Sustainability Book Chat
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Whether you can’t quite find the exact tools you need for your farm or you think you can improve on what’s available or you simply like to build your own, Josh Volk’s latest book, Build Your Own Farm Tools provides tons of inspiration and hard-learned lessons.
Volk says he was always taking apart toys as a child and worked his way through college as a bicycle mechanic before getting a degree in mechanical engineering. Then when he turned to farming, it was only natural for him to start building his own tools.
In today’s episode, he talks about some of the 15 tools he included in the book, including a seedling bench and drip winder. Not only does he tell you how to make each tool in the book, he also talks about why it’s useful and how to use it.
Josh Volk’s other book:
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Build Your Own Farm Tools – Transcript
Deborah Niemann 0:04
Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever size your living space, you can do more than you think to lead a greener lifestyle. In the “Sustainability Book Chat,” we are talking to authors and experts about all the different ways that achieving sustainability is within your reach.
Deborah Niemann 0:28
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. This is going to be really interesting, especially for those of you who are into DIY, because I am joined today by Josh Volk of Slow Hand Farm who is going to be talking about his latest book about how to Build Your Own Farm Tools. Welcome to the show today, Josh.
Josh Volk 0:50
Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Deborah Niemann 0:53
So, the first thing I think that would just help people to get an idea of, like, where all this is coming from is: Can you tell us a little bit about your background with farming?
Josh Volk 1:02
Yeah. So, I actually kind of got inspired and started off in an urban setting. Kind of grew up more or less urban, you know, with my parents’ backyard gardens and that kind of thing. And, I didn’t really think of farming at all as something that I wanted to do, and ended up with a mechanical engineering degree. But then, when I was working as a mechanical engineer just out of college, I started volunteering in some larger community gardens and taking some classes from—or read John Jeavons’ book, How to Grow More Vegetables, and taking some workshops from him. I actually was in Palo Alto, which is where their original project was—Ecology Action’s original project. And anybody who doesn’t know about that, it’s a great thing to look up. And that got me really interested in the potential benefits of urban agriculture. And then, I ended up talking to a guy, Jac Smit, who had an organization called The Urban Agriculture Network. And, he really did international work. But, he encouraged me and said, you know, internationally—kind of around the world—what he saw the most successful urban agriculture projects being were a result of people with farming backgrounds moving into urban areas and starting farms there. So he said, “If you want to do successful urban farming, go learn farming from people who aren’t in the urban area, and bring that back to the urban area.” And so, that’s kind of how I got off on that track a little over 20 years ago—22-23 years ago—going and learning farming from folks outside the urban area. And then, about 5 or 6 years now, I think, I’ve been back in—literally inside—the urban boundaries of Portland, Oregon and farming at this little farm, Cully Neighborhood Farm. So yeah, that’s the long arc of the story.
Deborah Niemann 2:57
Okay. And, were you always interested in building your own tools? Or is this something that you just started doing at some point after you got started with farming?
Josh Volk 3:09
Well, you know, tools predate the farming. So..
Deborah Niemann 3:12
Josh Volk 3:13
Yeah, the tools part, actually… I don’t remember the exact words of the dedication of the book, but I basically was like, “This is for anyone who is somebody who took apart their toys as a kid, you know, and tried to put them back together.” And that was me. Like, I was, you know, grabbing screwdrivers and any plastic toy that had a screw in it, or, you know, whatever. I was trying to figure out: How does it come apart? How does it go back together? And, you know, I was a bicycle mechanic all through high school and college—it’s kind of how I put myself through school—got a mechanical engineering degree specifically in machine design, and came out of school working for a company building tools for a manufacturing floor. So, designing and working with machinists to make tools for the manufacturing plant. So, that’s my background. So, that predates the farming. So then, you know, bringing all that experience into the farm world, you know, I saw a lot of opportunities for just really simple things. I mean, not terribly complex, but a lot of simple ways. And, you know, I mean, part of it was the experience that I had from that previous world, but a lot of it was just, you know, the interest and, you know, that’s where my mind goes when I’m wandering around someplace. So, how does this work? How can I make it better?
Deborah Niemann 4:36
Yeah, I think it’s that engineering mindset. My husband is an engineer, too, and so he just creates all kinds of stuff around our farm. So, why did you decide to start building your own farm tools? Did you feel like you could do something better, or were there things you needed that you just couldn’t find?
Josh Volk 4:54
Oh, you know, it’s a combination. And the book says “farm tools,” but that’s pretty broad. So, there’s a lot of system stuff in there—a lot of it is what I loosely refer to as “furniture.” So, you know, tables and seating benches and that kind of stuff. But that’s a tool that we use on the farm. So it’s not just… In fact, there’s very few tools that are like hoes and that kind of thing. I do mention some of that, but… And some of it is just straight-out systems—like even record keeping sheets. You know, that’s a tool that we use on the farm. And it is very much trying to apply that engineering mindset of just problem-solving. Like, how do we look at this kind of thing to make it better?
Josh Volk 5:37
So, you know, to go back and answer your question, which I think was, you know, was it had a need, the tools weren’t there? Or, was it just me trying to make existing things better? Both. You know, in a lot of cases, it was just looking at something that we already had and saying, “Yeah, how can we make this better?” Or just, “How can we use it better? How can we create a system that incorporates this tool that already exists to make it more useful?” But, in some cases—and this is getting to be less and less the case now. But, when I started out 20-plus years ago, there were garden tools, and then there were farm tools, and there wasn’t a whole lot for the in-between scale. So, the farm tools were all kind of for bigger farms. But, you know, if you were a smaller farm, you kind of… You were using garden tools for some things, but there weren’t a whole lot of specialty tools for this mid-scale. And really… I think it’s really been in the last few years, you know, kind of ramping up in the last 10-15 years, but there has been a lot more development in that area. And so, that’s been changing for a whole variety of different reasons, but largely just because there’s more and more interest in farms of that scale. And, prior to that, there had been kind of this flight from farms of that scale.
Deborah Niemann 6:37
I love the way that you’ve expanded the definition of the word “tool,” because I know, when I saw that there were spreadsheets in the book, I was really surprised and thought, “Wow, this kind of goes outside the scope of the book. But it’s cool. It’s useful.” But you’re right. I mean, the definition of a tool is just “things that we use.” And the same thing—I had the same thought, too, I’m like, “Oh, a potting bench is a tool?” So, I love the way that you’ve expanded that definition—or not even expanded it, just really gone with it to the full extent of what a tool is. So, do you remember what was the first thing that you built specifically for farming?
Josh Volk 7:43
That’s a good question. I mean, I remember in my apprenticeship year, the farmer actually gave me a project, and one of the projects was building a trellis for some grapes. And I didn’t have any idea, like, how grapes got trellised or any of that kind of thing. So I just, you know, I was kind of going off of looking at other people’s designs. And that’s really the starting point, I think, for most tools is, you know, figuring out like, “Well, okay, you know, what am I trying to get this thing to do? And what’ve people already done? And can I make any improvements here?” And then picking out some materials and figuring out how it all goes together. So, you know, that wasn’t necessarily a new tool, but that’s kind of one of the first projects that I remember, you know, on the farm doing something where I was creating something for the farm.
Deborah Niemann 8:36
Okay. So, in terms of the supplies that people use to create these tools, one of the things that I saw in the book looks like uses bicycle tires. And I thought, “Oh, well, if you had old bicycles sitting around, you could just use those.” Is it a good idea, though, for people to try to repurpose things? Or does that wind up not really lasting in the long run? Like, is it better to just, you know, buy everything completely new?
Josh Volk 9:04
I love repurposing things.
Deborah Niemann 9:07
Josh Volk 9:07
And I actually, when I design tools and, you know, furniture and everything else, I frequently almost always make it so that it can be disassembled and rebuilt. And, you know, that has multiple benefits. So, if a part of it breaks, that means that you can take just that part off and, you know, replace it. But also, if the tool becomes not useful anymore, then you can take the, you know, the pieces off of it and turn it into something else. I mean, it’s a good question. You know, when is something at the end of its actual useful life, and, you know, how much effort are you putting into something that’s not really going to last that long? So, that’s always a great question to ask. But, you know, with that bicycle wheel example, definitely the first versions of those carts I was going to used bike shops. Bike shops that carried, specifically, lots of used and were trying to recycle parts. And, bicycle wheels are so incredibly common that—and I have a bicycle mechanic background—for all those reasons I saw an opportunity to employ those bicycle wheels on the farm. Whereas we had been using garden carts, which come with these cart wheels—which you actually can buy those cart wheels, but you’ll never find them used, and they don’t have as high a quality bearing. There are some good things about those cart wheels that are better for carts specifically than bicycle wheels. But I think the bicycle wheel is just so common, and so easy to repurpose, and so easy to repair. And, if you can’t repair it yourself, there’s bicycle shops everywhere, whereas the cart wheels are more of a specialty thing; they’re a little bit harder to source.
Deborah Niemann 10:52
Wow, you made a lot of good points there. That’s really interesting. I love that. So, I was looking at some of the designs in the book, and the drip winder looks a lot like what you would find in any garden hose center, you know, that you use just to roll up a water hose. So, I thought it would be interesting if you kind of talked through a little bit, like, the process of building that so that people could get a better idea of how complex some of these plans are.
Josh Volk 11:23
Yeah. And that’s actually one of the, I would say, simplest. It’s not the simplest, but it’s definitely one of the simpler tools in the book. And that is a design that I actually—or it’s kind of a version of a design that I originally—saw on a farm that I worked on in Connecticut. And I have no idea… The farmer who I was working with there had that tool, but he doesn’t remember where it came from. So, somebody put this thing together, and I don’t know who it was. But, it’s a great simple design. And it just uses really simple… Basically black pipe or galvanized pipe that you can get in any hardware store, pipe nipples, and some flanges, and then you need to be able to cut some plywood rounds. And I have some suggestions for how to cut rounds out of plywood, or sometimes you can just even buy plywood rounds. And then a short piece of PVC pipe, or some kind of plastic pipe for your center. And then, you can make multiple spools off of that same thing. And the way that it goes together is really, you take those rounds, and you screw the flanges to it. And then, you screw nipples to the flanges. And, you end up using a couple of elbows to make a crank. And then, you just have to make a platform for it to sit on. And I’ve got a stand design in there, but I’ve used lots and lots of different stands. And then, you can roll up your drip tape instead of kind of bundling it up—or basically, most of the folks I know either bundle it up or kind of let it sit full-length kind of over on the side of the garden. But, we had way too much drip tape on the 9-acre farm that I was originally using that design for. And even now, on our little half-acre that we’re cultivating, we roll up all the tape at the end of the season, and then we can roll it right back out, just like it was new. And we use about two or three spools to roll one round. You know, what would come in one roll, it takes about two to three spools to roll that back up, just because it never gets quite as compact. But I love that tool. And I’ve been using that tool for well over 20 years now in lots and lots of different versions, and it works great.
Josh Volk 13:44
One of the factors with that tool that you have to keep in mind—and one of the things that I try to explain with all these tools—is it’s not just about “you buy the tool and then use it.” You have to understand how to use it efficiently. So, there’s some tips in there about, you know, when you use it, it’s not idiot-proof. You need to be careful about the way that you handle the rolls that come off of that. But, if you are, then it works really well. And it takes a little bit of practice in order to get fast at rolling up tape with that. When I teach people on the farm—which I do pretty much every single year—how to roll it up, when they first do it, it takes them, you know, a few hundred feet of the tape to kind of get to a point where it’s like, “Okay, now I’m comfortable with this.” And then it’ll probably take another thousand feet of the tape to be like, “Okay, I can do this in my sleep,” kind of thing. But it’s a great tool, and you could use it on a really small scale and you probably wouldn’t need any extra centers for those, or you can use that on a larger scale.
Deborah Niemann 14:47
Okay. And it’s something that, like, somebody could even use in a backyard garden, if they…
Josh Volk 14:52
Absolutely. If you were using drip tape in a backyard garden, it would work really well for that, too. And you could even make it smaller, then. And that’s one of the things that I really encourage in the book is, you know, I’ve put out fairly detailed—and actually, the publisher really pushed me to do this. Originally, I wasn’t going to put out quite as much detail in each of those designs as there is, because I really want to encourage people to take a look at these designs and not just follow the recipe, but to decide, you know, “Is this really right for me, or can I just take this idea and make the modifications that I need in my particular case?” And so, I tried to put some clues in there, also, as to why I did certain things. So, those are clues to how you might want to change it and how you might not want to change it, because I’ve tried a lot of different versions of these, and some of the versions that I’ve tried haven’t worked so well. And so, I hope people can learn from my mistakes, as well as learning from the things that have worked.
