Low-tech tools for the developing world

Two West-Coast inventors are devising and sharing inexpensive, easy-to-make implements to aid small-scale farmers

TUCKED off in a corner of his organic farm in rural Oregon, Allen Dong's workshop full of bicycle and backpack parts, chunks of pipe and sheet metal, propane tanks, and hand tools, seems an unlikely spot to start a third-world revolution.

But the ideas that ripple out from this farmer-inventor's home are making a difference in many parts of the developing world.

Together with his partner Roger Edberg, Dr. Dong over the past dozen years has been devising low-tech farm tools for small-scale farmers. Simple things like serrated hand hoes and mower blades, rice hullers, grain threshers, weed burners, and vacuum packers.

These typically are made from what other people would consider junk or at best spare parts from other devices. They cost very little to produce.

And rather than patent them and make a profit, Dong and Mr. Edberg freely distribute descriptions and drawings of their inventions.

They thus make them part of the ``public domain,'' so that anyone can legally build them and no one else can obtain a patent.

The idea, Dong says, is to help third-world farmers (and small-scale farmers and gardeners in more advanced countries) by providing the tools to make them more self-reliant. Simpler tools can be repaired and even manufactured locally, require less fuel or generated power, and thus help decentralize agriculture.

``Since the things I'm working on are low-tech, the poorest people will be those who benefit,'' he reasons.

Allen Dong is no dilettante tinkerer or gentleman farmer with a do-gooder bent, however. Surrounded by a trio of friendly Labrador retrievers, he greets visitors in patched, worn farm clothes and knee-high rubber boots. His hands, which offer a bowl of enormous fresh-picked strawberries, have plenty of experience in soil and shop grease.

But while he is very much the hands-on farmer, working to produce a full diet of grains, vegetables, and fruits on 25 acres of the 57-acre place he bought with his brother and sister in 1989, he also describes the work in philosophical and sometimes even apocalyptic terms.

``I view agriculture as a life-support system rather than as a business,'' he says. ``I see the problem in terms of world hunger, stewardship of the land, maintenance of the earth.''

He sees nature as ``the greatest teacher for humanity,'' and he likens man's increasing separateness from nature in this technological age to what he calls ``Lucifer's predicament.''

``To use late 20th-century terminology, Lucifer was kicked out of heaven because he set up a virtual reality which wasn't compatible with his ecosystem,'' Dong says. ``His problem was, he had set up his own world that was separate from nature.''

The answers that Dong and Edberg are coming up with, however, are very much down-to-earth.

THE two men met in the early 1980s when Dong returned to his home state of California (where he had grown up on a family farm in the Central Valley) with a doctorate in soil science from the University of Wisconsin. He began a job in irrigation research at the University of California at Davis and moved in with a group of people that included machine-designer and metalworker Roger Edberg.

``He always had a generous supply of ideas,'' Edberg says of Dong.

Over the next several years, they designed and built such things as a hand-operated rice and spelt wheat huller. It looks like an old-fashioned food grinder with a rubber disk that rotates against a metal disk to remove chaff from grain.

They converted a leaf shredder into a grain thresher using a few clamps and bolts, an 18-inch length of garden hose, and an 8-by-10 inch piece of sheet metal. It can clean 100 pounds of pinto or soy beans in an hour.

Total cost for the conversion: less than $10.

USING a bicycle pump, a rubber gasket cut from an inner tube, a piece of sheet metal or plywood, a rubber stopper, a couple of bike tire valves, and a large food can, Dong and Edberg designed a hand-operated vacuum packing system to preserve jars of dry seed. This suffocates insects, slows down the seed respiration rate, and removes moisture, which means more seeds survive until planting season.

Grinding slanted grooves into a hoe blade improves its ability to cut plant roots and stems, while reducing the drudgery of hoeing, they found.

The same principle makes rotary mower blades cut more efficiently.

Their inventions have been written up in international agricultural and development magazines and newsletters.

Also spreading the word about Dong and Edberg's work is ``Plenty,'' a nonprofit organization based in Davis, Calif., that provides development assistance in Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia.

``I like these guys a lot,'' says Peter Schweitzer, executive director of Plenty. ``They've got a good approach, and they understand the lack of resources of the kind of people who are going to benefit from their tools.''

In recent years, the inventors have gotten inquiries and started to hear of their tools being used abroad.

``We've gotten a lot of letters - letters from the strangest places,'' Edberg says.

Asked about the personal satisfaction that comes from largely unheralded work, Edberg puts it this way: ``You know how in the older reggae music they're always talking about living right, helping people, trying to make a better life? These songs are coming from a third world country [Jamaica], and I feel that in some way by reaching out maybe I can return something or touch those people or help them somehow.

``We haven't made any money, so there has to be something else!'' he jokes.

Dong takes the idea farther when he says, ``Peace is not really attained when there's a large disparity among people.''

Dong has worked and lived on his farm in Oregon since 1992. Edberg now has a family and full-time job as head gardener at the arboretum at the University of California at Davis where he also is working on a graduate degree in environmental horticulture. But the two get together now and then for ``some paper and pencil and ruler sessions,'' Edberg says. ``He's so energetic when he gets an idea that it's hard not to be drawn into it.''

Back up in Oregon, Allen Dong's mind is working on new ideas - a tomato processor, a water-purification system, a winnowing machine that uses a squirrel-cage fan taken from a scrapped evaporative cooler. While he seems low-key and deliberate, there is a sense of urgency about his work.

``As I see it, God does not intend to baby-sit humanity for the rest of eternity,'' he says. ``We have to take responsibility for this planet Earth.''

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