I like to think of Elmwood Stock Farm as a solar-powered food generator, yet it takes a vast array of equipment, implements, tools and gizmos to bring it to fruition. Caring for our diversity of crops and enterprises requires we perform a multitude of tasks. With a unique blend of old and new technologies, a resourceful nature, ingenuity and a little luck, we seem to get the job done, one way or another.
It all starts with power. Tractors are still rated by horsepower, and just like horses, most are mounted from the left. (Go figure. Does anybody out there know how that tradition got started? If you do, leave a message for us on Facebook to enlighten us!) There must be enough power generated by the engine to turn the wheels at the appropriate speed—often slow—and enough strength to pull the tillage equipment that is dragging in the ground, to turn the rotary knives of hay-making mowers or to lift the 1000-pound bales of hay for transport. If you have ever dug a hole to plant a tree or double-dug your garden space, you realize just how heavy soil is, and hard to move. It takes a lot of power to turn over an 80-inch-wide swath of sod, some 8 inches deep all day long.
All of our tractors are diesel, built to last for generations. They are monitored by an hour meter instead of an odometer, and a few have cabs for comfort and safety. The vintages range from 1950s to the early 2000s.
We have smaller tractors for pulling wagons and light mowing, we have bigger ones that turn the soil and prepare the fields for planting, and we have some in between. Even the big ones are relatively small, comparatively.
Tractors are just the start to our equipment. Then there are the attachments that hook to the tractors. There is a set for working ground and a set for haymaking and mowing. For dirt work, Elmwood Stock Farm is home to 10 to 12 implements across a spectrum that ranges from new to rusting relics that have matured past “works but hasn’t moved for years” into parts reservoirs, to our form of land-based-reef building.
Since every day is different on a diversified farm, we need the flexibility to perform any type of tillage necessary, depending on soil conditions, crop status and the task at hand. Great satisfaction can be had from a little ingenuity in re-configuring tillage tools, often with parts off the old ones. This week, we are pulling a 5/16 moldboard plow–to us, it’s just called plowing—through the alfalfa field to invert the sod and feed the soil with the plant residue. (Check out this video of John plowing the field!) In a few weeks, a disc harrow or a rototiller will be guided over the field to prepare the soil for seeds or transplants. As the season progresses, there is a host of progressively lighter-weight implements to take care of the little weeds that pop up next to our little crops, which is when the real dancing with Mother Nature begins.
Making good hay requires a whole fleet of implements: a 10-foot-wide disc mower, a tedder to fluff up the hay to dry uniformly, a rake to put it in rows for the round (or square) baler to traverse and form the bales. We generally use three tractors to make hay so we can be timely between rains and reduce the time to hook and unhook the implements. Often, somebody runs the rake a few rows ahead of the baler to catch it just right. Time is of the essence.
Then there are planters, seeders, transplanters, lifts, loaders, mowers, scraper blades, as well as various and sundry contraptions. Lest we not forget the assembly of flatbed wagons and trailers, specialized grain wagons and carts, and cargo and livestock trailers hanging around to move produce, animals and supplies. Each one must be matched with the right tractor—not only for power, but wheel spacing and turning radius, and the tractor must be heavy enough to lift and control the weight of the implement. A small tractor may be able to pull a wagon loaded with hay up the hill, but it might not be heavy enough to control it going down the hill.
All of that leads us to trucks. We house a stable of trucks—some lightweight for deliveries, others heavier and more powerful for pulling gooseneck trailer-loads of cattle, hay or poultry.
And when power equipment is too much for the job, hand tools must be readily available. Our small army of hoes, shovels, rakes and things stand ready in a couple of locations around the farm for easy access, plus we each keep a personal stash that is untouchable by others.
Tires are in a category of their own, with so many sizes, applications, load ranges, tread patterns and degrees of wear. At Sunday-night supper a few years back, the question came up about how many tires we had on the ground; seems like it was well north of 200. Some of the 28 used for poultry are flat, but that couldn’t matter less since they only move 100 feet or so, once a week, at 1mph, in the grass, being pulled by a 70-year-old tractor. (Best of all, flat tires are self-chocking!) Funny thing is, there are a few old, spoked wheels on the farm whose tire must have 80-year-old air in them.
Miles of steel fences woven together with numerous gates surround the fields at Elmwood Stock Farm, creating a grid of permanent boundaries and tree lines that have very much shaped the fabric of our little ecosystem. Each gate must stay closed when you want it to, stay open when you want it to, and move back and forth easy enough. By definition, each one is unique. Fencing is a story unto itself, but suffice it to say, a fair amount of elbow grease goes into maintaining these steel structures and the environ they create.
All this equipment must be maintained and occasionally repaired. Modern-day tractors and implements generally come with sealed bearings. Older equipment, and certain points on new ones, have grease fittings that must routinely have grease forced into them with a gun, to keep the shafts turning freely, while holding them in place and not allowing the steel to get hot from friction. The grease zerks are often hard to reach and get covered in dirt or hay debris, but they must be serviced. Many of the implements are operated hydraulically, meaning a pump forces an oil-like liquid to move a stationary shaft up or down. Any leak at a fitting or seal will reduce the needed pressure, causing the equipment to perform poorly or not at all.
The time it takes to check the fluids or grease the fittings and to keep bolts and fittings tight always pays off. It is not always easy to do when a storm is coming, there’s produce to harvest, and it’s time to make CSA shares. Sometimes duct tape will hold that plastic seed hopper together until the job is finished—maybe it can be glued and taped for years, rather than spend exorbitant amounts of money on a new one. Sometimes you have to hold your tongue just right, maybe throw in a little body English when you turn the key for a mower to start, but we get the job done and that little switch can be replaced in due time. There are no mechanics we can call to come fix stuff, which is why John can fix just about anything, when he can find the time. In a way, it’s similar to livestock chores: We do a little every day to avoid derailments.
John keeps his equipment-maintenance and -repair tools all in the same place, down to individual sockets. You must have the right tool for the job, period. A complete assortment of metric and English sockets and wrenches is essential; a partial set is useless. Of course, there are several tool boxes strategically placed in trucks, the market trailer and the packing shed, each with a semi-random assortment of basic tools for a wide range of jobs where pretty close is close enough.
Reverence for the plowshare and the stewardship it invokes is at the heart of being a farmer. Breaking sod to harvest the potential energy of healthy soil with a solar-powered biosphere to energize people carries a lot of responsibility. With the right tools and equipment, we can provide that sustenance and actually improve the soil. One metric of that measure is how many calories it takes to produce 1 calorie of food. Elmwood Stock Farm is a pretty efficient solar-powered food generator, as long as we take the time to keep those hoes sharp. —Mac Stone