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.