after they stopped working, which made the perfect candidates for a germination chamber. I am not going to go into a lot of details, because both the Flower Farmer Facebook group and the ASCFG Facebook group have multiple posts with lots of good answers and advice on all the different ways people are getting creative with their germ chambers. So go do a search there if your interest is piqued. I just wanted to say how easy it was to make and how much I already love it. Even though we have a heated propagation greenhouse, the ability to control temperature and humidity and the speed and uniformity of germination when using the chamber is ah-ma-zing!

There are expensive commercial units (which I am sure are totally worth the expense, especially for the increased capacity) but the homemade versions are not bad. We purchased an online tutorial called “The Ultimate Germination Chamber” from Growingfarmers.com for $37. It just tells you how to do everything and gives some case studies. While we already knew most of the information, it was super helpful for determining what types of controllers and monitors to purchase, without guessing what would work. But whatever route you take, I think any person of any capability can make one of these and you will love the results. Just be sure to check your germ chamber often and get those flats out right as (or right before) they germinate!

K.U.L.T.-Kress Finger Weeder and Argus

This is a tractor-driven implement that does an amazing job of cultivating, in other words disturbing the soil to kill weeds while they are relatively small. The finger weeders (magically) weed in the row where your crops are planted while some other components weed between rows and behind your tractor tires. I have yet to see this in person, so maybe it just seems magical to me right now. The Argus is the system the cultivating tools are mounted to, rear of the tractor-mounted framework which is steered from behind the tractor by a second driver, so to speak, and K.U.L.T.-Kress is the company that manufactures it.

I first heard about this tool on the Farmer to Farmer podcast. And even though a lot of tools are labeled as “game changers”, I love that Chris Blanchard (the podcast host) used to ask his guests “What is your favorite tool on the farm?”. When you have to pick just one, it is pretty enlightening. When multiple people talked about the finger weeders being the best tool, I took note. It has taken me almost four years and asking lots of questions of farmer friends to actually get to the point where I was ready to buy it.

As I mentioned above, sometimes we are slow to make changes. We had to really think through all the ways in which we would need to change our systems, including row spacing, to accommodate this tool, which will be pretty significant. And it can be hard to know if it is worth it until you can actually put it into use. But we spend roughly 35% of our labor on weeding, and we are cultivating 15 acres of crops, almost all by hand. So, for us, this seems like a good move if everything works as expected. It still feels risky, but I guess if it doesn’t work for us, we can try to sell the tool. The alternative is make no changes and keep going in our currently inefficient system.

Even though we would love to get into more no-till and more tarping to help with weeds, at our scale I still think this tool will be very useful for us, even if we use all of these things in some sort of combination. We currently use a lot of plastic mulch to reduce the weed pressure, which is a single season use of plastic that I am just not okay with anymore. I am hoping that this system will allow us to use less of it and focus more on tractor cultivation.

While this system does require a larger farm setup to be effective—first you need a tractor, and long enough rows with turnaround space, etc.—there are smaller scale approaches, too. There are finger weeders, discs, and knives for the Terrateck Double Wheelhoe sold on Johnny’s web site (johnnyseeds.com), basically a hand push version of the same tool. I can’t vouch for it myself, but it’s worth checking out.

The Argus will be our most expensive tool purchase this year. And since it hasn’t even arrived yet, I don’t have a whole lot of real life experience to share with you yet, but I will soon.

If you have questions or suggestions about any of these tools, I would love to hear from you. Drop me a line: [email protected]