Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Views from the Field: Richard Giles

In the most recent Views from the Field, we hear from Delaware County vegetable farmer Richard Giles. Richard received a Pure Catskills Agricultural Development last year to purchase a new tractor implement for Lucky Dog Organic Farm. Also check out the video below for the Lucky Dog crew in action.

Lucky Dog Farm, Hamden NY from VeccVideography on Vimeo.

One of the most important crops on our farm has been a washed mix of baby salad greens, which we grow on wide, flat-topped bedded rows. And because we are an organic farm, weeds have always been our greatest challenge in growing this high-valued crop. So we applied for the Pure Catskills grant to help us purchase a tractor-mounted vegetable bed flameweeder.

This piece of machinery burns propane fuel through torches aimed at the surface of our crop beds in order to destroy small emerging weeds either just before planting or just before the crop emerges. I had used similar machinery for weed control in cotton in the south, but flame weeding hasn’t been a common practice in this part of the country. One of the obstacles we encountered as we began researching the equipment was that our local propane dealers were not familiar with it, and were at first reluctant to commit to supplying fuel for the machine.

The other obstacle was money. This is a familiar problem. I think that lack of access to money for production-improving practices is certainly one of the top problems for the small diverse farms in the Catskills. In the course of our search, we found machines built by two companies that seemed to fit our needs, one of them priced at about $8,500 and the other at about $12,500. As luck would have it, the machine best suited tour crops was also build by Flame Engineering, the company with the most experience in building flame weeding equipment. And it was the lower priced machine. Even so, we would not have been able to buy the machine without the Pure Catskills grant.

We received the machine in mid-June, a little late for a full-season test, but early enough to get a lot of use out of the new weeder. I had imagined the machine mostly as a salad production enhancing tool, but as soon as we had it set up and filled with fuel, we flamed over the tops of some just –emerging potatoes in rows that were becoming fuzzy with weed seedlings. Over the course of the summer, we used it on carrots, a crop that is very slow to germinate and very poor at competing with weeds, on unplanted beds ahead of our lettuce transplanted, on potatoes again at the end of the season, after the vines had been clipped in the weedy zone before harvest and of course on our salad beds.

Because we farm in a flood plain, we will never be free of weed seed, but we are already beginning to reduce our weed load with this piece of equipment. In the spring and early summer we usually prepare quite a bit of our vegetable cropland for planting. As we work through the season planting and transplanting, some of these fields have to be reworked, by means of mechanical tillage, several times to keep weeks down. With this flamer weeder, we are able to sweep quickly across these areas without disturbing the soil, to kill new flushes of weeds. The efficiency of this method makes me happy. One of my concerns when we were contemplating this machine was that even though we would not be using synthetic herbicides, we would be burning fossil fuel to kill our weeds. We are in fact doing just this. But we have made a positive compromise, trading a swift, low horsepower trip over the field to burn weeds with propane for several high horse power tillage trips.

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