Field Day Recap: Build a Root Washer for Your Vegetable Farm
The sweltering heat did not discourage more than 50 attendees from gathering in Iowa City on July 22nd to learn about a one-of-a-kind, hand-made barrel-style root washer and to take a tour of the beginnings of something truly remarkable in Iowa-over 20,000 Keyline-designed, newly planted fruit and nut trees. VersaLand is a 145-acre permaculture research farm and homestead in Iowa City that develops infrastructure and machinery for sustainable farming operations. They host a variety of workshops and intensive courses year-round and work with select clients to design plans for land productivity (like ponds and dams and Keyline systems). In a nutshell, really cool things are happening at VersaLand.
The field day began with introductions from Linda Naeve of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), Rick Bednarek of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) who talked about NRCS’s Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), and Suzan Erem of Iowa Farmers Union. The day was then turned over to VersaLand’s “hacker-in-residence”, Grant Schultz, who started us off talking about his SARE grant which enabled him to build this root washer and post the plans on Farm Hack (which will be discussed shortly). He reminded attendees of how difficult it is for a beginning farmer to purchase equipment or to pay someone to fix equipment around a farm, which raises the question: how do you to get equipment that allows for production efficiencies at a low cost? The answer for VersaLand lies in developing and using appropriate technology.
Appropriate technology is acknowledged as using technology on a small-scale, energy-efficient and people-centered level, and is well-represented on VersaLand. As Grant says, “Everything on VersaLand is rebundled in a more innovative way.” A few years ago, Grant discovered a community of young farmers and collaborators in Hudson Valley, NY, called the Greenhorns who connected him to other fellow hackers who are actively pursuing variations in appropriate technology through a website called Farm Hack. VersaLand has completed and shared several projects on Farm Hack’s website, like their electric tractor conversion.
Which leads us to the washer. A typical pre-built barrel-style washer sells on the market for up to $6,000, depending on whether or not it includes a dryer. In true VersaLand form, they built their own instead. Attendees congregated around the root washer to listen and take notes as Grant walked them step-by-step through the building process. He discussed the basic structural requirements of a barrel-style washer, what re-purposed materials he used for construction and what equipment and tools he needed to piece it together (welding-free). Grant noted that if you know who to ask for your re-purposed parts, you could potentially build a washer at no cost but your time.
To create the barrel shape, he used eighteen (plus an extra 1/3ish of a board to get the shape just right) 8-foot deck boards and discussed which types of wood are food safe and which types weather well (cedar, spruce, black locust, white oak). The boards are anchored with three sections of a 36” double-walled poly drain culvert and triple galvanized ¾ in bolts to prevent corrosion (hot-dip galvanized bolts also work well). Bearings are secured on the outside center of the culverts. The design for rotation is appropriately simple, requiring a drive gear and a few sprockets connected an S6 frame size motor with a capacitor start to pull the roller chain that’s looped around the center of the barrel. One caster wheel on each corner of the washer keeps the machine rolling smoothly, like a like a merry-go-round on its side.
Beyond getting the machine to work, integral safety is the most important aspect of the washer. The motor is mounted high and the wire is fed through a conduit that runs to the exterior light switch box. The power is fed through a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) cord, which will help prevent any electrical injuries.
The only part that is missing from this washer is a suspended water pipe, which can be done using any food safe stiff pipe (although Grant recommends avoiding PVC and it’s questionable chemical components). All in all, this project cost under $600.
Full building plans for the root washer will be available soon on VersaLand’s Farm Hack shop. In the meantime you can feast your eyes on their Roostmobile, Garlic Clove Separator and Mobile Distillery.
Next we walked to the farm to check out VersaLand’s operation. Although the trees are in very early stages, attendees were eager to take a look. It is quite a sight to see! There are thousands of saplings contoured into the shape of the landscape, protected by custom-designed tree shelters (they’re an extension of a vine shelter Grant had specially made). VersaLand used RTK (Real Time Kinematic) satellite navigation to plot out the rows and a GPS tractor to plant. The trees are planted in a diversified pattern, as a defense against losing too many trees in the event of pests or disease.
While the trees grow, VersaLand will experiment with mulching and figure out what suppresses weeds and voles best. As Grant likes to say,”there are no perfect solutions, just good ones”. Right now they’re testing wood chips and hay. Amongst the 20,000 trees are 4,000 pawpaws. In five to ten years, if all goes well, VersaLand may have the largest pawpaw production in the United States.
Grant also briefly talked about VersaLand’s vegetable crops and pollinator planting field and showed us VersaLand’s seven 14-week old foraging pigs (Ossabaws and Kunekunes) they purchased from PFI member Jenny Vazquez in Tama.
VersaLand is proving that with enough curiosity, creativity and the drive to get things done, you can affordably do it yourself (and do it well) on a farm. To learn more about VersaLand’s operation visit their website and get in touch. There’s an upcoming permaculture workshop on October 2-5 that you won’t want to miss!