October 24, 2007 | By: Carol Lea Spence

Drought, rain, heat or cold, there’s one thing a farmer can count on -- weeds. For the organic grower or the small vegetable producer who might be looking for a sustainable solution to that problem, a University of Kentucky horticulture professor has been tinkering with an answer.

Director of the College of Agriculture’s sustainable agriculture program, Mark Williams, has spent much of this past growing season modifying older farm equipment to meet the needs of farmers who practice sustainable production methods. Using two older tractors, an Allis Chalmers G designed prior to World War II and a 1964 Farmall 140, Williams welded new technology onto these workhorses of farming, creating reasonably priced cultivators suitable for small acreage production. He used the organic portion of UK’s Horticultural Research Farm to test his innovations.

“We’ve been trying to develop a production system that is appropriate for the scale that we’re doing and the type of diverse crop production that we’re growing,” he said. “We’ve taken a few of these older tractors that we can get fairly reasonably priced and work really well for our system, and we’ve brought in cultivating tools that are fairly new, so they cultivate in a different way than the tools that were originally on these tractors.”

Those original tools were designed for deep cultivation. Since their heyday, farmers have learned that turning over so much soil can have a negative impact on its structure and microbial life. 

“Deep cultivation puts you in this cycle of continuing to cultivate over and over,” Williams said. “You might be killing the weeds on the top of the soil, but you’re bringing up weed seeds from the bottom all the time. So newer cultivators take this knowledge about how we can farm in a way that’s as gentle as possible to the soil, while being as effective as possible.”

Williams belly-mounted a row of basket weeders onto the Allis Chalmers G tractor, which only penetrate a half inch into the soil and can cultivate three rows simultaneously. The Farmall 140 displays a row of spider cultivators mounted beneath the tractor, as well as a row of seeders on the back. With that array, Williams and his fellow UK farmers can seed three rows on 14-inch centers, then later go over the field with the G to cultivate between the rows and with the Farmall for in-row cultivation. The trick, he said, is the belly-mounted system that allows the driver to look straight down at the cultivators and thus get closer to the crop than could normally be done.

“To me, what this really speaks of is this idea of taking appropriate technology from the present that utilizes a lot of our scientific knowledge, like this cultivator, and applying it with the wisdom of the past, and that’s this tractor that was developed back in the 1940s,” Williams said.
Ben Abell, lead farmer for UK’s community supported agriculture project at the farm, has been working closely with Williams on the modifications. 

“With some simple modifications to the cultivation system and investment in cultivation, you can vastly increase the acreage that you’re cultivating and decrease the time it takes to cultivate that acreage,” he said.

“What we’re trying to do is set up a model that small farmers can emulate. Decreasing labor costs and increasing cultivation and harvest efficiency is one of our big goals out here and obviously this tractor increases cultivation efficiency,” Abell said, indicating the Farmall.

“We’re not setting up an agricultural system here that you have to go out to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the equipment,” Williams said. “You can use existing equipment, maybe modify it by adding cultivating tools that are appropriate for this type of farming, where we can do mechanical cultivation but in a very mindful way of how it impacts the soil.”

Those interested in learning more about Williams’ modifications can contact him at 859-257-2638.


Mark Williams, 859-257-2638