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System reduces hand hoeing

By Bill Strautman, The Western Producer

Weeding the 12 acres of market vegetables grown at Wild Flight Farm near Mara, B.C., used to be a job for a crew with hand hoes.

But in the past decade, Hermann and Louise Bruns, who operate the 20 acre vegetable farm, have added two modified mechanical weeders that allow their workers to concentrate on seeding and harvesting.

“The emphasis is on a wide variety of crops and marketing direct. We produce 50 to 60 different products over the course of the season,” said Hermann.

The first unit is a Farmall Cub tractor built in the late 1940s with a belly mounted cultivator system.

“It’s designed for cultivating. It’s got the offset engine so you’re actually sitting beside the engine, so you can look right down on your crop,” said Bruns.

“Being belly mounted, the steering is most accurate. If you have the cultivator at the back and you steer one inch at the front, it will move two inches at the back.

In the middle, it will only move it half an inch. So it’s great for precision cultivating.”

The belly mount system was originally set up with six shovels — two on either side of the crop row, two beside those, plus two behind the tractor wheels. Bruns replaced the two middle shovels, the ones that run on either side of the row, with Lilliston rolling cultivators.

“They move the soil sideways and depending on the angle you set them at, they work more or less aggressively. They give me a much more controlled flow of soil,” said Bruns.

“What I’m trying to do is get soil to flow into the row of plants. If you hill (the row), you can bury the weeds and kill them. Corn loves being hilled. I’ll set the cultivators so there’s just enough soil to bury the weeds, but not enough to bury the plant.”

It’s an infinite adjustment because it’s just a shaft going into a clamp. Bruns can set the angle of attack, and he can also slide the rolling cultivators in or out on a shaft. That way he can bring the cultivator closer to a small plant or move it away from a bigger plant.

Adjusting the speed of the tractor can also control how much soil gets moved. The round Lilliston rolling cultivators provide another advantage.

“As it’s rolling, it’s coming up as it’s getting closer to the plant. So you can set it quite close to the plant. Because it’s already coming out of the soil, you’re not disturbing the roots,” said Bruns.

“If you have a shank cultivator, you wouldn’t want to set them that close. Sometimes with beans, it will pick the leaves up and throw soil underneath, burying the weeds underneath.”

Bruns operates his mechanical weeder one row at a time.

“I mostly use it on crops where the rows are 36 inches apart, like leeks, corn, cabbage. It does between the rows as well. The rolling cultivator does right beside the row, then the next cultivator shovel in the belly mount works between the row and the shovels behind the wheels finish the operation off,” he said.

“When we first got that, it saved us tons of work.…I can’t recommend a tractor like that enough.”

Wild Flight Farm bought the tractor 10 years ago for about $2,500 and spent another $3,000 to get it set up.

Kubota with basket weeder
The farm also uses a Kubota L245H from the mid-1970s. It’s also an offset tractor that came with a belly mounted cultivator.

Bruns removed the cultivating tools and installed a basket weeder, made by the Buddingh Weeder Co. from Dutton, Michigan.

“What was missing before in my cultivating system was that I couldn’t do beds with the Farmall. This covers my beds,” said Bruns.

“It’s designed for things like spinach, radishes, lettuce and onions. I’ve set up my bed system so there’s three rows to a bed, 18 inches apart. We make sure we use lines and plant precisely.

“A week or two after planting, I’ll take the basket weeder down and go very close to the edge of the row.”

The basket weeder is made up of a series of bent wire baskets that roll along the soil under the belly of the tractor. Baskets on the front provide the drive for the baskets on the back.

The row on the front has a sprocket that’s larger than the one on the back. That means the back turns faster than the front, said Bruns.

The front baskets press into the soil and loosen it somewhat. Then the rear baskets that are spinning faster dig in and stir up the soil.

However, unlike the rolling cultivator, it throws almost no soil into the row.

“It’s designed for small weeds, less than an inch high. You’re just loosening up the surface of the soil, without having it flow into the row. It works about an inch deep, just enough to stir up the soil so the weeds get uprooted,” said Bruns.

“With the hydraulics, you can put down pressure on it, so you can decide how deep you want to go. But if the soil is hard, it doesn’t work. So I need to be aware of when I go through. If it’s a prolonged dry period, I have to follow my irrigation around. Or after a rain, as soon as it’s dry enough, I’ll be out there.”

The baskets are set up with a six to eight inch space for the rows, but Bruns often wants to get closer than that to the row of young vegetable plants. So he will go up one side of the row close, then down the other side close.

“When I seed, I put a bit more seed in and scatter it in a band about two inches wide. Then when I’m cultivating, I’ll go up quite close to that band and even uproot some. That way I know I’m getting all the weeds, right up to the edge,” he said.

He also uses it on crops planted 36 inches apart. In that case, it leaves a little unweeded strip in the middle, but it will do the two outside rows.

“Beans are planted at a 36 inch spacing so we can get in and pick them. As soon as they’re up, at the first leaf, I’ll go down and get the first flush of weeds. A couple of weeks later they’ll be six inches high, I can go in with the other tractor and start hilling them.”

On the back of the basket weeding tractor, Bruns has a set of three-point hitch Lilliston cultivators that follow in the wheel tracks that run in the space between the beds.

When he weeds, he does the whole bed and the rows between on each pass.

“About a third of the area of crops that I plant are in beds. The other two-thirds are like potatoes and corn that take up more space. So I’ve got the two planting styles covered by the two different cultivators. We do a little bit of hand weeding, but it’s a minimum,” said Bruns.

“I’ve done part with a machine and part with my hoeing crew in some cases, and the machine does a much better job than hand weeders. It leaves the soil loose, so weeds have a hard time rerooting. And there’s nothing missed.”

For his second mechanical weeding system, Bruns paid about $4,000 US for the basket weeder and $6,000 for the tractor.

Wild Flight Farm also has about 25,000 sq. feet of greenhouses so it can get started early in the spring and go late into the fall.

The farm has been certified organic for 14 years, markets its produce at farmers’ markets in Revelstoke and Salmon Arm and also sells to an urban harvest box delivery market in Kelowna. Bruns has also operated a subscription weekly vegetable box system.

The OACC gratefully acknowledges Western Producer for permission to post this article on our website.

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Posted September 2007


© 2012, Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC)


Dalhousie University Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada