Workshop on Veggie Tools Reels in New Farmers

8/4/2012 7:00 AM
By Jennifer Hetrick Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

EMMAUS, Pa. — As a beginning farmer, Sue Pengelly of Misty Knoll Farm in Royersford, Pa., is eager to learn which tools work best for her.

“The only problem I have related to tools is that I sometimes buy something based on a friend’s or salesperson’s recommendation, or because of an article I read about it, and later I find out that it doesn’t perform as advertised,” Pengelly said.

“Then it sits in the barn, taking up space, and I hate when that happens,” she said.

To overcome that handicap, Pengelly — along with 30 other people — attended a workshop on farming equipment for small- to medium-scale vegetable producers on July 25 at The Seed Farm in Emmaus, Lehigh County, Pa.

Penn State Extension and Lehigh County partner with the nonprofit Seed Farm, which manages 42 acres on its Vera Cruz Road property as a new farmer training program and agricultural business incubator.

Sara Runkel, The Seed Farm’s executive director and farm manager, instructed the workshop-goers on hand tools and small-grade machinery, explaining the advantages, disadvantages, best practices and costs to help them make better choices in balancing purchases and efficiency in workload.

Because so many farmers are aging and agriculture requires apprenticeship and guidance for those taking over the reins, these sorts of workshops are especially beneficial, Runkel said, because participants can learn from those well-versed with farm equipment knowledge.

Tianna DuPont, sustainable agriculture educator for Penn State Extension offices in Lehigh and Northampton counties, led the group early into the evening in collaboration with Runkel.

DuPont also serves as the secretary for The Seed Farm’s board of directors.

“The workshop gave the attendees a nice overview of equipment options,” DuPont said. “I think it’s important to look at equipment. It’s a big investment, and you want to have the right piece for your operation, knowing how to use it effectively.”

Testing out tools and equipment directly at The Seed Farm, after learning about each sampling’s pros and cons from Runkel’s insights, gave those at the workshop the chance to judge for themselves.

Pengelly began her agricultural efforts in 2010 alongside her husband, Keith, and her sister, Fabian Smith.

Misty Knoll Farm, preserved and inherited from her husband’s mother, totals 70 acres.

Pengelly’s former occupation is in nursing.

She and her husband produce pastured eggs, grass-fed lamb and goat, garlic, and wild broccoli rabe.

Her sister is raising pastured chicken and turkey along with heritage breeds of pullets for people who want to have backyard hens for supplying their own eggs, Pengelly said.

“We’ll start with an acre or two next year, including a high tunnel we’re building this fall,” she said about vegetable production in the works.

Having recently harvested five varieties of garlic, Pengelly said she plans to grow more herbs, shallots, heirloom tomatoes, hot peppers, broccoli, kale, asparagus and other vegetable crops once the land is ready.

“I don’t want to spray herbicides, so I’m interested in mechanical methods of weed control,” Pengelly said about the weeding tools showcased at the workshop.

“I liked the Valley Oak wheel hoe ($275) because of its ease and use of efficiency for weeding in an upright position, not stooped over,” Pengelly said. “And I liked Johnny’s hand hoe ($15) since it’s shaped for tactical weeding with precision. Plus, it was comfortable to use.”

Smith, on the other hand, had another opinion.

“She preferred the European push hoe ($65), but I found it uncomfortable to use,” Pengelly said.

With motorized equipment, Pengelly saw promise in the BCS Model 853 walking tractor ($3,500), which at 13 horsepower has a number of different advantages in maneuverability.

“You let the tool do the work for you — you shouldn’t have to push it or struggle, or something isn’t right,” Runkel said about the walking tractor. “And you can offset the handles so you don’t have to walk over what you just tilled.”

Pengelly said she found the walking tractor valuable for the prospect of cultivating, “especially turning hay fields into garden plots.”

Runkel did point out that in some cases, asking an established farmer down the road to till a lone acre or two for you might be a good choice versus buying larger tilling equipment and a tractor, given the substantial costs of such equipment when a new farmer might not have a large amount of land for raising crops.

Phil Neary recently started High Tunnel Growers in collaboration with Dan Graiff Farms in Newfield, N.J., after working for the produce supplier Sunny Valley International in Glassboro, N.J., for 11 years.

His new labors involve him running NPE Produce Consulting in the partnership with the existing farm where High Tunnel Growers will add onto the business.

Moving from the large scale industry to something smaller has shifted Graiff’s focus to RSV (restaurant-supported agriculture), which means seeing hand tools was something new for him.

All the styles of hoes discussed, including the Glaser wheel hoe ($350 to $399), Collinear hoe ($35 to $37), stirrup hoe ($44 to $46) and Cobra head hoe (long handle, $60; short handle, $25), were a curious surprise to Neary.

Learning what hoes work best around bigger weeds versus around the crops themselves, meeting people and picking up on new ideas are what made the trip to Pennsylvania for the workshop worthwhile, Neary said.

Jennifer Bell is the manager for the community garden and student farm at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

The student farm’s crops go to the dining halls on the campus, Bell said. The college has 2,400 students with four different dining halls.

“I’d never seen a stirrup hoe smaller than 6 inches,” Bell said.

A 3 1/4NPE-inch stirrup hoe was available for testing out in the fields.

The Valley Oak wheel hoe appealed to Bell, too.

“It’s lighter and easier to handle between uses,” Bell said. “We have a lot of different people using our tools, between volunteers, part-time employees and others.”

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