The Berta Rotary Plow, a love story.

The Berta Rotary Plow

2 years ago I bought a Grillo 85D walk behind tractor from Earth Tools and customized it with (the now standard) Lombardini Diesel.  Along with it I purchased a Berta Rotary Plow.  This implement alone was 40% of the price of the tractor, but the ability to turn under sod and cover crops as well as to form beds seemed worth it.  I’ve posted some shots in the past about what it can do, here are some more.  It is an InCREDIBLY invasive tool – it inverts and overly fluffs all the soil in the top 14″ and is the antithesis of no-till; its essentially mechanized double digging.  But if you want to break ALOT of eggs to make a wicked good omlet, its your toy.   Making the 20 potato beds for this years field trials will mean that the rotary plow will get a serious workout.  Here are some of the results from today:

This is the starter trench - just like with a moldboard, you start in the middle and work out.

The cover I am turning under is a winter rye planted in November 2009.  3-6″ top growth.  Here is the bed about 35 minutes later:

Imagine doing this by hand! Appropriate Technology.

Wrestling a 300# beast with a 12″ wide propeller inthe earth is not always as easy as it sounds, so the trenches can get a bit wonky if you hit rocks or soil compaction (center left).  Here is what another 30 minutes with a shovel cleaning up the lines will do, and a further 30 minutes laying down 1.5 yards of chips on the right:

Gorgeous. Witness the steps down the middle sowing the center path between the 30" beds, but also the overly fluffiness. Should be rolled prior to seeding.

Since I was on a roll and the Lombardini was all warmed up I cut myself two more on the other side of the small Hoopty:

No finish work, this is Berta Plowing in the Raw. A bit over 1 hour from surveying to this.

4 down!  Again, the beds are 6′ wide with 2′ of trench in between.  The beds are sized to be fit a Johnny’s Low Tunnel at the ends of the season over 2 30″ beds an a 1′ center path for weeding.  The 2′ trenches are being filled with wood chips are time allows, but it is a crap ton of chips.  – one of these 85′ paths will take over 5 yards of chips.  That is half a dump truck load! On the upside, this 65×95 plot is getting over 10,000#’s of fresh organic matter for the worms and fungi to feast on.

Here is a shot of the Berta breaking sod last year for a community garden:

The sod was chisled with the tiller first (hence the thatch showing). The Berta tends to "roll" rather than cut on really established sod. Tilling it first helps.

And a shot of turning under a field of mixed cover crop:

When they say one pass they mean: ONE PASS.

Cutting these 25-30 beds is a lot of work and I am beating the crap out of the soil.  The plan is to never touch these beds again with the Berta Plow – these beds are to be permanent, mulched, and at most only lightly tilled to clear debris as needed.

End goal?  to make my beloved Berta obsolete and end up with a system like this.

In the mean time, my Berta and me are getting it done.

Be the Change.

2010 Spud Season Begins – New Technique!

Last Friday I got a call that my seed potatoes were in.   This year I used one of the several organic farms in central WI that specialize in spuds to source my seed – I save a bundle in shipping, and they make a bit too.  Its all good.  But as this was an ad hoc deal,  communication was not ideal and some wires were crossed.  Apparently some of “Rose Finn Apple *OR* La Ratte; German Butterball *OR* Kennebec” got a lost in the shuffle and all those “or’s” got changed to “and’s”.  So I have an extra 150#’s of potatoes — not a huge deal, but its an extra 20% more space.  And were were already feeling the crunch on the farm as each of the tenant farms is looking to expand this year.  Might need to rethink some of my cover/compost crop experiments…

Running the math – 750#’s works out to just under 6000 row feet with 12″ spacing.  The Kennebecs and Yukons get more like 8″, but still, that is well over a mile of potatoes to hill, water, and harvest.  Good thing I have that extra day off!  With seed in hand and low tunnels up, it was time to get crackin on planting.  2010 is going to bring several changes.  First, I am growing even more varieties: Desiree (storage), Carola (melt in your mouth good), Purple Viking (al purpose and gorgeous), Kennebec (baking), Nicola (favorite of my Chef client), Yukon Gold (early/potato salad), German Butterball (storage), “Flaming” (no idea, it was a substitute for Red Gold), and 3 fingerling (La Ratte, Rose Finn Apple, and French).   Second I am planning the harvest more betterer since harvesting/selling 8000#’s of spuds in a part time one man gig is no mean feat.  And finally, I am getting much more intentional with my growing technique which is what I would like to get into in this post.

