By Lindsay Courcelle
Have you thought much lately about the process your food goes through from seed to plate? Let’s take lettuce, for example. Many farmers start their head lettuce in a greenhouse, placing individual seeds into plastic trays filled with soil. The trays that we use have ninety-eight “plugs” or cells and we put one lettuce seed in each one, making it possible for the roots to spread out only as far as those small cell walls. This makes for strong, healthy lettuce seedlings with contained roots.
After the seeds germinate, the lettuce spends another few weeks in the greenhouse, growing to be a couple inches tall. At that point, each cell of soil, roots, and baby lettuce is pulled out of the tray and transplanted into a prepared garden bed, where it grows to full size in another four weeks. All steps in this process must be done every week or two in order to have lettuce to sell each week at the market, barring problems with pests, disease, and weather.
Farming requires constant evaluation of efficiency in order to be profitable. Sometimes, it is easier for an outsider to see the inefficiencies, as was the case for us when our friend Pete Gile decided to volunteer with us in our second year of farming. As he witnessed the tasks we struggled with, Pete would question whether there was an easier, smarter way for the work to be done.
Pete and his engineer father, Rick Gile, started their business, Two Bad Cats, in 2009, launching a line of ski boot warmers and subsequently storage racks for Keurig coffee K-cups. As Pete became interested in farming, Rick’s own interest grew, and the two decided to take on projects to help small farmers in the region.
Pete and Rick work side-by-side with farmers to develop creative tools and small equipment. We use two of their most popular tools in our lettuce production. One tool is a plug tray plant popper, which helps us to quickly pull lettuce seedlings out of the trays when we are ready to transplant. This tool saves us time and just as importantly, reduces frustration in a task that can feel tedious.
Another tool, the plant spacing dibble wheels, ensures that we have proper spacing between plants. We quickly push the wheel down the garden bed, and it creates a small indentation where each lettuce seedling should be planted. This takes the guesswork out of the task. It also means we fit the exact number of heads of lettuce per bed as projected, so that our yields are as projected as well.
Two Bad Cats has more projects in the works, including a harvest hand truck that fits between beds, helping to reduce the burden of lifting heavy boxes of squash or peppers; a tine weeding hand tool; and a Jacuzzi spa vegetable washer. They often start with a need or problem that a farmer has shared and then throw around ideas until they come up with a prototype. Farmers test the prototype and give feedback. More models are made until the product is in a marketable state. Then comes the hard work of turning it into a product that can be sold on the open market with inventory, shipping boxes, sales literature, and firm prices.
When asked their favorite part, both answered that the farmers make their job fun. Rick describes farmers as “hard working, smart in their needs, open with their suggestions, flexible to try different things, and happy people in their lives.” Two Bad Cats has worked closely with Dutchess Farm and Alchemy Gardens on tool development, and have sold their products to over a dozen other farms, including a few around the country and as far away as New Zealand.
Pete says, “I now have an incredible amount of respect for how much work goes into even the simplest leaf of lettuce. If we can help make farmers’ work a tiny bit easier or more efficient then that makes my job even better.” Thanks to Two Bad Cats, Rutland County’s farms are becoming more efficient and profitable, one new tool at a time.
Lindsay Courcelle and her husband Scott own Alchemy Gardens. Learn more atwww.AlchemyGardensVT.com. For more on Two Bad Cats visit: http://www.twobadcatsllc.com.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.