Divide and Conquer

February 18, 2019

This time last year, the Tin House was a mess. Three big construction projects were underway at once—the root washer, the onion rack, and another chicken coop—and you risked life and limb just trying to set your foot down. This winter, however, the situation is entirely different. The tables and floors are bare, as though the farmers had flown to Aruba, yet we’re still thoroughly occupied, just in a way not easily observed. This winter we’re focusing on our field systems, i.e. how we prepare beds, how we plant, and how we cultivate/weed. It’s mostly a matter of research— assessing the pros and cons of different planters, making sure a new cultivator will fit the tractor, etc.—but once the season gets underway, all these hours in the office will pay off.

 

The paperpot transplanter is the most exciting purchase to stem from our research. Invented in and well-known throughout Japan, it was only recently imported to the United States. The tool is a game-changer in that a single person, pulling the transplanter, can plant 264 seedlings in less than a minute! Our current method, by comparison, takes 15 minutes or more. The paperpot system starts out with the paperpot tray—a paper chain woven into a tray, which is spread over a frame. At planting time, the tray is removed from the frame and set on the transplanter, which unfurls the chain and anchors it into the ground. When we first heard about the transplanter several years ago, it seemed too good to be true. As a growing number of reputable farms endorsed it, however, we became increasingly eager to jump on the bandwagon. Then, just two weeks ago, I drove out to Early Girl Farm in Bayport, where head grower Patty Gentry invited me to trial her newly-purchased transplanter. My experience corroborated everything I’d seen online, and we decided the time had come. Our transplanter is now sitting in a box, awaiting assembly. 

 

 Because the paperpot transplanter spaces crops more closely than our previous method, committing to it meant reconsidering how we cultivate. In theory, closely-spaced crops won’t leave room for weeds, because they form such a dense canopy.

That said, there’s always a vulnerable period right after transplanting, when the weeds can gain a toehold. To prevent this, we would use our tractor-mounted basketweeder to cultivate the broad spaces between the planted rows. Then we’d follow up with hoes to get the weeds within the row, where the basketweeder doesn’t reach. The paperpot system, however, doesn’t allow for in-row hoeing because the hoe would snag the paper chain buried between the plants. To address this, Dan and Steve are now preparing the tractor for a toolbar of finger weeders, asterisk-shaped disks that can cultivate within a hair’s breath of the plants. Unlike the basketweeder, the finger weeders throw up a small wake of soil as they pass, burying what few in-row weeds remain. It’s possible that the finger weeders could end up replacing the basketweeder entirely, and if that were the case, we’d have no regrets. The basketweeder has served us well these past four years, helping us bring an out-of-control weed situation under control. This, in turn, has allowed us to focus on other priorities. In that regard, it was the right purchase for the right time. Now it may be time to move on.

 

Our other big winter purchase was another set of tarps, which play an important role in reducing the farm’s tillage. Tarps accomplish this in two ways. First, they can kill off a thick mat of cover crop just as a tractor-drawn plow would, but with none of the soil disturbance. Second, once the beds are prepped for planting, we can lay the tarps back on for 1-2 weeks to flush out many of the weeds in the top few inches of soil. This reduces the need to cultivate later, saving time and gas, and minimizing soil disturbance.

 

Taken together, these winter purchases will support our vision of dividing the farm into two distinct albeit complementary components. The first component will include the bulk of our fields, where we’ll continue to grow the long-term crops that require the most space—potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, etc. The second component will be comprised of smaller fields of intensively-planted, permanent raised beds, where we’ll utilize small-scale technologies that are gentle on both the soil and the farmer. The hope is that as we save space, labor, and time in the small fields, we’ll have increased capacity to seek improvements the big fields. Why go to the trouble of running two systems side by side? Because it’s the smallest farms (1-2 acres) that are demonstrating the most resilience to climate change; they also happen to be demonstrating a lot of exciting innovation. While we can’t expect to squeeze everything we’re doing on five acres into a system designed for two, there’s a lot we can do. Dividing the farm into the two components is how we propose to start.

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