The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Readers Have Spoken: Buy the Tractor!

May 22nd, 2013 · 10 Comments · Posted in farming, Sustainability

Needed: a vehicle to negotiate hillside pastures

Needed: a vehicle to negotiate our hillside pastures

Many readers responded to our hand-wringing over a tractor purchase and the vote was unanimous: Buy the tractor!

My sister Diane, who owned a small farm in northern Illinois with her husband years ago, was emphatic: “We used our tractor ALL the time, and we only had 5.5 acres.”

Vermont farmer and author Ben Hewitt was equally blunt: “Buy the tractor, Ed,” Ben wrote after I left a comment on his blog. “Get a horse, too, but definitely buy the tractor.”

Fellow sustainable food blogger Rob Frost, addressing our concerns about polluting with a diesel tractor, allayed our fears with his usual command of agricultural factoids.

“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,” Rob wrote. He made a brilliant suggestion for fueling the tractor environmentally. We could, Rob said, “grow your own Sunflower oil (75 gallons/acre) and form a co-op to buy the press.”

“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.’ ”

For a moment, we had toyed with the idea of purchasing draft horses instead of a tractor. Wouldn’t it be romantic to farm by hand, without fuel-guzzling machines? We could become paragons of sustainability, we thought wistfully.

Our friend and realtor Gini, who’s been farming a small homestead here for years and owned draft horses with her partner at one time, quickly quashed that idea. “Don’t go there,” Gini wrote. “Even with a background in horses it is back-breaking and you have to be committed (in more ways than one) to living with and taking care of them.”

We had calculated that buying horses would be much cheaper than getting a tractor. Agricultural equipment can be very expensive. But Gini noted that she and her partner were laying out $300 a month to feed their horses. Plus, she warned, draft horses are really big and can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. “They would never intentionally hurt anyone, but if they step on you or squeeze you against a wall, you can get hurt.”

Gini said her partner had been dragged by their horses “on more than one occasion.” Echoing that sentiment, a recent New York Times article linked by one of our readers described how a farmer’s wife had both her legs broken when their team of draft horses got spooked, broke into a run and slammed her into a fence.

At our age, we probably don’t have time to train ourselves on draft horses, nor can we afford a serious injury. So thanks, readers, for setting us straight. It looks like there’s a tractor in our future.

And guess what? We already have one in mind.

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  • Susan Rubin

    Keep in mind that the SHTF scenarios may be happening sooner rather than later. We’ve been hosting Dr. Guy Mc Pherson in our community the last few days to talk about positive feedback loops with climate change, resource depletion and possibilities for economic collapse. Its a tough sell in comfy suburbia.
    The bottom line is we all must work to create a durable set of living arrangements. And get over our obsession with electricity.
    How about a couple of oxen as part of Plan B for when the diesel tractor is no longer a possibility?

  • BenK

    A little late to the party, I encourage you to consider the ‘open source ecology’ tractors. They are meant to be locally maintained and run on a variety of fuels. If nothing else, you may avoid a single point of failure if you have one in the background as a spare.

  • Ed Bruske

    Great suggestion, Ben. I was completely unaware. I would definitely consider the LifeTrac down the road. I like the idea, and maybe at some point they will add other features, like being able to power attachment from the rear, such as a brush hogger.

  • Ed Bruske

    Susan, a couple of oxen may be a necessity. One of our other neighbors (a few miles away) is James Kunstler, and you know how he feels about the future of fossil fuels and our current living arrangements. In his novelist’s vision–set right here in Washington County–civilization crumbles and we resort to figuring out how our forebears managed without the modern conveniences. At that point, the Amish will rule. Certainly, if we are not growing acres of sunflowers to fuel our diesel tractor, we will need to reconsider animal power. Come to the Washington County Fair in August and you can see teams of oxen in action. Right now, they’re just for show. But who knows, they may be pressed into service again in our lifetime.

  • Rebecca Penovich

    Hi Ed: I’ve been enjoying your posts about life on your new farm. What an adventure. Re: the tractor, I agree you are going to need one and
    you won’t regret it one bit this winter. That young couple you met at the Farmers Market who have a plow and horse and five kids must be exhausted!

  • Ed Bruske

    Great to hear from you, Rebecca. I totally admire the young (and old) people who are returning to animal power. I know it can be done, but it’s a little late in the game for us. At our age, we need to get a running start at this and we can’t afford any injuries. Our hope is that somewhere down the road, younger folk will be farming our land (our daughter, maybe?), and if they want to trade the tractor in for some draft animals, more power to them.

  • Sylvie in Rappahannock

    Good decision! All the small and not-so small organic farms have tractors around here. Some used. One farms offsets its carbon-footprint by having the roof of their equipment shed covered with solar panels so they produce most of their electricity (they also don’t use synthetic fertilizer, compost like mad etc). Horses sound great but as many others pointed out necessitates a commitment and know-how that might be more than what a tractor requires. Still, just for giggles:

  • Ed Bruske

    Solar power is very high on our agenda, Sylvie. It’s only a matter of time. And with all the wind we’ve been having lately, we also are looking into a windmill. Even though we are linked to the grid via National Grid, we think generating our own power is a must. We would dearly love to be selling it back to the power company.

  • Diana Dyer

    Ed, I am WAY behind on reading the few blogs that I follow these days but I just have to chime in. I may be duplicating advice you have already received, but don’t be surprised if you find you buy and need 2 (yes 2) tractors. We left the guilt behind a long time ago. We still don’t have 2 but we are always on the lookout for another. At the very least, you will need a second one to pull out the first one from some ‘fix’ you’re in. Of course we know that from first-hand experience. 🙂 🙂
    Good luck!

  • Ed Bruske

    Diana, first we have to survive the purchase of tractor #1.