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Trying to figure out what tools and infrastructure your small farm needs to succeed? In this article, we’ll help you find the answers — and more importantly, help you develop a lean-farming philosophy to become a better farmer.
This is the fourth article in our Small Farm series where we discuss various aspects of starting and operating a small, regenerative farm. As with other articles in this series, this article is a collaboration with Chris Miller, owner/operator of Horseshoe Farm in Greenville, SC. If you haven’t already done so, you can meet Chris in our first article.
Definitions: Tools are devices used to perform a function. (Example: a shovel digs a hole.) Infrastructure is the structures and facilities used for operations. (Example: a shed is where you store shovels and other tools.) Sometimes the lines blur a bit; in this article, we’ll be discussing both tool and infrastructure needs for small regenerative farms.
The overwhelming choices of farm tools and infrastructure
When I called Chris Miller to discuss the challenges small farmers face in choosing — and paying for — tools and infrastructure for their small farms I could hear strange noises in the background. “I’m trying out my new Paper Pot Transplanter,” he told me. “I think it’s going to be a game changer for us and save us a ton of time and money.”
In case you’ve never heard of it, a Paper Pot Transplanter allows small farmers to transplant seedlings at a rate that’s many orders of magnitude faster than doing it by hand, which translates into substantial cost savings. It’s important to note that Chris has owned his own farm for years and that the Paper Pot Transplanter is not a new tool.
So why hasn’t Chris purchased one until now? The short answer: a couple thousand dollar investment wasn’t in his new tool/infrastructure budget until now, and the Paper Pot Transplanter wasn’t as essential as other investments for his operation’s success.
The lean farmer
Chris tries his best to operate a “lean farm,” as detailed in Ben Hartman’s book Lean Farm: How to minimize waste, increase efficiency, and maximize value and profits with less work.
Lean principles are not something that Hartman created. Rather they grew out of the Japanese automotive industry (primarily Toyota). The same principles are now being utilized by small regenerative farmers around the world like Chris to efficiently produce incredible quantities of produce on small acreage, profitably.
When it comes to tool and infrastructure needs, even a small ~1 acre farm could easily blow through hundreds of thousands of dollars if they had an unlimited budget and an undisciplined approach to spending it. So how do you, the small farmer, determine what to buy and how to get the highest return on investment?
Exactly what tools and infrastructure your farm needs to operate will vary by Ag zone, budget, market, what you’re growing, and other factors. However, the philosophy behind your farm’s investment decisions should be universal: does it add value to my customers and eliminate waste on my farm?
If the answer to that question is a definitive yes, then the next step is figuring out how to prioritize the investment based on your farm’s budget/cashflow.
Horseshoe Farm: Tool & infrastructure investment step-by-step
Moving beyond the realm of abstraction, let’s walk through the specific tools and infrastructure investments Chris has made while starting and operating his operation, Horseshoe Farm, in Travelers Rest, South Carolina.
First, a couple of important pieces of context:
Initial personal resources/assets: Chris started with a lot of knowledge plus basic small farm tools like a truck, trailer, wheelbarrows, etc. from his years of working as a farmer-for-hire. He also had $10k to work with and didn’t want to take on any debt.
Instead, his strategy was to use profits from his CSA to fund new farm infrastructure based on necessity/urgency. He also knew he’d have a much better idea of what he truly needed versus what he thought he needed after he started his farm.
Initial farm setup: Horseshoe Farm is in a temperate climate (Zone 7b) where Chris can produce food every month of the year. It was not an operating farm when he started; it was grass and shrub with no running water or electricity on the land. There are also:
- on-site ponds that proved to have good water quality after testing,
- a compact John Deere tractor that can be used to mow the larger acreage or haul heavy loads of compost, wood chips, etc.
- an existing barn that could be used for tool/equipment storage.
One other thing to keep in mind before we dive in: there may be infrastructure you’re legally required to have in place in order to operate depending on the size of your operation, state & local laws, etc. Case in point: the glorious port-o-john at Horseshoe Farm (required by regulations), featuring sweeping farm views:
With this info in mind, here’s the chronology of Chris’s farm infrastructure investments:
As a soil-based, regenerative farm, it’s hard to grow food without good soil. While Horseshoe Farm had better base soil than most other land in the area due to its location in a river floodplain, it still needed a lot of work. Thus, Chris invested several thousand dollars to have compost delivered.
He cleared his first plots by hand using a lawn mower and weed whacker to get down to bare soil. Then he used a manual broadfork to loosen the compacted soil before putting out compost 5-8″ deep to form his permanent raised beds.
Fairly regular rains and a gas-powered water pump from the pond provided initial irrigation. At first, Chris hauled his produce back home to clean it prior to putting it into coolers for CSA and restaurant delivery.
