Ask the Farmer: Expanding to a mechanized system

Rodale Institute Farm Director Jeff Moyer answers your questions.

Ben asks:

We are a small 50-acre farm with mostly woods and woodsy pasture. We are not organic certified, but practice organic methods. We have two gardens totaling roughly six to seven acres and are considering buying 100 acres of additional land connected to our farm to expand into other markets and opportunities.

We currently do hand cultivating, hand seeding, and hand transplanting, with the tractor used for plowing, rototilling, and soil prep things. We'd like to transition to machine cultivation, harvesting, etc. but there aren't many farms around us that are in this transition period. We would like to remain as self-sufficient as possible. Can you provide any insight? If it'd be helpful, here are some of the things we wish to expand: field corn (10 acres), sweet corn (5-10 acres), carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and leeks.

Jeff says:

Making the jump from basically a hand operation to a mechanized system will take careful consideration, especially when you think about the diversity of crops you'll be dealing with. Looks like you’re considering everything from potatoes to carrots and corn to leeks; that’s a broad range. Purchasing equipment, new or used, is a serious commitment and you'll be living with your decisions for some time. I would suggest a few steps in thinking through the process:

1. Begin by asking yourself some important questions and write down the answers; what resources do I have (don’t  forget time), what size fields do I have, what’s my soil like, will I be using cover crops, do I need to incorporate compost or manure, how much equipment storage room do I have, etc.

2. Visit trade shows at winter events like the Missouri Organic Growers Conference or the MOSES event in Wisconsin to meet other farmers in your situation, talk to experts on the subject, and simply learn.

3. Look at equipment suppliers online like Market Farm Implement.

4. Consider flexibility in your equipment, i.e. being able to plant small seeded and large seeded crops with the same planter will save money in the long run, fully adjustable cultivators for multi-row spacing of different crops etc.

5. Try and set up your farm with similar spacing for tractors. Our farm is set up for 30 inch rows; we can plant on multiples of two or split rows and go to 15 inches without changing the tires and wheels on the tractor.

2 Responses to “Ask the Farmer: Expanding to a mechanized system”

  1. Ed Garrett

    Hello Ben,

    You have a problem common for my small farm clients, changing scale and crops.

    Among the issues are that you are moving from a diversified operation where you only use equipment for tillage and prep up to a scale where you will probably be needing equipment (and skilled labor) to manage tillage, cultivation, and harvest operations. Let’s face it, 5-10 acres of sweet corn is quite a bit!

    Your needs will break down into two primary categories but there is significant overlap. Tillage and soil prep is something that you need to get done when the time right or it will have a negative impact on your whole season (and many to come). That probably means dedicated equipment and labor for tillage even though the “fields” may still be rather small. How much more capacity do you have with the equipment you already have. Also, are you planning to plant your sweetcorn in rotations, so 10 acres might be planted over 4 dates, so actually 2.5 acres per planting?

    All of the crops you mention can be mechanically cultivated but doing this requires careful attention to the planting step as variation in row spacing throws off the cultivation later. For the size of operation you envision, a combination of machine and manual work is still a good mix. If you can keep a steady workflow, adding one or two people to your labor pool is going to help more than adding a specialized piece of equipment. People can do multiple jobs, so from planting prep through post-harvest, they are much more important than a harvester sitting in a shed!

    Jeff has some good suggestions but you want to remember that there is more than just one part to expansion. Each part from labor and market to equipment and land will have an impact on your current operation so each needs to be considered separately and as part of the larger project.

    Feel free to give me a call or email if you need more help.

    Ed Garrett
    Fresh SPIN Farms, Davis, CA
    2012-14 Fulbright Fellow – Advancing Organic Agriculture in Hungary

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