An investigation into the suitability of the Japanese paper pot transplanter to small-scale vegetable farms

Final Report for FNE12-758

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2012: $5,066.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
elizabeth martin
muddy fingers farm
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Project Information

Summary:

This project tested if a paper pot transplanter (PPT- a handpulled tool that quickly plants special paperpots that are linked together in a chain) is a profitable tool for small mixed vegetable farms. Possible benefits included: increasing the profitability of traditionally direct seeded crops by eliminating several weeks of weed control tasks, salvaging a wet spring by allowing early crops to be started in pots while working the soil is impossible due to soil wetness and reduction in labor and cultivation due to the transplants going in the ground quickly and getting a head start on the weeds.

     Because the PPT is used standing up, it seems to have another added benefit in terms of sustainability- reduction of bending and stooping when transplanting. Only a small group of farmers in America use the tool, and no records are publicly available on the economics of the system. Our farm loves to look at detailed financial information for the crops we grow. We collected the economic data and are ready to share what we found.

     We compared three plantings done at different points in the growing season. Half of each planting was done the traditional way (direct-seeded, except head lettuce was hand transplanted) and half was small plants put in with the PPT. Five different crops were used at each planting to determine if PPT increases profitability and/or earliness. Careful records of labor and income were kept to determine the dollars earned per planting of each crop as well as the dollars earned per minute spent on each crop of both the traditionally planted way as well as those transplanted with the PPT.

     We found no significant difference in dollars per minute earned or in dollars per bed for lettuce heads compared to hand transplanting.  The PPT was worthwhile for lettuce mix due to increased yield.  PPT spinach faster to harvest, and in 2013 more productive (102 vs 77 lbs) so it seems worthwhile for spinach.  PPT beets were slightly faster to harvest, and in 2013 more productive (204 bunches vs 167 bunches) so it seems worthwhile for beets, though PPT Beets were asthetically less pleasing as they had several tapered tap roots coming off the bulb, rather than one tidy “tail” at the bottom of the beet.  PPT beans were slightly faster to harvest, but less productive due to poor plant vigor (154 lbs vs 196 lbs). The PPT is not worthwhile for beans. 

      The other question:  can using the PPT provide earlier spring harvests?  Problematic as guess work is involved! Most helpful in a late, wet spring, because it would allow seeds to be started even while the ground is wet, priming plants to be ready to go in as soon as the soil dries out to work.     

    One of the disadvantages of the PPT are a relatively high purchase price as well as ongoing cost of pots each year. The PPT works best in finely prepared soil that is free of rocks and clumps of organic debris, in less than ideal soil successful “seating” of plants in the soil can be quite problematic.  This was our biggest frustration!  Rocks and plant debris are extremely problematic in efficient use of the PPT.

Introduction:

    Muddy Fingers Farm is a two-person small-scale vegetable farm. The farmers are Liz Martin and Matthew Glenn. We raise over 100 different varieties of vegetables on our 3 acre farm. We focus on fertility by creating a healthy soil ecosystem through crop rotation, cover cropping, the use of compost, and a reduced tillage system that uses permanent growing beds and permanent sod paths between them. While we are not certified organic, we do not use any herbicides. On the rare occasion when we need to use a pesticide, we only use products approved for use by certified organic growers. All of this helps us to grow healthy, vibrant crops. Produce is marketed through a 80 member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, 20 member winter CSA, three weekly farmers' markets and sales to fine local restaurants. 2014 will be our twelth season growing vegetables. We are glad that our small farm provides full time employment for both of us.

     Our farm is well suited to doing research on the profitability of different cropping methods because we have spent the last four seasons tracking the relative profitability of our forty-some crops. We have developed an efficient system for recording labor and harvest data for separate crops and analyzing that data when we have time in the fall and winter. (For more info, our system was covered in an article in Growing for Market in February 2011.)

     Our farm is small and land-limited, so we carefully consider which crops will return us a certain minimum amount per bed of growing space ($400 per 100 foot bed) while also balancing a diverse crop base to satisfy our CSA members. In our studies of crop profitability, we have noticed a trend that crops that are direct-seeded tend to take more labor to keep them weed free than transplanted crops, and thus direct-seeded crops on average have been less profitable for us than crops that we transplant. Because of this, we try to transplant as many crops as possible- and we hoped the PPT would allow us to expand our transplantable crop list.

     For ease of record-keeping, we chose 5 crops that were representative of the 12 crops that we direct seed on our farm. Those crops were beets, spinach, lettuce heads, lettuce mix, and beans. The one flaw in our study is that we are not good at cultivation on our farm, and therefore use a lot of mulch (hay, landscape fabric, and biodegradeable). We are very fond of our current method of growing onions. We transplant into landscape fabric (which we are able to use over and over) and hand weed once or twice just in the holes around the onions. So we did not test alliums. The problem is that alliums are the crops that most farms are already transplanting at such a close spacing and thus the crops most likely to pay for themselves with the PPT. The others, like beets and spinach, most farms are not already transplanting and so using the PPT for them is actually creating more work by requiring seeds to first be planted in trays. Therefore the PPT must give some big advantages in weed competition and cultivation to earn its keep.

     We chose not to do any tap rooted crops such as parsnips, carrots and daikon radishes which have been reported to be unsaleable as they have too many forked roots as a result of being started in the small paper pots. Cilantro was also not chosen, as it resents being transplanted, and so is not a good candidate.

Project Objectives:

There were several key areas where we thought the PPT would have advantages.

Profit:
Through record keeping, we have learned that direct seeded crops, on average, have been less profitable than transplanted crops on our farm. If the PPT allows for less weeks of weed control, and thus less labor spent, the system will quickly pay for itself.

Mitigate the risks of a wet spring. The spring of 2011 was extremely wet in New York, making it impossible for farmers to start planting on time. The first plantings of many of our spring crops did not even get planted because of the rain. As we begin to realize the effects of climate change we anticipate that unpredictable and extreme weather will become more common.

SAVE LABOR:

Transplanting gives a head start: One way that vegetable growers manage weeds is by starting seeds in pots and transplanting them when they are several weeks ahead of the weeds. Transplanting allows the farmer to grow more crops in the same bed by allowing one crop to be in the ground while a second is growing in pots. This creates several extra weeks of use from the same land.

Efficient transplanting saves labor: Farmers typically don't transplant closely spaced crops as the labor outweighs the benefit of having a head start on weeds. The profitability of traditionally direct seeded crops could be improved by transplanting them with a simple, efficient, cost-effective tool. The Japanese PPT is a tool that allows many plants to be put out per hour without stooping or bending and can be used by one person alone, rather than requiring a tractor, a driver, and one or two people transplanting as a water wheel transplanter requires.

Weed control: Closely spaced vegetables are usually seeded directly into the ground. Since vegetable and weed seeds emerge simultaneously, weed competition needs to be addressed for the whole time the crop is in the ground. Organic vegetable growers manage weeds using different methods: stale seed-bedding, flame weeding, cultivating, and hand weeding. Many small farms use cultivation or light tilling to control weeds. Excessive cultivation leads to soil compaction, loss of organic matter in soil and extra labor costs.

Quality of life:

Transplanting with a PPT could amount to up to 2 hours of saved work per bed. One of the goals on our farm is the reduction of wear and tear on our bodies. A tool that makes farming easier would have advantages that are hard to quantify.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Molly Shaw

Research

Materials and methods:

Crop Selection, closely spaced crops only:

Since we were interested in learning if a PPT will increase profitability on a small farm, we examined this question by comparing the profitability of 5 different crops we believe to be representative of the closely spaced crops that we grow on our farm. (beans, beets, lettuce mix, spinach, lettuce heads).  We studied three plantings of each with half planted in the traditional way and half with the paper pot system. We had two growing seasons to look at the test crops (2012 and 2013).

Why we choose the test crops:

Lettuce Mix:

Lettuce mix, spicy greens mix, and arugula are all planted at the same spacing and sold at the same price per pound. Lettuce mix was the crop that we studied as a representative crop for closely spaced cut and come again greens.

Beans:

Beans are direct-seeded at two rows per bed and the fruits are picked for several weeks. Earliness to market commands a premium price and assures a certain customer loyalty. We wondered if the PPT could give us an early crop that was very quickly transplanted.

