May 27th, 2017
Our May CRAFT farm tour called “Hand Tools and Walk-behind Tractors” was a joint effort with Living Web Farms. We brought in Joel DuFour, a farm tool ace and the owner of EarthTools, the largest purveyor of walk-behind tractors in the US and based in Owenton, KY. Joel grew up on a small farm in Indiana where they were growing organic produce “before it was sexy,” he said. Using his grandfather’s European tools that were well designed and well built greatly influenced his relationship to farming and inspired the motto of EarthTools—Farming with your Feet on the Ground. When he started farming himself, he couldn’t find the same quality and style tools he was used to in the US and saw that most farm tools and equipment are geared toward tractors which aren’t a feasible option for many small-scale growers. He was inspired to bring more European-style hand tools and walk-behind tractors to the US, and EarthTools was born.
For our May CRAFT tour, Joel brought a variety of tools and equipment with him and we spent the day walking through them and even got a chance to try some of them out. We kicked things off with the Broadfork, the darling tool of small-scale growers trying to use minimal till or no-till practices. Also known as a U-bar or a Soil Ledger, it is used to loosen the soil and introduce aeration without damaging the soil structure. See how they work here. When you’re selecting a broadfork, Joel suggested that you look for round and continuously curved tines that are more forgiving as they move through the soil. Make sure they have wooden handles because they are more dynamic and absorb impact on your body better than metal or fiberglass. Lastly, you want to use one that is strong enough for your soil, e.g., heavier board forks do better in harder clay soils. While you may not want to use a broadfork if you’re farming 10 acres, it is scale-appropriate and can be a really useful tool for smaller acreages. Joel said the closest mechanical substitute is a reciprocating spade.
Next, we moved on to the many different shapes and uses of hoes. Hoes can be used to break up and cultivate the soil, remove weeds, and work in amendments. While Europeans don’t mind having many different styles of hoes, there is only one standard American hoe, and in Joel’s words it is, “not a design that makes much sense.” In general, for all the hoes we learned about, Joel recommended those made with forged steel because they are much more durable and longer lasting. Your selection of hoe will depend on the crops you have, the setup of your beds, what your body likes, and how big you let your weeds get.
First, he demonstrated the Half-moon hoe (also called a swan neck or draw hoe), which he recommended as the best all-around hoe. The swan neck pulls the cutting edge of the hoe in line with the handle, allowing you to stand up straight and pull the hoe toward you with more precision and control. The narrow edges allow you to be more surgical with your tool getting closer to your plants to weed.
Second, we learned about the true Scuffle hoe which has a diamond-shaped head with sharp edges on all four sides. These are best for early weeding when the weeds are 1-inch high or less. It’s a fast tool that can be used to both push and pull. And while you do have an efficiency of energy, it is kind of a one-trick pony.
Third, he showed us the Hula hoe (also called a stirrup or oscillating hoe). The moving head can cut at different angles and is good for taller weeds. It does take more effort to use since you’re disturbing more soil, but it is still fast and efficient with the push and pull motions. It is popular with some growers because you can see the edges as you move through the soil, reducing the likelihood that you’ll accidentally clip your growing crop.
Next, we learned about Chopping hoes (also called Eye or Digging hoe). This style has been used all over the world for centuries. After broadforking, it can be helpful to go back through your beds with a chopping hoe to break up the clay soil in the spring. They are also great for chopping down overgrown weeds, especially thistles.
Then we moved onto the hand-held versions of hoes, as well as others like a cabbage knife/billhook, Hori Hori, sickle, dibber, snips, and pruners.
The last hand tool Joel demonstrated was the Wheel hoe. With this multi-tool, you can attach different toolbars to accomplish more tasks. Attachable implements include a 12-inch stirrup hoe to weed paths easily, a Hoss seeder, cultivator chisels, and a disc harrow for weed control and to break up the soil surface to sow a cover crop.
Caring for your tools properly is as important as selecting the right tool, to begin with. Joel recommends cleaning off any dirt at the end of the season and rubbing the wooden handles and metal with Linseed oil to inhibit moisture damage. For sharpening, a flat file will do the job for most things because it is forgiving to the metal and gives a better edge. Grinders are ok to use, but it’s easy to overheat and damage the blade. He recommended the Barnel Professional Diamond Sharpener for sharpening snips and pruners. Its small size means you can really sharpen the whole blade from bottom to tip, unlike larger files.
In general with tools, you always want to find the balance between quality, effectiveness, ergonomics, and affordability. It’s important to remember that having a well-made tool really comes down to nuances, but those nuances can add up in performance as you use it hundreds of times a day.
For the second part of the workshop, we shifted to Walk-Behind Tractors. A walk-behind tractor is the same concept as a 4-wheel tractor. It is an engine that can power different implements. A walk-behind can handle 50+ implements including a power harrow, crimper, seed drill, hay bailer, sickle bar, bush hog, rotary plow, spader, plastic and drip tape layer, power harrow, bed shaper, etc. There is virtually no soil compaction, and you can run one for 8–9 hours on one gallon of gas. A bonus feature is that the handlebars can easily be rotated so you can use different implements better. For instance, if you’re working the soil, you want the implements to follow the tractor so you don’t compact the work you’ve just done; however, with a bush hog, it’s better in front.
The max acreage you’ll want to use a walk-behind tractor for is 3 acres. Beyond that, a 4-wheel tractor might be the better option. However, some farmers will own multiple walk-behinds to cover more land at once or might use a 4-wheel tractor for early field preparation, shifting to a walk-behind once the crops are established. Walk-behind tractors are useful when maneuvering in tighter spaces where there might not be the 15+ feet needed to turn a 4-wheel tractor around, e.g., inside a deer fence.
As the workshop drew to a close, Joel reiterated the idea that the usefulness and appropriateness of any tool greatly depends on your scale. It’s important to look at the scale you’re at and what the best option is for you, trying to fit your selection into a more narrow window of what’s practical, affordable, and appropriate for the scale you’re on.
It was a jam-packed day, and we’re grateful to Joel for making the trip to WNC to share his expertise with us and to Living Web for organizing and sharing their space. Looking forward to the next time. See you there!
Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2017! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Director at 828.338.9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a beekeeper, dancer, baker and avid adventurer.