A 30” wide bed is the most common standardized width in the world of market gardening today. It’s an easy width to straddle for most body types, doesn’t hyperextend the back when reaching into the center of the bed from the pathway, and most tools and supplies are built to accommodate this size.
If such is the case, it would seem that it would be counterintuitive for a grower to deviate from this bed system. However, Dean Buttacavoli from Cabbage Throw Farm in New Jersey did just that.
In this article, we will be looking at why he chose to deviate from this industry standard 30” bed and instead return to the “old-school” model of row cropping, along with the pros and cons of both approaches.
This last growing season, Dean decided to do away with the 30” bed system and transition to instead using bed blocks with rows of crops all being 15” apart.
The Cabbage Throw Farm Context
Dean and his fiance Emily first broke ground on Cabbage Throw Farm in 2017 and started growing in 2018. With five years of experience under their belt, they now feel they’ve stepped into some maturity in regard to coming into their own approach with confidence, rather than always looking over their shoulder at what other farms are doing.
It’s natural to start out by emulating the pro growers you’ve learned from, mimicking their techniques, and reading their books. However, there are always limitations and differences based on your personal context.
For Cabbage Throw farm, they lease the land they farm on and the land owners are not open to them putting up infrastructure like high tunnels or even caterpillar tunnels. As such, they are limited to the grand majority of their production taking place in the open field.
In the beginning, they really wanted to be restaurant-oriented small-scale farmers, selling quick-growing salad crops, very similar to the Curtis Stone model. However, as the farmer’s market and CSA turned out to be the strongest streams of revenue for their context, they realized growing other crops that take more space may be beneficial to their business.
Each year they can look back on their books and see what has worked well and what hasn’t for their specific market. Dean looks at things big picture, whereas his partner Emily looks at the details. Between the two of them, they make a great team when it comes to continually analyzing what they’re doing, and if it’s working for their context. They are constantly asking themselves questions:
- Are we working too much?
- How’s our quality of life?
- Is there too much weight on our shoulders?
- Are we actually pushing the needle forward, or just treading water?
- How happy are our customers?
- Are we retaining our customers?
- Do we want to create a vegetable empire, or just support our family?
Dean and Emily are committed to farming as their long-term career and love what they do. They are very cautious with their decision-making, wanting to set themselves up for long-term success, realizing the margins aren’t high in this line of business.
As of now, it’s just Dean and Emily full-time, and then they hire a seasonal employee to help them run the farmer’s markets. They have 1.5 acres in cultivation, operate a CSA, sell at multiple farmer’s markets, and gross a little over $150,000/year!
Currently, they pay themselves with the profit they earn, putting a decent portion into retirement accounts, with the remaining profit being reinvested back into the business. Dean believes this keeps them humble and really makes them consider carefully what tools and machinery they are going to invest in.
Mechanized Weed Control
With just two sets of hands on their farm, time is their most valuable asset. Consequently, when looking at equipment to invest in, their number one criteria is, “what can give us back more time?”
It was this question that led them to invest in mechanized weed control. They realized the number one task that was taking most of their time was weed control. It was impossible to hoe every piece of ground every day with two people on 1.5 acres. They were also at three different markets three days a week, so their time on the farm was really only two to three days a week. If the weeds were getting out of hand, they were in a bind.
After much consideration, this last year they purchase a two-wheel cultivating tractor by Tilmore, called the Power Ox.
The only catch with this machine, was that it does not work in a 30” bed system. With crops being intensively planted on a 30” bed, there simply isn’t enough space between rows for a machine like the Tilmore Power Ox (the smallest mechanized piece of weeding equipment) to cultivate between rows.
The Shift Away from a 30” Bed System
When Dean and Emily began studying other larger farms that use this kind of machinery, they learned they were using 15” between rows on 42” bed tops, with 18” pathways. When they looked into mimicking the spacing of these larger farms, they quickly realized that it would shrink their already small market farm by a third (compared to their old layout of 30” beds with 14” pathways).
Because of this, they decided to adopt the 15” row spacing, but not the 42” bed top, and 18” pathway. Instead, they turned their field blocks of 30” beds into field blocks of row crops all 15” apart, doing away with the delineation of beds and pathways.
They refer to their field blocks as plots. Each plot is 50’ by 100’. Now they do what Dean likes to call “old school row farming” in each plot, with rows packed in from the beginning to the end of each plot. Depending on the crop’s spacing requirements, they have now standardized to work with 15” row spacing as the closest, or every other row for 30” spacing, or every fourth row for 60” spacing.
By doing away with pathways and beds, they were able to successfully transition to the 15” rows that would accommodate the Power Ox, without sacrificing as much yield per square foot when compared to their old 30” bed system. With some drop in yield per square foot, they are looking to expand their farm size to accommodate this. They feel the decrease in labor due to the mechanized weed control makes this well worth the effort!
Rows in Plots Vs. Beds and Pathways
At first, Dean thought it might be an issue with not having pathways when needing to get a harvest tote for harvesting a crop. However, he said by starting from the outer edge of the plot and working inward, he can simply pull the tote behind where he has already harvested from, making it a nonissue.
Dean thinks of it as a looser, lower maintenance system. There is no longer a need for running lines to mark out the edges of beds and pathways. No corner stakes are needed.
They’ve also noticed that with wider row spacing, crops are getting much better airflow, and looking more lush and healthy. They have even reduced the amount of fertility they are adding per square foot, and still getting better-looking crops!
In addition, they’ve also noticed that the cotyledons of their newly sprouted spring crops are no longer yellowing out as they used to when overcrowded into 30” beds. However, they do still see some yellowing of cotyledons with their fall crops.
Though the space between rows has all switched to 15” spacing, their in-row spacing for crops has remained the same, with a lot of 2”, 4”, and 6” spacing being used to accommodate the variety of paperpot crops they grow.
The Tilmore Power Ox Vs. Hand Tools for Cultivation
Dean refers to the Power Ox as a “game changer” when it comes to time savings compared with cultivation using long-handled weeding tools.
As they are just starting to get into this world of mechanized weed control, they decided to start off with just two implements: a single-row basket weeder, and a single-row finger weeder, both of which are installed and used simultaneously. The finger weeder attachment gets the in-row weeds from among the crops, while the basket weeder takes care of the weeds in between the rows.
Dean will bring the Power Ox through a plot a week after a crop has been transplanted, and he says it takes “no time at all.” He has found that running it a little on the faster side gets better performance out of it. With this new machine, Dean and Emily haven’t picked up a hand hoe all season long!
With the new wider 15” spacing between each row, he’s also found that the wheel hoe is a fairly quick alternative if he’s not bringing out the Power Ox. He reports they have just as good weed control as they’ve had in years prior, but with a fraction of the time spent.
The Benefits of Beds for Crop Planning
Dean concedes that crop planning has been more challenging with field plots vs. beds like they used to grow in when using the standardized 30” beds. However, their plan is to increase their growing area next season and switch to 42” beds with 18” pathways. While they couldn’t afford to do this right out of the gate due to space limitations, it is their desire to move to this model for ease of crop planning in the coming season.
Crop planning not only helps in your ability to forecast profits and plan appropriately for seeding, it also helps with traceability which is important when it comes to being certified organic.
With the increase in time off due to their shift to mechanized weeding, Dean and Emily have had a little more space to dream and plan.
Something Dean has wanted to do for some is to incorporate the practice of cover cropping. By adding more space and expanding the size of their farm, he is hopeful to do a lot more of this. They have seen a lot of promise with the improvement of plant health after a cover crop.
Both Dean and Emily came into farming with an environmental ethic, wanting to give back, and not just take. Cover cropping is one such way they feel they can do more of this.
Growth, for them, isn’t even so much about increasing sales, but increasing their ability to practice cover cropping and crop rotation, allowing sections of land to rest and rejuvenate.
In addition, having the ability to grow space-taking crops like sweet potato, winter squash, and corn is also a desire of theirs. With current space limitations, they can’t sacrifice the more intensively planted quick turnaround crops that are making them money in order to do this. However, their hope is that the coming expansion and shift in approach to mechanized weeding will allow them to realize all of these new plans.
While leaving behind the standardized 30” bed system may not be for everyone, Dean and Emily have found the move to row cropping to be very beneficial in their context. The ability to think outside of the box and create systems that work for you is a key to success in making small-scale farming profitable. You never want to find yourself a slave to a system that worked for someone else but isn’t working for you.
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I love this article, and as an old hippy farmer from way back, it’s fun/funny to see the aha that can come from doing things “old school”! Many of us farmed and still farm open field style, no permanent beds. It’s what works for many crops and especially at a bigger scale.
What isn’t mentioned here is whether this change in mechanical weeding has changed the need for tillage for this farm?
thanks for this excellent information,
Wonder article for new farming concepts
I also chose to not do a 30″ bed system. I love Eliot Coleman, J.M. Fortier and Curtis Stone. But as a one-woman-operation, I have to make decisions that make farming comfortable and affordable for me. I’m only 5′ 3″ tall and 30″ is way too much of a stretch for my short legs and torso. So I made all of my beds 24″ wide. And because space is not a big issue, I also went with 24″ aisles so that kneeling is easy.
I cannot afford most of the mechanized or powered tools. And my philosophy is to use zero gas, propane, electricity or batteries on my farm. Only manual human-powered tools. Therefore all I ise is the typical long-handled tools, a smaller broadfork, silage tarps, and (most importantly) a wheel hoe with no-till attachments. My manual labor is very high, and profits are slim, but my satisfaction and joy are very high.