This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
I love the work, the continuity of it, but also the little surprises; I never know what I’m going to find. Clearing a bed of peppers and finding a head of red cabbage lurking in between the stems, a remnant of a previous crop. Moments of simplicity and beauty with plants or animals. Gestures of affection, scritchins, nuzzles, vocalizations.
During these wet, dark days it can be hard to keep the spirits up. I’m a sunshine-hot-pepper-burst-of-energy type guy, and keeping myself moving during these winter days isn’t easy. I try to honor the instinct to hibernate, sleeping more and pushing less of an intense schedule. The early darkness and slow daylight makes it a natural choice, and leaves less time for work.
I am beginning the application of a monumental shift in our vegetable practices. We made the purchase of a paperpot transplanter, beginning a new paradigm for our farm. The machine relies on prefabricated paper trays that pull off in a daisy chain so that the operator walks down the row and the mechanics of the implement cut a furrow, tuck the paper chain and plants into the furrow and push the soil back around them to complete the planting.
The machine has no engine or motor, and operates on the basics of physics and the pulling of the operator walking down the row. It is a complete system, meaning that along with the machine we purchased heavy-duty trays to hold the starts along with a pair of metal spreaders and a framework to hold the paper chains while the tray is filled with soil.
The paper chains come with different spacing for the plants, 2”, 4” or 6”. 264 plants at 2” covers 49.5 row feet, 4” does 93 feet and 6” covers 139 row feet. They are not cheap, each one ranging between $2.50-4, and are not reusable so there is now an additional cost to each tray of seeds I sow.This factor was the single biggest impediment in my mind to making this transition; I was reluctant to have to spend the money for the paper chains, but it is part of an overall paradigm shift in our farming philosophy.
Starting out, we had very little space but lots of time, so we maximized what we could do by transplanting everything by hand so that we saved time-row-space by keeping plants in the greenhouse as long as possible to maximize productivity from the beds. As the farm got bigger and we took on more animal work, I found that we had less time, and the cannabis market dropping made us unable to afford extra labor.
Now, when I factor the time savings for being able to transplant seedlings in about a tenth of the time, it adds up to more than offset the cost of the paper chains. There are additional benefits in that each paperpot tray holds 264 seeds as compared with the 72 cell trays we’ve been used to. This means that I need far less space in the hoophouse; a 50 foot bed of beets that would have taken 8 trays and 6 hours to transplant now takes 2 trays and will plant out in less than an hour.
There are multiple factors of which I have to be aware and careful about. The bed prep has to be flawless, no detritus, chunks, clods, rocks or other impediments, which is a shift for me. I tend to be sloppy with transplanting, because when you’re doing it by hand it doesn’t matter. The shift to the paperpot means that I will need to treat each bed as I would for using the precision seeder, making sure the soil is soft and loose. It will take extra time, but will be more than offset by the savings in time and backache from not having to stoop and plant by hand.
Because the individual cells are so much smaller, there is very little forgiveness in the timeline. My planning will need to be on point, so that the bed is ready to go when the plants are ready. No more lingering in the greenhouse waiting for me to get my shit together, because if I waste a tray waiting too long, there is more than 3x the seed cost wasted, along with the cost of the paper chain.
The upshot is that if I can be professional in my planning and practices, this machine will allow me to do the work of sowing and planting with no help at all. It will cut the labor needed to run the vegetable business to a manageable level, so that I’m not struggling with burnout and overworking myself. There will be trial and error as I grow into the new paradigm, but I am excited for it in a way that few shifts in my career as a farmer have brought. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!