Frequently Asked Questions
Is this system allowable on a certified organic farm?
After a 12-year period in which the acceptance of the paper chain pots (in the United States) was variable from certifier to certifier depending on how different certifiers were interpreting the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) rules (which did not present clear guidance on the use of paper pots), the NOP declared paper chain pots to be prohibited, starting in 2019.
Here is a brief history of the issue in North America:
We originally asked to use the paper chain pots on our certified organic farm back in 2005 for the 2006 season. Our certifier spent a long time deliberating but eventually decided to allow the paper pots on our farm based on two places in the organic rule that mention paper. Although the paper chain pots contain synthetic resins, our certifier's reasoning was that since the NOP rule allows the use of paper (that may contain synthetics) to be used as mulch and as feedstock in compost, that they felt the use of the paper pots was acceptable. Over time, this justification was shared and agreed to by many other certifiers...but not all of them. Some certifiers did not agree with this justification and decided to NOT allow the paper pots to be used. Because of the discrepancy among certifiers on the use of the paper chain pots, the NOP stepped in to make their official ruling.
What To Do Now?
Thanks to my efforts, the manufacturer in Japan is well aware of the issues and what is at stake in terms of the marketplace for the paper pots in North America on organic farms. In late 2017, they initiated the research and development process to create an alternative paper pot that would meet the requirements of the NOP. There is currently no timetable on an alternative paper pot that would be more universally accepted for use on organic farms nor is there any guarantee that they will be successful. I personally believe that there will be a functional paper chain pot planting system for certified organic farmers in the future...but it may take time to develop, test, and bring to market. As the exclusive representative and importer of the paper chain pot system into North America, you will hear about new developments and new products from Japan first from Small Farm Works.
However, I also believe that the existing paper pots should be allowed for use on organic farms! There are other synthetics that have been deemed acceptable, not to mention the allowance of hydroponic systems. The resins used in the paper chain pots are non-toxic and inert. Given how revolutionary this technology is on small farms, I believe the benefits far, far outweigh any issues with the resins being synthetic and not naturally derived.
There is a petition process to follow to try to convince the NOP to reverse their ruling. We are pursuing this option and are asking for support and involvement from anyone who wants to help. If you have questions, comments, or recommendations, please let us know.
How much does shipping cost?
Shipping cost depends on your location and the size of your order. We normally ship via UPS and rates depend on the number, size and weight of all the packages. The cost to ship an order that includes 100 of the bottom trays (10 cases of 10 trays) is much different than shipping an order with only 10 trays (1 case of 10). We are happy to generate a shipping quote. For large orders we most often ship freight. What makes an order "large enough" to ship freight is most often the number of plastic bottom trays. The bottom trays are, pound for pound, the most expensive thing to ship via UPS. An order of 60 trays or more is typically cheaper to ship on a pallet than via UPS.
Can you ship to Canada? What about other countries?
We have a growing number of Canadian customers and are happy to serve everyone in North America.
We can ship anywhere in the world, in theory. In practice, the shipping costs for an individual order to places in Europe, Australia, or other continents is often prohibitively expensive... with the shipping costs sometimes being more expensive than the items themselves. However, in addition to shipping from our location in Wisconsin, we can also make arrangements for orders to be shipped directly from Japan, depending on which is more economical and efficient.
How does the paper do in the greenhouse environment?
The system is designed for commercial vegetable and flower growing. It has been engineered to stand up to conditions in a greenhouse. You can grow slow-growing things like onions in the paper pots for as long as needed before transplanting.
Can the paper pots be used on a heat mat?
Yes. I have used the paper pot flats on heating mats for some crops and it has worked very well. Remember that the paper pots are used in conjunction with a plastic bottom flat so there is never any contact between the paper and a heat mat.
How long until the paper starts to disintegrate?
I was worried about the paper’s durability when I first encountered the system and considered adopting the technology. Again, however, this system has been well engineered for commercial vegetable and flower production. The paper chain pots always survive the greenhouse and transplanting. In the field, the paper is usually gone by the end of the season but this will depend on how biologically active your soils are.
How long does it take to seed one flat?
That depends on whether you’re doing it by hand or with the optional seeders. Putting seeds into the cells by hand takes no longer per cell than any other type of hand seeding into conventional flats. The Whole Flat Gravity seeders that seed a whole flat at a time speed things up amazingly. I estimate that I seed a 264 cell paper pot flat in as little as 30 seconds (for round seeds) to a minute or a bit more for angular seeds.
When seeding things like alliums or spinach, several seeds per flat can sometimes get stuck in the seeder plate holes (that are sized to singulate seed so are just large enough to receive one seed). If some seeds get stuck, the seeder can be tapped with a finger or pencil and most will then fall out. A few stubborn seeds may need to be poked through with a sharp pencil. This varies by specific variety as some varieties have slightly larger or smaller seed than others.
There is also the time to open the paper pots and secure it on the metal frame. The set-up does not really take much time at all. You just slide the opening rods into the sleeves on either side of the compressed paper pots and pull them open and secure them on the opening frame. One nice bit of time savings with this system is that there is never the time involved in washing plastic cell flats.
How do the paper pots hold water?
Water is held in the cells by the potting material because the paper pot cells are open on the bottom. It is best to use a peat and compost based potting mix. Given the small cell size, I was initially concerned that I would have to water these flats very frequently to avoid them drying out. My experience has been that I do not need to water these any differently in the beginning as compared to conventional flats but as I get closer to transplanting, and the plants are sizable, the flats do need to be monitored and watered more often given the small cell size.
How long does it take to plant 100 row feet?
I transplant paper chain pot flats in 30 seconds to a minute. The distance a flat measures in the field (after the paper pot chain is laid end to end) depends on the in-row spacing. The 2” spaced pots are 46’ long. The 4” spaced pots are 88.6’ long. The 6” spaced pots are 131’ long.
What’s the set up time to get one flat ready to go? How is the transition when you run out of plants mid field? Do you just pop another flat in and go? Is it hard to line up with where you left off?
Set up is easy and quick. Set a flat on the platform, lift up the front edge of the flats to flip down the ramp (so that the transplants can ride up over the edge of the plastic flat), separate the first row of cells and pull them down into the furrower, and push a narrow stake (I use a long old screwdriver) through the first cell to hold it in place. As soon as you have pulled a foot or so, the stake can be removed and carried with you so that you do not have to walk back and retrieve it later. My old screw driver conveniently fits into the hollow handle of the transplanter. Alternatively, you can skip using a stake and simply press the plants into the soil and pack a bit of soil around them and this will hold the end in place as you start to pull your transplanter.
When you come to the end of the first flat, keep the transplanter in place, and set in a new flat and repeat the above procedure and on you go. Some people find it handy to have several narrow stakes on hand. It is also possible to stop after pulling the transplanter several feet, retrieve the stake, and then proceed so that you have the stake with you when you get to the end of the first flat. For many years, I was often transplanting with my two young sons and they had fun running flats or stakes to me as I need them.
If I am planting into beds, I can keep things aligned and straight based on my tractor wheel tracks. If I am not planting into beds, I often run a string for my first row to ensure that my first row will be straight. I base subsequent rows off the first row.
How is it that there are 264 cells in all the standard paper chain pot flats, regardless of the distance between plants (2", 4" and 6" spaced pots)?
The additional paper that makes for longer in-row spacing is wrapped around each cell. As the paper chain is planted the extra paper unwinds as the plants go through the transplanter. This can be hard to understand and visualize until you see the transplanter in action.
It sounds like the whole set up works best on loose ground that flows well. What problems have you seen on heavy ground? Does the soil need to be dry to use this? Do the plants need to be at a certain moisture level to plant?
All farming equipment works best in loose soil that flows well! I have a moderately heavy silt loam soil. A bed tilled as I would for direct seeding small seeded crops (such as carrots) enables the transplanter to perform at its best. If there are excessive clumps and debris the transplanter might not bury the transplants consistently. If this is the case, I may have to go back down my rows and cover up here and there. I consider this a very small price to pay for how easy and quick the transplanting is accomplished. The soil needs to be as dry as would be needed to use a seeder or cultivating tool to prevent soil from clumping and sticking to the furrower. I water each flat before transplanting just like I do with all transplants. Watering makes the paper pots and chain heavier which allows it to run into the ground better.
How do you control depth?
In essence, depth control is all taken care of: no adjustments necessary. That said, the wheels on the transplanter can be moved up or down to adjust depth. In practice, the wheels are most often kept fully contracted. There are also additional, optional furrowers of varying depths that can be purchased and interchanged with a few bolts. These deeper furrowers are most often used when transplanting the deeper paper pot flats (CP304, CP305) but they can help achieve better results in heavy clay soils.
How do you mark your bed when you use this? In the videos, it looks like the person pulling is walking in the bed top and backwards. We would need the planted rows to be relatively straight for future cultivations.
I sometimes just run the transplanter down beds and use the edge of the bed (wheel tracks) as a visual guide. Other times, I run a string down the bed to ensure that I am running straight. There are certainly many ways to mark beds for transplanting, such as attaching clamps on the rear of a rotovator or a using a rolling dibble. There is an optional attachment to scratch a line in the soil to mark the next row. The two-row unit sets two rows perfectly apart and parallel.
As for walking on the beds, the transplanter handle is hollow and a rod can be inserted to permit two people on either side of the bed to pull the transplanter while walking in the wheel tracks on either side of the bed.
In addition to walking backwards while pulling the transplanter, one can turn and walk forward and pull the transplanter behind you with one hand (such as one would when pulling a child's wagon).
The video on your website and on YouTube shows the transplanter being pulled in a furrow. Why is this and can the transplanter be used on a flat bed?
The video in question was taken in Japan where they plant scallions in trenches in order to achieve a long blanched stem (such as some U.S. growers do with leeks). The transplanter can be used on any type of tilled bed in addition to a trench.
Are there any parts that you can imagine wearing out and needing to be replaced?
I have not observed any undue wear and tear and deterioration on my transplanter, in use since 2006. I have had one customer order a new furrow-maker after about 7 years of intense use.
Can I mount paper pot transplanters behind a tractor on a tool bar or beneath an Allis Chalmers G?
While this is technically feasible (with some creative engineering and welding skills), I question whether it would be satisfactory. First, I would worry about performance and durability. The hand-pulled units have not been engineered to be mounted on a tractor and suffer the stress of hanging off a tool bar and being "jerked" round by hydraulics during raising and lowering. Furthermore, unless your beds are exceptionally level and soil conditions uniformly ideal for the system, I think a lot of time would be spent going back over the rows. Also, the paper chains are either 46', 89', or 131' feet long so, if pulled by a tractor, you would have to stop for "reloading" quite often.
I think there are ways to create a tractor mounted version but the current system is not well-suited to this application in my opinion. That said, I have one customer who mounted a 2-row unit to a lay-down workstation (to a machine called a "Drangen" made in Europe). This piece of equipment goes quite slow and he mounted it in such as way that he has access to the very rear of the transplanter while lying down on the Drangen. This allows him to manipulate the part of the transplanter that is creating the furrow and burying the plants.
The manufacturer in Japan is experimenting with tractor-mounted version and we will either make those available in the U.S. once they are commercially available OR we will manufacture something ourselves. Stay tuned!
Since the whole system seems dependent on the paper pots – what do you know about the company that makes them? Are they produced directly by the company who makes the transplanter? Can we count on the paper pots being available long term and prices staying steady?
The parent company in Japan is a very large business and they have been making paper pots for several decades. The paper chain pot system has been around for over 20 years. I have no reason to anticipate that the system will be abandoned given the number of growers using them in Japan...and the growing number of people using them in North America and around the world. Indeed, the company would someday like to build a paper pot factory in the U.S. The company first got started with paper pot technology for sugar beets. Sugar beet processing is the company's primary business.
As for pricing, as with anything, there are never absolute assurances of stable pricing. That said, prices have remained steady for all the years that we have been importing them.
is it possible to transplant carrots in the paper chain pots?
The slow germinating carrot (that does not compete well with weeds) is high on many grower's list to transplant. It is possible to transplant carrots with the paper chain pot system. I cannot strongly recommend it, however, because it is a tricky thing to pull off well. If you want to give it a go, what I recommend is determining exactly how long it takes carrots to germinate in a flat on your farm (using whatever standard methods you employ: a germination chamber is ideal). Knowing the precise days to germination will then allow you to seed carrots and then wait until 24 or 36 hours BEFORE they germinate to transplant. In essence, you are planting primed, ready to burst seed. What makes this tricky is that you might not have ideal conditions for tilling and transplanting when the carrots need to go in the ground. That said, this method can help prevent stunted and forked carrot roots which can be common if you wait until after the carrots germinate to transplant.
Although we grow lots of carrots on our farm, we have not opted to transplant them. One of the primary reasons is that we desire a much thicker stand of carrots that can be achieved with the paper pot system (which results in 2" between carrots in a single row). We aim for a band of carrots in order to maximize yield period row-foot and make harvest more efficient.
is it possible to plant garlic in the paper chain pots?
Many people have asked me this over the years. One of our primary crops is garlic so we are highly motivated to improve efficiencies. While I have been tempted to give it a shot, I feel that, based on my experience in my climate, garlic is not particularly well suited to the paper chain pot system for the following reasons: (1) putting individual garlic cloves into the paper pot flats would be quite time consuming and I am not convinced they would all stay seated in the paper pots during transplanting, (2)...