April 21, 2005: When it finally came time
for us to buy our first tractor, the decision on what to buy
was a no-brainer: It simply had to be gray, just like my father’s
old Ferguson T0-30 that I learned to drive on at age 10, and
just like my grandfather’s old Ford, which I was never
allowed to touch.
Other farmers have similar fetishes for tractors that are
painted red, orange, blue, white, green and white, green and
gold, yellow -- or even hot pink.
Fortunately, despite our nostalgic fixation on gray, the
old Ford 2N we bought was flexible enough that it did most
of what we asked of it around our 20-acre farmstead for 15
Flexibility. That’s the key, Joel Salatin advises in
his book You
Can Farm, the Bible of common sense farm start-ups. “When
buying machinery, think of its multiplicity of function rather
than just price. The difference in cost between a two-wheel
drive tractor and a four-wheel drive is relatively small compared
to the overall price. If you add a front-end loader to the
four-wheel drive, you have an extremely versatile machine,”
he advises. Joel has two tractors, both with four-wheel drive,
and both with front-end loaders.
Ah, to be so blessed! We now have one tractor with four-wheel
drive and a front-end loader. It’s a 33-hp John Deere
1050 with a gutsy three-cylinder diesel engine. The two-speed,
manual transmission has “High” and “Low”
ranges, which provide a total of eight forward speeds.
We bought the Deere used in 1997 for $13,800. The tractor
only had 1,673 hours on the clock. We put about $1,500 worth
of repairs into it, mostly for a complete set of new tires.
It was money well-spent. Never again would I be without such
a machine, since our time and the physical well-being of our
aging backs are two of the most precious resources around
our farm. What a tractor like this saves in time and physical
-- and emotional -- wear and tear on the farmers makes it
priceless, as the commercial says.
But as nice as four-wheel drive and loaders may be, they’re
not absolutely essential, especially when you’re getting
started in farming. For flexibility, there is just no comparison
to the antique, three-speed Ford we started out with. Besides
a reliable engine, there are really only two things your first
farm tractor absolutely must have:
1. A 3-point hitch.
2. Power take-off or PTO,
What the heck are those? Only the essential mechanical features
that make a tractor the all-around workhorse you expect --
and need -- it to be. The hitch holds, lifts and lowers myriad
farm implements. The PTO supplies power to implements that
cut, dig, rake, bale, throw snow, till and much more.
1. When Henry Met Harry
A modern 3-point hitch is the hydraulic assembly on the rear
of the tractor that lets you wield a staggering array of farm
implements. Simply by moving a little lever while sitting
in the driver’s seat, you can easily raise or lower
farm implements that weigh hundreds of pounds.
It’s called a 3-point hitch because implements attach
to the tractor in three places by means of two sidearms and
one toplink. All three links are adjustable. The sidearms
control the sideways motion of the implement. They are easily
adjusted with turn buckles or chains, so that the implement
trails squarely behind the tractor or off to one side. Changing
the length of the toplink, usually with a simple screw mechanism,
controls the level or horizontal pitch of an implement.
Three-point hitches come in two types: Category I and Category
II (or Cat I and Cat II, for short). Cat I hitches are for
smaller tractors. You will need to know which hitch you have
when you start buying implements.
One of our farming mentors, the late Ward Sinclair, started
farming with a cherry-looking Farmall Super A. Actually, he
started with a second-hand Troy-Bilt Horse tiller with wornout
tines. But the A was his first tractor. Ward was unpleasantly
surprised to find once he got it home that the Super A didn’t
have a 3-point hitch and wasn’t geared to handle a PTO-powered
tiller, plastic mulch layer or other modern vegetable production
equipment. Ward kept the Super A because it was a fantastic
cultivating tractor, but he soon bought a new, four-wheel
drive 17-hp Ford -- with a front-end loader. No more filling
the manure spreader by hand for Ward!
