Saturday, April 19, 2008


When times get busy at Howell Farm, and there are just not enough horse hours in the day to complete the work that needs to be done, a band of superheroes from the future appears at just the crucial moment: the tractors. They come from a planet called The Green Barn.

This past week included the following tractor interventions:

- I watched a big, green John Deere blaze through the hayfield up on the hill as it spread bags of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

- I listened with gratitude to a report that last year's cornfield was now free of stalks thanks to another tractor. The previous week, two other workers and I spent an entire morning cutting stalks by hand. Between us, we cleared only a small fraction of the massive field.

- I drove a smaller John Deere around the farm under the pretence of needing to move some equipment. This the horses could have done, but the tractor made it easier, and anyway I think Farmer Rob could tell I was eager to take a spin.

Of the many things I've come to appreciate while working on a historical farm, one of them is how tractors changed nearly everything. By my gross calculation, one modest tractor can finish more work in a day than 10 strong horses. Factor in all the time a tractor teamster doesn’t have to spend feeding, watering, cleaning, harnessing, shoeing, and shoveling manure, and maybe a tractor is 20 times as efficient.

What I think is crazy is that, in the long view, tractors haven't necessarily made the life of the average farmer any better (or at least any more lucrative.) Many farmers with a stable of tractors need to work longer and harder than they ever did in order to make a living.

According to Howell's website, farmers of 100 years ago kept a larger percentage of the money they made from what they grew than they ever did prior or since. It was during this period that horsepower was at its peak.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Go figure. So, then, would you call that progress or not? Another thing is that the farmers were able to grow the energy for the work horses and didn't have to depend on Texas tea.
Maybe a balance could be found with the new bio fuels.