Ten Hens Farm, started in 2008, is a sustainable farm located in Bath, Michigan, managed by Dru and Adam Montri. Bath is in central Michigan. We farm on the two acres we own and rent an additional 3 acres from our neighbors. We produce a wide variety of vegetables year round using seasonal field production and 6 hoophouses totaling just over 17,000 square feet. We sell on farm, to local farms, at the farmers market, to local grocers, area restaurants and a regional food distributor. Both Dru and Adam bring a high level of qualifications to organizing and managing this project. Dru received a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture from Michigan State University (MSU), a Master of Science (M.S.) in Horticulture from The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), and a dual degree Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Horticulture and Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies with a Graduate Specialization in Gender, Justice and Environmental Change from MSU. Adam also received an M.S. in Horticulture from Penn State. Besides farming, Dru is the Executive Director of the Michigan Farmers Market Association (MIFMA) and Adam is an outreach specialist in MSU’s Department of Horticulture and with the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. We both work with and for farmers all across the state and country and are committed to sharing knowledge and expertise. We want to continue to partner with farmers to be innovative, increase the opportunities to be successful, and improve sustainability across Michigan’s sustainable farming community.
Green Gardens Farm, also started in 2008, is a diversified, 20-acre farm in Battle Creek, Michigan, managed by Ruthie and Trent Thompson. Battle Creek is in southwest Michigan. They produce vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The farm's mission is to provide fresh, naturally-grown produce to the people of West Michigan at a fair price. Their business has grown from selling at two farmers markets to now selling at those two farmers markets plus growing for 250 CSA members, several wholesale accounts, and a bi-weekly farm market on the farm. The core of their business - growing good healthy food for people, treating the land and the customers with respect - has stayed the same. Both Ruthie and Trent are committed to sharing their knowledge and skills with fellow
farmers to make them more successful in business and in life.
Presque Isle Farm, started in 2014, is a small centennial farm in Posen, Michigan, managed by Molly and Dion Stepanski. Posen is in northeast Michigan. They operate as a family-run business with a mission to grow nourishing food, a healthy community, a vibrant local economy, and an ecologically flourishing environment. They produce vegetables year round and sell through farmers markets, local grocers, restaurants and schools. As the local and sustainable food movement grows nationally, they are working to bring that momentum to northern Michigan and build a foundation for health in their community and the world.
There is an increasing demand from wholesale markets for root crops – specifically potatoes, carrots and beets –during the winter months. Every year each of our farms increases production, but none of us have been able to meet the growing demand.
Labor demands and costs associated with producing root crops without mechanization are expensive which leads farmers to have to charge a higher per unit price to reflect the cost of production. For wholesale markets, these root crops sell for a lower price per unit which doesn’t allow us to be profitable. Collectively, our farms will address the problems we face associated with labor needs and cost of production for root crops. We will make production system changes using mechanization for planting, weed management, harvesting, postharvest handling and storage. This should reduce labor costs and lead to better working conditions for us and our employees. The thinning, weeding, harvesting and washing of root crops by hand is hard on the body. To this end, decreasing the need for these activities by hand will increase the working conditions on our farms and increase our overall well-being. Additionally, reducing our cost of production so we are able to produce for profit should generate more sustainable financial growth for our farms. Together, we believe this will improve the quality of life for us and for our employees.
When we each solve this for our farm businesses, we will grow our winter markets and maximize cash flow during a traditionally slower time of the year, expand into new wholesale markets, potentially generate more profit from our root crops, and ultimately increase access to sustainably, local grown vegetables for Michigan residents. We are also committed to sharing what works for each of our farms to assist other small farmers in doing the same.
This study will compare production and postharvest system changes for root crops to reduce labor demands and overall cost of production. To produce for profit, we need to increase the productivity of our labor force. The solution is to evaluate small-scale mechanization on our farms located in southwest, central and northeast Michigan where we have different soil and growing conditions. We will transition from labor intensive systems to using precision seeding, tractor cultivation, mechanical harvesting, and root washing using a barrel washer. Each farm will consider the optimum sustainable agriculture solutions for their farm with a focus on stewardship, improving quality of life and increasing farm profitability.
