Thoughts on Tools and Equipment Found in Vegetable Operations

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of working with many different size vegetable operations in many different regions of the country. I was always amazed at the variety of equipment and tools found on these different operations. Growers are certainly very resourceful in modifying equipment to fit their own needs and many operations were employing equipment and tools used by their grandfathers or fathers.

If we categorize the equipment, we could break it down to primary and secondary tillage equipment, fertilizer and liming equipment, transplanters and direct seeding equipment, a wide variety of cultivation equipment, overhead and drip irrigation equipment, various sprayers for weed, insect and disease control, harvesting equipment, equipment for washing, grading, sorting and packing, different refrigeration and dry storage units and various modes of transportation to get product to market – not to mention all the hand tools. That’s a lot of equipment to maintain and keep in running order. Any piece of equipment or tool needs to be cared for if it’s going to have any longevity. That goes for both small tools and large equipment. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is keeping equipment out of the weather, which can indeed degrade the equipment over time. Having sufficient storage is critical. Many growers utilize wooden or metal pole barns for storing machinery out of the elements or as a workshop.

As I said, I’ve worked with vegetable growers of various sizes. For example, Micah and Bethany Schonberg of Plowshare Produce in McAlevy’s Fort, PA, are excellent organic growers and farm four acres and use mid-size tractors for some primary tillage and then amend the soil with compost and cover crops. Once the soil is properly conditioned, they use large sheets of black or black-and-white plastic to kill the weeds between crops and plant another crop back in the soil without disturbing it too much. They routinely double or triple crop the ground and in effect produce way more than their four physical acres. They use drip irrigation and high tunnels efficiently to grow a wide variety of produce for their CSA operation. They use a lot of small hand equipment such as hoes, push seeders and hand labor to keep the operation clean and neat. A pickup truck with a cap is their mode of transporting product.

On the other extreme I’ve worked with large growers such as James Brothers Inc. in Pasquotank County, NC, who farmed over 2,000 acres when I interacted with them as an Extension vegetable specialist looking to introduce broccoli into North Carolina in the 1980s. They then grew large acreages of cabbage, potatoes, field corn and soybeans and employed large tractors, tillage equipment, planters, sprayers and labor to harvest tractor trailer loads that moved to markets up and down the East Coast.

Visit any size vegetable farm and you’ll see a variety of small hand tools. These are associated with hand labor and must be kept sharp and clean to perform efficiently. Just look through a catalog of hand tools and you will certainly see them hanging on the wall of many operations. Most farms have a farm shop where maintenance and equipment repair are accomplished, and this varies depending on the size of the farming operation.

I used to cultivate with an old Allis-Chalmers G tractor, which I liked because I could see the rows beneath my feet. Many hours were spent cultivating with that machine. There were a host of attachments that could be used on that tractor which gave it a lot of versatility. I have also spent a lot of time with a hoe, and I always told my students that one needed to keep that hoe sharp so as to not waste a lot of energy with a dull hoe. That rule applies for any hand tool. Keeping those tools clean and free of dirt and rust is also important.

I want to share a story about the development of a piece of equipment for the vegetable grower market. When I was working at Penn State, I was growing potatoes for the table stock or fresh market on different colored plastic mulches with drip irrigation and row covers to get earliness and larger yields. I was planting potato seed pieces using a waterwheel transplanter in double rows on a 30-inch-wide top of a raised bed of plastic mulch with the drip irrigation tape buried down the middle of the plastic. I was making holes every 12 inches. I ran across a small red-skinned potato variety from the University of Wisconsin’s potato breeding program that made 71% B size potatoes. Growers know that the early small red potatoes can command a premium price, especially in retail markets, as consumers want those fresh early potatoes to accompany their early fresh peas. I thought I would like to try planting these potatoes at six inches in the row, but the problem was that using a waterwheel planter I would end up with a continuous tear of the plastic. At Penn State at that time there was a great hands-on wrench-turning grease-under-the-fingernails professor, Dennis Buckmaster, and an excellent graduate student, Matthew Lawrence, in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering; I took my dilemma to them. We brainstormed and came up with the concept of the auto dibbler unit, which ended up being Matt’s master thesis project. The auto dibbler had four ceramic cones that could be operated to quickly punch four rows at varying depths on the bed for a crop like sweet onions, or a double row for crops like potatoes or peppers, or a single row for tomatoes or muskmelons. The spacing in the row could be adjusted from six inches to two feet depending on the desired planting distance. Matt did a super job fabricating the machine and developing the computer to control the number of rows and spacing, etc. We field tested it and it worked for potatoes, allowing me to plant at six-inch spacing for those early red potatoes.

The unit sat around the farm for years and was recently reworked by a group of senior engineering students as a capstone project, but it’s now languishing for lack of a consistent computer controller. The students have graduated but the machine is still at the Penn State Horticultural Farm, and if anyone has an interest working on this piece of equipment, contact me. I feel that it has tremendous potential over the standard waterwheel unit for planting a variety of vegetable crops.

You can see how an idea or problem can result in a new piece of equipment for vegetable farmers. I certainly envision more and more technical equipment showing up on vegetable farms in the future, many of them driven by the ideas of the growers themselves. There will be more sensors incorporated and refinement of inputs in fertilization, irrigation and pest management as well as robotic harvesting aids. Having said all that, I would not abandon your hoe just yet.

You can contact me with feedback on my columns or ideas for future columns at wlamont@psu.edu.

2021-10-26T13:12:16-05:00November 3, 2021|Grower, Grower East, Grower Midwest, Grower West|0 Comments

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