Tag Archives: tractor

Tractor Trouble

DSC_4868 copyLightning and thunder have driven John in from the fields as I get home from afternoon errands in town. We watch the rain come down, pouring hard for five good minutes before tapering to a sprinkle. Not a gully washer, but enough to make a difference after this record-breaking first-week-of-September heat.

John gets off the phone with the place that repaired our tractor tire last year. One of the big rear tires on our 1950 John Deere B is flat.

“How much would it be for them to come out here and fix it?” I ask.

“The guy said it’s a hundred bucks just to drive over and shake my hand. We can take it there. We just need to get it off first.”

I’m not overjoyed at this news. Tractor repair is dangerous and we’ve had some close calls.

“I’ll jack it up, put blocks under the body, and pull off the tire. No problem,” he says.

“And you won’t have to get underneath or stick your hand in anywhere? You’ll block the wheels so it can’t roll? You’ll use a good jack that won’t slip?”

“Come out and see. It’ll be fine.”

DSC_0725A few minutes later, in boots and a raincoat, I go out to the tractor barn and find John’s got the John Deere up on a jack with blocks of wood under the body. He ratchets the jack higher to get the weight off the tire and slip another board under the tractor’s belly. The jack, not quite heavy or agile enough for the job, slips a little. No harm done, but it’s a good reminder that this tractor is a heavy piece of machinery. John lowers the tractor again and starts over with a better jack to get the last board in place. The tire’s hanging just off the ground, ready for removal.

Now comes the hard part: getting the tire off the axle. But there’s a trick. Like those magic boxes where one panel squeezes another tighter so the door can slide open, the John Deere requires removing three bolts and placing two of them in different holes where the force of their tightening will narrow the plate that holds on the tire and allows it to slip off the axle.

Since the bolts haven’t been removed for 13 years when the tire fell off accidentally, they need a little rust remover and a lot of torque to get them moving. John works them, back and forth, tapping here and there with the mallet to loosen the metal plate that holds the tire in place. Finally, it comes off, exposing the axle shaft through the cast iron center of the tire’s hub. As I monitor the tractor for slippage off its bed of boards, John hammers and heaves the tire off the axle, pulling it free with a big “Humph” that nearly knocks him off his feet.

The tire’s off! Now all we need to do is get it in the bed of the pickup. I back the truck up to where John holds the heavy tire and he rolls it to the lowered tailgate. But it’s too heavy to lift into the bed. John’s got a better idea, one that involves yet another tractor. I groan, but he’s right. He’ll lift the tire in the bucket of the Farm-All and lower it into the truck. Easy, right?

Getting the tire into the bucket is no problem—we just roll it in–but depositing it in the back of the truck isn’t as simple as it sounds. The tire is 55 inches in diameter; the truck bed is barely wider than that, and the frame on the back of the truck, the one we use for hauling lumber and pipes and even a cupboard all the way from North Dakota, might be in the way.

This is where John’s skill with the big red Farm-All really shines. Lifting the tire in the Farm-All’s bucket, he approaches the truck carefully, easing just close enough to the edge of the bed to tip the tire in. Still, the tire doesn’t slide off and I’m afraid if it does, it will smash the tailgate right off the truck.

John gets off the tractor and walks over to where I’m looking skeptical. As he judges the angle he needs to lift the bucket for dumping the tire in the back of the pickup, I come up with my own better idea for the next phase of this project. “I know, after they repair it, let’s pay the place to bring the tire back and put it on the tractor.”

John looks at me askance for a long second and then shakes his head. “You don’t really have the sensibility for this, do you?” He sounds annoyed but I can tell he’s teasing by the way his dimples are flashing.

“Nope. I really don’t.” I have to admit that all this tractor ballet makes me nervous. I don’t drive tractors so I’m less confident about what they can do. For John, the worst of the job is over. Getting the tire back on will be a cinch. For me, we still have a tire to transport and re-attach.

John laughs as he swings himself up to the seat of the red tractor. “We can do it!” he shouts over the engine. The bucket lifts & tilts; the big tire slides perfectly into the back of the pickup.

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John gets down, closes the tailgate, and grins. “Nothing like the satisfaction of a job well done.” I have to agree, but in my case, it’s more like relief. Nothing bad happened. We didn’t wreck the tire, tractor, or pickup. More importantly, no one was hurt.

Tomorrow morning, John will take the tire out east of the highway to be repaired. We’ll ask Joe to help wrestle it back on. For now, our tractor work is done. We walk back to the house in the evening light as more thunder rumbles. It’s time for dinner with the first of the Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers roasted with Manchego cheese, golden brown eggplant slices, fresh-fried rosy potatoes, and a toast with Stonebridge wine to our tractor success.

