Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Best Tractor: One That Does Not Kill You

They are so lovely, but they can be so dangerous.

Ken Johnson presents several excellent recommendations in "Thinking About Buying An Old Tractor For Your Homestead?" in the March/April 2013 issue of Countryside Magazine. He only short-changes two essentials for new homesteaders contemplating a tractor purchase: horrible injuries and death.

What follows here grows out of a letter to the editor of that publication.

I maintain two rural properties, one in the process of becoming a homestead, with both antique and modern equipment. Both pieces of land feature hills, gullies, and stream beds. Any of these can equal a roll-over, especially if a row-crop tractor with a narrow front end gets employed improperly.

Even a low-slung tractors with a wide front axle, such as my 1952 Ford 8N, can roll sideways when used incorrectly on a hill. I'll never forget my first experience when a front wheel lifted off the ground on an incline. It was a moment of stark terror I won't repeat, because I never mow that spot now except with a weed-eater and push mower.

Here I am mowing, carefully, with this fine old tractor. The biggest problem nowadays is getting it to start after too long a "rest."

New rural residents without much experience on tractors need an apprenticeship, something I gained in two decades as a city-boy working with my father-in-law. That taught me the rudiments of old equipment and its use. I'm still learning. But for the most serious uses, I use a new tractor with several features I love and that reduce the likelihood of injury when something bad occurs.

So while Johnson's article does note how side-mount tractors and PTO systems can save both effort and injury, much of his other advice works best for old hands who already know tractors. I'd recommend the following specs for those who haven't put in too many hours in the tractor seat:
  • Roll-over system (roll bar), seat belt, hand brake. Our 1970s and 80s John Deeres all feature them, and I am fairly certain that similar vintage Internationals,  New Hollands, and other makes do, too.
  • Wide front axle, period. For most hobby farmers and homesteaders, the triangle setups for many row-crops invite disaster unless the property is really flat and level.
  • Utility tractor for small properties. Tractor owners, in their red or green caps, will disagree for hours over the merits of a particular setup or make, but a modern utility tractor will be lower to the ground than a row-crop. That center of gravity, plus weights as needed, can save a novice's life.
  • 4WD if the tractor will use a loader or work wet ground. Getting stuck in mud is a pain, but flipping the tractor by sliding sideways down a hill is worse.
  • Volunteer work and classes. Seek out a local farmer at the farmer's market, dial up the community college or extension agent, and just ask.
These have been my methods. I ended up with a new John Deere 4WD utility tractor for $25K, far more than Johnson recommends, though good tractors of the sort, as well as 4WD earth-moving equipment, can be found for $10K.  But, hey. The Deere dealer gave me some free hats.

If I were to employ only one tractor, I'd save up to spend the extra money. My antiques now pull wagons or mow grass on the flat spots.

All that said, no tractor, modern or old, is safe if not used safely.

My father-in-law, with all his years of experience, still got pinned under the rear wheel of a 1970s vintage tractor set up with a backhoe, and featuring both a seat belt and cab. I still use that tractor for digging holes, moving tons of dirt and stone, and more. It's the sort of machine that should NOT hurt you. In this photo, I was working on drainage around a barn, with that machine in the background. Note how its is parked, with the front bucket down to prevent rolling on its own, if the shifter got knocked into neutral. That happens! 

Once the Ford 8n, unhooked from any mower, decided to roll away on its own. I watched first in horror, then in amusement, as it took a little trip down the hill, finally coming to rest, gently, against the very tree to the right of the backhoe below.  Nothing was hurt, but to see a tractor run away on its own teaches more respect than any words here could.

When the accident happened to my father-in-law, after he came out of his coma he explained that he tried to move the tractor a foot or two, engine off, by operating the clutch with his hand and standing beside it.  A tire-tread caught his trousers and pulled him under the machine.

Had he climbed into the seat to do the job, he'd not have been hurt. He barely survived the accident, and was never the same man. Moral to newly rural folk: buy as safe a tractor as you can afford, take lessons from responsible old-timers, and use the equipment properly.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Woodsmoke and Work

Making the fateful decision to heat with wood is not one lightly taken, we've found.

While we have a two-zone heat-pump system to keep the temperature at something above freezing, as well as a restored and tight house, there is much more to do to keep things cozy.

A great part of the transition to rural life involves the constant splitting and storage of wood. I opted to make the side walls and part of the back of a three-bay tractor run-in into wood storage. With sustainability and lower costs in mind, I made the racks from the crates in which the farm house's new standing-seam roof arrived.  Even with that much ready storage, consider that a home in Central Virginia can use up to four cords of seasoned wood in a winter; that is not far off the figure given for upstate New York given in Bryan Alexander's Scaling the Peak.

A cord of closely stacked wood measures 8' x 4' x 4'; quadruple that figure for one heating season.

On the plus side, a single stove can heat an entire home, especially when it gets paired with a stovetop fan. We purchased the larger of two models available from Plow and Hearth, then added a stove thermometer. Finally, after I stupidly broke the glass on the stove with an overly long log, I ordered not only replacement glass (at nearly $200) but a spare piece. Our stove is side-loading too, so unless I am starting it from cold, all wood goes into the side and the glass should be safe. Should be.

I've mentioned Audrey and Michael Levatino’s book The Joy of Hobby Farming and the authors' list of farm essentials. They advise against a power splitter, and there we must, well, split company as we split wood. In town, splitting was a hobby and exercise for me and my maul, but in the country, I split when chores and day-job do not interfere. This means volume and speed become essential. The $1200 invested in a 27-ton Troybilt seems like peanuts now. I got the oak for this and next winter free and I'm probably saving at least $200 per month in electric bills, when compared to what we spent in town with our heating system.  One caveat for all small engines these days: either find ethanol-free gas or run the tool until it's dry, to avoid crystallization in the lines and carb. It's a terrible and mostly preventable problem for small engines, and locally I've two sources of petrol without the ethanol.

On a good day when we are home all day, the heat pumps now never come on, and the farm house maintains a temperature of 65 degrees or more just from the one stove.

And when time permits, I heft the maul and split by hand, using my axes only for kindling. Yet even stacking and moving wood from the gas-powered splitter provides a workout to rival any gym.