An investigation into the suitability of the Japanese paper pot transplanter to small-scale vegetable farms
The goal of this project is to determine if a japanese paper pot transplanter (PPT) is a good fit for small-scale mixed vegetable farms. This tool quickly puts paper chains of plants into the ground, but the tool is relatively expensive and requires purchasing the paper pots year after year. Does the value of quick transplant of several week old plants, save cultivation time, help salvage a wet spring, or reduce wear and tear on the body enough to pay back the cost of the tool?
Possible benefits of the PPT tool on the small farm include: increasing the profitability of traditionally direct seeded crops, by reducing labor and cultivation due to the transplants going in the ground quickly and getting a head start on the weeds, thus eliminating several weeks of weed control tasks, salvaging a wet spring- by allowing early crops to be started in pots while the soil is still too wet to be tilled. 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, though this benefit would be hard to quantify.
When we set up the project, we figured it’d be nice to have two years to do it, in case we ran into difficulties with any of our replications. This first year with the paper pot transplanter, made us glad we did, as it was an interesting one. While the spring of 2011, which inspired the idea of PPT helping rescue a wet spring, was incredibly wet and caused planting schedules to be thrown out of the window. Whereas, the spring of 2012 was very dry and early. In spring 2011 we were 5 weeks behind, in spring 2012, we were able to plant our earliest crops almost 5 weeks early. This made the PPT not quite as handy, since we did not receive it until March, and we were able to put beets and spinach in the ground around the time to tool arrived anyway. We are glad to have the 2013 season to see if earliness could be an advantage in a different kind of season.
The 2012 growing season was a very dry one in our area, and that was interesting with the tiny cells of PPT trays. When the PPT plants are put out, we water them like we would plants transplanted from any other trays. But because the PPT cells are so small, they seem to need water for longer than for example a lettuce transplanted from a 98 cell tray. This was especially exacerbated by the very dry soil conditions and extended lack of rain. This may indicate that the PPT is not such an advantage in a dry season, as the plants can quickly outgrow the small paper cells, making transplanting in a timely manner very important.
Our study was designed to compared PPT planted crops to direct-seeded crops. We planned to study 5 crops -doing 3 plantings of each crop- the first studying if the PPT increased earliness. Due to the dryness this season, we had difficulty tilling the soil in a timely manner and so some of our plantings were delayed.
In our second season of study, we will be doing a few trials again next year in order to get at least 3 comparisons for each of our 5 crops. We have analyzed the preliminary numbers, but will look forward to adding next year’s data in, too.
We will be doing outreach next year with an on farm chance for people to see the PPT in action and to let people know what the preliminary numbers show in terms of profitability.
The very dry conditions of 2012 delayed soil preparation and made several of our plantings go out when the plants were beginning to lag in the small PPT cells, so were not certain that the plants that went in were healthy, vigorous representative plants. We will redo several trials next year so we have some additional numbers to look at.
While we kept separate records of the PPT and Direct seeded plantings from our regular plantings, we did not clearly enough indicate which of the three plantings the harvest was from, so rather than being able to compare the average of 3 separate beds, we were only able to compare PPT average of the three plantings, and direct seeded average of the three plantings. We would like to keep the three distinct plantings as separate records next year so would will have 3 numbers to look at rather than just one for each crop.
Following are a summary of the findings from the first year of record-keeping, we look forward to keeping records next year to compare these to, as we had a few missteps in the lettuce records.
Labor cost comparisons of PPT vs direct seed:
Spinach: Spinach has long been a crop that we struggle to grow well. Germination has been erratic for us, and occasionally the plants just peter out for no apparent reason, turning yellow and ceasing growth, it was our hope that the PPT would help us address some of the problems. It didn’t seem to make a big difference. the PPT spinach came in at $230/bed and $1.43/minute of labor. While the direct-seeded bed came back at almost the same $234/bed and $1.55/minute. The yield of the two different methods were functionally equivalent, while the labor for the PPT was greater, harvest time was faster with the wider spacing of the PPT beds, but the time needed for seeding of the PPT trays about equalizing the difference in cultivation time.
Beets: We tried two different varieties of beets in our three trials Detroit dark red and three root grex. Detroit is a standard red round beet with nice red tops, they grew quite quite well in the paper pots, though we noticed that since they were transplanted, they had a little bit of potting soil clinging around the main tap root, making them a little more time consuming to clean up for sale. The other variety is three root grex, a nice variety that has three different hued beets in the mix, these beets grow to be quite large and did not do well in the PPT as they got to be forked and had several tap roots from growing in the small cells, we will not grow that variety in the PPT anymore. The PPT beds averaged $338/bed and $1.23/minute of labor. The Direct-seeded beets fared worse at $176/bed but were better on labor, at $1.43/minute.
Head lettuce: We had a record-keeping error in one of our plantings and don’t feel the numbers to be completely reliable in the head lettuces. We were impressed with the way the lettuces preformed in the PPT and are excited to do the trials again next year, see the discussion below on potential profit from a PPT bed.
Lettuce mix: we planted lettuce mix at 2 inch spacing and quite liked the way that it went- seeded with unpelletted seeds, each PPT cell held a cluster of lettuces 2 inches away from the next cluster. The PPT rows are several inches apart from each other, making cutting each row more distinct and easy that the direct-seeded rows which are able to be seeded very close together, and sometimes are indistinguishable when harvested. According to our records, we harevested about twice as much lettuce mix from the PPT beds, this is not something that we noticed with the naked eye, and causes us to wonder if it is possible that there was an error recording all of the direct-seeded lettuce mix harvests. We will be upgrading the actual system we use for record-keeping and studying this again next year.
