Walking & Talking about Cover Crops, Greenhouse Tools & Bale Shredders: EP68 | Show Notes

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This is the ag engineering podcast that rolls right into the details on tools, tips and techniques that improve you, your farm and our world. I’m your host, Andy Chamberlain from the University of Vermont Extension. And this podcast is sponsored by Northeast SARE. Thanks for listening. Today’s episode comes to you from Moncton Vermont where we visit with Steven Park of Full Belly Farm. He and his wife, Sarah, established their farm in 2017 and have about 110 acres. They grow strawberries, blueberries, and vegetables and gross about 400,000 in sales both in on-farm retail and wholesale markets. They’re farming in the climate zone 5A. In this episode, we’re walking and talking around the farm with Steven. We’ll get to know him a little bit as well as we learn about his use of biodegradable plastics, an antique pot filler, using a bale shredder for mulching strawberries, as well as a few more goodies thrown in at the end. There will be more episodes coming shortly going into further details on the strawberry systems and strawberry mulching. So stay tuned for that. To help set the stage, this was a cold blustery late October day when I visited the farm. So that’s why it’s a bit windy.
Just got solar panels last year.
Oh, fun.
It’s a nice addition. Our strawberry field that we just planted this year is it’s a little bit of a walk. If you wanna go down there, it’s fine, if you got time.
It’s down the other side of that tree line down there. And most of our high tunnels are down here. Our propagation greenhouse. Building two more tunnels right now. Basically our soils here: this top part of the farm here is Armenia stony loam then it transitions into virgins clay down below and then we have sections of Elmwood fine sandy loam, which is a fine sandy loam but it does have a clay sub soil. So, drainage and water issues are kind of a something we constantly trying to improve and work on. So, but we tend to try to grow most of our strawberries up in these, up in the top part of the fields here where we have more of the Armenia loam. So we pick on about three acres of June-bearing strawberries a year. We’ll actually have about three and a half next year. And then we have about a half acre of day neutral, every-bearing strawberries few acres of mixed vegetables, couple acres of sweet corn. It’s kind of the six high tunnels about we’ll have eight next year; tomatoes and peppers and mixed vegetables and such. So, but strawberries are definitely our bread and butter.
So our business is about, at this point, 5 years in. We’re doing about 3/4 of our business, I think maybe more like 2/3, something like that, on the farm from the farm stand.
Pick your own and retail sales. And then the rest, the remainder, is wholesale through mostly grocery stores. In the earlier years, our first years, we were doing a lot more wholesale, but we’ve really grown the retail business a lot more and kinda backed off on the wholesale; which has been nice. Yeah, this is a
new field doing most of our strawberries on plastic these days. So we use biodegradable plastic. We’re
not certified organic and so we’re able to and I really like it. And last year we did a planting of matted
row on biodegradable plastic and then you allow the runners to set through the plastic. I really liked it.
It’s like you get the benefit of the warming soil, the weed control. We can plant a little bit later because
you’re getting the warming soil. They grow faster. That’s one of the things with the matted row, you
really gotta get ’em planted early in the spring and it’s always a push, especially with heavier soils, to get
on the field in time. And so, the matted row on biodegradable plastic, the challenge we had is we
planted in a place that had some nut sedge problems and we have a lot of nut sedge on the farm. And so
plastic doesn’t stop nut sedge, especially biodegradable plastic.
Yeah, so doing a lot of cover cropping now, which is starting to see a lot of benefit from.
So we got our straw here and we cut. Just this year was our first year harvesting our own straw.
Which is great See, what you’re seeing here, that’s tall. This was oats and radish and peas. I ran outta
seed on this field and so then was a couple weeks later that I finished planting it. That’s why you see the
Is it a goal to be certified eventually or just the practices are-
are the important part for you?
I don’t think certified. Honestly, unless the biodegradable plastic was allowed, I really don’t think I would
get certified.
Cause we don’t need it for our marketing purposes right now, ’cause we sell mostly retail here and we
can kind of tell our story.
You know, we can tell people and people trust what we’re doing, and we’re very honest with people,
you know. There’s still some things that we have to do that are not fully organic and we’re trying, you
know, mostly strawberries.
There’s just such an important crop to us and there’s so many risks, you know, so, but mostly, almost all
the products we’re using now are organic and we’re every year it’s closer and closer.
After walking past the cover crops and checking out the strawberry fields we moseyed back around to
the high tunnels. Don’t worry. The strawberry conversation’s coming in another episode.
We purchased an old pot filler.
It’s a little old and rough but it’s been great. Saved a lot of labor this year as we’ve been expanding our
plant sales. So this, we bought this from Howard Prusik.
