It’s the beginning of another growing season at Early Morning Farm and things are starting to take shape again. When the snow melts and leaves the ground exposed, wet and cold, there is a plethora of activity on an organic vegetable farm. The beginning of spring brings repairs and cleaning, new greenhouse construction, a flush of marketing work, tending to perennial crops, and seeding for transplants in the greenhouse. But the first true sign of spring is when I walk into the barn and try to start my sixty-two year old tractor.
Organic farms have to be innovative to deal with weeds, insect pests, and plant disease. Ironically, some of this “innovation” comes in the form of learning to use equipment and strategies our grandparents used. We have four tractors over 60 years old that we use for cultivating out the weeds in our rows of vegetables. First thing every spring, I go out to our barn and see if they’ll start, and of course every spring some of them don’t. We replace batteries, starters, coils, switches, plugs, and anything else we can think of until they start up. We change the oil, check the fluid levels, check to make sure the fluids are staying where they’re supposed to, and inevitably, make more repairs. In the end it can seem like its more work and money than the equipment is worth, but really, these antiques are essential. They just don’t make machines to do the work that these relics will do anymore.
One of the tractors we use the most is a 1948 Allis Chalmers model G. It’s a funny looking tractor, bright orange, with the engine mounted behind the seat, and wide open in the front. When the un-initiated catch a glance, an almost involuntary gasp of “what in the world is that!” is sure to ensue. It turns out though that the weird look has function. Under the open belly in plain sight for the driver is a set of triangular shaped hoes that can be lowered as the tractor straddles our rows of vegetables. The hoes fit perfectly between the rows of the crops and since I can see what I’m doing I can get the tractor to do the work it would take days to do otherwise in just a few minutes.
My Grandpa was a Kansas wheat farmer, and after my first few hours on the “G” I realized why we always had to raise the volume of our voices around him. The tractor has a working muffler, but it’s still very loud. After a few go-arounds on the dinosaur it became apparent that it was time to invest in some hearing protection to save my ringing ears. This tractor would not pass today’s manufacturing safety standards but it gets the job done and there isn’t a substitute that’s been built since it went out of production in 1955 with the advent of herbicides.
When I’m driving this old tractor, sometimes I think of my Grandfather harvesting wheat into his 1940’s dump truck and I wonder what he knew that I didn’t know to ask about. There’s knowledge that a whole new generation of organic farmers has had to re-invent. We didn’t only find our way by digging old potato diggers out of hedge rows and saving antique tractors from the scrap yard. We’ve also incorporated all sorts of new technologies and research-proven horticultural practices to boost yields and combat pests and plant diseases, but without these pieces that link us to the past we couldn’t have made it this far.