Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Questions, questions.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a call from a man in north central Pennsylvania who was interested in purchasing a broadfork. He said that he and his girlfriend had recently moved to some rural land and that they wanted to garden and would go into a small production situation. We talked for a while about the broadfork and he told me that the broadfork would be the largest expense so far for the garden, and that he would have to consider it. I had a feeling I'd hear from him again. 

Last weekend his order showed up in my email along with a note reminding me of our previous phone conversation. He ended his note with this: 

"This is our single biggest cost investment thus far, but we decided to go for it because it seems like it'll last a lifetime at least. We look forward to using your fork this season and passing it on to future generations."


Given the state of things in the world these days, sometimes I feel like asking someone to send their money to me is like taking food out of their hands... No, wait a minute... its like putting food into their hands! 

Something occurred to me after I got that note. Each time the broadfork is used, it's cost per use goes down. There are no yearly tune ups, no broken springs or cables, no flat tires, and no gas tank. 

You buy it once, you pay for it once. Your pocketbook wins, your soil wins. 

After I had that realization, I wanted to know a little more about this customer that had only been a voice on the phone and an email correspondent. I had this short list of simple questions I sent to my him after I got his note:

What inspired you to want to produce food?
How much experience have you had with gardening before you went 'pro'?
What will you be planting?
Will you be selling roadside, at a local market, or to friends, etc?
If you have time and would like to share that info, I'd love to share it with people out there that need inspiration.

I got his answers and his permission to post them. I hope these words mean as much to you as they did to me:
What inspired you to want to produce food?

A:  My girlfriend and I were living and working in New York City for a few years after college, and doing 'well.' It took a while for it to dawn on us that, despite our successes, we were actually becoming increasingly disempowered. We had less time to ourselves and we were reliant on a vast series of bureaucracies for our most basic needs, including, but not limited to, our housing and food. Meanwhile, we'd been spending summers out on a piece of land in North Central PA owned by my family -- a farm that burned down in the 60s and has since been owned by weekenders. We were living outside, fixing things up, and building a little house. When summer was over, we'd go back to 'real' life. It occurred to us that we could switch the whole thing around and make our time here our real life.
Food production, especially, is meaningful to us. It's the most basic human activity, and we know nothing about it. In our ignorance, we've let huge corporations set the terms for the quality and price of what goes in our bodies, and the way our food is grown. For us to grow and preserve our own food is the single most important part of taking control of, and responsibility for, our own sustenance.
How much experience have you had with gardening before you went 'pro'?
A:  We have almost no experience. I've worked at a plant nursery, and grew up with a very small garden in the backyard. We spend a couple months working on two farms in Argentina. We've got very helpful and supportive neighbors.
What will you be planting?

A:  We're doing a little of a lot, in terms of vegetables and herbs, about half an acre altogether, although a bit more counting experiments with various grains. Everything that we like to eat, and extra of things we think other people will want. It will take a few years before we have fruits.
Will you be selling roadside, at a local market, or to friends, etc?
A:  We'll be selling at a stand in a nearby town, and possibly at a couple farmers' markets. We also bring our stuff into New York, where our chef friend makes incredible, gourmet meals and we explain where the food was from and how it was grown. 
Hope this helps. Looking forward to the fork!

I hope I don't wear my readers out by repeating this over and over, but you folks are wonderful and an inspiration to me. Thanks to you all.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hot Stuff!

My favorite part of making the broadfork is the hot work. I started blacksmithing in 1985 and have been around a lot of hot metal over the years. The same intrigue and passion for forge work that hooked me in all those years ago still keeps me wanting to do it day after day, year after year. 

Making the tines is a lot of fun. Initially, I used a mechanical hammer for forging the tips, but in the move last fall, I left the 2000 pound beast behind in Wisconsin. Doing them by hand is possible, but very slow and a lot of work that can (and should at my age) be avoided.