(*Note: Soil is never “done.” It’s a living medium that requires constant stewardship. Chris uses various techniques to build his soil. He adds: “I also wish we had a couple loads of compost to regularly apply after every bed-flip/crop transition. We only put that initial 5-8″ of compost down and none since. I should make room in the budget for annual application since the amount of material I would need to make compost myself would be considerable and also require the maintenance and time and effort.”)
As soon as cashflow allowed, Chris invested in a tap to city water and a good automated irrigation system. He now has sprinkler timers set to specific zones with low-PSI mini-wobbler sprinklers that provide an even distribution of water with minimal soil disturbance.
Having water on-site also means he can clean produce at his farm rather than driving it home to wash.
Getting your farm’s irrigation right isn’t as simple as it may initially sound. As Chris says,
“Irrigation should be well thought out and maybe even paid for by a pro and/or if you have an engineer or plumber friend it’s worth buying them some dinner or beer for their advice/help.
Pressure is VERY important — not just to make sure you can irrigate your entire garden efficiently, but especially to wash off root veg or fill wash tubs/sinks quickly, clean bins, etc..
Figuring out irrigation systems and calculating what kind of flow rate, psi, what kind of pump you might need… it can be exhausting, but you need to get it right from the start or you’ll pay the price later.”
(*Note: Chris eventually wants to switch to a solar electric pump system utilizing filtered on-site pond water, but that’s currently cost prohibitive, and will therefore have to wait. Another reason he wants to switch to pond irrigation is to avoid the antimicrobial chemicals put in public drinking water which also kill plant-beneficial soil microbes.)
3. More and better harvest coolers and bins
As his yields and profits increased, Chris was able to begin expanding his farms footprint. This meant more yields and more profits, a virtuous cycle.
However, his old bins and storage containers were no longer adequate. Rather than letting produce rot or be of lower quality for his customers, Chris invested in additional, high quality harvest coolers and bins.
Next on the list was power/electricity. The primary reason for getting power at the farm: solar-powered fences generally don’t pack enough punch to deter animals. Even if they do, the batteries will eventually lose power without notice.
Groundhogs and deer loved the delicious produce that was suddenly springing from the previously desolate land. They were consuming thousands of dollars of farm veggies even though they weren’t paying customers.
Chris had to have power to prevent this waste/resource drain.
5. Electric fencing
As soon as he had power, Chris installed electric fencing around the perimeter of his fields to prevent animals from eating his crops. Deer and groundhogs can no longer cause crop loss.
6. Insulated cold storage shipping container with CoolBot system
The second you harvest produce, a clock starts ticking. There’s only so long you have to get that produce into a customer’s hands before it’s no longer in good enough condition to be salable. On a South Carolina summer day, that clock ticks pretty quickly.
To maintain the quality of his post-harvest produce for a longer period of time, reduce waste, and help ensure income, Chris needed an on-site refrigeration unit. Traditional units are extremely expensive. Thus, he had an old shipping container delivered. He then insulated the interior of the container himself and installed a CoolBot system.
In case you’ve never heard of it, CoolBot is an ingenious hack that allows you to have your own on-site refrigeration for a fraction of the cost of traditional cold storage units. (*We’ll detail this system in a later article.)
Now, Chris can wash and transfer freshly harvested produce into cold storage as soon as it comes out of the field.
7. Row covers
Here in South Carolina, a small farmer can produce salable crops 12 months a year, even though growth rates on winter crops are considerably slower than in the warmer months. With certain season extension infrastructure, such as row covers, a farmer can also:
- grow “summer” crops well into fall,
- get an early start on spring and summer crops,
- protect cold-sensitive crops during early frosts and freezes.
Chris next invested in row covers and sandbags (to hold the covers in place) to significantly increase his farm’s productivity. Rather than buying more expensive readymade row cover supports, he bought bulk 9-gauge wire and cut it to 3′ lengths.
Why buy row cover sandbags when you can use free rocks, logs, etc to hold the row covers in place? Over the years, Chris found that these other objects would often tear his row cover or not work nearly as well since they weren’t a universal weight and size. Their small size also makes them very easy to store away in the warm months.
8. Weed-killing tarps
Chris doesn’t use synthetic pesticides or even organic/OMRI-approved pesticides, whether that’s insecticides or herbicides. Like other organic farms, one of the big challenges he has to deal with is weed pressure. On small <5 acre organic farms, there are multiple strategies employed to handle weed control.
For one, Chris gets a local tree service company to drop free wood chips at his farm (they’d have to pay to dump them at a landfill otherwise). He then puts those wood chips in the walking rows between his crops to inhibit weed seed germination and growth there. Chris also uses various tools to remove weeds growing in his crop rows.
Another relatively new technique that many small farmers (including Chris) have started using: putting out giant specialized silage tarps over certain rows/plots. The tarps heat the soil triggering weed seed germination. However, without light to photosynthesize, the weeds quickly die without creating new seeds — and they become food for various soil organisms like worms, boosting soil fertility.
Once the tarps are removed, the soil is weed-free and ready to plant.