Last year I ran 2 experimental plots.  The first, the potato towers, were an unmitigated failure.  The second was using deep straw mulch over fertile soils was a spudtacular success –netting over 3# per plant.   If I could get the same yields in field production my harvest would be over 9 tons this year from 750#’s of seed (24:1) – or more importantly I could cut my seed order and acreage in 2011 by over half.  Doing more with less sounds great to me.

Here is the technique I have worked out and will be field trailing as much as time allows:

2 30" beds with a 1' center path to fit under the Low Tunnels hold 4 rows of spuds

You may have noticed that it is still March and I am planting potatoes – this is the bed under the first low tunnel I built this past Febuary.  The rye crop LOVED the cover and was 18″ tall by March 22! – I mowed and turned it under last Friday using the rotary plow and then formed this bed.  The bed design is taken straight our of 4 Season Harvest: 2 30″ beds divided by a 1′ middle path.  This allows it to snuggle under a low tunnel (hoops laying to the left, plastic to the right) allowing me to plant as early as the soil can be worked – in this case 3 weeks early due to having to till under the cover crop; 2011 I will be in March wk 2.

But I am not one to rest on anyones laurels, not even Eliot Coleman’s.  In Chapter 12 of Alcohol can be a Gas, David Blume talks through a really intriguing method of doing raised beds.  Essentially a contour swale is dug every few beds and then this swale is filled with compost material and wood chips.  In Blume’s idea, these mulch filled swales are then inoculated with red wigglers who munch away, merrily composting in place.  But Blume is a Grade A permaculturist so look how cool this gets:  these are contour swales – so they fill with water every good rain.  That alone is great as each raised bed is now sitting on top of a lens of sub soil water greatly reducing or eliminating irrigation.  But his swales are full of worm turd, which is water soluble and that lens of water is now super fertile.  Plus the worms can’t live in the swale during the flood so they high tail it into your raised beds and happly munch away in there while manuring and opening up air passages with their burrows.  Awesome.  But the swale function stacking ain’t done yet.  Blume doesn’t mention this, but being full of wood chips – they will act as nurseries for soil fungi.  The paths are never tilled, just added to, so the fungi lives on.  And on and on to recharge your beds with mycelium even after the disruptive potato harvest.  How cool is this?

It just so happens that the rotary plow is wicked good at building raised beds with 1′ deep swales on each side.  Oh, and I just bought a cool Italian chipper that eat 2″ trunks for breakfast.  AND I am planting coppice trees by the hundreds.  Look at the picture again, you see the start of the wood chip swale (not on contour in this plot) for my own little Chapter 12 experiment.   This week I will get another 20 yards of chips in BART (it will take about 90 yards to fill all the swales!!)  And this afternoon the farm owner and I staked out the contour lines of the new potato plot (65’x170′).  This week we will disc it to give the horses a workout, and then build the beds with the Grillo and the rotary plow: 6′ beds each surrounded by a 2′ wide swale.  On contour and full of mulch and worms.  Gods I love this plan!

Mulch rather than hilling: 1 bale every 40' of 30" bed.

So the beds are made, but I want to take the learnings from my uber successful trial last year and scale them up.  The trial consisted of 3 things – shallow planting of the seed potatoes for easy harvest, then covering the seed in compost and a foot of straw.  the yeilds were insane and weeding and watering were almost eliminated.  So here we go: enter a crap ton of compost and straw and I am planting shallower to hopefully allow me to use the root digger for the Grillo (good thing with 6000′ of row to harvest!).  The photo at right shows me half way done with one of the 20 beds.  The spud seed is planted about 4″ deep, the soil raked flat and then I applied a .5″ layer of 3/4 finished compost and watered well.  Over this I added a 1-2″ layer of straw.   This works out to 1 bale every 40′ of 30″ bed.  As I expect to “hill” the potatoes again in about 4-5 weeks with another layer of mulch I expect each 6′ bed to take 8 bales total which works out to 160 bales for the entire plot.  Bales are about $2 each, but seeing as I sell my potatoes for $2/lb I fully expect to earn that back in harvest and the reduction in weeding, hilling and watering should more than make up for it regardless.

Here is where I get really excited about this plan.  First – there is 3 acres of prairie on the farm.  We burn an acre a year, and the farm owner has always dreamed of using the biomass (3-4″ of straw) off on of the others on the farm each year.  I’d rather not spend $300 on straw if I don’t have too, so we took a fork and a rake out to the blue stem prairie today for a look see and the straw came up fairly easy.  Next week we will drag a harrow across one of the prairie plots with the Draft Team to collect the straw to one side and then pile it up for future use as potato mulch.  Awesome.

I’ve been writing about the MASSIVE amounts of compost we will be making this year – 40 tons or so.  That is flippin awesome in and of itself, but it also takes ALOT of machinery and making the fuel for that machinery is alot of work.  Using the bed method above nature is doing much more of the work – Moving wheel barrow loads of mulch around ad forking it into the paths is pleasant work.  Chipping the coppice wood will still need fuel, but my chipper has a 5hp engine vs. the Bobcats 45hp one.  Also, this system can get very close to no till in a very big hurry.  Ruth Stout would be very pleased with all my mulching and I’d like to think that Fukuoka would be pleased with my letting the worms do my composting in place.  Its all coming together.

This system makes all kinds of sense so we are moving forward.  It will be a CRAP TON of work in the first year as I have to build 20, 80′ long raised beds from scratch, and then fill 1700′ of swale with 90 cu yards of wood chips.  But once the system is in place the work should drop off quickly as is to be expected in any permaculture design.  Stoked as all hell about this.

Be the Change.


Hubris has a 12,000# GVWR

Today saw the first load hauled in the Big Red Dump Truck.  Spring’s thaw is doing its annual brutal work on the farm.  The driveways are shot.  So yesterday I priced out 3/4″ Road Rock.  Turns out that at $5.40/ton it is literally cheaper than dirt ($6/ton).  Driving into a quarry is every bit as cool as it look in the movies, but having to climb up 6′ of ladder to talk to someone in a front loader (HUGE) is a bit unnerving.  Interesting discoveries of the day.  First – the BRDT is BIG.  Empty weight is 7300#.  Damn.  That metal grain box must be heavy.  That leaves only 4200#’s of legal weight left for bed payload.  Second, 4200#’s of rock in the bed makes almost no difference to the truck.  I am dead serious – you brake a little firmer, you accelerate a little harder, but thats it.  Actually, the ride is BETTER.  Even with it having only the “little” engine (350 V8) towing a tractor while loaded is no longer a concern.

Dumping the gravel and dragging it flat with the skid steer was simple enough; 4000#’s of stone is only about 2 cu yards.  But it was still a good testosterone boost.  I could all but hear Tim the Tool Man gruffly barking in the background.

The job today was small, it will take another 7-8 loads to finish this drive, but the quarry is on the way to the farm, so over the next several weeks I will load up and repair another 20′ of driveway.  Given the negligible strain on the mechanicals I think mpg will not change overly much (we have yet to determine fuel economy – estimating 8-10).  Much more importantly the BRDT proved itself to be one massively strong tool in the arsenal.  That grain bed will hold 10 cu ft. and/or 4000#  That means 4 large square bales of straw, 10 cu yrds of mulch, 3-5 yards of manure or soil or 8 yards of compost.  It will not get used daily, nor even weekly.  But it adds a level of capacity that simply did not exist before.  Now I just need to a Get ‘r Done cap…

I believe in diversified farming.  That applies to my crops and to my techniques, so it should be no surprise that my tools are eclectic too.  After parking this monster I went in and shopped for heavy ditch blades for my Scythe to cut down the Pearl Millet that will then be mixed with manure gathered in this truck and composted using the Bobcat in conjunction with a manure spreader and will likely be spread with a hand pushed drop spreader.  Old and new.  Some will no doubt find issue with my use of Big Machines; the 8mpg of the BRDT *is* a serious issue.  My solution?  Tomorrow we fire up the Charles 803 ethanol still for the first time using 1.5 tons of waste sugar that someone in the group sourced from a factory.

