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.


Down to Business: Salute your Solution

The Sustainability Stool has three Legs.

  1. Ecology
  2. Social Justice
  3. Economics

Meaning that for any venture to be truly sustainable, it must support Ecological health (everyone breathes) while not sacrificing Social Equity by stealing from Peter to pay for Paul (the US with 85% of the wealth in 20% of the hands fails this) or forcing someone else to move like factory “growth” in India’s commercial districts displacing thousands of the poor.  The final leg is one that many environmentalists get queazy on with the whole aversion to capitalism and all:  It needs to make money or it will fail. (grants don’t count, but they can help w/startup).  We can beat around the bush and talk about barter economies and time banks (both absolutely vital for the decades AFTER this one), but the rub is that for the next decade or so money is the primary means of exchange.  My answer to the Queazy Leg (and hopefully the other two) is what this post is about.  While this may one day provide an income for us, in the mean time I need to make money to self-fund my ideas.

The farming year is shaping up to be a Big One.  I am a STRONG advocate of farmers planning for profit.  That means setting some real revenue goals and determining what they need to grow to get there – in systems thinking we call this backcasting: where do you want to be in 20 years and what do you need to do to make that future happen; everything I do on this blog is my answer to that question… but I digress.  For 2010 gross revenue goals,  I put mine at $13,500 for produce with another $1500 in compost sales, and $1500+ in tours and workshops.  Chump change or waaaay too much depending on where you are on the home gardener > professional farmer spectrum.  With a goal in mind, you then pull up records of last years sales (or reasonable assumptions [CONSERVATIVE] if you are new) and get to work.  The Organic Farmers Business Handbook is a huge help in this process. I will spare you the details, but I know that potatoes are my “cash” crop, but that my sandwich shop needs more diversity, but has the most room for growth since I am their only grower thus far.  Both my restaurant clients have fairly set menus and traffic, meaning that to make more money with them, I need to grow longer not more.  I.e. I can sell 150#’s of potatoes a week to one client.  If I can sell for a month, that is 600#’s and $900.  If I can sell to them for 8 months… well then I am rather far on my way to my revenue goal aren’t I?  Growing on this scale also helps the other side of my business plan: this is a part time business with about 10 hours of field time a week (on average – don’t check my time card in April or August!).  Harvesting 200#’s of potatoes a week is easy enough and can be done with hand tools, some sweat equity, and a VW Golf for a delivery vehicle.  Harvesting 5000#’s of potatoes in a week for wholesale means buying a “real” tractor and mechanizing my harvest ($20,000): not an option.  That arithmetic –less over longer– is what has been driving my research over the past several months and is really the only way for me to increase revenue given my time constraints.  Add it all up and I have committed “orders” from my two restaurant clients for over $11,000 if I can stretch the season to the extent I hope.  This will take alot of work,  some new tools, and more than a little money – hence the rest of the post and my business planning.

Quick Tunnel pic from Johnny's

Longer means that I need to get in the soil earlier, stay in the soil longer, succession crop, get funky with my cultivar selection, and look real hard about harvest extension / storage.  Some of this can be planned around (cultivars and succesion cropping), but season exstention means purchases.   To that end I purchased a low tunnel bender and 2 rolls of Tufflight from Johnny’s seeds.  The Hoopty is still in the works and is absolutely vital to the project going forward to its fruition, but siting is taking some time.  To get into the ground for 2010 Spring Spinach I opted to go small.  Two tunnels will get me 1000 sq ft of covered bed (4, 2.5’x90′ beds) for about $150/bed and the plastic ($75) should last for 2-3 years and 4-6 seasons, with the bender and hoops lasting essentially forever.   Use will look like this in 2010: Tunnel #1 Red Gold Potatoes for babies in May>field crop covering with Agribon>fall Spinach, Tunnel #2 Spinach>Sweet Potato Slips> overwintered onions.   1 tunnel 100′ long will get me 4 rows of spuds -400#’s mature or 100#’s baby.  Baby potatoes go for $3/lb.  Net profit on one crop (paid off the tunnel!), not factoring labor – and there is 9 more crops to come out of these hoops in the lifetime of the plastic.

