Local pair sows positive change in developing world

John Morrison with an essential element of the CA-Seeder 1000. Photo by Sarah Colson

John Morrison with an essential element of the CA-Seeder 1000. Photo by Sarah Colson

By Sarah Colson 

Many people yearn to make a positive, lasting difference in the world. Neighbors John Morrison, a retired agriculture scientist, and Michael Garrabrant, a Johnson City-based mechanical engineer, are well on their way to doing just that for smallhold farmers throughout the developing world.

Together, the men are leading an effort to develop an affordable, effective tractor that can increase crop yields, save labor, and lift people out of poverty.

Imagine a day spent plowing a cornfield in the mountainous countryside of Tanzania. You wake up well before sunrise and begin clearing your land in preparation for sowing your field. A long, laborious morning melts away into the hot afternoon and before you know it, it’s nightfall and time to quit for the day. You wake up the next morning and ready yourself for the same task, knowing that because of weeds and unpredictable climate, most of your crop will fail despite your efforts.

This scenario, all-too-familiar to many farmers in developing countries, is why Morrison, a retired engineer and professor who lives in Unicoi, decided to forego the usual retirement activities and instead spend most of his time working on his invention, the CA-Seeder 1000.

“When one retires, should one just sit, read books and go fishing?” Morrison asked. “Or should they try to help someone? Those are the options you have. So I thought I’d try to make a difference.”

A farmer in Kenya uses a prototype of Morrison’s seeder.

A farmer in Kenya uses a prototype of Morrison’s seeder.

Morrison worked with Massey Ferguson starting in the 1960s and then with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Texas. He then left Texas to work with the University of Tennessee as an adjunct professor. His main background is in conservation agriculture and engineering.

About 12 years ago, Morrison met his neighbor, Michael Garrabrant, an engineer and owner of Stone Mountain Technologies in Johnson City. Garrabrant grew up in a small farming community in the small town of Johnstown, Ohio. Much of his time was spent helping his grandfather and uncle plow their fields as well as their neighbors’.

For Garrabrant, it was a romantic childhood. Now, years later, he spends most of his time working with heat pumps, but he was never quite satisfied with leaving his farming ways behind.

“I have a restless soul,” Garrabrant said. “I’m always looking for something to do and you can only work so many hours a day on heat pumps.”

When Garrabrant caught a glimpse of the two-wheel tractors Morrison had in his shed, he said, “We can build those for you.”

Michael Garrabrant.

Michael Garrabrant.

What Garrabrant saw was Morrison’s CA-Seeder 1000, a one-row seeder that small-holder farmers, particularly in developing countries, can use to seed their land with less toil for the farmer. The two-wheeled tractor can be pulled by either a small engine or a draft animal.

Morrison said that most farming communities in developing countries could easily plow their field and the fields of their neighbors in about a day’s time, much like the methods Garrabrant’s family used in the 1950s.

“John has very specific skill sets,” Garrabrant said, “and we’re both trying to do things to leave the world a better place and my skill sets happen to complement his. Together, we’ve been able to take a concept and turn it into something that might actually have a chance of making a difference in the world.”

The difference they are trying to make has much to do with helping countries increase their food sustainability.

“When farmers, especially in Africa, use conservation agriculture techniques alongside the CA-Seeder 1000,” Morrison said, “they can see almost an immediate increase, sometimes as much as three times increase, in the yield of their corn.”

In Sub-Saharan Africa, corn can compose as much as 70 percent of farmed acreage. The more corn produced, especially in the village regions, the more sustainable food becomes and the greater number of people can live above the poverty line and stay out of the urban ghettos so common within developing countries.

Simplicity is key when it comes to the CA-Seeder 1000. Morrison said they are, “working with the most simple, basic principles in the world.”

“We start out with fields that have not been plowed,” he said. “We run the machine through them to plow the crop. That’s it. No plowing, no cultivation, just planting right back into the mulch.”

The mulch is vital to conservation agriculture. It keeps the field protected from rain run-off and keeps the soil fertilized. Morrison’s seeder clears a small lane to create a path so the machine can pass through. It is equipped with a small, round blade which works much like a miniature rake, sharp enough to cut away the pieces that may be in the way of seeds. The farmer can ride on the back of it and his or her weight presses the soil down to leave a path.

“The farmer can just drive along,” Morrison said. “It’s all happening in one step.”

So far, there are prototypes in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Mexico.

With the help of Garrabrant and his facilities at Stone Mountain Technologies, all of the pieces of the seeder can be laser cut and modernized.

“If we can use the most modern techniques,” Morrison said, “then we can keep the cost down and be competitive with things that are made overseas.”

But keeping the cost down during production state-side is not the biggest problem plaguing production. Working alongside World Health through Technology, Becky Cummings is helping Morrison and Garrabrant try to distribute the tractors overseas.

“Our biggest need is to get distribution established because it’s so expensive to ship,” Cummings said. “It’s only about $30 apiece to ship 100. But it’s way more than 100 times that to ship just one of them. We don’t have 100 farmers to ship to right now.”

In the meantime, the team is ready to ship out the tractors. Their warehouse is full of all the parts waiting to be put together, and one tractor is already partially packed in a box, waiting to be shipped to a farmer.

“The farmers need them,” Morrison said, “and the tractors work.”

Morrison and Garrabrant are confident the right person or missions organization will come along and “step up to help out financially.”

“I think we’re all called to do certain things at certain times in life,” Garrabrant said. “Sometimes we don’t realize it or we ignore it, or we don’t know it’s there. Something like this kind of shouts at you. It’s almost like I was called to do this with my background and abilities. It was a no-brainer. We need to work on this and make it happen.”

To learn more about the CA-Seeder 1000, visit morrisonseeders.com



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