Slow Tools Project

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= connects engineers with farmers to come up with appropriately scaled tools.

URL = http://www.stonebarnscenter.org/farm/news/slow-tools-fast-change.html

"bringing together a small group of engineers and leading farmers to design, build and make available through open-source systems a host of new tools"


Description

"Nearly all of the tractors and their implements used by small farmers disappeared during the rise of the current global industrial farming system, beginning in the 1960s,” says Barry Griffin, a design engineer. Today, the market for small-scale farm equipment and tools simply doesn’t exist—and that puts small farmers at a disadvantage.

That’s why Griffin is teaming up with Stone Barns Center on the Slow Tools Project, a partnership that is re-imagining and re-inventing tools to bring appropriately scaled, lightweight, affordable and open-source tools to the swelling ranks of young farmers.

“The re-emergence of small-scale farming has created a need for small tractors and other tools and implements capable of performing traditional and newer farming tasks more efficiently and ergonomically,” says Griffin. Today’s small farmers simply cannot purchase the equipment they need to work a 30-inch greenhouse bed, for instance. They end up having to buy standard, cumbersome pieces and adapt them for their needs, hurting efficiency and very often their backs.

The Slow Tools project is bringing together a small group of engineers and leading farmers to design, build and make available through open-source systems a host of new tools. Among the partners are Eliot Coleman, an organic farmer, inventor and author from Four Season Farm in Maine, Ron Kholsa, organic farmer and egineer of Huguenot Farm in New Paltz, Josh Volk of Slow Hand Farm in Oregon, and Jack Algiere, our Vegetable Farm Manager. They have identified 34 tools in need of development, beginning with a small electric tractor that will serve as the “motherboard” frame to which other tools can be attached. Other inventions to follow will be the solar-powered “Horse Tractor,” which could have a significant impact among cultures dependent on draft animals and where drought limits water availability, and a compressed-air grain harvester and processor." (http://www.stonebarnscenter.org/farm/news/slow-tools-fast-change.html)


Discussion

By Cara Parks:

"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." (http://the-magazine.org/22/hoe-down)