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 years.
Flexibility. That’s the key, Joel Salatin advises in his
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
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, for
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
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
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
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
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 one second.
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