Horsepower, Part 1

One thing has become clear to me in the past two months: This farm does not have enough horsepower behind it. I suspected that coming into this season, but I know it for sure now.

I chose not to buy a tractor this year. In many ways, for vegetable production, a walk-in cooler and irrigation well are more critical than a tractor. I planned to build a cooler this season, drill an irrigation well the next, and start thinking about buying a tractor after that. In the meantime, I would rely on a neighbor for my spring tillage, and use my big walk-behind tiller for making beds. It would be hard work, but looked totally feasible.

Boy, was I wrong.

First, this spring’s fieldwork did not unfold as planned. Jay of Grassfields, an organic dairy south of town, has been growing forage crops on the parts of the field I am not using in exchange for his disking the area I need for vegetables. Last year, that arrangement worked great. This year, with the spring being so late and wet, it was a challenge scheduling my overdue fieldwork alongside Jay’s. Everything got done in the nick of time, but it did highlight a weakness in the system.

And second, the condition of the soil further complicated things. My little tiller just isn’t the right tool for addressing the level of soil compaction I have in some places. Some sections are so hard the tines just bounce off the ground. Not only is that a waste of time (and fuel), it’s hard on the machine. I bought a broadfork this year to help the work along, and while that tool makes the job easier, it by no means makes it easy.

So how things have been shaking out this summer is that I first wait for the soil to dry out enough to work it. Then I put everything aside and make as many beds as I can before it rains again. For each bed, I make a couple of passes with the tiller. Then I work the soil with the broadfork, essentially breaking up the hardpan by hand, in eight-inch progressions down and back the length of the fifty-foot bed. Last, I take a few more passes with the tiller, working progressively deeper until I max out the depth of the machine. After, I start the whole process over with the next bed.

Memorial Day weekend saw one such big transplanting push. A big dairy operation down the road farms the field across from us. They were out, too, with their enormous, dinosauric machines, and were able to spread manure, disk, and seed that forty-odd-acre field in the time it took me to make six fifty-foot beds.

(Later, out of curiosity, I looked up the specs for those tractors: Used ones start at over a quarter-million dollars, far more than what I will end up spending to get this entire operation off the ground, so I really do not envy them.)

It happened that Tom from Groundswell Farm stopped by that day (he has family in the area), and I bitched to him a while about the whole business. He didn’t speak for a moment, then said, “You know, that’s how all of us started out” — “all of us” meaning the area farmers doing the kind of farming I am trying to do. And he went on to point out how much you learn about your soil, working in that fashion, and how important that was.

I took his point. I remembered how last year, when I first had my tiller, I worked up a twenty by hundred foot plot before accepting that the soil was too wet to work. A rookie mistake, but how much worse it would have been, how much more extensive the damage, had I been behind the wheel of a tractor.

After Tom left, I sucked it up and persisted at making my beds, and for the most part kept this season’s transplanting and seeding schedule on track. But I have purchased each one of those beds dearly and felt as though I have had time for little else.

So I started shopping for a tractor.

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