Over our thirty years of farming at Terra Firma, we have continually striven to improve our farming: growing nicer crops more efficiently while making our employees’ jobs easier and reducing our carbon footprint.
In the last five years, labor regulations in California have dramatically raised the cost of employment. And since the pandemic began, it has been difficult to find enough workers. In response, we have focused on mechanizing harvest of some of our most labor-intensive crops. Until 2020, the only crops we harvested mechanically were potatoes and green beans.
Harvesting spinach and other “baby leaf” crops by hand was always time-consuming and non-ergonomic. While they are not heavy, they grow close the ground. During the last ten years, a series of innovations allowed farmers to plant the crops much more densely and harvest them mechanically. This reduced the cost to grow them while increasing the production per acre.
Perhaps surprisingly, the mechanical baby greens harvester was originally scaled for small farms. That’s because it was invented in Europe, where farm subsidies are not skewed towards large commodity growers as they are here in the U.S. That creates a market for appropriate technology to help keep small farms viable.
In 2021, we purchased a baby greens seeder and a mechanical harvester. The seeder lays over a dozen rows of seed over the top of the planting bed, which it flattens with a steel roller. The greens grow in a dense, unbroken carpet — more like a lawn than traditional crop rows.
The harvester is basically a bandsaw that cuts the greens off just above the soil and then drops them onto a vinyl belt that lifts them up into a plastic tote. It runs behind a small tractor. And unlike a human with a knife, it cuts all the leaves off evenly, which allows them to regrow nicely so they can be harvested a second and even third time.
(Because the greens harvester blade runs above the soil, it cannot be used for heads of Lettuce; we still harvest those by hand.)
A week’s worth of TFF CSA boxes requires anywhere from 800-1200 lbs of Spinach. In the “old days”, it would take a crew of 10-12 people four to six hours to harvest that much spinach. Using the spinach harvester, it takes two people about an hour — and half that time is spent attaching the harvester to the tractor and cleaning it.
Because it takes so little time to harvest the greens, we can get it done first thing in the morning when it’s still cool. This helps keep the greens fresh longer when you get them.
It’s important to note that weed control is a very important part of this system, as the harvester does not discriminate between different plants. The seed density helps crowd out weeds somewhat, but we have to take extra care to ensure a relatively weed-free field for planting. Still, our packing crew does spend extra time checking the spinach for weeds, and even then, you probably will find a few in your bag.
The complete package of seeder and harvester was not cheap, but it was unquestionably a good investment that paid for itself very quickly. Our crew is freed up to do other tasks with less uncomfortable bending over.
Mechanization is critical to the future of small-scale farming in California, but most of the new tools being developed in the U.S.– such as robot weeders — are scaled and priced for large farms. Farms like ours may have to continue to look to Europe for better options to help stay viable into the future.