Because every farm has its own unique challenges, every farmer needs his or her own unique solutions. Sometimes, the regular old tools just don’t do the trick. This is where the farm hack comes in—where you can take old tools, or create new ones, and make them work for what you need. In celebration of Hobby Farms’ 15th year in publication, we had three of our favorite writer-farmers provide us with their favorite farm hacks.
Jesse Frost is a writer and vegetable farmer in Southern Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and young son on their farm, Rough Draft Farmstead. Read more of Jesse’s work here.
1. Wheelbarrow Harvest Cart (pictured above)
Harvest carts can be quite useful on big harvest days. Unfortunately, we’ve never gotten around to building one. Instead, we harvest into bins or totes and stack those in an old wheelbarrow to haul out of the field.
However, on sunny days, this can be hard on the vegetables, so we’ve taken to modifying our wheelbarrow to include a detachable umbrella for sun protection, along with some hooks for knives and snips. Originally, we planned to make the umbrella have a permanent spot that we could put it in as needed, but because the sun is not always in a permanent spot itself, we realized we needed to make it mobile. Using a large clip or vice, we can easily adjust the umbrella however we need.
2. Foliar Spray Strainer
On my family’s vegetable farm, we make several different foliar sprays—fermented mixtures that boost plant productivity—throughout the year. But straining these pungent mixes of compost, leaf matter and water enough to go through our poor little sprayer has always presented a challenge.
Our solution: We began to pour the fermented mix into a 5-gallon bucket lined with an old feed sack. Then we remove the feed sack and with it comes all the residue, leaving only the fermented liquid, ready to dilute. It’s a simple solution but a massive timesaver. Plus, no kitchen strainers need to be sacrificed.
3. Row Marker
When transplanting or seeding crops, it’s important to mark your rows so the distance between plants is accurate. This allows for maximum nutrient availability for each plant, ease when cultivating and a good plant canopy for reducing weed pressure. But you don’t need anything special to make these rows. Chances are you have a rake or could pick one up for cheap. All you need next is some tubing to fit over the ends.
The tubing must be a firm but flexible plastic that can slide over the tines of the rake. Lengths should be cut to no less than 4 inches. Counterintuitively, perhaps, the tubes should then be placed with the bend—as they usually come in a roll—facing away from you on the rake at your desired length.
Now, in tilled soil, decide how far apart you want your plants and drag the rake through the soil to mark your rows. Then you can either seed those rows with a seeder, or come back and mark the rows perpendicularly for spacing within the row for transplanting. It’s a simple, easy trick that will save you hours in planning and cultivation.
4. Homemade Hoe
One of my favorite tools we own is a repurposed hoe. Using an old, broken collinear hoe, I attached one medium-sized shelving bracket to the end of the handle where the blade used to be. This gives me a thin, 1-inch, maneuverable hoe to use for cultivating thin spacings. Carrots, beets, lettuce and chard all see a pass with this handy “bracket hoe.”
5. Soil-Block Maker
Over the years, we have made several large soil-block makers. The real thing is not inexpensive, and until recently, we didn’t need 4-inch blocks enough to necessitate the purchase of a 4-inch maker. This is probably the case for most home gardeners or small-scale farmers. What we have done many times over is taken old 4-by-6-inch plastic pots, attached a 2-by-2-inch block and used that to create consistent soil blocks.
Wanting a more shallow blockmaker, I recently picked up a 4-by-4-inch hollow piece of PVC with a 4-inch plug and have used that several times. The key here is not to screw the plug in so the soil will release from the PVC, but it works wonderfully and makes excellent shallow 4-inch blocks, which are not commercially available as far as I know.
Lynsey Grosfield is a full-time nature enthusiast, part-time garden writer and part-time agricultural journalist. Hailing from the bitter cold of the zone 3 Canadian prairies, she has spent the past few years in coastal zone 8 Denmark, building an edible forest garden. Read more of Lynsey’s work here.
