Monday, February 2, 2009

Creating Broadforkers

I had a great Saturday. We visited with Alex, who had recently bought his first house. It's on 5 acres with a barn and some fenced pasture in the rural outback of north central Alabama, and is a perfect a place for a young man in his 20s to begin. Alex has spent his whole life up there, surrounded by farmland and home gardens, but had never had one of his own. After my wife and I had a tour of his new place, he asked where he thought his garden should go. 

We took a look around and decided on a spot, which was, coincidentally the same one his Dad had chosen. I told him we could lay it out and start working it with the broadfork and he could get some spinach started if he had some seeds and an old storm window to cover it on cold days.

Alex thought it would be a lot more complicated than that. He said, " So that's it?"  I told him we could lay out a line with a garden hose to get a look at exactly where it should go. We looked at the shadow of his (very nice) barn and of the surrounding trees, considered the approximate angle of the sun in a few more months, stretched the hose out and started working. I always travel with a broadfork lately, and I showed him how to handle it, then he tried it out. The soil was a sandy clay soil and was very easy to work. 

As we worked, Karen and I talked with him about the foods he liked to eat, and how to get them started. He'd never had fingerling potatoes before, and from the look in his eyes as we talked about them, I think he'll enjoy them a lot, particularly when he digs up his first basket with his broadfork. He's going to have some really good potatoes there.

He seemed a little surprised that he didn't have to 'till' the whole garden, but just the rows that would be the beds, and it would look kind of like earthen corduroy. I told him I'd be back with my scythe when the grass got up to show him how that works to make great mulch.

I left my demo broadfork with him to work on the garden this week, and I plan on going back next weekend to see how it went. I felt like something very important happened there in the warm sun and chilly breeze of the last day of January. Alex really wants to produce some of his own food, and now I believe he is going to do it. He's off to a good start.

I think demystifying gardening is part of the challenge in getting someone started. From the outside, it seems like so much work, so much equipment, such a miracle to get food to grow in the Earth. I told Alex that when we open the ground and put in a seed and water it, we are simply letting Nature happen. 

Try to help someone start their first garden if you get a chance. You'll feel good about it, I promise. 



  1. Nice, heart warming story Gulland! I'm going to learn a lot here! Gee, is that a hay field in the background?

    Thanks, yooper

  2. Hi Yooper, Alex is all pasture back there with about 3 acres fenced, and the neighbors are, too. There were horses in his fence as well as the neighbors, but he plans on getting 2-3 head of beef cattle. In fact I have sent him some information on a few heritage breeds that would be suitable for his size pasture. There are some great breeds that are perfectly suited for grass feeding and finishing in the deep South. Have you ever heard of the Pineywoods/Florida Cracker? They're a rugged breed that look like a mini longhorn and they'll clear off pasture that the Angus turn their noses up at.

    I have a lot to learn here as well, but I'm just trying to take in a little every day. I also find a lot of learning comes from teaching. Share what you know, and you'll get a lot back from it.


  3. Nice post Gulland. I am quite sure that Alex will feel a lot of satisfaction as he watches his plants grow and then be able to get his first harvest.

    I agree with you on demystifying gardening. Last year was my first year for "Going Back" to planting after Hubby Dearest and I had moved to our new home. (We had been living in an apartment for many years prior to that) My small gardening brought many inquisitive comments and actually got a couple of people interested in trying their hand at growing their own. This year those who planted one or two vegies last year are expanding this year.

    We all have a lot to learn, but we can do it together.

  4. Hey Gulland, or I mean "hay". Where I live is surrounded by the last grassland in Michigan. Black Angus do very well here. Gee, over the years we've lost a lot of our dairy farms, however we still have some very large operations in the area. Lost a lot of grassland too, as the forest is ever increasing from small farmers giving up. The area does ship high quality hay pretty much throughout the country.

  5. In addition to the chicken houses, the in-laws have a fair-sized herd of cattle… usually 80, give or take, 99% grass (or hay) fed. There's a little synergy going on; the chicken houses produce prodigious amounts of fertilizer, which goes on the pastures. In turn, selling one or two cows pays the taxes on the farm.

    Spinach… yay, spinach! We have a really nice weekend coming up, even with a frigid night behind us and one more tonight, so I probably ought to go get some seed and plant a row or three. I joke that the soil here grows rocks better than anything; every spring I would walk the garden picking out rocks after my father-in-law plowed it up, and every spring I'd get just as many more as last year. You can't dig anywhere around here without hitting rocks. Eventually, I'll have enough rocks to make the patio out back. :-P

    I like Mrs. M's comment up there: we have a lot to learn, but we can do it together. Indeed.

  6. I remember my first day using a broadfork last spring--it was a revelation what I could do with my own two hands, in perfect quiet, to get the soil ready for planting. A great day!

    I work with Pablo at the Local Food Project at Airlie in Virginia and we're looking forward to hearing more about your broadfork adventures! Also, my husband is from Huntsville so I was excited to learn you'd moved back to Alabama.

