The Tractor

Article Carol wrote for Island Farm & Garden.


When our family moved from the big city of Vancouver in 1989 to a 13-acre farm near Brentwood Bay, we purchased a second hand 1980 John Deere 950 tractor with several attachments including a rotovator, brush cutter and sprayer through our local John Deere dealer.

My husband Eric quickly realized that as much as he liked cutting the fields with the tractor, his allergies would be so bad that I ended up being the one operating that big hulk of a machine.  Our two young daughters thought it was some kind of fun game and would chase after me through the field, wanting to go for a tractor ride. It was dangerous and I needed a more kid friendly tractor to get the fields cut.

I inquired with our local tractor mechanic Rob Clement about getting a smaller tractor with a wagon to put the kids in while I cut the fields.  He found me a second hand 1970 John Deere 140, which is basically a riding lawn mower with a wagon.  It’s very old now but I keep it in good repair and can still get parts and various accessories for it. Our daughters Lennea and Olivia were so excited about the new tractor and loved riding in the wagon while I was cutting the fields.  They could put big pillows, all their little ponies, and umbrellas if it was hot out.  There was never a complaint or bickering in that wagon and the work got done.

In 1993 we decided to plant a vineyard and because our tractor was quite large, we spaced the rows 10 feet apart to accommodate the tractor and allowed enough room at the end of the row for turning into every other row.

If you’re a new farmer or inheriting the job of farm work from your husband as I did, you’ll need to get the right tractor to fit your needs. Don’t be intimidated by this piece of machinery; it’s a tool that can make it a lot easier for you to get things done on your property. Owning a tractor could inspire you and your family to turn your ideas for your outdoor space into a reality on your farm.

Here are a few recommendations:

If you’re looking for a used tractor ask at a neighbouring farm stand or farmer who the local farm mechanic is and give him a call.  These guys are not on the Internet and probably not even in the phone book.  Having a tractor mechanic nearby is the most important thing as something will always break when you have fieldwork to do.  The good thing is you can still get parts and accessories for old John Deere models.  They are made mostly of metal and don’t have a lot of extra parts to break down.

If you’re buying a new tractor, really think about what you want to be able to do with it on your property and what accessories you will need to get the job done. Consider who will be able to do the warranty work and repairs when you need it. Since there is no longer a John Deere dealership on Vancouver Island, the mechanics travel the island doing the work and parts generally come from Vancouver.  New tractors are mostly made of plastic and have many computer chips that can fail and wires that can wiggle out of their spots when you’re bumping around in your field.

For women who are farming I would recommend a 30 to 40 horsepower tractor that is low, wide and stable. You might like to have power steering to make your work easier. A wagon or trailer is a must, as it will save you a lot of time moving things around your property.  You can attach a wagon to a riding mower, but if you need more attachments your tractor will have to have a PTO (Power Take Off) to operate these attachments.  A rotovator or cultivator will be a lifesaver if you’re doing field crops for your farm stand or farmer’s market. If you have livestock or horses, you will definitely need the loader bucket attachment and possible a blade for moving manure around.  There’s quite a few other implements you can purchase if you find you need them, such as power brooms for sweeping long driveways or patios; power rakes, sprayers and fork lifts for moving pallets.  There are also backhoe/excavator attachments if you have land to clear, stumps to move or trenches to dig for irrigation lines – this attachment can be a bit heavy and get in the way when you’re doing other work with your tractor…. so if you don’t really need all these accessories or you’re not sure… don’t buy them. 

Purchase the size of tractor that will allow you to have the options for the types of jobs you need to get done.  Keep in mind how wide your rows are apart and what kind of turning radius you will need  – the narrower the tractor…. the more expensive it’s going to be…. so don’t fall in love with an articulating tractor from Europe unless you just won the lottery.

Here are a few technical things that need mentioning…. 

Gas cans are really heavy when they’re full.  I used to be able to lift a full can – 40 pounds – and fill the tank; but I just can’t lift that much anymore after 25 years of farming.  So what I like to do is get a couple smaller jerry cans that are easier to lift when full.    If the tractor is big or old you might not have a gas gauge to measure your fuel. I use a clean bamboo stake and put it right in the fuel tank.  Pull it out and voila, you’ll see if there’s fuel on the stick and if it’s low. If your tractor is a diesel, you definitely don’t want to run out – as you’ll have to call in the mechanic to bleed the system to get it going again. 

The air filter/cleaner assembly is the other really important thing on a tractor.  All the dust and dirt you produce with your tractor gets collected in the air filter…. just like the filter in a vacuum cleaner, dishwasher or hairdryer.  It keeps the dirt from going in your engine.  You need to know how to check it to see if it’s clogged up and carefully take it out clean it by tapping it lightly to knock off the dust, or even vacuum it off or blow it with a hairdryer.  Be careful putting it back on and make sure you don’t get any bits of plastic caught between the parts as you don’t want dirt getting in the engine. 

Of all the many jobs to be done on the farm, driving the tractor is still my favorite thing to do.  Remember, safety first, don’t drink and drive and beware of “tractor neck”.