Hand labor, tractor labor and horse labor: a question of power and scale

Peter & Jelmer with the Melotte

By Jelmer Albada

This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the Small Farmer’s Journal (Vol. 39 No. 2). Thank you to Jelmer Albada and Stephen Leslie for providing access to the text in digital form.

When considering the potential utility of draft animal power on the modern 21st century farm, I like to begin from the perspective of examining those farm models where all the work was done by hand. That hand work was done with a lot of care and precision and with great attention to detail towards the soil and the crops (these methods persist in our times in small scale community gardens and among some subsistence farmers). I have heard about, read about, and also have first-hand experience practicing these cultural gardening techniques involving hand labor and find it useful and inspiring to use these methods as a springboard from which to examine where draft animal power can be most useful and where the hand work can readily be improved upon. My conclusion is that there are many areas where a horse can do a better job in replacing the hand work, and that live horse power will usually not be ”over-kill”, as could be the case by introducing a tractor into a relatively small-scale operation. In this light, the horse could be viewed as a four-legged employee of the farm, always ready to take on the big and small jobs.

What I am saying in other words, is that there are different methods to the goal of an efficient system that stewards the soil, harvests healthy crops, and does not over-tax the human labor. Of course in the first instance, everything depends on the goals of the farmer (in the context of his or her farm setup, soil type, climate, etc.) as to which methods are best suited to achieve the goal. What is the best way to get to your goals in terms of how you go about soil preparation, fertilizing, planting, cultivation, harvesting? Does it make sense to do it all by hand, with draft animals, a tractor, or perhaps a combination of all of these? For a produce grower who makes their livelihood farming with horses, the principle reason to pursue the goal of using draft animal methods to grow crops and to make money is because it works better than working only by hand or with a tractor. What can a draft animal do better than can be done with hand work or a tractor? That should be our main criteria as a horse-powered produce grower. Second to that consideration is one’s love of working with horses (or other type of draft animal) which comes with other criteria and reasons.

The origin of agriculture reaches back at least 12,000 years. We humans have been utilizing draft animal power for 8,000 years on this planet we call home. When comparing that history with percentages of how long the tractor has been “engaged” in the sphere of agriculture we see that the presence of tractors comprises a tiny percentage compared to that of the draft animal. For example, in my native land the Netherlands we have used the tractor for about 70 years now. In the Netherlands agriculture is thought to have been introduced around the year 4,000 B.C. Percentage wise the tractor is present just over 1.16% in our long history as farmers. When it is seen in a bigger context it puts our choices for power systems on our farms into a different perspective. As the current generation of new and young farmers face choices for which will be the optimal sources of traction on their farms I think it helps to give a view of the role of draft animal power from this longer deeper perspective.

Modern mechanized agriculture impresses us with its massive scale and it is easy to forget what a recent development this is in the context of our whole human history. We modern people often lack an interest or curiosity about the way things were done in the past and we are prone to over-estimate the effectiveness and efficiency of our present developments. As a case in point, draft animal power is often regarded as something that is only relevant to the “Developing Countries”, in other words, those whom we consider “under-developed”. And when talking about mechanization, which means replacing hand labor with machinery, this was first achieved by using machinery in conjunction with draft animal power, for instance, treadmill horse-powered stationary threshing machines (also some of these machines had hand powered versions). Later those horse-power machines replacing hand labor were adapted to tractor traction.

Almost every generation is overly confident and claims to be better than the generation before. When one goes deeper into the cause or matter it appears that most of the crucial developments in agriculture have an older history than is commonly assumed and the pivotal technologies were introduced earlier than one would think. A fuller knowledge of the past leads us to a greater respect for the generations that have come before us. We begin to marvel at what the older generations were able to achieve under different circumstances. With this in mind and from this perspective we can shine new light on the development of draft animal power. Some would even say that live draft animal power is not a step backwards—-but a step towards the future.

In the Netherlands, beginning in the early 1600’s the population of the cities started to increase and with that came the demand for more food. Vegetable growing, or gardening suddenly took on a more serious character. This surge in raising produce was largely focused on a hand labor gardening culture—it was a significant agricultural movement with a lot of rapid development of new tools and systems. Different regions of the country also tended to develop their own unique customs in regards to soil management, and this led to the specialization of crop varieties, growing methods and tools. Unique words and phrases reflecting these regional developments became particular to certain districts and reflected the level of craft these farmers brought into their work. A one person farm or garden could be as large as 1.5 hectares, all work being hand labor. These small holdings were most often in the periphery of the cities where the gardeners had a ready base of customers. Many of these mini-farms were small enough that the farmer and his family could do all the work by themselves, while some were a little bigger and could justify hiring workers. The soils types were light clay or sand soils. Many fields would have canals on all sides—the quintessential landscape of the Netherlands. The bigger canals were used for transport, where small hand-powered (pole) boats could navigate. The farmers could use the canals to bring manure to the field and to “ship” the harvested crops away. First the gardeners brought their harvest to the markets in the city, later to auctions. The harvest was done in the field, stacked on the boat and the farmer went by boat to the auction. Some areas would have auctions where the farmers “drove” their small boats through with, for example, the fresh harvested white cabbages from the field beautifully stacked so the buyers could see the product on the boat as it floated by.

When bringing manure to the field, the boats were unloaded with wheel barrows. To mitigate compaction, planks were laid on the ground where the wheel barrow was to be driven. These “barrow planks” or “krui planken” (as called in some regions) were put down on the field to prevent compaction, and to make the work lighter than it would be wheel-barrowing through the mud. After the job was done, the farmer would take up the planks and harrow the spots where they had been laid. The harrows they used were wooden frames with wooden or metal teeth and were pulled by one person. Next, the farmer spread the heaps of manure with a fork. After which, it was time for hand spading the field. The dirt from the first furrow was put in the wheel barrow, and later brought over to the last furrow to fill it in and make the soil even again. To avoid compaction, spading was often done by setting planks (“stap-planken” or translated “step planks”) next to the furrow to walk on as one worked. One plank would be next to the furrow and a second plank lying next to first plank but on the yet to be turned soil. While spading you walk on the first plank and after finishing another furrow, you move that plank behind the second plank and continue on that way.

When this job was done, it was time to harrow the field with the same hand-pulled implement described above. As another safeguard against compaction, the farmer would affix planks to the bottoms of their traditional Dutch wooden shoes. Also when they were seeding or performing other jobs for preparing the soil or working in between the young plants, these wooden shoes with planks attached were used. This method also makes the work lighter as one does not “sink” as much in the loose soil, much like walking on snow with snow shoes. These wooden shoes with planks where also used for other purposes, as when hand planting the potatoes, one makes the wholes with a hand tool, then a person follows dropping the potato in the hole, and the third person walks on wooden shoes with planks to compress the soil over the planting holes—effectively closing the holes while stepping. And again, these wooden shoes with planks were used on a freshly spaded soil, which was carefully stepped over while preparing a seedbed.

Something similar was also done with the use of horses in low swampy pastures, where a working horse easily sinks in the sodden ground. In many places in the Netherlands the water table tends to be quite near the surface. For getting hay in or for any other reason to be in a wet field with a horse and wagon, square planks were attached underneath the back hooves of the horse. These “horse boards” (called “hynsteboerd” or “trippen” in the Frisian language), fitted to be a bit wider and longer than the horse’s hoof, were at first made out of wood (oak or ash) and later also of metal. These planks were attached underneath the back hooves since the rear legs are where the driving power of the horse originates. On the wettest fields all four legs would be “boarded” in this fashion. If one observes a horse walking on freshly turned soil in good tilth it becomes clear that even horses can do damage to the soil. Horses don’t have “golden hooves” and can damage the soil structure badly when used at the wrong time.

I had direct experience of these same spading and planting systems where they were used for planting in a green house. In this case, it was an autumn planting of lambs’ lettuce (mache). The wooden planting boards had squares blocks underneath them, leaving a print (of plant holes) to show where to plant after you lift the board. You begin by laying the first step-board in the plant ready soil, and then put the second board behind the first one. Then the first board is placed after the second one and you put your plants in the marked spaces. The trays with plants are placed on the board and one also kneels on it. Some growers have a rail in the greenhouse where the transplant trays can be put on the rails and moved along as you go along planting and moving the boards, other have paths and you can use to bring the trays to the boards which also limits how much you have to step on the ground. This way of planting works best with two people. When lifting the board, each person lifts on one side, carefully at the same moment lifting the board and placing it over the board they are standing on.

For me the Warmonderhof Biodynamic Agricultural School was very important time in my life as it was a transition from the conventional farming I had been raised in to the organic and biodynamic world, and from the dairy culture of my family’s farm into the vegetable growing culture. This school does a good job at preparing young farmers and giving them a foundation from which to start their own small farm or agricultural business. At the Warmonderhof they teach skills in driving the tractor, hand labor, and also they present classes on working with draft animals. The students get hands on experience working with the horses. For the Netherlands, having draft animal power incorporated in one’s educational curriculum is very unique and it is a rare opportunity to get this kind of hands-on experience.


On a Dutch herb farm where I worked, we also hand spaded the smaller plots. After spading it was time to level the field and to get rid of the first germinated weeds. This job could be done with a hand rake or the harrow—which was my implement of choice. A horse would not have enough space to turn on these small plots. So there I chose to “drag” the harrow myself. I could harrow these small plots faster than I could rake them, and also faster than if I had taken the time to hitch and harness a horse to do it. Then making beds and planting by hand would follow. We marked out the rows, 3 or 4 at a time, all by hand. Before using the marker we would set out a straight rope to establish the first line. For every new bed we would use the rope to keep the rows straight. The field we were planting was 3.7 acres (1.5 hectare). Even today, there are still many farms in Holland that do everything by hand. It is not uncommon to use a spade to turn the soil and follow this with a harrow that is also pulled by hand. This is in part made possible by the light nutrient rich clay soils or sandy soils that are free of stones. I would not necessarily recommend these methods, but describe them here to point out that, given how much human labor alone can accomplish, we should then consider just how much potential a single horse has in small scale farming. There are quite a few people that have a horse standing idle on their farms, which could be of great help to them in the garden. On the herb farm all the spading, cultivating and harvesting on these smaller plots was done with handwork, and the bigger fields were worked with a draft horse.

Later on I had the opportunity to visit a farm in Peru, South America. One time we wanted to seed alfalfa in a stony field of 3.5 acres located in the Andes Mountains. There the field had been irrigated (letting water from a canal over flow the whole field) a day before and two ards (a primitive type of scratch plow) and two mules (each hooked singly) were used to loosen the soil. This operation with the mules took two whole days. After that, the remaining weeds were pulled out by hand. Then we hand seeded the alfalfa. We hand raked the seeds in, with 3 people which took us 8 hours, having rakes that were about one foot in width. In that situation I would not have minded having the harrow to rake in the seeds with a mule.


I also visited another Andean mountain farm, this time at Terrasana Organics in Ecuador, where 25 acres were planted in produce. The setup there was quite flexible. Terrasana Organics has 3 sources of draft power. First, a walk behind tractor, secondly, the horse, and third, the tractor. The tractor is used for the heaviest work, like for example; turning the soil with a spader (on a crank shaft to prevent hard pan) and also the disc harrow. The loosely turned soil would be hand planted and later cultivated by the horse. A cultivator is lighter to pull and the tractor has much more power than necessary to do this work. The horse is much better suited for the cultivation work, and for the growing crops there is less soil compaction. Using the horse to cultivate means more soil pores remain open and this preserves and stimulates an active soil life. To be organic means you have to cultivate more than the conventional farmer who can resort to spraying herbicides. If you have less compaction while cultivating this will enhance the growth of your crops. The other draft source at Terrasana was the walk behind tractor which was used with a cart hitched to it to pick up and bring in the year-round weekly harvest. On this farm, having each draft source working at what it does best works well. Having these different draft sources in place allowed the farm to be more flexible because each power source can be operated at the same time. The tractor operator would prepare the soil, while the horse “driver/operator” was cultivating—all of which gets more work done at once in an efficient way (and within the window when the weather and soil circumstances lend themselves to do the work).

When I visited among Amish farmers, I got acquainted with their methods in using draft animal power. The utilization of these draft-power source keeps their farms smaller and sets a certain pace and scale. It also fosters a lively and interactive sense of community among them. It was quite impressive and valuable for me to experience such a strong and tight-knit community. Compared to dairy farming, growing produce is quite a new thing among the Amish. Given my own background in market gardening there were not a lot of new things that I observed in terms of their growing methods. I was surprised by the extensive use of plastic mulch, since I come from a culture that doesn’t use this at all. We focus on weed control principally through the use two different models of hand hoes (on a long handle) to hoe in the row. I do remember the experience of harvesting with nobody holding the lines of the team, which was hitched to a wagon. One person harvested cabbages and threw them to the person stacking them on the wagon as the horses stood patiently waiting. This was also done in Holland, for example when harvesting cauliflower, when it was time for the horse to step up, the farmer would knock with the harvesting knife on the wagon, and then to stop just say; “Whoa”.

In the agricultural methods that the Amish practice, I observed the use of motorized power mounted on horse drawn machinery. The horses or mules pull the machine and the engine drives the PTO (power-take-off system). With a relatively small engine, modern small tractor machinery can be used behind a team of draft horses or mules. This has allowed those groups who permit it to use tractor machinery behind horses and work with a more modern method (all aspects of Amish life are dictated by a list of written or oral codes of behavior, known as Ordnung, which outline the basics practices of the faith and help to define what it means to be a member of the church community—the Ordnung are not uniform among all the Amish, as they are decided upon by local churches—for instance, some communities allow the use of horse-drawn motorized equipment while others stick with ground-driven implements only).

When the first wave of horse drawn machinery industry was at its peak in the early part of the 20th century, just as some of the Amish manufacturers do now, there were engines used on some of the machinery. For instance, in Europe a mower with an engine mount was developed which enabled the farmer to hitch just one horse on the motorized mower, using the same mowing width that was formerly done with a team (and with less or no clogging of the sickle bar). So it is obvious to see that the second wave of the horse machinery industry (happening right now)—which is fueled mainly by Amish machine shops—continues in these footsteps of incorporating motorized components into horse drawn implements. However, at the same time Amish manufacturers are also developing innovative ground-driven machinery with new lines of smart improved “re-inventions” of the older mid-20th century models. One of these re-inventions is on the new two-bottom plow from White Horse Machinery. The lifting system of this plow (without having a 3-point hitch as on a tractor) is made simple for the driver; all one has to do to lift the plow is pull on a rope. This activates a mechanism that can lift and lower the plow in and out of transport position, all of which makes plow very light, easy and safe to operate, similar to the old dump rakes, where you just step on a peddle and the machine goes in and out of engagement. I know I would enjoy having such a mechanism on a riding plow or riding cultivator. We can be sure that developments like these will continue.

Whatever the power source for traction on the farm, with small scale vegetable production there is always a lot of handwork involved. How much percentage of the work could or should be hand work? Even on small scale operations that use tractors, and on horse-powered farms, hand work is usually a very big percentage when you think of weeding, harvesting and packaging. In terms of making our small-scale produce farms as efficient as possible, the question we should be asking ourselves is; which parts of this (hand) work does it make sense to replace the human labor with a greater power source—whether it be by draft animal or tractor, or some combination of the two? As we have seen in these few examples I have given there are many ways to achieve the same goal. When it comes to growing produce, I want to look at the various means there are to get to the desired end of an efficient and profitable farm in the most resilient and replicable way.

To me working with horses signifies the relationships of working and being together with the living things around us, which I have come to value deeply. Like when one can see the soil, plant and animals not just for their exterior shells, but with a vision that penetrates surface appearances and perceives some aspects of the inner workings of things and how everything that lives is connected. By working with horses and understanding what that takes I have become more aware of seeing inside the horse and the inner connection that exists between me and the horse. In order for it to really work, the relationship between human and horse cannot remain superficial. In a certain similar way one can have a relationship with the soil, plants and other animal life of the farm. Humans focus a lot on humans. I like machinery and am intrigued by how it works, but working with a horse shifts me over to another pace and touches or moves me to be more aware of my surroundings and with what I’m doing and with what I want to be doing. I don’t know how to put it into words any better than that…but it feels like a revelation.


Culticycle at the DAP Field Days: Cross-pollination and appropriate technology in farming systems

Horse People and Bike People
Culticycle enthusiasts and teamsters convened at the Draft Animal Powered Field Days in September, hosted by the Draft Animal Power Network to discuss the intersection of human and draft powered farming systems and tools. What type and amount of power is needed for different tools or tasks on the farm, and how can draft or human-powered systems supplant fossil fuel-powered ones? These questions embody the first design principle of the Farm Hack community, “Biology before steel and diesel.”
Most equipment manufacturers stopped building tools for horse and oxen farming around the middle of the 1900s. Farmers who wish to continue farming with draft animals innovate and invent tools appropriate for their purposes. It’s the classic narrative that defines the farm hack community: we want tools suited to ecological, human-scale agriculture, not industrial agribusiness. Local manufacture and on-farm research and development allow farmers to equip themselves with tools for their specific working environment and set of circumstances. 
This design philosophy was brought to bear at the Draft Animal Power Field Days where tools cross-pollinated during guided brainstorming sessions. The new front end for the culticycle is hacked from a lawn tractor front end. The quick hitch system which Tim and Dorn are currently adapting for use on the Culticycle is an idea borrowed from the Pioneer Homsteader, a draft-powered multi-tool.  Old standby tool features can also be improved upon using a new component to perform a familiar function – for example, in recent Culticycle development conversations, the Farm Hack community is looking to handpowered hydraulics and auto trunk struts as alternatives for more ergonomic lifting of heavy, belly-mounted tools.
Towards an Appropriately-Powered Farming Future
 In the interest of minimizing our reliance on fossil fuels and developing more flexible and efficient farming systems, identifying what the actual appropriate power need for a job is allows us to develop and use the right power source – i.e. a human, a bicycle, a horse.
Culticycle inventor, Tim Cooke, often makes the point that we just don’t know how much horsepower cultivating takes because we default to using the smallest tractor on the farm, which still might be vastly overpowered for the task. This insight connects to a broader principle galvanizing Farm Hackers; that innovation often stems from looking critically at the way things are and the way they are always done, and synthesizing from a rich repetoire of knowledge new and old to figure out how to do things better. 
More documentation updates to come soon on the Culticycle tool page.
More Farm Hack events on the Events Calendar


This post was compiled by the Lexicon Sustainability for their Food List, a weekly bulletin of talking points to fix the food system. Farm Hack was a contributor to this edition of the List. Original post can be found here.



Ever since Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, proclaimed “get big or get out,” farms and farmers in the United States have followed the logic of corporate capitalism – bigger farms, bigger tractors, and more complex and expensive technology. A new corn harvester bought today costs about $400,000 and comes decked out with proprietary computer systems and GPS monitoring – the tractors can literally drive themselves, collecting scads of production data that happen to go right back to the large corporations manufacturing these machines. This technology makes combining a thousand acre field much easier, but it often puts farmers deep into debt and rests control of their own farming systems and production information from their hands.

For smaller scale sustainable producers, the modern form of mainstream agricultural technology does not fit our function. The appropriate tools for our agriculture put biology before steel and diesel, are modular, adaptable, and designed for disassembly. We engineer systems instead of software, finding local solutions to local problems. Appropriate tools should not make a farmer obsolete – they empower the user to modify and improve upon age-old tools and ideas, or build something new using whatever resources they have available.

Appropriate technology for sustainable farming is economically appropriate because it means retrofitting and using what you already have close at hand or getting it from your neighbor or local fabricator, rather than putting profit into the pockets of global corporations. It is environmentally appropriate because it harnesses the utility of our ecological systems while preserving and enriching them. It is intellectually appropriate because it reduces barriers to knowledge exchange, putting the best solutions in the hands of farmers. In this new paradigm, every farm is a research and development node in a distributed network of farmers, engineers, and technologists building a new economy from the ground up enabling independence through interdependence .

Instead of homogenizing, privatizing and commodifying our farm technologies, we must support the time-tested tradition of on-farm innovation, and promote economically, ecologically, and socially resilient solutions. We must leverage technology appropriately as a tool to reduce barriers to information transfer and foster collaboration. On the outskirts of our conventional system of top-down manufacturing and proprietary tools is emerging a new community and a new paradigm – farmers, fabricators, engineers, and designers working together to build resilient, regionalized manufacturing economies. This is the movement we all must continue building together, for strong communities, healthy ecological systems, and good food. The future is open-source!

FarmHack logo

Farm Hack is an open-source community for resilient agriculture; it is a community to support user generated content and knowledge exchange. The community builds tools that supports sustainable farming and sustainable farmers, creates a culture of collaboration, and strives to identify shared values and engage in open exchange. Farm Hack exists to support the users, and as an organization, Farm Hack seeks to discern from users web-development and organizational objectives, making Farm Hack a content-driven and community powered platform. Read more about the Community Principles of Farm Hack


In the age of technology, one with a very deep history in agriculture, there are many models and methods to apply and experiment with. In this week’s Food List, we explore the different ways in which small-scale farms are adapting technology to fit their modes.

Most research and development in agriculture focuses on mass crop production, often forcing small farmers to “make it work.” They use technologies new and old. Farmers are collaborating with engineers across the country, like at Stone Barn Center, to develop slow tools for smaller operations. This is a solution for many food producers . As one small producer, Doug Mosel says, “the closer we get to using the last remaining “ancient sunlight,” the smaller and simpler technology will become.” By filling these technology gaps, smaller farmers have a better opportunity to focus on various other challenges.