  7. FAR, you bring up a very interesting point. Using a few cattle to pay the taxes on a farm is a great idea.

    So many people buy land and then work themselves crazy to pay for it, spending all their time away from the property they work so hard to 'have'.
    I was excited to present the concept to Alex that he could actually use the land he has to pay for itself in one way or another.

    This blog concept of sharing information is wonderful. People that read this can be anywhere in the world. Never in history has so much information been at our fingertips and so easily accessible. I am very glad to share what I know with you all, and I am learning something here every day myself.

    I am no master gardener; not even a journeyman if there is such a thing. I'm a freshman, a greenhorn, a babe in the field, so to speak relative to many of you out there. You know what? It works for me.

    When people watch me blacksmithing and comment about all the talent that it must take to do that and say that blacksmiths must have been very smart to figure all that out, etc, I like to say that at a point in time, about 1 in 10 people knew enough about blacksmithing to take care of their needs, and there have never been 1 genius in 10 people in the world that I knew of.

    I like to think that those things, blacksmithing, fishing, gardening, stonemasonry, and other basic building blocks of civilization, are coded so deeply in our DNA that they'll never completely go away. Many people that I have taught blacksmithing seem to take it very naturally, like they have done it before. Not everyone is going to do that, but I have seen a lot of it over the years.

    Brynn, We've been working with our hands for thousands of years and we've only gotten 'power tools' in very recent history, so your understanding and love of the broadfork seems totally natural to me. I felt the same way last spring when I first used one. I had never even held one, but I gathered information from pictures and contacted Harvey Ussery ( for measurements. I built one in the shop and took it out the door and into the garden, and taught myself how to use it. I have no idea if I am doing it 'right', but vegetables grow where the fork has been, so I don't think I did it 'wrong'.

    I, too, love the quiet of the broadfork. I love the scythe as well.

    Some days I wish I didn't have to make these things so I could have all day to write about them. Dang jobs!

    Brynn, I like what you guys are doing up there, and I hope to see you this spring. I love north Alabama and spent a lot of my youth up here west of Athens visiting my mother's family. This feels like home to me and the reason we came back here is to create the final homestead. Let me know if you're ever down this way to visit.

    Yooper, It's interesting how the forests take over the prairie. I saw a lot of prairie reclamation when I was living in southern Wisconsin. A lot of the non-native cherry trees that were cut off our land became my firewood. I didn't know much about prairie before, but since then, we have spent a lot of time in grasslands in the Great Plains and have come to appreciate the beauty and tremendous diversity in the prairie.


  8. Gulland, great post. It is always amazing to see for yourself the efficiency of the old-style hand tools, each of them the cumulative result of hundreds or even thousands of years of refinement. There is a world of difference between work done by people using tools and work done by machines. Look at the broadfork, or that cool hand plane you showed, or something as simple (yet so complex) as a well-made axe.

    My cousin in the midwest found at a garage sale years ago an old adze which appeared to be handmade. He was loathe to actually use the thing, thinking it might be so old as to be fragile or brittle. When he mentioned it to me, I explained that its age probably meant it had been made before the era of mass manufacture in the factory setting and that as such it was likely a very high-quality tool. He took this to heart and has been using it ever since, and he told me it takes and keeps and edge much better than most of his modern tools.

    This is going to sound crude and simple, but the fact of the matter is that we were meant to work with our hands. That is what they are for. There is a lot of truth in those old sayings about how idle hands lead to ungood things. Personally I like keeping my hands busy. Many years ago I fell into the practice of sewing all my own clothing, from grunge/workaday stuff up through dressy business wear, and have stuck with it for at least 20 years now. Went through a whole series of junker sewing machines before splurging for the good ones. Learned how to make all my own patterns from scratch. It feels extremely natural for me to make clothing; I don't know how else to describe it. A few years back I learned from the older relatives that 4 generations ago our family had an ancestress who was sort of a master tailor of her time .. she taught sewing/patternmaking, made everything from footwear to under/overclothes to hats, and was able to sew decent fitting clothing just from taking the measure of their size with her own eyes. (I am in awe of that kind of talent .. still messing around with paper patterns here!) Her own daughter made clothing, the next one after that was a milliner, and the rest from then to now have also had some connection with the craft.

    The really good sculptors tell you that when they're staring at a block of wood or stone, they're trying to see what's hidden with in, what form they will release through their art. I like to think that many of us have hidden talents within us, things we don't know about yet because we haven't had to use them at all in the strange, modern, temporary world we now live in.

    Some of you may have experienced the awe of being in a small, cluttered specialty shop run by someone who's had the business for 20 years or more and who completely eschews any notion of using computerized inventory systems. The people who are good at it, upon being asked if they have such-and-such in stock, can unerringly find the item within an unlabeled stack or similar items, or can tell you even without looking if they've got any in stock or how much they might cost.

    There is much more to our abilities than we probably know of in this day and age.

  9. Great idea about the cattle to help pay taxes on the property, etc... but have you thought about how much of the acerage that they will need to feed unless of course he wants to buy hay and feed which would sort of make the whole point mute. How about a couple of goats? They can help keep the fence rows cleared off and if they get dairy goats they will have the extra benefit to the family of farm fresh milk which they can use to drink, make cheese with, make butter or buttermilk or soap, etc...the kids can be sold to produce income for the farm as well as the milk and milk products. Also the goats will eat a lot less and need less room. Just a thought.

