My goal, like so many of us, is to be able to pre-bugout, to a retreat I can live on full time. I dream of having a few acres out in the country where I can mostly support myself on what can be produced on my own land. When I first started to think about it, and plan for it, the first question of course is “How much land?” After getting past the obvious answer, “As much as possible”, came the more reasonable answer of: “enough to do accomplish my primary goal of optimal self-sufficiency.” After more study I came to realize that five or so acres is about all I could really work. Five acres, when worked intensively, will produce far more than a family of four can consume. This five acres would contain everything, House, Barn, a one to two acre garden, chickens, Rabbits, Goats, et cetera.
So having settled on five to seven acres, I turned to the issue of what tools, equipment, and other assets would be needed to make my micro-farm work. Beyond the usual hand tools. And shop tools, my research led me to study power equipment appropriate for the Micro-Farm. What I found was the Two-Wheel, or “Walk-behind” Tractor. A good example of the class is the BCS 852 with a 10 horsepower diesel engine. It has a single cylinder engine mounted in front of a trans axle. The Trans axle drives a pair of wheels that are from 3.5 to 6.5 inches wide, and 8 to 12 inches in diameter. It is also equipped with front and rear Power Takeoffs (PTOs) used to transfer power to a variety of implements. For me this is the optimum retreat utility tractor. To justify that statement I need to go into a bit more detail as to why. As with all things, this selection is based on my plans and intentions, but I believe that they are generic enough to qualify as a general solution for most people, but as always Your Mileage may Vary (YMMV).
The factors I am taking into consideration are:
Size of Farm.
Number of people available to work it.
Life expectancy under the projected load
The truth is most of us have not, or will not be able to acquire more than five to 10 acres of land. If you can get more, fine, get it; you can’t have too much land, but you can leave yourself short on other things by buying more land than you really need, or can work.
In most cases the garden will be run by just one or two people, either because of off farm employment or the kids may be grown and gone before you make the move. People that are already doing this will tell you that one to two acres, if worked as intensively as is reasonably possible is all one person can handle. If you have more land, then you have the option of bartering produce, for labor to work more acres. But I would still keep it in two-acre units.
The core concept of survivalism/preparedness is independence; you can’t be independent if you can’t do most, if not all the maintenance yourself. While yes, most anyone with any mechanical aptitude at all can work on most regular tractors, however they have four times as many cylinders, fuel injectors, and fuel lines, twice as many tires, use much more fuel, and mostly are too much tool for two to five acres.
When the world ends there will be NO more fuel deliveries from anywhere, and if there are then they will be prohibitively expensive. So you need a fuel that you can produce yourself, to me this means biodiesel. It’s a fuel you can make yourself; it will substitute directly into the tank with NO modifications to the engine, and gives almost exactly the same performance, as regular diesel.
So with these concepts in mind I started thinking about what the ideal tool would be. I eliminated most regular four wheeled tractors like the Ford 9N and the International Harvester (IH) Farmalls because to buy one of their modern counterparts new is very expensive, and to find parts for older ones that you can buy on the cheap can also be expensive. While there has been a lot of development in compact and subcompact tractors in the last few years, they are mostly compact technical wonders that have all kinds of computerized fuel injection systems, high volume, high pressure hydraulics, and just lots and lots of things that need to be maintained or fixed. Simplicity is crucial.
My search for information about small farm tractors, as with most things today, started online. I started from the position that a Walk-behind Tractor would be the optimum choice because on the surface it met two of the most important criteria, Fuel requirements, and maintainability. The MOST important question remained, how much land could be worked with it and still expect it to last a lifetime.
Dean M., one of my online sources, who has actually been running a Market Garden since 1989, says that much of that time was spent downsizing his garden to it’s current 1.5 acres. According to Dean,one to two acres is about all one person can work, when trying to maximize the production of a garden. The general consensus is, that the limit on how large a garden you could work with one of these machines,is really set by how much labor was available, rather than the capacity of the machine.
To answer that question I needed input from an expert. In my web search I found many companies that make and sell this kind of equipment, but they are almost ALL overseas. Of the domestic companies most only sell Walk-behinds as a sideline. I found a company in Owenton KY, which specializes in small-scale commercial agriculture equipment. Joel Dufour founded Earth Tools in 1977, and all they sell is Walk-behind tractors. .
I asked Mr. Dufour about the capability, capacity, and requirements of walk behind tractors for a TEOTWAWKI scenario. He recommended not the largest one he sells, the 948 but rather the model 852, which comes with an optional 10 hp diesel engine. He says the 852s are far more versatile than the 948. Based on what his customers are actually doing with the units, and have been doing for nearly 30 years he gave me the following information about capabilities, and requirements of these units.
