Final report for FNE17-878

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2017: $7,944.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Nuneviller Family Farms
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Mark Nuneviller
Nuneviller Farms
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Project Information

Summary:

This project was done too see if a walk behind cultivation system would be a benefit for a small scale vegetable producer, someone who is currently doing mainly hand cultivation and does not own a tractor.  To test this, I grew carrots, head lettuce, and kale in an experimental plot where I used the walk behind cultivator and a control plot where I did everything by hand.  I measured yield and time spent on weed control for comparison and found that yield on all three crops were very similar between the two treatments.  However, time spent on weed control was approximately half in lettuce and kale and the motorized weeder attachment worked will on radishes, tested outside the experimental design.  On carrots, the time spent on weed control was about the same.  I found that the two most important implements were the finger weeders and the original Planet Junior chisel point cultivator.  It is estimated that someone could get setup with a walk behind tractor, a new motor, the finger weeder cultivator, and the chisel point cultivator for $1000 to $1400. At a labor savings of about $700/acre, the equipment should pay for itself after cultivating two acres for a season. It should also be noted that besides the saving in money, the walk behind cultivator is easier to use and saves wear and tear on the body. In the future I would like to try the cultivator on more crops such as onions and cucurbits. For outreach I produced videos on assembling the cultivators and how to use them.  These videos were provided to SARE and Penn State Extension to post and distribute.  I also conducted a field day explaining to project and allowing participants to try the cultivator. 

Introduction:

My farm, Nuneviller Farms, is a small, organic produce farm.  I grow on 3-4 acres and rent a tractor to do most of my field prep.  Until recently I used hand tools for weed control and thought that a motorized walk behind cultivator could be a huge labor savings for me.  Great cultivation equipment from companies like Kress or the Williams Tool System exist for farmers with a tractor, but nothing exists for the grower without a tractor. There was a SARE grant previously to test a product called the “weed master” which seemed effective, but had the disadvantage of being very expensive and human powered (no motor).  What I came up with was a system of four cultivator: a chisel point cultivator, a stirrup hoe cultivator, finger weeders, and a tine weeder — all used with a repowered Planet Jr walk behind cultivator.

Project Objectives:

This proposal seeks to adapt these “high end” cultivation tools to homemade toolbars for use with a walk behind tractor. I plan to make four toolbars: One with sweeps to do between the rows, one with hoe blades to do over the row rows with minimal soil throwing, one with a pair of Steketee finger weeders to do “in row” weeding, and lastly a homemade tine weeder to do blind cultivation and pre-emergent cultivation. I will show that someone with minimal shop skills can easily and inexpensively fabricate these tool bars themselves. I will also show that someone can take an old walk behind tractor (which are extremely cheap and plentiful) and repower them with a new Briggs motor to create a reliable, dedicated cultivating system. A farmer who already had a BCS could certainly use that with a slight modification to the hitch system. The key principle is to use the cultivation tooling from Steketee and the Williams Tool System, but without the huge price tag. This project aims to drastically reduce hand weeding for an investment of about $2500.

Introduction:

Farmers having problems with weeds is as old as farming. As mentioned earlier, there are solutions for micro farmers (hand tools) and large farms (tractor mounted cultivators), but there is not much available for farmers in the 1-3 acre range. Hand tools are slow and have a high labor cost, so conventional wisdom is for the producer to “scale up” and buy the tractor mounted cultivation equipment. However, breaking it down for a small sized farmer, it does not always make sense – like, for example, a farmer cultivating 3 acres once per week for a 20 week season. With my proposed walk behind system, he would make two passes and it would take him 8.25 hours per week. A 3-row, Steketee cultivator could do this in about 1.37 hours (but takes two people – double the labor costs). This is an annual savings of 110 hours. At an hourly rate of $12 and an $8,000 price difference, the payback period is 6 years; if the farmer has to buy a tractor the payback is even longer. This payback period is too long for most farmers.
In 2009, there was a SARE grant trialing a product called the “Weedmaster” that  attempted to address weeds for this scale of farmer. This project trialed a human powered toolbar to which advanced cultivation tools were attached. There are two main problems with this approach: cost and power. The number one problem is that it is human powered, so the farmer limited in the number of cultivation sweeps that he can put in the ground. A person can comfortably push maybe two sweeps for a total 12” cut in the soil. A walk behind could pull 5 for a 30” cut, and can be fitted with hillers and furrowers to throw more soil, something a push unit could never do. Humans get tired: using a walk behind tractor for two passes on 3 acres is a hard day, but pushing a cultivator for the same distance is probably not possible. This lack of efficiency would be excusable if the Weedmaster was substantially cheaper, but it is not. The project spent over $5,000 for the Weedmaster (this did include a flame weeder, but did not include a tine weeder or as many sweeps) whereas the materials for this proposal only cost about $2,400. Another small disadvantage to the Weedmaster is that there is only have one toolbar, so the farmer is constantly changing out his cultivation tooling, and that takes time. I propose building multiple toolbars with dedicated tooling so that the farmer just quickly change toolbars (1 pin attachment).

There was a study in 2002 by the Organic Farming Research Foundation looking at the efficacy of tine weeders and finger weeders on organic corn and soybeans. The study found that tine and finger weeders reduced weeds in the row but did not eliminate them. This is the expectation of my trial also. This was conducted using full size tractor mounted cultivators, not walk behinds. I am active in a Facebook group of market gardeners and some of these farmers use the walk behind tractors for cultivation. They seem to like the results, but nobody has done a side by side trial to see if the investment really pays.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Brian Moyer - Technical Advisor

Research

Materials and methods:

This project compared labor input and yield for the walk behind cultivation system versus hand tools for three crops: carrots, head lettuce, and kale.  Crops were planted from on 4/12/17 in rows spaced 16 inches apart and 200 feet long. The lettuce and kale were planted as farm-grown plugs and carrots were direct seeded.  The”treatment” rows were  cultivated with the Planet Junior walk behind and the 4 implements (chisel point, stirrup hoe, tine, and finger weeder cultivators).  The “Control” rows were cultivated with hand tools and a wheel hoe.  Both treatments received an equal amount of Fertrell fertilizer and the same amount of sprinkler irrigation. 

