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