So I asked my wife to help me. She swings a 3 kilogram German style sledge (it's her very own hammer!) as I swing my little 1 kg hammer. We strike in rhythm, back and forth as I rotate the hot bar on the anvil to forge the tip square. It's fast work, and we usually do 20-25 tines without a break, but have done 40 before. Ow!

I'm really proud of her ability to hit. A lot of women wouldn't touch that job with a stick, but she really took to it, developing the strength, speed, stamina, and most importantly, the accuracy needed for the job. We've been doing it for years now and she's really good with her hammer. We have fun doing the hammer work together and have done enough now to where it's almost play, as it should be.

Once the tips are done, the tines are placed in the forge and each one is heated and bent to that perfect curve. 

With the hot work done, the assembly begins. All the parts are gathered, rolled in a tumbler to clean the mill scale off them, then brought together at the welding table.
I try to intersperse the steps as much as possible to keep from doing one thing all day. It keeps it interesting for me, and I think it's better for the body to break up the chores like that.

All the other details come along; the drilling, the handle fitting, the trips to the handleman, the welding, the sawing, the trips to the steel supplier, etc. It's all part of the job.
I love seeing a cart full of parts in the morning. Thank you for helping me to keep that cart full. It's spring now in 2/3rds of the country, and it's getting pretty busy in the shop so I haven't been able to write much lately. I'm working on a little demo video that should be out soon so you can all see how the broadfork was designed to work. Keep an eye on the blog for that.

Thank you all for your support. I recorded my first daughter/mother broadfork sales referral this week. The daughter works on an organic farm and bought a broadfork several weeks ago. Her Mom ordered one yesterday. What a wonderful thing to share.

I hope the ground is warm where you are and that you are planting soon. Keep those broadforks busy!


Monday, April 6, 2009

Scythe In The City

Few lawn chores are pleasurable to me.  I hate a lawn for all the right reasons. Mostly, they are a waste of space, and a pain to maintain. In town, however, there are some things that MUST be done. 

I let the grass go too far before mowing this spring, and it got out of scale with what my beloved 60 year old reel mower could handle. So I let it go a little bit more and broke out the scythe for the first time this year.
The scythe is an amazing tool, really. Depending how tall you are, you can cut a swath about 8 feet wide if you're in good grass. You start far behind yourself on the right, swing wide and around...
... and end up on the other side with a nice, neat windrow of mown grass as you proceed. With each swing of the blade, a small step is taken forward and a semi-circle of fresh grass is mown and pushed to the side. The effort in using the scythe is comparable to that used in paddling a canoe. It's just not that big a deal. I calculated that about 600 square inches of grass is cut with every swing of the blade.
When it's all mowed, you take a wooden rake and collect the windrows together. Then a pitchfork is used to load it onto whatever conveyance device you are using. A garden cart is ideal for fresh cut grass. These traditional style rakes have about a 28" width and a 6 foot long handle. The tines are 4" long and you can move a LOT of cut grass with one pull of the rake. 
The grass piles up quickly. You can rake 2 windrows together, then start rolling up grass into big piles until it gets hard to move with the rake. A pitchfork is then used to load the cart with the piles of cut grass. In the case of this batch of grass, I used it to smother some overgrown and undesirable privet. 

I have a friend in the scythe business that you should look up to get a lot more information on the tool.

My friend, Botan Anderson in Wisconsin, sells the finest scythes and accessories available. Take a look at his website at Mystic Prairie. Make sure you tour his site and see his amazing farm. Oh, and his ducks are wonderful, so don't miss the slideshow! Botan is doing the right thing and is an inspiration to me.

Another great article I'd like to direct you to is this one written by my friend Harvey Ussery. Here he lists the most important tools for the homestead, the scythe, the cart, and the broadfork.  "Completing the Tool Kit" takes care of the rest of the stuff you really need. 

Spring is about to happen to you wherever you are in the northern hemisphere, so get busy and get ready to grow something. Find a new way to love an old tool.