6. Spiral Gardens
Spirals are ubiquitous in nature. The golden ratio—or phi—is a geometric constant that is found in everything from the shape of a snail shell to the way leaves are arranged on plants. Also called the divine ratio, phi is the mathematical underpinning of the spiral shape. I’ve found that using this naturalistic shape in the garden is both an aesthetically pleasing and effective way to grow a variety of plants.
I’ve used the golden ratio successfully in my herb spiral, which works by using vertical space more effectively and by creating microclimates, which can stagger harvest times or provide slightly different conditions for different plants.
In an herb spiral, hot- and dry-loving plants, such as rosemary, go at the top where there is the most radiant heat and best drainage while cool- and moist-loving plants, such as dill, go at the bottom, where they are sheltered, slightly shaded and benefit from the water runoff from the higher parts of the garden.
7. Agricultural Plastics
Despite the fact that I’m a permaculture gardener, I can’t deny the utility of agricultural plastics when I need them. Polyethylene has two vastly different uses in the garden: soil solarization and plasticulture.
Soil solarization is a passive way to kill fungal, bacterial and nematode pathogens in the topsoil. Basically, it entails covering soil in opaque plastic during the hottest parts of the growing season and allowing the heat of the sun to warm the plastic and the soil underneath to kill crop diseases and pests.
Plasticulture is the use of plastic mulch, also known as landscaping fabric, around growing crops, which reduces water evaporation from the soil and suppresses weed competition.
The mere mention of this one is enough to make most people wrinkle their noses, but few people realize that urine has a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio of about 10:1:4, comparable to a number of commercial fertilizer mixes. It’s also replete with micronutrients, such as magnesium and calcium.
According to the Stockholm Environment Institute, if we harnessed this resource properly, a family of four could produce the equivalent of a 110-pound bag of solid fertilizer in a year. Diluted urine has a low potential human pathogen load and makes an excellent fertilizer for trees, shrubs, ornamental beds and even lawns. Depending on the potency of fertilizer needed, the dilution ratio can range from 1:1 to 1:15. I like to used a dilution ratio of 1:10 for an all-purpose nutrient blend.
With subirrigation that delivers water to the plant roots from below the soil surface, it would even be safe to use for annual vegetable crops, especially nitrogen-demanding plants, such as leafy lettuces and corn.
There has been an increased interest in peecycling and other forms of ecological sanitation over the past few years, so large-scale urine-diverting programs are actually catching on in Germany, China and Sweden.
9. Plants From Leftovers
Tree planting is something of a hobby for me, and I am very interested in seedling trees in particular. In the past few years, I’ve been planting the seeds from the apples, pears, plums, peaches and apricots that I pick up at local markets. Unlike the seeds of imported apples, the fruits purchased at my local farmers market are much more likely to succeed in my region’s climate.
Planting trees from seed in the temperate zone requires some patience: They need to be cold-stratified—aka exposed to wintery temperatures—in order to break their dormancy and start the germination process, so ideally, they should be planted outdoors in the autumn or, alternatively, kept in a moist paper towel in the fridge all winter.
Seedling fruit trees have superior root systems when compared to transplanted trees from a nursery, and even if the fruit doesn’t end up being anything spectacular, they can always serve as rootstock for grafting. But you never know: There is always the possibility that you could be planting the next Granny Smith or Red Delicious!
While it may seem counterintuitive, the best thing for the summer health of the garden is the piling on of snow in the winter. Cycles of indecisive weather, characterized by freezing and thawing, are rough on root crops, bulbs in particular, and can make trees and shrubs heave and crack.
Snow is an excellent insulator and maintains a relatively stable temperature underneath. The greatest killers of plants in winter are bitter-cold winds and drying out, and snow cover protects plants from both. When the insulating snow blanket melts in spring, it also gives plants the boost of moisture they need to start making the most of the growing season.
Rodney Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist living in Franklin County, Ky. He raises pigs, chickens and cows on his family homestead, Goldfinch Farm. Read more of Rodney’s work here.
11. Homemade Stanchion
Cattle squeeze chutes are awesome, but they can be crazy expensive if you don’t have that many head of cattle, so I built a two-cow headgate out of stud wood. It’s easier than it sounds, I promise.
The basic notion is that it’s a vertical structure that accommodates a board sliding into place at a cow’s neck to “lock” in. The picture shows the basic execution: two 2-by-6s on the top and two on bottom, with the whole apparatus secured to barn beams overhead and to the dirt floor with long stakes driven into the ground.
A 2-by-4 is secured between the 2-by-6s at the bottom with a large bolt and angled so that it can pivot into place behind the animal’s skull. A piece of scrap wood is secured to the top with hinges so that it knocks down, locking the head gate in place.
If you measure correctly—and I’ll admit to some trial and error here—the neck will be free from pressure, but the animal’s head won’t fit through to back out.
12. DIY Gates
When my family first moved to our farm, we were lucky to inherit a fenced-off horse pasture, complete with a couple of rusty metal gates. Too cash-strapped to hit the farm-supply store, we dragged those gates from pasture to pasture, dropping them onto fence posts when we moved the animals. As we added animals, however, we eventually needed more gates. And peering at our bank account, we realized these gates had to be made from stuff we already had.
So here’s how I learned to make DIY gates: I looked at the closed area that needed to be open, then made it open—on a hinge.
Our fence needed a gate, so I grabbed some scrap 2-by-4s, and screwed them to the fence boards to create a box. Then with another 2-by-4 cut to length and angled at the end to fit the top inside corner and bottom adjacent corner, I screwed this long piece to both the 2-by-4 box and the fence slats intersecting its length.
Properly battened, I cut the structure on both sides at the vertical 2-by-4s with a reciprocating saw, secured my new gate with hinges and a hasp, and called it a gate. Then I swung it wide and watched my cows rush to their new pasture.
13. Panel Pig Huts
While pigs are resilient, they need protection from atmospheric assaults such as the noonday sun and pelting rainstorms. As pigs need to be rotated in and out of pastures regularly, a farmer is tasked with either hauling huts or setting up new ones every time pigs are loosed on fresh grass. After a few labor-intensive failures, we grabbed some T-posts and drove two rows of three into the ground. Then we bent two cattle panels in an upward arc, held in place by the T-posts, to which we attached the panels with wire. Finally, we secured a tarp with zip ties, tossed some straw and watched our pigs joyfully pile in.
While it’s true that two sides are open to the air, orienting openings east and west protects pigs from southern sunbeams and cold northern winds. You can also stack straw bales at one end for a makeshift wall.
14. Coop Movers
Pastured poultry is amazing. Grass, fresh air, bugs and sunshine change everything about a chicken dinner, from meat texture to flavor depth. But pasturing poultry presents some challenges. The broiler, or meat bird, is a specialized bird that grows fast and heavy on diners’ favorite cuts, and its weird, meaty body—bright white and slow-moving—requires protection against predators that find it an easy meal.
There are a variety of broiler coop plans available, all serving the purpose of safely raising chickens outdoors, but they need to be moved to fresh grass once or twice a day. For a while, lifting and shuffling the heavy coops forward was a difficult two-person job for my family, but eventually we struck on an idea that became standard: hand truck. The metal lip slides easily under a coop’s frame; you lever on the wheels’ fulcrum and pull for simplified coop moving. On bumpy soil, we slide a modified furniture dolly under the back frame to lift and roll the coops forward.
Now coop moving is a one-person job. It’s not the easiest chore, but it’s no longer the most difficult.
15. PVC Floating Feeders
Broiler chickens love to eat. It’s their claim to fame, but it also makes for a feeding frenzy: Things can get ugly fast when a bird is denied access. Long tray feeders fit the bill here, but commercial troughs can be pricey and moving them with coops can be a hassle, especially with hangry birds pecking at your legs!
Our solution is specific to hoop-style chicken pens, a common pastured-poultry structure: Head to the home-improvement store for some large PVC pipes (4-inch or wider), cut them to size, and using a reciprocating saw, slice in half along the length.
Secure chains or wire to either end—just drill holes and slide it through—then suspend two troughs from the coop’s “ceiling” so they hang 2 or 3 inches above the ground. There’s no ground interference when the coop slides forward, and birds can gather in four long lines at feeding time.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Hobby Farms.