To compare treatments, labor hours spent in weed control were tallied and crop yield was compared. 

Research results and discussion:

It should be noted the initial setup time for the walk behind cultivator and implements was very lengthy and was not included because it is a one time cost.  Also, this field was particularly rocky so the cultivator had a tendency to push rocks onto the crop, making cultivator blight worse than usual.

Lettuce.  Of the three crops tested, the cultivator performed best on the head lettuce because it is very sturdy and grows a canopy very quickly.  A combination on the chisel point cultivator plus the finger weeders eliminated the need for any hand work.  The tine weeder was too aggressive.  The lettuce heads were harvested in June, there were some issues with bolting that affected the yield of both treatments.  The treatment group showed a lower yield due to some “cultivator blight”, however I think the difference could be reduced with practice.  Also the treatment group was weedier at the time of harvest however there did not appear to be a  difference in head size.

  # heads/200′ yield per acre income per acre with $5 box of 18 heads hours in weed control/200′ weed control hours per acre cost per acre at $10/hr
treatment 169 36808 $10,224 0.33 72 $720
control 176 38332 $10,647 0.66 143 $1,430

 

Kale:  The cultivating equipment worked fairly well in the kale using the chisel cultivator plus the finger weeders. However, hand work was not totally eliminated in the treatment group.  Kale took longer than the lettuce to create a canopy and the treatment group was eventually overgrown with weeds that needed to hoed once.  The kale seemed much more sensitive to root pruning and cultivator blight, and the treatment group yielded less than the control.  Yield was measured by harvesting and weighing ten randomly selected whole plants from each group on July 17th.

  average plant weight (lbs) yield per acre income per acre at $.50 per lb hours in weed control/200′ weed control hours per acre cost per acre at $10/hr
treatment 0.779 18097 $9,048 0.5 109 $1,090
control 0.954 22070 $11,035 0.8 174

$1,740

Carrots: The cultivating equipment was not effective in the carrots.  I found that the tine weeder and finger weeders were too aggressive in the carrots and had a tendency to pull them out.  I was only able to use the cultivator when the the crop had reached about 6-8 inches in height, before this both groups required hand weeding. The labor saving was negligible. Yield was measured in bunches per 100 feet.

  yield per 200′ yield per acre income per acre at $1/ bunch hours in weed control/200′ weed control hours per acre cost per acre at $10/hr
treatment 64 13939 $13,939 1.98 431 $4,310
control 68 14810 $14,810 2.08 453 $4,530

 

Other:  It was not part of this study, but I found that cultivation equipment worked very well with radishes.  The radishes could be tine weeded as soon as they emerged and hand weeding and hoeing was reduced to zero.  It was also very effective at cultivating the pathways between plastic mulch rows.

Research conclusions:

I set out to see if a small farmer could adopt walk behind cultivation tools to reduce weeding labor inputs while keeping output steady.  I found that the cultivator did reduce labor (by approximately half) on head lettuce and kale but did not reduce labor on carrots.  Yields were slightly lower when using a walk behind cultivator, but I feel that was mostly due to the rocky field I was using.  I found that the two most important implements were the finger weeders and the original Planet Junior chisel point cultivator. If I was starting from scratch, I would probably skip the tine weeder and stirrup hoe cultivator.  I feel that someone could get setup with a walk behind tractor, a new motor, the finger weeder cultivator, and the chisel point cultivator for $1000 to $1400.  At a labor savings of about $700/acre, the equipment should pay for itself after cultivating two acres for a season.  It should also be noted that besides the saving in money, the walk behind cultivator is easier to use and saves wear and tear on the body.  In the future I would like to try the cultivator on more crops such as onions and cucurbits. 

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

3 Farmers
1 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Outreach for this project was done in two ways: videos and a field day. 

Two videos were produced as part of outreach.  The first video showed how to fabricate some on the cultivator parts and how to assemble the cultivators.  The second video explained and demonstrated the use of the cultivators.  The videos were posted on SARE, nunevillerfarms.com, and given to Penn State Extension for them to post also.

A field day was held in September to explain the project and demonstrate the cultivator.  Brian Moyer from Penn State Extension helped to market the event and get participants.  A total of three participants were present.  I created and supplied a handout to each participant outlining the costs and benefits of the cultivating equipment.  After the presentation, each participant was able to try out the equipment.

Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

I learned a lot about weed control and mechanical cultivation generally.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Project outcomes:

I feel that the walk behind mechanical cultivation system is a very good choice for a small scale farmer and would use it in all my future farming endeavors.  It is much faster than hand cultivation and does not involve the expense and cleanup of plastic mulch.  It is also much easier on your body to use a machine than to do hand cultivation, so having this equipment was a blessing this year.  I also found that by planting on 16″ rows, I was able to fit a lot more plants in the same amount of space–making better use of my irrigation equipment.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

I think to really test the system, I should have selected more than 3 test crops.  If it is a system to be adopted on a highly diversified vegetable farm, than it needs to be tested in a highly diversified manner.  Another challenge for me was that the fields I was using were far to rocky for cultivation generally.  If I were to do a follow up study, I would move the test plot to a less rocky location.  I think that the walk behind cultivation system does show promise, but should be tested more on different crops and in a better location.

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.