By John Hendrickson, Stone Circle Farm and Small Farm Works

Tools and equipment appropriate for small-scale, highly diversified vegetable farms have been a passion of mine for a long time. I discovered one of my favorite tools about 12 years ago while living in Japan. I was abroad with my wife, who was doing international relations work, and my two young sons. Knowing that the average farm is much smaller in Japan than in the U.S., I set out to discover what kinds of equipment Japanese farmers were using to grow vegetables.

On the internet, I discovered a small, grainy photograph of a hand-pulled tool that appeared to be transplanting crops.  When my wife came home from work, I asked her to translate the Japanese caption. She informed me it was some sort of “paper chain putting plants into the ground machine.” Intrigued, I asked her about the name and location of the manufacturer. The company happened to be in the town where we were living!

We met with representatives of the company, and eventually they invited us to their R&D facility just few stone throws from our rented house. My jaw nearly hit the ground when I saw the machine in action. I immediately asked about buying one to take back to my farm in Wisconsin, which was resting for a year under cover crops, as well as about the possibility of importing and selling them. The company did not think much of this latter idea, having the impression that their little “pull-boy” – the Japanese name for the transplanter – would be out of place on American vegetable farms, which they assumed were all extremely large and only used large-scale equipment. However, they did not know about the growing market-farm and local food revolution. Twelve years later, we are now quite busy selling and shipping paper chain pot transplanting systems throughout North America.

The paper chain pot transplanting system is a unique, ingenious, and highly efficient means to transplant vegetables, flowers, and herbs.  It is unlike any standard transplanter used in the U.S. or Europe: it has no motor, and is instead pulled by hand.  The system relies on planting into paper pots that are in a chain.  Because the pots are in a chain, they feed themselves through the transplanter. This allows a single person to transplant hundreds of plants in less than a minute while standing upright, eliminating countless hours spent kneeling, crawling, or stooping.

In addition to paper pots, the system components include plastic bottom trays for holding the paper pots, an opening kit for opening the compressed paper pots, a dibble board for making impressions in the potting mix prior to seeding, a whole flat gravity seeding device, and the transplanter itself.  The paper pots are a consumable input, as they go into the ground at planting and eventually decompose. The paper pots are available in many sizes and in-row spacings to accommodate a variety of crops.

The transplanter has had a huge impact on our farm. We would likely have stopped planting some crops, such as onions, leeks, and scallions, because the labor to transplant them was just too demanding of our time and bodies. It has allowed us to transplant other crops – peas, beets, and spinach – to achieve better, more consistent stands and improve profitability. On other farms, it is currently becoming a very popular way to transplant Salanova and other head lettuces.

Due to the size of the paper pots and available in-row spacings, it cannot be used for all crops. But for those it can accommodate, the effects are significant: reduced labor costs, reduced time spent in awkward, painful body positions (increasingly important as you age as a farmer, I can tell you!), improved stands, improved weed control due to transplanting crops that might otherwise be direct seeded, and improved profitability. We regularly hear from others who use the paper chain pot transplanter that it has revolutionized their farming systems.

If you have questions about the paper chain pot transplanting system, you can visit our website and Facebook page or contact us directly.

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