Dec 20, 2010
Grower’s machine cultivates soil

Over the years, John Shenk noticed something about his fellow strawberry growers, especially the younger ones: They’re reluctant to make the leap to mechanization.

They seem fine using a rototiller, but don’t seem to appreciate the efficiencies they can gain by using more advanced machinery. Shenk would like to see more young farmers design their cropping systems with mechanization in mind.

That certainly makes sense for somebody like Shenk. The owner of Shenk’s Berry Farm near Lancaster, Pa., he’s always enjoyed tinkering with farm machinery. That’s what led him to design the Hillside Cultivator, which he sells to other growers.

Shenk, 55, has been farming for more than 30 years. He has a wife, Linda, two sons and a daughter. His love of tinkering must have rubbed off on his sons, who went to college for mechanical engineering.

Shenk got the idea for his cultivator during North American Strawberry Growers Association meetings, where he learned about “rolling cultivator gangs.” About a decade ago, he started experimenting with that technology on his own strawberry farm, seeking a way to cultivate his soil and control weeds without disrupting his plant rows. He ended up designing the Hillside Cultivator, so named because his farm is on the side of a hill and he needed something that could adjust to the vagaries of working soil on such uneven terrain.

Phil Johnson, a friend and strawberry grower in Maryland, saw an early version of Shenk’s cultivator and encouraged him to start selling it commercially. Johnson also gave him a good piece of advice: Listen to customer needs and adapt accordingly.

Shenk started Hillside Cultivator Co. in 2003, when he began selling cultivators commercially. He’s tweaked the design several times since then, based on customer needs and his own experiments. He works with a welder to manufacture the cultivators, which are assembled in his farm shop. Several models are available, including one designed for blueberry rows.

Three-quarters of his buyers are strawberry growers, but Shenk has sold a good many cultivators to organic growers, too, who need all the help they can get controlling weeds, he said.

Hillside Cultivator models can cultivate crops on ridges, raised beds and plastic mulch. They’re constructed of two heavy channel irons, which form a track for two sliding sub-frames. Hydraulic cylinders attached to the sliding frames allow for rapid adjustment. Cultivating tools mounted on the sliding frames include rolling cultivators, disk gangs, coil tines and an optional fertilizer attachment, according to Hillside Cultivator Co.

The rolling cultivators are effective at uprooting weeds and cutting through plant residue. They roll soil toward the edges of the plastic, covering small weeds. They’re also less likely to tear up plastic than a tine cultivator, and can cover loose edges of plastic with soil, according to the company.

The coil tine, mounted between the front and rear gangs, breaks through compaction or dry soil. Disk gangs are used for strawberry renovation. Each gang is mounted on a slotted plate for adjusting the angle of aggressiveness. The hydraulic adjustment feature is particularly useful for cultivating close to the edges of plastic mulch. The machine’s overall adjustability can compensate for different crop sizes and changes in how plastic is laid, according to the company.

Matt Milkovich





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