Power to the People

Gardening takes work. In fact it takes alot of work when you are first starting. That-along with the ability to witness the miracle of nature, was, initially at least, what may have proved to be the most attractive aspect of it for me. Having to postpone our acreage and having sold my first beloved race car I needed to blow off some steam. But now, having installed our lawn, 500 sq feet of raised beds, and several thousand sq feet of perennial and native gardens I know that my mantra of hand tools only will need some tweaking if we are going to go to a bigger scale. I simply won’t have enough time to hand till 3 acres of garden if I am to garden as intensely as I plan. Either I can’t plant 4 crops a year, or I will need to augment my labor with something other than blood, sweat, and callouses. I see 3-4 major avenues:

Draft Animals
If you are interested in running a farm on draft animal power there is a great resource to be found at Rural Heritage. Horses are the obvious choice, but the obvious has never sat well with me. The main reason I am not keen on horses, is that I view them as the mammal equivalent of hybrid roses-they take a whole lot of pampering to stay in peak health. They are expensive, eat alot, don’t handle weather extremes too well, and a most likely too big for even the larger of the micro farms we are considering. Mules/Donkeys seem to be more my speed. They aren’t terribly particular about what they eat, they are tough as nails, and are sized closer to what I am looking for. Plus, they get alot of bad press and I have always liked the underdog. If we somehow fall into a chunk of land on the higher end of our wish list ( 7-15 acres) I can seriously see us doing this. There are still companies like I & J Manufacturing out there making new implements for horse drawn farming-catering mostly to the Amish, or Amish at heart. There stuff looks legit and the price, when compared to normal PTO implements, is very reasonable. Any way we go I am sure we will use our animals in some way, either training a whether goat to pull a cart of one of our llamas to pack.

Walk Behind Tractor
Reading Elliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest and his recommendation of the Mainline rototiller led me to do a quick study of walk behind tractors this morning. For less than half the price of a small farm tractor you can get a 8-14hp walk behind tractor, with implements, from BCS thru their distributor Earth Tools. The tractors run about $2-3000 and can run anything from very heavy duty cultivators, 1/2 ton payload side dumps, to everything needed to bale hay-cutters tedders and balers. A big draw to these for me is that they are available with diesels, allowing me to farm, small scale, with biodeisel and be almost as carbon neutral as with a mule (we’ll leave out manufacturing emissions here…). A medium duty BCS deisel tractor with a full bailing set-up will come in under $13,000. Not sure why I would need to bale my own hay, but I figure it is a good estimate for a tractor and several implements-leave out the baler and use it for only cultivating and mowing and it looks more like $6-7000 . I see this as a decent compromise between draft and modern farming-but as with all compromises it ends up missing out on the simplicity, silence, and sustainability of the draft concept, and the ease of work, upkeep, and flexibility of the the small tractor.

Small Scale Tractor
I agree with Gene Logsdon on many issues, and on the issues of farm machinery especially with his belief in the usefulness of a front loader. In my mind, if I am going to run a farm that has animals bigger than goats I would greatly appreciate a loader for no other reason than the manure work. On top of that, I think it would be incredibly useful for building projects, felling trees, etc. Problem is that neither a horse or the BCS comes with a loader. I saw a Kubota tractor making short work at a neighbors project this morning so I checked them out, and dang are they pricey. A used L series tractor with a loader and under 1000 hours seems to be running for about $11-13,000, and the implements are about $1-3000 each. And that is a small tractor!!! Ag-King makes a deisel (go bio!) tractor that is very similar for about $3000 less-though still as much as I paid for my used hybrid car. This is where I see the whole sustainability piece falling apart-a $16,000 tractor w/cultivator with a $400/mo payment means that I have to plant alot of radishes! The Amish resist the tractor with very good reason-it leads to unhealthy escalation.

All this talk of increasing work load and added complexity is perhaps hasty. Have I inadvertently stepped onto a slippery slope? What I dream of is micro farming with my own two hands. At my current pace I am going thru a garden fork a season: snapping handles seems to be the most common issue though the digging end has fallen off at least a tool a year (including one of my hoes this weekend), even buying the ‘best’ contractor grade ones at Menard’s. These tools are simply not up to the task of intense gardening I am doing-basically small scale farming. Using high quality tools on my race cars made difficult jobs, not only easier, but in many cases like suspension removal or tranny work, safer and perhaps even possible in the first place. Why would gardening be any different?

Quality Hand Tools
I am discovering that here are tools, like these from DeWit, out there made the ‘old’ way that may allow me to bridge the gap. These are forged to be incredibly strong and durable, plus they hold an edge. One of the myriad things we have forgotten about gardening is the usefulness of a good, sharp tool. This morning I went and purchased a file to take the ‘edge’ of my ‘contractor’ hoe from a 3/16″ flat ridge to a decently fine point. Instead of pulling off the tops of the weeds weeds and making me swear in frustration it now sliced weeds cleanly just below the surface. Human powered tools such as the Wheel Hoe might be all that I need. For about $165 you get a chassis, and the respectable variety of implements are a reasonable $60 each. Figure $400 for a complete small farm kit. They look dubiously light duty, but I have seen them in use on a local organic CSA which gives me confidence-and on prepared soil with good tilth they should be fine. Finally if I need to do large field work I have always dreamed of scything. Maybe I read too much Willa Cather and Robert Frost, but the thought of slowly working my way across the acres, cleanly cutting the grass and laying in rows as my grandfather did makes me get all gooey inside. For this there seems to be only one real source-aptly named the Scythe Supply. They take it so seriously that every snath is custom cut to your measurements. I love artisans!!
Maybe I can hand till those acres after all…

One Response

  1. Odd, I was just looking at high wheel cultivators online tonight. (There are cheaper sources.) I guess we are on the same wavelength… Also on my wish list are the European scythe outfit from Scythe Supply, and the Earthway seeder (or an old Planet Jr. if I could find one that wasn’t priced for the antiques market).

    I’d have to agree on the horses. They are lovely, but in most cases, not practical. Before we got into goats, we considered Dexter cattle, which were historically used as small oxen (as well as for milk and meat). I was also looking into whether our donkey could pull a small plow. It’s going to take some research to figure out what the right equipment would be, if it exists. I guess I need to make a trip up to Amish country…

    As for the tractor option, we went with an 1953 Ferguson TO-30 for under $3000. It’s incredibly easy to work on (this coming from somebody who’s changed his own oil once in his life) and really easy to get parts for. But I still want to do without it wherever I can. Switching implements is a bit of a pain. I see plenty of old Ford, Case, and Farmall tractors around our area. It’s interesting to see how they cluster. We must live in an old Ferguson territory, because there are at least four of them within 2 miles of my house. It’s a good tractor, but I wouldn’t mind getting to a point where I don’t need it. Most of these old things have reached the point where they go up slightly in value, rather than down.

    And as usual, you’ve given me some fresh links to explore. Thanks Beo!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: