Farming and gardening have been key components of human life for thousands of years. They produce food but they also create a huge market for goods and services from companies aiming to farm the farmers. In taking on the production of food and maintaining the independence necessary to realize a profit, farmers often find themselves needing to invent their own equipment and do their own research.
Farming is not a “one size fits all” business. There are tremendous differences in soil and climate, crops and markets, often year to year. That opens up a lot of room for information sharing and “citizen science”. Those are the kinds of information I find most helpful as a farmer. In that vein I want to share a couple of inventions that I have developed for my farm and welcome any other ideas and experiences from other farmer/gardeners.
Usually coming up with something new requires a significant amount of trial and error, or as accountants like to call it “research and development”. In my case, after learning how important it is to give nutrients back to the soil in order to maintain a healthy biome, I tried different ways to mix mulches and spread them on the soil around my grape vines.
I thought I had the perfect combination in a very large old mortar mixer and a wheel barrow if I could make the loading simpler. So I built a nice concrete block stand for the 800 pound mixer so a wheel barrow could pull in below it and I built a platform next to it for easy loading. With everything in place I ran an electrical extension cord 300 feet out to the mixer. It barely turned, certainly not without enough strength to mix a hundred pounds of compost, manure, shredded prunings and biochar. So much for the perfect combination.
I looked into running heavy-duty wire out to the mixer. Very expensive and not guaranteed to work. I mixed everything by hand for a year or so. Hard and time-consuming. So one night I rethought the whole process. Despite its weight, the mixer only has a 20 to 30 gallon capacity. Everything would need to be put into buckets or larger containers, lifted onto the platform and dumped in the mixer while it was running. Then the load would need to be dumped into a wheel barrow and run out to where it was needed.
But what if I made something from a 55 gallon steel drum that could mix the mulch? 55 gallons would be a lot more efficient than 20 or 30. Actually, if I could roll the barrel, it would mix itself. If I could add ingredients from different piles right into the barrel in no particular order, no preloading would be necessary. The mulch-mixer-mover, (M3), idea was conceived.
Building it took part of a day. Used oil barrels cost $10 at Real Steel near Kettle Falls. Some steel pipe fittings and other odds and ends, mostly from around the shop, rounded out the materials needed. This article is probably not the place for technical details so I will skip those. The photo should help. In use, since the weight above and below the center axle is balanced, a 200 lb load can be pulled into place with one hand. After you remove the hatch and roll it over a few times, the load is dumped and ready to spread with a rake. Simple, fast and cheap.
Another continual chore around the garden and vineyards was sifting soil. I had some screens that I would put garden dirt on full of quack grass roots and use the screen to toss the dirt in the air, catch it again and sift out the roots. The same kind of cycle was necessary for refining compost, getting bark out of sawdust or tree roots out of dirt.
This was a case of reinventing the wheel. I thought of other devices I had seen for sifting gravel deposits and mining ore. They all used a rotating screen with a slight angle so fine material would sift out near the top and larger pieces would fall out of the back. This setup is called a trommel. I didn’t know that at the time but found a bunch of videos online on how to make your own “soil sifter”. They were all a little different and took some time, an electric motor and some other material to build. Or you could pay $500 for a really nice one from Europe. Since then with the word, trommel, I can Google hand crank versions for under $200.
I didn’t have much time or money but one day I was exasperated with a sore back. I knew I needed to upgrade from the handheld screen sifter. So I decided to just try out the concept. I started with a cylinder of 6” mesh screen that we had made into trellises for tomatoes. I put some finer 2” hardware cloth inside. Then I set it on top of a wheel barrow and tossed in a few shovelfuls of sawdust and bark. I rolled it over a couple times and voila! The bark stayed and the sawdust fell into the wheel barrow. I dumped the bark out the back. No need for motors or anything else. Now sifting soil is almost fun.
I would say these are the two biggest time and labor saving gizmos on the farm. There are a few more, but you get the idea. Work with what you have and spread the word. Nearly the same concept applies to doing your own tests on soil and plant vitality. A big new trend in crop management is to test the sap of both crops and weeds. The density and Ph of the sap can tell you a lot about what is going on with the plants. It changes daily, even hourly. You can quantify the effects of water, fertilizer, sprays and other management practices. More about that in another article, but for now, make your own gizmos and control your budget as well as your crops.