Hoop House and Quick Tunnel growing mean that I am going to be pushing the soils harder than can be replenished naturally and in the Hoop House cover crops will not be practical.  That means compost – ALOT of compost.  For perspective that means that we are moving from measuring and thinking of compost in yards to TONS.   Much time has been spent on winter composting this year, and I have proven to myself that not only can I cook compost year round, but that I it function stacks nicely in hoop houses.  That helps with the “longer” part of the business plan.  Essentially I would like to be harvesting at least ton of compost every 3rd month, with peak in late summer and an annual production of about 10 tons (about 40 yards) total with 2.5 tons processed through worm bins.  Again, compost on this scale is significantly beyond my current few bins and a pitch fork.  Plans here include a PTO driven manure spreader, a 30hp tractor and a 40hp skid steer.  The skid loader puts bucket loads of browns alternating with greens into the spreader which is parked and flinging material out the back like an angry monkey.  When the monkey flung pile get about 4′ tall you pull the spreader forwards 5′ and let the monkey loose again aerating and mixing the materials.  Making windrows 100′ long this way is not overly hard – let it cook until temps start to drop, then repeat about 20′ away (the turning radius of a skid loader), but it goes faster as you are just scooping  up the compost from the old windrow rather than driving to a pile of manure and then a pile of leaves.  That is ALOT of money for equipment and would be impossible, but luckily I live a charmed life and all are available on site, though not in good working order.  I will need to do maintenance and tune-ups to get everything working, but cost should be within line with the 1.25 tons of worm compost I plan on selling ($1500).  So that means I will have fixed all the farmers equipment, learned a ton about 1940’s era tractor repair, and generated a surplus of 8 tons of compost to be reapplied to the fields.

Ok, some of you may be thinking: back up.  Where in the hell are you going to get 30 tons –60,000 pounds!– of raw compost material?  That is a GREAT question and one I have had to work to answer all winter.  First – I’m going to grow alot.  Sudangrass or summer alfalfa will generate 8 tons of biomass per acre, fodder Sorghum with its 13′ tall stalks will get me closer to 14 tons an acre.  Sunflowers and Dry Corn will be grown for chicken fodder specifically to get the stalks for carbon in the piles add all three up to about an acre of growth on site.  Another large component however will be restaraunt waste.  500# a week, every week.  Add to that the 50 truck loads of municipal leaves and the 150# of horse manure a day and I’ve got more than enough  We will also be planting a coppice nursery of willow and biomass shrubs for additional, long term, perennial biomass that will eventually take over for the restaurant waste should that or the leaf source fail.

Earth Tools: my implement dealer

To get all this material on site I will be purchasing a beat to hell dump truck with a fellow farmer.  $4000 or less won’t get us a pretty one, but it will get us a working one.  For chopping up all this material a shredder for the Grillo will be purchased very soon for $1200.  It will handle everything from orchard prunings for compost to chipping coppice wood (2″ and smaller) for the gasifier.  As the perennials biomass comes on line (and we are using it to power the whole system) we’ll need a bigger chipper.   Do not think that scaling up to this level is easy ethically – that is alot of dead dinosaurs I’m burning to make all this happen, but I gots that covered too.  More on that in a bit. 🙂

