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.”