PHOTO: Richmond Farm School/Flickr
Joel Dufour
June 23, 2016

You’ve finally gotten a few acres in the country, and you’re eager to start a farming endeavor: maybe some livestock, an acre of vegetables, an orchard or even a berry farm. But there is so much work to do to get the land in shape. You’ve got to clear all that brush, chip all those branches, till the land—the list goes on. You’re going to need something that mows, something that chips and something to till up a plot, which quickly becomes a lot of engines to maintain!
Fortunately, there is a great, often-overlooked option that is currently a mainstay for small-scale agriculture in Europe and Asia but has largely been forgotten in North America: the walk-behind tractor.

What Is It?

As its name states, a walk-behind tractor is a tractor—that is, a power source that can operate multiple implements, just like a four-wheel farm tractor. A true walk-behind tractor shares the same durable, high-quality design one would expect in a traditional tractor: all-gear drive, automotive-style clutch, commercial gas or diesel engine, and shaft-driven implements. The big difference with a walk-behind is that it is smaller, only has a single axle, has a set of handlebars rather than a steering wheel, and, obviously, you walk behind it rather than ride atop it.

What Will It Do?

True walk-behind tractors will operate a huge assortment of implements to handle most any job on a small farm. The list includes:

  • aerators
  • chippers/shredders
  • crimper-rollers
  • electrical generators
  • harrows
  • hay-making tools
  • mowers
  • plastic mulch layers
  • plows and other soil-working devices
  • pressure washers
  • seeders
  • snow removal implements
  • stump grinders
  • tillers
  • transport carts
  • wood splitters

Implements are attached to the tractor unit by a power takeoff (PTO) flange with an integrated driveshaft; two nuts are the standard method of changing implements, but a quick-coupling system is optional on most walk-behind tractors to reduce implement change times to 30 seconds or so.

Now, you may be wondering how this machine can run a mower in the front and a tiller in the rear. Are there front and rear PTOs? Not really. A really cool feature of modern European walk-behind tractors is a reversible set of handlebars, putting the operator on either the implement side of the machine for soil-working implements or the engine side of the machine for most other implements, including mowers, snow removal, chippers, etc. Reversing the handles takes a few minutes, depending on the tractor model, and the swiveling handlebars can also lock in position 15 degrees off-center in either mode, allowing you to walk off to one side of a tilled bed, out of a thorn-patch you are brush-hogging, etc.

Is It Right For Me?

Most equipment is scale-appropriate, and walk-­behind tractors are no exception. You wouldn’t buy a 50-horsepower tractor to mow a single acre, and likewise, you wouldn’t want a walk-behind to mow 50 acres.

For the correct scale, walk-behinds are extremely practical. They’re great for up to a couple acres of garden or lawn, 15 acres of hay and 10 acres of brush-mowing. As they are very stable on slopes and take very little space to maneuver, the steeper and rougher the terrain, the more a walk-behind becomes an attractive option.

You will definitely need to be able walk alongside the equipment to properly use a walk-behind. There is a seat available for riding while mowing, but it is unwieldy and should not be relied on. These machines were engineered to walk behind!

What Do Walk-Behind Tractors Cost?

Walk-behind tractors range in price from $1,600 to $5,500 with a horsepower range of 6 to 16. Generally, the larger the model is, the more implements it can operate. Most implements range in price from $150 to $2,000, though there are a few that exceed that. (For instance, the hay-baler is nearly $10,000.) Used machines can be difficult to come by, as these machines can often last a lifetime with proper maintenance and care.

How Do I Maintain A Walk-Behind Tractor?

The simple and rugged design of a walk-behind tractor translates into high durability and low maintenance.

Typical care consists of oil and filter changes, like any equipment; yearly control cable lubrication; occasionally checking the tightness of high-stress fasteners, like the bolts that hold the implements on; and replacement of worn parts—mower blades, tiller tines, etc.—as needed. Eventual repairs after hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours of use would be items, such as clutches and PTO couplings; gearboxes almost never fail.

With the relatively simple designs that most of this equipment employ, even these repairs can usually be done at home by anyone with decent mechanical abilities; many how-to documents and videos are available online. If needed, equipment can be brought to a dealer for repair. In this case, walk-behind tractors have the advantage of not needing a huge truck or trailer to haul them; with the adjustable handlebar design allowing them to fold down into a small package, any of the walk-behind tractors will fit in a SUV or most station wagons.

Last but not least, a major benefit of walk-behind tractors is exercise. How many times have you heard “Walking is the best form of exercise” or “You should really walk more” from a doctor? How many Americans buy a membership at a health club and walk on a treadmill, and then go home and sit on a riding mower? Walk-behinds allow you to get your work done and get good exercise while you’re at it—truly the best of both worlds for a hobby farmer.

Walk This Way

Walk behinds used to be made in America. Gravely was the largest American manufacturer of walk-behind tractors, and there were several other American companies producing them starting in the early 1900s. But larger tractors produced after WWII dried up the market for many of the walk behinds, and even Gravely stopped producing them around 2003.

The American manufacturers also never innovated much in this equipment sector—even in the last days of their production, Gravely still didn’t have reversible handlebars—whereas the Europeans had adopted this eminently practical design in the 1960s. Now, almost all of the walk-behind tractors are made in Europe, mostly in Italy, which boasts more than 15 brands. Two Italian brands that can be found in North America are BCS America (based in Portland, Ore.) and Grillo, with BCS being the most established, as they have been imported since the mid-1970s.


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