On the Ground With Toolmakers Helping Small Farmers Keep it Local - Modern Farmer

On the Ground With Toolmakers Helping Small Farmers Keep it Local

Local farmers need locally-made tools. Here are just a few of the tool providers making it happen.

The Ronnie Baugh Tractors two-wheel and four-wheel tractors and the hand-push tool carrier on display in Paint Rock, AL
Photography by Ronnie Baugh Tractors

Since the back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s, many dedicated land workers have championed the hard work of DIY, highlighting self-sufficiency and personal growth, as well as an increased connection to the earth as hard-won sources of joy. Small farmers often tout the benefits of shopping locally, including improving food security and contributing to the local economy. Because of the stories and advocacy of dedicated land stewards who so keenly express the advantages of buying close to home, many folks have embraced local sources of food and other household goods. However, when it comes to buying tools to use on the farm, homesteaders and farmers often run to Tractor Supply or click “add to cart” on Amazon when they are in need of an implement to get the job done. 

In part, this is due to the dearth of American-made tools. While John Deere and some other tractor brands are manufactured in the US, their tractors are notoriously expensive. And for many years, farmers were obligated to buy only licensed parts and use only certified repair shops to work on their equipment. For cash-strapped farmers, the inability to service their own equipment was often a crushing financial blow. Although there have recently been reforms to this policy because of “right-to repair” advocacy, many farmers are still distrustful of these large manufacturers. There are also precious few locally made options for hand tools that are more suited to a homestead or small human-scale farm. 

If we want a future with more farmers, more fresh, healthy food and stronger local economies, we need infrastructure that supports small growers. Locally made tools, from hoes to tractors, are an important part of that support system and confer many of the same advantages as locally grown food. Meet three US-based toolmakers who want to change the landscape of tool buying and making to better support their local farmers and communities.

Conor Crickmore filming an educational video on his farm. Photography courtesy of Neversink Tools.

Conor Crickmore, Neversink Tools, Claryville, NY

Conor Crickmore is a farmer, first and foremost. At Neversink Farm, he works 1.3 acres of highly productive organic vegetables with help from a handful of part-time employees. Many folks know Crickmorefrom his popular series of farming instructional videos. These videos grew out of projects that were started for fun and, eventually, spurred on by positive feedback, grew into extensive informational courses. Crickmore described a similarly organic progression when establishing his tool business, which started in his garage. “On my farm, there were just certain tools we needed. We were not intending to start a business; we just wanted to cover the costs of making them,” he says. But demand for his tools was high and, six years later, Neversink tools employs seven people in a shop outfitted with specialized equipment such as composite molds and a metal-stamping setup. 

Because Neversink Tools manufactures the tools it sells, it has e the flexibility to constantly tinker with design and update tools quickly. One of its most popular tools, the patented Mutineer hoe, features a system of interchangeable heads so farmers can choose the one best suited to cultivate in every condition. The lightweight heads can be carried on a carabiner, making it ideal for human-scale farms. 

The Neversink team focuses on improving or upgrading existing tools or making specialized tools that fill a need on small intensive-production farms. “If we are going to make something that’s already out there, we are solving a problem. We don’t make something just because.”

All the work at Neversink Farm is guided by the ethos of constant improvement. There is a beautiful optimism in all of its content that tells farmers that they, too, can be successful and run a profitable business. “Farmers are creating incredible businesses and complicated infrastructures that support their hard work,” says Crickmore. 

Seth Pauley at his forge. Photography courtesy of Red Pig Tools.

Seth Pauley, Red Pig Tools, West Linn, OR

Pauley is a blacksmith who forges his tools with an anvil and hammer, using equal parts artistry and strength. Pauley makes all the Red Pig products by hand with help from a couple of apprentices who are learning the art of smithing. Many of the designs are taken from old-world tools that are hundreds or thousands of years old, although Pauley also makes custom orders upon request.

Red Pig tools are designed to withstand the hard work of producing food. Handles for its hoes and other tools can be chosen to match the user’s height and can be easily replaced. Pauley hopes to disrupt the disposable consumer mindset and empower folks to service their own tools and take pride in artfully made objects, just as they take pride in their gardens. He recognizes that his tools are more expensive than the same item from a box store, but he says that, over time, the value is greater. “You can get a good tool that can last you a lifetime… You can sharpen it. You may even learn to use a welding rig… There’s a lot of things you can learn to do to make a good tool last.” To support folks along this journey, Pauley makes himself available for phone calls and shop visits and tirelessly educates folks at garden shows and other venues.

He emphasizes that well-designed, well-built hand tools can help reduce the barrier to entry for small farmers, for whom tractors and power equipment can be financially out of reach. “You don’t have to be limited by the cost of the equipment,” he says. “You don’t have to play the same game as the bigger farms.” 

He, too, is optimistic about the future of sustainable farming. “I am seeing a lot of younger people who are more interested in growing things and doing something outside of a traditional 9-5 office job,” says Pauley. “There’s a lot of people who are interested in doing things or making things and that’s only gaining traction.” 

A RonnA Ronnie Baugh tractor on the warehouse floor. Photography courtesy of Ronnie Baugh Tractors.

Horace Green, Ronnie Baugh Tractors, Paint Rock, AL

At 89 years old, Horace Green sees his tool company as a part of a wider picture that can help bring back small, productive rural economies. Growing up in rural Alabama, Green remembers how the transition from mule to mechanization helped small farmers. But he also keenly recalls how the “go big or go home” era of ag policy decimated rural communities. He emphasizes finding the right tool for the right scale. Ronnie Baugh offers lightweight, tractors that can be customized by their width, height and center of gravity. 

Even in the US, the price of a full-size tractor is still out of reach for many small-scale farmers. Smaller, two-wheel tractors as well as hand-push tool carriers are in development at the shop. A former software engineer, Green firmly believes in open-source design and is committed to the right to repair. The new products are made using common parts such as bicycle wheels, which will allow farmers to source, build and repair components themselves. These push-driven cultivators can be upgraded using a bicycle motor and the adjustable toolbar can be swapped over to a larger two-wheel tractor. While the barrier to entry is low, the company still prioritizes quality. “We build for the life of the farmer, not the life of the product,” says Green. 

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