It can be hard to imagine farming without a tractor, but the truth is that running a farm with no tractor is not only possible, but also comes with some real advantages. In fact, many of today’s most successful market gardens, including Conor Crickmore’s Neversink Farm or Jean-Martin Fortier’s Les Jardins de la Grelinette, use only a walk-behind tractor or none at all.
Here are six ways you can use the absence of a tractor to your small farm’s benefit.
1. Take on Less or No Debt
The first advantage of not buying a tractor is pretty obvious: You can save whatever money you would have otherwise spent on it. Considering that tractors can be expensive, the savings can be pretty substantial. This saved money can either stay in your pocket or finance another part of your new business.
Considering that one of the biggest barriers to entry for new farmers is the startup cost of an operation, reducing these expenses can make the difference between beginning the business or not.
2. Dedicate More Growing Space
Taking a tractor out of the equation also allows you to create more growing space in your gardens, opening the door to higher yields. Because garden pathways don’t need to accommodate tractor tires, beds can be placed much closer together. Growing spaces can also be lengthened, because you no longer need to leave space for the machine to turn around at the end of each row.
3. Maintain Better Soil Health
Unless you rent equipment or pay a neighbor, not having a tractor on the farm means you can practicing no-till vegetable production. The concept of no-till vegetable farming has gotten a lot of traction recently in the small-farm community thanks to its ability to improve soil health, sequester carbon, reduce labor on the farm and minimize erosion. Not driving a tractor on or around your growing area will also minimize soil compaction.
4. Learn to Spatially Strategize
Although having a tractor can certainly make moving supplies around your farm easier, planning ahead can help you get by without one, and you can learn about managing materials in the process. Think carefully about where you plan to use materials such as compost or wood chips, and store them someplace central and accessible. If your fields are relatively spread out, another option is to have the delivery truck drop separate piles next to each field.
5. Save Money & Embrace Hands-on Work
One of the other benefits of tractorless farming is not worrying about breakdowns or repair costs. Even when hand tools fail, they don’t cost as much to repair or replace as many tractor repairs do. I personally enjoy working with my hands, and get to do a lot more of it without a tractor around.
6. Use a Tractor Purchase as Incentive to Succeed
If you’re set on having a tractor at some point, another option is wait until your farm has earned enough to purchase one outright. This kind of capital reinvestment can help you grow your business without accruing any debt.
Although tractors can undoubtedly be valuable tools, there are also real benefits to foregoing or delaying tractor ownership. Your small farm might just be better off without one.