SFJ

Facebook  YouTube

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

The Magna Grecia Hoe

The Magna Grecia Hoe

a groundbreaking tool for “the world made by hand”

by Peter Vido of Lower Kintore, NB, Canada

During our 36 years of homesteading/farming we have used, besides tractors and draft horses, a rather wide variety of human-powered tools to work the soil. For a family-size garden a good digging fork has long featured as the most essential of them all, often taking the place of both plow and weeding hoe. The typical nearly square-edged garden spade, by the way, is somewhat useless in our stony ground. So are the likes of the English swan neck or collinear hoes which have been hanging in the shed unused for years. We long ago switched to the toothed cultivators and the pointed hoes (e.g. a Warren hoe), and now have many models of the latter, ranging in weight from 200g to 1000g. Satisfied with them all, we weren’t looking for another principally different hoe design – nor, for that matter, a way to replace the garden forks. But life is full of surprises…

Last spring I put a handle on a curious gardening tool I picked up – more by accident than intent – at the FALCI company in Italy. Ashley, our 17-year-old (a seasoned gardener and enthusiastic digging fork user), was first to try it. She went to deep-till some carrot beds in what mostly was years’ worth of compacted compost, as well as in our new “pasture garden” where, after one rough plowing a year ago with livestock having free access interim, we planned to make a sort of pioneer-style corn and potato patch using only hand tools. We also wanted to see how few tools are really necessary to accomplish the task, yet do it well.

She came back excitedly in a rather short time with a request: “Call to Italy right away and have them send us more of these.” “These” are the Magna Grecia hoes, popular in the Calabria region of South Italy but, interestingly, known in very few other places.

Here is what one looks like:

The Magna Grecia Hoe

YouTube video showing the Magna Grecia Hoe in action

The head weighs 1250g. From eye to tip the tines are 30cm long and the tough, well-beveled chopping blade on the opposite side measures 7 by12cm. The two lanky tines may appear odd – but whoever designed this tool must have understood something about the dynamics of soil penetration that many others apparently have not. We do have other pronged hoes, but I would not have imagined, until the experience with this one, a hand tool to penetrate into soil with such ease – nor be capable, after each swing, of aerating/lifting/moving the amount of earth the Magna Grecia hoe does. The secret must lie in its particular geometry: the gradually tapering prongs (most pronged hoes do not have this taper) and just the right distance between them, so that even our rather loose soil does not, for the most part, slip through. I should perhaps also explain that most of the rocks comprising this otherwise light loam, are actually relatively small (and not readily apparent in the videos). Nevertheless, it does not take much of an imbedded rock to effectively stop the penetration of a wide-bladed tool; hence the “uselessness” of digging spades in this neck of the woods.

Joel Dufour, the founder of Earth Tools, shares his perspective on some of the merit of this tool’s design in the following words:

“For deep aeration and breaking up of soil, the general advantages of a pronged tool cannot be overstated. Not only do the tines displace less soil and generate less resistance entering the soil (due to a smaller overall surface area), but the way a bladed tool cuts arbitrarily through the soil structure (and any earthworms that happen to be in the way) has little respect for the natural capillaries that are present. In short, bladed tools are less friendly to soil structure. A tined tool still divides the soil, of course, but it allows much more natural “breakage” of the soil between the tines. This hoe, with only two prongs, is very friendly in this fashion… and, you will typically damage/kill only a fraction of the worms.”

In any case, in one of our tougher test spots (a rocky pasture, in sod for over 20 years), a 6 inch wide square-face hoe penetrated barely 2 inches deep with approximately the same force that sunk its pointed equivalent 4-5 inches and the Magna Grecia 8-10 inches. And while loosening the second (deeper) layer, the first two hoes were made fools of alongside of the two-pronged workhorse.

The garden forks (the border and the standard versions) did, after appropriate wiggling, penetrate to their respective maximum depths, but both required more time and effort than the Magna Grecia hoe.

The broad forks (The Lee Valley Tools’ model and the super tough Meadow Creature) were simply useless. Jumping upon them with the complete might of my 160 lbs. and prying to-and-fro plus sideways, about 3 inches was all the penetration we accomplished. (The overall width of the U-bar diggers is — under certain soil conditions — obviously “too much of a good thing”…)

Another peculiar thing we’ve become aware of while comparing the square-bottomed as well as the pointed hoes with the Magna Grecia is that in any other but very loose soil the first two designs give the arms a slight jar whenever they reach the end of each swing’s penetrating depth. The pronged hoe feels different; even when driven up to its neck into the ground, there appears to be some “magical” cushioning effect. Consequently it causes notably less fatigue during ex- tended use. (However, this is a radically different digging tool than North American gardeners are used to, and notwithstanding the fact that we are so thrilled with it, it may not be for everyone… please read NOTE – below).