Spinach:

Spinach is hardy for early and late in the season, but it can be a sporatic germinator and a chance to fill in any empty seed cells in the paper pots could make the stand more uniform. If grown in the green house, perhaps healthy robust plants could be put in the ground, or on the other hand, if the spinach germinated poorly, the planting could be skipped.

 

Head Lettuce:

Head Lettuce is currently grown at one foot spacing. Growing at six inch spacing and harvesting every other head at a baby size could greatly increase the gross revenue per bed, if a market exists for baby lettuce.

Beets:

Beets norally get direct seeded then thinned by hand once. When planted at four inch spacing from the outset, thinning could be reduced or eliminated.

Comparing plantings:

We compared 3 different planting dates over the course of the season. At each planting we had one planting done in the traditional way (direct seeded into the ground, or in the case of head lettuce, transplanted by hand) to a planting transplanted with the PPT for each of these five crops.

Earliest planting date comparison:

We also compared the earliest planting possible. In this comparison, we seeded directly into the ground on the earliest possible date for the crops as soon as the ground can be worked. We also sowed into paper pots three weeks before the earliest possible date that we believed we would be able to set the paper pots outside. We then kept track of the earliest harvest dates from the first paper pot plantings and the outdoor plantings. The trick here, is guessing when it will be appropriate to plant. PPT cells are small so timely planting is important or the seedlings can run out of energy, or the paper connecting the pots can start to break down and rip as it feeds out.

Timeline of activities:

Beans earliness comparison planting:

Beans planted in 4-inch spaced pots in the third week of April were put out with the transplanter around the second week of May. We direct-seeded a comparison bed outside in the second week of May on the same day as PPT transplant to compare the earliest planting possible with each method.

Beans comparison plantings:

Planted in paper pots as well as in the field first week of June for our second planting and the third week of June for our third planting.

Beets earliness comparison planting:

Our first field planting of beets happens as soon as the ground can be worked. We generally plan on the second week of April. Beets were planted into 4-inch spaced paper pots in the third week of March in anticipation of transplanting out as soon as the ground could be worked. On the same day that the PPT plants were put out, we also direct-seeded our first outdoor sowing.

Beets comparison plantings:

A second planting of beets was put in paper pots and direct-seeded into the ground in the first week of June. A third planting was put in paper pots and direct seeded in the ground the first week of August.

Lettuce mix:

Sowing dates were the same as beets. 2-inch paper pots were used for lettuce mix.

Spinach earliness comparison planting:

We seeded spinach into 4-inch spaced paper pots in late March and transplanted them with the PPT in mid April, when we also direct-seed our first outdoor planting.

Spinach comparison plantings:

The second planting was in May, with an outdoor sowing and a paper pot sowing happening on the same day. The third sample planting was in September. Spinach seeds are generally soaked overnight before planting as this can help increase germination. Seed was soaked for both the paper pot plantings and the direct-seeded plantings.

Head lettuce:

Head lettuce was sown on the same schedule as beets. One planting was grown like most growers currently grow it, with seedlings transplanted at one foot spacing. On our farm it is done by hand. The paper pot lettuces were sown in the 6-inch spaced paper pots. Every other head of the PPT lettuce was harvested as a baby head allowing the other to grow to maturity. We found if priced appropriately there was market for baby or teenage lettuce, though depending on the weather, bolting was a problem at the six inch spacing.

Weather affects:

When weather delayed planting dates, we still compared direct-seeded and paper pot transplanted plantings put out on the same days as each other, just at later dates.

Weed control:

Weed control was done as needed to each planting. Labor for seeding, transplanting, cultivating, and any hand weeding needed was recorded in our Crop Journal and tallied at the end of the season.

Research results and discussion:

The results below are for dollars earned per bed as well as per minute labor (includes seeding, cultivating, planting, weeding, harvesting and washing time).  The yields are in fresh pounds of produce
 weighed post-washing with our farm scale to the nearest pound.

Results by Crop:

Lettuce

Earliness

Same $/bed, same $/min

PPT - $355/bed, $1.44/min

Hand-transplant - $352/bed, $1.39/min

Conclusion: no significant difference

Difficult to measure because of bolting.

PPT lettuce had more bolting

 

Lettuce Mix

More lbs/bed with PPT

More mins/bed with PPT

PPT: $631/bed, $1.93/min

DS: $308/bed, $2.64/min

Conclusion: PPT worthwhile for lettuce mix due to increased yield

 

Spinach

More lbs per bed with PPT

Less time spent harvesting on PPT beds (perhaps bigger plants at the wider spacing)

PPT: $230/bed, $1.43/min

DS: $234/bed, $1.37/min

Conclusion: PPT spinach faster to harvest, and in 2013 more productive (102 vs 77 lbs) so it seems worthwhile for spinach

 

Beets:

More lbs per bed with PPT

Each bed grew more in the space with PPT

PPT: $338/bed, $1.23/min

DS: $176/bed, $1.43/min

PPT Beets had more tapered tap roots coming off the bulb

Conclusion: PPT beets slightly faster to harvest, and in 2013 more productive (204 bunches vs 167 bunches) so it seems worthwhile for beets

 

Beans:

Performed poorly with PPT, cells too small- poor plant vigor. Tall plants did not seat into soil well with PPT.

The PPT plants were poorly rooted and not as productive.

PPT: $154/bed, $.52/min

DS: $196/bed, $.53/min

Conclusion: PPT beans were slightly faster to harvest, but less productive (154 lbs vs 196 lbs). The PPT is not worthwhile for beans.

 

Second study question: How did the PPT do at giving earlier spring harvests?

By transplanting 2-3 week old plants as soon as the ground can be worked could we harvest earlier in the spring?

The only problem with this is that we are still guessing when it is 2-3 weeks before the ground can be worked! This seems like it would be the biggest help in a late, wet spring, because it would allow seeds to be started even while the ground is wet, priming plants to be ready to go in as soon as the soil dries out to work.

Neither 2012 or 2013 was a wet spring, in fact 2012 was an extremely early, dry spring, with plants going in the ground 5 weeks earlier than we might have expected! It was hard to realize that we needed to start our earliest plants, because it is not a time we nomally would be getting ready for field work!

The results from these two springs showed:

That beans were one week earlier, but due to the plants lacking vigor, we did get less yield overall.

Spinach was also earlier- one week one year 12 days the other year.

Beets were not earlier in these two trial years, though in 2012, due to not being soothsayers, we did not start plants early enough to beat the outside planting window which was exremely early! And in 2013 the earliest planting failed to germinate well and was unusable. We believe earlier harvests should be attainable with the PPT, especially in a wet spring.

Lettuce heads were not earlier, as both were transplanted.

Lettuce mix was not earlier, but we strongly suspect it could be! The earliest plantings both years failed, showing how dicey pushing the earliness window can be! One year the trays didn't germinate, one year the direct seeded comparison bed was lost to weeds, but would have been harvestable slightly later, if it had been usable.

On the positive side, we tried several other crops with the PPT. While records were not kept for the trial for these crops, we had good success with the following: Parsley, Spicy Greens mix, Arugula, Chard (harvested for baby leaves), Rutabagas, and Mustard Greens.

Research conclusions:

This study showed that despite the initial cost of the PPT and the on going cost of buying paper pots each year, it is possible that on certain small farms the PPT would be a worthwhile tool.

Farms the could exploit the PPT to most avail, are businesses that grow lots of cut and come again greens, have finely textured, non rocky soil, grow greens in hoophouses, and/or already transplant beets, spinach, lettuce mix or other greens.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

A Field Day to demonstrate the use of the system was held at Muddy Fingers Farm on August 8th, 2013.

Information was presented at the NOFA -NY Winter Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY on January 26, 2014.

An article describing this work will be submitted to Growing for Market as well as the Southern Tier produce news, a local publication for vegetable growers, NOFA's Natural Farmer newspaper and Small Farm Quarterly.  

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

There are many drawbacks to the PPT. Consider carefully before deciding to buy one. Here are some things that we found problematic.

Soil conditions are key. The PPT does not work well in rocky or “trashy” soil. Soil must be well prepared, dry, with no “trash” and minimal rocks. This was our biggest issue, lots of plants sticking halfway out of the soil.  (see photo attached)

We found in row cultivation to be impossible due to the close spacing and the paper chains between the plants.

