Organic Broadcaster

Research documents labor efficiencies on organic diversified vegetable farms

By Erin Silva, Rachel Weil, and John Hendrickson

One of the biggest challenges for diversified vegetable growers, particularly those just starting their farm business, is determining their cost of production in order to set prices that ensure a profit. The biggest expense contributing to the cost of production on fresh market vegetable farms is labor. However, accurately estimating labor on highly diversified farms, especially those with large or multiple work crews, is quite daunting. On any given day during the physically strenuous and mentally exhausting growing season, growers and their work crews routinely perform a variety of tasks on a wide variety of crops, creating an enormous challenge for on-farm labor data collection.

Over the past eight years, the University of Wisconsin’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension program, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, and Jim Munsch, an organic farmer, have worked to develop tools to make this task easier for organic vegetable farmers. As part of these efforts, the team has developed the “Veggie Compass” spreadsheet tool to assist farmers in the analysis of their costs of production and the determination of their break-even prices (www.veggiecompass.com). Along with a downloadable spreadsheet that performs these calculations with the input of farm-specific data, the website also houses documents that assist with labor data collection efforts for specific crops throughout the production season.

More recently, the team has expanded this work to capture benchmark labor data. This benchmark data along with the broader Veggie Compass effort provide farmers with a comparison of labor efficiencies on their own farms with farm-specific labor data. In addition to providing a point of comparison, this data also helps farmers predict potential labor savings upon incorporation of different production and harvest practices, particularly those involving the purchase of machinery.

In order to capture this data, UW graduate student Rachel Weil spent the past two summers conducting “time and technique” studies on 10 organic vegetable farms across Wisconsin that were of different scales and levels of mechanization. Rachel visited farms at key points in the growing season, timing field crews to document the length of time required to complete various farm tasks for five different vegetable crops (broccoli, carrots, lettuce, peppers, and squash). Tasks measured included transplanting, harvesting, post-harvest handling, and CSA box packing. After collecting this data, Rachel conducted an analysis to compare the impact of farm size and level of mechanization on the time required to complete the task, as well as the impact of crew size, experience, and other management variables.

An initial analysis of the two-year data set shows some marked impacts with higher levels of mechanization. While all crops studied showed higher labor efficiencies in the mean number of transplants per hour per person when machine transplanting was used, this was particularly significant with broccoli transplants. Looking at the impacts of mechanized harvests, the investment of a carrot transplanter allowed for significantly greater volume of carrots to be harvested, jumping to 653 pounds of carrots per hour per person with a mechanized carrot harvester, as compared to 91 pounds per hour per person with forks and shovels and 122 pounds of carrots per hour per person with an undercutter.

With respect to post-harvest practices, mechanization of the wash process showed greater impact on the efficiency of wash and pack of certain crops over others. In the case of carrots, the use of a brush washer increased the volume of carrots packed to 387 pounds of carrots per hour per person, from 158 pounds of carrots per hour per person when hand-washing was used. Efficiencies of using a brush washer were also observed in the case of peppers and squash. (Peppers: 198 lbs per hour per person hand-washing vs. 439 lbs per hour per person brush washing; squash: 239 lbs per hour per person hand-washing vs. 277 lbs per hour per person brush washing) Unlike with carrots, these differences were not statistically significant, but do demonstrate the degree of average labor savings with mechanization.

Farm size was also assessed as to its impact on the labor efficiency of various farm activities. For the purpose of this initial analysis, small farms were categorized as those with less than 10 acres in vegetable production, and large farms with greater than 10 acres. Farm size appeared to significantly impact efficiencies with respect to broccoli post-harvest practices (large farms processing significantly larger volumes of product per hour per person), carrot harvest, lettuce transplanting and post-harvest (large farms harvesting significantly more lettuce heads per hour per person), and pepper harvest (large farms harvesting significantly more peppers per hour per person). In the case of lettuce transplanting and carrot harvest, this may be directly related to greater mechanization on the larger farms. No impact of farm size was observed on any of the squash production practices measured, nor with CSA box pack.

The team will continue to analyze the data throughout spring 2016, with data summaries produced, including best management practices captured throughout the two seasons of observations on the 10 farms.

Erin Silva is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Rachel Weil is a graduate student in the UW-Madison Agroecology Program. John Hendrickson is an outreach
specialist with the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.

For more information on the study, contact Dr. Erin Silva (emsilva@wisc.edu) or John Hendrickson (jhendric@wisc.edu).

Funding for this study came from many sources, including the Ceres Trust and the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant. The UW research team thanks the participating farms and the Fairshare CSA Coalition.

From the January | February 2016 Issue

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