As Chris says:
“Silage tarps are a fairly inexpensive and super efficient tool that does a lot of passive work, especially if you have the acreage to be able to take a good portion out of production for a longer period of time. You have to do almost nothing to prep those beds for seeding/planting.
In the warmer months they only need 2-4 weeks to break down old crop residue/weeds. Longer when it’s cooler. Also it helps if there’s a good amount of moisture to get that microbial activity going. They’re UV-resistant, so they have a long shelf life. They’re also black and white, so you can use them to help germinate crops (in addition to weeds) at different times of year by switching sides, like trying to germinate something that likes it cooler in the summer with the white side up.”
9. Sheltered washing & packing station next to cold storage unit
On a cold wet winter day, it’s downright miserable if not impossible to spend hours washing and packing veggies out in the open. The same is true on a scorching hot summer day.
To keep himself, his workers, and his produce out of the elements, Chris built a sheltered porch & wash area next to his CoolBot storage unit. This not only creates a much better working environment, it improves productivity and produce quality.
10. Propagation house
As a small organic/regenerative farmer, does it make more sense to grow your own seedling transplants or buy them from massive operations like Banner Greenhouses (BG)? It depends…
It’s hard to calculate the total cost of the materials, labor, and time that go into growing your own seedlings. If you do, you might find that it’s actually much more cost-effective to buy seedlings from BG since economies of scale allow them to produce high quality organic seedlings at incredibly low prices.
However, if you’re growing unusual crops varieties or have specialized seedling transplanting systems, growing your own seedlings is necessary and economical. Thus, Chris built a low-cost, on-site seedling propagation house.
Chris still plans to use BG for certain speciality crops like disease-resistant grafted tomatoes which BG can produce far more affordably than he can.
11. Paper pot transplanter
It used to take Chris and his team hours to either direct-sow or transplant seedlings. Now he has a Paper Pot Transplanter, which allows allows a single person to transplant 264 plants covering over 100′ in just minutes.
The labor and cost savings of this single piece of infrastructure/tool will provide a tremendous boost to Chris’s bottom line, allowing him to invest time and capital elsewhere.
If you use a Paper Pot Transplanter, you do have to grow your own seedlings on-site in proprietary paper cells provided by the company (kind of like buying razor blade replacements). However, after carefully weighing the pros and cons, Chris decided it was a necessary investment.
12. High tunnel
Chris is in the process of getting a high tunnel installed on his farm. This will not only provide season extension (example: growing trellised melons in fall and winter) but it’s also great for reducing disease pressure on disease-prone plants (like heirloom tomatoes) since the leaves can be kept dry. Many farmers also set up seedling propagation stations in their high tunnels.
Downside: high tunnels are quite expensive, usually starting around $10,000. Thankfully, there are agencies like USDA-NRCS that provide high tunnel grants to farmers, helping farms around the US boost their productivity and profits. In South Carolina (via Allendale County Soil & Water Conservation District), there’s also a specialized crew who will come install your high tunnel in a couple days for ~$1,000. Chris and I both know from painful experience that that’s a great deal!
13. BCS tractor
While Chris tries to minimize fossil fuel use/combustion engines on his farm, sometimes there’s no alternative. Case in point: his investment in a BCS tractor.
BCS tractors are the equivalent of a Swiss Army knife for small farmers. They’re 2-wheel, man-powered tractors that you can get a wide range of attachments for to do an equally wide range of tasks.
Chris uses his BCS to:
- flail mow,
- power harrow (creating neat seed beds while minimizing soil disturbance by only going about 1/2″ deep), and
- rotary plow rows (during crop transitions, he rotary plows up decomposed wood chips/soil to maintain the permanent raised beds).
As Chris says, “The nature of farming is uncertainty. You get to notice what you really need if you operate with a minimalist approach and get your hands dirty before making those investments. What you think you need before you break ground may be much different after you have a year of growing under your belt.”
This uncertainty is at the heart of Chris’s lean farming philosophy. That’s why he chooses to use surplus income/cashflow to invest in the next most essential infrastructure or tool, rather than financing those investments with debt.
However, circumstances are different for every farm and Chris acknowledges that there are benefits and drawbacks to this approach.
“I like being debt-free, but I’d enjoy a little debt if I could have everything I wanted and the efficiencies that would come with that. There’s stress with my approach and there’s also stress with being loaded up with debt and having to service that debt with seasonally fluctuating income that’s never guaranteed.”
There will always be ways to improve your farm; it’s a continual, never ending process. However, by having a lean philosophy, solid work ethic, and disciplined approach to what tools/infrastructure you invest in next, those graduated improvements will continue to compound and make your farm better and better each year.
After a decade, your farm will be the lean, green, mean machine you dreamed of, but you’ll still have plenty of plans for the future.
Read more articles in this series:
- Small farm series intro: what is a small, regenerative farm?
- 15 tips to start a small farm using regenerative practices
- Small farmer choice: CSA vs farmers market vs wholesale
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