North Central SARE From the Field Profile
Iowa Farmer Mechanizes Planting and Maintenance Tasks in Vegetables with Companion Plants
Maintaining Companion Plantings while Mechanizing in Diverse, Small-Farm Vegetable Operations
The Genuine Faux Farm, operated by Rob and Tammy Faux since 2004, is a small family operation that grows a wide variety of vegetables that are sold and distributed to about 120 community supported agriculture (CSA) customers. Produce also is sold via farmers’ markets and direct sales to a daycare, retirement center, and grocery store.
As vegetable production on the farm increases to meet demand and increase profits, weeding and other tasks that were done with hand tools have become too labor intensive. In a monoculture planting, where all plants have the same spacing, it’s easy to use equipment to reduce labor. In a diverse system with companion plants, using equipment is challenging and requires more planning and different implements. Companion planting (intercropping) is used on the farm because planting different types of plants near each other can repel pests, attract pollinators, or provide other benefits.
Faux started by identifying appropriate tools and spacing for intercropping that would accommodate equipment. He located used implements to use with his Ford 8N/9N tractor including an S-tine cultivator — 14 ft. cut down to 7 ft. (half of the cultivator is used as an all-purpose “plow” for field preparation; half is used as a row cultivator to handle wheel track weeding) and a 6-ft. disk harrow.
The companions tested and expected benefits were: beans with potatoes (beans mask presence of potatoes to reduce loss to Colorado potato beetle); brassicas such as broccoli with alliums such as onions (alliums reduce damage by cabbage worm and cabbage looper/reduce potential spread of onion diseases by splitting the crop); and winter squash or melons with companion flowers (reduce loss to vine borers, reduce squash bug population, increase predator and pollinator habitat near squash plants).
Trial companion plant spacing was compared with established (control) spacing that had been successful in the past. Control seed beds were the width of a walk-behind tiller. Potato rows were 65 in. apart, with double bean rows in between (the bean rows approximately 8 in. apart). The brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, etc.) and alliums (onion, leek, etc.) were similar, with rows of brassica 65 in. apart with a double row of the allium crop in between. Trial seed beds were developed at 40 in. wide (the distance between the tractor’s wheels) with wheel tracks approximately 1 ft. wide. A single row of each companion was planted 8 in. in from the bed edge, giving approximately 24 in. of space between the two companion rows.
The trial spacing for potatoes and beans was successful with time saved in weeding and harvesting. Yield and pest control results were the same for trial and control spacing. The trial spacing for brassicas and alliums was successful only for the brassicas. A windstorm rolled most of the larger brassicas over onto the alliums, which resulted in stunted plants. Even with the use of a cultivator, weed control “in row” remained difficult, requiring extensive labor. Winter squash and flower spacing results were inconclusive.
View Rob's presentation from the 2012 Farmers Forum through NCR-SARE's YouTube playlist. Visit www.youtube.com/NCRSAREvideo for this and other videos.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) FNC10-814, Maintaining Companion Plantings while Mechanizing in Diverse, Small-Farm.
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Project products are developed as part of SARE grants. They are made available with support from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed within project products do not necessarily reflect the view of the SARE program or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.