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The Lost Prophet of California Agriculture

The Lost Prophet of California Agriculture

Published: January 15, 2015
Author: Charlie Siler
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By CHARLIE SILER

A profile of Al Ruozi - Craftsmanship Magazine

The first prototype of Al Ruozi’s “Cotton Shredder.” The machine, which offered an early way to slow climate change, is all but forgotten today.

Al Ruozi, age 97, is a high-school dropout from Bakersfield, California, who made his living selling farm machinery that he designed and welded together, using handmade machinery that he built himself, in a building that he and his brother assembled. His primary invention, created in the 1950s, was a machine that gave cotton farmers a better way to clear their land. While little-known in the U.S., Ruozi’s invention has been emulated around the world, leading the way to a new generation of farm equipment that can save water, improve soil quality and maybe even fight climate change.

“Al Ruozi was the inspiration for much of the innovation that happened over the next 30 years,” says Jeff Mitchell, a conservation specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis.

Ruozi nursed his concerns while he worked behind a horse-drawn plow, tilling his family’s land by slashing into the compacted dirt with the very practice that had contributed to the plight of the Oakies huddled in squalid camps a few miles away. “The idea hit me,” he recalled. “I thought, why is the ground so hard?”

Bakersfield was a harsh place in the 1930s, when Ruozi quit school to help out on the family farm. The dust storms of the U.S. prairies had sent thousands of farmers west to California in search of jobs and land. The country was still recovering from the Great Depression, with unemployment improving only after 1933, when it peaked at 25 percent.

The Okies in the shantytowns of Bakersfield had to contend with hostile locals and inadequate sanitation that sometimes led to dysentery, impetigo or hookworm. In December 1936, concern about disease led a group of Bakersfield citizens to burn down an Okie slum that housed 1,500 people.

LESSONS OF THE DUST BOWL

We now know that the seeds of the Dust Bowl were sown in the 1920s, when the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains was broken by gasoline-driven plows, destroying native grasses and ruining the ability of the land to hold itself together, and thus retain moisture. In the 1930s, the ecological payback of the disaster wasn’t as clear as it is today. Yet somehow, the lessons of the prairies’ raging dust storms were not completely lost on a teenaged Ruozi. He saw that land could be ruined, and he suspected that the plow was to blame.

He nursed his concerns as he worked behind a horse-drawn plow, tilling his family’s land by slashing into the compacted dirt with the very practice that had contributed to the plight of the refugees huddled in squalid camps a few miles away. “The idea hit me,” he recalled during a recent conversation in his Bakersfield office. “I thought, why is the ground so hard?” Ruozi resolved to find a way to make it more “pliable.”

He got his chance about a decade later, when he returned to Bakersfield following some time in welding school and a stint in the Army during World War II. In 1948, Ruozi and his brother Gilbert bought and assembled a Quonset hut, one of the semi-cylindrical pre-fabricated structures that were used by the U.S. military in World War II and sold as surplus to the public afterward.

A profile of Al Ruozi - Craftsmanship Magazine

Al Ruozi points at one of his first “Cotton Shredders,” invented in the early 1950s. Since it did its work more gently than standard tilling machinery, the shredder let the soil keep its nutrients relatively intact, instead of losing them into the atmosphere where they contribute to climate change. But no one knew anything about something called global warming back then.

THE JOYS OF TINKERING

Ruozi called the new company Interstate Equipment and Manufacturing Corp. He worked there with his torch, using his welding skills to make potato-tillage equipment for a nearby manufacturer. All the while, he kept tinkering. “I’d pick up an old machine here or there, any time there was a scrap machine, and see if I could make it work,” Ruozi says. “I started out that way. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”

By the early 1950s, he was making his own patented machine. He called it the Interstate Cotton Shredder, a two-wheeled contraption the size of a grand piano. When hauled behind a tractor, it would pull up cotton roots whole, crush them along with the plant and leave both shredded on top of the soil. There, the roots and plant would turn into mulch, making the ground soft and ready for another planting. Until then, farmers had to use a type of mower called a “top shredder” to chop down the plants, then a disking machine to destroy the roots, followed by a plow.

The Shredder eliminated the need for all this tillage. In one tractor ride, or “pass,” across their fields, farmers could now destroy the fibrous cotton roots after a harvest—a process that previously could take three or more passes with various machines. “It did a wonderful job,” says Rafael “Murph” Solorio, who tested the machine when he worked as a senior agricultural technician at a UC Davis facility in Shafter, California. “That thing laid out the stalks, and then we would re-form the bed, and we would go right into planting a cover crop. It was real easy to work with.”

There’s an important reason why Solorio was excited about the Shredder’s effect on “cover crops.” These are essentially throwaway crops—typically grasses and inedible beans—that are planted to feed the land with nutrients, and to stimulate the micro-organisms that keep soil moist and alive. Since every tractor pass adds another blow to this microscopic community, losing a couple of passes leaves the ground softer, and ready for the next crop—cash or cover. On fields that stretch for miles, as many do in California’s Central Valley, fewer passes also dramatically reduces expenses for fuel and equipment maintenance. In a sense, you could say that Ruozi broke new ground by not breaking the ground so much.

THE SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT MACHINE

In a sense, Ruozi broke new ground by not breaking the ground so much.