And he had used this one for years and he had just replaced it this last year and I think he bought this
one from, I think, he told me he bought it from Pooh Sprague down at Edge water Farm.
And he had used this for many years, so. I’m gonna replace the auger. It needs a new auger before next
year, but it’s been great.
So it just floods out onto the table when you’re filling a flat, you just
Uh huh
Brush it off and call it good?
Yeah, You fill the hopper with the soil. You can moisten it. If you wanna add some fertilizer that time you
can. And then you turn this on. and it busts bales also. And that, that turns, and then there’s an auger
that feeds up through here and a foot control. And so we’ll set up a table here to have all of our baskets
and flats and everything on. And then this foot control controls the auger and it just dumps out. And so
like with flats, you, I relay ’em all out and you fill ’em and scrape ’em, you know and with the hanging
baskets and everything, it’s just you’re just filling ’em and sending ’em over there for someone to pot up.
So it’s been huge labor saving. Yeah.
So this machine is 90 years old and, and has been on at least three different farms that you know of-
How much did you spend to buy it?
Oh gosh. I’d have to look back. I think it might have been a thousand dollars.
I think so. I’d have to look back and you know, it’s been worth it ’cause everything’s really like it looks a
little rough, but it’s had a new bottom was put in, so it’s got a good sturdy bottom. And the auger is a
little worn. I’m gonna replace that. But otherwise, I mean there’s not a whole lot to go wrong on it, so.
It’s a pretty simple machine.
Yeah, Yeah.
And the labor savings. Huge.-
Yeah. Unbelievable. This is what we use for spreading straw. I usually keep it in the barn, but it’s out
right now ’cause I just, cause we also spread on our plug plants and stuff. We spread straw in the pads.
And so I’ve had it out some for that. This is a Eagle Tomahawk 5050. We had the same thing except a
4040 model. The only difference is this is a bigger barrel. We can run the 5 foot bales. The one we had
before, you could just do the four foot round bales but it also had an extension on it that you could do
the large square bales. Like I said, I really didn’t like running the large square bales just mostly ’cause it
was a lot of weight. You had a thousand pound bale in there cantilevered out that far without a pretty
large tractor and we’ve got bigger tractors, but it just the way it was cantilevered, it would just, you
couldn’t, you just couldn’t go without lifting your front end of your tractor up all the time. You know, if
you’re going uphill at all and, and it kept breaking stuff because it really wasn’t designed for that. So
anyway, we switched to, to this we’re running the five foot round bales now and this was a big upgrade
from the from the smaller model. I mostly run it on my larger tractor with a thousand RPM PTO. I
actually haven’t switched over 540 right now, cause I was, I wanted to test it out see how my smaller
Otaku ran with it. I was just curious. So I switched it but I mostly always run it with a thousand RPM PTO,
which is great. It just gets the bales out faster.
Is it shred it finer, too? ‘Cause it’s chopping faster.
I wouldn’t say finer. It gets the bales out a lot faster. You can run it a little lower. Like I run the tractor a
little lower RPMs I’m going through a little less diesel and it just shreds the bale faster. You know, I think
I, I think I tend to run the PTO RPM at about 800 or something at the PTO when I’m shredding with this.
And as opposed to like when I’m running with the 540, I’m full throttle, you know. It really needs to be
running full throttle to just to get enough speed to chop well,
Where running a thousand, I can run it a little lower. But yeah, it makes a huge difference. I know some
people have an additional shoot specifically for strawberries that I’ve been thinking about adding on,
building something onto this for that. But I, I tend to be able to, I can make it work with this Because’ I’m
the additional shoot I think is nice to really just like dump all of the straw on one bed beside you as you
go. Where I’m with this, I tend to kind of like I’ll run it down and I’m, I’m covering, you know, a a bed and
filling the pads around it quite a bit in, in a pass, you know? So it’s not quite as direct over top of a bed.
But I like to get a lot of straw like in the pads and on the bed and everything build up quite a bit.
Is that your final step or do you go out afterward and spread the straw out some more?
There’s times we’ll go and do a little hand work after. just if there’s like places where I dump too much
and then lighter places and we might do a little touch up, but now yeah, this is basically final step. Yeah.
Our first years here, like I said, our first year we were using large square bales. The bale shredder we had
was in rough shape. It really wasn’t designed to be running that, that heavy of bales and it kept having
breakdowns. And so we finally, we just said, screw it. We’re spreading by hand for this season. And we
finished the field by hand with a wagon pulling those large square bales and just dropping it off the back
of the wagon.
