The Trattorini: Appropriate Technology for Mid Scale Permaculture

Northern Italy has practiced intense “woody polyculture” for millennia with their mixed orchards, olive groves, and vineyards.  The mountainous terrain promotes small endeavors, so most farms are 1-5 hectares.  The terrain also promotes small scale manufacturing and there is a rich tradition of engineering as well as

My "trattorini" Notice the rotating handle for zero compaction of prepared soil

agriculture –think Lamborghini, Mazeratti, and Ferrari.  But exotic sports cars are not all that is manufactured, a diverse niche market for appropriate scale agricultural equipment has risen in the past century with a focus on small tractors of 8-45hp with very low centers of gravity (better for the not tipping) and a focus on efficiency by firms such as Goldoni, Grillo, Ferrari, and Antonio Carraro.   My Grillo is on the small end of this niche with its 8hp diesel, but the engineering philosphy is the same – compact design, “agricultural” grade components like automotive clutches, locking differentials, diesel engines and real geared PTO’s.  These are not belt driven modified lawn mowers playing at farm work; they are tools designed to be used daily for 20 years or more.  And they are so prevalent, that the niche has developed a name:  Trattorini, or “little tractor”.

One Straw is currently focused on sub acre permaculture – and at this scale a tractor of any size is certainly a luxury rather than a necessity, but we have found the serious soil working abilities of the Grillo’s rotaty plow to be very useful in converting fields or lawns to annuals or guilds when sheet mulching is not an option due to time or lack of materials.  For traditional bio-intensive market gardening, the Grillo’s relatively gentle way with the soil, light weight (400#’s – about the same soil compaction as a human foot), and supreme maneuverability is a huge asset.  But we also have designs on mid scale permaculture – a plot of 5-20 acres of swaled orchards and groves on contour with annual vegetable and herb crops alley cropped in between until the canopy fills in.  Mark Shepards property near Viola, WI is the best working example of this I am aware of with its hundred plus acres of apple, chestnut, and hazelnut guilds planted on contour with vegetable and annual crops planted in the alleys, and ruminants rotationally grazing in sylvopasture to build soils.

A system as large as this will benefit from a degree of mechanization for working the soils in the alley cropping, bringing in the harvest, and collecting and preparing composts and green manures, but is confronted with significant challenges due to its polyculture plantings.  First, soil compaction is to be avoided like the plaque.  With the tilled soil running between rows of permaculture guilds, the roots of the woody ag cannot be compromised by compaction from heavy equipment and poor cultivation.  Second, the close plantings of trees and annuals limiting how close to the soil can be worked without damaging the canopy.  Next, much of the work on a polyculture will be in green manure production for soil building – mowing and collecting organic matter and this work is best down with the mower in front of the wheel so the wheels do not compact and crush the plants prior to cutting.  Finally, turning radius is a huge consideration as the tractors will need to be snaking along curving rows that undulate with the contours of the land, and must interweave between alternating rows of orchards and annuals.

Traditional American style tractors are very ill suited to this kind of work.  The weight distribution of the tractors is over 70% on the rear wheels, disproportionally compacting the soils relative to the tractor weight, and very little consideration is given to tractor weight to begin with in the design process leading to poor power to weight ratios.   The design of these tractors also have the driver sitting very high, causing issues with orchard canopies, and due to front wheel steering they require the use of brakes to turn tightly, destroying the soil tilth and regardless, the tires do not follow the the same tract, doubly compacting the soil at row ends.  And all American designed tractors under 50hp have only the option of a rear mount PTO – meaning that the mower/collector must travel behind or next to the tractor.  Off set cutting is not an option in dense polyculture alley cropping so any green manure collection would necessitate the tractor crushing the crop prior to harvest.   There has to be a better way, right?

I am a total gear head, so I have enjoyed researching this problem over the past several years and for every one of these problems, my research continued to turn me to one spot – the Trattorini.    Specifically I am have settled on one particular model which I will use to demonstrate the elegant mechanical solutions to a midscale permaculture planting such as the one I described above.  May I introduce my dream tractor: the Ferrari Cobram 40AR. … and this is what I hope my kids will mean when they say they want a Ferrari when they grow up!

Articulating chassis for tight turning and built for perfect weight distribution

The Cobram 40 AR is built along the traditional Trattorini design of equal sized wheels to provide perfect weight distribution.  Each wheel on this tractor is only supporting about 500#’s vs the rear tires of a similar sized Kubota supporting over 750#’s.   Also the AR line features an articulating chassis – allowing for a turning radius 15% tighter than a rigid chassis, but more important it allows the wheels to track perfectly, reducing the soil compaction by half when turning.   Seat height is reduced by at least a foot thanks to the more compact design – these tractors are literally designed to work under orchard canopies and in vineyards and it shows – fold down the roll bar and duck a bit and you can squeeze under a 5′ branch.  The Cobram is offered with two engines, a 28 and a 38 hp Lombardini diesel and comes with 12 forward and reverse speeds providing significant range and enough power to run small haying equipment, 48′ spaders, seed drills, and large flail mowers without stressing the equipment.  Remember these machines are designed to do all this at a 30% grade – Wisconsin will not tax this tractor, meaning the life expectancy goes up sharply.

Driving compartment rotates 180 degrees to allow the PTO to be used in "front"

My favorite option on the Cobram and many other Trattorinis (including my Grillo) is their ability to rotate the entire driving compartment 180 degrees – effectively placing the PTO in the front of the tractor.   The photo at right shows another Trattorini with the position rotated to allow the farmer to cut hay without the tires trampling the plants reducing the efficacy of the mower.   This is absolutely critical for forage work in alley cropping where offsetting the mower to the side is not an option due to the close spaced rows of trees.  Even  in open field work like this, how much easier is it to not have to spend 12 hours turned around craning you neck trying to watch the implement while also driving the tractor forward?  Thanks to the articulating chassis, the Cobram will tract exactly the same whether the tractor is operated in forward or reverse, effectively removing those two terms from use – the tractor will behave the same (steering, speed, etc) whether the PTO is in front or behind the operator.   The useful measure of elegant design is that once explained, it becomes all but impossible to conceive of doing it any other way… its so simple and feels so “right” that one cannot imagine not having thought of it sooner.  Rather like permaculture itself.

The Italian / Mediterranean agricultural systems have much to teach us.  The Trattorini culture also has developed appropriate size implements for all the traditional farming jobs such as forage collection (yes they still make small square bales!), conservation tillage with spaders, seed drills, and all manner of mowers to collect green manures.  They even have less intrusive cultivators like power harrows that till only 1″ deep, but still provide a clean seed bed suitable for Earthway seeding in rows of carrots while leaving the fungal net below in tack for soil ecology.   From small scale grain production using reaper/binders and portable threshers to cultivation to forage and cover crop harvesting there is a staggering amount of tools available to the small scale agriculturist – many of which can compliment a permaculture system.

Here in the US there are a few distributors for these freakishly useful machines.  For walking tractors and implements like my Grillo and rotary plow, I HIGHLY recommend Joel at Earth Tools.   The best source for the larger 4 wheel trattorinis is Ferrari Tractors out of California – their site is so rich with information that you can learn a ton just reading the dozens of articles – Eugene is truly committed to sustainable ag and even has a PDF on mechanizing permaculture.

Permaculture has often come under fire from the fringe for its willingness to use equipment when it is justified.  While the bucolic scene or using nothing but horse or hand power makes us feel good, it is also naive – there are no where near enough horses trained for field work today – not by a factor of 1000- and our population density is all wrong for labor intensive agriculture as practiced in the third world currently. Without horses or (ALOT of) people, one needs a tractor to move produce on this scale: an acre of apples will produce 20,000 pounds of apples, an acre of potatoes 40,000,  carrots 24,000 etc.  Add up harvests like that on a diversified, polyculture  10-40 acre farm and one needs something rather larger than a barrow to bring in the harvest, which on a 20 acre holding placed in produce agriculture could exceed 500,000#s!  A trattorini like the Cobram 40 will use 50-100 gallons of fuel in a year  on a 15-40 acre farm, which is easy enough to produce on a site that large with sunflowers, canola, peanuts, in rotation or nut trees.  As we relocalize and focus on decentralized food production there will be much need for small scale agriculture models such as can be found all along the Mediterranean made more efficient through Permaculture design function stacking.

May all your alley’s be cropped, your soils balanced and living, and all your swales be on contour.

Be the Change!



12 Responses

  1. No doubt we are going back to family farms. And I agree with your points, no one will want to go all the way back to 40 acres and a mule.

    One observation. After tilling it is advisable to run a roller over the loose soil. The reason is you have disturbed the ability of the soil to wick moisture from deeper depths during dry spells. And you have created huge air pockets in the soil. Roots development can be inhibited because of this.

    Of course, finding a ‘no-till’ strategy is best.

    • Agreed – no till / deep mulch is 100%the way to go. The issue is how to scale up the natural farming of this blog’s namesake to a productive 5+ acre farm. Can no-till be mechanized without herbicides? If we ever get out of suburbia that will be the focus of One Straw – not how to grow more food on less acreage, but how to grow it *better* on a mid-scale size. Just because virtually no one is doing it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I love a challenge.

      Bring it!

      • “Can no-till be mechanized without herbicides?”

        Absolutely. Youtube has a great series of videos on the topic, mostly from OSU but with some great content from Helen Atthowe (who seems to till a bit…).

        The roller-crimper doohickey looks like a great way to kill rye and sudex, at the least.

      • Yeah bring it.

        I really enjoy your blog and we are in the process of getting our own up and running. Our farm in NY is 34 acres. The farm pays for itself throughs sales of greens and micros, and we are transitioning to a forest agriculture system. Your reference to Shepard above is a good one, but keep in mind he makes a ton of money from his relationship with Organic Valley. The question we are trying to answer is how do farmers (just starting out) survive those early years. Shepard has OV we have a nest egg, you have a F500 job. Martin Crawford, Ken Fern, Matt Dunwell out of the UK seem to be getting close with no outside help though I understand Ken is ill, and his amazing farm may be falling apart. We have been corresponding with the woman who did the BBC special on Farms for the Future, and she has a farm that has been in her family for generations. That is the nut we are trying to crack. This type of farming takes minimum 3-4 years to get started. Shepard is years into this and still trying to transition from annuals to perrenials. 2% annuals is his goal. Can he do it, can any of us do it? Who the heck knows. I like the fact that you have your pounds per area. Crawford says he can support 11 people per acre and he is all perrenials and only 2 acres. We lean toward a mix of annuals and perrenials. Fukuoka said never plant in a straight line because bugs and beetles feed in a straight line, but somewhere you loose economies, duh.
        Would like to exchange info on nurseries with you folks. Worried about getting scammed. So far great reputations means great prices. Trying to figure what are the best sizes to buy. We bought some stuff from X nursery in the spring, and it was OK and then we bought the same stuff from Krieger’s this fall, and it was twice as big for half of the price.
        We use a BSC with a Honda engine. Starts on the first pull every spring so far.
        Snows falling here, so I can write more now, and would like to link to your blog once we are up and running.

        Best hopes


        Live Simply So Others Can Simply Live

        PS: Don’t let the Ghandi quote scare you. A Farm has to make a profit at some point. That’s reality. We just feel that a little bit is enough.

  2. Could you expound more on how you customized your Grillo engine and differential? I’m thinking of getting one, and the more I research, the better your choice looks.

    • You bet. I will try to put up a post this week, but feel free to squirt me an email with your questions at The only “mod” I did was to take one of Earth Tools Grillo 85D’s and have them put the 107D’s Lombardini 8hp diesel on it. I wanted to have a pure Italian machine because I am dorky like that, and the extra 1 hp allows me to run the rotary plow. That said, having owned it for two years there is easily a post’s worth of learnings.


  3. >sunflowers, canola, peanuts, in rotation or nut trees.

    You mentioned vineyards, which can produce a fair amount of grapeseed oil as a byproduct; the “heads” and “tails” of brandy distillation would also be a fine feedstock for transesterification reactions to produce lighter biodiesel.

    There are also some practical ways to produce liquid fuel via pyrolysis. One figure I found predicts about half the energy value of dry biomass can end up in engine fuel with the right sort of refining system. I think the scale of systems being designed by Eprida is just about appropriate; they seem focused on the soil-amendment market rather than liquid fuels, but I bet someone is working on mid-scale technologies.

    • Joel, we’ve done alot of experimentation with biomass gasification to good results, though our filtering is not up to speed to have modern engines survive yet. My limited under standing of the Fischer-Troupsch process is that it is more than a bit involved and really hurts the energy return on the biomass. That isn’t a deal killer if you are adding a utility (liquid is much easier to transport).

      Thanks for the Eprida tip – I love open source energy geeks trying to save the world!

      • What sort of filtering do you do?

        Also, you might look into fermenting butanol from your sunchokes, rather than ethanol. It takes a lot less energy to distill (and, for the same reason, does not absorb moisture in storage), and the organism that makes it can break down a wider range of saccharides than yeast can. Plus, butanol is suitable for both spark-ignition and diesel engines; AFAIK diesels don’t like ethanol.

      • Our primary filtering flows the gas through a condenser which precipitates a majority of the tars out of the gas. We are now experimenting with a secondary filter that then flows the gas through what is counter flow packed column using marbles for the packing and biodiesel for the liquid sprayed through irrigation nozzles similar to a biodiesel washer. Final filtering will likely be through an permeable fabric air or fuel filter.

        The core problem is that we need less tar in our burn to begin with. It runs old 1940’s engines fairly well, but modern Hondas found in generators are clogging.

        First I have heard about butanol distillation, may have to check that out to – so much to learn, and so little time. What I have begun doing is outsourcing my energy work to those in our network more drawn to that while I focus on polyculture food/fuel systems which are more my passion.

  4. […] Trattorini: .5-2 acres Posted on December 1, 2009 by onestraw In my last post I talked through the Trattorini (small tractor) culture of Italy and much of southern Europe with a […]

  5. Hi great post, i went back and forth about using a small walk behind tractor or an older 4 wheel. have gone for a 45 hp david brown 1970.
    the only advantage with this was i can bring in inputs like seaweed and manure for site preparation. Also less embodied energy in an old tractor..
    i’m really glad people like yourself are looking into mid scale farming.permaculture. i think combination forest plots with intensive annual clearings are the way to go. I’ve been to martin crawfords site, it’s impressive but not a commercial enterprise- the money comes from his plant nursery and giving talks etc..
    thanks again for this great post

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