Each of the farms involved in this project has the potential to expand winter marketing opportunities by increasing harvested yields of root crops (carrots, beets, and potatoes). The limiting factors for each of the farms have been weed control, long harvesting times, precision seeding, and storage space. Each farm had some equipment in place to address these factors but did not have equipment for each area. To address weed control each farm chose cultivation or hilling equipment that would be appropriate for their specific tractor and production systems. Ten Hens Farm chose a double tool bar with sweeps and shovels to be better able to control weeds. Green Gardens Community Farm chose basket weeders for their carrot production. Presque Isle Farm chose a trencher and hiller to increase their ability to control weeds in potatoes. Ten Hens Farm and Green Gardens Community Farm also chose a 30 inch flame weeder from Flame Weeder to use in carrot production. Carrots take a long time to germinate so being able to flame weed 5-6 days after planting should decrease the amount of early weed pressure in the carrot plantings. To decrease harvesting time, Ten Hens Farm chose an undercutter to limit the need to dig root crops by hand. Presque Isle Farm chose a Spedo potato digger so they would not have to dig potatoes by hand. Green Gardens already had an undercutter in place prior to this project. The undercutter and harvester as well as the cultivation equipment also address the quality of life aspects for farm owners and their employees. Not only does hand harvesting root crops take a long time, it is also very hard of the harvesters’ bodies. So, not only do those tools decrease the amount of time to harvest, they also decrease body strain throughout the season. Ten Hens Farm chose a Jang 3-row precision seeder so that carrots and beets could be seeded in a way that would both decrease the amount of seed that was used (thereby decreasing the cost of production) and limit or eliminate the need to thin these crops (which is labor intensive and costly). Presque Isle Farm chose a cooler to be able to store their potatoes at a different temperature than their other crops in an existing cooler and also to be able to have the space to store the amount of potatoes they were growing. Green Gardens Community Farm and Ten Hens Farm chose barrel washers to wash the large amount of root crops (specifically carrots and potentially beets) efficiently and effectively.
Like most tools, there was a learning curve in year one. Some of the tools worked well and some took practice and adjustments to learn to use effectively. In year 2 it is expected that each farm will be even more proficient with their tools.
For Ten Hens Farm, the Jang Seeder dramatically decreased the amount of seed used and eliminated the need to thin carrots. They learned that pelleted carrots were a better selection than naked seed when using the Jang seeder. Although they did not count the seeds that were seeded with the Jang, visually they were able to determine that they planted drastically less seed than when they used an Earthway seeder like they had in the past. In the 250 ft double that Ten Hens Farm plants carrots in, they would use approximately 10,000 seeds (based on the size of the seed packets ordered). When they switched to using the Jang seeder this year they used approximately 3,000 seeds in the same space since they were able to calibrate the precision seeder to drop 6 seeds per foot. They were also able to seed both rows at the same time with the multi-row seeder. In the past they would have had to seed them as individual rows. The rows were also straighter than with an Earthway seeder which allowed for easier cultivation – cultivation that did not take out large areas of carrots due to non-straight rows. Carrots seeded with the Jang seeder did not need to be thinned at all thereby saving labor hours/pay as well as the strain it takes to thin large areas of carrots by hand.
