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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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