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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Vegetables: beans, beets

Practices

  • Crop Production: multiple cropping
  • Education and Training: workshop
  • Production Systems: general crop production

    Proposal summary:

    Does the Japanese paper pot transplanter (PPT) have a place on small scale vegetable farms? A new tool has entered the realm of vegetable farming. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWd8gBJgEMY) The quick transplanting time of the PPT holds an allure, but does it make up for the high cost of paper pots? Can the PPT be used to increase the profitability of closely planted crops, help mitigate risk in a wet spring, save labor, and increase the quality of life of farmers using it? 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 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. We propose to test if a paper pot transplanter (PPT) is a good fit for small-scale mixed vegetable farms. Possible benefits include: increasing the profitability of traditionally direct seeded crops by eliminating several weeks of weed control tasks and salvaging a wet spring, by allowing early crops to be started in pots while the soil is still too wet to be tilled. We anticipate a reduction in labor and cultivation due to the transplants going in the ground quickly and getting a head start on the weeds. Additionally, because the PPT is used standing up, it offers the benefit of reducing bending and stooping, which enhances farm sustainability in terms of human capital. Only a few 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 are interested in collecting and distributing the economic data. We will compare three plantings of five different crops to determine if the PPT increases profitability and earliness. Careful records of labor and income will be kept to determine the dollars earned per planting of each crop as well as the dollars earned per minute spent on each crop. Information gathered will be shared at a field day and in publications geared toward vegetable farmers.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Crop Selection, closely spaced crops only:
    Since we are interested in learning if a Japanese PPT will increase profitability on a small farm, we will examine this question by comparing the profitability of 5 different crops (beans, beets, lettuce mix, spinach, lettuce heads) planted in the traditional way and with the paper pot system. We have selected 5 crops we believe to be representative of the closely spaced crops that we grow on our farm.

    The paper pots come in linked chains at 2, 4, or 6 inch spacing which makes them suited only for closely spaced crops. We currently grow 13 crops that use spacing this close. They are beets, carrots, cilantro, radishes, turnips, lettuce mix, parsnips, arugula, spicy greens mix, spinach, peas, onions and beans. We also transplant one (head lettuce) that would be a candidate for transplant with the paper pot system.

    Some crops don’t work as well: The word on the paper pot forum at smallfarmworks.com is that cilantro, which resents being transplanted, is not a good candidate. Tap rooted crops such as parsnips, carrots and daikon radishes have been reported to be unsaleable as they have too many forked roots as a result of being started in the small paper pots.

    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 will be the crop we will study.

    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.

    Spinach:
    Spinach is hardy for early and late in the season. It can be sporadic in germinating and a chance to fill in any empty seed cells in the paper pots could make the stand more uniform.

    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 currently get thinned by hand once. When planted at four inch spacing from the outset, thinning could be reduced or eliminated.

    Comparing plantings:
    We will compare and contrast the profitability of traditionally grown plantings to plantings that are transplanted using a PPT. We will compare 5 crops with 3 different planting dates for each over the course of the season. At two of the planting dates we will have 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 seeded the same day in paper pots and then transplanted with the PPT in 3-4 weeks.

    Earliest planting date comparison:
    We will also compare the earliest planting possible. In this comparison, we will seed directly into the ground on the earliest possible date for the crops. We will also sow into paper pots four weeks before the earliest possible date that we believe we will be able to transplant the paper pots. We will track the earliest harvest date from the first paper pot plantings and the outdoor plantings.

    Time line of activities:
    Beans earliness comparison planting:
    Beans will be planted into 4-inch spaced pots in the third week of April to be put out with the transplanter around the second week of May. We will direct-seed a comparison bed outside in the second week of May to compare the earliest planting possible with each method.

    Beans comparison plantings:
    Beans will be planted in paper pots as well as in the field in the first week of June and then the third week of June.

    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 will be planted into 4-inch spaced paper pots in the third week of March in anticipation of transplanting out as soon as the ground can be worked, when we will also do our first outdoor sowing.

    Beets comparison plantings:
    A second planting of beets will happen in paper pots and direct-seeded into the ground in the first week of June. A third planting with a sowing in paper pots and direct-seeded will happen in the first week of August.

    Lettuce mix:
    Sowing dates will be the same as beets. 2-inch paper pots will be used for lettuce mix.

    Spinach earliness comparison planting:
    We will seed spinach into 4-inch spaced paper pots in late March and plan to transplant them with the PPT in mid April, when we will also direct-seed our first outdoor planting.

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

    Head lettuce:
    Head lettuce will be sown on the same schedule as beets. One planting will be grown like most growers currently grow it, with seedlings transplanted at one foot spacing. The paper pot lettuces will be sown in the 6-inch spaced paper pots. Every other head in each bed will be harvested as a baby head allowing the other to grow to maturity.

    Weather effects:
    In the event that weather were to delay planting dates, we would still compare direct-seeded and paper pot transplanted plantings started on the same days as each other, only at later dates.

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

    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.