Organic Broadcaster

Smart tools, systems help you save labor in the transplant house

By Chris Blanchard, Flying Rutabaga Works

Work in the transplant house starts at a slow time of year for most vegetable growers, but continues as field operations and even harvest get under way. Relative inefficiencies during the first slow months may be tolerable, but as April turns to May, you’ll want to utilize a few key tools to speed the work and make time for other mission-critical aspects of your farm as you get your plants ready for the field.

For most diversified vegetable growers, the work­space for filling and seeding flats fits right into the premium space of the production greenhouse, rather than occupying a separate building. Lay­ing this space out well can minimize extraneous movement, cut down on materials handling, and help you and your employees avoid discomfort and injury.

The wheel is truly one of history’s great inven­tions. If it’s not too late, put a concrete slab and a pallet-size door in the workspace of your green­house so that you can maximize your use of it. Buying potting soil in two-yard slings can cut down your costs, and the ability to move heavy potting supplies on pallets not only reduces strain on the back but saves time as well.

Laying out your head house to facilitate a linear flow from soil mix to filled flats to seeded flats reduces tripping over extraneous materials, and makes it easier to batch your work. Separate workstations make it easy to keep the right materials at hand. Everything a worker needs should be within easy reach. Keeping tools and supplies within a 24-inch radius to the side and front speeds things up enough to make a little nagging worthwhile. A coffee cup at each work­station makes it easy to store the tools needed for the job at hand, and has enough heft to keep from tipping over.

Each step in the process should be an easy pivot or push away. Long tables make it simple to push several flats along at a time. Switching from one table to another, or moving flats onto a trolley or cart, should only require a turn and step to complete the movement. If a worker has a table or bench between herself and the cart, provide enough room that she can slide the flat across the table to another worker, who can then move it with a simple pivot.

The top of a workstation should be at elbow height – considerably higher than a standard folding table. Most workers move faster when standing, so I’ve always avoided stools and chairs. Most workers also work faster when they are comfortable, so invest in anti-fatigue mats to reduce wear-and-tear on backs and knees.

Rather than bending over a large bag of soil mix to fill flats, we built a table with walls on three sides, and shoveled mix from the sling up onto the table – a step that also breaks up any com­pacted chunks. Workers mound the mix over the flat with their hands, then shake the flat hard once before using a flat scree board to sweep the soil from the middle of the flat to the ends.

Moving Flats

Moving flats one or two at a time around the greenhouse takes a lot of time, especially when you are loading flats out for transplanting during a rare dry spell in the spring. At Rock Spring Farm, we installed an overhead trolley so that one person could move 24 flats at a time around the greenhouse. Even a flat rack or modi­fied wheelbarrow that can roll down a narrow aisle will save a tremendous amount of time.

A four- or five-shelved trolley can run above the transplant benches on a tubular track that hangs from the greenhouse frame. Ours makes a complete circle along the two walkways and around the ends of the benches. A switch – just like a railroad track – allows the trolley to travel through the work area and right up to the door, so that workers can move flats to the van or trailer with just a pivot and a step.

Harmony Valley Farm uses a welded rack that fits on the forks of a skid steer to move flats from one greenhouse to another, or into their hardening-off facility. At Rock Spring Farm, we built a wooden rack that slid into the back of the van we used as our field vehicle so that we could move five times as many plants as fit on the floor of the vehicle.

Speedy Seeding

A combination of high- and low-tech tools can really speed up seeding flats. My favorite – and simplest – tool is a 6- inch-long piece of folded plastic shaped to a point at one end and closed at the other, sized so that it can be held in the hand like a chopstick. Seeds are placed in the crease, and the tool is held at such an angle that the seeds at the pointed end fit in the crease in a single line. This makes it easier to count out seeds and push them into a seedling tray with a “pointy” tool – my favorite is a short stick of #9 wire, pounded flat on one end and ground into the right shape with a bench grinder. This tool works great for putting multiple seeds in one cell, as it makes counting out a consistent number of seeds simple and easy.

For round seeds like brassicas, a plate seeder can really speed up the work. A vacuum holds seeds onto a plate drilled with small holes to match the seed size and the pattern of the cells in a tray. Seeds are poured onto the plate and rolled around the tray until every hole is filled. Once all of the holes are filled, the remaining seeds are poured off, and the seeder is inverted over the flat and the vacuum broken so that the seeds drop into the tray. One worker can easily seed 60 – 90 flats per hour with this tool.

I’ve worked with many farms that use a home­made version of this tool, with shop-drilled plexiglass or aluminum plates and a shop vac. I really like the one from Carolina Greenhouses, which allows the worker to maneuver the seeds into a channel on the plate before inverting, rather than pouring them back into a container. The factory-built models also often incorporate a sliding plate to break the vacuum, rather than having to turn the vacuum on and off.

Efficient Watering

Even, consistent watering takes skill and attention that many workers simply lack, so installing an overhead watering system can help reduce critical management time spent watering. In the diverse greenhouse of a market farm, automatic watering needs careful monitoring; putting the same amount of water on every day can lead to disastrous results. We developed a watering log to track how long water ran on each bench, and information about weather conditions so that we could decide how much water to put on each day based on previ­ous results.

An automatic watering system doesn’t eliminate the labor needed to hand-water transplants – spot watering is still required, especially when one bench houses crops at multiple stages of maturity.

Chris Blanchard provides consulting and education for farming, food, and business through Flying Rutabaga Works. As the owner and operator of Rock Spring Farm in Iowa for over 13 years, Chris raised 20 acres of vegetables, herbs, and greenhouse crops, marketed through a 200-member year-round CSA, food stores, and farmers markets.

March | April 2014