This is alot of stuff – tons of produce, tons of compost, and a decent amount of revenue.  But there is an overriding goal to all of this:  the growing, the composting, the planning– is to get us a revenue positive farm so that we can build the foundation and funding to finally move forward in 2011 with the energy side of the SAFE (Sustainable Agriculture Food and Energy) Centers which we have been trying to do since we did not get Stimulus funding in 2009.   With a market farm generating $10k+ a year in net profit, we will pay off our Hoop House in 2 years and generate enough additional revenue from tours to fund the real cutting edge work of building a novel synergistic energy/food systems that we feel will push the envelope of sustainability.  Our Mission from God (Blues Brothers fanatic)?  To build a true Energy Farm where the natural systems of nature: photosynthesis, decomposition, and carbon sequestration are channeled through permaculture to produce surpluses of not only food crops, but also fertility and grid electricity and transportable fuels like methane, ethanol, and biodiesel to power the equipment and the a part of community.  This project is the culmination of my three year journey as detailed on this blog – the tens of thousands of pages read, the hundreds of people met and networked with, the thousands of dollars and hours spent in experiments and reskilling.  Making food, energy, jobs, fertility, community in one system on under 5 acres with resource loops reaching out into the village.  And every component -from winter composting to gasification, to biodiesel, to small scale ag, either myself or one of my Co-op partners has already done and proven.  The only thing left is commit the time and money to put it all together.  All major expenses are covered -I have sourced over $20,000 in Slow Money financing in the community-  but expect a funding push soon to help with incidentals like a Worm Wigwam, the Grillo Shredder, etc.   If you would like to contribute – send me an email at one.straw.rob (at)

2010 is the year of the Tiger –36 years ago I was born a Tiger: courage and hard work will be rewarded.

This is the year.

Let’s get down to businss and be the change!!


Ghetto Fabulous Cold Frame: a Photo Essay

The owner of the farm I rent my land at is a Master Scrounger.  Scrap steel, fiberglass molds, barely working engines, and barrels and tubs of all sizes lay around in somewhat organized disarray.  Last year I helped him restack a few dozen 3’x6.5′ panels of tempered glass from a retail store front and have been waiting for this day ever since.  My vision?  A Ghetto Fabulous, monster sized, uber cheap cold frame.  Step one started, as do many of my harebrained ideas, on Craigslist.  I found a guy 5 miles from here with 100 bales of oat straw for $2.50 a bale so yesterday I motored over with my TDI Golf, trailer in tow, to load up.  17 bales fit oh so nicely, and with the ground frozen solid I was able to drive right up to the mini Hoop House.

This is why I don't drive a Prius... 42mpg pulling 800#'s of straw!

Once the straw was on site and chucked over the fence it was time to start breaking ground.  With the recent rains we lost over half the snow, but the resulting ice proved to an issue.  The top 2″ of soil were not fun to break through, but below that was frost free.  The plan was to scrape free the snow below the bales so that they rested on bare soil as much as possible.

I opted to use my wicked tough 4" Rogue Chopping Hoe rather than a pick axe. The first few swings needed a lot of wind up, but then progress was steady.

I intended to lay out the bed on an East – West Axis, again to minimize shadowing, with the beds about 5.5′ wide and at least 15′ long.  The width of the beds was determined by the length of the glass, the length of the beds is to avoid the shadow from the tree wind break located 30′ to the west, and I want to avoid the footprint of the planned 26×72 Hoop Structure to the East.  Here is a shot about 25% through the job (30 minutes) with the layout taking shape:

The soil dug from the foundation is piled into the bed.

You can see that there is alot of soil being moved.  This is entirely on purpose for several reasons.  A bale of straw is well over 12″ tall and casts a heck of a shadow in the low light angles of mid winter.  So I sunk the south run of straw about 4″ into the soil.  This, combined with the natural south slope of the plot makes for about a 5″ drop over the course of the cold frame.  That is good, but I want better.  For every 5 degrees of slope you gain about 125 miles of latitude to the south.  So the soil from the excavation is piled into the beds, and once melted, will be “leveled” to give additional slope to the interior of the frames to maximize solar heat gain.  Finally, the black soil will reduce the Albedo Effect of the white snow reflecting the heat to further increase internal temps and hasten the melting of the snow and frost in the frame.

The cold frame is really taking shape. 6' of glass bows a bit without support so I reused the bamboo stakes from '09's tomatoes for bracing.

Some of the glass no longer had their frames and were bowing more than I thought prudent.   Luckily I had kept the 6′ bamboo poles I used for tomato stakes last year and they worked fantastic.  Time on farm at this point was about an hour and change – much of that spent lumping glass which was stored about 100 yards away.  I’ve had more fun than walking that far carrying 60# plates of glass over icy ground  in winter winds…  But it was worth it:

Viola! about 70 sq ft of cold frame in under 2 hours.

The straw cost $40, but will get used at least 4-5 more times (mulch for potatoes, then squash, then shredded for compost, then fed to worms, and their poop put into 2011’s cold frames 🙂 ).  I realize that few people will have 6-7 panels of tempered glass just laying around, but salvage windows, storm doors, etc are remarkably common if you keep your eyes open all year.  Will it work?  Well with one panel still to go on, no loose straw chinked into all the gaps, and the thermometer literally resting on frozen soil, the interior was registering 46 degrees as I laid the last panel on.  Outside air temp was 21 with a steady 12 mph wind – easily enough to kill spinach and kale, let alone the lettuce I have in mind for this cold frame.  Wind is the biggest issue in winter.  If you can keep temps over 20 (25 better still) you can grow a remarkable amount of food if you shelter the plants.

This cold frame will hold  250-300 heads of Romaine.  Early lettuce will command $4-6/lb, which means that my straw and $2 in seed will net a profit of several hundred dollars for my labor.  More importantly my family will be in for fresh romaine in less than 3 months.  Awesome.  Next week I will build another (got 4 blisters today that need to heal), and may put a small one in the hoop house for kicks.


Appropriate Trattorini: .5-2 acres

In my last post I talked through the Trattorini (small tractor) culture of Italy and much of southern Europe with a specific focus on mid scale permaculture plots from 5-40 acres.  Farming on this scale benefits significantly from mechanization as the endeavor reaches a scale that begins to measure harvests in tons rather than pounds.  That scale is also out of the traditional scope of this blog, so this post and another in the near future will focus on my tool recommendations for farming on smaller scales.  Working backwards, lets talk about a small, intensive operation from .5 to 2 acres producing between 5000 to 80,000 pounds of produce.

8hp Lombardini Diesel, Berta Rotary Plow mounted on a Grillo 85D chassis - its one sweet tool.

Tools like my Grillo 85D (pictured at right) are extremely well suited to operations at this scale.  I ordered it from Earth Tools and had them custom mount the 8hp Lombardini diesel engine from the 107D to better handle the Berta Rotary Plow and also because I loved the idea of having an Italian made engine on my Italian made tractor pulling Italian made implements.  I am dorky that way.  The 85D is just smaller than middlin in the realm of two wheel trattorinis.  BCS makes tractors much smaller, but they are limited in their use.  the “D” part of the name is very important as it designates a locking differential.  This is the similar to a limited slip differential in a car or truck in that it provides power to both wheels at once, effectively doubling the traction available at any time.  This is very important when using heavy working implements like the Berta Rotary plow.  The difference is that a locking differential does exactly what it sounds like – it locks the wheels together.  This makes turning all but impossible –a very good thing when you are working down a 200′ row and do not want to stray off line.  At the row end, throw the engagement lever and within 3′ the differential unlocks and you can turn the tractor fine for the next row.  Line up the tractor, throw the lever again and you are back to arrow straight work again.   Grillo also offers larger models such as the 107 which has another working speed as well as brakes, and the monster 131 with a massive frame that can handle a 16hp engine and the biggest implements with ease.  As your acreage goes up, the larger tractors can be justified with their ability to run wider tillers and mowers to cover ground faster, use powered 1000# dump trailers effectively turning the Grillo into a 4wd mini truck (friends have seen entire families going to Church on them in Portugal), and even the almighty spader which is the holy grail of “restoration” tillage.


Next up lets talk through the PTO, which stands for Power Take Off.  Trattorinis at this scale (BCS also makes a very good unit, though they are better known and you pay several hundred more for the name recognition) come with a PTO mounted opposite the engine.   The PTO allows the engines power to be “taken off” the transmission and used to power an implement (more on that in a bit) by simply attaching with two bolts.  Earth Tools even offer quick couplers for a reasonable price – making the swapping of implements a truly 2-3 minute affair.  Given that the implements can weigh more than 100#’s it is a worthwhile investment; swapping by hand with wrenches only takes about 10 minutes, but can be tricky to balance the implement with one hand and turn the wrench with the other.  The tractors are designed so that the implement weight counter balances the engine almost perfectly – and those implements that need more weight, such as the rotary plow have longer tongues providing for a bit more rear bias to the weight distribution.  Even still about 40#’s of lift is all that is needed to pull the plow out of the ground and a transport wheel is provided for moving between fields.

Photo from the Earth Tools site showing the handles rotated for "front" PTO use.

In the last post I discussed how incredibly useful it is to be able to rotate the drivers postition so that the front of the tractor has the PTO.  Two wheel tractors come equipped so that the entire handle bar can swing 180 degrees allowing the tractor to be run with the PTO in front for snow blowing, mowing, or hay baling (yes they bale hay!).   The addition of moveable handles also allows you to offset them so that you walk next to the tractor, outside the tilled area so that the soil is not compacted or disturbed leaving a clean bed for seeding.   Having a PTO is the most important attribute of these tools, truly converting them into tractors that can do every thing form working soil to mowing to blowing snow to chipping brush.  The engine is the single most expensive component of a mechanical tool – having a trattorini with a PTO allows you to buy a fantastic engine like my Lombardini, and use it to power all your jobs rather than having to buy multiple tools with multiple engines – all needing maintenance and the upfront cost.

The Implements

4wd powered off the PTO - these machines are incredible!

The amount and and variety of work that can be one with this scale trattorini is simply astounding.  Have a wood lot?  Then check out the chippers and log splitters.  Pasture or cover crops?  Find flail mowers, sickle bar mowers, hay baling equipment to make 60# round bales, and tedders.  Soil working is the bread and butter of most tractors and the options are legion: tillers, power harrows, rotary plows, spaders, even split tillers allowing the cultivation on each side of a row of seedlings.  Seeding, power washing, you name it, there are implements to do it.   The picture above shows the most mind-blowing of the options for these tools – hook up a trailer to turn the tractor into a truck – this model is powered by the PTO, and even includes a steering wheel and hydraulic dump, though non-powered trailers are available too.   Tractors allow the farmer to stretch their time, skill, and knowledge to accomplish feats of agriculture far outside the ability of hand tools alone.  Using tractors at this scale also fits in well with Energy Descent – in the 2 years I have used my Grillo I have yet to use 10 gallons of fuel despite rugged use not only at my home and market gardens, but also in tilling in new gardens for numerous friends.

With 2 years into my Grillo here are some learnings I would pass on.  First off, if you can justify the $5000 that I spent for my  30″ tiller ($600), rotary plow ($1200), and custom 85D ($2800), then there is likely alot of work to be done.  In that case I would highly recommend buying the 107 (or similar scale BCS).  The larger tractor costs about 20% more ($500), but is a great value as you get another working gear for mowing, brakes for working on grades and for steering while mowing, and the option of using a powered trailer.  Even if those don’t sound useful now, these tractors will last 20+ years and I think it prudent to give yourself the flexibility for future use.  Not getting the 107D is my single regret.

Cover crop broadcast by hand and tilled in with 30" tiller. Gorgeous!

Implement learnings.  I have a 30″ tiller and a Berta Rotary plow and if we get acreage I would purchase mowing equipment to try to convert to no till.   I use the tiller primarily for seedbed prep and incorporating cover crop seed by running it over the broadcast seed in 2nd gear with the tiller set on the lowest setting – this increases germination about 300% to broadcast alone.  Tillers are close to useless for breaking sod or incorporating cover crops unless they have been chopped up by a flail mower (which I don’t have) as the plants wind around the tines almost immediately.  Tillers are rough on the soil when run to their full depth as they beat the soil to death – literally.  A new addition to the trattorini tool box is the 24″ power harrow.  This unit work by stirring the soil s little as an inch deep to prep the seedbed and I would very much like to see one in action as I think it would do the job of my tiller, but better.

75' row of potatos dug by a Berta Rotary Plow. 2' to the left is a row filled by the side discharge. Slick!

