The Dirt on Broadforks

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What’s the dirt on broadforks anyway? Have you heard of these tools? Have you used one yourself? What if I told you that there’s a tool out there which reduces the need for tilling? What if I said that─when used in tandem with other practices aimed at promoting agrodiversity─this tool promotes soil health, encourages wildlife and ecological diversity, as well as increases or improves production of your farm or homestead operation? What if I told you this miracle tool doesn’t even require gasoline or electricity?

the dirt on broadforks

As a conservationist I naturally align with the concept of soil preservation as the key to a sustainable farm or homestead: afterall, it is our soil’s ability to function as a vital, living ecosytem that sustains the plants, animals and humans upon it. There’s already a fabulous amount of wildlife and biodiversity here at our new location, but the soil is a little on the poor side. The grasses grow sparsely, and the back pasture has only been minimally managed to provide an annual hay crop, so improving the health of the soil is one of the first things I want to focus on. I’ve known about broadforks for years, but it’s only now that Runamuk has a permanent location that I can really begin to dig deep and build upon the soil for the long-term viability of my farm. The time has finally come: I bought a broadfork─and I am so stoked.

Why use a broadfork?

broadforkIf you’re at all concerned about preserving or promoting soil health, the broadfork is a great tool to have in your gardening arsenal. Using a broadfork the grower can preserve soil life by reducing tillage or avoiding it all together.

This is a simple, yet powerful tool which efficiently loosens the soil without flipping it upside down. The vertical tines penetrate the soil, leaving it’s profile still upright, allowing water and air to penetrate. This creates an ideal environment for root-growth and makes it possible to build soil levels and a rich humus.

Healthy soil is comprised of varying layers, each serving a different purpose. Bacteria, fungi, earthworms and other invertebrates take up residence in the different stories, each layer offering conditions that are just the right level of moisture and aeration for it’s particular inhabitants. When you til or double dig you disrupt this ecology, destroying your soil’s population and causing them to divert their attention from doing their work to rebuilding their homes.

Reducing tillage to encourage soil health can allow you to grow more intensively, and produce better-looking crops in your loose and well-aerated soil. Many market-growers are siting this as the key to their success─check out Eliot Coleman, Curtis Stone, Jean-Martin Fortier, and Richard Perkins! And even if you’re not trying to go to market with your crops, you can still maximize yields by promoting healthier soil in your garden.

History

The broadfork was introduced and popularized in the United States in the early 1990’s by Eliot Coleman, author of the New Organic Grower, which has become something of a bible for many market growers today. Coleman discovered a tool called the “grelinette” in use in France, where it had been invented by Andre Grelinin in the 1960s.

How to use

Firstly, it’s important to realize that a broadfork does not completely eliminate the need for tilling. If you’re attempting to cultivate an entirely new patch of ground, I’d encourage you to look at it as a long-term project: do an initial tilling in order to break up the sod and loosen the soil. Also, if the soil becomes too compacted over the years, you might consider bringing the tiller out again. However, if you are able to maintain rich, healthy soils in your gardens and avoid compaction, the broadfork may very well be the only tool you’ll ever need for bed preparation.

It’s really simple to use, with the added benefit of providing a great work-out. The grower simply sinks the tips of the tines into the garden bed, then steps onto the crossbar with his/her full body weight to sink them in deeper. Using the leverage of the handlebars, the soil is loosened by working the handles back and forth with a rowing motion.

Check out this video featuring my colleague, Adam Lemieux (the JSS “Tool-Dude”), to see this tool in action:

There are many different makes and models of the same tool out there, produced by a myriad of different companies. By all means, I encourage you to do your homework and find the one that meets your particular needs. I went with Johnny’s 727 broadfork: 27-inches wide, with 7 tines because I intend to adopt the industry standard of 30-inch beds in the gardens here at Runamuk’s #foreverfarm. Also, I get a pretty sweet discount as an employee.

Starting With the Soil

I’ve waited years for the chance to steward my own piece of Earth─for the chance to try the practices and methods for agroecology that I’ve so long studied. Now that Runamuk finally has a permanent location, I can focus more on the long-term health of the land I’m working─starting with the soil. You can expect to see more articles forthcoming about soil health, agroecology and conservation-agriculture.

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