Timing and irrigation with the flame weeder took some practice as well. Since 2017 was such a dry year in Bath, Michigan germination of earlier plantings of carrots were fairly poor. In early plantings Ten Hens Farm used the flame weeder but since irrigation was not in place the weeds ofter emerged after flame weeding when rain did finally come. For the fall/winter storage planting, Ten Hens Farm had irrigation in place and used the flame weeder 9 days after planting. Fall carrot beds were formed on 6/23/17 and beds were seeded on 7/9/17. Each bed was 250 ft long and consisted of a double row of ‘Bolero’ carrots. Five beds were planted for a total of 2,500 total bed feet. Beds were flamed on 7/18/17. Total time to seed these beds was 6 minutes. The field that these carrots were seeded in has a high weed seed bank due to poor weed management in previous years. The flame weeder decreased early weeding needs but Ten Hens Farm did have to hand weed these carrots two times. Without the early flame weeder, the carrots would not have gotten established because there would have been early weed pressure. Subsequent hand weeding was also made easier because the carrots were able to establish and grow before the next round of weeds germinated. Total yields for carrots from these rows was 1340 lbs. Total sales from these beds was $3,655. The carrots did not get as large as we would have liked at harvest and that, along with some groundhog damage, is what is attributed to lower than expected yields. There is now a large, permanent electrical fence in place that should deter the groundhogs and we will also seed carrots the third or fourth week of June so they have longer to grow. Ten Hens Farm will also ensure more consistent watering throughout the growing period. In addition to carrots, Ten Hens Farm will also be using the Jang seeder, cultivation equipment, and harvesting and washing equipment for beets in the 2018 season.
The implementation of the Spedo potato digger, the Wunderbar disc hiller and cultivation toolbar, and the addition of a second large walk-in cooler completely changed Presque Isle Farm’s potato production system. By mechanizing almost all steps in the system, they increased their production by over 1000%. Presque Isle Farm planted 450# of potatoes including 9 different varieties on approximately ⅓ of an acre. Compost and fertilizer/amendment were applied prior to planting at the recommended rate. The potatoes were planted 12” apart in single rows, on 4’ centers. The rows were hilled 3 times throughout the season at 6”, 12”, and 18”. The hills were side dressed with 13-0-0 organic fertilizer prior to the 3rd hilling. Potato beetle pressure was low this season so the field was never sprayed but walked the field weekly starting at the beginning of July to hand pick beetles. The plants were cut back at least 2 weeks before harvesting. To efficiently use the Spedo digger, the plant material must be completely broken down or moved off of the hills prior to digging. Heavy weed pressure would also hinder the effectiveness of the digger. Starting in August, they began digging weekly and would only dig the current week’s needs. They finally dug all of the potatoes for storage at the end of October. Having a second cooler on hand to store the potatoes at 55 degrees was crucial in maintaining a high quality product. For the long term storage potatoes, that temperature was gradually decreased starting at around 3 weeks to their standard cooler temperature of about 34-36 degrees. The potatoes were all harvested into burlap sacks but did not store as well as they had hoped in the bags. They eventually pulled the potatoes from all of the bags and put them in bulb crates to increase air circulation. The amount of rot decreased dramatically after the change. Next year they plan to store all of the potatoes in bulb crates. Presque Isle Farm’s final yield for 2017 was 4480#, averaging about 9.95# yield per 1# seed. Considering they sold much of the harvest as early potatoes and chose to harvest before potatoes became too large, this is a satisfactory yield. If they also consider a roughly 3% cull for damaged or rotting potatoes, that takes the actual yield to approximately 4346# of sellable product. The gross income from this planting was $5383 or an average of $1.24/#. Based on the numbers, their pricing over the season seems to have varied from $0.75/# at farmers markets to $2.50/# to high end chefs. With a plan to make no less than $1.50/# on all potatoes two things need to be considered in the coming season. Either the actual cull rate was much higher when packaging potatoes for sale, or the selling of potatoes at the farmers markets in bags and quarts that were not precisely weighed was not actually meeting the planned price point. These considerations will be addressed in the coming season.
