Could the ‘paperpot transplanter’ be a boon for small farmers or is it just a gimmick?

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Posted Sep 7 2017 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

How about a human-powered tool that allows you to plant out 264 young plants per minute (!) without bending over? The paperpot transplanter, developed in Japan, allows you to do just that (if 264 seems a bit precise, it’s because each little paper chain contains 264 pots).

The little paper pots come flat packed, and are pulled open and filled with potting compost. Seeds are sown into the little pots – you can do this by hand, but you can also get seeding trays that will deliver a seed to each pot in one go. When the seedlings are a couple of inches tall and ready to be transplanted, it’s time to put them into the transplanter. This is the interesting bit.

Opening out a tray of paper pots.

A little metal stake is placed at the end of where you want your row of plants to be in your prepared bed. The tray of paper pots is placed into the transplanter, and the end pot is pulled down into a guide. As all the pots are connected in a chain, all the other pots are pulled with it. The end of the chain is fastened to the metal stake, then you just walk backwards. The transplanter makes a furrow, the paper pots are pulled out into the furrow and the wheels of the transplanter push the soil to cover the roots of the plants.

That’s a very rough description, but here’s the transplanter at work:

Of course, because the pots are made of paper, they just decompose into the soil. There are chains of pots that allow spacing of 2, 4 and 6 inches – so ideal for most plants, apart from those that require wider spacing, like tomatoes or peppers.

There are models of transplanter developed for heavier soils. The paper pots are organic, but larger pots are also available that are treated with fungicide and can’t be used by organic growers.

However…..

A study was carried out by a small farm in New York state, in association with Cornell University, into the efficacy of the paperpot transplanter (you can see the study here). They saw the potential benefits of a quicker way to transplant, because direct seeding always meant more labour-intensive weeding for them (they don’t use herbicides).

Filling all 264 compost-filled pots with seed simultaneously.

They had success with some crops, but not so much with others. Overall, they didn’t see much benefit over direct sowing or the usual methods of transplanting. The biggest problems they encountered were: transplanting takes more time than direct sowing, and often the directly-sown plants would out-perform the transplanted ones; if the seedlings got the slightest bit lanky / leaning over, they didn’t transplant well using the PPT; and it didn’t work too well on very heavy or stony soil.

They conceded that some small farms could see a bigger benefit – especially ones that already transplant a lot of their crops, grow a lot of cut-and-come-again greens, and have fine soil.

But – in their study, they transplanted crops that they mainly sow directly, like beetroot and spinach, and as sowing directly is quick anyway, it didn’t seem a fair comparison. They didn’t plant any of the crops that are most recommended, like onions or leeks. So it wasn’t entirely negative, and it seems that the PPT will be more valuable for some farmers than others, depending on their local situation and growing techniques.

Loading pots into the paperpot transplanter

Loading the pots into the transplanter.

This trial was carried out in 2014, so I guess that if the paperpot transplanter really could help small farmers, it would be everywhere by now, and it’s not. Anyway, you have two opinions – for the guy in the video, it seems to have changed his life, but for the small farmers in the Cornell report, not so much. If you want to give it a go, you can order a paperpot transplanter from here:

Terrateck Paperpot Mini-cell Transplanter

It’s in France, where they manufacture some of the components themselves, so they don’t need to be imported from Japan. They seem to be the only distributor in Europe, and are much cheaper than importing from the States or Japan.