The minimum tools for small-time garden farming
From Gene Logsdon (1985)
WIth Update - September 2008
Garden Farm Skills
One of the chief advantages of the small garden farm based on grassland farming with pasture and crop rotations is that only a small portion of the total farm is cultivated, and of that cultivated part, only an even smaller portion needs to be cultivated at any one time. To ascertain your power and tool requirements on such a farm, you do not look at total acreages, but rather the number of acres that necessarily have to be cultivated in any one day.
Tractors and Mowers
On a place such as mine with 23 total acres, approximately 10 are in woods, orchard, garden, house, barn and so on; 1½ in pasture. At no time do I have to cultivate more than ½ acre per day and seldom do I have to mow more than ½ acre a day, either. Therefore, these are my points of maximum power and tool requirements. A walk-behind commercial two-wheeled tractor with tiller and attachments for mowing would suffice—would even have the power to pull one of those small manure spreaders now on the market. I’m speaking of the truly heavy-duty two-wheeled tillers, like the Ferrari, the largest Mainline, or the Gem from Howard Rotavator. These are European models and there are others, plus some from Japan. They have not sold well in this country because Americans like to ride, even though for the privilege of a four-wheeled rider, they pay a couple thousand more dollars without necessarily gaining anything in performance. If you’re not interested in saving money or the handy maneuverability of two-wheeled tractors, you need an 18 to 30 h.p. small farm tractor. Having gone that far, you are capable of farming quite a bit larger place on an 11½:1½ ratio of pasture to cultivated crops.
For example, because I was in a position to procure old equipment rather cheaply, I own an old 30 h.p. tractor, which can handle any of the following: an 8-foot disc dragging a 10-foot harrow behind it, a two-bottom moldboard plow, a 7-foot sickle bar mower, a 5-foot rotary mower, a two-horse manure spreader, an 8-foot side-delivery rake, plus my 6-foot combine. These are the tools I find adequate for my cropping system (see All Flesh Is Grass). The reason I have both a sickle bar and a rotary mower is that I use the latter to keep open my lanes in the woods, to chop cornstalks, and to mow pastures after they have been grazed down and only rough weeds and dead grass remain. The sickle bar is for cutting hay. With these tools and tractor I could also farm more land than I presently do.
Since my equipment is capable of cultivating 5 acres a day without difficulty, I could handle, based on the 11½:1½ ratio of pasture to cultivated crops, a total farming area of 115 acres—100 in pasture and 15 in a cultivated field rotated to corn, wheat/oats, and hay. I would have to add a baler to my list of equipment in that event, and hire help during the June hay-making period, since I might be faced with making a cutting of hay from nearly half of that pasture acreage. But even with this addition, contrary to what a machinery dealer would pencil out for conventional farming, grassland farming would require a comparatively low outlay of cash to equip a small commercial farm.
What does that translate to in terms of livestock and therefore profits? On my 11½:1½ farmed acres, I raise enough feed for 2 small cows and their calves, 10 sheep and lambs, and about 30 hens. At 115 acres, that translates roughly into ten times that number of animals or 20 cows and calves, 100 sheep and lambs, and 300 chickens. This is even without pushing for the highest fertility.
A year in my little fields sees my “least-cost” tools used in this manner. Starting in early spring, the first plantings are made with the little broadcast seeder seeding clover and alfalfa on the new wheat and reseeding various legumes and grasses into the permanent pastures. Sometimes I’ve used the disc very lightly to scratch little furrows into the permanent pasture surface for the seeds to lodge in, but not usually. In late April as soon as the soil is dry enough, I disk the other half of last year’s corn plot (half has already been planted the previous fall to wheat) and sow it to oats, again using the little broadcast seeder. The disking not only opens the soil a little for the seed, but kills the first wave of newly sprouting weeds in the soil. I interplant red clover and alfalfa with the oats. The next job is planting corn in the fall-plowed plot that was last year’s hay plot. I use the the tractor, disc, and harrow to prepare the seedbed, although occasionally, I have used the garden tiller instead. I then plant this ½ acre with a little hand-pushed row seeder. I use garden tiller and hoe for weed cultivation. After corn harvest in the fall, I disk half of that plot and plant it to wheat with the broadcaster. After the last harvest on the hay plot, it is plowed, usually in November. That is the extent of the cultivation for the year.
Mowing and harvesting hay is, of course, the bigger part of the labor. From late May to about June 20 I am making hay, either in the hay plot of the cultivated crop area or out in the pasture field, more or less continuously during the clear weather between rains. I usually do not cut more than ½ acre at a time. On the hay plots, I will make hay again in August/September, or if the hay is mainly alfalfa, in July, again in August, and perhaps again in late September, although I like to turn under the last cutting for green manure.
Your lawn and garden tractor dealer is secretly glad that human beings aren’t half as concerned about the cleanliness of their machinery as they are about the cleanliness of their bodies. If they were, fewer machines would be sold each year because the old ones would last much longer. Dirt sells more new lawn mowers than advertising does. Dirt gets into the engine by way of dirty oil or a dirty air filter, and the subsequent abrasion wears out the engine. Dirt coating the exterior of the engine block makes the motor run too hot. Dirt accumulating on external movable parts makes them wear faster. We all know this, but nothing is easier to procrastinate about than motor hygiene. These simple steps will add years to your equipment:
1. At least once a year, clean the engines of your tiller, mower, chain saw, and so forth, especially between the fins of the engine block. Those fins are there to help keep the block from getting to hot when the motor is running. Dirt between the fins negates their effectiveness. If you can take the housing off from around the motor, cleaning can be done fairly easily with a wire brush. If the housing is difficult to take off, work the dirt loose with an old, long-necked screwdriver, a piece of wire, or some similar utensil and then blow the dirt out. An air compressor is great for this purpose, if you have one. If you use a screwdriver or other tool, watch out for air governors and external coils.
2. On water-cooled engines, blow out any dirt that has accumulated on the radiator, too.
3. Wipe away excess grease or oil on exterior moving parts. Dirt collects in such spots and can cause problems over the years.
4. Carbon collects on some muffler ports and partially plugs them, causing the engine to lose power. Keep those ports all the way open.
5. Clean air filters as your maintenance manual directs. Don’t shirk. A dirty filter shortens the lifetime of a motor, and if plugged with dirt, will not allow the motor to run with the proper fuel-air mixture. This is particularly critical on chain saws. Clean those air intake filters often.
6. Change the oil every year or as the manual dictates. Running the motor a few minutes beforehand will heat the oil
7. If the machine is not to be used over a long period of time (several months) drain out the old fuel. Remove the plug and screen from the bottom of the fuel tank and flush out the tank to remove those specks of dirt that always accumulate there. Make sure the breather hole in the cap is not plugged.
8. Again, if the machine is not to be used for several months, remove the spark plug(s) and pour a couple of tablespoons of oil into each cylinder. Turn the engine over by hand several times to spread the oil over the cylinder walls. Leave the piston at the very top position of its stroke or at the “fire” position so no valves are open. Carefully wire-brush away any carbon or corrosion on the spark plug tip before replacing it. Or buy a new one if the engine hasn’t been starting as easily as it once did. The oil in the cylinder will cause the motor to smoke excessively for a minute or so when you take it out of storage and start it again. Don’t be alarmed.
9. When replacing a patched or new tube in a tire, check the inside of the tire carefully for dirt or anything that might later wear a hole in the tube. Recently when I was mowing off some thorny bushes, a tire went flat. Before I replaced the patched tube I checked the inside surface of the tire. It looked clean. but when I ran my fingers over the surface, I discovered five more thorns, just barely sticking through the tire. They were not easily seen from the tread side, either. They would have eventually worked on through and caused me no end of flat tires.
Coming soon: Getting the Most Out of a Farm or Garden Tractor
Update - September 2008: I’m very surprised at how current this info still is. I still use that same tractor in the same ways. Still have the same overall philosophy of farming too. I have changed disks but the other equipment is still the same. The only thing that has changed is my son’s age!
See also Gene’s Oxen Power for Family Farms
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: Gene and Carol Logsdon
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