How the Paperpot Transplanter Changed Our Farm

Farms in varying growing conditions and contexts use their Paperpot Transplanters in many different ways—from scallion-only growing to profitably growing garlic, growing 40,000 onions per season, and using it on every crop on the farm and becoming a successful market gardener. 

In a presentation by Evan Perkins of Small Axe Farm, he shares how they use the Paperpot System in their unique context in Barnett, Vermont.

Small Axe Farm

Small Axe Farm is a one-acre, certified organic, off-grid farm in Barnett, Vermont, run by spouses Evan Perkins and Heidi Choate. Despite being in a Zone 4 area, the farm is active year-round, growing microgreens in the winter and many crops the rest of the year. 

Small Axe Farm has fertile soil similar to river bottom sandy loam soil. The farm sits on a steep hillside that was previously pastureland. 

The couple’s first experience with the transplanter was when they borrowed a unit from a local farm back in 2016. They then saw the tool’s value and how much it could significantly increase their farm’s revenue. They took their first-ever loan to purchase the transplanter and some other farming equipment the following year.

Today, Small Axe Farm has been using the transplanter for five years, consuming about an average of 800 paperpot trays per year. 

Income Changes with the Paperpot System

In 2016, the transplanter was not a part of Evan and Heidi’s production system. Both were working off-farm jobs while generating $36,000 in revenue from the farm. The couple bought the transplanter in 2017, and their farm revenue jumped to $49,000.

Since then, Heidi and Evan have made their farm more efficient while finding new ways to use the transplanter.  They saw revenue grow –  $68,000 in 2018, $120,000 in 2019, $150,000 in 2020, and $177,000 in 2021—all from farming on one acre of land. 

Although the Paperpot Transplanter itself hugely contributed to the growth of their farm, it was not solely responsible for their massive jump in income. Throughout the years, Heidi and Evan added more land and made improvements to their infrastructure and facilities, which also helped bolster their annual revenue. 

Paperpot Transplanter Advantages 

Getting the jump on spring.

With drastic temperature swings up until the supposed first planting dates in March (as low as -20°F, -28°C), Evan needs to pay close attention to the weather to take the seedlings out to the field at the perfect time. 

In March, to get a jump on spring planting, they start as many crops as possible in the paperpot system allowing seedlings to size up in their greenhouse until the weather warms up.  This strategy gives them a head start and a big jump on the market, helping boost spring sales.

Maximize rotations.

Thanks to the Paperpot System, no valuable tunnel space is wasted. Small Axe Farm has wide beds where Salanova lettuce is transplanted on the outer rows, and radishes and fast-growing Asian greens are transplanted at the center of the bed. 

The tomatoes would be ready for transplant when April comes, and the houses are reliably warm enough. By that time, the first batch of radishes and Asian greens have been harvested and a second batch will also have been planted in the same space with tomatoes on either side of the rows. 

Meanwhile, the Salanova lettuce is continuously producing and will be harvested for several cuttings as the tomatoes grow. This planting scheme allows Small Axe Farm to get multiple crops out of their beds long before picking the first tomato. 

Similarly, because their production can stop as early as mid-November, they can quickly rush in new seedlings immediately after their summer crops have run their course.

Opportunity costs.

“If you have the opportunity to do something because you’re not doing something else, you can really gain.”

Evan Perkins

The Paperpot System combined with the drop seeder makes seeding several trays of crops a swift task, which frees up a lot of Evan and Heidi’s time to do other things like take care of themselves and spend time with their family. 

Evan also attributes their income growth to how quickly they accomplish things on the farm, which opens up opportunities to do other things. 

Consistent production.
While radishes and salad turnips do very well when direct-seeded, these crops are still susceptible to loss from bad germination and pest problems out in the field, especially while still small and tender. 

Thanks to the Paperpot Transplanter, transplanting radish and salad turnip seedlings when they’re better established into the field made the crops’ production a lot more consistent and reliable. 

Reduced cultivation.
Before the transplanter, most crops grown at Small Axe Farm typically had to be cultivated at least once. But because the crops get at least a 10-day growing head start in the nursery, they rarely need to be cultivated once they’re out in the field, having outgrown the weeds before they even become a problem. 

Unique Advantages of the Paperpot System

In the region of Vermont, claytonia is a valuable, high-yielding crop that performs best when planted in the fall and overwintered. Well into the spring, it can be harvested multiple times and added to greens mixes. 

However, the challenge with growing claytonia is the length of time and the amount of space it takes up in the greenhouse throughout fall and winter. With the Paperpot System, Evan and Heidi can skip planting claytonia in the fall and instead have a money-making crop in the ground. 

Claytonia can then be planted in January, be hardened off in February, and ready for the field once it warms up. While it can easily take days to hand transplant the amount of claytonia Evan and Heidi want to plant out, it only takes them minutes with the Paperpot Transplanter. 

Paperpot Planting Technique: Interplanting 

Interplanting is a hassle-free, early-season strategy employed at Small Axe Farm, where two different crops are interplanted in the same paper chain in the same transplanter tray.

Broccoli. One good interplanting crop is broccoli, seeded 12 inches apart in 6-inch paper chains. Once the broccoli has been seeded, every other hole will then be seeded with a quick-growing crop such as bok choy or multipack radishes. 

Kale. Another crop that performs well with interplanting is kale. Because kale is more challenging to sell in the summer, Evan and Heidi strive to have kale early in the season when it’s a lot easier to sell. 

Like broccoli, kale is seeded 12 inches apart in 6-inch paper chains and is usually interplanted with either bok choy or radishes. Once the kale grows to a good size, every other plant is harvested whole, and the rest is allowed to grow as usual. This technique ensures a very high-yielding bed of kale. 

Note: While this strategy with these crops works well in Small Axe Farm’s context, farmers are encouraged to try interplanting different crops because there’s a lot of potential for growing other crops in various climates and conditions. 

Paperpot Transplanter Winner Crops

Bok choy. Planted at three rows per bed at six inches apart, bok choy is one a mainstay crops at Small Axe Farm all season long. When bok choy was direct-seeded, Evan and Heidi would completely miss the planting once they got into the busy season and wouldn’t have enough time to prep beds. But because it only takes minutes to seed trays for the Paperpot Transplanter, they now have ample time to prep their beds for transplant. They also save extra labor because they rarely ever need to weed the crop once planted out. 

Baby alliums. Generally spaced at four inches, scallions, baby leeks, and shallots are readily on hand all season long. They do exceptionally well when densely planted, which the transplanter works excellent for. 

Spinach. Even though Small Axe Farm is located up north, they have pretty blistering summers, so it’s not worth it to hand transplant a lot of spinach when the yield drops in the summer heat. With the Paperpot System, spinach can be seeded from mid-July to August and allowed to germinate in a root cellar, where the temperature stays a comfortable 50°F (10°C). 

Beets. Beets are an excellent crop to interplant with cilantro and scallions. 

Salanova lettuce. Small Axe Farm will grow up to 360 row feet of Salanova lettuce every week; that’s a lot of lettuce to transplant. When a large chunk of time is spent harvesting and washing in the busy season, Evan and Heidi wouldn’t usually have the time to hand transplant that much lettuce. But thanks to the transplanter, they can amp up their lettuce production. 

Salad Mix. These crops tend to perform better when Paperpot transplanted in 2-inch cells at five to six rows per bed. The crops take up less bed space and are consistently reliable in germination and yield. The typically used variety is Johnny’s Five-Star Mix. 

Green beans and filet beans. Although marginal as a market garden crop due to the high labor cost during harvest time, Evan was able to eliminate dead bed space by having consistent germination rates in the paper cells. Beans give good yields when planted at 4-inch spacing at three rows per 30-inch-wide bed. Instead of altogether dropping the crop, they were cut off all potential losses by transplanting. 

Green Beans Timing
Green beans have a short transplant window before they become rootbound. They can stay about 8-10 days in a warm germination area and should be ready for transplant when the plants unfurl their first two big leaves. If the beans are growing too fast, placing them in a cool place will easily slow down root growth. 

Farming on a Steep Hillside 

As previously mentioned, Small Axe Farm is located on a steep hillside. The fields average close to a 15% grade, which means the slope drops a foot and a half every ten feet or so. This also means that if a rock starts rolling on that slope, it’ll keep moving down to the bottom, which, as you can imagine, can make farming a little bit more challenging. 

Luckily, the Paperpot Transplanter is a lightweight tool that they can easily carry around their farm, which is especially helpful because the ground is covered in snow or mud for a good chunk of their growing season, making it inaccessible to vehicles.

The Challenge of Planting on Slopes. Because the tops of some of the beds are slopes, the Paperpot Transplanter tends to slip downhill when the tool is run along the beds. At Small Axe Farm, the lowest row tends to be the most difficult to plant, so Evan does that lowest row first. 

Typically, the rear end of the transplanter would begin sliding down off the bed and into the pathway, so to prevent this, he would hold the tool by the carry handle to keep it in place. Adding another nuance to planting on sloped fields also makes teaching employees challenging, and they end up filling in cells with soil by hand. 

Paperpot Transplanter Cons 

Added Cost. When Evan and Heidi first learned about the Paperpot Transplanter in 2012, they were hesitant about the tool because the paper chains come at a cost. While the chains’ cost is negligible as long as your crops are successful, the costs will begin to add up otherwise. 

Paperpot seedlings take longer to establish. In their average growing conditions, seedlings grown in soil blocks begin to take root at four days, while paperpot seedlings need about six to seven days before their roots are established. Because the seedlings are tender for longer, any slip-up in the growing conditions may result in crop loss. 

Paper buildup. Having to rake out undegraded paper cells adds to the list of tasks to do on the farm. Compared to the labor savings from the transplanter, it’s a task that Evan and Heidi are happy to do. 

Paperpot Transplanter Tips and Tricks

Shade cloth. One practice that has always been done at Small Axe Farm is placing shade cloth over newly transplanted crops in the field. While a necessity during the hotter months, it also allows for fewer waterings during sunnier days. 

Spreader frame. While keeping the spreader frame in the trays, having five sets of spreader frames allows Evan to carry around Paperpot trays in stacks of five as long as the seedlings aren’t too big. 

Drill an extra hole. Evan drilled an extra hole on the tool to turn the handle sideways, which is useful when planting into tight spacing inside tunnels to avoid having the handle hit the walls. 

Microgreen growing. Because the trays are very durable, they’re also used to grow microgreens. Using the drop seeder, seeding a tray of microgreens only takes a couple of minutes.

Opened Opportunities
Evan farms with his wife Heidi, and although they’ve had several different roles on the farm throughout the years, they have always shared the work. As their business grew, Heidi spent more and more time managing the business end of their operation, which meant she had less time out in the field. 

Because of Evan’s degenerative spinal condition and chronic back injury, he could not do much of the hand transplant work that needed to be done. Luckily, the Paperpot Transplanter allowed him to take over the task of transplanting and working with employees.

The Paperpot Transplanter has allowed Small Ax Farm to be light on their feet, adjust to the rapidly changing conditions, and quickly recover should they have any crop failures. 

Got questions?

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