Wednesday, February 17, 2010


By Nina Berryman

“Men have become tools of their tools” is a quote from Henry David Thoreau that often comes to mind while I work with machinery at the farm. Aside from the gender-exclusive language, I find this a valuable quote that is worth pondering. Most often this quote comes into my head as I am muttering under my breath about some frustrating mishap regarding a small-motor machine that’s malfunctioning. While we don’t use machines often at Henry Got Crops, there are a large number of machines that we have access to. I have a love-hate relationship with all of them. The pros and cons of machinery are many and every time I use one of the machines at Saul my mental list of pros vs. cons get a little longer, which only adds to the complication of my love-hate relationship.

In the big picture, my thoughts on machines are fairly straight forward: Machines are polluting to operate and to build. Machines are dangerous. They are loud and can hurt your ear drums. They are powerful and can cause serious injuries. They are fast which reduces the reaction time you have if something goes wrong. Machines do work that we would otherwise do by hand, thus distancing us from the task and reducing our ability to observe the details of what is happening. For example: Is there a toad (which is a beneficial predator) in the bed we are tilling? Are there eggs of an insect pest on the underside of the weed leaves that should be removed instead of tilled under? One person on a machine replaces the work of many people, and I want to engage more people in farming, not less. All of these points make me prefer working by hand rather than working by machine.

However, the ever-growing list of things to do, as well as my limited amount of energy, often obscure these criticisms I have of machinery. Instead, when all the beds for this week’s plantings still need to be tilled, and it’s 10am on a Thursday and we need to start harvesting for Friday’s pick-up, I start seeing the speed and power of a tiller as a welcomed savior to the daunting task before us.

But here is where some of the complications come in: do machines save time in the long run, and do they do a superior job? Say we are standing in front of a bed that needs to be weeded before we plant radishes into it. We can pick up the hoe, or we can start the tiller. With machines, I have quickly learned that with an increased complexity in the machine comes an increased number of things that can go wrong. If the tiller is ready to go, then using the tiller will be faster. But the chances that the tiller is ready to go are slim. It could need new tips on the tines. It could need a different attachment. It could need new oil, or more gas. Given that we share machinery with two other farm sites and an entire high school, keeping track of something simple like when the tank was last filled becomes nearly impossible. Say, for the purpose of this, that everything is ready to go with the tiller. The tiller will turn the weeds back into the earth, whereas weeding by hand will rip them out. In the short term, tilling produces a bed that is ready for planting in a shorter amount of time. But in the long run, which method produces better results? This is the big “experiment” going on at Saul right now. If anyone is interested in volunteering to count grass re-germination rates please contact us!

I have a few lessons learned that I can share after my short experience working with machines. However, like everything else, they are not simple, quick solutions to facilitating the use of machines! First, know which machine is best for the job. Luckily at Saul we do have many machines from which to choose (one benefit of working at a school where they have a small machines class!). However, with many machines to choose from the learning curve is steep, and the time it takes to “master” the use of a new machine in order to determine if it is in fact the right tool for the job is significant. Second, learn basic machine maintenance and repair. This is a big hole in my farming knowledge and one that I plan on filling…once I have enough “free” time to sufficiently tinker. When might this happen in a climate with an 8 month growing season? I’ll add this to my list of
“off season” things to do in January! Third, take advantage of people power when you have it! Fourth, take pre-emptive measures to reduce the “need” for machines in the future. For example, a thick mulch will suppress weeds so that when it’s time to plant a second time in that bed, a tiller is not necessary to rid the bed of weeds. Of course, even this is not as simple of a solution as it sounds. So far, the only mulch we have found to be thick enough to repress the perennial grass at Saul is plastic, which is of course petroleum in another form. Is it less evil than the petroleum in the gas tank of the tiller? If so, is it faster to lay plastic by hand on a bed, or till the weeds that grow if you don’t use plastic? And don’t forget to consider the fact that you can’t reuse plastic as a mulch more than once. The complexity of the decision making process becomes apparent!

Here is a quick run-down of the machines we use at Henry Got Crops and their pros and cons:

Riding Tractor: Pros- very wide and fast. Cons- dangerous and difficult to operate, breaks often and is very complicated to fix.

Toro Dingo (a walk-behind tractor that tills the land): Pros- wide, fast, easy and relatively safe to operate. Cons- cuts up grass roots and mixes them into the ground instead of removing them, hard to maneuver in small areas, such as our five foot wide pathways

BCS Tiller (a walk-behind tiller that tills and shapes beds): Pros- creates raised beds quickly and very well, is small and relatively maneuverable. Cons- exhausting and dangerous to use in rocky soil, difficult to operate if you are short and have small hands, many pieces need to be routinely tightened and replaced.
Brush hog (a four-wheeled weed wacker): Pros- self-propelled, wide, powerful, fast. Cons- dangerous because of its speed and size of blade, hard to operate on uneven terrain.

Mantis (in essence a weed wacker with a head that tills instead of cuts): Pros- gets into small places. Cons- not very powerful

Weed wacker: Pros- gets into small places, very maneuverable. Cons- can’t cut through some of our larger weeds

Walk-behind lawn mower: Pros- cuts low to the ground. Cons- gets jammed easily.

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