The conclusion?

First of all – and I quote Joel Dufour again – “there is no doubt that different types of tools have advantages or disadvantages DEPENDING ON SOIL TYPE AND CONDITIONS (for example, clay vs. loam vs. sandy; rocky vs. clear; glacial rocks vs. ‘plate'(sedimentary) rocks, etc.), but the point is: This hoe (and it is difficult to even term it a “hoe,” the design is so unique…it’s more of a fork that you swing) can work quite effectively for many tasks in a variety of soil types and conditions.”

Secondly – after a full season of testing the Magna Grecia — I think that if the concept of EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) were applied to a movement with a gardening tool — the goal being to penetrate, loosen and partially prepare the soil so that seeds could (after some version or another of surface prepa- ration) be planted — this unusual two-pronged hoe would outperform most, if not all other hand digging tools presently sold in North America.

This is no small issue – because a question must be raised: How much endurance do we have as a future nation of gardeners, and how much energy at our disposal? That remains to be seen, though there will likely be very little, if anything to spare… We will also, by necessity, be starting thousands of gardens from scratch, many of them in “marginal” places.

Furthermore, I have an uneasy feeling that the plethora of tools we’ve learned to take for granted may not be always readily available. We have, in recent decades, lived like spoiled children with too many toys, and it would be foolhardy to assume that this can go on forever. The manufacture of the majority of our hand tools has already been outsourced overseas, with hundreds of former US and Canadian factories gutted and now devoid of equipment – because the economic model of the day dictated that it be so.

The only “positive” side effect of such development is that we can now buy many tools at prices below what it would cost to produce them in our homeland. The long-term negative side effects are two-fold:

a) it has depreciated the inherent value of tools in general. (The value of a shovel – in the mind of the average consumer – has come to be $9.99 or thereabouts. If someone, for instance, breaks its handle, the whole tool often ends up in the dump because “it is cheaper” to walk into one of the superstores and buy another complete tool than to replace the handle. The individuals who, for the time being, most benefit by this attitude are the shareholders and CEOs of the corporations importing shovels from India or China to North America.)

b) it has substantially increased the vulnerability of America’s common folk (who have simultaneously been losing the resilience and survival-oriented ingenuity of previous generations) in face of the changes ahead. What changes? Well, there are many probable scenarios lurking on the horizon, all of them seriously challenging — whether related to climate change, Peak Oil, potential conflict over resources or ideology, and of course, the Ponzi-style financial system poised now for a series of bubble-bursting that nobody appears to know how to prevent in other than a temporary bailout manner…

As for the “benefit” of fewer rather than more tools alluded to earlier, I see it as an issue of conservation ethic, as well as solidarity. Throughout much of agricultural history — and, in many regions of the world still today — a farmer/gardener has (or can only afford) but ONE soil-working tool.

Whether we willingly choose to preserve resources or express solidarity, having a shed full of non-essential tools will likely not always be an option for most of us… and certainly not for our children.

Interim, while the present infrastructure still functions, one of our urgent tasks may well be to drop some preconceptions of what is adequate/sufficient/necessary, while seriously exploring unconventional concepts, tools and ways to use them – in many areas besides gardening, of course.

NOTE: In general, a pronged hoe requires more “tool sense” (i.e. the sense to recognize the strength limits of the tool BEFORE it is seriously damaged) from its user. This may be the obstacle in making the Magna Grecia (or a hoe of similar design) popular among the relatively new North American gardeners/small farmers/homesteaders — many of whom appear to lack this sense

The challenge here, in principle, is the same as with garden forks — the bending of their prongs is far more frequent than damage to spades (manufactured to the same quality specs by the same enterprise).

