Urban agriculture has been a hot topic of discussion. Cities across North America are looking at their planning and zoning codes to include urban food production, urban livestock, and commercial direct market distribution by peri-urban farms. I grew up a city kid, more or less, and my first real impulse to start farming was to start with urban agriculture. Small scale was something I could get my head around and seemed to contain the possibility of simple efficiencies. Jac Smit, the man who started The Urban Agriculture Network, gave me some great advice when I was trying to get started. “Go learn production from farmers,” he said, and I followed that advice. I thought I’d go work on farms for a year or two and then bring back what I had learned to the city. I learned a lot about production in a year or two, but the farther I got into it the more I realized how much more there was to learn. It took me more than a decade to get back to the small urban scale that I originally envisioned.
Slow Hand Farm is my current farming operation and personal farming experimental laboratory. It’s unique in a number of ways and although it contains elements of my original visions, in the end it’s largely informed by what I’ve learned from watching larger scale farmers over the years. The farm is a 1/4 acre, hand-worked CSA just outside of Portland Oregon. The CSA goes year round with four separate seasons and between 30 and 55 very small shares per season. Here are the tools I’ve come to over the last three years of working the space.
Bed preparation is done by hand. I rented a friend’s BCS with a tiller and rotary plow for two days last year to break up some sod. While it was faster up front, it just delayed the work of really loosening up the bed until this year. From the start most of the sod and plant material on the beds has been stripped using either a Japanese farmer hoe (hidatool.com) or a sharpened D handled spade (claringtonforge.com). Sharp tools make a huge difference here. I did double dig a few beds in the early days, but there’s never enough time so now I use a D handled spading fork (also Clarington Forge) to roughly loosen the bed and then a Dewitt seed rake (earthtoolsbcs.com) to break up the clods and smooth the surface. Years ago I took a double digging class from John Jeavons and the ergonomic details from that class have stuck with me and those also make a big difference in being able to dig efficiently for extended periods.
There are some beds that are rocky and I’ve recently been using a Magna Grecia hoe from earthtoolsbcs.com, which is a great tool for loosening rocky soil. I also have a stainless steel digging fork, which is a less expensive double for my Clarington Forge tool. The one advantage of the stainless is that it is less sticky in wet soil.
All of these tools are very well built, but not indestructible. I’ve bent or broken almost all of them at one point or another by overdoing it. Fortunately, they are all repairable, and if you don’t abuse them they’ll last many, many years. There are a few other tools that I use occasionally including an SHW debris rake for flattening and fine raking of direct-seeded beds, a Japanese farmer rake for breaking up clods and a rotary cultivator for creating a fine seed bed surface (lehmans.com).
An essential field tool for me is a heavy duty wheelbarrow. It fits easily down my pathways and I use it in conjunction with a Clarington Forge compost fork to pick up and remove loose plant material and build compost piles. I also use the combination for loading finished compost into the wheelbarrow and then I spread it on beds with the spade.
Planting and cultivating
Most crops on the farm are transplanted. Initially I thought I’d direct seed everything but the particular soil I have is very hard to germinate seed in. For transplanting I’ve been using a reel tape to get straight lines and even spacing and a Clarington Forge transplanting trowel. I also like the Corona trowels, but they’re not as easily sharpened, and my soil can be hard, especially when I’m rushing to prepare a bed and the moisture isn’t perfect.
Direct seeding is mostly done with a Johnny’s 6-row seeder. It is really best used in conjunction with the Tilther (johnnyseeds.com) on more even soil, which I don’t have. It does give near perfectly even stands of turnips and arugula, though.
I have a number of hoes, including the above mentioned Japanese farmer hoe that I use for pathways and clearing beds. I really like the 4” colinear and 6” Dewitt swan neck hoes for their upright positions and narrow heads that fit under plants easily. After I wrote an article on hoes (May 2010 GFM), Hooke and Crooke sent me one of their Heron Hoes to trial. I was skeptical but it turns out to be a really excellent hoe and I find myself using the other two much less these days (I have a review of the hoe at joshvolk.com). For wet conditions, especially where I just want to break rain crust, I like the SHW 4 tine cultivator.
Most of the farm is on drip tape and this year I plumbed dedicated hoses to each header so I just had to flip valves to change sections. I also had one section, the direct seeded section, irrigated with mini sprinklers. I like the Ein Dor sprinkler heads (dripworks.com) for their full 360° pattern, small size and larger droplets. The timer on my iPhone timer gets a workout on irrigation days reminding me to flip valves every hour or so. Without it I used to lose track easily.
I’m only at the farm two days a week so my propagation house is totally automated. I use Ein Dor sprinklers on the propagation tables run by a battery timer, which (knock on wood) hasn’t failed in two years of constant use. For starting seeds I have a mini table-top greenhouse inside the unheated hoop house. Inside that I have four Hydro Farm electric heat mats with a thermostat. All venting of the table top greenhouse and unheated hoop house is done with automatic wax cylinder vent openers (groworganic.com).
I love my farm-built cedar propagation flats, but they take a lot of soil and are harder to plant out of so I use standard 1020 plug trays in 32, 128 and 200 cell sizes. All of the benches in the greenhouse are built from old barn siding and 2x4s.
Harvest and packing out
On harvest mornings I strap on a belt with a lettuce knife in a sheath and I have a small No 8 Opinel pocket knife in my pocket. The Opinel is for summer squash and I use the lettuce knife for everything else that’s not hand picked. I do occasionally use Felcos or Japanese Gardencut Shears for perennial herbs with woody stems.
For harvest containers we have plastic bulb crates, which are castoffs from the nursery industry. We also use Daco stack-and-nest tubs, which we were able to find used from a vineyard. The barn is so close to the field that everything is carried out of the field straight to the barn. This is a little less efficient than carting it, but I’ve found that my back really appreciates breaking up the stoop labor with short walks. I think it makes a big difference ergonomically.
My wash and pack setup is very basic. I have a spray-down table built from barn siding and 2x4s, and an old utility sink basin on a 2x4 stand. All of the CSA shares are packed into damp cotton promotional bags which are hung from 2x2s held up on saw horses. I don’t have any cooling so I rely on the cold well water I dunk vegetables in, evaporative cooling from the bags, and shade to keep the produce cool. CSA shares are harvested in the morning and distributed in the afternoon. Even three days later when I collect left-behind shares (it happens all the time) the vegetables are in good shape and completely usable, with few exceptions.
My CSA shares are very, very small. My goal is to make a share that is just enough for one person to have a few side dishes a week, or to accent main dishes. After years of working on CSAs where shares were split multiple ways by the members and where people said they weren’t signing up because it was too much, I thought I’d make a share that was accessible to single folks who don’t cook a lot, or who shop at the farmers market too, or who just want to try CSA without a big investment. Folks who want a bigger share just order multiple shares. The bagged shares are placed in wooden boxes that I take to the distribution sites.
The role of urban farming
While the farm itself is actually outside of town, it is completely on an urban agriculture scale and provides an example for workshops on intensive production.
In a larger sense, I think that any discussion of scaling up the supply of local food has to include urban agriculture and an increase in the number and quality of very small operations. I think of my farm as a “gateway CSA,” giving folks who want to dip their toe in before they jump an opportunity to try out CSA on a small scale, and connect with the way their food is grown in a very personal way.
Josh Volk writes about tools regularly in GFM. Reach him through his website, www.joshvolk.com.