Maintaining Companion Planting Techniques while Mechanizing in Diverse, Small-Farm Vegetable Operations
Year one of the project consisted of efforts to identify, acquire and learn to use appropriate equipment for scaling up a vegetable operation. In addition to these efforts, a great deal of time was spent devising spacing options that would accommodate the equipment, take advantage of its primary purpose and maintain perceived advantages of the intercropped targets. Several crops were split into ‘treatment’ and ‘control’ sections and spacings and tools were trialed during the season, with the knowledge that the learning curve would likely prevent complete success in the first year.
The largest obstacle for this project was the limited access to equipment at project start. Participation in this project supported our efforts to locate appropriate tools, rehabilitate them for use and begin learning how to best apply them. The qualitative data gathered in the first year alone is significant in that there are a number of issues and pitfalls that could be distributed to other operations that are looking to either ‘scale up’ a small, diverse operation or begin implementing intercropping in one that already has a larger system in place.
Goal – Identify, locate, acquire, rehabilitate and learn the proper use of appropriate equipment ti implement this project.
Proposal Equipment – Cultivation equipment at $1500
It was anticipated that a significant effort would need to be made in order to identify appropriate tools for our existing tractor. We also felt it likely that we would need to make some modifications to the tractor in order to use the identified equipment. In addition, we were aware that there would be a steep learning curve with respect to effective use of the tool(s) acquired.
Goal – develop an intercropping plan that will integrate the equipment for ‘scaling up’ the operation. Determine whether this plan is as effective as prior spacing techniques.
In the first season, it was anticipated that most of the effort would be in determining spacings that would work with the equipment and still qualify as an intercropped plan. The high diversity of product on our farm would make this effort non-trivial.
Goal – determine what, if any, labor savings can be had by scaling up and maintaining intercropping plans.
It was anticipated that the learning process would be sufficient to hide most observations in this area.
Actual Accomplishment –
We first determined that a single implement would not likely leave us in a position to fully implement the project. However, we were also able to locate sources for used equipment that could be rehabilitated for use with our Ford 8n/9n tractor (22 hp). As a result, we were able to acquire equipment within the budget.
• S tine cultivator (14 foot cut down to 7 foot) with row covers
o 1/2 is now an all purpose ‘plow’ for field preparation
o 1/2 is now a row cultivator to handle wheel track weeding (this was initially what we wanted for a cultivator); cost = $400
• 6-foot Disk harrow (some repair needed); cost = $350
• 2-bottom plow; cost = $250
• Underminer; cost – $50
• Chisel – single point; cost = $75
• and we will have a bed former at the beginning of this season; estimated cost = $300
All costs include repairs, etc.
Budget was $1500 with $750 requested as part of the grant. Actual cost is currently $1425.
We were able to use some of the equipment early in the year to aid in bed preparation. However, the process of locating and acquiring tools went well into the growing season. As a result, we were not able to use the full complement of tools in the project in year one. On the other hand, we were able to learn a great deal about the tools and their use.
At this time we feel that we have sufficient knowledge to complete the project to satisfaction in year two. It is clear to us that we will continue to learn and adapt as we come up with new ideas and are introduced to new tools. But, we are comfortable that we are in a position to take advantage of the tools in order to provide a ‘proof of concept’ necessary to encourage others to scale up and use intercropping in vegetable operations.
The following crops were amenable to a control/treatment set up with two different spacings.
Plot 1: Brassica/Allium
Plot 2: Winter Squash/Companion Flowers
Plot 3: Beans/Potatoes
It was determined that these three plots would be sufficient to prove the concept without making the project management so unwieldy as to prevent implementation.
Brassica include: broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, chinese cabbage, brussels sprouts
Allia include: onions, green onions, cipollini onions, leeks
Spices: sage, thyme, other
Purpose of interplanting:
– reduce damage by cabbage worm and cabbage looper in brassica crops.
– reduce potential spread of onion diseases by splitting the crop.
Winter squash: butternut, buttercup, acorn and specialty
Companion flowers: nasturtium, marigold, borage, zinnia, bee’s friend
Purpose of interplanting:
– reduce loss to vine borers
– reduce squash bug population
– increase predator and pollinator habitat near squash plants
Beans: green beans and bush dry beans
Potatoes: 5 types including a russet, 2 yellow, 1 red and 1 purple variety.
Purpose of interplanting:
– reduce loss to Colorado potato beetle (beans mask presence of potatoes)
It was determined that the size of our tractor would work best with what are approximately 40 foot beds with wheel tracks at about 10 feet. This compares with our traditional spacing of potato – bean – bean – potato at 6 feet on center from potato to potato row. We adjusted the spacing to be a single potato row paired with a single bean row in each tractor ‘bed.’
Our winter squash spacing was most amenable to modification since rows are 5 foot on center, with companions placed in a 5 foot row. We adjusted to this by placing companions nearer to the squash plants themselves, potentially improving companion effects in nearby rows, but perhaps reducing them elsewhere. We maintained the same 40 foot bed with similar wheel spacings.
We were least pleased with our proposed spacing for brassica and allia. As a result, we are reworking the spacing for 2012 and are pleased with the results we can see on paper. We are anxious to try this spacing for 2012.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Our exposure to available equipment, both new and used, has convinced us that most any crop spacing could be accommodated if the farmer is motivated to deal with that spacing. Of course, some spacings would be simpler than others. Also, it is clear that having access to individuals who can work with metal and larger equipment would be key to making a set of customized tool to fit the spacing desired by the grower.
The purpose of the project, however, was to illustrate that the crop spacing itself could be modified to accommodate the tools. This will be explored more in year two of the project.
As growers looking to scale up with minimal experience with tractors and implements, we found the learning curve to be steep, but not insurmountable as long as we provided ourselves with low risk learning opportunities. For example, we were able to trial tools in a field with crops that were past market stage. It was also critical to find persons who could provide guidance with respect to the names and purposes of implements.
1. It was difficult to deal with weeds in the wheel tracks. Adjustments to the s-tine cultivator and better cultivation timing should help. We wonder if straw mulch or a living mulch would be a viable solution, but will stick to cultivation for project duration.
2. In the treatment area, we found that the potatoes and beans grew well together despite being only 12 inches apart in the 40 foot bed. Yields appeared to be what is normally expected where the wheel track weeds did not overwhelm.
3. In the control area, we clearly had a more general placement of weeds (less concentrated as it was in treatment area). Beans and potatoes tended to be a little less ‘viny’ with the P-B-B-P spacing on 6-foot spacings between P and P. We suspect this is a function of the taller wheel track weeds in the treatment and will do what we can to control weeds better in both for year 2.
4. Potato beetle observations. In both sections the only potato beetles observed were in the outer rows (one outer row in both control and treatment) or at the end of middle rows. In other words, they found potatoes where there was less contact with the beans.
5. Water damage – we had some heavy rains that resulted in a loss of crops across both sections on the east end. Also making it difficult to handle weed control.
1. It was more difficult to maintain the companion crop in the treatment spacing (40 feet with 16 feet between cash crop and companion). We have, in the past, direct seeded the flowers. It is far easier to cultivate close to the flowers with the wider spacing in the control than it was for the treatment group.
2. Rather than concede the spacing, we have been considering using flower transplants rather than direct seeding. The purpose is not entirely to deal with the cultivation issue – it is also to increase the speed with which the companions get to a size to have any positive effect on the system.
3. We had wheel track weed issues here as well, but felt it was easier to deal with earlier since the squash did not start to crawl as early as beans and potatoes begin to cover their bed. As a result, we needed to be less cautious with early cultivation.
4. We will move to more transplants of our squash rather than direct seeding in 2012. These reasons have less to do with this project than it does with accumulated experience on our farm.
5. Yields were better on the control side for this project in 2011. We are curious if this had more to do with our mistakes than with companion effects. While there is not sufficient data to run effective statistics for 2011, it will be interesting to see if we can collect useful data in 2012.
It is difficult to give much data on these crops because our chosen crop spacings were not amenable to the tools we had in the treatment areas. Prior wet years (2008, 2010) have increased our seed bank for grass weeds, making it very difficult to do with the onions. Weather set back our planting in 2011 – which resulted in onions going in too late to outcompete weeds. An early warm period caused much of our early brassica to bolt, making it difficult to learn much.
Better knowledge of our tools should allow us to get in the fields earlier this season than last. As a result, we should have reasonable information on these crops.
PO Box 121
Tripoli, IA 50676
Office Phone: 3196109201
PO Box 121
Tripoli, IA 50676
Office Phone: 3106109115