There are small bits of paper left in the field which take a while to decompose.

If trays germinate poorly, there is a lot of money wasted. Trays cost between $2.40-$3.80 each; losing a ten tray planting is a $24-$38 waste. Excellent potting mix is essential. The trays take up valuable greenhouse space in the spring.

Because good quality potting mix is needed, either time to mix or money to buy is needed to have a good supply of finely screened potting mix.

There can be a re-establishment period for after transplanting with the PPT. Direct-seeded crops may acutally grow faster, depending on the weather, since they do not experience a transplant set back.

PPT trays are not a standard 1020 size. They are a standard rice tray size (12 by 24 inches) so greenhouse tables must be sized to fit a true two foot tray.  (see photo for comparison)

The PPT does not work well when plants are overgrown in the cells, and roots are growing together at the bottom of the tray. Also if plants are too top-heavy, they do not plant out nicely with the PPT. After about 3 weeks, paper chains begin to decompose in the trays. The small cell size means that the plants can begin to start to run out of nutrients after a few weeks.

Another drawback is that there are not many crops on our farm currently that are already being transplanted at 2, 4, or 6 inch spacing. This limits the usefullness of the tool. (Again alliums are the exception and where this tool seems likely to most quickly pay for its keep.)

In hot, dry weather plants need regular waterings (everyday) after transplant until their roots are well established. Especially when poorly seated into the soil, in which case, ideal weather is needed until they are able to root into the soil.

The point underneath the PPT that makes the furrow could be more robust, to make a deeper/wider furrow.  We may experiment with welding a wider point on the tool. 

The main benefits of the PPT are: the ability to get a head start on weeds by cultivating just prior to planting the small plants, not having to stoop or bend to transplant, and in the ideal soil of the hoophouse greens plantings can be very closely scheduled.

To conclude here are the questions that we wanted to have answered:

  • Does the tool pay for itself?

It depends on the crops that it is used for, on the growing conditions, and the soil type and cleanliness. In our study, we found its most likely to pay for itself in growing cut and come again greens.

  • Does it save cultivating/weeding time and labor?

If bed is empty for several weeks before planting, it provides more time for stale seed-bedding. It is easier to hoe or tractor cultivate an empty bed than to work around small plants.

  • Does the PPT increase earliness?

Timing is tricky. It can provide earlier harvests, but there is a guessing element to when the earliest planting date will be for the year.

  • Did it allow us to grow more in the same space?

This can also be tricky to accomplish. Beds must be very tightly managed. Farms that already do this well should find that the PPT helps do it better.

  • Does it reduce labor for transplanting?

Well, not really. It takes time (not a lot, but some) to fill the trays, then seed them with the greens and beets. Then it takes time to transplant the trays. If the same crop was just direct seeded, it would take less time to put the seed in the ground.

That said, the tool does seem like it could pay for itself on the following types of small-scale vegetable farms:

An “Elliot Coleman style” farm where every inch is always tightly managed.

Any farm that is already paying people to transplant closely spaced crops (beets, spinach).

A farm that has soil that is neither “trashy” or very rocky.

A farm that grow greens in hoophouses.

Future Recommendations

Even after two seasons of using the system, it still feels like there is lots of tweaking that could be done to make it an even more useful tool on our small vegetable farm. Farms who choose to try this tool should be prepared to experiment with different spacing, seed sizes, planting timeframes and the like before they feel that the PPT has been mastered.

Here are a few tips and techniques we picked up in using the system.

For head lettuce use pelleted seed, but for lettuce mix use non- pelleted seed with several seeds/cell.

Cover small seeds with perlite, (not potting soi)l for better germination.  (see photo)

By running the wheel is the wheel track from the previous row, we were able to get rows spaced six inches apart. This was the closest we found we were able to transplant.

Small brassicas seeds can get stuck between the two layers of plexiglass due to static electricity especially in the spring when cold air can be dry.

Assembly instructions are in Japanese, follow pictures carefully!

Teeny plants need well prepared soil and very shallow planting.

Quality of potting media makes a big difference, use good quality, finely sifted mix!

Good germination is key. If a tray is only half full of plants, it is a poor filler of greenhouse space, and will be a waste of field space, too!

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.