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Spark of Genius
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Farms grow more than just food.  They grow ideas.
Farms seem to provide just the right balance of ingredients to inspire practical innovation:  Lots of time alone with an unending string of minor (and sometimes major) crises and the everpresent demands of hard work.  These forces seem to move creative men and women to think of better ways to do things.  Probably the most famous example of this involves the invention of the mechanical reaper.
In the early 1800s in the Shenandoah Valley, Robert McCormick was confronted with the back-breaking labor of harvesting grain by the conventional methods of cutting the stalks with a scythe and then threshing the grain by hand.  As a farmer, blacksmith, and tinkerer, he became obsessed with the notion that there had to be an easier way, and for 28 years he experimented with the design of a horse-drawn reaper. Alas, he was doomed to failure.  But one of his eight children, young Cyrus, although lacking in almost any formal education, accepted the challenge and working with the help a slave, Jo Anderson, within 18 months finished a working prototype of the reaper.  This invention vaulted Cyrus onto the global stage, made him a wealthy man, and ultimately formed the nucleus around which the International Harvester Company was built.
I'm pleased to report that the same tinkerer's spirit that animated Cyrus McCormick is alive and well on America's small farms today.
A couple of weeks ago we harvested some lettuce for sale, and a few hours later we were dismayed to discover that the lettuce had wilted during an unseasonably hot spring afternoon.  Unable to afford a commercial walk-in cooler, I began searching for inexpensive ways to keep the produce cool, and I chanced upon a device known as the CoolBot.
The CoolBot was invented by Ron Khosla, who with his wife owns the Huguenot Street Farm in New Paltz, New York.  Like us, Ron needed a small walk-in cooler to chill his tasty vegetables, but he didn't have the thousands of dollars needed to buy a conventional cooler.  So, experimenting in a small insulated room that he had built, he kept pressing buttons on an ordinary window-unit air condition until, by constantly fiddling with the controls, he could bring the temperature in the room to near freezing.  He spent days, then weeks, then months, and ultimately years to achieve this goal, shivering alone in a small room.  (No doubt his friends thought that being confined to a small room might be appropriate therapy.)
Having learned how to manipulate the air conditioner by hand, he worked to design an electronic box that could do the same.  He was successful, and thus was born the CoolBot.  Now for a few hundred bucks and the price of a cheap air conditioner, small farmers like me can have a walk-in cooler just like the big boys.
The innovative spirit of Cyrus McCormick lives on, and I'm here to tell you, it's extremely cool.