You can work up to two acres of Market garden per person, and/or about 15 acres of Haying for livestock. With proper preventative maintenance, used in a commercial agricultural operation, a tractor like he sells will last 20+ years. They can haul up to one ton on a two-wheel trailer. Depending on the specific task, running 8 hrs on a gallon of fuel is possible. He has several customers that make their own biodiesel and run their 852s on it, and have reported no problems.
When it comes to maintenance requirement the diesel engines are designed for 5000 hours TBO (Time Between Overhauls), and are meant to be rebuilt twice before replacing crankshafts or connecting rods. That means that the engines have a 15,000 hr life span minimum (with proper maintenance). For routine maintenance they only use 1.5 quarts of oil per change, which needs to be done every 75 ours or annually–whichever comes first. The oil filter is cleanable and the air filter is replaceable. The conical clutch lasts 1000 – 2000 hrs, and can be replaced in less than 2 hrs. All maintenance, including overhauls can be done with regular hand tools, the only exception being one $25 tool for working on the transmission if it’s ever needed.
One point that Mr. Dufour thinks is undersold is safety. He pointed out that one of the most common fatal accidents on a farm is a tractor rollover. When operating one of these units on a slope, even if you were on the downhill side of the machine, and you couldn’t get out of the way, they only weight about 300 lbs, so it is very unlikely you would suffer a life threatening injury. Where as with even the smallest of standard tractors if it rolls over on you, death is the very likely outcome.
So let’s look at how these machines match my original requirements:
Size of Farm:
A 10 HP machine will work as much land as most of us will be able to get, and work, without being too big for the job.
Number of people available to work the land:
The constraint is number of people vs. planting/harvesting schedule; again it is well matched to the 5 to 15 acres, with which most of us will wind up.
There is nothing that the owner can’t do on these machines, from routine maintenance to a complete overhaul, which would require more than basic mechanics hand tools, and one inexpensive specialty tool.
Safety: I don’t care how much the machine can do or how well it does it, the one thing that you absolutely cannot afford in the post-TEOTWAWKI world, is an injury. So the machine that is least likely to cause me harm is WAY up on my list
These units can be had with Gas, or Diesel engines. Gas engines can be run on alcohol with modification. Diesel engines can be run on biodiesel without modification.
Life expectancy under the projected load:
You can work as much acreage as you have time and people to work without over working the tractor. They are truly an agricultural grade machines, not glorified Home duty units.
While I’m not trying to sell this particular tractor, however if we use its characteristics as a baseline then I think it is fare to say that a diesel Walk-behind Tractor would make an ideal vehicle for a Micro-farm. It is the core power unit for almost all farm tasks, can be adapted to do just about anything else that requires up to 10 HP; from electrical generation to pumping water, with the right connection to the PTO. It also meets or exceeds the core requirements that I laid out at the beginning. This is not to say that there might not be other machines that would also work, but if you are starting from scratch like most of us, then this is a good objective solution.
From the standpoint of a small acreage survival retreat, a walk-behind tiller/tractor makes a lot of sense. WTSHTF, fuel will be at a premium, so it is logical to get something that will give you maximum useful work with minimum fuel consumption. And as Fanderal mentioned, they will also minimize tractor rollover accidents. This is especially important at a retreat with a lot of newbies. (Just because you are accustomed to thinking “safety first” at all times doesn’t mean that your recently-transplanted Big City friends and cousins will be!)
If you need to cultivate significantly larger acreage, then a full-size tractor makes sense, but only of course with significantly more training and more voluminous fuel storage. BTW, the new “crawler” (rubber tracked) tractors have a lower center of gravity that traditional wheeled tractors and hence are much less prone to rollovers.
I used a gas engine Troy-Bilt Horse tiller for several years and found it very reliable. The BCS products are made in Milan, Italy. At a list price of $3,799, these are not cheap. But if you go with the principle of “buying something sturdy and reliable once, versus buying something flimsy, multiple times”, then this sort of purchase makes sense. To get the most for your money, shop around for a slightly used, diesel-powered unit.
One other consideration: Tractors are noisy and can be heard from a long distance. Wear hearing protection whenever operator a tractor or tiller. In a post-TEOTWAWKI survival situation, this may mean one individual wearing earmuffs operating the tractor, and another individual that is concealed 50 to 100 yards away, on dedicated security duty. (Otherwise, operating noisy equipment like a tractor or chainsaw might be a noisy invitation to get bushwhacked.)
Here are some additional useful URLs: