Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Flail Chopper

If you are interested in 2010 CSA details, please see the previous post!

Last month I headed out to another CSA farm located just a little ways north of my place for a field day. The farmers at this particular CSA have been farming for quite a number of years and had a lot of good ideas about mulch, building the soil and lots of other things. A bunch of farmers from all over the state met up at their place, we had a tour, drank some coffee and had a really informative discussion not only about soil but also about other odds and ends. It was a very educational afternoon for me.

One pretty big area of discussion involved flail choppers. Flail choppers are pretty nifty pieces of machinery that are pulled behind tractors and used primarily for chopping corn stalks but also for other types of crops too. The chopped plants are then fed directly to animals or used as silage, another type of livestock food that’s sort of fermented. The CSA farmers were saying that they used flail choppers to hack up all the standing debris in their gardens like sweet corn stalks, sunflower stems, pumpkin vines and what have you. The chopped debris broke down faster and was thus a more efficient form of fertilizer.

After hearing all this, I got pretty excited about flail chopping my garden. I knew my parents owned one and went to their house the next day to borrow it. My dad and I drove his pick-up out to an area of his woods were he has all sorts of interesting farm equipment parked. My parents used to grow corn but over the years switched to a more grass based system and so haven’t used the chopper in quite awhile. We located the chopper and found it in working order.

We headed over to my place with the chopper hitched to the pick-up. Once we got out to the garden we hooked it up to my dad’s Allis Chalmers tractor (I borrow a lot of stuff from my parents).

A little about the anatomy of a flail chopper…(I'll try and get a picture up here soon) it’s basically a giant, high powered mower. They have a rounded rectangular body that houses banks of knives that rotate. They also have a good-sized curved metal shaft that sticks straight up off the body. As they are pulled along the knives chop up everything then it all gets sucked up the shaft were it spews into a type of wagon called a chopper box… really a pretty cool system.

Another important detail is that they run off PTO (power take off) shafts. A PTO is a bar that runs from a farm implement into the back of a tractor and provides power for moving parts. These things spin really fast and are incredibly dangerous if they don’t have a guard on them. All farm implements that run off PTO shafts come with guards it’s just a matter of replacing them when they break.

A little PTO shaft side note: One day years ago my grandpa hopped on his tractor to go do some farming with a PTO driven farm implement. A little while later he came walking back to the house in his underpants. Due to the fact that he wasn’t much of a PTO guard maintenance kind of guy the implement didn’t have a shaft guard on it. Sure enough, he got a little too close and the rapid spinning action of the shaft ripped his britches clean off him (if you ever want to launch my mom into a fit of prolonged hysterical laughter, just mention this story to her).

So I’m digressing quite a bit here…back to the chopping of the garden.

It turns out that my dad’s chopper had been slightly modified over the years. It no longer has the long shaft sticking up. So instead of sucking the cuttings up and out his chopper just obliterates everything and shoots it in all directions. I had never run a chopper before so he was giving me some pointers. At the end of his lesson he advised that due to the modifications, I should wear a helmet with a face guard.

Donning my super-hip logging helmet with the metal face guard in place I started the tractor and engaged the PTO. The chopper lurched to life as all the knives began rotating at breakneck speed. The noise the thing made was alarming, it sounded like a chainsaw but more breathy…a sort of menacing whir.

As I started driving around my garden, I noticed myself leaning decidedly to the left. This was because the main body of the chopper was to my right and the second I started chopping I knew why the helmet was necessary. Cascades of vegetable matter spewed out mostly behind me but I found that some of it came directly towards me especially if I was turning a corner.

Sweet corn shredded up nicely as did pumpkin vines, zucchini plants, cucumber vines and pretty much everything else. The kohlrabi bed had quite a few golf-ball sized plants left in it and when the chopper hit it a spray of nickel-sized debris shot out and pegged me in the back. Kohlrabi (a relative of the turnip) can kind of sting when it’s ground up and shot at you.

The only area in the garden that gave the chopper something to think about was the brussel sprout patch. Brussel sprout plants get big and some of my stalks were about the size of baseball bats and incredibly fibrous. The chopper was unable to chop all of these into fine pieces. As a result a few six-inch lengths came flying out. On pegged me right square in the face. That thing was moving! It really tagged me and I was incredibly grateful for my face guard.

A couple of times the chopper picked up small rocks and flung them far distances. At one point it dredged up a rock the size of a basketball which caused the thing to sound as if it was getting ready to explode. I had to get down off the tractor (after carefully disengaging the PTO) and extract the rock which had been hit many times by knives and appeared to be slightly pulverized.

After I was done the garden looked like a scrubby, brown field. It was amazing how in about half an hour I was able to erase pretty much all signs of seven months worth of labor. It’s also pretty amazing how the 2009 garden will be a major part of the 2010 garden in the form of organic fertilizer.