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Who Killed the Diesel Tractor? it could be Huguenot Street Farm’s Ron Khoslaby Luciano Valdivia

While the mixing of technology and agriculture may arouse Upton Sinclair-like images of assembly line farms where inhumane practices are the norm, a husband and wife farming team in New Paltz prove the opposite to be possible, and brings agriculture into the 21st century in a way that makes for a more sustainable and environmentally friendly crop. Meet Ron and Kathryn Khosla, the owners of your local neighborhood climate-friendly farm.

When I think of farmers, an image of Ron Khosla doesn’t necessarily come to mind. Then again, Ron isn’t exactly your garden-variety farmer (Sorry, couldn’t resist). With his silver hair and beard, glasses, and the effusive way with which he talks about his farming practices, he seems more like an excited and eccentric professor than anything else. Perhaps that’s why Khosla is such a welcome and positive addition to the world of local agriculture. Ron is a new breed of farmer—part community organizer, part mad scientist. And, obviously, all hard worker.

Ron and his wife Kathryn have been churning the soil in the New Paltz flats at Huguenot Street Farm for over 12 years. In fact, these agrarians actually camped and farmed on the then dwelling-less property for the first four and a half years after they purchased the property. Now that’s commitment. The idea was to start a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where consumers would purchase shares in the farm up front, and in return would have access to 140 different varieties of locally grown produce on a weekly basis. Huguenot Street Farm even has a You-Pick area where the shareholders can pick their own produce. Not only do consumers know where their food is coming from, but they're seeing where it comes from, too. Ron estimates that there are approximately nine CSA’s in New Paltz and the surrounding area, including their own. In 2007 the Huguenot Street Farm received protection by a conservation easement that Ron and Kate pursued with the Wallkill Valley Land Trust working in conjunction with the Open Space Institute.

A couple of features that may set the Khosla farm apart from the pack are due to the ingenuity and handiwork of Ron himself.

The first is a completely electric tractor that’s powered with solar panels. What started as an older Allis-Chalmers Model “G” Cultivating Tractor has been charged with new life, or perhaps more accurately—new light. After receiving a USDA-funded SARE (Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education) grant, Ron was able to bring his idea to fruition and convert the diesel powered tractor to run on electric, exclusively. Ron explained to me that cultivating tractors had been produced up until the mid 1950’s until the use of herbicides made them obsolete. “You were positioned in such a way that you could cultivate right up next to the plant” Weeds and other undesirables that had been uprooted by the small knives of the cultivator had thereafter been killed with the easier, but of course, more toxic, chemicals. Switching to the use of Ron’s new solar electric “G” meant that he could weed his fields without the use of any herbicides whatsoever. According to Ron, hundreds of farmers have now used his conversion plans, and even purchased kits he and a friend produce. They’re presently working on their fifth prototype of the Super “G”, a from-scratch all-electric cultivator that will retail for between five and six thousand, but if you think Ron’s in it for a profit—think again. Ron has posted the plans online for other farmers to download for free.

The other major innovation cultivated in the fields of Khosla’s farm is something called the CoolBot—and I know what you’re thinking, but no, it’s not a robot that wears sunglasses and a leather jacket. It’s a control module that Ron devised with some technical help from a friend which converts a standard “off the shelf” A/C unit into a cooling unit that can mimic a walk-in cooler’s capabilities. Not only does the CoolBot system cost a fraction of the price of a walk-in cooler, but, according to Ron, because it uses only one A/C unit fan as opposed to the four to six found in a conventional system, it uses less electricity too—making it greener. This past January, USAID selected Khosla’s CoolBot for a project whereby they will fund demonstration coolers for poverty-stricken farmers in India, Uganda, and Honduras.

As if these achievements weren’t enough in and of themselves, it seems like this husband and wife farming team have a scope far beyond the borders of their property. Recently, Kate was singing backups for internationally recognized South African singer Samite at the Ithaca Grassroots Festival. Ron, on the other hand, has spent many an hour of his time away from the fields advising the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in his role as International Organics Certification Consultant. Did I mention he was also instrumental in the creation of the Certified Naturally Grown program so many small farmers use?

Driven by their beliefs in a sustainable lifestyle, Ron and Kathryn Khosla have built a farm that not only provides fresh food to local, environmentally conscious consumers, but on a broader scale has acted as a research center for the betterment of the world. Creating and perfecting tools and practices on a small plot of land in New Paltz, useful tools that have affected farmers across the country and even on other continents, is no small achievement. For Ron, it seems, it's just another day on the farm.

Luciano Valdivia—of Bull and Buddha Restaurant in Poughkeepsie—is an occassional contributor to Roll.

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