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A Farming Past

I’m drying apples today, which sounds a little strange in March, but I still had some organic winter keeper apples from Ela Farms in our cool room that were in great condition for drying, the skins only slightly shriveled or “pre-dehydrated,” and the fruit inside still fresh and firm. As I cored and sliced them, I noticed that my apple rounds were irregular widths, reminding me that I’m a human being, not a machine. I thought about how my grandparents and great-grandparents farmed before automation when farm work meant doing things by hand or with simple machinery operated by hand. How different than work in mechanized factories or sitting behind a computer screen.

My great-grandfather Jasper Smith and great-aunt Myra harvesting wheat

My great-grandfather Jasper Smith and great-aunt Myra harvesting wheat

I don’t mean to idealize those days. Farming back then was bone-wearying hard, whether raising crops and livestock or putting food on the family table.  After all, my apples were drying in an electric dehydrator and I had running water to prepare them, not water hand-pumped from a well. But when I do things by hand, I remember my grandparents’ farms when I was growing up and I feel a kinship to my farming past. I think my grandparents felt a satisfaction with the work they did because the results benefitted them directly: wholesome food raised on land they had homesteaded, milk and eggs to sell in town, and a full granary of wheat to provide for the things they couldn’t raise.

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys

A couple weeks ago, our county invited farmers to a special dinner and presentation by several farmers, now in their seventies and eighties, whose families had been farming for a hundred years or more on land where, according to one speaker, “everything is houses now.” They shared photographs of their families raising beet, alfalfa, and wheat crops and, just like my father, they knew the make, model, and year of every tractor they had driven. Back then, they said, companies like Case, John Deere, Oliver, and International all had businesses in town, none of which remain today.

My dad in his teens with his John Deere A.

My dad in his teens with his John Deere A.

These families had farmed before the “Get Big or Get Out” agriculture of the 1980s, when high interest loans for machinery and land shaved the profit margin so slim that only large-scale farms had a chance to survive. Back then, they said, “a lot of families farmed a little bit of land” instead of “just a few big farms” owning more of it. My partner John remarked to me that, judging from the photos, those little farms still provided enough income to build big farmhouses and barns. And, as one of the farmers remarked, family farms also “raised an awful lot of what you ate.” Since “the ladies canned all summer,” only sugar, salt and coffee were purchased. One farmer shared that he had recently found a Ball jar of pears from 1931 in his cellar—and it was still good.

Jars like my grandmothers used to can and keep in their root cellars

Jars like my grandmothers used to can and keep in their root cellars

All the farmers agreed that farming nowadays isn’t like farming was then, but they weren’t just referring to the economics of it. Instead, they remembered how families worked together to get the crops in and how people could do business on the trust of a handshake instead of a contract. Having seen the end of their way of life, they were glad for the chance to have lived it.

Grandpa Short with his Minneapolis Moline G

Grandpa Short with his Minneapolis Moline G

Last week, a friendly couple stopped by our farm. They had lived here in the early 1970s as part of a commune, of sorts, although the woman laughed that she hadn’t known she was a hippie until she’d read an article describing one. In the 70s, it didn’t take much to be considered a hippie; the “back-to-the-land” movement was branded countercultural as young people “dropped out” by rejecting middle-class jobs and keeping up with the neighbors.

As part of that movement, our visitors had milked two cows in what is now our community room, raised chickens in the old chicken house that’s now our guesthouse, and made candles and leather goods in the barn where we now distribute the vegetables for our CSA. John and I enjoyed walking around the farm with the couple and learning some of Stonebridge’s history. The cows were pastured where we now grow our vegetables—no wonder it’s so fertile. Their tipi stood in the old orchard where, twenty-five years later, our friends had raised a tipi for a while. And I was thrilled to hear that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had jammed in our very own living room!

The Stonebridge John Deere B

The Stonebridge John Deere B

I’m not surprised at this farming past. Stonebridge has a “vibe” for community, whether commune or CSA. I’m glad to trace our farm as part of the “back-to-the-land” movement of young people whose own parents had fled the hardships of farming after WWII. Something had been lost in that migration, something that the small farms of my grandparents and the older farmers in our county had provided: a sense of working together for a common good rather than merely profit, a sense of being human rather than a machine. Many of us in small-scale farming today are looking for that same sense of community and satisfaction in work well done with others, for others. As Stonebridge begins our 22nd season, we are thankful for a farming past that we hope ensures a farming future.

Saturday morning pick at Stonebridge

Saturday morning pick at Stonebridge

For more about the connections between farms of the past and small-scale farming and CSA today, see my forthcoming book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, published by Torrey House Press.

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