  10. Hi Tammy, Thanks for posting. Great point about the cost of feeding. Alex has a family hayfield a couple of miles away that would provide very well for a small beef herd, so his pasture should be big enough with that taken into consideration. Smaller animals eat less, of course, but there are a lot of cattle breeds that thrive off very rough forage; Scottish Highland cattle, for example, love to eat thistle. The Pineywoods breed that I mentioned are a very hardy breed, and are perfect cattle for the drought stricken South, as they thrive on rough pasture and have an interesting trait of drinking, then quickly leaving the waterhole, causing far less erosion and mudding to the pond. The main reason Alex is more interested in beef cattle is simply the beef. The low maintenance beef breeds are a perfect consideration for his particular situation.

    So many people think 'cattle' and about all they can picture are the enormous Angus, Hereford, and Charolais. If you're in the cattle 'business', that's fine, but if you're in at the homestead scale beef production level, you simply don't need 800 lbs of beef at a time. The little Dexters and some other mini-breed cattle are perfect. Like all other aspects of farming at a small scale, we have to learn to adjust our 'crops' to fit our needs.

    I'm with you on the benefits of goats. I particularly like goat cheese and soap products. My niece keeps goats and made some really wonderful soap for us recently. Also, a lot of Southerners love goat meat. Goat stew and BBQ ribs are very common in north Alabama. Some goats, such as the Angora (Mohair) and Cashmere are prized for their fleece. My wife is a spinner and knitter and would benefit from having a few fiber goats around for their value as 'yarn on the hoof'.

    Something else I think Alex is interested in is having a few chickens. We discussed where to place the coop in relation to the garden and the compost to make those aspects of the homestead work most efficiently.

    I think everyone should have a few chickens. In fact, we're thinking about building a coop in our backyard to keep a few birds in violation of our local laws. We'll ask the neighbors if it would be OK to keep some hens, and if they're alright with it, we'll go ahead. We're living in the city right now and are looking for land, so we don't plan on being here for too long, but I feel the need to have some chickens.

    Each homestead has to take into consideration their own personal tastes as well as their time input for projects. As much as I love raw milk and milk products, I would not be a good dairy farmer. Milking has to be done at least once a day, and if I need to be away teaching for a week or two, it's tough to find someone to commit to doing that for me. Finding someone to throw a bale of hay and filling a water tank for a few beef cattle or oxen is much easier.

    Each homestead should consider it's needs and wants balanced against the reality of what is most efficient to raise and process versus buying or trading for. I'd really hate to have to do everything myself, particularly if I had a neighbor like you that could provide goat cheese and soap for me.

    Tammy, thank you for your comments, and I look forward to hearing from you again.


  11. Hi Nudge, You bet we were designed to work with our hands. And our hands will provide more work than we think they will once they learn some new tricks. As I have mentioned before, I love to see people 'get it' when I am teaching blacksmithing. No one ever picks up a violin with the delusion of it working the first time the bow is pulled across the strings, and thankfully, most people realize pretty soon whether or not they have much talent at it.

    Most homesteading skills are far less precise that playing a violin. Setting a fence post, for example uses very little finesse; likewise carrying a bale of hay or hoeing weeds is not MENSA stuff. Some things have a little longer learning curve; the scythe is a good example, but most people can manage it with a little instruction and a little practice.

    One of the things I love most about teaching with the broadfork is that every time I have shown someone how 'I' do it, they watch carefully and then drift into how 'they' do it, and it works just as well.

    Last fall, I took a broadfork over to a friend who was digging potatoes. He had never laid eyes on a broadfork, and in a few minutes he was digging potatoes with a beautiful rhythm and efficiency that I would not have ever expected to see from one that had just been introduced to the tool.

    If we'll work together and teach one another these things, we'll have a much easier time in the fast approaching and unsure future. We've got to devote the time we have now to learning and teaching what we know to others.


  12. Hey G.

    Thanks for your response to my comment. You are definately right of course. It is impossible to do it all. We have some nice 5-18 acre homestead farms around here...would you all be interested? A friend of mine from childhood is lactose intolerant (never knew it) and he has a huge barn and cattle....we trade out fresh goat milk for room in the barn for my expensive alfalfa hay and some other goodies. It is all about community and helping each other out. I personally don't see my 2 hr a day milking as "work" but you are correct that it isn't something that you can take a few days or a week off and go on vacation unless you have someone who is willing to learn to milk or are lucky enough to have someone fairly close by that also has goats and already knows.

    As for the proper place for a coop....have you seen the chicken tractors that you can actually move very easily day to day to accompolish several tasks...fertilizing your garden/yard and eating insects.... you could even roll it down the rows in your garden!!!

  13. Hi,

    Please check your email. I want to buy a broadfork. I emailed you about it. I'm ready to rock!!


  14. I dug 3 trenches for potatoes today. My pitch fork was cursing you!!