Oh, hell yeah!


Mini Hoopty: Frost Free!

1 week after mini hoopty #1 went up, I built the second one.   In the spirit of experimentation, I spread a full inch of 75% cooked compost down to see how if the darker surface would hasten the snow melt.  The answer is a qualified yes – it is faster than pure snow, but I found an even better way.  Temps were averaging over 10 degrees warmer than the first tunnel, but with a full inch of compost, it appeared to be acting as an insulating mulch and the snow remained under the mulch for a solid week.  Once I figured that out, I initiated a 3rd trial in the footprint of the 3rd, not yet built, tunnel.  Onto this 6×80′ area I sprinkled 2 5 gallon pails of compost onto the shoveled surface (about 1-2 of snow left).  This flecked the surface, but only about 15%.   Verdict?  The flecked surface was snow free sooner than the covered hoopties!  The frost is still in the ground, as night temps are refreezing, but this very encouraging.  To speed it a bit, you can see that I have laid the tufflite from #2 over the footprint of #3 for the week while I beat the rye into submission.

Hoopty #2, frost free in 2 weeks. Witness the Quail Manufacturing sod cutter. Its bad ass.

Hoopty #2, the one that got the 1″ of compost, was frost free in 2 weeks.  Nighttime temps were 12-20 and daytime was 25-35 with some solid sunny days.  Once the snow was off the winter rye cover shot up like crazy.  this is posing more than a minor problem.  The soil is a soup of compost and snow melt, and even scuffle hoeing is doing as much pulling as cutting and the rye is re-rooting with abandon.   Looking through my agricultural arsenal, the Grillo was out – too wet even for the rotary plow.  Then I spied my Sod Cutter.  This thing is a beast, and it cuts 1-2″ into the soil.  My hope was that this wold offer enough resistance that the roots would be cut rather than pulled.  Even this is not working uber well, but I’ve hit the patch twice now and the rye appears to be getting the worst of it.

All this toil, from having to use an 8lb sledge to pound in spike to make holes for the hoops, to shoveling the snow and spreading compost, to having to then remove the hoops and try over several days to kill a cover crop speaks to the need to PLAN for winter farming in October or September.  Back then I was thinking to cut back on my activities this year, but then my work schedule changed and I ended up more than tripling my grow plans and added a greenhouse to boot.  Next year will be SO much easier!  Clear the summer crops, apply compost, seed the soil.  As November approaches I will cover with Agribon, then as the frosts get fierce, over this will go the Tufflite you see here.  Frost will NEVER get into the soil and I will harvest throughout the winter with replanting of transplants in late Feb.

In the mean time, my learnings are awesome and even without a harvest the ability to walk across delightfully spongey, frost free soil in my little 6′ strip of heaven while the rest of the farm is under 6″ of snow would have made it worthwhile.  Tomorrow this will get the remaining transplants, and the rest will be seeded to spinach.  I have 3 more flats of lettuce that will be ready when Hoopty #1 is frost free, and Hoopty #3 will be getting the 20#’s of potatoes sprouting in my basement.  Baby spuds in May anyone?  Excellent.


Cold Frame Update: Fully Planted!

Last week I did a trial planting of about 40% of the Cold Frame to see how it would handle a 12 degree freeze.  Figured they tranplants would be toast, but one never knows and I needed he room in the germination table.  Guess what?  They not on ly made it, but have increased by about 50% in size in the past week.  AWESOME!  So today in went another 80 transplants, about half this flat:

3 weeks old, in you go!

Awwww! Aren't they adorable!

The second shot give a good view of the soil that has been built up over the past decade on this permaculture CSA farm.  Yes, its that black!

About half the cold frame - its big, its bold, its beautiful!

I stretched the spacing a bit in the second half as the rye cover crop I planted last fall is being stubborn.  Despite scuffle hoeing, it is coming back more than I would prefer. 8″ centers or so to allow for later cultivating.  to have over a gross of lettuce seedlings in the ground on the second of March, with night time temps in the teens and 6″ of snow on the ground is still messing with my head.

But I loves it!


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