The Rotary plow is a simply an outstanding tool for cutting ground for annual crops or tilling in standing cover crops.  It laughs at standing plants – turning under everything from 6″ thick quack grass sod to 6′ tall Lambs Quarter (don’t ask how I know this…)  and incorporates it fully.  It also creates what is essentially a double dug bed in no time flat and due to its side discharge can dig mini-swales all over to help with water harvesting.   Finally, it is perfectly suited for potato growing – the trench it digs is ideal, and it will even throw the soil back over your seed as you dig the next trench.  If you space your rows out, you can also use it to hill your plants.  HUGE time savings.  For what it is designed to do, I am convinced it is without peer.  That said it turns everything under to a depth of at least 1 foot, deeper than is good for a healthy soil ecosystem and it can be strongly argued that it fluffs the soil *too* much.  It is a great tool for building gardens, but has limited use for maintaining them – something to consider before dropping $1300 on one.  For annual tilling, if you are unable to go no-till, a spader is the best choice as it does not invert the soil layers, but to run one you need the Grillo 131, which is almost twice as expensive and spaders are also double the cost of a rotary plow.  A Grillo 131 with a spader will set up back almost $7000 – dang.

Other awesome tools that are close to “must haves” at this scale are a mini seed drill like an Earthway which allows you to plant your seeded crops wicked fast –literally only as long as it takes you to walk the row and comes with a variety of seed wheels to accommodate everything from lettuce to corn.  For cultivation it is near impossible to beat a good wheel hoe.  Glaser and Valley Oak both make great tools that feature the proper design that uses the cutting implement as the fulcrum saving the operator strain as well as interchangeable blades – even offering double wheel configurations that allow you to straddle a row of small plants.  A vigorous operator can hoe 1-2000′ or more in an hour and the rhythm is almost meditative.

Two wheeled trattorini are not cheap, but they fill a gaping hole in sustainable agriculture between a good digging fork and a 40hp Kubota.  My tractor cost me $5000, but has paid for itself in 2 years through produce sales by allowing me to grow 4000#’s of potatoes on less than 5 hours of work a week for half a year using only 5 gallons of fuel a season.  In addition it has helped give birth to community gardens, rain gardens, and provided the inspiration for countless others.   I literally could not be doing the work at our market garden without my Grillo since I have a full time job.  Appropriate technology can make small scale agriculture sustainable simply by making it possible, enjoyable, and profitable.

We can do this.

Be the Change!


Season Extension: Compost and Thermal Mass


Rye cover and our beloved 25x11 portable Hoop House

I love the Hoop House at our Market Garden.  I love that I can harvest spinach in March.  I love that I can plant my tomatoes in late April and still be picking into October.  I love that it was 85 degrees in there today and 70’s in January are a reality in my little microcosm.  But as I mature, it is the more ephemeral things that matter… how it provides an ‘anchoring’ structure in our little .2 acre plot; something more substantial to draw the eye and provide contrast to row after row after of vegetables; the smell and feel of warm soil in January.   The picture above shows how the rye/feild pea cover crop is coming in.  Got a late start (as usual – “real” jobs get in the way ya know?), but it is doing alright.  The tilled strip in the middle was the last 200#’s of potatoes to come out of this plot, and has a .5″ high stubble of winter wheat coming in.

In years past I have planted spinach and mache in the hoop house, but always put it in so late that I never get a harvest until March and this year is no exception.  I typically get good growth and about 3 weeks prior to harvest (it takes forever with the short days in the winter) we get nailed with the Deep Freezes in early January when it gets down to -10 or so.  This kills everything flat.  The roots regrow in Febuary for a good harvest, but I would like to see what I can do to take the edge off that one or two weeks.


Left: 1st week of compost Right: 250 Gallon "Pond"

I also have another winter problem.   I have arrangements with some local restaurants to compost their organic waste.  This nets us 100#’s or so a week… every week.  From November through April that means I have several cubic yards of slobsicles in my compost bins.  Building up my capacity to handle 4 months of gorp was the primary driver of our new Bin Of Dreams.  That bin is located on the north side of our garage and without direct sun, it takes a LONG time for 1500#’s of gorp to thaw out.  Will Allen at Growing Power composts year round in his hoop houses… perhaps I could as well.  So this year I am trying to kill both these birds with one stone.    The windrow is designed to be 4′ wide and has a 24″ tall fence to contain it somewhat and give me a 3-4′ height without a 8′ base width.  Eventually this will be 20′ long.  I have dreams of following the thermophyllic composting bacteria down the windrow (no turning) with composting worms.   Can I extend both my composting and greens season with the simple movement of 1500#s of gorp into the hoop house?  Time will tell.


