A couple summers ago, Larry Cooper was casting about for "ways to work my garden without using fossil fuels."
A blacksmith for almost 25 years, the principal of Gulland Forge lives and works near Black Earth, in the Vermont Valley, where he and his wife tend a produce garden of about 1,300 square feet.
He wanted a tool he could use to loosen and aerate the soil on his property, to render it more receptive to mixing and planting. A rototiller was out of the question: Beyond their gas consumption, he contends, they do too much indiscriminate damage to the soil's flora, fauna and profile.
Cooper is the sort of fellow who favors the effective simplicity of traditional hand tools over their powered counterparts. Enamored of the European scythe and a well-crafted ax, he came upon the broadfork, a classic Dutch implement.
Though picks and shovels may be a better choice for preliminary groundbreaking in dense, rocky soil, the broadfork takes little effort to produce substantial work. Its user steps on the crossbar to urge its tines into the soil, then leverages its long handles just enough to render the soil more receptive to air, water, planting, composting and mulching. Come harvest time, the broadfork doubles as a reaper for heavy produce such as beets, carrots and potatoes.
Cooper found some broadforks on the Internet. "Then it occurred to me, wait a minute, I've been a full blacksmith since 1986," he says. His anvil sat 50 feet from his garden. He set out to produce a durable tool that could be mended if something broke, rather than thrown away. Designing his prototype "by feel," he crafted a crossbar with five tines - each with a subtle arc to help it enter the soil - then found a source in Tennessee who could supply high-grade four-foot-long ash handles to Cooper's exacting specifications.
"There's a dynamic feel to the use of a wooden handle," he says. The tool's origins date to an era "when you might have to work with the tool eight or 10 hours a day." Centuries later, they still "feel like tools you can use all day."
Once satisfied that he had it right, Cooper took out a small ad in Countryside Small Stock Journal, a homesteading magazine based in Medford, Wis. He soon had his first order. More than 220 have followed, with customers from New Jersey to Hawaii paying $185 per broadfork plus $20 shipping and handling. Each bears his maker's mark, a serial number and his craft. Once it has shipped, arrived and been unwrapped, Cooper notes, "two pairs of hands have touched it. Mine and the customer's."