The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Readers Poll: Should We Buy a Tractor?

May 21st, 2013 · 14 Comments · Posted in farming, Sustainability

Farming on an incline poses challenges

Farming on an incline poses challenges

We didn’t move to Upstate New York to spew diesel fumes, nor do we want our little slice of heaven to be forever dependent on fossil fuels. Our plan was to build a “sustainable” family farm around pastured livestock. But now that I’ve lived here for a while, I can see that farming on an incline–such as the hillside on which most of our 30 acres are situated–poses special challenges. Do we need a tractor to accomplish our goals?

First and foremost, water and feed need to be transported to animals on pasture. The feed part isn’t so critical during the growing season–the livestock will be eating mostly grass. But in winter, when pastures are frozen, hay will need to be moved from one location to another. In a rotational pasturing scheme–moving livestock from paddock to paddock with portable electric fencing–water troughs need to be filled some distance from the source. Typically, the water is moved in large tanks that are extremely heavy.

Similarly, there is timber around the property that needs to be cut and cleared. How does the wood make it back to the house in the form of firewood if not by some mechanical means?

In winter, snow will need to be plowed from a driveway that is nearly the length of three football fields. How is this accomplished, if not by a large and capable vehicle?

There’s quite a bit of heavy lifting that goes on even on a small family farm. In the age of industrial farming, hardly anyone questions to use of tractors to get the job done. After all, what is the alternative? Well, the alternative would be animal power, as in draft horses or oxen.

Before there was fossil fuel farms were managed with draft animals. In fact, a few dedicated farmers in the name of sustainability have embraced the use of animal power over mechanical convenience. The question for us–and especially at our age–is whether this is even feasible.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the role fossil fuels play in our lives as grass farmers. We can swear off confined feed lots and industrially produced grain fodder, but we still depend on a thousand other gas-fueled conveniences. How do we get to the lumber yard for materials to build our chicken coop? In a pickup truck. How do we get to the grocery store to buy the supplies we can’t grow? In a car. Where does the electricity come from that pumps water from the well and powers this computer I’m now typing on? How are mail-ordered seeds delivered from faraway sources? How are our tools made?

Think about it for even a minute and you quickly realize that in most cases, “sustainable” farming would not be possible without a significant assist from the fossil fuel industry. Even “organic” vegetable farming in most cases relies on plastics made with petroleum products. Acres of tomatoes and squashes are mulched with black plastic; irrigation water traverses the fields in plastic pipes; greenhouses are covered with plastic sheeting.

We could easily justify a tractor purchase to help manage our new farm. But we’re torn.

I wonder what readers think. Can you see us going Amish? Is there a draft horse in our future?

Or do we just close one eye, hold our noses and buy the damn tractor?


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  • Diane

    Buy the tractor, Ed, but see if you have a source of fuel near you that is made from used fryer oil. I have a sister-in-law that uses this fuel for her car. It used to be cheap, now it’s the same price as other fuels, but it IS green…you could have a tractor converted to use such a fuel. We used our tractor ALL the time, and we only had 5.5 acres!

  • Ed Bruske

    Thanks, Diane. The tractor we have in mind is a 30-horse power, four-wheel-drive diesel. Diesel engines, if I’m not mistaken, were originally built to run on vegetable oils. They are much more efficient and less polluting than gasoline-fueled engines. They operate on high compression, rather than electrical spark, so they don’t need all the electronics of a gas engine. The major drawback: diesel fuel tends to turn into Jello at very low temperatures, so you have to have an engine heater in cold climates to get it started.

    As far as running on fry oil, I consider this a definite possibility. The only trouble is, if everybody converts to running on fry oil, somebody’s going to have to eat a lot of French fries.

  • Ed Bruske

    Great article, Ilona. Thanks.

  • Callipygos

    I have been following your progress with interest, and although I think a draft horse sounds amazing, it will also add another layer of problems. Tractor might be the way to go?

  • Ed Bruske

    Thanks for being a reader. That seems to be the consensus: go with the tractor. For a minute there I had this romantic idea of tending the farm with draft horses, but they not only come with many potential problems, they can be downright dangerous and they are expensive to feed. Most likely much more expensive than feeding a diesel tractor.

  • Rob Frost

    Buy the tractor and fuel it with locally sourced B-100, WVO (in summer) or grow your own Sunflower oil (75 gallons/acre) and form a co-op to buy the press. The 24-30hp you have in mind would do the job nicely, and the lack of carburetor will be fantastic for your northern clime. Even if you stick to dino diesel, don’t fret the carbon guilt. -Every pound of beef (conventional) is good for ~40# of CO2– your pastured raised beef will offset a bunch of diesel, and don’t forget the sequestering of the soil building aspects of your pasture raised beefies. If you want to be purer run sunflowers in alley crops between rows of hybrid poplar / willow grown for fuel/hugelkultur; 1-2 acres would net you 3-6 tons of carbon/year. Have a game plan for when the SHTF, but in the mean time ‘put the mask on your own face first’.

    In other words— Ed, we are not saints or messiahs– get the tractor and stay sane enough to keep Fighting the Fight. You have awesome talent– the time saved with the tractor will allow you the capacity to write, educate, and outreach rather than tote water and shovel snow in a fundamentalist attempt to Be Pure.

  • Ed Bruske

    Great to hear from you, Rob. As usual, have command of the most amazing ag math. Wouldn’t the neighbors be stunned to see a couple of acres of sunflowers nodding at them from our hillside. Definitely something to ponder. Of course, this entire livestock venture is about building–and maintaining–the soil, which has been so badly abused by conventional farming. As you say, we will be packing in the carbon, which will allay some of our fossil fuel guilt.

    Thanks for the encouragement. Hope all is well with you.

  • Paul Perrot

    Hi Ed. I’m for the tractor too. You have the option of changing your mind later. Or you could use a draft horse to reduce the need for the big machine. On another point, if you wear steel tipped boots, get rid of them. They can be very dangerous if something heavy falls on your foot.

  • Marcello Napolitano

    There are large jobs on a farm that really require a tractor, such as plowing and reseeding a field, to cutting and turning hay. But these are not things you will do very often. Do you need your own tractor for them or can you have a neighbor help you with these tasks? And then there are small, more frequent jobs such as refilling feeders and watering troughs, and moving manure after cleaning the stables. For those tasks, something like a quad towing a small trailer could be useful, and less damaging on the land than a full size tractor. Personally, I am all in favor of having animals do their share of the work on the farm, but in some cases the time it takes you to care for large animals so that they can do a task is not worth it, and it is better spent doing something else.

  • Lisa

    Just received yesterday’s post via e mail and came over to say “buy the tractor” and see it has already been decided. I am enjoying the unfolding of your journey as you find your footing and share your adventures.

  • Ed Bruske

    Lisa, thanks for your vote. It’s pretty much unanimous at this point.

  • Darren Labbe

    I think you answered your own question while writing your article…and now you see you have the support of your family friends and readers. Since you are in a farming area, I’ll bet there are auctions of farming equipment. Also, since you are already making connections in town just ask around. Tractors come in a variety of sizes and as you have justified you are in need of one but maybe not a very big one. As Paul mentioned while you’re out buy muck boots for the family. You will need them!!

  • Ed Bruske

    Thanks for your concern about our feet, Darren. In fact, we had to purchase boots during our real estate search. We also purchased neon-yellow hazard vests so we wouldn’t get shot by hunters while walking the fields!

    We’ve narrowed our tractor search to a couple of models and you are correct: They are smaller than the traditional farm tractor. But they are also very popular, not so easy to find. We may have located the tractor for us–a used one, of course–at a nearby dealer. That’s after scouring Craigslist and every known site where tractors are listed.