Its not a ghetto Koi Pond.... Its thermal mass!

In the past 2 winters I have had buckets and trash cans full of water in an attempt to add some thermal mass to the hoop house.  As I have said, it gets to be 80+ in there with 50-60 degree temp differences to outside air on good days.  But with only a single layer of plastic it sheds btu’s like a sieve.  The thermal mass in previous years has not been enough, it simply freezes solid eventually and effectually adds a cooling effect to the hoop house.  Rat Farts.  This year I have added a large fiberglass crate that hold several hundred gallons of water.  As you can see in the picture, to help this out, I have surrounded it with a foot thick layer of leaves for insulation on 3 sides, and will plant the spinach directly to the south.  In a further attempt to extend the season I amy dig out some row cover I found laying around and cover the spinach/compost/crate to keep the warm air around the plants.  Finally the entire Hoop House will get a 4′ wide “foundation” mulch to keep the frost from creeping in as long as possible while the north wall will get as many leaves piled against it as I can find.  Will this be enough to combat the utter lack of R value in the Hoop House?  Time will tell.  What is likely is that a double walled Hoop House with a bubble insulation system will be the way to go, combined with these techniques, if I want to go 4 season.

On a side note, I am trying to function stack the thermal mass.  I have added about 5 gallons of leaves and some finished compost to it to make the well water a bit more nutrient rich.  Then I walked down to the river and scooped up 5 gallons of river water and made sure to get a bunch of sludge from the bottom.  This water is full of critters and microorganisms.  I dumped this into the crate to “inoculate” the water and in a week or two I will add a handful of feeder goldfish.  Now it is very likely in my first stab at aquaculture I am dooming these goldfish to a cold death as fish cubes, but if they somehow don’t freeze solid the 250 gallons of microbe rich ecosystem should keep them alive.  And if the temps allow them to stay alive I will have also proven that I can sustain temps high enough to overwinter lake perch. Fish Fry anyone?


Kennebec Poatoes i.e. The Lunker Spud

Moose Tubers bills the Kennebec as a potato capable of throwing some “lunkers”.  It is also known for being fairly simple to grow and an easy potato to cook with -good for everything from frying to baking to boiling.  Easy to grow and easy to cook -plus it produces big spuds?  I’m sold.

I am less than 15% of the way into my Kennebec patch, but I can personally confirm the “Lunker” claim.  In 60#’s of harvest potatoes this evening, I had 8 spuds over 1# each and 1 monster that broke 2#!  Also, we have a new Record Holder in the 1 Plant Harvest contest:

4 lbs 13 oz.  from one Kennebec Plant.  Top Left is 1# 1oz Top Right is 1# 13 oz!

4 lbs 13 oz. from one Kennebec Plant. Top Left is 1# 1oz Top Right is 1# 13 oz!

DANG are those some big spuds!  The “small” potatoes to the left would be considered larger than average Yukons.  Pretty impressed!  The 25′ tape is 3.25″ long for reference.   Unfortunately, the crop seems to be a bit sporadic – some plants are barely hitting 1# – the July drought came at a really bad time.  The plants that did well were in patches of mycorrhizal fungus that must have added to their water / nutrient intake – a trend I have seen all season and last.  Again, these potatoes were grown with no irrigation and no amendments other than a rye/vetch cover and over wintering 100 laying hens on the plot – about as close to zero input as possible.

It was great to have some good news  – tomorrow I am dropping my tomato tissues off at the Ag Extension for positive ID – but am fairly certain its Late BLight.  Also looks like it is hitting my other plot some too.  That sucks.

Again, good to have such huge potatoes to lighten the mood – baked potato for 3 anyone?


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