Saturday, April 18, 2009

The tractor dilemma

Sometimes I'm an insomniac. Like right now. I've been up for a few hours, and I really have no need to be up. In other words, more sleep would probably be good. But there's no use fighting what you can't fight, so here I am. At least I can be productive in some way.

We were transplanting yesterday using this transplanter (see right for a picture of the old single-seat setup) that attaches to the tractor. A description of the equipment is a topic for another post, but in a few words, it automates something I've been used to doing by hand. Transplanting by hand involves pulling seedlings out of the trays they were started in, dropping them in the field, and getting your hands (and usually many other parts of your body) dirty by securing the plant in the appropriate spot. The tractor transplanter does the actual spacing and planting for you.

It has its pluses and minuses. A big plus is the actual time to get the plants in the ground is fast: it took about 10 minutes for four people (one driver, two transplanters, one quality control person tailing the tractor--three people would suffice though) to do two rows in one 275 foot bed. That's blazing fast. A big minus is that it's a piece of equipment, and therefore it doesn't always work right, which leads to frustration, backtracking, and tinkering.

When we first used the recently improved transplanter (two seats now) yesterday, it went perfect, and I was truly impressed. If it could save that much time, then, I thought, it might be the thing that convinces me that a tractor is something really worth having. But further transplanting proved to me that the perfection was fleeting. And while the transplanter always saved time (compared to hand transplanting) no matter what, I'm not sure that the time savings itself is worth the money and effort to have and maintain the equipment.

Besides, I've been wanting to avoid machines, because, well, I'm not sure the infrastructure and resources are gonna exist for much longer to allow us to continue to use machines the way we do as a society. As oil becomes more scarce and prices go through the roof (and don't fret, it will go back up in the not-too-distant future), I'm not sure tractors are going to make sense.

And on principle I find many machines ridiculously wasteful when I can do the very same things with my own body (often better) and simultaneously reap the benefits of pushing myself physically. In that case, time is not a cost, it is a benefit. As the subhead of my blog attests, I'm trying to live a simpler life, because simpler is good for me and is the only way that we as a community are gonna even begin to get on track to healing the clear-as-day wounds inflicted by our longtime hyper-consumerist ways. So, usually it's a no-brainer: I'll take manual labor over machine labor when it makes the most sense, which is most of the time.

But there are fuzzy areas. Both organic CSA farms I've worked at use tractors, for good reason. Both are about the same size at around five acres, which is small, but big enough that it's easy to see why a tractor comes in handy. For instance, manually preparing the soil for planting five acres would probably kill you before summer's first harvest (someone tell me if my perspective is limited on this). So as I see it our options when we have our own farm are three: buy a tractor (a used one, obviously, and biodiesel powered), secure the services of an animal (horse, mule), or scale down to where manual labor and small machines suffice.

The last two options are most appealing to me, for many reasons I'm sure I'll get into in future posts. But they beg some questions: Can we farm an acre or two and still make a living? Can we make the transition from machine-based labor to animal-based labor (I prominently include myself in the animal category) in a season while knowing very little about how to work with draft animals? Or maybe we should make the bulk of our money other ways and just have a garden plot big enough to mainly feed ourselves for the whole year and therefore not worry at all about non-human labor?

These are critical and difficult questions for a wannabe sustanainable farmer today. We hope to come up with some satisfactory answers in the next year or two.

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  1. No matter how you look at it you have to maintain all things weather its a machine, animal or human, there is a possibility of all of them to brake down. Its just that animals and humans feel it, machines don't.

  2. It's definitely a complex problem. You're right though: everything needs to be maintained. But I'm not sure I agree with your implication that "feeling it" is a bad thing.

  3. I mean it hurts when your sick or cant do what your used to be doing