Green Gardens was able to reduce the amount of time weeding carrots with the use of its new 30” propane burner. A total of 12,000 row feet of a combination of Bolero and SugarSnax carrots were seeded three rows/30” bed at 15-20 seeds/ft on 7/8 and 7/22. Both plantings were flamed at 6 days post seeding on 7/14 and 7/28 with the 30” propane burner. The total time flaming for both plantings was less than 40 minutes since the flame weeder covered all three rows and the entire bed surface. Previously, the farm would have used a one row Red Dragon flame weeder that would have taken three times as long (120 minutes) and not performed as well since it didn’t cover the entire bed surface. Although the 2017 Fall carrot patch didn’t face intense weed pressure, we believe that the ability of the 30” flame weeder to cover the entire bed probably cut hand cultivation at five weeks in half (over the Red Dragon) to 12 man-hours. Yields were very good with an estimated 10,800 LBS of Bolero carrots and 1400 bunches of Sugar Snax carrots harvested. An estimated 1600 LBS of Bolero Carrots was overwintered from 7/28 planting in the field due to a shortage of cooler space, lack of time, and desire to conduct experiment. Unfortunately, the yield was reduced overall by about 10% on the Bolero carrots from rodent damage at the top of the carrot root. Rodent traps will be set in carrots in 2018.
The 30” flame weeder worked equally well on Green Gardens 2017 Fall beet crop, which they aim to manage in a similar way as the carrots. A total of 10,440 row feet of Red Ace beets were seeded on 7/8 and 7/22. An additional 840 row feet of Chiogga and Boldero beets were also seeded on 7/22. All beets were flamed with the 30” flame weeder on 7/14 and 7/28, six days post seeding (just like the carrots). Time flaming was reduced by 66% compared to previous Red Dragon flamer, and we believe that the full bed flaming capability of the 36” flamer cut the hand weeding at five weeks by 50% (just like the carrots) to 12 man-hours. Yield was very good on the Red Ace plantings. They harvested an estimated 9800 LBS and 300 bunches in November. Yield on Red Ace beets was reduced by about 3% due to rodent damage at root tips. Yield was zero on Chiogga and Boldero plantings due to poor germination. They are going to experiment with paperpot transplanting with Chiogga and Boldero beets in 2018 to get a nicer stand.
Green Gardens’ new barrel washer helped the farm process potatoes, beets, and carrots faster, more ergonomically, and do a higher quality job than its previous system. They harvested approximately 3,000 LBS Butterball and French Fingerling Potatoes, 10,800 LBS Bolero carrots and 9,800 LBS Red Ace beets in November of 2017. Carrots and beets were harvested into Rubbermaid totes or plastic garbage bags. Potatoes were harvested into black bulk crates. All crops will be kept in the coolers until they are sold or rotting begins. Rates for washing this winter were estimated at 200 LBS/hr for potatoes, 300 LBS/hour for carrots and 400-450 LBS/hour for beets with one person. The rate for carrots would be that of beets were it not for some added sorting time due to rodent damage. Our previous system involved washing with a hose and a black crate on a table. We believe the barrel washer to be at least 25-50% faster for these crops and the roots come out of the barrel washer cleaner than hand washing (which enhances marketability). The barrel washer also improved employee safety and satisfaction. The washer is easy on the body (you just dump them in and let the washer do the work!) and the job is more enjoyable than hand washing.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Education and outreach activities are scheduled to occur in year two (2018) of this project.
The first activity will be that each of the three farms will host a root crop production, harvesting, and handling field day to share the results of this study. Field days will be promoted widely with a goal of 15 farmers at each workshop. The farms involved are located in southwest, northeast and central Michigan. These are three distinct areas of Michigan with different soil types and planting dates. Due to these differences, the workshop attendees will be different farmers and the results from the project will be more applicable to their region.
The second activity will be that each farm will present at at least one conference or as a panel at one conference. Potential conferences include the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market Expo (3,000+ attendees), the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference (1,000+ attendees), and the MOSES Organic Farming Conference (3,000+ attendees). We are currently discussing which conference(s) we are all available for in 2018 so that we can coordinate these presentations.
The third activity will be a publication in a farmer trade journal. Ten Hens Farm has been a regular contributor to Growing for Market, which is seen as the premier trade publication for market farmers throughout the United States. The farmers in this group will co-write an article for Growing for Market or for another publication such as The Vegetable Growers News.