Vertical Oblong Wheel Planter System: Scale Up Yield, Increase Production, Increase Profits, Feed More in the Community, and Improve Worker Ergonomics

Final Report for FNC12-858

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $7,379.75
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Lisa Firsick
Y Knot Farm
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Project Information

Summary:

  • Project Duration: 2 years
  • Date of Report: 3/12/14

PROJECT BACKGROUND
Y Knot Farm is owned and operated by Lisa Firsick and is located on a 3-acre tract in the southeast portion of Benton County, MO. Lisa started with a small garden (40’ x 40’) three years ago and has expanded to include a few laying hens, 10 goats, three bee hives, a garden space of 50’ x 70′, a twenty-one dwarf fruit tree orchard, 18 blueberry plants, 15 grape vines, a large patch of asparagus, and a 30’ x 72’ High Tunnel received through a NRCS grant. The total garden, High Tunnel and Orchard area takes up less than an acre of land.

The Y Knot Orchard consists of 4 Apple trees, 2 Pear trees, 2 Plum trees and 13 Peach trees. The garden grows 10 blueberry plants, 15 grape vines, vegetables such as onion, sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, spinach, kale, okra, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, bush beans, turnips and radishes, broccoli and other vegetables and squashes.

The High Tunnel produced tomatoes, swiss chard, eggplant, several kinds of peppers, and a few herbs in the 2013/2014 season. Approximately 1/3 of the high tunnel is planted for strawberry production for the 2014 season: the plan is to convert the High Tunnel to at least 70% strawberry production for the following years and to grow vertically. There is ½ – ¾ acres of sunflowers, ½ – ¾ acres of corn (seed and sweet) and a small lot of 8 blueberry plants.

I, Lisa, am a beginning farmer and I hope to not only feed my household but to make a living off of the fruits and vegetables grown on the farm. I have two bachelor’s degrees, one in Structural Engineering and one in Architecture. I have worked in these two fields off and on for 25 years. Even while owning and operating a successful restaurant I managed to run a side business in these two fields. With the downturn of the economy and lack of local jobs, I have decided to utilize the land I live on. I have an entrepreneurial spirit and my creativity and “outside the box” thinking play out in everything I do. I currently sell fruits, vegetables, eggs, and plants off of the farm premises and have a part-time job.

Y Knot Farm strives to be self sustainable and although not labeled organic, makes every effort to remain pesticide and herbicide free. I have always believed in not using any chemicals in my gardening and in raising my animals. I use DE in all practices on the farm. I try to full circle all of my animal manure and keep the circle of life here on the farm.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION
Design and fabricate a vertical oblong Ferris wheel (VOW) planter system that increases premium garden space: scaling up yield and increasing local customers while increasing worker comfort by minimizing stooping, bending, kneeling and crawling.

PROBLEM: Limited growing season and space = limited production, people fed, and income.

In the North Central Region small farmers have a limited growing season and usually limited space. These two factors limit production, mouths fed, and income. One can only grow so much, on so much land, in a short amount of time.
Production, people fed, and income is limited and seasonal! A small farmer needs to take full advantage of their space.

With store food prices skyrocketing and the growing movements of “wanting to know where your food comes from” and “buy local”, small farmers are faced with space limitations and limited growth of their businesses. How can a local grower capitalize on his space and in turn feed more local people?

SOLUTION: Expand your space with a Vertical Oblong Wheel (VOW) Planter System

A VOW planter system is much like a typical Ferris wheel except oblong in the vertical direction. This planter will be comprised of a steel stand, sprockets, chains, and twelve 10 foot long planters. These planters rotate around this oblong chain much like a Ferris wheel, by a solar panel running a 24 volt slow moving motor.

Measurements are three feet wide, ten feet long, and approximately fourteen feet in height. The base is made out of steel with sprockets and chains on each side. Twelve 6-inch PVC pipes with end caps are spaced along the chains. Drain holes were drilled into the bottom of each pipe and a 3-inch wide slit was removed from the top for planting. A panel connected to a charge controller and then connected to two marine batteries. This set up controls the 24-volt slow moving motor which rotates the chains around the 3-sprocket vertical wheel. A watering system was installed across the ten-foot frame for watering. Equal amounts of sun and water are supplied to each planter with a continuous slow rotation of the VOW.     

Each pipe planter will holds 10 strawberry plants. Mounting twelve pipes to the wheel will gain 120 strawberry plants. The VOW planter increases the number of plants per square foot of ground area by four times. This translates into more yield, in turn feeding more people, increasing worker comfort and production, and potentially creating jobs and earning more income.

  • GOALS
    The final goal is to find a solution to utilize more vertical space in the high tunnel to increase production and growing season. Another goal was to make gardening less stressful on the gardeners back/body.

    POINTS OF DETERMINATION

  • Evaluation of the material used along with any variations that would make a better VOW or materials that would be better suit for the VOW.
  • Comparison VOW yields to ground yield, quantity and quality.
  • What value to the community did the VOW planter system provide?

¨      Did it increase yield, feed more people?

¨      Did it increase local customers?

¨      Did it create jobs?

¨      Did the field days and literature increase community knowledge and/or involvement in growing or buying locally?

¨      Is the VOW feasible for a family, a school, a community garden?

  • What value to the farmer did the VOW planter system provide?

¨      Did it increase profits?

¨      What is the rate of return on the money spent on the VOW System?

¨      Did it increase worker production?

¨      Did it impact quality of life?

  • What value to the worker did the VOW planter system provide?

¨      Did it increase worker comfort?

¨      Did it impact their quality of life?

PROCESS
The first step was making the frame of the VOW system and then making the tubes and connecting them to the system. Metal square tubing and angle iron used is a must. The VOW must be sturdy and solid. Extra angle iron was used across the top for a more stable system.

A ¾” solid shaft was used and it would be better if a 1” or 1 ½” diameter shaft would be used in any future construction. NO. 60 chain/sprockets were used and this may get bumped up to NO. 60 heavy duty chain/sprockets in any future VOW construction, unless a lighter tube and planting medium could be used.

The tubes with wet planting material and plants weigh approximately 60-70 pounds each. This is heavy and hard to manage alone. One cannot take on and off the VOW system for wintering alone and a stand would have to be built to help in this process. In the 2013/2014 fall and winter the tubes were left on and strawberry plants were taken out and planted in the ground in the high tunnel. Lettuce and radishes were planted and harvested until the weather got too cold.

The need to find a lighter, preferably not plastic, tube or planter is a must and also to find a lightweight growing medium would reduce the weight making them easier to take off and put back on for the wintering process.

Water pump hammer idea to move the VOW system around was not possible due to the weight of the tubes. A 24 Volt slow rotating motor was purchased along with a 24 Volt solar panel, 2 deep cycle batteries, control charger and metal for the mounting of the panel, and wiring cables. A battery stand and motor mount was built to handle the rotation of the VOW system.

I did not end up putting berry plants directly below the VOW system being that there was not enough room to maneuver under the VOW for weeding and picking.

PEOPLE
My husband, Jeff, and I built the project. The only other person who helped get word out about workshops was Bill Brook at the NRCS office in Lincoln, MO.

I did have a lot of help from Steve at ASAP Rebuilders on the 24 volt motor. He brought his friend Brian from Ft. Leonard Wood, MO, out to the farm to see the project, they both helped me figure out the motor size, speed and gear ratio needed to rotate the VOW via a 24 volt solar panel.

RESULTS

Yield Comparisons
The berry plants wintered fair in the tubes in 2012/2013. They were nestled in straw and when the planters went back on the VOW system in early spring of 2013 I found I had lost about 10% of the plants. There are 12 tubes with 10 plants each (120 plants) with a loss of 12 plants left me with 108 plants. Each plant produced on the average of 1.25 quarts of strawberries each which totals 135 quarts of strawberries in the ground space of 30 square feet.

In comparison, the 30 square feet of ground space contained 30 plants which yielded 45 quarts of strawberries due to the runners taking hold and also producing strawberries.

135/45 = 3 times the yield in the same amount of space. Not quite the 5 times yield that was expected but none-the-less 3 times the yield per square foot of space. A drawback was that the tubes were not taken off during the 2013/2014 winter due to the heavy weight.

The quality of the VOW strawberries were excellent. The fruit didn’t have an insect problem or any rot from touching the ground.

DISCUSSION
The need to use all the space available in order to make it as a small farmer is a must. The VOW system will definitely help to increase yield on the farm but it needs to be more economical. I believe the cost of the system will go down knowing what works and what doesn’t work after construction of the prototype. There are still a few kinks to be worked out. A better tube/container to grow in and lighter growing material is a must. A better watering system needs to be researched and implemented.

At this point the advantage is the increased yield, the disadvantage is the cost.

PROJECT IMPACTS
Increased production relates to increased sales. This project helps increase the sustainable practices by eliminating some pest and rot problems which have a negative effect on production.

Still have yet to find a watering system that works well without watering a 5 foot swath beneath the VOW system. The need to find a water system that just waters the tubes is a must and a search is ongoing.

Value To Community
The yield per square foot was increased; therefore more quarts of berries were sold to customers. Customer base was increased. There were no new hires due to the one VOW system but if I filled my high tunnel with VOW systems I would have to hire 1 or 2 part-time seasonal workers to help with the workload.

Value To Farmer
Although sales were up, the VOW, in just materials alone cost roughly $3,400 to produce the first prototype. The rate of return is not high enough at this point to warrant building the VOW system. But with a little more research and development the system would get cheaper and more efficient. The tubes need to get lighter and cheaper and preferably be made from a more sustainable product. The VOW system could also be made to handle fall and winter products thereby increasing sales, improving on your rate of return.

The value of the VOW system to the farmer in the realm of ease and comfort was increased tenfold. The fact that one doesn’t have to get down on their hands and knees or bend over to pick and weed was a huge increase to the value of the farmer’s life. Less pain, less time spent, and an increase in their sales equals a better life.

Value To The Worker
The VOW system increased worker comfort and quality of life by providing a comfortable setting to work on the plants and fruit. With the VOW one can plant, weed, and pick standing up with no bending over or kneeling (getting down and up is hard for some) and it also protects your back.

From personal experience, not having to bend down to pick the berries was such a relief on my lower back. When you are picking over 1700 square feet of berries it kills your back to lean over or kneel and get back up that much, for that long of a period of time. It was nice just to stand and walk 10 feet back and forth to gather the fruit or weed.

OUTREACH
The 2013 workshop did increase awareness of buying local, and educated people on how to start/grow their own strawberry gardens. Some were interested in smaller versions of the VOW and what else could be grown in the system both commercially and personally. Twenty three people from the surrounding community attended to learn about the VOW system. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and freshly-made goat cheeses were available for snacking along with bottles of water.

Growing fodder for animal feed was a discussion raised and I plan on experimenting with the idea to supplement winter feed.

Another workshop will be scheduled early this summer (2014) in conjunction with NRCS, the local 4-H program, and the County MU Extension Center.

An invitation to the local elementary school was extended but due to a District policy in the matter of insurance, it was declined. I do believe that a revised and improved version of the VOW system would benefit schools, not only as a teaching tool but with good nutrition in the process.

Community and family gardens would benefit with the increased yield per square foot.

An E-book will be developed when some of the kinks are ironed out and will be for sale on the Farm’s website along with an article written for submission to Mother Earth News, other magazines, local newspapers, and a few websites.

PROGRAM EVALUATION
Keep on doing what you are doing. The more projects, the more workshops, the more awareness. We need more awareness of how broken our food chain is and how we can bring it back to a local sustainable level. It’s time to phase out big agriculture, get back to our ancestral roots of raising our own local food. No more transporting our food from thousands of miles away which is not sustainable.

Project Objectives:

Interim Report
• Final cost and any improvements of the VOW planter system will be noted, evaluated, and reported in the Winter of 2012.
Final Report and Questions that will be answered by this SARE Project:
• Evaluation on the material used along with any variations that would make a better VOW or materials that would be better suit the VOW.
• Comparison VOW yields to ground yield, quantity and quality. (Was it five times the amount?)
• What value to the community did the VOW planter system provide?
• Did it increase yield, feed more people?
• Did it increase local customers?
• Did it create jobs?
• Did the field days and literature increase community knowledge and/or involvement in growing or buying locally?
• Is the VOW feasible to a family, a school, a community garden?
• What value to the farmer did the VOW planter system provide?
• Did it increase profits?
• What is the rate of return on the money spent on the VOW System?
• Did it increase worker production?
• Did it impact quality of life?
• What value to the worker did the VOW planter system provide?
• Did it increase worker comfort?
• Did it impact their quality of life?

As American citizens we not only need to choose healthier eating habits we also need to be more efficient in our eating habits. We need to grow local and buy local. We need to start supporting our own communities and their businesses before our Small Farms and Main Streets fade away. Small farmers, community gardens and family home gardens need to utilize all of their available space. The VOW will increase useable growing spaces such as rooftops, office yards, community spaces, townhouse patios, school yards, even balconies. An increased growing space translates into increased yield, which in turn increases the number of people fed in your community. This means the community is relying less on food from another part of the country or even another part of the world. To a small farmer, an increased yield will bring increased profits, a higher quality of life and more money to spur community growth. The VOW will increase the comfort of the worker, increase worker efficiency and decrease employer expenses. Available planting space is increased adding employment opportunities in the community. Feeding more individuals on a local basis not only benefits the local community and local economy, it also supports a cleaner environment by protecting air and water quality, and minimizing energy consumption.

Cooperators

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Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.