Building Efficiencies Into Your Farm
I love to farm, but I am also happy when the day is over and I can have some time for other pursuits. I try really hard to keep a schedule, and quit for the day at a certain time. Granted, it has to bend some days. Spring is tough--there’s always too much to do. But I think there are some ways to make the time spent each day go farther. It's that whole work smarter—not harder—thing. Kate and I had worked on a few different farms before we started ours. They varied from small, intensive market gardens where the bulk of the work was done by hand, to a larger wholesale truck farm that was fairly mechanized. When we started to develop our farm, we knew that we would be on the smaller size, but still wanted to incorporate some of the efficiency of scale into our operation. (We had seen how running full-force all the time was a recipe for burn-out and we wanted to figure out a way to keep our lives at least sort of balanced as farmers.)
The winter is a great time to think through processes on your farm and see where improvements in efficiency can be made. We have three main areas of work on the farm; the greenhouse, the field, and the barn. I am always thinking of how the work flows in each one of these areas and trying to improve how the work gets done. Winter is also the time of year to make tools; I find that waiting until the spring is too late for me. As soon as the season hits, there’s little time to make big changes.
I am always looking for ways of improving efficiencies on our farm. These are a few of the things that I have done at my place that have really made a difference:
Efficiencies in the Greenhouse
Customize to Fit Your Needs. We grow a lot of transplants for sale in the spring. I love being in the greenhouse, surrounded by young plants knowing that they will go to people’s gardens to grow food. Filling all the trays of six packs with potting soil is not something that I particularly love, however. Our previous method involved shoveling potting soil into the trays out of a bulk bin. While visiting a larger greenhouse operation, I coveted his automated pot filler. It was too big for me though, and at $4,000.00, it was out of my budget. It occurred to me that the real job the filler did was the lifting. I built a bin out of pallets that holds a yard of soil and has slats as the front-facing side. The bin sits on top of a stack of pallets. I built a tray mounted on 2x4s that is held in place by sliding the 2x4s into a pallet below the bin at any height. I pull the slats out as I need more soil, and let gravity do a lot of the work for me as I rake the soil into the flats. It saves both time and our backs.
Small Improvements to Save Time. We have a hose trolley that allows us to move the hose over the plants. It saves tripping over the hose, as well as the time untangling it when it invariably gets tangled on the floor. It’s also a lot cleaner, because the hose isn’t being dragged around on the floor. They are available as kits from greenhouse supply companies, but are also easily fabricated from hardware store parts. My greenhouse is 22’ wide, and one run allows me to get to all the corners of the greenhouse. Super handy, and I can’t imagine not having it.
Always Look for Ways to Improve. These days our weakest point of efficiency in the greenhouse is how we move plants. Right now we carry flats from inside to out and around, and then back into the cold frame to harden off. My project this winter is to build a trolley system that will move as many as 12 flats at a time. My hope is to put it together with some spare parts that I have accumulated over the years of having greenhouses.
Efficiencies in the Field & Barn
Do-It-Yourself: Simple and Cheap Tools. One of my favorite tools is our dibbler (you can find the story here). Every farm that transplants by hand should have one of these tools. They are easy to make, and the time they save both in planting and ultimately in cultivating, especially when done by hand, is profound. Having consistent and accurate spacing allows for better planning, quick strokes with a hoe, promotes good airflow, and results in less culls. It’s one of my favorite tools.
A Stitch in Time. We grow all of our onions in cells rather than bulk trays. I start them in 128's with two seeds per cell and transplant them out at 8” spacing in the row. I get the same amount of onions transplanted as if I had planted one plant every 4”, but the cells make getting the plants into the ground incredibly fast. It's true that it takes a little extra time to do the seeding, but it saves more time when I am transplanting, and my extra effort happens at the time of year when I am not slammed with lots of other work. With one person pulling and dropping plants and two people putting them in the ground, we can get 5000 onions in the ground in a morning.
Re-Purpose For a Quick Solution. A few years ago I got a nail pouch at a yard sale, and we quickly turned it into a harvest pouch. Kate made a few more so each person on the crew can have one. They are made out of heavy canvas. There are two pockets for the different sizes of rubber bands, another pouch for a pair of scissors, and one for a small harvest knife. Being able to just grab the harvest pouch in the morning and have everything I need makes getting out to the field in the morning fast—and I know that I haven’t forgotten anything.
Using Labor Efficiently. I am also a big fan of the front-mounted forks for my tractor--they’re a huge labor saver. We harvest winter squash into bins and load them right into the greenhouse, unload potting soil in bins, move the rototiller, carry plants, etc. If it’s heavy, it’s on a pallet which saves on potential injury as well as lots of time.
It’s Good to be Organized. The biggest way to save some time in the barn is to get it organized. By means of full disclosure, I am not, unfortunately, that guy. But I am trying. The time I spend looking for things is probably my weakest point. I have had a full plate the past few years, but I am hoping to lay some groundwork this spring getting things put away and organized in a system that works for our farm.
Resources for Ideas and Inspiration
There are lots of resources on the internet that are helpful for tinkerers; here are two to get you started:
- Healthy Farmers, Healthy Profits Project, a site from the University of Wisconsin, is where I first saw the dibbler. My design works better for me, but their example was a great place to start. They have some other technical sheets on pack-house design and the like. It has a lot of good stuff that can be adapted to your situation.
- Farm Hack is part of the National Young Farmers’ Coalition and has lots of good information written by people smarter than me, who are into making things and then sharing them with other growers. This is one of my favorite sites.
Your Own Community of Growers. Above all, the best place to learn about ways to save time and be a better grower is with your local community of growers. Go to farm walks, workshops, and conferences and get together with other growers to share ideas and experiences.
I don't pretend to have all the answers; I only want to encourage you to look at your operation with a critical eye. There is a lot of talk these days about sustainable agriculture, but it feels like often times the concept of sustainability isn't applied to how we treat ourselves. It may be that a few simple changes to your farm will allow you to get some extra time. What you do with that time is up to you. Perhaps you will be able to get one more thing done each day.
I'll be on my boat, the Done Weedin'.
Have a great winter.