Siri and I spend a lot of time looking at our finances, thinking about the size our farm, wondering how big it should be. Our goal is to be as small as possible without overtaxing ourselves, our ground, or our employees. When I look at successful, larger vegetable farms, one of their distinguishing features is that they have specialized equipment making the all their processes as efficient as possible.
In my opinion, one of the hurdles standing between small farms like ours and true sustainability and profitability is that there is very little equipment out there that can help us gain similar efficiencies but that also fit our size farm and pocketbook. It’s easy to find 4 to 6-foot wide tillers, mowers, plows for small tractors, and such. What’s lacking is smaller equipment that can mechanize harvesting, washing vegetables, or tractor implements that can do more than one task per pass, or that can help reduce labor costs by streamlining our systems. There simply aren’t enough small farms out there to make it worthwhile for companies to produce specialized equipment for small farms. In response to this dearth of small-scale production equipment, groups like Farm Hack, Open Source Ecology, and others have created forums where small farmers like us can share designs, information, and techniques that have worked for us. But we still have a long way to go.
One process that I’ve always wanted to improve is the way we make our beds. When we make beds to seed or transplant into, we make a lot of passes with our tractors. When the weather dries out enough for us to work the ground, we’ll be spading or disking in our cover crops. This probably will take two passes.
Then we’ll till as shallowly as possible to make the topmost layer of soil into a fine medium so we can accurately gauge how deep we are planting our seeds and cultivate effectively with a tractor (i.e. kill weeds with tractor mounted tools we drag behind or underneath the Cub or Kubota).
Lastly, we’ll make a pass with the Farmall Cub (or Kubota 245 H) when we seed or mark rows for transplanting.
We want to mark beds as straight as possible. Straightness matters because tractor cultivation is significantly faster and easier when the vegetables are planted in straight, parallel lines. With fast and effective tractor cultivation comes more uniform plant growth and faster harvesting. For many crops we grow, these sorts of efficiencies may be the difference between that crop being profitable or not because of reduced hand weeding, faster harvesting, and increased yield.
To mark parallel rows for transplanting, we built a row marker that attaches to the back of the Cub. It scratches three parallel and equidistant lines in the bed that we use as a guide. But it’s really hard to do as accurate a job as I’d like with our equipment. Because its’ so imprecise, I’ve found this process of making beds unsatisfying.
Not to mention, it’s always felt like the final pass, when we mark the rows, was an unnecessary pass with a tractor. This is compounded by the fact that, because the tiller throws a wake wider than its frame, it’s really difficult to accurately line the Cub up with the exact middle of the tilled path. Over the course of a bunch of beds, a ridge of soil the tiller makes slowly creeps into the row we want to seed or transplant into. This makes transplanting, seeding, and, later on, cultivating more difficult. But what’s most unsatisfying about our till/mark/seed process is that the Cub is hard to drive perfectly straight, especially when that ridge of soil is directly beneath the front tires. And every jog or jag, every time you start drifting in one direction and correct your mistake, every time you deviate from perfectly straight, you make cultivation much much harder and slower.
Really large farms ensure perfectly straight, parallel beds by using GPS guided tractors. When they plant and cultivate, the GPS steers the tractor. Beds are perfectly flat and uniform. Plants are all spaced perfectly. Robots could probably do a lot of the work… Smaller, but still big farms, don’t use GPS technology. But they do get perfectly level and uniform beds by using a bed shaper. They ensure their beds are parallel by using a long row-marking arm that scratches a line next to the tractor showing the driver what to aim at during the next pass.
In a business with a lot of overhead and relatively small profit margins, the sorts of efficiencies I’ve been writing about can make a huge difference in profitability. We have been thinking about improving the way we form beds for a while now. We can considered buying a bed shaper that is appropriately scaled for our farm. They aren’t even that expensive. But it wouldn’t eliminate a pass with the tractor; it might even add one, as some of the smaller bed shapers suggest making multiple passes roughing in beds before tilling and then doing a final shaping pass. What we are looking for is efficiency, reducing the number of tractor passes we have to make, but also improving the uniformity of our beds. After much internet research, I learned about tiller/bed shaper combos. They tend to be prohibitively expensive and designed for massive tractors.
But perhaps, I wondered, could we design and build something that would achieve the desired effect? So I got to talking with Van, our local plowman/mechanic/welder/cigar aficionado. I showed him pictures of various designs that seem to work for larger equipment and I asked whether he could build me something similar. Van passed along the project to his friend Gary, and Gary has now spent countless hours modifying our tiller to be a combo tiller/bed shaper.
It isn’t completed yet. And even if it were, it’s been so incredibly wet this spring that we wouldn’t have had a chance to try it anyway. But I’m very hopeful that this small modification of a stock rototiller could be a tool that can help small farms like ours achieve the efficiencies of large scale productions farms. It’s things like this that can help us lower our production costs and become profitably sustainable. That is…. if it works.
I’ll be updating this blog with news about our progress with this design. But if anyone is interested, I know Gary is keen to build more of these, once we’ve settled upon a successful design.
For those of you who have read this far, our design is for a 60″ tiller and makes a 48″ bed-top 4″ high, but this is customizable. The bed shaper comes off easily, so the tiller can be used normally as well. If you get a new tiller, the bed-shaper is transferrable with only a little welding of parts onto the new tiller. Downward pressure is adjustable to make a more or less compacted bed-top. It looks like it’ll add about 300 lbs to the total weight of the tiller. Here are a few more pictures: