Shakespearean Dilemna

Ok, that may be overkill, but I am chewing on something. And since my avid readers have a combined intellect and experience base far outweighing my own I am going to loop you all in to help me wrestle with it.  Anyhow, writing helps me clarify my thoughts.
To be blunt I am seriously considering buying a tractor. Now I am not just any (would be) farmer -heck, I don’t really have a farm yet. So I am not considering just any tractor. Mine would be little, and European even… So little in fact, that you walk behind it. No, this isn’t a rototiller (but it can do that) it is a Two Wheel, or Walk Behind, Tractor. The engines are typically twice as strong as a rototiller -from 7 to 15 hp- and unlike a tiller they have front and rear Power Take Offs (PTO’s) that can run a variety of implements from tillers, to snow blowers, to chippers, to sickle bar mowers. Heck they even make haying equipment for them. With the exception of bucket loading, these incredible little tractors can do just about everything one would need on a sub 10 acre parcel… exactly the size I will buy in about 3 years.

These “walking tractors” are all over the place in Europe, where the small Family Farm is still alive, with almost a dozen manufactures of various models. If you have any doubts as to what these are capable of, here is the site I first found them on back when I was doing initial budget runs on the Big Farm Plan an was pricing small tractors. The larger ones can even run Spaders (mimics double digging instead of plowing) and you can get powered trailers that can haul/dump over 1000lbs. The utility and appropriateness of them is well proven, but the appropriateness of them for ME is up to debate.

First, let it be plainly said that I am a “Tool Guy”. I have geeked out on stuff, often with internal combustion engines attached, since high school. I’ve modified every car I’ve ever owned but my current Insight, and raced many of them. I like to have oil and grease under my fingernails and even to bur my knuckles swapping out shocks. But I also enjoy well made tools of any kind: I have an inordinate affection for my imported Dutch and German spades and forks (hand forged by master tool makers of course). But that ToolGuy bravado is running on OT when it comes to these tractors. “think of all the stuff we could do!” Trouble…


Some of the Pros (some of dubious merit).

  1. Buy now, so I can buy more later! I will most likely want one of these when we have the acreage, but once we have the acreage there will be 100 things I will need to spend money on. I can’t buy a pole barn or fence now, but I can buy the tractor -and these things last forever. Of course I could just SAVE the money, but heck I am American and I want it NOW!
  2. Its better for the soil. To till under the land for the gardens, the tractors that are lined up to do it weigh in at over 4000lbs causing deep subsoil compaction well below what conventional tillage equipment can reach. The Walking Tractor only weighs about 300-and will compact the soil about as much as walking on it and the tiller’s handles rotate so you can walk next to, not in, the tilled soil.  See the video link below.
  3. Rotary Plow option. WTH is rotary plow? Think of it as a horizontal tiller, or more precisely a propeller. They are unparalleled at turning under cover crops and pasture. Look at this Italian video to see the short work it makes of the sod. Rotary Plows also leave no hardpan, unlike moldboard or rototillers, and til down to 12″ in one pass.
  4. Diesel: At only 8hp, these tiny engines use only 33% of the gas equivalent, so Whole Foods becomes my fuel station as they could run all year on 2-3 quarts of Organic Canola Oil, or I could grow sunflowers and press my own oil. Seriously, I’ve run the math.
  5. Bigger and Better things. This is a slippery slope, but I turned down at least one large runoff control swale installation job due to lack of equipment. I could also offer more options with our LLC if I had one of these.  Look at the ditch the rotary plow digs in 3 passes in the video- that would make a wicked infiltration swale! Course I barely have time to plant (hell: sleep!) as it is, like I said: Slippery….
  6. In the same vein, I could probably work twice the acreage with this tractor, than doing it entirely by hand. Or I could just get farther behind… this thing won’t weed, plant, or harvest.
  7. I really, really, really want one. Really.

Cons, and they are significant:

  1. Really damn expensive. To run the rotary plow you need 8.5hp gas or 7hp diesel. Going with the lesser know, but just as good, Grillo line instead of the slightly more common BCS , I can get a diesel 85D for $2600, plus the plow for $1050, plus shipping of $300. Basically it is $4000 for a glorified rototiller. Damn. Used you may say? The market is so small I have only found 3 for sale in the entire country and 2 are too small to run the rotary plow, and the third isn’t diesel and will most likely go for almost as much as new.
  2. I don’t really need it. With only a .25 acre garden this tractor is waaaaaay overkill. If I ramp up the LLC some it might get more use, but rarely even weekly. Even valuing my time at $30/hr it will take 130 hours of labor savings to offset the cost. I will not spend that much time tilling/cutting beds in the next 3-5 years. Once I get a farm? Maybe -especially if I use it to clear a longish drive of snow.
  3. WTH is “Mr. No Till” buying a tiller for? Spending the morning turning, or attempting to turn, under the 4″ of straw in my home beds showed me the futility of that much straw on the beds if you hop to plant before May. Ruth Stout pulled hers off, but I need that organic matter IN the soil. Research has shown me that no till is undeniably the way to go as tilling supercharges the ecosystem and sucks the carbon from the soil. But these studies were all done on huge, unmulched row crop fields. I can’t believe that turning in 2lbs of straw per sq foot of bed is a net loss to the soil, but the current research is against me. I am also terrified of the perennial weeds in these new beds -but I am eating some of my winter words. I could also just chop up the straw in a leaf shredder for $250 before I put it on the beds.
  4. Noise, smell, safety etc. Driving a tractor across my beds is a different deal completely than slowly working my way down with a turning spade and listening to the meadowlarks. Also, the kids would not really be an option on Grillo days since the machine will take most of my attention and I won’t be able to hear a rambunctious 6 yr old running up behind me due to noise. They have learned not to come by the electric mower, but still.

The tiller was barely a distant consideration until I found that used one on Craig’s list (too late!) and my brain starting going again. The price may be less of an issue for two reasons -it is a business expense so it will offset a goodly chunk of the business earnings saving me from the insane taxes of the self employed.

But here is the final blow. Just as I was working myself down from the lather of the week’s testosterone tractor dreaming, I get a call out of the blue from a large (100 barrel) municipal rain barrel account that I thought was a one time deal. They want me to bid an order that will net me about 50% more than the price of the Grillo.
Coincidence…or a Divine nudge? I had started our LLC to basically turn my garden/farming into a self funded hobby rather than to make extra money. The timing of that account is weird, and we are a family that believes in “signs”…

Thoughts are welcome. But then again this, like many in our hobbies, may not end up being a rational decision.  I am calling Earth Tools tomorrow to order some more hoes (Dutch of course), and I am sure I will be picking their brains on this.



7 Responses

  1. I remember when we were (practically) charater members of the Maine Farmers and Gardeners Assn. in 1975 and the Gravely tillers were all the rage. You have .25 of an acre now, and need the organic material – but someday you may have more land and the tiller will travel with you. I undertand the desire – and admire your rational approach, but thre is Desire.

  2. I am leaning toward telling you to get the machine. It sounds like it’s much easier on the soil than a regular tiller, and it might actually be a more sustainable model than doing everything by hand – which few farmers will want to do. And seriously 3 quarts of veggie oil? After the thing is manufactured, that is sustainability itself. (Also note…steel and shipping costs are going to go through the roof in the next year or so…)

    But here’s a thought: could you employ more people instead of a machine?

    And should I buy that fireplace insert I’ve been eyeing? 😉

  3. Its a much more reasonable proposition than the 10K I want to spend converting my car to battery electric.

    From one avowed grease monkey to another, just buy it, otherwise you are going to spend a long time thinking about it. I think the pros far outweigh the cons

    1. its expensive, but it is a good investment, quality machine, and diesel which almost always outlives gas engines.

    2. you’ll have it longer than 3-5 years,

    3. Its not just a tiller, so no need to feel like mr no till is eating crow

    4. The noise is true, but the work will be done sooner and you can listen to the larks in the hammock afterwards, as for safety, if they know about the mower, they will soon be old enough to know to stay back from this too. Smell? If you’re burnin veg oil as Dr. Diesel intended, you come inside smelling like french fries. There are far worse things you could smell like.

    but your mileage may vary

  4. Spoke with Joel at Earth Tools today and here is the skinny. The OneStraw package would be as follows:
    > G85D with a custom installed Lombardi 8hp diesel We feel the extra 1 hp would be useful for the rotary plow and he has 1 laying around w/o an electric start that he will be willing to throw on for $250 over the smaller Yanmar diesel. I also like the nostalgia of a “classic” Italian Diesel in the Italian tractor. $2850
    >Rotary Plow w/ axle extenders $1060+ 42
    >27″ Tiller for seed bed prep. This would be for use after beds are in production and set to run only 2-3″ deep. If you run the tractor in 2nd gear it barely tills the soil, just lightly turns and clears it of debris for a great seedbed to run the Earthway Seeder through. $475
    >Truck Freight $211

    Total to my door $4638.
    Ouch, but very tempting. Stretch that over 10 years (half the life of these things) and it comes down to about $38/mo.
    Will need to think on this, but all your comments are very well thought out and appreciated.

  5. A couple more thoughts:
    1) You already have a truck to haul this around with, right? Otherwise, it won’t do you much good on jobs.

    2) How much of the need for this machine is based on your current assumption of how you’ll do cover cropping? If you were to settle on a different method of adding organic matter to the soil in a couple years, would you still need this machine?

  6. Have you thought about using a broadfork? Eliot Coleman claims you can use a broadfork for up to 2 acres fairly easily. And if you hired a person or two you could make that 4 or 6 acres. Assuming $15 an hour that would be 310 hours before the tractor comes out ahead of labor, and that’s just with the cost of the machinery not upkeep or running costs. (In 5 years you’ll have two children who might be able to operate a broadfork, especially if Dad shows them a little green)

    With your incredible sheet mulching knowledge you can use the worms to do most of the work and use the fork to finish it off.

    However, I understand that you are busy enough right now and time savings can be more important than money savings. If the tractor freed up 20 more hours a year to build rain barrels it would pay for itself in about 3 years.

    The tractor sounds like a great deal, I’m just trying to take the contrary position. The tractor might help you with your past ideas about cutting wood too.

  7. Emily,
    Yes, well no, I have a Subaru Forester that tows a 5×8 trailer with a ramp that I use to delivery barrels, pick up mulch, and schlep manure. It will work fab for toting the tractor and implements around. The cover crop question is fair, and the rotary plow is focused more on taking down perennial (alfalfa/clover) or sod forming (vetch/rye or sudan/sorghum) crops. I will get more into it in a minute answering FGLB. Buckwheat and Oats should be no problem.

    FGLB, I started to answer your comment and it turned into a post. Look for it soon. I appreciate the Devil’s Advocate.


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