One reason why farming on my scale is more expensive (at least at the per vegetable level–it usually costs the same price or less than supermarket food to customers, when purchased directly from me) is that we do most of our work by hand. Andrew moves this chicken pens each morning by himself; I weed my beds with hoes, hands, and knees; every vegetable we sell passes through our hands, during harvest or washing or both.
There are perks to our labor-intensive systems: we harvest at peak ripeness, we check on the health of our animals each day, and I get a OCD rush from weeding (go figure). Using less equipment, we have fewer repairs, not to mention the up-front costs of all of the super-specialized, GPS-directed, satellite radio equipped tractors that big farmers use. Still, there are times when I love tractors. And there are other times when I dearly wish that I had one of my own.
As an example, consider two tasks that we accomplished last week.
I’ve been hard at work lately getting set up for winter growing, which has mainly involved pulling out sod and creating a clean, bare seedbed. Our winter growing site is really quite small–a 30 by 50 foot space for the greenhouse, and a 45 by 75 foot plot for October and November harvest. I have neighbors with gardens bigger than this first manifestation of my farm. Still, the dry, dry summer and my lack of equipment have conspired to turn this mole hill of a task into a mountain. First, I had to mow the area. Lacking anything larger, I used our Craiglist push-behind lawnmower. I got lucky in my next step and was able to rent our landlords’ tractor with their chisel plow. The tines of the chisel plow disrupted grass roots and gave me my first sight of soil, but they did nothing to work the surface debris into the soil, where it would more quickly break down. I let the grass die back over a week, then attacked it again with a small walk-behind rototiller. This, I quickly realized, was asking too much of the machine, as the dead or dying grass choked the blades of the tiller and forced me to stop and untangle the tiller twice in every pass of my field. So I set the tiller aside and got down on my knees and began clearing the sod out myself. It took a week. Admittedly, I was not working nonstop, but my progress was nonetheless painfully slow.
Finally, on Wednesday, I seeded my first crops of carrots and beets in the November section. On Saturday, with the assistance of my wonderful cousin Jeffery and his girlfriend Holly, we finally finished clearing the greenhouse area, and Jeffery tilled the patch soft and smooth. Missions accomplished! Well, not quite…I’m still pulling up half-decomposed grass as I dig out my pathways and rake the bed surface smooth. It’s beginning to look like a garden, but it will be sometime before I have anything to show for all my labor.
Our other big goal for the week was to mow the field across the creek. Ten years ago it was a cow pasture, but sporadic mowing and a lack of cattle had allowed it to grow up in brambles, thistles, and mile-a-minute vine higher than my head. Our landlords were happy to see the field cleaned up and so volunteered their tractor and rotary mower (aka brush hog) for the job. This field, in contrast to my tiny plot, is probably at least two acres, if not three. With its abundance of thorny flora, it repelled anyone on foot wearing anything less than kevlar. As I began the job, I had no real idea how the land even lay, much less what was under that scrubby cover.
I had it clear within five hours, which included the very greasy hour I spent figuring out how to replace the shearing bolt after I hit a rock and knocked the mower off-line. That tractor made my machete green with envy. My weedwacker has been usurped. As far as I am concerned, the rotary mower is a to mechanical engineering what the Sistene Chapel is to Renaissance art. I am in love.