I first moved out of town in 1981 with my husband, Ken Woodard. We rented a log house on 40 acres, with a sub-irrigated pasture. We quickly acquired livestock and trying our hands at gardening. But when we moved to the country, we both drove cars that were quite unsuitable for our rutted, two-track driveway that was ¾ miles long, and our entire tool collection consisted of some random hand tools that fit in a plastic fishing tackle box. While we wouldn’t dream of returning to town life, over the years we have acquired a variety of tools and equipment that makes our life on the farm a whole lot easier, including essential tools I believe every small farm should have.
My dad (a guy who could build anything, from any kind of material—wood, concrete, metal) taught us to treat tools as an important investment, so I’ll offer up his advice: Take your time acquiring your tools and equipment; get the best quality you can afford, and they will serve you for years. Don’t make the mistake of buying every little thing you see. Unless you are fabulously wealthy, you can quickly spend more than you can afford on items that don’t get used, occupy valuable storage space, get thrown away or sold at a garage sale for pennies on the dollar. For a tool or implement that will be used only a few times, consider renting it—or bartering for its use with a neighbor.
If you have recently made the transition to rural living or are considering doing so, here’s my list of essential tools and equipment that will help you get started.
1. Pickup Truck
Before we bought our indispensable pickup, we bought an old Chevy Blazer. We quickly realized, however, that an SUV is not a pickup and cannot substitute for one. A pickup could be the most versatile and useful long-term investment you can make for your farm. These trucks are essential for hauling various things, including building supplies, feed, firewood and sod. Teamed with a trailer (see item 3), you can move livestock. Although a pickup is a big investment, when you take care of it (remember to change that oil every 3,500 miles) it can last for decades. Good used pickups can often be bought at a reasonable price.
Add a basic topper to your pickup and you can haul items you need kept dry, use the truck for camping or haul small animals. We’ve gotten some entertaining looks at gas stations and other stops over the years when the topper held a small menagerie. Among my favorites: the time we drove 30 large turkeys to the poultry processing plant, and the time we had half a dozen ducks and geese (and several big rabbits) hanging out in the back. Goats, sheep and small pigs are also easily moved under the topper.
2. An ATV, UTV or Compact Tractor
Even if you dream of working your land with animals, a tractor or farm utility vehicle (an ATV or UTV) is immeasurably practical. Although we like to use our donkeys for packing firewood when time permits, winter often finds us (well, maybe I should say Ken) out with the ATV, equipped with a trailer, bringing in wood.
Compact tractors are versatile pieces of equipment that are perfect for small farms. Depending on the attachments you have, they can do any number of tasks: mow acres of lawn, dig a foundation, bale hay, push snow, set fence posts. It’s all possible with a compact tractor.
If you have less than 60 acres, a utility vehicle, or UTV, will often be adequate. It’s less of an investment than a tractor, and manufacturers now make attachments, including front-end loader buckets and manure spreaders, that are specially designed to work with these rigs. The fat tires, light weight and low center of gravity make these units easy on the land. If money is not a big issue, and you have a larger piece of land (say, 160 acres or more), having a tractor and UTV makes sense. The tractor can do heavy work, such as baling hay, but the utility vehicle can haul supplies—or get you across the farm quickly to move a paddock fence or check on the stock and crops.
Two-wheel-drive trucks, tractors, and utility vehicles are OK for flat ground that’s not too muddy, but if you live in hilly terrain, a snowy climate or frequent muddy conditions, invest the extra money in a four-wheel-drive truck.
3. Livestock Trailer
If you aim to have large livestock (horses, cows, llamas, yaks), you need a stock trailer. We don’t use our trailer that frequently for hauling livestock, but I still consider it one of the best investments we’ve made more than two decades of buying. When we do need to haul our animals, we don’t have to try to borrow or rent a trailer, and in between animal trips, we use it to haul firewood, feed, hay and lumber. During the several household moves we’ve made since we purchased our trailer, it has done duty as a moving van. It also often serves as a temporary storage shed. Although two-horse trailers are readily available, opt for a bigger trailer that can accommodate four animals or more.
This is the first tool I would buy. Prices start at less than $100 and continue to around $300 or $400 depending on capacity and construction. Yard carts are a bargain that’s hard to beat. They are lightweight, yet they carry big loads easily. Unlike their single-wheeled cousins, they are sturdy and steady over uneven ground (as well as through mud or snow) and they are just plain hard to tip. They are balanced in such a way as to be easy on the back. Some carts come with an accessory that converts them to a trailer for pulling behind a UTV or small tractor.
We use our carts for many tasks around the farm. In the garden or yard, they’re great for moving topsoil, plants, seed, fertilizer or tools. In the barn, they are handy for cleaning up small piles of manure, or dragging tack from one place to another. They are perfectly sized for moving a bale of hay or a few 50-pound bags of feed. We also bring newborn calves easily from field to barn in bad weather, with mama tagging along next to the cart.
5. Manure Spreader
With any livestock, sooner or later you need a manure spreader. Even if your animals spend most of their time on pasture, piles of manure accumulate, and spreading this manure thinly over the land improves soil fertility, reduces contaminated runoff and helps keep fly numbers down. Several manufacturers offer compact manure spreaders ideal for small farms. The tractor-driven units carry more manure in one trip and are probably the best way to go if you have a significant number of animals you keep in the barn regularly. The ATV units are good for operations with only a few animals stabled regularly, or with a larger herd that is on pasture most of the time.
I love composting. It’s one of the most environmentally friendly practices: reducing the waste going to landfills and incinerators while feeding soil and plants. How could anybody not compost?
You can make your own compost box, but an assortment of commercial units are available, starting at about $25 for a perforated polyethylene sheet that creates a 32-inch diameter bin, and running to several hundred dollars for large-capacity tumbling composters. The tumbling units are attractive for folks with small yards and are easy to use; they generally yield useable compost the quickest, because they make mixing and aerating easy. They are also animal resistant, reducing worries about rodents and other unwanted visitors. For do-it-yourselfers, check local recycling offices for construction plans—many of which use recycled materials, such as tires or pallets. (Pick up a container of worms in the spring at your local bait supplier, and add them to your compost pile or bin to speed things up.)
7. Electric Tools
Dozens of electric power tools are available at hardware and home stores, but there are two essentials for any type of farm construction project: a circular saw (shown here) and an electric drill/driver (pictured at the top of this post). Need to build your own compost bin? Out comes the saw and drill. Hanging a new barn door? Get the saw and the drill.
You’ll find these two versatile tools useful for myriad projects, so invest in the best heavy-duty models you can afford. If you plan to do lots of construction and remodeling (thinking about that sunroom addition on the house, or that new barn?), consider adding a heavy-duty reciprocating saw to the electric-tool collection.
8. Hand Tools
Every farm needs a variety of hand tools such as locking pliers. Companies such as Sears (with its line of Craftsman tools) and Snap-On (available at many auto parts stores) make hand tools that will last for generations and that come with a lifetime warranty. First on my list of items to purchase: a 25-foot and a 100-foot tape measure; a good claw hammer with a comfortable grip; electrician’s pliers; a ratchet and socket set; adjustable wrenches in several sizes; a screwdriver set with regular and Phillips head drivers.
9. Garden Tools
Every small farm needs a flat spade and a pointed spade among garden implements for digging. A good digging fork is a multipurpose tool, used for breaking up and turning soil in the garden, harvesting and for manure cleanup around the barn. You might also consider a broadfork. My preference for hoes is the collinear hoe designed by gardening guru Eliot Coleman. This style hoe takes the “back-breaking” out of weed control by letting you stand straight up while you work.
10. Fencing Tools
Farms and fences go hand in hand. Plan to purchase a fence-post driver. A driver is a heavy iron tube that goes over the top of a T-post and has handles on the side. You use it to pound the post into the ground. Among useful fencing implements is a pair of fence pliers. They’re a and fairly inexpensive, specialty tool to have. We love electric fences—they are economical, efficient and safe—but when you have an electric fence, you need a fence tester.
11. Miscellaneous Items
We always carry pocketknives when working, and a Leatherman-type tool serves many purposes. Heavy-duty flashlights are a must when the lights go out during a heavy storm, or when you need to tend to a livestock emergency in the pasture at 2 a.m. Garden hoses are essential; when buying them, purchase the longest and strongest available. (Fall is a great time to find really good buys on garden hoses.) The good ones come with long-term guarantees (often 25 years or lifetime), and we save the guarantee card with the receipt stapled to it, because under farm-use conditions that “lifetime” turns out to be only a few years. The last miscellaneous tool on the list is a digging bar. We use ours for breaking ice in winter; for digging large rocks out of the garden, construction sites, or fence holes; and for prying apart incorrigible packages.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.