Just shaking it out?
The second year we had bales, round bales, and bale shredder and I, and I started having problems with
my tractor right at the time when we’re spreading. It was, I’m trying to remember what it was, some
hydraulic problems. Anyway, I was getting pretty nervous. I didn’t have time to get the repairs done;
gotta get the straw on right now. And my wife and I ended up spreading the remainder of the field,
which was probably about two acres by hand with round balesunrolling,
round bales and spreading by hand. That was not fun. No.
But it was one of those, like we, we were having tractor issues and just had to get the, had to get it done
right then. Since then I’ve had much better experience.
Our first couple years was, was not fun spreading straw. Now I can get it out pretty quickly. I have, I do it
by myself and it takes two tractors, a loader and then the tractor for running the the shredder. So it’s a
lot of on and off. I am gonna, I do have extra help, somebody working with me, staying on part-time
through the winter. So I will have a second person running with me this year which is gonna make huge
difference. It’s a lot less on and off-
Somebody who can just load you.
It should take me about half the time. ‘Cause I think last year it took me about a week of, you know-
Wow and that’s like, you know, it’s cold temps. I’m not running a tractor with a cab I’m out there
running two tractors by myself. So, you know to really get everything I think I had about three and a half
acres to cover last year to get everything done. And that’s like, I think I spread 120 round bales last year
something like that. And so it’s a lot of bails to run through this thing in a short period of time, having
having some extra help this year will make a big difference. One thing I can say about these two that I
found in our first year is that having good knives makes all the difference. These knives are not cheap to
replace but when they’re worn out, it’s working a lot harder. It’s a lot slower to spread and your tractor’s
just working a whole lot harder. So replacing these, these knives especially which I just noticed the other
day or last time I used it, then one came off.
Oh geez.
Yeah. So I’ve got a replacement already. I’ll put that on. But keeping these knives in good condition and
just spending the money every so many years to replace em makes a world of difference. I learned that
pretty quick these knives aren’t as quite as important and I’ll take them off and sharpen them up once a
year. But these these are the more important ones that when they’re dull, you’re just, you’re not you’re
not moving very quickly.
Yeah. It’s just slowing it down. Like you said, it’s nasty weather at that time.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And you know, I, I don’t have a cab tractor and so it’s nasty weather, a lot of straw
It’s, it’s not, it’s not a real fun job, honestly, but it it’s only once a year, so
Just gotta get it done. Yeah, I’m on. But I am, I can show you the tractor I’m running on now even though
there was an established farm there a lot of there weren’t really a lot of established systems that was,
that were gonna work for us. So we’ve been improving that ever since. This is a puzzler. We bought this
from Iowa Farm Equipment. They deal in a lot of like these Italian the flail mowers and stone barriers
and such. I, we do, we use these I really like this for the edge of plastic weeding. They till more fingers.
This is a really nice farm stand.
Yeah. So, ’cause believe it or not, we have as many as a thousand people a day come through the farm.
And, and during strawberry season, it’s, we’re extremely busy that time of the year strawberry and
blueberry picking, but especially strawberry this place is kind of a mad house. So yeah, we do a lot of
business out of here. This is, this is the majority of our business it’s I mean, to pick your own field but
majority of our sales happen through this farm stand.
Right, right.
Yeah, so. Yeah, and we have so strawberries and blueberries, but then tomatoes are other big wholesale
crop. Like we haven’t really wholesale a whole lot of, you know, washing like more washed crops so far,
mostly because we haven’t had the systems and haven’t had the the place to do it well.
You know, that’s been a big thing that’s held us back is like, well, they’re not gonna start planting and
marketing this stuff that we don’t have a way of handling, you know.
Especially, like you said, when you’re already so busy with the fruit, like you can’t just add in and
You know vegetables that require washing is a whole lot of yeah. A whole lot more.
But we need to because we need to diversify.
We’re we’re too heavily relying on strawberries right now.
So there was a little intro to Full Belly Farm hearing from Steven. The next episodes go into greater
detail of some of the topics we touched upon today. Thanks for listening to today’s episode. I hope you
enjoyed it. If I can ask you or direct you to do one thing that is to go to the website for this podcast,
agengpodcast.com. That’s A G E N G P O D C A S T.com. There you’ll find the show notes. You’ll find links
to the farmer who we chatted with today as well as photos or videos from the call when I visited the
farm. If you’ve got some feedback to share, my contact information’s on there or you can leave me a
voicemail and you can do that right from the link in the description, in the mobile app you’re listening to
this to, so go ahead and do that. Thanks again for listening. And I hope you have a great day.