The world is a very heavy place. A small rock the size of a child can weigh a few hundred pounds. A cubic yard of soil checks in at over two thousand. A load of firewood or compost exceeds a few thousand. A quarter acre of land can use as much as twenty thousand pounds of compost and mulch per year. So much weight!
We have a bit of experience dealing with lots of weight on our farm. In 2014 we figured that we moved four hundred tons, or eight hundred thousand pounds, all by hand. Animal feed. Farm inputs. Wood chips. Compost. Sawdust. Hay. Straw. Over two thousand pounds per day. No tractor, no skid steer. Just a farm family with four (very strong) kids.
Having the right technique will only get you so far. The right tools are the only way to move lots of weight without heavy machinery, especially on a small-scale farm or homestead. Such tools may allow you to skip the expense and environmental impact of such machinery while saving your back and body at the same time! So what tools are we talking about?
Dollies are not just for little kids. They are for big kids as well! A dolly is a common piece of equipment for many businesses and some farms and homesteads. It was one of the first things we acquired for our farm and homestead, and has continued to have important, but only occasional applications around our place.
Dollies are especially good for moving stacks of boxes or buckets, or helping move furniture and similar items. One trick we learned early on for moving very large but lighter stuff is to use ratcheting tie-down straps to secure it to the dolly.
If you can find one used or have the money, the convertible four-wheel dollies are a great way to make this little machine more versatile.
This handy-dandy tool is one most people are familiar with. Unfortunately, most people are familiar with the wrong kind of wheelbarrow, a single-wheel model. The only kind of wheelbarrow worth owning is the two-wheel version (unless you need a single-wheel model for some special work or similar situation, something we have never encountered on our farm and homestead). A two-wheel model lets you move twice the weight with one-half to one-third the effort. If you want to include kids in the chores and challenges of farm life, a two-wheel is irreplaceable.
Most children do not have the strength and coordination to do the lateral balancing a single-wheel model requires (let’s be honest, we all have seen adults who struggle with it as well, myself included at times!), especially for any significant weight or on slopes and similar uneven ground. A two-wheel wheelbarrow does almost all this work for you, allowing you to focus on moving the mass of stuff you need to get moved.
The biggest decisions with wheelbarrows are what size and what body tub type—metal or plastic? When deciding on a size, I really like ones that are around eight cubic feet in capacity. An old adage applies here—you can always fill something big less full, but you can’t fill something small more full! The eight-cubic-foot models are more than maneuverable enough for any tasks we have encountered over the years, while allowing us to load large quantities of moderate to light materials for moving.
Choosing among tub body material types, depends on your situation and intended uses, though overall metal appears to be superior in almost all circumstances. Each type has some advantages and drawbacks.
Plastic bodies result in a significantly lighter wheelbarrow that won’t ever rust. But they are far easier to break or crack, especially during colder weather. They are also suitable only for much lighter loads and materials than metal.
Metal wheelbarrow types are far more durable but require more care, non-humid storage conditions and protection from weather and they weigh a good deal more. They are also generally more expensive and much harder to find. Big-box stores have rows of plastic-tubed wheelbarrows with not a two-wheel metal tube version in sight!
The additional cost in our field trials is actually a fairly significant savings, as under normal use a plastic tub will last only two to three years, whereas metal ones can last twenty.
Some people will have one of each kind. As long as you are willing to care for it, I would get a metal tub body over plastic. The slight additional care needed and occasional repainting is far outweighed by the increased durability and load capacity.
If there is one thing I wish I had purchased sooner rather than later for our farm, it is a garden cart. It is a wheelbarrow redeemed, made even better and easier to use in most applications.
If a two-wheel wheelbarrow lets you move twice the weight for half to a third of the work, a garden cart lets you move four times the weight for the same work reduction. The model we purchased allows even our smaller kids to move up to six hundred pounds. It has cut the time it takes us to do compost collection at various coffee shops by half. On the farm, what used to take four trips with the two-wheel wheelbarrow—say, for firewood—takes one with the garden cart. Even better, that one trip is half as taxing even with all the additional weight.
A garden cart and wheelbarrow are almost, but not quite, interchangeable. A wheelbarrow is a bit more maneuverable and is easier to get in and out of tight spaces. They often cost about the same price. A good-quality double-wheel wheelbarrow is about equal in price to a mid-range garden cart, although with garden carts, you can easily spend into the mid-hundreds.
Good-quality garden carts have additional advantages. First, they will have a self-dumping feature. Back up, pull the pin, lift, and you dump the entire load. Second, for those who have a riding lawn mower or similar piece of small machinery, they can be hitched to many mower models.
If I had to get just one piece of hauling equipment, I would go with the garden cart. Also, unlike wheelbarrows, garden carts are a do-it-yourself person’s dream. The internet is full of free or low cost plans for anyone interested in building one.
DON’T FORGET GOOD HAND TOOLS
The final key to moving heavy stuff without hurting yourself is good hand tools. In our experience, pitchforks and shovels from big box stores are poor substitutes for high-quality tools. The shovels we purchased from Earth Tools in Kentucky weigh half as much as their commercial equivalents, yet outperform them in every way. The pitchforks (also from Earth Tools) were an even greater surprise. Mass-produced pitchforks are good for one kind of pitching—into the rubbish heap!
Good traditional pitchforks, on the other hand, are irreplaceable. Earth Tools gets theirs from SHW, a German toolmaker that dates back to the year 1267. Yes, they are quickly approaching a millennium of experience crafting hand tools for farmers and homesteaders. Compared to almost anything I have found in standard stores, you can see and feel the difference in every item they offer.
In three days this past week, my kids and I moved over twenty thousand pounds of material into our farm’s new high tunnel. No blisters after hundreds upon hundreds of scoops of heavy material. No bruised backs after thousands of pounds moved. So take the time to hunt down quality hand tools to use when filling your wheelbarrows and garden carts. You, your family and everyone who comes to help you on your farm or homestead will thank you for it!
DON’T TIRE YOURSELF OUT!
There are two types of tires on most light-grade equipment: pneumatic (air) filled and solid (non-pneumatic), generally rubber. Solid tires are also often referred to as “flat-free tires,” since no matter what you do to them, they will not go flat.
Pneumatic tires contain a tube that is filled with air, like bicycle tires. They struggle with rough terrain or similar circumstances that can cause the tire to rupture or puncture. Even if an item comes with pneumatic tires, you can always switch over to solid rubber once they go flat. Solid tires are generally slightly more expensive, and don’t provide as much shock absorption as their air-based brethren, but in our experience are significantly superior. There are now also semipneumatic tires available, that combine some of the shock absorption of pneumatic tires without the need to pump or maintain the air pressure inside the tires.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2017.