A New Appropriate Technology Machine System to Benefit the Sustainability of Local Organic Vegetable Production

Project Overview

OS14-092
Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2014: $14,906.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Southern
State: Kentucky
Principal Investigator:
Dr. John Wilhoit
University of Kentucky

Commodities

  • Agronomic: potatoes
  • Vegetables: beets, broccoli

Practices

  • Production Systems: organic agriculture

    Abstract:

    A new version of a three wheeled machine using furrow guidance was designed and built and used to grow organic vegetable crops on a cooperating farm. It was also demonstrated during a field day. Production limitations made it difficult to assess labor requirements for the system in comparison to conventional organic production, but various new applications were explored during the on-farm work. Design plans for the new prototype of the machine have been developed and posted on-line. The new machine and associated implements cost approximately $5000 in materials and parts, and would likely cost twice that to have built.

    Introduction

    The increased popularity of fresh, local foods has contributed to a steady increase in Kentucky of the number of market growers, farmers who sell the bulk of their produce through farmers markets, to restaurants or through small retail outlets, or through community supported agriculture (CSA) (Woods, 2013). This increase in the actual number of farmers, rare among the different facets of agriculture, has been a bright spot in Kentucky and many other states. However, market growers face many challenges that limit their potential for achieving a sustainable level of economic viability in their farming operations. Chief among those challenges is the very high time/labor requirements for market vegetable production. Most market growers are small producers and cannot afford to hire much labor or to invest much in mechanization, so many are caught in a vicious cycle of over-work, unreliable production, and lack of profitability that has caused some growers to quit (Wilhoit, personal experience).

    Organic production has the potential to bring higher returns for market growers, but growing organically has particular production challenges. Weed control is the biggest challenge since the use of herbicides is prohibited. There is an acute need for relatively low cost mechanization that specifically addresses the challenges faced by market growers producing organic vegetables, to help them improve the efficiency of their operations and therefore enhance utilization of available labor resources. Such mechanization can help smaller growers overcome production challenges and therefore expand their operations, achieving the reliability of production that is needed for them to tap into institutional and wholesale markets, improving the economic sustainability of their enterprises.

    We have developed a low-cost, mechanized machine system that specifically addresses the challenges of small-to-intermediate scale organic vegetable production. This appropriate technology system combines a wide-stance, three-wheeled prime mover with furrow guidance to give repeated precision in machine positioning for vegetable production operations throughout the course of the growing season, without the use of expensive GPS technology. It is especially effective for the precision mechanical cultivation necessary to control weeds in organic vegetable production, and the furrow guidance frees the driver to perform other tasks, improving the effectiveness of various manual operations and reducing labor requirements.  

    The furrow guidance machine system and various applications for it were developed during two years of work using an old three-wheeled tobacco harvesting aid retrofitted for furrow guidance. That work proved both the furrow guidance concept and the potential for bare ground production of certain crops (with buried drip tape, but without plastic mulch covering the bed). The unique way that the system works opens up a host of possible applications for a whole new type of intensive vegetable crop production. For this project, a new prototype of the machine, incorporating improvements in design both in terms of functionality and minimized fabrication costs, was designed and built for a private organic grower and used on his farm for exploring applications and functionality of the machine system as well as for demonstrating it to the public.

    Project objectives:

    The main objectives of this project were to test this machine system in an on-farm, organic production setting and to introduce the technology to the public. Specific objectives were as follows:

    1. To design and build a new version of the machine incorporating improvements and up-to-date components, for use in on-farm trials with a cooperating grower (machine components paid for by the grower, with grower retaining ownership).
    2. To assess the performance of the furrow guidance system in growing organic vegetable crops in terms of labor requirements and crop production, in comparison to conventionally grown organic crops.
    3. To assess the economics of the furrow guidance machine system used for organic vegetable production.
    4. To introduce the furrow guidance machine system to market growers and others through a field day demonstration and other outreach activities.
    5. To develop design plans and specifications for the machine system for posting on-line in an open source environment.
    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.