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From Issue #22 August 1, 2013

Hoe Down

Small-scale farmers have turned to high tech to invent the tools they need.

By Cara Parks Twitter icon 

A farm grows in Brooklyn — and Queens.

When Eliot Coleman started out as a small-scale farmer in 1966, he had little more than a small rototiller and some hoes. At a loss for tools designed for his needs, Coleman began modifying them himself, beginning with one of his hoes. “I took it into the shop, bent the shaft a little bit, cut parts off or welded parts on, and the next thing I knew I had a much better hoe.”

The collinear hoe remains popular, a cult favorite in the small-farming and large-gardening communities. It’s designed to let the user stand erect while using the implement more like a broom, and its compact head allows for accuracy in small spaces. Traditional, heavy hoes require the user to bend over uncomfortably and are designed for less precise work.

Eliot Coleman went on to write The New Organic Grower and other books that have become canonical texts for small growers — roughly, those with under five acres. He says the last time anyone made tools for that scale of operation was the 19th century, when such farms abounded.

“There are two other 19th-century industries that are still around today, and it’s hand-thrown pottery and hand-woven rugs. The hand-throw potters don’t compete with Tupperware. The hand-woven rug people don’t compete with Burlington Mills. But the small vegetable farmer is competing with the big vegetable farmer,” Coleman says.

For nearly half a century, Coleman has been inventing tools and discovering efficient products made around the world. Recently, he has agitated for more farmers to work collectively to, as it were, build a better hoe. “I’ve always noticed that when you get a bunch of small farmers together and they start kicking an idea around, you can make unbelievable progress,” Coleman says. “That’s why it was a good idea to get a lot of the tool geeks together. The farm-tool geeks.”

Growing new tools

Fewer than two percent of Americans are full-time farmers today, but an idealistic image of farming remains intact from the country’s earliest days. Thomas Jefferson declared that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God.” While office drones may dream of a contemplative life of breaking sod in nearly unbroken silence, the reality of farming is that it has always been and remains hard work.

Eager farmers have turned into innovators as they try to use technological know-how to obviate some of the necessary hard work while improving efficiency, and thus make small farms potentially viable, either as a stand-alone business or as part of the way a farmer makes a living.

At Coleman’s suggestion, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture has been holding meetings of tool geeks for the last two years. Called the Slow Tools Project, it connects engineers with farmers to come up with appropriately scaled tools. Stone Barns is heavily involved with nurturing and training young farmers, whom Jill Isenbarger, the Center’s executive director, describes as “modern-day Thomas Jeffersons” combining science, technology, and philosophy with agriculture. She wants the program to underscore the role that innovation plays in small farming and fight the public perception of farming as a throwback profession. “It’s not just, ‘Come here and learn to raise a chicken on some grass,’” she says. “We are teaching them to weld, we are teaching them to tinker.”

The Center’s head grower, Jack Algiere, is working on an electric tractor with the Small Tools team. Its current incarnation is tucked into a workshop under the Center’s bustling main buildings. A jumble of parts and ideas, the prototype is meant to be “cut up and Frankenstein-ed around a little bit,” but its basic shape is coming into focus, drawing on existing industries for components: the transmission and motor from a zero-turn lawnmower; durable trailer hitches; and basic tractor wheels.

While the young farmers Algiere meets usually don’t have the early exposure to machinery that he grew up with — changing the oil on a car and other basic mechanic work — he’s not worried about their changing skill-set. “We understand plug-and-play, and that’s what our revolution is,” he says of the next generation of farmers. “That is what new technology is. It’s smart motors, wireless remote things. Batteries, motors, not engines.”

Small growers know what technology they need, but despair at finding tools both compact and cheap enough. The lithium batteries now used in electric cars, for instance, could give a solar tractor enough horsepower to pull a farm implement, but they are currently prohibitively expensive. “It’s at our fingertips,” Algiere says of this next level of technology. However, manufacturers must be convinced that by diverting even minor resources toward developing small-scale tools, they would be rewarded with a large enough and supremely loyal set of customers.

Some businesses are already catering to this small but significant niche market. (About one percent of farmland in the United States is made up of farms under 10 acres.) Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which operates near Coleman’s farm in Maine, is a leader in the small-scale tool field. Adam Lemieux, Johnny’s tools and supplies manager, has watched interest in this field expand. “In the last 10 years there’s been a lot of push toward scale-appropriate tools for small commercial growers,” he says. To respond to this newfound interest, Johnny’s aims to design new tools that can revolutionize the way some small farms operate, even if it means, as he says, “reinventing the wheel.”

Recently, the company began selling a small greens harvester, “a tough nut to crack,” according to Lemieux. With early versions of the tool, small salad greens became wedged together as they were cut and didn’t drop into a harvesting basket. Coleman and Lemieux tinkered with the idea off and on for years, until a teenage farmer from Tennessee spoke with Coleman and decided to take a crack at the problem.

Jonathan Dysinger’s design uses two stainless-steel bandsaw blades that were designed to cut through frozen boneless meat. It turns out this form of blade has scallops just deep enough to tackle the average salad-green stem. He also added a brush that pushes the greens through the blades and into the waiting basket. Dysinger’s Quick Cut Greens Harvester is a huge time-saver for small farmers.

Dysinger’s Quick Cut Greens Harvester.

Lemieux feels that it’s not a shortage of creativity but a shortage of market possibilities that inhibits most small-farm tech. Some farms are victims of path dependence, having adjusted their growing methods to work with outdated tools. Others are just uninformed about their options. “The collinear hoe is a good example of that,” he says. “It’s one of our customers’ favorite products, and it’s my favorite hoe for sure. It kind of does everything, and it does it very, very well. But you still don’t see them. You go into True Value and you’re not going to see one.”

Cool heads prevail

The USDA has found, unsurprisingly, that profitability is intimately tied to farm size. Small farms wage a daily battle against economies of scale, and poorly scaled tools can be a major impediment. “Because we don’t have tools that are appropriately sized we buy a more expensive, larger thing that doesn’t [work] as well as something we can envision,” explains Algiere.

Groups like Farm Hack, are attempting to connect farmers and engineers, both online and on the ground, to create new tools and solutions, but the small-farming community is always looking for more know-how. “There’s a lot of opportunity for young technical guys to get into that part of agriculture — making tools as a support mechanism,” says Algiere.

Ron Khosla left the technology industry to farm with his wife in New Paltz, New York. He focused on solving inefficiencies in an effort to compete as much as possible with conventional growers. Khosla approached day-to-day farm problems with a “better living through technology” philosophy.

One early success was the CoolBot, a controller that allows farmers to create walk-in coolers using a 10,000-BTU air conditioner, the type that dots New York high rises during summer months. Using a series of sensors, the controller tricks the air conditioner into lowering the temperature well below where an AC unit normally shuts off, while also keeping the unit from icing over. While it sounds simple enough, this device can save a small farmer thousands of dollars. Khosla says he has sold over 12,000 of the controllers. (The CoolBot is $299 plus the price of an air conditioner, whereas traditional coolers run in the thousands.)

He also worked on other energy-efficient techniques, such as using warm water piped under plants to warm seedlings in a greenhouse. Khosla estimates that this system reduced his fuel outlay by 90 percent, a savings of about $2,000 a month for the 1,500-square-foot greenhouse.

However, Khosla, who has gone on to serve as an advisor to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, realized that the greatest impact came from making his own labor more efficient by ruthlessly tracking metrics on nearly every aspect of plant cultivation. “We went from taking 25 seconds per plant to working and working and working until it was 1.3 seconds per transplant,” he says. That type of efficiency helped make his farm profitable. “Farming is a count-your-seconds activity,” he says.

On the other hand, there is a middle ground between impractical time expenditures and a single-minded focus on the bottom line. Josh Volk, who often begins his days with a 26-mile bicycle ride to Our Table Cooperative just outside of Portland, Oregon, designed and oversees its vegetable growing operation. Volk’s background is in mechanical tool design, which he enjoyed but ultimately found unfulfilling, along with his office in a “concrete bunker.”

Although he has helped set up electric tractor systems for other farms and currently uses a two-wheel tractor at Our Table, he spent years running a farm using only hand tools. (To meet the needs of small farms, he also designed a modified garden cart, a few of which are in heavy rotation at Our Table.) Volk believes that design should focus on expanding the abilities of the user. Focusing on the economic outcome? “Those are two separate goals,” he says. “I think the better goal is to improve ergonomics and to let people do things they weren’t able to do before.”

One taste of the ethereal blueberries growing along his vegetable patch — Platonic ideals of the fruit, all mellow sweetness waiting to burst through a thin skin — suggests he might be on to something.

The Brooklyn Grange’s rooftop gardens.

Sunbathing

Brooklyn Grange, nestled in the borough’s recently revitalized Navy Yards, is an example of how these tools can coalesce into one high-performing operation. Immaculately dressed young men and women jump on and off the elevator that eventually leads to an Oz-like shift from drab industrial flooring into rows of Technicolor flowers, emerald salad greens, and multi-hued carrots. Housed on two rooftops — one in Brooklyn and one in Queens — the two-and-a-half-acre farm has sold more than 40,000 pounds of vegetables, according to its founders.

On one side of the roof, the temperature of a repurposed shipping container is regulated by a CoolBot. A shed standing in relief against the New York skyline houses a greens harvester and a collinear hoe, while a few yards away stands a greenhouse, one of the first of its kind for a rooftop garden. (The greenhouse was specially designed by another engineer-turned farmer, Greg Garbos of Four Season Tools, who formerly worked for Ford.)

Ben Flanner, one of the farm’s co-founders and its head grower, has been running the consistently profitable farm for four years. The 32-year-old has a degree in industrial engineering, “which is processes, time, and motion,” he says. In addition to the tools in use here, the Queens location boasts a solar-powered forced-air composting system. The group is also hoping to invest soon in some tilthers, which quickly and efficiently mix soil additives into the top few layers of soil and break up roots, like a shallow tiller (“a fantastic product that is grossly overpriced because it’s not made offshore,” says Lemieux).

Despite the incredible ingenuity of farmers today, many gaps remain to be filled, especially by those with technical and engineering skills. An influx of ergonomic, properly scaled, and energy-efficient tools designed specifically with the needs of small farms in mind would help growers across the country survive in a difficult market.

“I think that some of the biggest manufacturers are going to realize that there’s a market for this,” Lemieux says. And of course, farmers will continue to help one another. After all, Thomas Jefferson also said, “I think it the duty of farmers who are wealthier than others to give those less so the benefit of any improvements they can introduce, gratis.”

Photos by the author.

Cara Parks has written for the New York Times, Slate, and The New Republic. She is the former deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and teaches as an adjunct professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Next stop: Shanghai.

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