Grillo, Grillo on the wall…

Fellow Blogger Fat Guy on a Little Bike answered the call for Devils Advocate in a recent comment (below) and his points are valid.  As there may be others that may be thinking of this down the road I decided to give my replies the room of a post rather than a comment.  Hell its my blog, eh?  Before I begin answering, let me again say that I appreciate the comments and their effect in helping me clarify my thoughts some -this is tough!

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.

Broadforks: I have given much thought to it, talking with E4 at Green, Blue, Brown about his quite a bit last year and using a friend’s recently purchased one. The problem is that they are a soil “lifting” tool to combat deep soil compaction, not a soil turning tool to combat weeds like quack and ivy that defy even regular light cultivation using wheel hoes. In that capacity lifting 1-2 acres would not be that bad, but they will not fit my need for breaking established pasture and keeping the weeds at bay while servicing paying customers.  Once the beds are established, a broadfork would do wonders.  Universal consensus is to go with the curved tined forks from Johnny’s Seeds rather than the cheaper straight tined ones.  They work MUCH better.

Coleman: In his book, The New Market Grower, Coleman devotes most of an entire chapter to “tools” where he mentions the broadfork, garden carts, etc  and he also spends ALOT of time praising his Goldini walk behind tractor (12hp if I remember) that he brought back from his apprenticeship in France where they apparently grow on Italian Trees. 2 years ago when I read his book is when I first began dreaming of these tools, but the need for one was very far off.   Actually Coleman’s realiance on very heavy and alarmingly frequent cultivation was one of the impetuses to spur me to try to find a better way which, in turn, led to thousands of pages of fascinating research.   I still hope I can, but the light controlled tilling (its called Conservation Tillage in Big Ag world) that I had planned with wheel hoes and chickens in my Sub Acre Ag plan is wavering in the light of the amount of time I must spend pulling the perennial grasses out of the Hoop House every single time I am out to check on it.  Those two small beds (less than 10% of the Market Garden) are very good tests into what I can expect at the Market Garden as they were perennial pasture last fall when we tilled them under.  The annual plants are gone. but the thistle and rhizomitous grasses are back in force.  I hope very much to find a middle ground between tilling reflexively after every crop, and losing the battle to weeds.  I don’t know what the answer is here and plan on trying several theories and comparing soil tests and other data for several years.  Also, I will not be able to have chickens at the Market Garden after all, which takes alot of the momentum out of that plan.

I will stand by my $30/hr figure as $15 is not really what I call a living wage (damn tough to raise a family on it, though thousands do) and with my 50% entrepreneur (total) tax bracket that is the min I bill myself. A farming Mentor of mine once told me that “…if you don’t value your time well, no one else will either…” Kids will be an option in about 5 years though.

Worms will be a huge part of the deal, and the tractor would be mostly used in the first 1-3 years of the beds. In 3 years in my home gardens I have beat the quack to a detente , freeing time to double the number of beds last year with little increase in time spent in the garden. I am hoping for a similar expansion at the Market Garden -I hope to handle about 10,000sq ft of fresh beds (with their intense time commitment in weed control) while established beds need only a fraction of the time to maintain -I get most of my weeding done during harvest and watering down time. So the tractor will spend most of its time on the leading edge of the gardens, which will expand out every 2-3 years as mulching takes over the weeding duties in the established beds until I hit the max of about 1 acre for 1 person, part time with help.

The main driver in my mind for this tractor at this time, is that it can do a BETTER job than the mid size ride-on tractor with the 48″ rototiller.  The 48″ tiller on the back of the land owner’s Kubota will need to take 2, and probably 3 passes over several weeks to till the soil and remove much of the weeds-possibly forming a hardpan layer if the soil is wet at all.  That is 2-3 passes with a 2 ton tractor on soil that has not been compacted in 25 years (pasture the whole time) doing damage that will take years to erase in the subsoil.  The Grillo only weighs 300lbs, and the rotary plow will not create hardpan, and may do the work in one pass, maybe more if I use it to make the beds, which significantly reduces the trauma to the soil critters and fungi.  This will be true for every bed that I cut, not only the 15,000 sq ft I am turning under this year, but as I expand and at all the beds I may be helping clients at.  If I get the Grillo, I plan on photo, and perhaps video, documenting much of the ground work to sell the ease of it (if it turns out to be easy!) to others as a service I can provide.

The implement issue that FGLB raises is a point in the Grillo’s favor.   The purchase of one engine will allow for flexibility to do the work of 5-6 other tools that I may or may not ever need (chipper, log splitter, snow blower, tiller, plow, heavy duty mower and ATV [you can put trailers w/ seats on them to turn them into 4 wheel vehicles that can do about 10mph]).  The implements for many of these cost virtually as much as the stand alones, but as they are driven by a 8-12hp engine they pack ALOT more whallup (the snow blower throws snow over phone lines).  As these tractors last 10-20 years it is nice to know that flexibility is there.  You can still get attachments or adapters for the 1980’s models if you can find them used, which I can’t.

I am sorry to keep beating this horse, but a purchase of this magnitude is a Big Deal, and I appreciate all the input from you all as I work through it.  Where I am at now, is that I will order the tractor w/plow and tiller if the barrel bid is accepted.  If not then I will continue with plans as they were 2 weeks ago -borrow the Kubota and till away.  I will not take on $5k in debt as we head into a recession if I can’t gaurantee to have it paid off in 2 months. I am convinced that the ROI of this tool in revenue, sustainability, and time is proven.  But the ability to sanely afford it is up for some debate.


8 Responses

  1. I really think this thing is the best tool for the job of breaking new ground to plant. It sounds like very reasonable middle ground between large-tractor till-to-hardpan ag and sheet-mulch-worms-and-chickens ag of which conventional farmers are so scornful. It sounds like you’re finding there’s more to that scorn that habit; to scale up, machines make sense. And it sounds like you’ve found the right machine.

    So think about how to fit that machine into your vision of sustainability. Maybe what you need is a plan for making the Grillo a community resource – e.g., hiring it and yourself (or another trusted operator) out to others looking to till under their 1/10 acre. Think of yourself and the Grillo in the same way you’re thinking about your efforts to build a community of sustainable backyards. Like the rainbarrels you’re building, it could be another way for you to reach out and get others started along this path.

  2. Very well put and along the line of some of my thinking. “How much GOOD can be done with a tool like this?” It will be critical that it be used often for the Greater Good rather than mothballed in a garage 3 out of 4 weekends. I already started talking some with some members of our church of converting some of the 5 acre land to food crops for a local pantry.

    Tomorrow will be a Big Day in this saga as the bid will most likely get the thumbs up/down. My fear is that it will come in at say 50 barrels instead of 100 which would muddy the waters considerably.

    Thanks Emily.

  3. If you can get your soil to a point where it’s something other than thick clay, I think the broadfork has wonderful potential. But it’s hard to use when you start with grass growing in clay. It can be done, if you’re willing to go back through and chop up the big chunks with some other tool. But it’s a bit labor intensive.

    What about a good rototiller? I know it can’t do all that other whiz-bang stuff, and I can definitely see the appeal of those walk-behind tractors, but … for a hefty cash outlay for the “powertrain”, plus more cash outlays for those various implements, you gotta make sure it’s really worth the increased costs.

    I faced a similar dilemma to yours, trying to find balance between hand tools and tractor implements. I got a nice older used tiller, built like a tank, and it’s served me well so far. I don’t like to till the soil if I can avoid it, but sometimes it’s the right tool for the job.

    If you can justify the expense, and I could see where you might be able to, and you’ve got the funds now, then go for it. But a solid used tiller at 1/10th the price is worth considering.

    And with the economy teetering on the brink, using the rest of the cash to pay down and stock up might make sense.

    Too many variables. Aaah!

  4. Oh come’re just going to buy it, and you said as much in the last post:
    “I really, really, really want one. Really.”
    You know you’re going to buy it, now you’re just indulging in the experience of buying it, which i think is a good thing to get even more value from the purchase.
    Incidentally, while I do not condone excess, I do believe that we need to cut ourselves some slack every now and then. Go buy your tractorette. It’s not like it’s a new flat screen tv.. Just make sure to tell us All About It, and How Good It Feels to be in command of such a piece of technological mastery.

  5. E4, trust me, I hear you. I wouldn’t even need to buy an old tiller -both farmers have monster 48″ ones, and I am sure I could rustle up an old Troy Built somewhere. But due to a freak Grace of Gaia thing I may have $6k in funds availible at exactly the time when the tractor would be most needed. That serendipitous benifit, all with all the reasons in the past 2 posts are enough justification to satisfy my desire to own this extravagant tool. Our LLC Someday Gardens was started with the purpose of helping other Suburbanites live more sustainably while funding my budding permacultre gardens in both plants and tools and maybe cut a year off the Get a Farm plan. This tractor furthers all of the above in many respects while also giving me some selfish feelings of satisfaction and pride.

    Course you are close to the mark, Bryan -I have made no bones about the fact that I have a strong urge to buy this tool. The past 2-3 posts have been an attempt to either sufficiently rationalize/justify (I can’t tell the difference right now) it and I did honestly want input. If the comments from all of you had come back as a strong WTF than I would likely be in a different spot now. Even both of my farmer partners who have run operations for decades and are much closer to the plans than I can but down in even these mammoth posts think it is a good idea. The payment is perhaps the only variable now. And of course I will post the heck out of my guilty pleasures.

    In a few hours it should be decided, likely in the “go ahead” if the bid goes through.


  6. Looks like my contact at the Rain Barrel account is out through Thursday so no movement on this until then.

    On a separate front, this account typically means I need to order barrels up from Kentucky. If that happens I am thinking of doubling the order and filling the truck. This lowers my cost/brl but leaves me with an extra $4k in inventory. I am considering taking on warehousing space, opening an ad in a local sustainable newspaper, and making this more of a Real Business. This could end up earning close to 33% of my total income. Sleep would become a rare commodity…

  7. Two ideas come to mind for the perennial grasses. One is to ‘solarize’. You cover it with plastic – preferably in the dead heat of summer – I’ve even done it by accident leaving a pond cover on a patch of grass. It only takes a few days or a week.

    Second is the lasagna garden method of cardboard or newpaper to smoother it in a year while still being able to plant tomatoes, squash, or other transplants.

    On your scale, I’ve seen a local market farmer here use the 3 foot wide rolls of plastic made just for this application; it’s only used one season, and red works really well with tomatoes. That give the plants 3 feet without competition. Then he allows all the rest (the paths) to go to weed – on purpose! It like allowing the weeds to do their thing on a fallow field. In the falls he just pulls up the plastic and mows the approximately 1.5 acres he using for his tomatoes, zucchini, and squashes. The next spring he tills the new 3 foot rows, apparently furrows a little because he creates slightly raised beds, and new plastic goes down. It looked like he also sheet mulched with a manure spreader. (If you want pics let me know. I drive by the field everyday.)

  8. Re: ordering more barrels. I think that’s a fine idea. You might try a mini storage location for your extra barrels to keep your warehousing costs down. And maybe you could even build them there.

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