Farmers who wanted to plant potatoes or carrots after they harvested their cotton could now yank the cotton roots out of the ground to make more room for food crops. “It made for better vegetables, because they didn’t have that hard root pressing up against them,” says his daughter Marilyn Ruozi, who now runs the business with him. Eventually, Ruozi added an optional attachment that preserves the “beds” that seeds are planted in, and the Shredder became the Shredder Bedder.

Without trying to, Ruozi had become one of the pioneers of the global “conservation tillage” movement. Its members constitute a new breed of farmers who believe they can create healthier soil and better yields by avoiding the plow, planting cover crops, and letting crop residues decompose on the field. Newer research indicates this type of farming, sometimes called “minimum-till” or “no-till,” can also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where it causes global warming, and store it in the ground as carbon, which makes soil more fertile.

“Cover crops will sequester a lot of carbon, and after you kill them off, you still have a significant net sequestration,” says Clay Mitchell, a farmer who raises corn in Iowa and money in Silicon Valley as a farmland financier. “You have way, way more carbon in no-till soils.”

A profile of Al Ruozi - Craftsmanship Magazine

In its heyday, Ruozi’s “Cotton Shredder Bedder” could take care of a cotton field in one tractor pass, while other farmers had to waste time and fuel on several passes, tearing up the soil in the process.

Think of it as a natural form of “geo-engineering,” the term used to describe climate-altering techniques such as whitening the clouds or putting iron oxide into the oceans. Some even see a day when farmers could get paid on a wide scale by proving how much carbon they are moving into the soil.

The use of cover crops and minimum tillage has grown rapidly in some countries, such as Brazil, but has been slow to catch on in the U.S., something that frustrates advocates such as Jeff Moyer, farm director at the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit research and education center in the field of organic agriculture. “If you fly from Pennsylvania to California in the daylight hours, everything you see when you look down at this time of year is going to be brown,” Moyer said, during a conversation in late fall. “It should be green.”

It’s frustrating as well for Ruozi, who still recoils at the thought of fuel-wasting farming practices that pack the soil down and make it harder for the ground to retain water. “You look at those mounds running down through the field and wonder why anybody would run anything on top of that soft soil,” Ruozi says.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

Ruozi’s Shredder starting hitting some resistance in the 1970s (a period Marilyn calls the “big tractor era”) from farmers who didn’t see the point in switching to minimum tillage, which despite its benefits can be a more finicky way to farm. “I sold one to a guy in Arizona,” Marilyn recalls, “and he said that when he went to church, people wouldn’t even come up and talk to him because he had changed the way he worked the land.”


A profile of Al Ruozi - Craftsmanship Magazine

Ruozi's workshop—a Quonset hut that he built himself in 1948 with his brother.

Many farmers now realize that plowing and disking fields damages soil health, and a growing number are learning that it releases carbon into the atmosphere as well. However, they also know that a handful of basic nutrients for crop growth can be restored easily with chemical fertilizers, so many farmers find this the least risky way to grow crops. “Tillage is a blunt instrument that fixes a lot of ills,” Clay Mitchell says. “With tillage systems, you wipe the whole slate clean. It’s an easier way to farm.”

As he toured me around, Ruozi pointed out the “jigs” he assembled to manufacture the Shredders. He waved his cane at a pile of parts gathering dust on the floor of the Quonset hut. He says he probably has enough parts in the shop to make 25 machines, but Marilyn won’t let him get near a welding torch these days.

“Farmers are just trying to do what we as a society have asked them to do — produce as much food as they can as cheap as they can,” Moyer says. “They’ve done a very good job of it. The only problem is, it’s destroying the very resource that we need to keep doing it.”

Interstate Equipment is still chugging along in the same tile-floored office in front of the Quonset hut. Sales have slowed to a crawl these days, the result of a decline in the amount of the cotton being grown in California and lower crop prices. In the 1950s, Interstate sold about five machines a year, but his lifelong total isn’t much more than 120. Today, Ruozi wouldn’t mind finding a buyer for the business. “I found that I was a little bit too far ahead of the times,” he says.

Ruozi walks with a cane these days. His hair is white and he doesn’t move too fast. But his passion for improved farming methods is as strong as ever, as is his familiarity with every tool, part and gee-gaw in the Quonset hut. As he toured me around, Ruozi pointed out the “jigs” he assembled in order to manufacture the Shredders. He waved his cane at a pile of parts gathering dust on the floor of the Quonset hut. He says he probably has enough parts in the shop to make 25 machines, but Marilyn won’t let him get near a welding torch these days.

A profile of Al Ruozi - Craftsmanship Magazine

Ruozi’s raw materials, representing nearly seven decades of tinkering.

In the back lot, new Shredders are lined up in neat rows, ready to be sold or rented. In a far corner of the lot, almost overlooked under a cover of tree leaves, sits the original Shredder Ruozi welded together with scrap metal more than 60 years ago. Time has taken a toll on the machine. Its orange paint is peeling and the tires are flat. But the welds are strong and the device looks as solid as ever.

“Environment is the thing we have to start thinking about, and we’ve got to think about it now,” Ruozi says, his eyes sparkling with conviction. “We can’t wait. I don’t give a damn. I’ve done my job. Let them do theirs.”

Charlie Siler is a journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in climate change.

Photos by Charlie Siler

© 2017 Charlie Siler, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: January 15, 2015

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