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Slow Tools

Face it: we small farmers have been “making things work” for a long time in the tool shop. Forced to adapt tools and equipment designed long ago, we retrofit. Because there are very few tools diversified enough for our needs or scaled to our production size, we retool.

“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 mechanical engineer with a long history of successfully designing marine winches, moorings and machinery. He notes that the market for small-scale farm equipment and tools simply doesn’t exist today, putting small farmers at a disadvantage.

That’s why Griffin is teaming up with Stone Barns Center to lead the Slow Tools Project, a collaboration among farmers, engineers, tool manufacturers, metalworkers, machinists, marketers and funders to design and build a host of new tools and make them readily available to the swelling ranks of young farmers. Among the partners steering the project are farmer-inventors Eliot Coleman, of Four Season Farm in Maine; Josh Volk, of Slow Hand Farm in Oregon; Ron Khosla, of Huguenot Street Farm in New York; and Jack Algiere, of Stone Barns Center. They are designing all tools to be lightweight, ergonomic, affordable and adaptable to small-farming needs.

“The Slow Tools concept emphasizes community interaction and development,” says Algiere, Vegetable Farm Manager at Stone Barns. “What is notably different about this project is the open-source, non-proprietary conversation that has been left unrestricted by those involved in the design process. Each professional view gives a different perspective on the efficiency, potential and reality of the tool. We are stretching our understanding of what is necessary and possible.”

The first tool off the block in the Slow Tools Project is the T-30 tractor, a small electric tractor that will serve as the “motherboard” frame to which other tools can be attached. (T-30 takes its name from its 30-inch belly and its ability to work a 30-inch bed.) The electric tractor is designed to carry and control a great number of mountable implements including bed shapers, cultivators, precision seeders, harvesters and material spreaders.

“The open-belly design gives farmers a closer connection with the land they’re working because they can see the actual ground they’re working,” says Algiere—unlike the over-the-shoulder view of the ground they get when driving standard tractors on the market today.

“This is not a design made from leftover parts or rebuilt old equipment retrofitted to suit a new purpose,” notes Algiere. “This is efficient, cost-effective, adaptive, safe and modern.”

By mid-September, the Slow Tools team anticipates having the second prototype built. They then will test and tweak it over the fall, putting it to work in Stone Barns’ greenhouse and fields, and plan to unveil it at the 2012 Young Farmers Conference in December.

The objective is not to patent and sell the tractor. Rather, the Slow Tools partnership wants to make the plans available through open-source technology and encourage small manufacturers to pick up the designs for local production and distribution.

“Our aim is to keep the size and price point of the tractor well within the financial reach of a small farmer, and it is designed to be built modularly with parts that can be easily found through outlets like Johnny’s Seeds,” says Algiere. “Right now we’re looking at $3.50 per pound for the tractor—an extremely good value.”

Beginning with the initial Slow Tools Summit last winter, the partners have identified the T-30 tractor plus 33 other tools in need of development. 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.

Griffin, who grew up on a small family-run oyster farm, says he’s always been drawn toward communities seeking to sustainably steward their natural resources. “To engage at the end of my design engineering career so close to the values of my childhood and early mentors is exceptionally satisfying.”

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Honeynut: Sowing Seeds For Collaboration

It takes a village to raise a Honeynut squash. Just ask Jack Algiere. At Stone Barns Center, Jack oversees the cultivation of over 200 varieties of produce year-round on 6.5 acres of outdoor fields and gardens and in a 22,000 square-foot minimally heated greenhouse. Since Stone Barns Center opened its doors in 2004, Jack has been collaborating with chefs, plant breeders, and seed companies to identify the most flavorful, nutritious, and resilient plant varieties that can be grown in the Northeast.

As an educational farm, Stone Barns Center is less vulnerable to market pressures than other small-scale, sustainable farms. In addition to being a source of fresh produce, the Center’s fields act as living laboratories where farmers like Jack carry out innovative experiments that would prove too risky or expensive on most commercial farms.

Partnering with stakeholders like the Hudson Valley Seed Library, Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, Bejo Seeds, and the department of Plant Breeding & Genetics at Cornell University, the farmers at Stone Barns Center save seed from varieties ranging from Panther edamame to Black Krim tomatoes to Otto File corn—each season, selecting for flavor and disease resistance.

“By participating in seed saving, trial growing, and experimentation, I gain a much deeper relationship to the plant material that I’m working with,” Jack explains. “Participating in trials is a risk but it also means that I have a voice in the conversation—that the small-scale, sustainable farmer essentially has a vote.”

For Michael Mazourek, Assistant Professor of Plant Breeding & Genetics at Cornell University, sharing seed with farmers is an essential part of the plant breeding process. He explains, “Sharing seed with growers gives us an invaluable perspective. They can find hidden potential and point out further needs for improvement that we missed.”

In 2006, the Plant Breeding & Genetics department at Cornell University introduced Jack to Honeynut squash, a combination of butternut and buttercup squash types. Stone Barns Center has been conducting seed trials with the variety ever since.

A healthy row of Honeynut squash can speak wonders about a variety’s resiliency but when it comes to flavor, Jack turns to Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, for feedback. Roughly fifty percent of the produce grown at Stone Barns Center is sold to Blue Hill and the restaurant plays an important role in evaluating the flavor of varieties like Honeynut.

Over the last six years of trials— from seed to table—the flavor, nutritional value, and disease resistance of the Honeynut squash has gradually improved but there are other important traits that suggest a variety is “finished.” Michael explains, “A certain amount of uniformity is needed and the variety must be relatively true breeding so that we can have a consistent seed stock. Honeynut is special because it is stable and self-fertile which allows for seed saving.”

When varieties like the Honeynut begin to excel in seed trials, plant breeders partner with seed companies to ensure that the new varieties are accessible to the farming community at large. In the case of the Honeynut squash, that meant bringing High Mowing Organic Seeds, an independently-owned, farm-based seed company, into the conversation. On a 40 acre farm in Wolcott, Vermont, High Mowing Organic Seeds produces varieties like the Honeynut squash that might not otherwise be available to organic farmers.

At 500 grams or 17.6 ounces, the Honeynut squash is celebrated for its small size, sweetness, disease resistance, and high levels of beta-carotene—but it could just as easily be celebrated for the compelling story it tells about collaboration and the dynamic relationship between farmers, chefs, plant breeders, and seed companies.

The health of small-scale, sustainable agriculture may very well depend upon healthy relationships. “I’m never going to be a plant science geneticist,” Jack explains. “I depend on plant breeders and as a farmer, there are ways that I can reciprocate for their extraordinary work. We’re going to need these kinds of relationships to reinvigorate small-scale farming.”