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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

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.

Chicken Guano: Top-Notch Fertilizer

Whoever thought I’d be singing the praises of chicken poop? I am, and I’m not the only one. Chickens are walking nitrogen-rich manure bins.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

by: ,
from issue:

If you were visiting Earth from some other planet and had to describe its inhabitants upon your return, you might say that the average person eats rice, and grows it as well, usually on a small scale. You’d be accurately describing the habits of over a quarter of the world’s population. Rice has a special story with an exciting chapter now unfolding in the northeast USA among a small but growing group of farmers and growers.

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

Amidst all of the possibility that is out there, all of the options and uncertainties, it helps to remember that there is also a strong community in the draft-farming world. There are a great many like-minded yet still diverse people working with draft horses and ready to share their experiences. What will serve us well within this great variety of farms and farmers is to keep in touch, to learn from one another’s good ideas and mistakes and to keep on farming with draft power.

The First Year

The First Year

by:
from issue:

Prior to last year, I had felt I knew the nuances of the land quite well and fancied myself as knowledgeable about the course of the natural world. Outdoors was where I felt the most comfortable. The fresh air and endless views of fields, hills and valleys renewed my spirit and refreshed my mind. I didn’t think there was much that could fluster me when it came to the land. Until I became an organic farmer.

Farm To School Programs Take Root

All aim to re-connect school kids with healthy local food.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

by:
from issue:

Three different parcels of land were committed for a series of tests to directly compare the impact of tractors and horses on the land. One side of each parcel was worked only with horses and the other only with tractors. There were measurable differences between each side of the worked areas; the land’s capacity to hold water and greater aeration were up to 45cm higher in areas worked by horses as opposed to tractors.

Birth of a Farm

Birth of a Farm

by:
from issue:

“Isn’t it nice?” I offer to my supper companions, “to see our beautiful horses right while we’re eating? I feel like I’m on a Kentucky horse farm, with rolling bluegrass vistas.” I sweep my arm dramatically towards the view, the rigged up electric fence, the lawn straggling down to the pond, the three horses, one of whom is relieving herself at the moment. “Oh, huh,” he answers. “I was thinking it was more like a cheesy bed and breakfast.”

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

Book Excerpt: The enclosed gear, late model John Deere, Case, Oliver, David Bradley, and McCormick Deering International mowers I (we) are so fond of had a zenith of popular manufacture and use that lasted just short of 25 years. Millions of farmers with millions of mowers, built to have a serviceable life of 100 plus years, all pushed into the fence rows. I say, it was far too short of a period.

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

by:
from issue:

The amount of manure produced must be considered in planning a cropping system for a farm. If one wishes to manure one-fifth of the land every year with 10 tons per acre, there would have to be provided two tons per year for each acre of the farm. This would require about one cow or horse, or equivalent, for each six acres of land.

LittleField Notes Seed Irony

LittleField Notes: Seed Irony

by:
from issue:

They say to preserve them properly, seeds should be kept in a cool, dark place in a sealed, dry container. Yet the circumstances under which seeds in a natural environment store themselves (so to speak) seem so far from ideal, that it’s a wonder plants manage to reproduce at all. But any gardener knows that plants not only manage to reproduce, they excel at it. Who hasn’t thrown a giant squash into the compost heap in the fall only to see some mystery squash growing there the next summer?

Organic To Be or Not To Be

Organic: To Be or Not To Be

by:
from issue:

How do our customers know that we’re accurately representing our products? That’s the key, the reason that a third party verification system was created, right? I think this is the beauty of a smaller-scale, community-based direct market food system. During parts of the year, my customers drive past my sheep on their way to the farmers’ market. At all times of the year, we welcome visitors to our farm. In other words, our production practices are entirely open for our customers to see.

To Market, To Market, To Buy A Fat Pig

Within so-called alternative agriculture circles there are turf wars abrew

Such a One Horse Outfit

Such a One Horse Outfit

by:
from issue:

One day my stepfather brought over a magazine he had recently subscribed to. It was called Small Farmer’s Journal published by a guy named Lynn Miller. That issue had a short story about an old man that used a single small mule to garden and skid firewood with. I was totally fascinated with the prospect of having a horse and him earning his keep. It sorta seemed like having your cake and eating it too.

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.

The Woodfired Bottom-heated Greenhouse Bench

Cultivating Questions: The Woodfired Bottom-heated Greenhouse Bench

It took several incarnations to come up with a satisfactory design for the bottom heated greenhouse bench. In the final version we used two 55 gallon drums welded end-to-end for the firebox and a salvaged piece of 12” stainless steel chimney for the horizontal flue. We learned the hard way that a large firebox and flue are necessary to dissipate the intense heat into the surrounding air chamber and to minimize heat stress on these components.

Littlefield Notes On Getting Organized and Devising Handy Contrivances

LittleField Notes: On Getting Organized & Devising Handy Contrivances

by:
from issue:

Contrary to the bucolic notion of the “simple” country life, farming is anything but simple. The operation of a successful farm involves a complex array of decisions involving crops, livestock, weather, markets, strict planting and harvesting windows, life and death, pests and weeds. The challenge is to successfully navigate these turbid waters through the seasons and profit economically, biologically and personally.

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