Vegetable Row Crops with the Straddle Row Cultivator
by Chandler Briggs of Walla Walla, WA
I must admit, I have been mildly hesitant to submit an article to the Small Farmer’s Journal. I’ve only been a reader for a few years now, and farming regularly with horses for slightly longer than a year. These are merely field trials and I consider myself a novice with this machine, and with driving horses. I do not claim these practices to be anything but one experience in this place. But I am, like many greenhorns, excited to be a part of this community and to participate. I hope they provide inspiration to those who were new to draft power, a position I found myself not long ago, and provoke ideas in those with many years under their belt. Every day we work, I learn how much more there is to explore and know. I look forward to the journey, for it is fun & challenging. Or as one friend I know puts it:
Understanding the art of a craft is a journey with no end.
Since being introduced to the straddle row cultivator last year in hilling our potatoes, I have been excited to experiment with different tools mounted under the versatile machine. Like the famed Allis Chalmers G or Farmall Cub my peers of the internal combustion persuasion utilize on their vegetable farms, this tool can help maximize efficiency in many ways on the small farm. My primary inspiration for getting to know my new machine has been and continues to be the thorough, innovative SFJ articles written by Eric & Anne Nordell.
On our farm, we use two McCormick Deering straddle row cultivators rebuilt by Marvin Brisk of Halfway, Oregon. Many of our new and restored tools have come from his shop, and we are extremely happy with them. So far, they have been used primarily in cultivation and hilling of potatoes. Our horses, Avi & Dandy, are a mare & a gelding 10-year-old American Belgians from Horsepower Organics in Halfway, Oregon.
This spring I wanted to experiment with the straddle row cultivator (SRC) in planting out potatoes. I liked the multi-purpose possibilities of this tool, and that it allows for one person to work both horses, rather than two people working one horse. In years prior, the farm has used the team to pull a walking middle breaker with a 13 inch bottom. We then dropped in the potatoes, and covered them up by hand with rakes. We later came through with the SRC to weed paths and hill up the spuds. One of the changes I sought to avoid with using the SRC was an inconsistent depth of the furrow, which was difficult to avoid due to what we believe to be the sensitive nature of our middle breaker. I also felt that the depth was too deep in general. It creates tall peaks for paths between the rows when it is too deep. Imagine a side view of the field like one continuous “W.” This made it very difficult to cover the spuds with the disc hillers as there was no flat ground between the rows of spuds to drive on. When we attempted to, the wheels would slide down into the furrow, leaving the disc of the same side at the bottom of the furrow, throwing the spud seed and some dirt out the other side. It was a mess, and very time-consuming to fix. Thus, the rakes. One way we did manage to mitigate the lack of a riding land was to space out our rows further apart. This allows for some flat ground to drive on for covering the potatoes with discs. Spacing seems to be a trade off–the greater space between rows, the more dirt you can throw up on the potato plants, and the bigger they get; but with tighter spacing you can fit in more rows in a field.
But the inconsistent depth still gave us issues during harvest. We use a two-horse walking potato digger, which has a large shovel in front that draws up the potatoes and drops them on the soil as you walk forward. Sometimes it would miss potatoes or even slice them by not going deep enough to dig them up fully. In our trials, we were seeking a more consistent depth of furrow that we could drive over to cover the spuds. We wonder if adding a guide wheel to both the middle breaker and digger would help, but have yet to try it.
The two trials we performed in opening up furrows with the SRC were with the disc hillers attached to throw dirt out, and a 6 inch furrower sold by Agri-Supply (800-345-0169 www.agrisupply.com). The hilling discs came with the cultivator we purchased from Marvin Brisk, along with custom clamps that he had welded. The furrower was both attached via a heavy-duty S-tine to a 2 inch outside diameter (OD) square tube clamped to each gang. The S-tines can be purchased from most tractor stores and the 2 inch OD from a metal shop. The clamps are 3/8 inch flat stock ranging from 3.5 inches to 4 inches wide, with 1/2 inch bolts and lock nuts.
The opposing discs did open a furrow, but left a large ridge at the bottom of it, which we felt was unsatisfactory for planting. We were unsure of how to set them up in a way that left a clean V-shaped furrow.
The 6 inch furrower was closer to our ideal. There was disagreement between the farmers here about whether it provided a deep enough furrow: some liked it while others felt that a deeper furrow meant a taller plant by the end of the season, and therefore more potatoes per plant, per row, in the end. I cannot say which might be better. When using the 6 inch furrower, we experimented with the angle of the gangs, which gave the furrower a steeper angle and got it slightly deeper. But in the end, the angle of repose eventually decides what the furrow will ultimately look like. And it is only in the width of shovel or furrower that we allow for a deeper trench by expanding the distance between the peaks on either side of the furrow.
The blue row marker you see pictured was made by another employee here at Welcome Table, Joel Sokoloff. We found that Joel’s row maker (aka “The Joel Marker,” still in R&D) worked best in fluffy, clean soil, especially if it was cooler outside. Since it exposed moisture by making a very small ditch, the dark line was easier to see if the moisture didn’t evaporate immediately like it sure can here in sunny Walla Walla. It was nearly impossible to see when we first tried it in soil that was trashy (lots of clumps of weeds and cover crop). Once we worked the soil more for our second try, we found it easy to see. One idea we had was to adopt the mini-disc at the end like on horse-drawn corn planters. Joel is currently scheming in the shop to improve the model as I write this article. Who knows, maybe you’ll see one for sale at the SFJ auction alongside Marvin’s next cultivator.
Agri-Supply carries larger sized furrowers in 2 inch intervals, so a few weeks after we finished planting I decided to try out the 8 inch furrower. I practiced opening up furrows and closing them in a fallow field. I mounted the furrower on the same set up as the 6 inch, but we agreed that a straight shank would better serve the job, as the S-tine is too flexible and rides up as it is pulled through the soil. Nevertheless, I was pleased with the results. I could get the horses to walk next to the previous furrow and achieve a 38 inch row spacing as a comfortable minimum. It left a furrow a little deeper than the 6 inch, and still left a flat enough surface for driving back with the disc hillers.
One of the other goals I wanted to achieve with the SRC was to increase its use in cultivation. We have a bad case of bindweed in our fields, and I wanted to encourage more passes, both for setting back the bindweed and to work the horses more often during their typically light summer workload. We could use the tool more in the potatoes and with other crops.
From the middle of March until the week of auction, we put in about an acre of potatoes in total. To combat the small annual cool spring weeds that popped up, we ran the spring tooth harrow blind of the field on a few occasions. This brought down any hills that had been left due to disc hilling the furrows closed, and filled in furrows that were not completely filled in by the rakes. It was nearly impossible to tell where the rows of potatoes were until they sprouted. It was helpful to push back the weeds, but once the bindweed started to sprout in the grow- ing warm spring, the harrow was no match. Most of the perennial weed could escape the tines, which can throw dirt to cover and run aggressively, but not slice the bindweed.
I read with great interest in a Nordell article about “southern peanut sweeps” sold by the aforementioned Agri-Supply. I purchased the 12 inch sweeps in order to overlap and form a barrier from which the bindweed will hopefully be unable to escape. Because of the weed pressure making it difficult to see the emerging potatoes, Andy and I cultivated the spuds with one peanut sweep on each side, sometimes using a twine to help mark the row for the driver (no photos of this, sorry). Eventually, I got the “morel vision” and was able to plainly see the spuds among their weedy companions. This helped knock back the paths and define our rows. We then came through as a crew to hand weed all of the potatoes inline with Glaser “hula hoes.” The bindweed did not take long to reemerge, so we came back a few days later for a secondary SRC pass, which you can see in the photos. In that pass, we used two peanut sweeps on each side, overlapping 6 inches and leaving a space of about 10 inches between the sweeps for the potato row. It managed to clean up the rows fairly well and because of how we set it, threw just a small amount of soil onto the spuds, which they can handle just fine.
After an irrigation set and some time, the potatoes were looking very good. The bindweed keeps coming back up, hardest in the 10 inches of uncultivated space, as we have yet to figure a way to weed it there other than by hand. It can be risky to set cultivators too close to the plants, and perhaps we are all too nervous to do so just yet. A week later, we weeded in-line again and spent the afternoon hilling up for the first time. We used 16 inch disc hillers set in at a moderate angle, with two sets of sweeps behind for cleaning up and cutting any bindweed left behind. We anticipate, like last season, an ongoing battle with our persistent and perennial foe below, from now until the harvest.
We hilled two more times, each a week after the previous. For the second hilling, we moved the discs out slightly and kept one peanut sweep on each gang for weeding in the paths. In order to achieve a third hilling, we had to break up the tough ground in the paths first. We used a one-horse, walk-behind adjustable cultivator with rounded points down each path, which loosened up the soil nicely. In our third hilling pass, we separated out the discs to about 40 inches with a more aggressive angle, which built our potato hills wider while slightly covering the tops a little more. We may make one more pass on the rows that are more widely spaced, and we will definitely continue weeding until the plants mature in August.
Aside from the potatoes, we have also been trialling the SRC on other crops — fava beans, peas and rutabagas which have been planted both as a single row crop and in two line beds spaced 8 inches apart. In one photo, you can see Joel cultivating a single row of overwintered fava beans using two 7.5 inch Danish sweeps and beet knives with guards on each side of the crop during a dry spell this March. In another, you can see myself cultivating a two-line bed of bush peas in April. In both instances, we have had to do some in-line weeding but it had cut back on the amount we had been doing previous with our Glaser wheel hoe and hula hoes. Later this season, we will trial this method with some other crops, including brussels sprouts, sunflowers and corn.
I am excited to continue our experiments using the straddle row cultivator to improve efficiency in our work and increase the time we spend with our horses.
Chandler Briggs works at the horse-powered Welcome Table Farm in Walla Walla, Washington, where he helps raise vegetables, fruit, flowers, pork & lamb on 25 acres for farmers market, farm stand, restaurants and a 75-member CSA. He hopes to run his own draft-powered farm someday. Photos by Joel Sokoloff, Emily Asmus, Liz Phillips and Chandler Briggs.