- Agronomic: potatoes
- Vegetables: beets, carrots
- Crop Production: cropping systems, postharvest treatment
- Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
- Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, farm-to-institution, farmers' markets/farm stands, labor/employment
- Production Systems: organic agriculture
- Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, quality of life
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, locally 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. We will transition to using a precision seeder for carrots and beets to reduce seed drop and the substantial amount of labor needed to thin these crops by hand. All farms will also use tractor-mounted cultivation equipment and flaming to control weeds. Weeds are the number one detriment for sustainable producers in terms of crop yields.
Through the use of new cultivation equipment, we will compare which pieces of equipment work best. One farm is intending to utilize a tine weeder, one a tool bar with adjustable sweeps and knives, and one a hiller to control weeds in potatoes. Mechanical cultivation will eliminate need for herbicide applications, decrease competition between the weeds and crop, and increase overall yields. The largest amount of labor for root crops is spent digging and washing by hand. By utilizing mechanical harvesters, undercutters, and barrel washers we will reduce labor costs.
Through these changes in production systems, we intend to increase yields and decrease costs while increasing overall farm profitability and improving quality of life.
Project objectives from proposal:
- Investigate environmental benefits, labor effectiveness, cost of production, and economic viability of mechanized production and postharvest handling of root crops on three small-scale, diversified farms.
- Help farmers increase their economic viability and opportunity to enter or expand into new root crop markets by determining seeding, cultivating, harvesting, and washing practices that reduce labor.
- Empower farmers in making informed investments in equipment even without grant funding by demonstrating reduced cost of production with mechanization and increased profitability.
- Document any environmental observations related to soil health and pest pressure and management as well as improvements to on-farm working conditions and lifestyle improvements.