While our 1946 Ford 2N was older than either me or my wife,
Melanie, it did have a 3-point hitch. In fact, Ford was the
first -- and, for a long time, the only -- tractor with a
3-point hitch. That’s because automaker Henry Ford revolutionized
the whole world of farm tractors around 1938 when he combined
his nimble Ford 9N with a hydraulic lift system developed
by an Irish motor racing enthusiast named Harry Ferguson,
who was also known as “the mad mechanic of Belfast.”
(More than 800,000 of the N series Fords were sold over the
next 20 years as other tractor-makers ate Ford’s dust.
Ferguson sold nearly an equal number of strikingly similar
tractors under his own name after Ford and his heirs backed
out of Henry’s handshake deal with Ferguson.)
“As advanced as jet propulsion,” is how Ford
described the breakthrough design in its advertising. The
resulting 23-hp “Ford With The Ferguson System”
cost $585 new. In 1984, we paid $1,795 for our 2N, or about
two and-a-half times what the four-cylinder, gasoline-powered
tractor cost new. After 15 years of hard use and annual oil
changes, whether it needed it or not, a local machinery dealer
offered us $1,800 for the 2N. He probably could have resold
it for up to $2,500. Call me sentimental, but I just couldn’t
part with the old Ford. One of these days I’ll start
restoring it, as time and money allow, but that’s another
Like Ward’s Super A and most classic tractors, the
2N was great at pulling things -- a 2-bottom plow, disk-harrow,
wagon, manure spreader, 5-foot rotary mower, 7-foot scraper
blade for plowing snow, landscape rake, cars and trucks stuck
in the mud, huge stones that I got tired of hitting with the
mower. It was so small and nimble that I could ease logs out
of the woods almost as easily as with a team of horses. Just
remember, chains hains on the rear tires are essential in
snow and ice.
Once upon a time, our 2N had been fitted with a front-end
loader. The mounting bracket is still there, but the loader
is long gone, probably because a two-wheel drive tractor with
a loader is next to useless. When the bucket is full, the
rear wheels lose traction.
2. The Power To Farm
The PTO is a drive shaft that provides power to everything
from a rotary mower to a post-hole digger or a manure spreader.
It’s probably also the most dangerous feature on any
tractor. The PTO shaft on most tractors spins at 540 rpm.
At that speed, hair, loose clothing or anything else that
gets tangled can wrap around the shaft nine times in just
A PTO commands the same healthy respect due any chainsaw,
motorcycle or firearm. PTO entanglements kill about 10 people
every year, according to the National Institute of Occupational
Safety and Health. Alas, no statistics are kept on those who
lose fingers or limbs to PTOs.
The PTOs on older tractors are especially hazardous, since
they often lack shields, starter lockouts and other safety
features commonly found on newer machines. The PTO on our
old Ford, for example, has to be engaged and running for the
3-point hitch to operate. Our Deere has “live hydraulics,”
which means that splined stub on the back of the tractor does
not have to be spinning for the hitch and front-end loader
to have power.
Despite all of that, buying a farm tractor is not as mysterious
at it may sound. It’s actually a lot like buying a car
or a truck. You start with two basic choices: New or used.
Next comes the where and how to buy decision: From a dealer,
an individual or at an auction. From there, the possibilities
can become a bit bewildering. That is why it is vital you
do your homework ahead of time. For starters, think of WHY
you want a tractor in the first place. Make a list of everything
you KNOW you will do with the tractor. Then make a list of
everything else you MIGHT want to ask of a tractor. How much
land will you be working? Do you just want to mow or plow?
Or will you need a post-driver to pound fence posts deep into
the soil? How about a backhoe? Make another list of all of
the implements and attachments you might possibly want to
add to your tractor.
Any tractor within your price range that will handle the
most important of those jobs and the required implements is
worthy of your consideration. Never mind the color -- even
if it is hot pink, like the old Ford we saw in Texas a few
years ago. You can always repaint it. After all, paint is
cheap. But, as the old-timers warn, paint also hides a multitude
of sins, which is right where we’ll pick up the next