Small tractor sales surge during pandemic

Sales of small farm machinery are benefiting from increased home-and-yard spending during the coronavirus outbreak, but the pandemic’s impact on larger equipment is uneven.

The 102,000 new tractors under 40 horsepower sold during the first half of 2020 is about 13% higher than a year ago, according to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

The trend has only seemed to pick up steam recently, with AEM reporting that unit sales in the smallest tractor category surged 37% last month compared to a year ago.

“Anything that has to do with home improvement or making your home more enjoyable — all those businesses seem to be doing well,” said Curt Blades, senior vice president of agricultural services for AEM.

Dealers of building materials, garden equipment and supplies saw their sales increase about 10% during the first half of 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The solid market for small tractors is especially remarkable because this category had already seen healthy sales for several years, Blades said.

These smallest tractors are usually bought by hobby farmers and large property owners, while the 40- to 100-horsepower tractors more commonly used for farm chores, livestock and light tillage in commercial agriculture, he said.

“For the most part, that’s someone who’s deriving income from the farm or significant income from the farm,” Blades said.

Sales of new tractors in the 40-100 horsepower category rose 6.6% during the first half of 2020 and 27.5% last month, which is likely due to the need to replace machinery rather than optimism about the agricultural market outlook, he said.

Despite the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus and tensions over biofuels and trade, farmers realize they’re in business for the long haul and likely have pent-up demand for mid-sized replacement equipment, Blades said.

In the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus lockdown this spring, the “spigot shut off” for such tractor sales, so farmers have more recently been “playing catch-up,” he said.

“Often those decisions are separate from the economics,” he said. “As we recognize we’re in troubling times right now, this too shall pass.”

Sales of new tractors above 100 horsepower, which are used for heavier tillage, have decreased by 3.5% for the first half of 2020 but grew by more than 3% last month.

New four-wheel-drive tractors, the largest category, declined by 11.5% in unit sales during the first half of 2020 and by nearly 34% last month.

For bigger machinery, farmers may be deciding to defer investments until the economic outlook has improved, Blades said.

“They’re really darned expensive and it’s a big purchase,” he said.

The sales surge experienced by some tractor categories in June indicates “quite a turnaround” since coronavirus-related restrictions began being lifted, though its durability is unknown given the recent upswing in illnesses, said Joe Dykes, vice president of industrial relations for the Equipment Dealers Association.

“Whether it will continue, I certainly can’t speculate on that,” he said.

As essential businesses, farm equipment dealerships mostly remained open even when coronavirus restrictions were at their most stringent, Dykes said. The lockdown nonetheless hurt machinery sales, but revenue from parts and service helped make up for that drop.

“Farmers didn’t stop planting their crops because of the pandemic,” he said. “Instead of getting a new piece of equipment, they were getting what they had fixed.”

Since unit sales of the largest tractors involve relatively small numbers, changes in sales tend to be more volatile percentage-wise, Blades said.

For example, manufacturers have sold about 1,100 four-wheel drive tractors so far in 2020, compared to 8,300 tractors over 100 horsepower and 30,800 tractors between 40-100 horsepower.

Even so, sales of new combines — also a big-ticket item with low unit sales — are down less than 2% during the first half of 2020, which may reflect farmers being willing to take delivery on machines they’ve already ordered, Blades said.

Inconsistent weather in recent years may also be a factor, as farmers may be willing to invest in additional combines to ensure they can complete harvest operations in a narrower time window, he said.

“I don’t want to give the impression it’s rosy out there because it’s still a tough time,” he said. “I would love to say the market’s going to come back strong. I don’t have any ability to say that with any degree of certainty.”

Sales of new machinery are also affected by the availability of well-maintained used machinery with low operating hours, since many growers will opt for older equipment if they can get it, said Dykes. “The used market has been pretty attractive.”

Farmers markets get help switching to online ordering

The Oregon Farmers Market Association is helping its members establish online ordering systems to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

As more farmers markets seek to move transactions online, managers can consult the association for technical assistance and software recommendations.

“We’re here to help them understand their choices and support them in implementing the choices they make,” said the association’s executive director, Kelly Crane.

So far, the association has assisted 27 farmers markets — about a quarter of the state’s total.

“Farmers markets are really nimble, creative entities,” Crane said. “They’ll be the first to tell you, every market is different” with unique needs and challenges.

Some farmers markets can’t operate on site because of local regulations. Others don’t have space to accommodate social distancing guidelines. Several are waiting on delayed permits. Many have concerned customers opting out of on-site visits.

To limit interactions, more farmers markets are letting customers order and purchase goods such as berries, fruits and vegetables on the internet before pick-up.

“(Customers) don’t have to exchange money, pick things out and have it weighed — it’s all ready to go,” Crane said.

Some farmers markets offer it as an option, while others have opted to have all customers pre-order online.

For example, in Florence, Ore., the farmers market is online-only since many of its customers are retirees, who have a higher risk of becoming serious ill from COVID-19.

“It’s like we’ve totally reinvented our market,” said Mary Shaw, the market president. “The customers are very grateful to have access to local food.”

Tourist revenue is much lower, but Shaw’s priority is to offer high-quality food to the local community. So far, revenue resembles the market’s first season, three years ago.

Shaw is still working to reach customers who use SNAP benefits with the Oregon Trail card to purchase food. “They are the cornerstone of our market,” Shaw said. Many don’t use computers or relied on computers at the library, which is still closed.

Online platforms can’t process the Oregon Trail card, so SNAP customers pay at the information booth when they pick up their orders.

While Shaw misses community members congregating at the market, there are no plans to open as a walk-in market.

“The market is doing well,” she said. “Sales are trending upwards,” thanks to the online adjustments, which will be a permanent option beyond the pandemic.

Crane, the head of the state farmers market association, believes the online adjustments will help farmers markets in the long run.

“Industry leaders have been really interested in this topic,” she said. “We see the customer trends and we’ve wanted to get our farmers markets interested for long-term viability.”

Before the pandemic, there was little reason to move business online since the state’s farmers markets are so popular.

“One silver lining of this crisis is that it’s created an incentive to make a behavioral shift,” Crane said. “Once those habits are built, it will be normal for farmers markets to have online vendors keeping their product up-to-date.”

In 2019, Oregon’s farmers markets sold $63 million worth of products from 6,700 vendors.

“That’s 6,700 small businesses” that rely on farmers markets to operate, Crane said. “People think of farmers markets as cute, but collectively, they are also a significant cornerstone in Oregon’s agriculture industry.”

Lawsuit aims to forbid organic certification of hydroponics

A lawsuit against the USDA is seeking to forbid organic certification of hydroponic operations, arguing only soil-grown crops can legally qualify as organic.

The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group, claims that cultivating plants hydroponically in nutrient solution violates the requirement to “foster soil fertility” of the Organic Foods Production Act, a 1990 statute that governs organic farming.

“That goes against a basic organic principle, and those principles are encoded in law,” said Sylvia Wu, attorney for the Center for Food Safety as well as several other farms and organizations suing the USDA.

Controversies over hydroponic production have been percolating in the organic community for years, but the plaintiffs decided to file a complaint after the USDA rejected their 2019 petition to exclude such operations from organic certification, she said.

Hydroponic crops are grown without soil. Instead, nutrients are mixed with water and go directly to the plants’ roots.

At this point, consumers at grocery stores don’t know whether they’re buying produce from an organic farmer who’s working to improve the soil, Wu said. “That organic tomato could very well be grown in a warehouse in Mexico.”

A spokesperson for the USDA said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

In denying the petition, the agency said that “a categorical prohibition to hydroponic production is not justified by the OFPA.”

Provisions in the law referring to improving soil quality or crop rotation only apply to farms that rely on soil but don’t require that “all organic production occur in a soil-based environment,” the USDA said.

Though resources are cycled and conserved differently in hydroponic operations, that doesn’t render them “incompatible with the vision for organic agriculture” in the statute, the USDA said.

“Hydroponic operations produce food in a way that can minimize damage to soil and water, and that can support diverse biological communities,” the agency said.

Organic hydroponic growers are disappointed in the lawsuit and believe its accusations reflect a lack of understanding of their production methods, said Lee Frankel, executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which represents such operations.

Hydroponic greenhouses still rely on microbes to break down nutrients into forms that are available to plants and rely on composting green waste, similarly to other farming operations, he said.

Hydroponic systems also greatly reduce the demand for irrigation water while producing crops efficiently, which reduces their environmental footprint, Frankel said.

The OFPA and associated regulations are intended to provide farmers with flexibility, so not every practice mentioned in the statute is required, he said.

“I don’t think the USDA is about prescribing a one-size-fits-all,” Frankel said. “Every grower has their site-specific conditions that dictate how they grow.”

The complaint is motivated by a desire to limit supplies of organic fresh tomatoes grown in greenhouses, which have come to dominate the market, he said. “The plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit stated they don’t like that competition and feel like the prices need to be higher.”

The debate over hydroponics in organic farming stretches back more than two decades, with the National Organic Standards Board — which advises USDA — repeatedly reversing itself about whether the practice should be allowed.

Most recently, however, the NOSB voted in favor of continuing to allow organic certification of hydroponic operations in 2017.

The Center for Food Safety considers this decision an “anomaly,” as the broader industry narrative demonstrates the organic community’s resistance to the method, said Wu, the group’s attorney.

“It reflects the difference between corporate organic and family organic farmers.”

The NOSB’s 2017 recommendation won’t likely harm the lawsuit’s chances, as the statute is clear that improving soils is mandatory for organic farms, she said.

“Some requirements are discretionary, but not the soil fertility requirement,” Wu said.

Survey finds landowners OK with conservation on rented farmland

Landowners in Washington are more OK with the farmers renting their property making conservation efforts than previously thought, the American Farmland Trust says.

The organization, which is devoted to protecting agricultural lands, farmers and sound environmental practices recently released the results of its survey of Washington landowners.

The organization surveyed 306 non-operating landowners in the state.

“If (farmers) are thinking about conservation, especially around soil health, improving water quality or wildlife habitat, they may have presumed that their landowner is not supportive,” said Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, director of the organization’s Women for the Land program. “Our results suggest they should work and talk with their landlord about flexibility they have in supporting them to adopt conservation practices. We think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

According to the survey results, 75% of landowners generally rent or lease land to family, friends or a neighbor, and 92% say they trust their farmer to make good conservation decisions.

Concerns that conservation practices would devalue the farmland or receive disapproval from neighbors were actually the least likely barriers to conservation on landowners’ rented land, according to the survey.

Roesch-McNally called the idea that non-operating landowners don’t care about conservation and wouldn’t support their renters a “myth.”

“At least from the landowner perspective, they’re not as concerned about that,” she said.

The biggest limiting factors were a weak farm economy and the renter’s ability to afford conservation efforts, the survey found. Roughly 27% and 22% of respondents listed these factors, Roesch-McNally said.

Non-operating landowners own roughly 39% of land in the West, higher in some states, she said. Non-operating landowners own roughly 80% of rented land, according to the organization.

“We have a decent understanding of landowners who farm their land and farmers who farm their own land and rented land,” Roesch-McNally said.

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service provides consistent data over time, she said.

“But we recognize that there’s a lot we don’t actually understand about these non-operating landowners.”

Respondents were asked to consider a series of attributes that are somewhat or very important to them when evaluating a current or potential renter.

Trustworthiness is the top quality landowners are looking for when renting their land, cited as “somewhat” or “very” important 99% of the time. The other top five operator characteristics were “They care about my land,” cited by 98%; “They are financially responsible,” cited by 97%; “ability to maintain soil productivity” and “reputation as a good farmer,” both cited by 96% ;and “ability to avoid soil erosion,” by 92%.

But Roesch-McNally pointed to a relative lack of awareness about or access to information to help with conservation efforts.

“I think there’s kind of a gap between the technical assistance we provide to farmers, but we don’t always reach out to landowners,” she said.

Roughly 17% to 33% of survey respondents are interested in access to education materials.

“They’re supportive, but they may not be as interested in formal support,” Roesch-McNally said. “To me, I take that as suggesting that our ag adviser communities shouldn’t forget the landowner audience and do some targeted outreach, so they’re aware of some of the programs that could benefit their land and their farmers.”

Most landowners speak with their farmer a couple times a year, she said.

“Often people have long-standing relationships and annually-renewed leases, folks have been working with the same renter for a while, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re communicating with each other all the time, especially about things around conservation,” she said.

Women non-operating landowners are more likely to experience a breakdown in communication with their renting farmer, she said.

Many women have been disproportionately left out of mainstream agricultural conversations and may feel less empowered or supported, and don’t feel as confident in discussions with their renter, she said.

The Land for Women program works to help them gain the expertise and gain confidence to discuss conservation and other topics with their renting farmers, Roesch-McNally said.

American Farmland Trust plans to implement the program in the Northwest in 2020.

The organization surveyed 11 states across the country – Washington, California, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.

Full survey results are slated to be released this winter, including analyses of gender and agricultural experience. The information will inform American Farmland Trust’s outreach and programming to help boost conversations between landowners and renting farmers, Roesch-McNally said.

“There’s an opportunity to improve the way people are talking to each other about their goals for their land,” she said.


Renewable energy siting bill worries farmland advocates

Increasing demand for renewable energy in Oregon has spurred a proposal to exempt most such projects from compulsory review by a statewide siting panel.

Supporters argue it would be less expensive and time-consuming for county governments to review plans for solar arrays and other renewable energy facilities.

However, advocates of farmland preservation argue that counties will scrutinize renewable energy projects less rigorously that the Energy Facility Siting Council, which aims to ensure such facilities meet statewide standards.

Under House Bill 2329, the threshold for mandatory EFSC review of solar facilities would be increased from 100 to 200 acres of arable farmland and certain wind, geothermal and transmission projects would also be exempt from the statewide process.

A proposed amendment to the bill would require county governments to consider the same standards for siting energy facilities as EFSC.

“More renewables are coming to this state and we need to be ready to site them,” said Rikki Seguin, policy director for the Renewable Northwest nonprofit group, during a Feb. 28 legislative hearing.

Oregon’s renewable energy portfolio standard calls for half the state’s power needs to be generated by renewable facilities by 2040. Some local governments, such as the City of Portland and Multnomah County, have even more ambitious goals, she said.

The EFSC review process typically costs more than $1 million to complete, compared to about $50,000 to $80,000 for the county land use process, she said. The statewide process also usually takes a year longer than the county process.

Developers face a “ticking clock” with federal tax incentives to build renewable energy facilities, she said. “This timeline makes it more difficult to justify building projects in Oregon.”

When lawmakers established EFSC in 1975, the process was designed for coal, gas and nuclear plants, while solar and wind projects are more modular and don’t vary as much technologically from site to site, Seguin said.

All solar projects built so far in Oregon, except for one, have been approved through county processes rather than EFSC, so county governments clearly have the expertise to deal with the issue, she said. Those counties that are short-staffed could also recover fees from developers to pay third-party consultants for review.

“We need to recognize our counties are fully capable of siting renewable energy projects at a time our state is demanding them,” Seguin said.

Each county government is unique not only with staffing and resources but also in how it applies statewide land use regulations and the standards it applies beyond the minimum requirements, said Todd Cornett, administrator of the energy facility siting division at the Oregon Department of Energy.

“The bill could result in significant variation in the review and conditions applied to renewable energy projects across the state,” Cornett said during a March 5 hearing on the bill.

The 1,000 Friends of Oregon farmland conservation group is concerned that counties won’t sufficiently examine impacts to water quality and quantity, cultural resources and wildlife habitat, particularly since HB 2329 doesn’t provide them with funding for such undertakings.

“Counties, especially rural counties with low populations and fewer local government resources, lack capacity to address and review the complex siting issues relating to these large projects,” said Meriel Darzen, rural lands attorney for the organization, in submitted testimony.

County land use decisions can be challenged before the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals, which is geared toward county-level decisions rather than questions regarding large-scale energy infrastructure, Darzen said at the March 5 hearing. The EFSC process, meanwhile, aims to resolve broader issues, such as jurisdictional conflicts among government agencies.

“There is a concern about forcing a large project into a small box of county land use,” she said.

The Oregon Farm Bureau likewise argues that EFSC was established to analyze complex energy projects “which may have impacts that cross county lines” while HB 2329 would allow developers to “forum shop” when siting facilities.

“In recent years, the level of solar development on farm and rangeland has exploded, and these projects have the ability to have a significant individual and cumulative impact on our state’s agricultural economy,” said Samantha Bayer, OFB’s associate policy counsel, in submitted testimony. “The siting process for them should remain robust, and not at the mercy of the resources of any particular county.”

App connects local farms, customers

SPOKANE — Vince Peak and Eric Kobe are the innovators behind Share.Farm, a new smart phone application that helps local farmers find potential customers, and vice versa.

“We want people to know where their food’s from, what goes into producing that product and getting it to them — having a more close relationship with that local farm and seller,” Peak said.

In addition to allowing farmers to offer their crops for sale through the app, it also shows which restaurants purchase local items and serve them on their menu, Peak said.

The app also shows potential customers which local products are available nearby, or if they pass a participating farm or market, they will receive a notification of the products available.

The app launched in August. Peak said they have 1,000 customers in the Spokane area, the company’s primary territory.

The app provides farmers with another revenue source, Kobe said. Small-scale farmers who have produce to sell can use the app to reach customers.

With the app, farmers can sell product seven days a week instead of just two or three like they’re doing at farmers’ markets, Kobe said.

Kobe said the app allows vendors to share their stories directly with customers, and buyers to know where their food comes from. It’s one-stop marketing, he said.

Farmers use the app by downloading it free of charge from the Apple or Google stores, logging on, listing all items for sale and linking to a payment processor to conduct transactions through the phone. When they get an order they can then determine the means of distribution — delivery, on-farm pickup or a mutual meet-up point.

“All you need is to setup a vendor profile, list the items you want to sell and they must be grown by you or your business,” according to the website.

Farm.Share does not charge a vendor fee but has a service charge of 7-13 percent, depending on the size of the order, according to the website. The app uses the Stripe Connect Express for immediate payouts to sellers.

Some 130 farmers, primarily in Eastern Washington, are signed up.

Peak said the company is talking to farmers in Wenatchee and Yakima about selling directly there. He also plans to start targeting Seattle and Portland.

Adam Hegsted, chef for the Eat Good Group, uses the app to buy local products for all of his restaurants.

“We try to get as much local product as possible,” he said. “Getting product in the winter is not always easy. If there’s more people buying things on a regular basis, more things will be available.”

Peak and Kobe say they got involved because they care about what they eat and want to direct purchasing dollars to local farmers and businesses.

Smaller users, such as gardeners, could also make money selling their crops using the app, Peak said.

Using the app, livestock can also be pre-sold before it even goes to slaughter, Kobe said.

The creators are working with sellers to improve the app.

Kobe hopes to reach 5,000 customers in 2019.

“We’re surrounded by amazing farms all over the place,” he said. “This is one of the biggest growing places in the country, and no one’s buying as much local food as they could. Users will be able to see sellers who are in their own backyard.”

Harvester a boost for broccoli

Ron Pearmine describes himself as a “broccoli ambassador” for the Willamette Valley.

This year, Pearmine is growing 175 acres of broccoli at his family’s farm in Gervais, Ore. But the crop, while desirable, has declined significantly in the area due to labor shortages and rising production costs.

Broccoli is harvested today almost exclusively by hand, with crews of about 20 people going over fields two or three times to maximize yields. Without enough workers, local farmers are growing just half as much broccoli as they were six years ago, according to NORPAC Foods, a farmers’ cooperative and food processor based in Salem.

