Choosing a Small Farm Tractor

Practical uses for a lawn tractor around a small farm, including choosing a small farm tractor, a seasonal maintenance checklist and buying tips.

| February/March 1996

How to choose and care for a small farm tractor, the farmsteader's single best tool. (See the farm tractor photos in the image gallery.)

Choosing a Small Farm Tractor

Lawn and garden tractors? In MOTHER EARTH NEWS? Why, aren't they for paunchy suburbanites to impress the neighbors with by trimming chemical-dosed lawns that would be better-used to graze sheep, or grow food, or exotic herbs of one sort or another? To be sure, a great many use their small tractors in such a capacity, but, like you I bet, I live on a place with just too much land to mow and too little to hay. I need a good measure of open space with a firm surface to haul garden supplies, logs for the wood stove, and grain for my daughter's horse ...say nothing of forage for the horse and small stock, who won't eat the poplar and juniper that is trying to invade the pasture. Which means that I need to maintain a few acres of sod ... turf ... meadow ... or "mowin," as they call open but untilled land here in New England.

For my money (what little I have), since the cost-effective, reliable, long-life small tractor was perfected and prices stabilized in the '80s, I've felt that a fully accessorized modern garden tractor has been the single best machine a country small-landholder can own. Powered by a hefty 10 to 20 horses and a multi-speed/high-torque automatic transmission, a tractor with attachments can do a better job at several times the speed, but at a fraction of the total cost of equivalent single-purpose machines. In effect, you are doing a dozen or more jobs with single engine and transmission and chassis rather than buying a dozen individually powered machines. A capable standalone rotary tiller, snowblower, mower, chipper-shredder, and lawn vac each costs $1,500 and more these days. A snow plow for your truck will cost $2,500 and even an old and very used full-scale tractor/bucket loader that much and more. But a tractor-mount, power takeoff-operated (PTO) tiller costs about $500, a snowblower attachment the same, while a set of cultivators or a snow blade costs only $250.

I know of no reasonably priced replacement for a small hydraulics-equipped tractor and its ability to power a log splitter, cordwood saw, and pull a trailer full of logs. The ease with which hydraulic power can be applied permits the tractor to power custom-rigged applications like a small hay baler, manure spreader, grain mill, conveyor, water pumps and much more.

Of course, if you only have to tend a small patch of level front yard, a lovely little muscle-powered, push-type reel mower will do fine. As long as the grass isn't too high, pushing a knife-sharp reel mower is a delight. But muscling a dull one is agony. I haven't seen a new engine-powered reel-mower in years. Big gang reel-mowers are available but are expensive to buy and maintain, and are best suited to glass-fiat ball fields, city parks, and golf courses. Most homeowners resort to the crude and dangerous, but cheap and any-terrain-capable rotary.

Trudging along in the dust, racket, and exhaust fumes of the mini-tornado created by a rotary mower in the bugs and sweaty heat of a summer's day is perfectly suitable to teach one's school-age offspring how repetitive can be the process of earning an honest buck, but becomes more than just tiresome if your land stretches out to more than a half-acre or so. Indeed, so hated is lawn-mowing that the single most detested, thus neglected and abused machine in the homeowners inventory is the poor rotary mower. According to industry insiders, it's when the eldest child leaves home that the typical homeowner exchanges the walk behind demon rotary for a "riding mower" or "lawn tractor." And when the townsman or suburbanite makes the big move to a larger country place with a big garden, pasture, and livestock, the "lawn" tractor is traded for a larger "garden" tractor, for an even more capable "compact" tractor or finally for a full-size modern or vintage "farm" or "industrial" tractor.

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