Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Reggie Weeder

I think I’ve found one of my least favorite jobs on the farm. I’ve done it twice now, last Thursday and this morning. It’s a tractor implement we call the ‘reggie’ weeder, which is some kind of contraction of its model name (which I’m not sure of). It’s an interesting device: behind the tractor is a seat and two handles connected to two rotating circles with semi-flexible thin metal tines coming down off of them. These tines spin and are lowered into the soil, and can be moved to the left and right with the handles. One person drives the tractor, which moves slowly up a crop bed and the person sitting on the seat operates the handles to move the rotating tines around and dislodge or tear up most of the weeds in the soil, keeping the tines away from the crops but as close as is reasonable to get the most mileage out of the operation. I find some of these contraptions and techniques hard to describe clearly, so I apologize if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

Anyway, there are several difficulties. One, the operator of the weeding apparatus has the best view of how things are going, but has no direct control over the steering of the tractor or the raising and lowering of the tines. This wouldn’t be a huge deal except that the tractor has to stay in very specific, pretty tight orbit with the line of crops; too far to the left and you can’t move the left-most weeder away from the crops, too far to the right and the left wheel of the apparatus runs over the crops. I think there’s about 10-12 inches of room, while the row of crops usually swerves around a bit. Which leads us to another problem, which is that the driver of the tractor can watch the line of crops a few feet ahead of the tractor, but not easily behind him, so the adjustments he makes are difficult to calibrate perfectly to the exact place that the weeder actually is at any given moment. He can look behind him and see how far the left wheel is from the crops, but it can be a bit disorienting. And problem number three, which is all steering adjustments have to be made very delicately and slowly, and are best done by anticipation if possible. If the tractor is turned to the right, the first thing that happens is the weeder is thrust to the left, making things worse for a little bit before they get better. And you better make your counter-adjustment back to the left ahead of schedule or you’ll find yourself running over your desirable plants.

It’s tricky! Generally, the person on the weeder will shout up to the driver things like ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ or ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘right! Right! More to the right!” or ‘stop! Stop!’ I find that if the person on the weeder is calling out too much something is going wrong. The driver should be lined up nicely and paying attention and anticipating most problems, but I think it takes practice. I started out as the weeder last week but quickly switched to driving the tractor, and while I don’t think I’ve done too much damage I know we’ve taken out a few plants here and there. I think I’m getting a bit better but the process still feels far from natural, and in particular getting properly lined up at the beginning of a row is difficult.

I wish that the implement was designed so that the operator of the weeder could both raise it up himself quickly and/or have enough room to move it enough left or right so that if the tractor gets off course he could get it out of the way of any desirable plants instantaneously, instead of having to communicate everything to the driver, who often cannot physically steer the tractor in a way to avoid wreaking havoc on a few feet of plants. So far I have just done this on the 1st year strawberries (which we will not harvest until next season), so even taking out a few plants is not the end of the world. These strawberries will send runners out through the soil over time and then will send up many more stalks next spring, filling in a lot of empty spots. Still, it would be better not to take out too many of them! I’m a little anxious about using this at some point (and I’m sure it will come) on some annual plants like broccoli that have been recently planted.

This job, done reasonably well, would save a lot of time weeding by hand or by hoe, and I’d like to get better at it, but right now I think if I have my own farm one day I’ll take a pass on buying this particular implement. I think I’d rather spend a few extra hours with a hoe, and that’s saying a lot when I’m working 55 hour weeks. Of course, I’m not sure exactly what size farm the reggie weeder would start to make sense at, but I think it would be upwards of 10-12 acres (we farm 25 acres of vegetables).


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