Ever the engineer — he has a bachelor’s degree in computer science engineering — Pearmine began tinkering with machinery to come up with a solution. He created a mechanical harvester out of a 1976 Chisholm-Ryder bean picker that he believes could promote increased acreage, while replacing hand crews entirely.

“I’m excited about it,” Pearmine said. “It does create a new opportunity for broccoli here in the valley.”

Pearmine’s goal is to machine-harvest 80 acres of broccoli at his farm this season. Other growers have also shown interest, allowing Pearmine to harvest several smaller plots in their own fields.

On Aug. 2, Pearmine mounted the harvester and began a trial run at Obersinner Farms on Howell Prairie between Salem and Silverton. It took 20 minutes to make one pass down a quarter-acre row, filling four large wooden crates with broccoli bound for NORPAC.

“It works. It’s effective,” Pearmine said. “We could pick our broccoli mechanically if we choose to. It’s a viable option.”

‘The big fail’

Pearmine is not the first to conceive of a mechanical broccoli harvester — though nothing has been developed so far commercially.

Pearmine was inspired to come up with his own design after a trip to Case Equipment Manufacturing in North Dakota, where he saw robots welding parts for machinery. If robots can weld, then he figured they can also pick broccoli.

The first attempt came in 2013, or what Pearmine calls “the big fail.” Nothing about that system worked right, he said, and the setback lingered for several years before he went back to the drawing board.

“I have an engineering brain, I guess you could say,” Pearmine said with a chuckle.

By sheer innovation — or insanity, as Pearmine jokes — he assembled a working prototype last year by rigging the old bean picker with three rows of spinning blades in front, similar to a corn harvester. Once cut, the broccoli is carried up a conveyor belt over a series of metal rollers that pinch off the leaves, and dropped into bins on a flat trailer.

Pearmine gave a presentation on the harvester at a NORPAC grower meeting in December 2017, where he caught the attention of fellow growers like Tom Fessler, of Fessler Farms in Woodburn, who agreed to participate in field trials.

“There’s been talk we need to move in that direction,” Fessler said. “Ron took the bull by the horns, and developed a machine.”

Crop uniformity

From a technical standpoint, Fessler said the harvester works well. The problem: It cuts everything all at once, though broccoli often does not mature at the same rate.

That means potentially sacrificing yield with machine harvesting, for the sake of efficiency.

“You’re going to have some (plants) that are slightly over-mature, some that are just right and quite a few that are on the small side, based on our experience right now,” Fessler said.

Pearmine acknowledges that, unless broccoli fields are uniform in maturity, the harvester has its drawbacks.

“That’s part of the reason why I want to get it out, so guys can have that experience,” Pearmine said. “How much do you want to give up on yield? If you don’t want to give up anything, you’ll continue picking by hand.”

Pearmine is nonetheless bullish that mechanical harvesting will eventually prove to be a boon for the industry, reversing the trend of lost acreage brought on by mounting labor shortages.

Labor costs

Randy Lyons, vice president of agriculture services for NORPAC, said fewer workers combined with Oregon’s rising minimum wage have driven the decline in broccoli production from 2,000 acres in 2012 to just 1,000 acres this year.

To make up the difference, Lyons said the co-op is buying twice as much broccoli from Mexico to process into its line of soups and frozen vegetables. NORPAC is excited about the potential of Pearmine’s harvester, Lyons added, though crop quality will be the ultimate test.

“We’re working with him real closely to make sure what he’s bringing into the plant, we can make the best use of,” Lyons said. “It has to be as good as what’s in the marketplace, or better.”

In addition to NORPAC, Pearmine said he has received support from Wilco and Marion Ag Services. After harvest, he intends to compare machine-harvested yields to those of hand crews, and continue working with partners to fine-tune the system.

“People are interested. They’re supportive, and they’re excited,” Pearmine said. “It creates a new future, I think, for NORPAC and broccoli.”

OSU field day highlights mechanical cultivation tools

Until recently, managing weeds at Gathering Together Farm meant using cultivation technology circa the 1950s.

John Yeo, cultivation manager and agronomist at the 65-acre certified organic farm in Philomath, Ore., estimates they were spending $3,000 per month on labor just to pull weeds. In that sense, he said investing in new mechanical equipment was a no-brainer.

