The famous 20th century anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I’d like to open this category with an idea, along with a person. I’m doing that because the person says the idea is more important than he is. That being said, I also believe the person is important. He’s the one, after all, who lit the candle to bring this idea forward.
Alexander Vido is trying to help subsistence farmers in Nepal with an idea he calls “SPIN,” or “Scythe Project in Nepal.” His basic idea looks something like this: In many rural areas all over the world, including in North America, many young people leave the farms and go to the cities looking for work. When people leave the farms, there are fewer people available to do the things that need to be done. Some young people stay on the farms, others may come back from the urban lifestyle — but the reality of Farm Country is that there are more grey hairs than there were even 20 years ago.
Vido noticed that the traditional farming culture of Nepal involves harvesting grain with sickles — basically a specialized small knife that is used to cut a few grain stalks or a few heads of grain at a time. Harvesting grain with a sickle is a labour-intensive process. I’ve done it and I can say that not only do you work very hard for little return, but bending over to cut grain — or squatting like they do in Nepal — is really, really painful after a few hours.
In Nepal, the primary grain crop is rice. Rice, as you may know, requires a fairly wet environment to grow and, like all plants, has a definite season in which it must germinate, sprout, grow, and make grain heads. Between the rice seasons, farmers in Nepal plant other small grains like wheat and barley. Often, however, the task of harvesting the grain turns into a race to get done in time to plant rice. Farmers frequently simply cut off the heads of the grain with a sickle and burn the straw in place to make way for rice planting.
This is where Vido had his “Aha!” moment. If there were some technology that could be locally produced, easily repaired, and that would make more efficient use of the farmer’s muscles, then farmers could quickly harvest the grain with less effort. In addition, instead of burning the straw in the fields they could have that straw as a raw material for other uses. Even composting the straw from each grain harvest will return far more nutrient to the soil than burning it, which releases smoke and particulate pollution and destroys beneficial micro-organisms.
Back home in Victoria BC, Vido runs an online store called Scythe Works where he sells scythes, sickles and related human-powered tools. You can also find Vido’s explanation of SPIN on his website. Vido partnered with the Himalayan Permaculture Centre to bring scythes to Nepal on a trial basis. Anyone who wants to know more should read Alexander’s report on his efforts and the result, on the Scythe Works website. One of the challenges he’s facing is that Nepalese government representatives are trying to sell motorized harvesting equipment (basically a weed trimmer with a rotary blade and a catcher for the grain stalks) to the farmers. Getting the government on side with his project is critical to success.
To take an example from my own experience, a good scythe blade and a snath (the handle of the scythe) made to fit the user will cost about $175.00. Put in another $50.00 or so for some of the tools needed to keep the blade sharp and you have around $250.00 invested. At that point, however, there’s no real further cash investment. No gasoline, no oil, no tires or any of the thousand and one other things that go with motorized equipment. Note that this is in Canadian dollars, spent in Canada. Prices and values may be different in parts of the world where more hand tools are used than motors.
On the benefit side of the ledger, the tool (if properly maintained and used) will mow grass, trim weeds, and harvest fodder and grain without polluting. Someone who knows how to use a scythe can get a lot of work done. You have to invest time and attention, but that investment comes back to you in efficiency and skill. The more you practice, the more you can get done.
That’s where Vido’s project is today. He’s concentrating on building good support for his project among potential partners, and hoping to be able to take it back to Nepal to gain the critical support from local agencies that can understand his mission.
I’ve known Alexander Vido for about three years now. I first met him through his brother, Peter Vido. Peter is also a proponent of what has come to be called “appropriate technology”: scythes, axes, and other human-powered tools that can help people make dignified, ethical livings without fossil fuels and expensive parts. (You can find Peter’s website here. (Note that this website works best using the Explorer browser.) I met Alexander because he sells scythes and other equipment for Peter.
I was looking for better quality than I could find locally in Kamloops, and Peter’s website led me to Alexander’s — which led me to order a blade, a snath and some peening and honing supplies from him and to sign up for one of his scythe workshops on Vancouver Island. I have to say that Alexander is an excellent teacher. He’s very calm and thorough, and I learned a tremendous amount from him in just a few hours.
One of the truisms of using a scythe (or any human powered tool, really) is that you need to do three things: Understand how to use the tool safely; understand how to maintain it properly; and see someone use it correctly. Then you need to practice what you know. In other words, just reading a couple of websites and grabbing a scythe won’t get you too far. I know; that’s what I did. Alexander showed me proper peening and honing technique, and helped me set up my new scythe to fit me. His workshop is a wonderful experience and I recommend it highly. I came a long way in my technique and knowledge, and I’ve been trying to build on it ever since.
So, a good man with a very good idea: Alexander Vido and the Scythe Project in Nepal. I heartily recommend that you check out his site, and help support his work on this very worthwhile project.