Beans: this is a crop that we noticed right away did not thrive in the small PPT pots! The seeds germinated and filled the cells so quickly that some were broken if they came out upside down, the vigor was poor and plants were hard to set into the ground as they were so top heavy. The PPT plants lagged behind their direct-seeded counterparts and did not produce as many beans. We know that it is not the idea of transplanting beans that is bad, as in the wet spring of 2011, we hand transplanted beans grown in 50 cell containers and had a great harvest of very early beans, that just kept going, but the small cell size of the PPT, was not good for beans! PPT beans $154/bed $.52/minute. Direct-seeded bean $196/bed and about the same at $.53/minute.
In talking to other farmer’s over the course of our study so far, the point that often comes up is how few crops are currently transplanted at the spacing that the PPT is able to plant 2,4,or 6 inches. The one main crop that most farms who do use the PPT in America do grow with it are onions, which were not included in our study, as there is some information out there on onion production with PPT already. Perhaps a flaw in our study is to not have investigated this crop as it is one that most farmers are currently transplanting at 2,4, or 6 inch spacing. We are investigating doing a trail of onions next year.
On farms that currently pay employees to transplant crops at these close spaces, the PPT seems like it will pay for itself much more quickly. It seems that very intensively grown Elliot Coleman type farms may want to consider this tool, but, on a farm that is not currently transplanting out things planted at 2,4, or 6 inch spacing, the payback is going to be longer.
Another discovery was that it seems that the small cells of the PPT are not conducive to growing large seeded crops like beans. The PPT beans germinated sporadically, were hard to plant with the PPT, as they were so tall, that they were top heavy when planted, and didn’t sit down well to be covered by soil. PPT bean plants just seemed to struggle compared to the Direct-seeded beans planted next to them.
We weren’t sure how well the head lettuces would do, as we normally transplant head lettuces at one foot spacing. We put them out in 6 inch PPT pots and planned to harvest every other one as babies, but we found that they grew better than we had guesses at six inch spacing, and were able to harvest them as teenage size heads that we could charge $2 each for rather than the little heads that we thought would only fetch $1.50 each. This potentially could make a hundred foot long PPT bed of lettuce worth $1,500 (300 teenage heads @ $2 plus 300 full size heads at $3 each $600+$900=$1,500) compared to the normal way we have grown head lettuce 300 heads sold for $3 each = $900. and the bed is way faster to plant to boot!
We found that a consideration for getting into the PPT system was that the trays are the size of Japanese rice flats (about 12X24 inches) so they take up much more space than the typical 1020 trays that most growers currently use. Check that they will fit on your greenhouse tables, or plan accordingly.
The whole system can feel like a hefty expenditure at once, especially if you aren’t sure if you’ll be able to work with the PPT, or if it will work for in the soil on your farm. To set up our farm we ordered $4,365 worth of supplies. The paper pots are a must, but we know a local farm that build a transplanter for themselves that puts the pots out nicely. The different components of the system work quite well together, the seed plates, opening rods and dibbler do work quite smoothly and make seeding a snap! But a farm could skimp on the $225 dibbler and on the carrying trays ($4.50 each) and fabricate their own out of wood and ingenuity at home, if a savings were desired. Its possible as well that the seeder and plates could be fabricated at home with two sheets of plexiglass, a wooden frame, and a drill bit of the appropriate size.
The PPT transplanter itself is a neat-o invention. But we found that the soil conditions have to be just right for the plants to seat themselves well. If there are lots of chunks of grass or other soil trash, it can be hard to get the little plants to sit in the bottom of the furrow, if they don’t sit in the bottom of the furrow, they don’t get well covered, and the paper chain protrudes from the soil, making cultivating harder.
When the machine puts them in the ground smoothly, its like a dream. But if things aren’t just right, its like a nightmare with little plants sitting right at the soil surface or toppled on their sides. Our soil is a little rocky with a fair amount of clay in the mix (erie silt loam) and if tilled too wet, is too chunky to flow well. The paper chain does not seem to wick moisture from the roots if it is left exposed at the surface, like a peat pot would, but it is still not ideal to have the paper chain exposed at the surface.
Muddy Fingers Farm is a two-person small-scale vegetable farm. The farmers are Liz Martin and Matthew Glenn. We raise over 100 different varieties of vegetables on our 3 acre farm. We focus on fertility by creating a healthy soil ecosystem through crop rotation, cover cropping, the use of compost, and a reduced tillage system that uses permanent growing beds and permanent sod paths between them. While we are not certified organic, we do not use any herbicides. If pesticides are needed, we only use products approved for use by certified organic growers. All of this helps us to grow healthy, vibrant crops. Produce is marketed through an 85 member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) summer program, three weekly farmers’ markets, sales to fine local restaurants, and a 20 member winter CSA. 2012 will be our tenth season growing vegetables. We are glad that our small farm provides full time employment for both of us in the growing season. In the winter Liz works off the farm part-time. As we think about the long term sustainability of our farming venture, wear and tear on our bodies is a major concern.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
regional vegetable specialist
cornell cooperative extension
56 Main street
Owego, NY 13827
Office Phone: 6076874020