A Burlington farmer invents machines that ease the burdens of farm labor
Written onAugust 17 , 2016
The old adage says, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but the small farmer’s credo would be a lot more specific: “A sore back will get you scheming for a better way.”
Farmers who run CSA and market operations spend a lot of time on their hands and knees, tending to crops that differ from bed to bed. For example, while carrots may require delicate hand weeding and 18 inches between rows, summer squash will hog the whole bed with one center row and only need broad sweeps of cultivating along the sides. Tomatoes, leeks, lettuces—they all require different cultivation methods. When you consider the diversity of the average market vegetable farm, a tractor attachment that addresses all of these crops is hard to find. And the big tractor companies—that sell machinery to commodity farms, where uniformity allows easy tractor access—have not shown much interest in devising machines that improve efficiency on small-scale farms.
As a result, small farms that raise diverse crops rely a great deal on human labor to plant, weed, and harvest. It is only fitting, then, that a small-scale Vermont farmer, with mechanical aptitude, has stepped in to fill the need. Rob Rock of Burlington is currently starting up a line of human-friendly, earth-friendly machines designed specifically for the small grower. If all goes well for his new company, UpstreamAg, there may be some back relief coming to local farmers soon.
Rob, 36, has been farming at the Intervale in Burlington for 13 years. Although not from an agricultural background, he started volunteering with a gleaning project while a student at University of Vermont in the late 1990s. He found himself pulled to agriculture so strongly that he took a year off from college to work on a farm full time and never went back. To broaden his ag experience, he spent a year at an organic peach farm near Los Angeles and lived in Oregon and New York City for a spell. But Vermont called him back and he settled in Burlington specifically to work at the Intervale. There, he worked at Arethusa Farm and Maggie’s Tomato Patch before starting his own Pitchfork Farm with a business partner and friend, Eric Seitz. Today he cultivates 14 acres and sells more than 80 varieties of vegetables to restaurants and stores as well as through his own CSA.
Rob says he has appreciated the innovation of farmers since his first days in agriculture.
“Right from the get-go I saw there was a feeling of just, ‘Let’s make it up,’” he says. For example, when a ground pump at Maggie’s Tomato Patch was nearly stolen one night, Rob recalled owner Spencer Blackwell finding scrap metal to weld an iron cage over the pump the next day. He was amazed at the on-the-spot ingenuity and immediately set about to acquire the skills needed to have that versatility. He took a welding course at Essex High School Adult Division and was hired right away to do odd jobs. In the winter, he worked in set design for shows in the Burlington area, which gave him skills in mechanics and engineering.
In 2006, while working at Arethusa, Rob began tinkering with farm implements in an attempt to improve the efficiency of the work. His first contraption was a pedal-powered mini cultivator that he built using funds from a SARE grant. The cultivator had basket weeder attachments that uprooted weeds between the rows, but rather than being attached to a tractor, was incorporated into a cycling system that the farmer pedaled to move down the bed.
“It worked okay,” Rob recalls. “The biggest problem in design is the human factor. You have to make sure it is comfortable. The first model really hurt the lower back, and at the time I didn’t have the skills to fix it, so I went back to the drawing board.”
Actually, he went to the computer. He taught himself (CAD) Computer-Aided Design/Drafting and presently considers it his most useful tool. “Now I would never start without first drawing on the computer. It solves problems without first burying money in materials.” He became a member at Burlington Generator, a designer’s incubator on Main Street in Burlington that has 3D printers and workspaces available to rent.
His previous implements had been built using old parts of other equipment. Rob now wanted to build something entirely new, and the project he aimed for next was an electric powered prone weeder. It allows the worker to lie face down in a comfortable position while having both hands free to weed twice as fast, which solves two problems: it’s easier on the body, and it’s more efficient. (Pedal power would have made it an even more attractive concept, but Rob found that the human energy required to run the contraption did not fit his mandate of making the job easier on the body.)
Bringing it all together was not so simple, though.
“I have a farm, so we slap stuff together all the time,” Rob says. “But to take something out of thin air and have it work was a lot bigger than I thought. You have to be incredibly tenacious to hang with something to get it right. If I hadn’t farmed and had that stubborn personality, I don’t think I could have made it work.”
He labored on the prone weeder in his free time, on and off, for four years, tweaking it until it worked to his satisfaction. The resulting machine would make any farmer who has spent hours bending, crouching, and leaning sigh with envy. There is space for two people who lie face down along cushioned bars. An open space for the head allows a worker to see the crops below and keeps both hands free to weed or transplant. The frame is on wheels that can straddle the average 4-ft. bed, and between the two workers the entire bed is within reach. The cushioned supports are infinitely adjustable to fit nearly any sized body. Powered by a rechargeable battery, the machine is moved using a lever that one pushes with the foot as needed. When powered, it uses about the same energy as a low-watt lightbulb.
Rob is clearly pleased with the final result and his farm employees are even more delighted, arguing daily over who gets to use it. He is just about ready to start marketing it, although he has not yet decided on a price. Economies of scale dictate that he would need a minimum order of at least five units to invest in materials at a low price. When asked whether he would borrow money or find investors, Rob revealed a reluctance to take any financial risks when it comes to his inventions. Like many farmers, he has had tough years. Tropical Storm Irene set him back in 2011 when he lost a good portion of his crops to flooding, and in 2013 he suffered another flood in early July that nearly wiped him out; because of the devastation, his income that year was $5,000. “I was totally broke and it really shook me up,” he says. It’s understandable why he would want to make sure he has a solid, low-risk financial plan for launching his implements. (He has so far received a grant from the Vermont Farm Fund.)
The prone weeder is only one of Rob’s inventions. He’s created an app for printing out labels that identify the details of produce delivered to stores and restaurants. He is even more animated about this product, because it alleviates a small but constant headache for farmers who have to deal with more paperwork than one might guess. Another invention, called the Digiseeder, integrates a smart phone that uses Bluetooth to communicate with a seeder attachment on a tractor. All of the year’s previous seeding information, with notes for each crop, is kept in the Cloud, which the phone calls up when needed. The phone can then be inserted into a seeding device that spreads the seeds perfectly.
He has also devised an improved lettuce spinner for mesclun greens that is easier to clean and operate than the standard, which is typically a washing machine set on the spin cycle.
Rob says that despite his tough years in farming, he will always want to do it but he is also compelled to grow UpstreamAg as a hedge against agricultural uncertainty. Ideally he would like to do both. “Good farm design has to be integrated and connected to a farm,” he insists. “How could you do either in isolation? Technology is with us now and massive farms are benefiting. It would be a shame if small farms didn’t have access to that new technology.”
But technology will never replace the deep satisfaction that comes from growing food. Despite Rob’s predilection for tech, his heart remains with farming. I asked if it would be possible for the success of UpstreamAg to consume all of his time. He replied, “I suppose it could turn into something that might take over.” Then he smiled. “But the impulse to plant crops would win.”