EAST LANSING, Mich. — Small farms are often stuck between the desire to increase production and the need to scale up and mechanize. While many growers follow the traditional path of adding acreage and horsepower to increase sales, some growers opt to stay small, instead looking to specialty equipment and systems to increase productivity. A prime example of this can be found on farms using the paper pot transplant system.
The paperpot system was developed in Japan, but can now be found on many farms across Michigan. Instead of traditional plastic cell trays, this system relies on chains of paperpots. These pots are expanded into a honeycomb shape using a special tool before filling with potting mix. A flat dibbler is used to create indentations in each cell before the plate seeder (designed to match the paperpot flat layout) can be used to seed entire flats at once. Follow this link to see a time lapse of paperpot flats being prepared.
Where the savings really become evident is at transplanting. Instead of working on hands and knees, growers can use the paper pot transplanter to set out upwards of 250 plants in less than a minute while comfortably walking alongside beds. Dion Stepanski, of Presque Isle Farm in Posen, MI. uses this system to plant lettuce and spinach throughout the season. Dion and his wife Molly plant at least 6-8 flats weekly (1,584-2,112 transplants) from March through mid-September, producing consistent salad for local markets. Without the labor savings provided by the paper pot system, they do not believe these crops would pencil out favorably. Click this link to see a video of the paper pot transplanter in action in the field at Presque Isle Farm, and this one in the hoop house.
Paperpots have many of the same benefits as soil blocks, including a low-impact transplanting system, which helps with initial establishment. Once planted, the seedlings can grow uninterrupted as the paperpots decompose. At the end of the season, any remaining paper can be worked into the soil.
It is important to note that some organic certifiers are still looking into the glues used in the paperpot chains to determine whether or not they are allowable in certified organic production systems. Before investing in the equipment, check with your certifier to ensure compliance.
As with anything, the paperpot system is not without its flaws. Soil preparation is key to ensure efficient planting. Rocks, debris and plant residue pose challenges for the paperpot transplanter, meaning growers must take extra time to prepare a clean seedbed.
Given that the entire flat is planted out in sequence, areas of poor germination in the greenhouse lead to wasted space in the field or additional labor to replace empty cells. It is important to manage greenhouse operations well and to use high quality seed to avoid waste. Additionally, waste can occur when the full flat system results in unused transplants due to a mismatch between bed length and number of pots in a flat. This can lead to losses in seeds, media and pots.
In-row weed control can be a challenge when using the paperpot system. The chain itself ties individual cells together in the field, meaning there is a strip of paper that interferes with weeding between plants in the row. When managing small plantings by hand, this may not be an issue, but at scale, this can prove to be difficult and time consuming.
Paperpots shine when it comes to crops like lettuce, spinach and transplanted beets that are closely spaced and high value. The system tends to underperform when it comes to larger seeded crops, such as beans and when alternative spacing is needed the chains come in preset in-row spacings of 2”, 4”, or 6”.
The paperpot system requires special equipment to maximize efficiency. When getting started, growers will need to invest in the pots, spreader bars, plastic flats, the dibbler and seeder and the transplanter. A basic start up kit will cost around $3,000, with additional plastic flats running around $6.50 each and a flat of pots at $2.40-$3.80. The big difference in cost is that the pots are not reusable, meaning a new supply must be purchased every season in order to continue using the system.
There are also a couple of hidden costs. The standard flats used in the paper pot system (12” x 24”) do not match the standard 1020 flat size, meaning greenhouse benches may need to be adapted to use space efficiently. Additionally, as more growers begin to use this system, some suppliers have run out of their paper pot inventory during the growing season. This is likely going to be less of an issue as the market responds to demand, but it must be noted that without the paperpots, the transplanter, seeder and flats cannot be used.
Dion at Presque Isle Farm says its all about finding that “tipping point” when it comes to determining whether or not to make the investment. “It is certainly an investment up front, but when you are planting out 2,000 transplants a week, the savings on labor easily make up for the cost of the equipment.” Collecting and analyzing simple labor and production data can help determine whether or not the paper pot or other systems can save a grower money over time.
— Collin Thompson, Michigan State University Extension
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