The beauty of this appropriate technology movement is the open source knowledge driving it. And so, when the latest sustainable design, such as the culticycle, becomes available, the technology can be found for free on sources like Farm Hack.

Appropriate technology is not only about developing new technological adaptations for small farms. It’s also about using what you have around you as well. Draft animal power is still a widely used practice on farms. In fact, horse power is the symbolic standard for measurements of labor, especially on farms.

Appropriate technology is about recycling the resources that you have around you. One story from Cleveland tells us of how appropriate technology extended the growing season into the winter. Fresh produce all year round in the four season states? And if you think that’s extreme, Low-Tech Magazine shares with us a dirty secretof the past that could be the “key” to sustainable farming.

In this week’s Food List, we learn that farm technology is a greater quest for whatever works. It’s a matter of applying what makes sense, in the past, present, and future. How can you make appropriate technology work for you?




“A holistic approach to human problem solving. It involves working with nature–of which we are a part–to develop and sustain systems beneficial to the health of the whole.” — Ian Snider, Yates Family Farm


“Also known as ‘draft animal power,’ this is the use of horses, mules, or oxen to do productive work in farms, forests, and other settings. Traditionally, horses, mules, and oxen did all the work that tractors do today.” – Donn Hewes, Draft Animal Power Network


“Small Plot Intensive. A low-cost, easy-to-learn system that produces ample high value produce on less than one acre, making it possible for first-generation farms to get started without a lot of land or capital investment” – Kevin Grove, Quarter Branch Farm


Human excrement, most prominently used as fertilizer in earlier cultures, is reappearing as a soil amendment.


The use of greenhouses to prolong the growing season. Seeds are planted earlier and the last harvest of the year comes later, allowing consumers to continue eating local foods longer than would otherwise be possible.




7990As a result of the industrial revolution and the subsequent development of “big agriculture,” small-scale farming tools have become almost obsolete. In order to fulfill the demand created by a burgeoning community of small-scale farmers, Stone Barns Center has partnered with Barry Griffin, a design engineer, to develop farming equipment and tools. Called the Slow Tools Project, this partnership brings together leading engineers and farmers to design and build appropriately scaled tools that are lightweight, affordable and open-source. Jill Isenbarger, executive director of Stone Barns Center, points out that this will greatly help small scale farmers: “The challenges [farmers] deal with are significant: high land prices and connection to markets, for instance. Tools shouldn’t be one of them.”

8006Small farms need tools scaled to the size of their operations and specific to the tasks to be accomplished. The availability of ideal tools, priced affordably, would greatly aid the efficiency and competitiveness of local food production. Our group, Slow Tools, is focused on improving tool access for a rapidly growing group of small farmers — commercial intensive organic vegetable growers on 5 acres and less. This is a scale of production that has been ignored by tool manufacturers despite its impressive performance in yield and quality. The many successful Slow Tool type implements that have been developed to date are presently available from the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog. These include the Tilther, numerous Broadfork designs, a complete Soil Block system, a Roller/hole-maker for transplants, the Six Row Seeder, the Quick Cut Harvester, and the Quick Hoops Bender. More are needed.

In the summer of 2015, The Slow Tools Project will focus on the development of A Bed-Former/Shaper powered by a BCS walking tractor; a hug-wheel driven, walken behind electric tool carrier; a two-layer clear plastic blanket for field-scale soil solarizing; and a 30-inch wide stripper/header to harvest grain for poultry.

Local Book CoverTitle: Appropriate Technology
Location: Peter + Mimi Buckley’s Front Porch Farm, Healdsburg, CA
Featuring: Doug Mosel
Found on Page 146 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in AmericaAs farmers reintroduce wheat to strengthen their local food systems, they discover an alarming face: it’s hard to find equipment suited to small farms. Doug Morsel says that with wheat primarily farmed on an industrial scale, the local infrastructure to support the production of wheat has largely disappeared. The resulting scarcity of affordable, appropriately-sized equipment is the greatest challenge facing local grain production. This technology gap also applies to used cleaning and separating equipment as well as access to facilities that clean small quantities of grain. Doug and his combine lend a hand on his friends’ farm.Appropriate technology is environmentally sound technology designed to meet the social and economic conditions of a specific geographic area while ideally promoting greater self-sufficiency. Front Porch Farm’s “Tamalpais” barley; “Our idea is to harvest and malt it, then either distill it ourselves into whiskey or sell it to local breweries as a locally grown malted barley.” The HEDE 140 Combine is a “small plot” combine and is expensive, highly specialized, and manufactures in relatively small numbers. It’s usually used by universities or seed developers to harvest very small test plots that are not intended for production use.

Doug Mosel says, “The closer we get to using the last remaining “ancient sunlight” (petroleum), the smaller and simpler technology will become”



Don’t know where to start when it comes to finding the right tools for cultivating your small garden plot? Dig into this webinar, produced by National Center for Appropriate Technology’s ATTRA project and delivered NCAT’s Andy Pressmen, to find a comprehensive guide of tools for small scale crop production.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 21.07.26Andy Pressman is a Sustainable Agriculture Specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), a non-profit organization that promotes and demonstrates small-scale, local, and sustainable solutions to energy and agriculture.  Andy received a MS degree from Slippery Rock University in Sustainable Systems Design and has a passion for tools and equipment for small-scale agriculture.  Through NCAT’s ATTRA Project – the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service – Andy provides technical assistance and education to farmers and ranchers in the fields of organic crop production, season extension, urban agriculture, and farm energy.  He and his family also operate Foggy Hill Farm, a small diversified family farm located in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

FarmHack logo


[Two weeks ago], an ace team of farmers, fabricators, engineers, and pedal-powered truckers gathered at Metro Pedal Power in Somerville, MA for a weekend build event. What project would bring such an intriguing group of individuals together? Only the culticycle, a pedal-powered cultivating tractor designed by Tim Cooke, that uses human brawn and bicycle brains to replace fossil fuel powered tractors for lightweight field cultivation.

DAPnet logo 2


Farming with draft animals has been Donn Hewes life passion for the last 16 years. As Donn explains, time measurement is a major element to consider when using draft animals; “the first technologies came from labor saving.” However, one of the many reason why Donn looked to using draft animals was in reflection of the continual use of nonrenewable resources in farm machinery. In this video, Donn provides a comprehensive outline of how to integrate horses into your farming practices. From their wide variety of farm application to their ability to give back to the land in the form of manure, Donn emphasizes how farmers have the potential to maintain ecological integrity of their lands and create mutually respectful relationships with their draft animals.
“Horses were not replaced by tractors on our farms because of how much they eat or how many acres is required to keep them. Every farm has a few acres lesser pasture where you keep your horses. They never eat the hay reserved for the milking cows or pregnant animals. Horses and mules were replaced by tractors to reduce human labor, just exactly like machines were added to factories. Human labor is what cost the most and that is what was cut. We need to consider returning to more human labor on our farms not less.” – Donn Hewes

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Donn Hewes and Maryrose Livingston own the Northland Sheep Dairy in Marathon, NY, where they milk 100% grass fed ewes and make farmstead cheese.  Donn does all the farm work with horses and mules, and also teaches teamster skills to aspiring horse farmers.   Donn is an active member of the Draft Animal Power Network, a not for profit organization promoting the use of horses, mules, and oxen in today’s farms and forests.  DAPNet will host the 2015 Draft Animal Power Field Days in Cummington, Mass.  Sept 24th to 27th.


Local Book CoverTitle: Horse Powered
Location: Yates Family Farm, Fleetwood, NC
Featuring: Ian and Kelly Snider, and Frank the horse
Found on Page 148 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in AmericaSustainability for Ian means the ability to meet current needs without compromising those of future generations. Think about the Rio Declaration of 1992. Working with horses is one way Ian and Kelly try to keep that promise. They feel trends and benefit from the greater society like everyone else, but aren’t enslaved by the gas pump. Having horses insulate Ian from the inevitable fluctuations in the global economy.Horse powered means working with equines in a symbiotic agricultural relationship. They complete tasks which require great effort while sustaining themselves and us from the land.

The Suffolk is one of the few popular draft breeds in North America that was developed by farmers for farming. Originally from England’s Suffolk county, these draft animals have especially short cannon bones (the bones just below the knees), meaning only minimal anatomical effort is required for them to take a step. This makes them efficient walkers capable of greater stamina. Plus, their level-headed attitude is founded on a sincere willingness to please. Aside from these exceptional qualities, they are the only draft breed which is always chestnut red in color. As a redhead himself, Ian finds them a wonderful choice functionally and aesthetically. Horses are solar-fueled, self-renewing, and somewhat self-repairing.

I ask Ian, “Why horses?” He says, “This choice is not a nostalgic one, or one motivated by obstinate anti-establishment sentiments. For us, personally, it is not a requirement of our religion. It is however a fiercely spiritual decision, one motivated by deep obligation and a sense of responsibility for those who will come after us. By utilizing the culture of the past, we can find the most hopeful path for the future. Despite centuries of mechanical innovation, horsepower is still the symbolic standard against which all labors are measured.”



Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 21.36.42“Meet the urban cousin of a traditional barn raising” says Yes! Magazine. Here is a story of a marginalized community in Cleveland taking urban farming to the next level. By incorporating a greenhouse design in their neighborhood, growing season can be dramatically extended. In collaboration with Fair Food Network, residents of the Cleveland neighborhood team up to build hoop houses, simple greenhouse designs that protect plants from the seasons and maintain a temperature at least 10 degrees warmer than outside temperatures. Here is an example of how growing in all four seasons is possible! Even in a city!

Learn more from these Cleveland farmers!



Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 16.57.43Low-Tech Magazine, an appropriate technology publication, proposes that the “key” to sustainable farming is recycling animal and human manure. Decker explains how the use of water closets, while convenient, breaks a cycle that could be returning essential nutrients to the soil, and instead pollutes our waterways, consumes large amounts of fresh water, and leaves an agricultural system that is dependent on synthetic fertilizer application, all while consuming large amounts of energy.

Human excrement has not been ubiquitously regarded as “waste” — for thousands of years, China, Korea, and Japan treated it as a valuable trade product and fertilizer. Meanwhile, animal manure or food waste — even absent the taboo associated with humanure — is still wasted, often polluting our environment rather than healing our soil. To reintegrate food scraps and animal and human manure back into our agricultural system presents a huge logistical challenge. However, it is a challenge that can be overcome, but only if we begin to seriously address the issue.

There are a variety of appropriate technologies that have been developed to compost human waste, from the DIY home scale to industrial scale technologies. Perhaps the most well known is Joe Jenkin’s open source Humanure Handbook. SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) works in Haiti to provide access to low-cost ecological sanitation systems while simultaneously transforming human waste into compost that can help repair degraded soils. The Dutch company Orgaworld, meanwhile, creates compost from diapers and other organic waste on an industrial scale.

Local Book CoverTitle: Egg Mobile
Location: Polyface Farm, Swoope, VA
Featuring: Joel Salatin
Found on Page 176 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in AmericaPastures don’t just happen. They are like all biological systems, always in a state of flux between either degeneration or regeneration. Chickens are extremely hard on forage and dump hot manure with a carbon:nitrogen ratio of 7 to 1. As a result, stationary hen houses soon develop bare spots where the forage is tilled out and killed. The soil is overloaded with nitrogen toxicity which leaches into the groundwater and over stimulates grass clumps with bitter forage repugnant to the chickens. If you want a regenerating pasture, you have to manage it for that improvement or it will deteriorate.Egg mobiles are portable hen houses moved every one or two days, preferably behind herbivores, with chickens having access to unimpeded pasturage. Chickens are biological pasture sanitizers. They scratch through cow patties and spread them out, reducing the overload of nutrients in one spot and destroying the incubation environment conducive to parasite development; they eat fly larvae out of cow patties, thus reducing the irritation to the herd, increasing their comfort, health, and performance; chickens eat the newly exposed grasshoppers, crickets, and other herbivorous critters that compete that compete with the cows for the available forage; and chicken scratching pulls up duff and moldy leaves, aerating the soil and freshening the plant structure.



Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 21.40.21Farms come in all shapes and sizes, and apply a variety of different principles and philosophies. As Nathanael Johnson writes, “there are farms that use all sorts of high technology to stay in sync with natural cycles, and even the best low-tech organic farmers find themselves fighting nature every year.”  There is no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to farming strategies. Instead, it’s a matter of what makes sense — As Johnson points out, “[farmers] want the tools and techniques that will give them the best chance of success”.


Have you been known as someone who “tinkers”? Do you like to “do it yourself”? Often times, we don’t even realize we’re participating in appropriate technology. It’s all about making the tools fit and work for you.

  1. Build your sustainable life! Sometimes it’s just easier to build it yourself. Take the project into your own hands! It’s all within arms reach with open source platforms, like Appropedia.
  2. Support another form of economic development. Support resourceful practices.
  3. Find a space to create. More and more “fab labs” are popping up to facilitate space for the inquisitive and investive to collaborate and share resources and knowledge.