Question of the Week
Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information on common farm equipment (including tillage tools).
First I will summarize equipment options for three scales of production: Human-Powered /Intensive Scale, Walking Tractor Scale, and Tractor Scale. Next I will list some helpful resources and equipment suppliers.
Human-powered equipment —broadfork, wheel hoe, hand hoes, hand-held broadcast seeder, push seeder, propagation supplies —can be used to work intensive beds on a market garden in the quarter-acre (100' x 100') to half-acre (200' x 100') size range. Though, realistically, you will probably need to "rent" a roto-tiller to work the soil initially 1-3 times, especially if the land is currently in sod. Of course, many of the human-powered tools can also be used to supplement walking tractor or tractor systems, when you are growing on 1-5 acres.
The broadfork, also known as a u-bar, breaks and lifts the soil in a 2-foot wide spread, and ranges in price from $90 to $150 from equipment suppliers. It is a time saving alternative to single digging or double digging. You can quickly loosen a lot of soil using a broadfork. (Suppliers: Johnny's Selected Seeds, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, Lee Valley).
The wheel hoe is used for soil preparation and weed cultivation. It is considered indispensable on the market farm. There are several models to choose from ranging in price from $125 to $400 with attachments. The Glaser wheel hoe, imported from Switzerland, has a push seeder attachment. For soil preparation, you can attach the 3-prong cultivator and follow the broadfork to achieve "secondary" tillage. You can prepare a 4' wide bed very quickly using this combination. In contrast, single digging or double digging followed by raking may take 5x longer to prepare a bed. Still, the biggest impact of the broadfork + wheel hoe combination is your health. You can work more land with less wear and tear on your body when you don't have to "dig and rake." Yet, the most widely known use of the wheel hoe is for weed control. There are multiple weeding attachments and between-row spacings that allow you to control row crop weeds with a wheel hoe. When you stay on top of soil cultivation and weeding with a wheel hoe, you can enjoy the beauty of a well-kept market garden. (Suppliers: Johnny's Selected Seeds, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, Valley Oak, Maxadyne).
Numerous hand hoes and tools are available to choose from, for example a 4-prong cultivator, a scuffle hoe, or a biofork. These tools are used for soil stirring and weed control in tight fitting spaces and bed work where a wheel hoe is too bulky.
A broadcast seeder is used to scatter cover crop seed. It can be sufficient for 5 acres as a starting point, though a seed drill and a tractor-mounted broadcast seeder is desirable for ideal establishment of cover crops.
A push seeder is the most common seeder used on a small market garden. There are several models to choose from, in the $150 to $300 range. With seed plates, you can establish most direct seeded vegetable crops.
Propagation equipment and supplies, which may include a sunlit room in your house or a small greenhouse, with potting mix and trays and fertilizers, is another essential setup.
Walking Tractor Scale:
The walking tractor is a powerful rear-tine tiller that, in addition, has multiple implement options that can be "pulled" by hitch attachment, or "powered" by power-take-off, or PTO. It can be an essential tool for the market gardener raising produce on 0.25 acres to 2 acres in scale. Above that, it would be wise to own or rent a tractor for soil operations, in my opinion.
With its multiple soil stirring and weeding attachments, the walking tractor can be used to prepare a seedbed, finish a seedbed after tractor work, or cultivate for weeds. It can be used as the primary soil working and weeding tool to manage 0.25-acres to 2-acres, and it can be used in combination with a tractor to manage 5 acres.
Walking tractor models include BCS, Goldoni, Mainline, Ferrari, and Gravely. Depending on horsepower (8 hp to 14 hp) and attachments, walking tractors range in price from $1,200 to $5,000.
A powerful aspect of the walking tractor is that it can handle hitch attachments in addition to power-take-off attachments. In 1988 I managed an organic farm in Missouri. We had a 12-hp BCS tiller and crafted two pull-behind attachments for soil harrowing and weed control. One of these was an old 1-row cultivator pieced together from horse-drawn equipment found at a farmyard.
Tractor Based Scale:
Ultimately, a tractor with implements is indispensable on the market farm anytime you move above the "human-powered/intensive" scale.
For a tractor, I suggest you look at models in the 35-45 hp range, though a 25-hp tractor can also be used on small farms. Desirable options for a tractor include row cropping adjustments (bottom height clearance and wheel width spacings), a bucket loader for compost making and hauling, a low-speed gear for operating a slow-moving compost turner, and category II 3-point hitch.
For implements and cropping systems to use in combination with a tractor, I suggest you look into the following:
Chisel Plow / Field Cultivator – This is a small chisel plow, often called a field cultivator, with 5-7 subsoiling shanks. It is used to work the soil deeply for primary tillage. It is often used prior to the roto-tiller, to break the hardpan and loosen the soil to a greater depth, and to break the soil so the roto-tiller does not bounce around so much. You can find a used field cultivator for $300 at farmyards.
Roto-Tiller – This is a PTO-driven roto-tiller, matched to the size of your tractor, usually about 48-72 inches in width. A roto-tiller performs primary and secondary tillage, as well as seedbed finishing. It can take multiple passes to achieve all this soil preparation. The PTO-driven roto-tiller revolutionized small-scale vegetable production. Yet, you should watch for soil compaction. This can be avoided by occasional use of the field cultivator and by raising a cereal cover crop like rye, which has an extensive root system. Roto-tillers cost several thousand dollars.
Mechanical Spader – The spading machines are common on small farms in Europe, and rapidly gaining in popularity on organic market farms in the U.S. The spader performs primary and secondary tillage, as well as bed finishing, in one to two passes, depending on soil conditions. It aerates and works the soil in such a way that it does an excellent job of cover crop and compost incorporation. Building levels of soil humus is said to be a benefit of spading. Model widths can be used to "straddle" the bed between the tractor tires, or to work the entire width behind the tractor. Spading machines are more expensive than roto-tillers, and not as widely available. A spader would be an advanced alternative to the roto-tiller.
Rotary Mower – The rotary mower is commonly known generically as a "brush-hog", though BrushHog is the name of an equipment company. A tractor and rotary mower is a common sight on any farm. If you have pastures or cover crops, you will need a rotary mower. You will need to chop the cover crop prior to soil incorporation.
Flail Mower – The flail mower is a step up from the rotary mower. It will cut your cover crop closer to the ground and also chop the cover crop into finer residue. It is an ideal mower in combination with the spading machine, and in mow-till vegetable production. The flail mower would be an advanced alternative to the rotary mower.
Bed Formers and Shapers – Vegetable production is often done on raised beds. The soil is "thrown" or "hilled" into a bed with a bed former. There are disc bed formers and sled bed formers. You will match your bed width according to the size and width of your tractor and equipment. You will direct seed or transplant into the deep soil on top of the bed. Drip irrigation lines work well in combination with beds. You can also match cultivation and weeding implements to bed production. Some growers have gone to permanent raised beds to gain soil improving benefits.
Plant Seeders, Transplanters, and Seed Drills – Depending on your situation, you will need a plant seeder, vegetable transplanter, or seed drill to handle your vegetable crops and cover crops.
Mulching Supplies – Depending on your situation, you may want to employ plasticulture, organic mulches, or geotextile mulches. Mulches are an incredible time saver for warm-season transplant crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and related crops. Cucurbits also benefit greatly from mulches, but there is a trade-off with squash bugs which like to hide under mulch. Mulches modify the crop environment by conserving soil moisture and suppressing weeds. You can figure on spending several hundred dollars per acre for mulches. As a guideline, it can take 125 to 150 straw bales per acre to employ an organic mulch.
Weeders and Cultivators – A broad range of tractor-drawn and PTO-driven implements exist for the purpose of soil stirring to break the soil crust, and loosen and aerate the soil, and to cultivate for weeds in vegetable and row crops. These can be attached to the 3-point hitch, or to a "tool bar." Tool bar setups can handle multiple implements. A complete tool bar system may include seeders and transplanters, followed by weeders and cultivators, followed by harvesters. Cultivation implements include shovels, finger tines, s-tines, brush hoes, steerage hoes, rolling cultivators, basket weeders, torsion weeders, powered spinning weeders, and related devices.
Cropping System – The cropping system is the whole approach to matching your equipment with bed spacing, row width, wheel tracks, tractor-drawn implements, crop arrangement, cropping patterns, crop establishment, weeding, cover crops, and crop rotations. Ultimately, this is what makes a market farm efficient and productive. Try to use the equipment to reduce your labor as much as possible. When you think about the tractor and equipment you will purchase for your farm, you should think in terms of the cropping system.
