Two Letters Re: Walking Tractors and Similar Powered Farming Implements

The ongoing discussion about tractors is interesting. I was recently able to purchase a fully restored 1952 Ford 8N for $3,500. The tires, front end bushings, everything is new, and the motor is rebuilt. This is a deal of a lifetime to be sure. But, there are plenty of other good deals out there, this is the time to look. Check with farmers to see if they have an extra tractor to sell. Many farms own multiple tractors and if they need money you might get lucky. And if you get real lucky you might find an old one restored. The farmer is more likely to want to keep the bigger newer air conditioned tractor over the smaller old one.

It is pointless to debate which tractor is best. But allow me to point out a few things that I have learned about these Ford 8Ns. Any part you could want is available online. Many parts are in stock at Tractor Supply and similar farm stores. I have never used a tractor before, and I’m not a good mechanic. But this is such a simple set-up that it is very easy to learn the mechanics. The manuals are available online or stocked at Tractor Supply. There is nothing to them, a huge advantage over a modern computerized tractor that will be fried by EMP. And there are countless 8N and 9N tractors still being used, and a potential future source of parts. Common items have a big advantage.

In the past we have worked a garden by hand. We added a hand plow and then a big rototiller. But we were able to increase the speed of tilling with this tractor beyond measure. It is not very noisy, and certainly quieter than a lawnmower or rototiller. In less than a day you can easily plow and disk a small field. And we used very little gas the entire day, never having to refill the small tank. We used 3-4 gallons of gas to put in a massive garden. We plowed up ground that was last plowed over 50 years ago, and it was fast and easy. With the rototiller it would have taken days, more fuel, more exposure outside. We hope to grow more food than we can eat, preserve and root cellar and still have plenty left to donate to others.

A person can get into a decent used tractor with used plows and other implements for a few thousand dollars. Compare that to some of the other things people buy and it’s a cheap investment. If you don’t overspend, they will likely keep their value. Stock up on fluids and basic spare parts in advance. For a few hundred dollars you can fill your shelves with any fluids and common parts that could be needed. 5 ounces of gold will get you set up. Maybe less. You can plow for neighbors in exchange for a few loads of firewood, or something else you can use. You will have a machine that can help you and your neighbors out and keep everyone from being hungry.

Get all non-hybrid seeds and learn to save them and you never need to buy seeds more than once. Extra seeds are excellent barter items. Learn what plants can cross breed and avoid this. You can grow a lot of corn to grind for animal feed. If you save your own seed to grow this, your animal feed will be almost free.
And for those of us that aren’t getting any younger, sitting on a tractor all day compared to running a rototiller, well, there is no comparison. – Don in Ohio


Dear Mr. Rawles,
As a landscape contractor and private gardener who during the last several decades has worked on three continents and used more types of equipment than I’d like to think of, I feel qualified to stick in my 2 cents regarding the proper equipment to use on small holdings.

Landscape contractors cannot afford to waste time of money on unreliable or unsuitable equipment so we chose with care. We do any type of work you can think of that’s exterior to a home, commercial building, park or highway. While our work is mostly decorative, it is the same type that would be necessary in a post apocalypse world. Planting bed prep, irrigation, retaining walls, etc.

A few lessons I’ve learned:
The equipment used for a particular job must maximize power, reliability and agility into one unit. In my opinion, most walk behind tillers, trenchers or tractors lack both power and surprisingly, agility. You will wear yourself out doing the work the machine is supposed to be doing and you may injure yourself in the process. Holding onto one of these things is like holding onto a bucking bull. A twisted ankle, back or badly pulled muscle means a few days off work in this world. During the bad times it means a lot more. Personally I hate em.
While 5-10 acres is mentioned as the size of a survival garden, the reality is more in the range of 1 acre. 1 acre is a lot of ground to prepare, plant, water, weed and (hopefully) harvest. A heavy duty real tine tiller could probably do a decent job if the ground had previously been cultivated but a 20 horsepower (h.p.) or so tractor would do it in a fraction of the time and do a better job leaving time for other things. Front tine tillers are toys suitable for backyard kitchen gardens. The same goes for ATVs and their “farm” implements. Why ruin a perfectly good ATV by dragging a plow at 1 mph? You wouldn’t hook up your SUV to a plow would you? Well at least I wouldn’t.
So I’m recommending you find yourself a good 4 wheel drive hydrostatic drive medium size tractor.

These tractors do have a tendency to roll over,but they have roll bars and if your smart enough to wear the provided seat belt, you’ll be okay. Anyway, all the gardens I’ve seen are dead flat so if you run one along the side of a hill you’re not gardening but doing what I do. If you are on a slope, go up and down not sideways, keep your front loader bucket low and don’t do anything rash. It isn’t much of an issue.

Four wheel drive is obvious. They work great anywhere there is loose dirt sand, mud or snow. They also save wear and tear on the tires (less tire slip) and less drive train stress. I used one to plow my Colorado mountain driveway which was both long and steep and frequently had several feet of snow in it. If you do get stuck the front bucket will work you out.

Hydrostatic drive means the engine runs a variable pump which drives the hydraulic system that does all the work. It allows you to set the engine speed for power and vary your speed, both forward and reverse, by pressing your foot on a floor mounted rocker arm. No shifting or clutch involved. In my work that means we can do 300% more than if we used the older style tractors. These pumps never seemed to wear out although we did have one failure on a new tractor. Unless you just plan on plowing the back 40, it’s the only way to go.
The engines were 18 h.p. on up and all were diesel. We never had a problem, ever. A 18 h.p. .tractor will work hard all day on 5 gal or less of fuel. Anything under 18 h.p. is a toy.

The rear implement on each was usually a 5′ tiller. With it we could do most anything. Need to cut some hard rocky ground? Just back till. The rocks would “hook out” (be careful) and we’d be left with 8″ of soft rock free soil. When we needed to amend the soil, which was always, we’d spread a few inches of peat/manure with the front bucket, then run the tiller over it a couple of times. Back dragging the bucket would firm it back up for planting. What took one guy 3 hours would have taken four guys all day to do with a rear tine tiller and wheelbarrows and they would have done a poorer job of it. If a backhoe wasn’t available, we would use the tiller/bucket to dig holes in hard ground. The front bucket makes a great dirt mover, snow plow or firewood carrier or anything else you could fit in it. You can use it to hoist the tractor into a trailer or pick the front end up to change a tire (with a block under the axle pivot point of course.

In my experience light tractors make poor backhoe platforms and semi-okay trenchers with the proper attachment on the 3 point.
Now here’s the real key. The manufacturer. I’ve used all of them. Most are not up to task and are a waste of money. I’ve broken more than one in half. Several others just died or were put out of their misery. Sadly, the “American “made” ones never were any good. A few Asian manufactures weren’t any better (Yanmar was one that broke in two). In fact the only brand I ever buy now is Kubota. They are rock solid and the only one to buy (and no I don’t have anything to do with them except give them money on occasion.) I’m also partial to MF40s but they’re somewhat large for the work we’re talking about.

Cost: Well… they’re not free, but they do enough work that every neighbor around will want something from it and that’s not a bad thing, now or during the bad days. Charge about $75 an hour and a cold one. Kind Regards, – LRM (from Perth, Australia)

JWR Replies: Your comments add credence to my assertion that a large family garden plot (at least one acre), makes the most sense for a self-sufficient garden. Not only will you have room for more crops, but you will also have the room needed to maneuver a tractor. One important note: When fencing your garden, plan ahead: You’ll need at least one large gate for tractor ingress/egress. Even if you don’t own a tractor, chances are that you can borrow or rent one, especially for the first time that you turn the soil. Without a tractor, that first turning is often a monumental effort.