Tools for the job
Local company makes rugged tools for backyard gardeners and farmers
The inspiration for David Grau’s tool business, Valley Oak Tool Co., was planted out on a field, along with potatoes and watermelons and countless other organic crops, about 30 years ago. As a commercial farmer, Grau used many tools, and he worked them hard.
“Toward the end of my time farming, I bought a wheel hoe that was made in Switzerland,” Grau recalled during a recent phone interview. “I was disappointed by it because it worked well but it fell apart in about a year. So I thought, I can make one better.”
The seed had been planted.
Grau, who was among the founders of what’s now the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, quit farming, went to Chico State and became a psychotherapist. But he couldn’t stop thinking about that wheel hoe. And in 1990, he set to work building upon the blueprint that had been germinating for so many years.
“I made one, and I sold it,” he said. Then he made more wheel hoes, and sold them as well. For a while, the tool business was mostly a hobby, and the tool he focused on was the wheel hoe—basically a hoe attached to a wheel that can be rolled through rows of crops for easier weeding.
Grau is a strong believer in organic gardening, and in buying locally grown produce. In fact, if they don’t know him from the farmers’ market, Chicoans might remember Grau’s popular organic-gardening speaker series held in 2011 at the Chico Grange. In that same vein of staying local, all his tools are built in Chico, with the help of his small staff at Valley Oak Tool Co.
“Having been a farmer, I know that farmers are hard on tools. I built these tools to be, as I call it, farm-tough,” Grau said. “They’re tough enough to stand up to work on the farm all day, month after month, year after year. I also keep redesigning the tools. When I find a weak point, I strengthen that; then I find the next weak point and strengthen that. We make them here in Chico, so I control the manufacturing process.”
And he’s not the only one who believes in his product.
“I really like David’s stuff; it’s super-rugged and well-made,” said Lee Callender, farmer at GRUB CSA Farm on West Sacramento Avenue. Callender has been using Grau’s wheel hoe for the past five years and, more recently, started using the broadfork. “They’ve saved us hours of work,” he said.
The tools that Grau has created are more sophisticated than something you might find at, say, Tractor Supply Co., but in all actuality are quite simple. The wheel hoe, for example, has a snap-release mechanism for the easy use of different attachments and also is height-adjustable, so it doesn’t matter if you’re short or tall—you can always make sure it fits you just right.
“We use the wheel hoes weekly on the farm,” Callender said. “I love them. They’ve got different blade widths, so we can put a different blade on based on the width of our rows.”
Callender compared the wheel hoe to a Hula-Ho, which he said is offered in only one width—about 5 1/2 inches—and is pulled, rather than pushed like the wheel hoe.
“We mainly use the wheel hoe with a 14-inch blade,” he said. “Not only is it three times the width [of the Hula-Ho], but the way you’re doing it is more ergonomic[ally correct].”
All the tools are made of high-quality heavy-gauge steel. And, true to the company’s belief in its own craftsmanship and design, they all come with a two-year warranty.
Aside from the wheel hoe, Valley Oak Tool Co. also offers the more versatile broadfork. While the wheel hoe might be an excellent addition to any serious farmer’s tool shed, it might be a tad too much for the average gardener, Grau admitted. The broadfork, on the other hand, makes life in even the backyard veggie patch a bit easier. Available in four- or five-spike varieties, this tool aerates the soil—taking the place of a rototiller—and makes double-digging unnecessary.
The company’s newest tool is an attachment to the wheel hoe called the hiller, designed for vegetables like potatoes and corn that benefit from having dirt poured on top of them. The hiller, like all of Grau’s other inventions, was very much a labor of love that began with the study of existing tools.
“With the hiller, my starting point was a horse-drawn mold-board plow,” he said. He hoped to accomplish much of the same thing as the mold-board plow, which takes dirt from the path and throws it to one side, only without the horse and with a push rather than pull technique.
“It took about a year and a half,” he said, to go from idea through the various stages of prototypes and testing to final product. “I made lots of failed attempts. I’ve got probably eight or 10 prototypes lying around that don’t work.”
But in the end, he was able to turn all those failed attempts into something that he hopes will help his fellow farmers and gardeners be more efficient.
“The reason I do this is I believe that we have to change the culture to become more ecological,” he said. “A big component of that is growing food locally, sustainably and organically. To do that you need great hand tools. I saw a lack and I thought, ‘I can make these tools. I can spread the word.’”