Post-Harvest – In addition to vegetable production, you will need post-harvest cooling and handling supplies, which include refrigerators or a walk-in cooler in addition to buckets, baskets, crates, and boxes.
Well, by necessity this is a brief guide to small farm equipment. Please see the recommended books in the Resources section below.
Blanchard, Chris and Kim. 2002. Seeders make the job easier. Growing for Market. March.
p. 1–4,5, 6.
Byczynski, Lynn. 1992. In search of the perfect wheel hoe. Growing for Market. Vol. 1, No. 5 (May). p. 1–2.
Courtens, Jean-Paul. 2003. Farm equipment – How to choose what you need. Biodynamics. Winter 2002–2003. p. 30–33.
Denman, Bob. 1995. When you use a wheel hoe, you're the mule (and it's a lot easier than it looks!). Small Farm Today. April. p. 30–-33.
DeVault, George. 2001. America's working Gs: At age 50-plus, the Allis Chalmers G is still a favorite of farmers. Growing for Market. Vol. 10, No. 11 (November). p. 1–4, 5, 6.
Kittredge, Jack. 2003. Don MacClean: Doing it all with a tool bar. The Natural Farmer. Spring. p. 15–17.
Kuepper, George. 2001. Making a Planting Bed at Shinbone Valley Farm Using a Spader: Ed & Ginger Kogelschatz, Shinbone Valley Farm, Menlo, GA. ATTRA, Fayetteville, AR. 10 p.
Leap, Jim and Martha Brown. 2002. Steps to successful organic row crop production. The Cultivar. Fall/Winter. pp. 5–8, 18–19.
Petersons, Anna. 2002. Implements make wheel hoes more versatile. Growing for Market. June. p. 14–16.
Voshell, Gary. 2002. Make your own cultivator. Mother Earth News. February–March. Issue No. 190. p. 94–95.
Whatley, Booker T. 1987. Chapter 4. Equipping Your Whatley-Style Farm, Sensibly and Economically. p. 32–44. In: Booker T. Whatley's Handook On: How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres. Regenerative Agriculture Association, Emmaus, PA.
For an excellent summary of tools and techniques and how to match equipment to a cropping system, I especially recommend these two titles in the Resource Guide:
Sustainable Vegetable Production From Start-Up to Market. 1999. By Vernon P. Grubinger. NRAES-104. Natural Resource, Agriculture, and Engineering Service, Ithaca, NY. 268 p.
The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, 2nd Edition. 1995. By Eliot Coleman. Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River Junction, VT. 340 p.
Tools for Agriculture - A Buyer's Guide to Appropriate Equipment for Smallholder Farmers, Fourth edition. Edited by Intermediate Technology. 248pp pages, 1992
New Cultivation Tools for Mechanical Weed Control in Vegetables
University of Connecticut, IPM Program
Innovative Cultivating Tools
University of Connecticut, IPM Program
Consider a Wheel Hoe
Gord Chiddicks, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario News
Management Weeds Out High Labor Costs
Chantal Foulds, Sustainable Farming-REAP Canada
Cultivation Equipment for Weed Control: Pros, Cons, and Sources
by Vern Grubinger, University of Vermont Extension
Ten Steps Toward Organic Weed Control
by Vern Grubinger, University of Vermont Extension
Affordable Small Farm Equipment for High Residue Production of Vegetables
by Ron Morse, Virginia Tech
Additionally, see this series of helpful tip sheets from University of Wisconsin, on the web:
Work Efficiency Tip Sheets
Healthy Farmers, Healthy Projects Project. University of Wisconsin-Madison.
• A rolling dibble marker for easy transplant spacing
• Build a hands-free washer
• A specialized harvest cart for greens
• Plans for a specialized harvest cart
• Roll produce on a narrow aisle platform truck
• Narrow aisle platform truck schematic drawings
• Narrow pallet system
• Motorized lay-down work carts
• Try a long handled diamond hoe for weeding
• Standard containers
Work Efficiency Tools for Vegetable and Berry Farmers
A PowerPoint download, 20245 K
« What can you tell me about amending soils with limestone and granite dust? :: What can you tell me about worming cattle with garlic and DE? »