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Editorial: Yankee ingenuity at farms in Amherst and Deerfield

  • Jeremy Barker-Plotkin, who is a co-owner of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, drives a pedal-powered tractor called a Culticycle at the farm, Wednesday. Gazette File Photo


Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Yankee ingenuity is at work on farms in Amherst and Deerfield, taking care of weeds and manure with new, greener techniques.

A human-powered pedal tractor is now in use at Simple Gifts Farm in North Amherst to supplement — or perhaps even replace — conventional equipment such as gas-powered tractors. Besides cutting back on the farm’s dependence on fossil fuels, the device is giving farmer Jeremy Barker-Plotkin some needed exercise.

“If we can run the weeders with one-person horsepower, it would reduce fossil fuel use and be more sensitive in the way we do things,” says Barker-Plotkin, who has run the 50-acre farm with David Tepfer for the past 12 years. “I’m psyched about this from the perspective of someone without a lot of aerobic exercise.”

The contraption, called a Culticyle, was made by Tim Cook, who runs Green Tractor Farm in eastern Massachusetts and is a member of Farm Hack, a worldwide group of farmers who build their own equipment and share their inventions online. Cook used parts from a lawn tractor, all-terrain vehicle and bicycle to custom-build the device, which was made to fit the fields at Simple Gifts where rows of crops are 6 feet apart.

Besides organically grown vegetables, Simple Gifts produces grass-fed beef and pasture-raised eggs and pork. The farm has 32 acres leased from the North Amherst Community Farm, which was created to protect the property from development, and additional adjacent land. 

Barker-Plotkin learned about the Culticycle at a New England Berry Growers Association meeting more than a year ago, and used a $2,500 Local Farmer Award from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to buy one from Cook.

Barker-Plotkin is satisfied with the the performance of his Culticyle, which he began using in late May, though he recognizes it “is a bit of a risk — it’s an untested concept.”

It took him about 90 minutes to weed one-third of an acre, and the job could take about six days for the two acres of crops where the device is used in place of a lightweight, 30- to 35-horsepower tractor that burns about five gallons of gas. Over a 20-week growing season, the Cultivator could save about 100 gallons of gas.

“It worked well, but it was a fair amount of effort,” says Barker-Plotkin. “It’s definitely slower than doing it with a tractor. But it’s doing the job we needed it to do.”

Meanwhile, Bar-Way Farm in Deerfield is using a new $5 million methane digester to produce electricity from a blend of manure produced by its 500 Holstein cows and 50 tons of organic food waste trucked in daily. That is blended in a hydrolyzer where the anaerobic digestion begins at 105 degrees, and the mixture is pumped into a 700,000-gallon, oval-shaped concrete tank which is capped 11 feet above the ground with two rubber domes that collect methane.

From there the material goes into a separator which produces about 3 percent solids, for use as cattle bedding, and liquid digestate, to spread on fields.

Once Bar-Way is connected to the grid, farmer Peter Melnick plans to sell about 85 percent of the 1 megawatt of electricity generated daily, with the rest used to power the digester and farm.

One benefit for neighbors is reduced odor, because the methane is removed and contained before the organic fertilizer is spread on the 700 acres the farm uses for cropland off Mill Village Road. 

“I used to import my fertilizer and my oil for heat,” says Melnick. “Now I’ll be able to make all my own. That’s what sustainability is all about. And we’re taking care of the waste locally and using it for a lot of good things.

Melnick used a combination of federal and state grants, as well as loans, to pay for the digester, which he believes is ideal for a dairy farm. “Taking care of it is like feeding cows’ stomachs,” he says.” You’ve got to watch out for bugs, and you’re trying for maximum production, but you have to be careful about what you feed cows. A dairy farmer understands that. … I call it a balance of nature, with man’s technology also at work.”

We call it old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity in the 21st century by farmers who are willing to think outside the box.