With small farmers in mind, tool maker thinks big
By Eric Mortenson
CORVALLIS – A light went on when Michael McGowen turned his engineering, entrepreneurial and environmental perspectives to farming.
There is a serious lack of tools available for small farmers – the half-acre to five-acre operators who can’t afford or don’t want a $300,000 tractor and the massive implements that go with it. Instead, the men and women selling at farmers’ markets or supplying veggies to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers need something to till a raised bed, weed between rows or work in hoop house.
After a couple years of tinkering, McGowen’s company, Carts & Tools, has begun making and selling battery powered tillers, weeders and other tools that can be charged with a solar panel, easily maneuvered on small plots and greatly increase one worker’s productivity. No noise, exhaust fumes or diesel bills
“The whole premise is that the small farmer and small landholder has been left behind,” McGowen said. “That’s where we see a market void.”
Numbers appear to bear him out. Small farms, often located close to urban areas, are on the rise. The 1987 Census of agriculture listed 5,476 Oregon farms at one to nine acres in size. By the 2007 Census, the number of farms that size had jumped to 9,546. The 2012 Census is likely to show a continued increase as farmers’ markets and CSA operations flourish.
“What you’re seeing is a market evolving over quite a few years as opposed to being a fad,” McGowen said. “I don’t see it going away, it has some staying power.”
Brad Attig, who handles business development and marketing for Carts & Tools, said small farmers were ignored, “Because for a long time, U.S. ag policy was go big or go broke.”
The desire for locally produced food, the impact of climate change on traditional farming practices and regional differences all line up in favor of smaller, more diverse operations, Attig and McGowen said.
Farmers engaged in small scale operations, mirroring the urban customers they sell to, tend to favor solutions perceived as environmentally sound. That’s what shaped McGowen’s decision to build all-electric tools.
“In terms of innovation, that’s what they want,” he said.
His tools aren’t cheap. His “Tillie” rototiller costs $800, but McGowen believes the market will support it. Down the road, he hopes to make an electric grain harvester that will be snapped up by specialty oats and barley growers.
The company has sold a handful of tools nationwide – McGowen sold two Tillies while operating a booth at the recent Northwest Agricultural Show in Portland – and observers think the company is on to something.
“Beginning and small farmers tend to go at this under-tooled and under-capitalized,” said Paul Mueller of Full Belly Farms in Guinda, Calif. Small farms looking to “scale up” production quickly learn that U.S. equipment manufacturers are “not at all focused on emerging, small-scale agriculture.”
Mueller, who has been in business 30 years, sells at farmers’ markets, has 1,200 CSA members and markets directly to some stores and restaurants. “The way we got into it was we looked for tools being sold cheaply by retiring farmers or that were being (sold) because there were better tools out there.”
While the farm was able to pick up used equipment at bargain prices, the options were limited, he said.
Small and beginning farmers looking for tools will closely consider price and versatility, Mueller said.
“I think there are opportunities there,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re a beginning farmer, the simpler the better.”
Jim Freeburn, who directs professional development for Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, said small-scale operations often are more labor intensive than large farms.
“Large operations buy large, expensive, new equipment,” Freeburn said in an email. “Smaller operations buy used equipment and often make their own custom equipment because the market is either not there or they just can’t afford the high price of the newer equipment.”
All of which makes McGowen nod in agreement.
“This is changing and growing,” he said. “We know we’re in it for the long haul, but that’s OK.”