My dad came to visit last weekend. It was hot and humid. We were all sweating. Gordon and I were tired after spending the whole week turning over beds and planting fall crops.
After we’d walked around the farm, my dad looked out at all the beds and said, “It’s beautiful, but all I can think of is how much work it is. Remind me why you don’t use a tractor?”
People ask us this all the time. I can see the skeptical looks on their faces: a farm without a tractor is, well, just a garden, and way too much work. You can’t be a real farmer without a tractor. (As a woman, this is when my machismo alarm goes off. Have you ever been to a tractor pull at the state fair? Show-off city.)
In all seriousness though, it’s a fair question. Why do we farm without a tractor? We could use it to haul loads of compost and till in our crops. Right now, we do those tasks by hand; a tractor can do it in half the time or less. Saving time on the farm is important, but a tractor has downsides, too: they compact the soil, destroy healthy soil structure, and have an annoying tendency to break down right in the middle of the busiest week. A tractor solves some problems but creates others.
Running your own business, you have to weigh the options and decide which problems you can live with. Neither of us love tractors. We didn’t grow up around them, and we don’t know how to fix them. They’re expensive, loud, dangerous, and require a lot of space to move around in. Whereas working by hand, we stay in shape, we keep a closer eye on our crops and soil tilth, and we enjoy the quiet of the day.
What’s more, hand labor can be just as efficient. After three years of farming without a tractor, we’ve learned that what matters is your systems, not your horsepower. There are efficiencies in staying small—like quick bed turnover, tighter spacing, and less waste—and in staying focused on what’s happening on the ground and in the soil. Hand labor can be lean and nimble: on less than half an acre, we grow enough vegetables for 70 families, plus some extra for restaurants. Each year our profits grow, and we work more reasonable hours than many tractor farmers we know. I used to get defensive when people asked why we don’t have a tractor, but now I just smile and say, “We’re not that into tractors.”
We’re back to packing CSA shares this week. It feels good to return to the rhythm of harvesting, packing, and delivering boxes to customers twice a week. We always feel a little lost without the drive and purpose of feeding our CSA members. There's just 14 more weeks to go until the end of the season!