New Horsepower in the Rural System

What works like a mule but doesn’t have legs? The new Rural System tool aptly named the mechanical mule.

The invention of the tractor revolutionized farming. Horses and mules are costly, need rest, and are affected by temperature or pests. Early tractors plowed an acre in the third of the time it would take five horses to do the same work.  Today’s powerful tractors accelerate the process even further. However, the cost of tractors can easily reach over $100,000. Arguably, the use of tractors is cost-effective because of the benefits of efficiency and scale even on small farms. A great assessment of farm machinery costs can be found here.  Despite the eventual cost-savings, the upfront costs, even just a few thousand dollars, are prohibitive for some farmers.  Subsistence farmers in developing regions and farmers in impoverished areas throughout the United States struggle to afford even the most inexpensive tractor. This is a great story about how a single tractor can change a community. How can we recreate this benefit on a larger scale? A less expensive, but equally efficient, tool for plowing fields could make a big difference.

Mechanical mule - side view

The mechanical mule prototype. This model is outfitted with a low axle but can easily be scaled up to larger wheels to overcome uneven terrain.

The mechanical mule is just that kind of tool. It’s a plowing tractor without legs, without a seat, and without a steering wheel and can be easily moved by a single person. See it on video! Its design is essentially a gasoline motor with anchor and cables to which various tools such as a plow can be attached and be pulled. The mechanical mule can alleviate back-breaking and time-consuming tilling by hand or hoe which many subsistence farmers still practice. This frees up time spent tilling and allows them to focus on other needs for improving their livelihood. The mechanical mule is also more fuel efficient than your standard tractor leading to cost-savings and overall environmental benefits. Best of all, the mechanical mule would only cost around $1000.

Perhaps an even more compelling aspect of the mechanical mule is the simplicity of it’s parts. In this report analyzing the use of tractors in sub-Saharan Africa, declines were attributed to “….expensive repairs, poor maintenance and repair facilities, and difficulties in obtaining spare parts.” The mechanical mule was designed with this issue in mind so replacement parts are basic and can be found almost anywhere.

Mechanical mule - plow attachment

Just one example of a possible plow system. This rudimentary plow is functional and yet made from a basic, traditional concept with simple components.

Plowing isn’t all the mechanical mule can do either. The mule can be used to pull heavy loads up steep slopes, drag large timber, move rocks or relocate large loads of soil. Outfitted with other accessories, the mechanical mule can act as a generator or battery charger to power numerous electronic devices and even act as a water pump.

The concept was inspired by the classic block and tackle (or rope and pulley) system. Several pulleys working together can provide significant gains in pulling or lifting. Rather than lift, the inventors Dr. Robert Giles and Eric Collins (Sans Seriph Inc.) explored the application of such a system for lateral pulling. The great amount of torque and low stance of the device keeps it firmly planted on the ground as it pulls.

Within the Rural System concept, we plan to explore applying the mechanical mule to such activities as field tilling, fire-line building, trail-building, cooperative gardening and farming work, towing, tree thinning, agroforestry, and turning compost for improved soil building.


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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.

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