Prototype Farm Machine Expands Applications in Organic Vegetable Crop Production

May 12, 2016

LEXINGTON, Kentucky – University of Kentucky researchers have designed, built and tested a low-cost, mechanized system for organic vegetable production to help small-scale growers reduce their labor costs, increase their scale of operations, reduce input costs and increase production compared to conventional organic production practices.

In a Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) On-Farm Research Grant (OS14-092), “A New Appropriate Technology Machine System to Benefit the Sustainability of Local Organic Vegetable Production,” agricultural engineer John Wilhoit and his colleagues retrofitted an old three-wheeled tobacco harvesting aid with furrow guidance.

The machine allows for precision guidance of various vegetable production operations throughout the growing season – laying drip tape, planting seed, transplanting crops – without the expense associated with GPS technology. In addition, the furrow guidance frees the grower to perform other field operations, such as weed management and applying compost and mulch.

See how the machine works in this University of Kentucky video.

The design plans for the machine, along with a parts spreadsheet and costs for materials and parts, are available online for growers interested in building the machine themselves.

“Organic production has the potential to bring higher returns for market growers, but growing organically has particular production challenges,” said Wilhoit. “There is a need for relatively low cost mechanization that specifically addresses the challenges faced by market growers producing organic vegetables, to help them improve the efficiency of their operations, and enhance utilization of available labor resources.”

In the SSARE project, Wilhoit and his colleagues improved upon a previously built prototype of the machine and tested its use in potato, beet and broccoli production in university field trials, and on an organic farm in Kentucky. The machine was also demonstrated to the public during a field day in 2015.

The technology was used to lay drip tape, plant seed, side dress organic fertilizer, pull weeds, and harvest crops, among other operations. Generally, planting crops was faster using the technology, than planting by hand in the conventional organic production plots.

“Production limitations made it difficult to assess labor requirements for the system in comparison to conventional organic production, but various new applications were explored during the on-farm work,” said Wilhoit. “Indirectly, the results of this study have significantly increased the base of experience and knowledge about using furrow guidance technology for the production of various vegetable crops. It has led to the development of new applications such as applying fertilizer and laying plastic, and has inspired new ideas for other applications including pulling drip tape, applying compost and mulch, and weeding between plants within the row. “

Wilhoit said that the technology needs to be more field-proven, given the cost (roughly $5,000 for the basic parts and implements, and another $5,000 to hire a machine shop to build it), but the unique way that the system works opens up a host of possible applications for a whole new type of intensive vegetable crop production.

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Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America’s Southern region. This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, through Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, under sub-award number: OS14-092. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant:

Topics: Organic Agriculture, Vegetables
Related Locations: Kentucky, South