Dear Tom –
I injured my knee right at the beginning of transplant season. I can drag myself along the ground with a seedling tray but that’s really slow. Do you have any suggestions for a mechanical transplanting aid?
— Moses in Curtis Creek
Dear Moses –
In the early days of our farm, our production was low so transplanting was a minor task. As our production grew and before we hired a crew it could take me a full day each week. I found that I could work quickly for a couple of hours but then my pace slowed as my back pains increased.
I checked out mechanical devices to help with this task. Our farm still is small scale so we use a walk-behind tractor which does not offer a transplant attachment as far as I know. I found a device powered by foot petals with very low bicycle gearing which straddled beds for strawberry harvest. There were also four-wheeled carts for weeding where the operator lays face down over the bed on a bed frame-like device. The strawberry machine was several hundred dollars which we could not afford at the time and the face-down posture did not seem practical for transplanting.
Our solution in the picture to the right was intended to help us transplant longer. The operator sits on the center platform facing the tray of transplants. The operator’s weight is borne by two wheelbarrow tires and one foot rests gently in each of the adjoining beds. From one location I can easily reach about twelve transplant sites – six to the left and six to the right. When those holes are filled gentle pressure rolls the device forward to the next set of twelve holes. I place transplant trays ahead in the bed so as I run out of starts, the next tray is nearby. When that row is complete, I move to the next one. If your field has any slope, pointing downhill helps. The landscape fabric also helps but I have used this device on bare soil also.
While the machine was a little slower than I was in my first twenty minutes or so of transplanting, it allows me to keep going longer and finish transplanting when conditions are right.
I cannot recall the cost but wheelbarrow tires are readily available at hardware stores. The two axles are large bolts and rest is scrap lumber. It took a few hours to assemble. The total cost including labor is probably less than $100. For comparison purposes, a tractor-mounted transplanter costs $2,000 – $5000 (new). Used tobacco setters are likely to be much less.
Our machine might be a little awkward with a stiff knee but probably will be an improvement on the plant and drag method that you described. Let me know if you want to take it for a test drive. With a larger crew now, our transplanting usually is done in less than an hour. So the machine spends a lonely life in the packing shed most of the time.
I hope you heal quickly. Thanks for your question.
Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.