Understanding and Using the Broadfork — From Contributor Matt Miles

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post which outlines how to build your own broadfork, also from Matt.

In a situation where fossil fuels have become scarce or unavailable, the use of tractors and mechanical tillers for food production will be out of the question, while the use of equine power and horse-drawn equipment will require a skillset that has long since vanished in most areas. In this case, a broadfork would enable a single user to quickly and effectively prepare relatively large areas of soil to plant for food crops.

Complete broadfork with wooden handles (picture from M. Miles).

The broadfork—or walking broadfork or U-bar—has been until recently a rather obscure tool here in the US. It has seen a resurgence in popularity lately, possibly due to its mention in J. M. Fortier’s influential book The Market Gardener.

To the best of my knowledge, the broadfork is a tool first introduced to Americans as the U-bar by John Jeavons in 1974, in his seminal work on biointensive gardening, How to Grow More Vegetables.

In the book, Jeavons introduces American audiences to the concept of biointensive agriculture, pioneered in nineteenth-century France. The biointensive method relies heavily on preparing and maintaining precisely planted beds in optimally structured soil. To achieve this soil structure, Jeavons recommends double digging, an arduous though demonstrably effective way to condition soil by breaking it up in two layers and aerating it, using a spade and a fork.

To maintain double-dug beds, Jeavons recommends the U-bar (broadfork): “The U-bar has cut our soil cultivation time from 2 hours per 100-square foot bed to 10 to 30 minutes per bed. It is simple to use, and reduces the bending and lifting motions of digging. It loosens and aerates the soil with a minimum of soil strata mixing. Its only constraint is that it can only be used in well-loosened soil (usually soil that has been double dug for at least one season).”

You may find utility in the broadfork without committing to preliminary double digging, however. The broadfork is essentially a manual plow, albeit a kinder, gentler plow. It is a tool for loosening compacted soil without inflicting the damage that comes from the use of mechanical tillers and plows. Some broadfork users have gone so far as to claim that initial use of the broadfork (instead of double digging) achieves comparable results, though broadforking takes only a fraction of the time that double digging does, as noted by Jeavons.

Broadfork components (picture by M. Miles).

Using the broadfork is simple, and certainly less demanding of upper body strength than the shovel or spading fork. The user pushes the tines into the ground an inch or two and then stands atop the crossbar. At this point, he or she rocks back and forth and side to side while standing on the crossbar to work the tines into the ground; the tines don’t necessarily have to go in all the way up to the crossbar.

When the tines are most of the way in the ground, the user steps behind the crossbar and begins levering the tines up through the soil by pulling the handles back toward the ground or applying body weight to them. When the tines break through the surface of the ground, having rotated about 90 degrees, the process is complete. At this point, the user moves backward (so as not to compact the newly loosened soil) about 8” in and starts the cycle again.

I have spent enough time double digging to attest to the fact that it is backbreaking work that no one would wish to repeat every year. I have not yet used the broadfork in any major capacity, although I have recently constructed one from scrap materials found on my farmstead. I built the broadfork for my girlfriend, who manages our operations on a day-to-day basis. She intends to use it to break up soil for new garden plots.

There are many types of broadforks commercially available on the internet and elsewhere, though most cost upwards of $100 even before shipping. Many of these though, especially the broadforks made by Meadow Creature, are highly regarded by their users. If you lack the time, materials, or the metalworking skills to build your own, you can buy a quality commercially manufactured broadfork from a range of manufacturers.

Matt Miles is a writer, poet, maker, permaculturist, and ambivalent web developer. His writings have appeared both in print and on the weekly blog of The Dark Mountain Project. Among other topics, Matt is interested in the breakdown of complex societies and their relationships with technology. He currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina with Tasha Greer. Together they run the reLuxe Ranch, a small whole systems farmstead on which they attempt to live sustainably while experimenting with appropriate technologies and raising pigs, ducks, chickens and dairy goats. They occasionally blog about their experiences at www.the-way-back.com. Matt enjoys rock climbing, running, fermenting, growing food, building things, and spending time in the natural world, either directly or vicariously through the written word.

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