We use John Deere tractors at Freedom Farms, but we really aren’t prejudice to any one brand over another. At the time we were buying, John Deere had 0% financing for five years, so that’s what we went with. Really, I would use any tractor as long as it gets the work done. We have a total of four tractors at the farm right now. We have three John Deere and one old Farmall that belonged to my grandfather. The oldest of our John Deere tractors is about four years old.
I’m actually not a fan of the newer tractors. With the new technology, there’s too many sensors. That makes it really hard for the farmer to work on the tractor because it is so high-tech. To even diagnose an issue is kind of outrageous. Everything has to do with the computer inside the tractor, which is something that farmers generally can’t fix themselves and have to get help from the company who made it. Parts are generally cheaper for the older tractors too.
To give you an example, we had just bought a brand new tractor and within a month, it wouldn’t move. It was telling us the tractor was in neutral even though we had it in gear. So we called John Deere and they rebooted the computer. The tractor worked for a day and then it stopped again. They had to come get it and they brought it back in a few days. We continued to have the same problem. So they came back and got it again. When we still had the same problem after all that, they ended up having to get us a whole new tractor.
Old tractors just run. We rarely have problems with the old Farmall 560. It was my grandfather’s but it’s still running just fine. The older tractors are so simple, anyone with good common sense could fix them. All equipment breaks sometimes, but the point of buying new should be that you don’t have issues anymore. As farmers, we don’t have a lot of downtime. For a tractor to break and us not to be able to fix it on the job is a major issue. We do have breakdowns with the Farmall 560, but within a few hours, either Pete or I have figured it out and fixed the problem.
Most of them are simple fixes, but we’re always learning. I love learning how to repair old equipment. People are afraid to get their hands dirty. Or they think they’ll mess something up with the equipment. But once you realize how simple some of these older machines are, you realize that you can fix them yourself and it’s rewarding.
Like I mentioned before, we have four tractors at the farm right now and three of them are newer John Deeres. They all have their specific jobs. We have a 7230, which is our workhorse. It has six cylinders, 135 horsepower, and is diesel. We use it to do all of our primary tillage, plowing, and discing. We also have a 6125, which has 125 horsepower. We use that one to do our final tillage. And finally we have a 6430, which has 105 horsepower. We use it to lay the plastic because it has the narrowest width. It helps keep the rows tight so we can get as much planted in an acre as we can.
All of our tractors are four-wheel drive except for the Farmall. That’s pretty important for a hilly farm in western PA. When you’re looking at the tractors, the differences aren’t blatant. It can be hard to tell which one is which if you aren’t used to them. It’s really not about the size of the tractor anyway. What’s really important is the weight and size of the engine. If you have six cylinders instead of four, that gives you a lot more power and the weight gives you good traction.
Working with the tractors can be intimidating to some people but they’re actually pretty easy to operate. Once you do it for awhile, it’s like riding a bike. I’ve been doing it since I was 10 years old, so I’m definitely used to it. It’s exciting to a lot of people at first, to get to drive this huge piece of machinery. But it quickly becomes monotonous and can be pretty boring. Sitting in a tractor for an entire day isn’t fun. You’re bouncing around a lot and that’s hard on your back and your neck.
Working with the tractors can also be very dangerous. Farming is still one of the most dangerous jobs out there. It’s frustrating when you have breakdowns in the field. Everything is heavy to fix and everything is really tight, which makes it hard to get to certain parts. When you’re hooking up equipment, you’re always bumping into the equipment with your head or another body part. Typically it’s summer, so it’s very hot. It’s easy to lose your temper and want to walk away.
I’m not an equipment guy, but it’s the most efficient way to farm right now. Equipment is a necessity for what we do. If I could eliminate it, I would. We do a lot with our hands like planting, weeding, and harvesting. But for tillage, I don’t really want to pull a plow with a team of horses. We’re working to eliminate a lot of unnecessary equipment. We’re trying to reduce tillage so we’re reducing soil compaction. The more you run over the ground, the more you compact the soil, and that’s not good for living organisms or root systems.
Produce farming is a lot of working by hand though. People think we can harvest crops easily with our equipment, but we don’t harvest our crops with any equipment at all. Everything is picked by hand and I prefer it that way. We grow varieties of produce that are higher quality, better tasting, and more tender. Typically, heirloom varieties are way too sensitive to be mechanically picked. Even on a commercial scale, a lot of produce still has to be picked by hand. They do have firm varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables that commercial growers can pick mechanically, but those are grown for their ability to be mechanically picked. We aim for quality of texture and taste, not quality of mechanical harvest.
That being said, I don’t ever see us eliminating tractors all together, especially with the animals. Pete needs to be able to haul water and feed out to the animals in the pasture. We are trying to reduce tillage and do more no till work, but we’ll always need tractors. They’re extremely valuable with the growing methods that we use. Especially for things like baling hay, you really can’t avoid using equipment. But when it comes to produce production, we can reduce a lot of equipment use. We’d have to really simplify without equipment. I’d do a lot more high tunnel growing to extend the seasons in both ways in a smaller area, which would increase yields. Most things would take a lot longer.
Tractor maintenance is a constant job. We try to do the majority of it in the fall and spring. But with all of the equipment we use, including our trucks that run produce to vendors or go to market, we have at least a couple of breakdowns every week. As far as regular tractor maintenance though, it’s important to check tire pressure, oil, and coolant, and clean the air filters. It’s also essential that you grease heavy equipment. There’s a lot of friction in these machines and without grease, two metal parts will wear on each other and the tractor won’t last as long. When you’re working with tools on the farm, it’s all about trying to prolong the life of a very expensive investment.