The farm purchased an in-row weeder earlier this summer from Kult-Kress Cultivation Solutions, which Yeo was on hand to demonstrate Thursday during the first mechanical cultivation field day at Oregon State University.

About 100 people attended the daylong event, hosted by the OSU Small Farms Program. The lineup included speakers, vendors and demonstrations at the university’s vegetable research farm in Corvallis.

Yeo said he was excited to see the knowledge of cultivation being resurrected, and passed along to the next generation of farmers.

“That’s the focus of this workshop,” he said.

Gathering Together Farm grows more than 300 varieties of 50 different vegetable crops. But as an organic operation, Yeo said they cannot use herbicides to treat weeds, meaning they must rely on mechanical tools.

Eliminating weeds between rows of crops is the “holy grail” of mechanical cultivation, Yeo said, and already the Kult-Kress weeder is paying dividends. The equipment hooks onto his tractor, raking the soil to disrupt weeds without harming the vegetable seedlings.

The equipment cost about $1,000 per row, Yeo said, but will quickly pay for itself in labor savings.

“It’s not going to eliminate it, but it will dramatically reduce the amount,” he said.

Clare Sullivan, a small farms extension agent for OSU based in Redmond, helped to organize the field day with assistance from a two-year Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant through the USDA.

Mechanical cultivation has always been a component of integrated weed management, Sullivan said, but with a decrease in labor and rising production costs, it is becoming more important for small and organic farmers to become more efficient.

Sullivan said she hoped growers would find inspiration at the field day by seeing firsthand how new equipment works, and how they can integrate the tools on their farms.

“I’m really hoping they have some ‘aha!’ moments, seeing how some of these tools work in the field,” she said.

Joe Sutton, chief operating officer of Sutton Ag Enterprises, an equipment dealer and manufacturer based in Salinas, Calif., said Europe is well ahead of the U.S. in accelerating mechanical restoration equipment.

“Their labor problems and cost of labor is much more extensive than it is here,” Sutton said, adding that it costs as much as $45 per hour to hand-weed in some parts of Switzerland. “That’s why they’re so much more advanced there.”

Sutton Ag Enterprises builds 30 percent of the equipment it sells in-house, while also serving as the sole U.S. distributor for 15 European coompanies, such as Steketee finger weeders out of the Netherlands.

“It all comes down to labor and saving time,” Sutton said. “If you can mechanically treat and save the time, it’s always going to be a plus.”

Mechanical weed control topic of workshop, demonstrations

Eric Gallandt, a University of Maine weed ecologist, has unveiled several findings in recent years that could dramatically improve weed management in organic vegetable production.

As such, Gallandt has been a featured speaker at mechanical cultivation field days across the country.

On Aug. 16, Gallandt will be in Corvallis, speaking to participants in an Oregon State University Mechanical Cultivation Field Day at the OSU Vegetable Research Farm, 34306 N.E. Electric Road, Corvallis. The field day, which also features equipment demonstrations, will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In a phone interview, Gallandt said he and a University of Maine graduate student, Bryan Brown, have been able to show that by stacking cultivation tools, weed control is dramatically improved in organic vegetable production systems.

“One of the more promising discoveries we’ve found in the last couple of years is that by using multiple tools in a single pass, or using multiple tools in sequence, is that you often get more than additive improvements in the percentage of weeds you kill. We have evidence of synergy,” Gallandt said.

“So, for example, if you take two different tools, one of which gives you 30 percent weed control, the other of which gives you 20 percent weed control, and you use them together, you don’t just get 50 percent weed control. You might get 75 percent weed control,” he said.

“And that holds true across challenging conditions, so across increasing soil moisture, across increasing size of weeds and other conditions,” he said.

In addition, Gallandt is researching the use of longer-term weed management strategies, including use of cover crops, in combination with stacking mechanical weed control.

“By combining some strategies to reduce the weed seed bank with improved physical weed control, we should be able to help farmers experience improving weed management circumstances over time,” he said.

In general, weed control in organic vegetable production systems has shown no improvement over time, he said, and in many cases, has worsened.

The strategies take more work than is employed in most organic vegetable production systems, he said, but can bring significant dividends.

“We’ve got some pretty decent evidence that this is the case,” he said. “For example, we did a nice experiment in onions that showed that longer-term seedbank management strategies that require more work can actually pay off, even in the short term, because of improved yields and improved quality.

“So, certainly if you look at it over the longer term, it is something that has the promise to increase profitability, and, in the case of using cover crops, for example, could be used for multiple benefits,” he said.

OSU Small Farms Extension agent Clare Sullivan, who along with fellow agent Nick Andrews, is putting together the field day, said the idea for the event came about because of interest among Oregon growers in a similar event held last year at Michigan State University, and because growers have struggled to use cultivation tools.

“There is a lot of interest in mechanical cultivation implements, especially from mid-sized organic growers, but we hear from a lot of them that they struggle to use the tools effectively,” Sullivan said. “We wanted to put on an educational event that shared the best practices to prepare your fields to use cultivation implements, and also have the equipment dealers show in-person how to adjust the tools to work effectively.

“The neat thing about this is it is targeted toward vegetable growers of all different sizes and, while it is primarily geared toward organic production, conventional growers can benefit from this as well,” Sullivan said.

Field Day

The OSU Small Farms Program’s Mechanical Cultivation Field Day is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 16 at the OSU Vegetable Research Farm, 34306 N.E. Electric Road, Corvallis.

The program includes live demonstrations of cultivation equipment and presentations by speakers, including keynote speaker Eric Gallandt, a weed ecology professor at the University of Maine.

The OSU Small Farms Program asks that participants register online by Aug. 10 at

Admission is $25 and includes lunch.

Saturated steam an organic weed killer

The Steam Weeder looks like a vacuum cleaner and sounds like an espresso machine, with a long hose and nozzle attached to a tractor-mounted boiler that superheats water up to 250 degrees.

Erik Augerson, a graduate research assistant for Oregon State University, recently demonstrated how the technology works during Blueberry Field Day at the North Willamette Research and Extension Center, steaming along rows of organic blueberries to control field bindweed.

As a weed management tool, Augerson said the Steam Weeder has shown promise, especially for organic growers. The saturated steam kills weeds by bursting plant cells, without frying woody mulch like flame weeding does.

Augerson, who is earning his master’s degree from OSU in horticulture, is part of a research team trying to develop a season-long organic weed management program for small berry growers, using steam in combination with other mechanical treatments and certified organic sprays.

“The organic berry industry in Oregon is having a lot of trouble determining what the best and most cost-effective form of weed management is for their systems,” Augerson told the Capital Press. “We’re just trying to increase the growers’ toolbox.”

The project is supported in part by a $500,000 grant from the USDA Organic Transitions Program, with additional funding from the OSU Agriculture Research Foundation and Northwest Center for Small Fruits Research.

Jeremy Winer, managing director of Weedtechnics, the Australian company that manufactures the Steam Weeder, was also on hand at Blueberry Field Day to meet with growers and answer questions about the product.

According to Winer, the Steam Weeder superheats water and flashes it into saturated steam within the nozzle system. It sprays 2.5 gallons per minute, penetrating 1 inch deep into the soil.

“It’s not actually boiling, but it’s superheated,” Winer explained. “It explodes the (weed) cells.”

OSU purchased the Steam Weeder over the winter, and field trials began about a month and a half ago. While they are still collecting data, Augerson said the technology could be another option for organic growers.

“We know that it can kill weeds, and that it works from a management standpoint,” Augerson said. “I think it has a lot of promise.

Depending on the size and model, Steam Weeders cost between $16,000 and $30,000. Augerson said the value for small farmers is in decreased need for manual labor controlling weeds, allowing them to put their workers to better use.

“There is a lack of farm labor, and it is decreasing,” Augerson said. “We want to make it so farmers can utilize their labor in different ways.”

Augerson said they will need at least two years of data before they can start writing a comprehensive, full-season weed management program for organic berries.