Deborah Niemann 14:54
Exactly. I love that. That’s why I always say, “I write my books, because nobody needs to repeat the mistakes I made already.”
Josh Volk 16:01
Yeah, yeah. We’ve all made a lot of mistakes. And they don’t need to be made continuously.
Deborah Niemann 16:07
Exactly. So, if somebody is new to this… Speaking of making mistakes, if somebody is not really adept at building things, they haven’t been taking things apart since they were in school, do you have any tips? Or, are there any common mistakes that you see beginners make when they first try to start building some things?
Josh Volk 16:32
So, the book is full of those.
Deborah Niemann 16:35
Josh Volk 16:37
And hopefully, some of them come through. But, you know, having said that “people don’t need to continuously make mistakes,” really just getting in there, and doing a lot of this stuff, and paying attention to what is a mistake and what’s not a mistake—and “mistake” probably isn’t even the right word. Just what you can improve on each time you do something. I mean, it really is a lot of just that hands-on experience. And the book is there to encourage people, to kind of give people a direction to start in that hands-on if they haven’t done stuff themselves, to start with.
Josh Volk 17:13
So, just as a few examples—and I’m not going to point out mistakes necessarily. But, there’s a lot of starting points where it’s like, if you don’t have… If you’re starting out and you have no tools, I give a list of “Here’s a really basic set of simple tools that aren’t going to cost you a lot of money, and these are the ones that I would get started with.” So, the first part of the book is kind of about setting up your shop. And folks who are already experienced, they probably have every single one of those tools, plus more. But the reality is: You don’t need a whole lot of tools to get started. And I think—you know, if I’m going to answer your question directly—one of the mistakes people probably do make is they think it’s about the tools to build the tools. And they go out, and they feel like, “Oh, I have to have this other tool in order to do this thing, and I have to have this other tool,” and it just starts getting really expensive, and they get all tied up in buying all the tools. And so, I’m trying to point out: You don’t have to buy all these different tools. There’s a handful of really basic tools that you can use, get started, and then yeah, you might be a little bit limited in what you can do with those tools. But, you can design around those limitations.
Deborah Niemann 18:23
Wow, that’s great. I think this podcast is going to air in November, which is perfect timing to get this as a Christmas gift.
Josh Volk 18:31
Deborah Niemann 18:31
Yeah! I’m looking at this and thinking, like, “Ooh, this would be a great Christmas gift for people like my husband, who love to build their own stuff all the time.” So, it’s been really fun talking to you about this, and some of the projects in here, and your tips. How can people connect with you online?
Josh Volk 18:51
So, the best place website-wise to find me is SlowHandFarm.com. It’s all one word: S-L-O-W-H-A-N-D-F-A-R-M. And, that kind of links to a bunch of other websites that I have. So, that’s a great starting place. One of the things that I’ll warn people about, though, in terms of the websites is: Part of the reason I wrote this book was because my websites all got hacked, and I had a bunch of this information up on those websites. And my websites are very DIY, also. But I’m not nearly as good with websites as I am with other tools. And I really just have not had time to put it back together, and I was like, “I’m gonna write a book instead of trying to spend all this time putting the websites back together.” And then, social media: Slow Hand Farm is also the name on Facebook, and @SlowHandFarm is also the tag on Instagram. So, those are kind of the two other places that I am. And those also link to Cully Neighborhood Farm, where I currently farm, as well as a few other websites that I have.
Deborah Niemann 19:54
Awesome! That’s great. Thanks so much for joining us today! This has been really interesting.
Josh Volk 19:59
Great. Thanks for having me.
Deborah Niemann 20:01
And that’s it for today’s episode. You can find show notes at ThriftyHomesteader.com/BookChat, as well as a transcript. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. You can also find Thrifty Homesteader on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. See you next week on “Sustainability Book Chat.”