A considerably heavier dose of right relationship between hardness and toughness (ability of a steel tool to “spring” without breaking) is necessary in the case of a pronged digging tool than a shovel or a solid-bodied hoe. Although the version of Magna Grecia we’ve tested does meet the criteria, a tool which is at once easy to yield, penetrates deeply and displaces as much soil with one movement can only take so much abuse…

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

Cultivating Questions A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Cultivating Questions: A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Market gardening became so much more relaxing for us and the horses after developing a Horsedrawn Guidance System. Instead of constantly steering the horses while trying to lay out straight rows or cultivate the vegetables, we could put the team on autopilot and focus our whole attention on these precision tasks. The guidance system has been so effective that we have trusted visiting chefs to cultivate the lettuce we planned on harvesting for them a few weeks later.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Follow-Up On Phosphorus

We like to think that the bio-extensive approach to market gardening minimizes the risk of overloading the soil with nutrients because the fallow lands make it possible to grow lots of cover crops to maintain soil structure and organic matter rather than relying on large quantities of manure and compost. However, we are now seeing the consequences of ignoring our own farm philosophy when we resorted to off-farm inputs to correct a phosphate deficiency.

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1

I am certainly not the most able of dairymen, nor the most skilled among vegetable growers, and by no means am I to be counted amongst the ranks of the master teamsters of draft horses. If there is anything remarkable about my story it is that someone could know so little about farming as I did when I started out and still manage to make a good life of it.

Loose Hay with Ryan Foxley

Loose Hay with Ryan Foxley A Farmrun Production by Andrew Plotsky

The Way To The Farm

Lise Hubbe stops mid-furrow at plowing demonstration for Evergreen State College students. She explains that the plow was going too deep…

Sustainable

Sustainable

Sustainable is a documentary film that weaves together expert analysis of America’s food system with a powerful narrative of one extraordinary farmer who is determined to create a sustainable future for his community. In a region dominated by commodity crops, Marty Travis has managed to maintain a farming model that is both economically viable and environmentally safe.

The Forcing of Plants

The Forcing of Plants

by:
from issue:

It is always advisable to place coldframes and hotbeds in a protected place, and particularly to protect them from cold north winds. Buildings afford excellent protection, but the sun is sometimes too hot on the south side of large and light-colored buildings. One of the best means of protection is to plant a hedge of evergreens. It is always desirable, also, to place all the coldframes and hotbeds close together, for the purpose of economizing time and labor.

Wheel Hoe

The Wheel Hoe: A Tool For Shallow Tillage

When we bought this little farm I soon realized I needed a wheel hoe. The size of the horse and tractor dictated space wasting wide rows in crop production and, to some degree, so does my two wheeled tractor.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 1

Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 3

What goes with the sale? What does not? Do not assume the irrigation pipe and portable hen houses are selling. Find out if they go with the deal, and in writing.

Planting Calendar and Other Diagrams

From Dusty Shelves: A 1943 calendar for seeding your vegetable garden.

Farmrun - Sylvester Manor

Sylvester Manor

Sylvester Manor is an educational farm on Shelter Island, whose mission is to cultivate, preserve, and share these lands, buildings, and stories — inviting new thought about the importance of food, culture and place in our daily lives.

No Starving Children!

You’d never be able to harvest the broccoli or the hay or milk the cows or make the cheese if it were subject to government process. Not only are our industrial farms too big…

Biodynamic Meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm

Biodynamic Meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm

by:
from issue:

One weekend I attended a Biodynamic meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm in Dorena, Oregon, in the Row River Valley, just east of Cottage Grove. I always enjoy seeing other food growing operations, as this is such an infinitely broad subject, there is always much to learn from others’ experiences. At this farm, draft horses are used for much of the work.

Beating the Beetles – War & Peace in a Houston Garden

Blooming that is, unless the cucumber beetles arrive first.
And arrive they have … “At first I thought they looked like big, yellow lady bugs.” Paul said, “Then I looked…

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

by:
from issue:

At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

Week in the Life of D Acres

Week in the Life of D Acres

by:
from issue:

D Acres of New Hampshire in Dorchester, a permaculture farm, sustainability center, and non-profit educational organization, is a bit of a challenge to describe. Join us for this week-in-the-life tour, a little of everything that really did unfold in this manner. Extraordinary, perhaps, only in that these few November days were entirely ordinary.

A Year of Contract Grazing

A Year of Contract Grazing

by:
from issue:

Contract grazing involves the use of livestock to control specific undesirable plants, primarily for ecological restoration and wildfire prevention purposes. The landowners we worked for saw grazing as an ecologically friendly alternative to mowing, mechanical brush removal, and herbicide application.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT