Old Tractors and Sustainable Agriculture

By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

The lush forests, rolling pastures, and long vistas of the Ozarks are truly easy on the eyes, but their pastoral appearance also belies how tough these hills can be to survive in.  Although farming has been a traditional way of life in the Ozarks3 for generations, producing one’s food on this rocky bit of earth has never been easy.  Even with the modern comforts of today’s machinery, farming in the Ozarks can sometimes be best described as “hard-scrabble”.  And in the 15 years I’ve been here, I’ve seen more than one eager newcomer throw in the towel after only a few short years of backbreaking work that was resulted in little gain.

One thing the Ozarks has done for me as a gardener is to deepen my appreciation for those hardy souls who tended the land in the early days of settlement.  Unless you’re one of a very few lucky people, “dirt” is not a word Ozarkers use very often and when they do, you can almost be sure it is tongue-in-cheek.  The running joke goes that if Ozarkers could sell rocks by the pound they’d be rich!  It’s that sense of humor that keeps us going.

While the land in the Ozarks does not give itself easily to being cultivated, the growing season is long and ample. With a touch of lime and a generous supply of organic matter the heavy, but fertile, Ozark clay will release its bound-up nutrients and produce excellent crops of many kinds.

But, between easily exhausted soils, unpredictable weather, periodic droughts, late frosts, and a mind-boggling array of crop pests, one must approach the Ozarks with a thoughtful attitude and plenty of good advice.  Some folks move here after passing through.  They see our spring-lush hay fields and think all they need is to buy the biggest, most expensive tractor John Deer makes.  Many quickly find themselves with nothing but a hill full of rocks, brambles along the fence line, and a hillside washing down into a nearby creek.

What they learned – and what many an old farmer already knows – is that the use of big industrial machinery can easily compromise Ozarks soils, which are already prone to compaction and erosion.   The only sustainable route to quality crops is via small scale production in which the native soil is built up and tended with small machinery or by hand.

Over the years I’ve watched many a neighbor work their fields – and worked a few of my own in passing – it’s hard not to notice when it’s done wrong and a pleasure to see when done right.  Old farmers are the best.  They let the trees grow up in the fencerows and skip a field here and there every few years.  They don’t overgraze and don’t harvest hay when they shouldn’t.  They also don’t use new-fangled machinery, but rely on the old.

(Excerpted in part from A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country)

A few years back, I was standing by the road watching an old neighbor of mine harvesting his third round of hay with his trusty ‘47 Farmall H tractor.   That old girl was a little beat up around the edges, but a pretty thing to look at after all the years she’d seen on the farm.   As I was admiring man and machine, a neighbor who had recently moved here from a certain big northern city stopped alongside me in his shiny new extended cab pickup truck.

It didn’t take him long to notice our mutual neighbor haying in the adjacent field.  He pointed his elbow in the farmer’s direction and remarked to me with a slight, derisive chuckle that he had noticed that the old tractor was always breaking down.  He said, “It’s amazing that guy can get anything done with that run down old thing.

The comment wasn’t meant to be cruel, but it was unmistakably patronizing.  I’m sure he thought his brand new oversized John Deer was unmistakably superior – even though all he ever did with it was brush hog his overgrown field.  I bristled at his attitude and felt it necessary to defend my low-impact, recycling, refurbishing, and subsistence-farming neighbor and his lovely old tractor.

I wanted to tell him that old tractors like that were icons of the Ozarks.  I wanted to say to him that those old tractors are still in use because the land is rough on equipment and why go buys some fancy new tractor when the old one can be fixed – a new one will have to be fixed, too, by the way.  But, those old tractors…now, there is the mark of good old-fashioned Ozark ingenuity and practicality at its best!

It’s what I love most about living in Oz.

© 2013 Jill Henderson – please feel free to share with a link back to this site.  Thank you.


AJOS-214x328[1]Excerpted in part from the book:
A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one.  Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor.  This is one journey you don’t want to miss.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.


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13 responses to “Old Tractors and Sustainable Agriculture

  1. We learned fast what great information the old timers passed onto us….all the green-horns who didn’t know a thing but had every idealist goal of growing our own and making it work. We finally found these wise old farmers who actually loved us asking a thousand questions when many of their children & grandchildren didn’t want any part of farming. We understood in time too why many old farmsteads had “parts” laying around (that we found tacky and an eyesore). These farmers used the parts every time something broke. They could piece things together, rig it or know what to trade a neighbor for, Saving the old tractors was a specialty. Often times you’d see one unattended in the middle of a field……just waiting for the right part. No computers, no A/C cabs, no huge tires with 4″ deep tread….just an off-color of the original color but start it up and the noise was like heaven to them. If it wasn’t for many of these old farmers and their tractors – there would be a lot more that have left because things were hard, When I see an old tractor now I honor it & the farmer who kept it running.

    • Yes, old farmers usually love teaching others about farming. It’s a passion that runs in their blood! It’s sad to see the US losing more and more small farmers as the next generation moves on to other pursuits and agri-business moves in. But my heart soars when I think of those sturdy souls who keep truckin’. Their piles of rust are like gold mines and it’s just amazing to watch them walk right up, grab the thing they need without hardly searching and off to the next project! Wonderful!

  2. The best thing about the trusty old tractors is you can fix them when they break down unlike the $100,000 electronic marvels they push today.

  3. progress is fine unless you’re going in the wrong direction. god bless the old tractors and old farmers.

  4. Yep. I’m a farmer in the high desert of southern Colorado by the sand dunes. Growing anything here is like planting seeds in an alka seltzer tablet. A lot of soil remediation is required, and we have great extremes in temps and weather, very hard on machinery. Nothing like what I call heritage farming. We do heritage chickens, heritage turkeys, using heritage equipment, while growing heritage potatoes barley and hay. I was having your exact thoughts the other day myself, as I watched an old tractor turning over the frozen land next to me.

    • Sounds like a difficult place to farm (much like here with the rocks and clay!). But done correctly, these harsh places can be productive. I’ve been reading some great articles on building soil in ACRES USA (a magazine I write for) – incredible stuff!

  5. So glad I’m not alone in my love and respect for the old ways – old farmers, old tractors and good old fashioned ingenuity!

  6. Great article! I’ve shared this on our Facebook page. Old machinery is still very much in use and I agree with the above comments, way easier to fix and to find affordable used tractors and implements (ie balers). This year in Iowa alone, corn and soybean farmers are expected to earn approximately $1.4 billion less compared to the year before. Experts are comparing it to the 1980s farm crisis. Obviously many of these farmers are on a much larger production scale, but saving money on equipment by using/ rebooting old machinery can certainly help!

    • Thanks, Nate. Appreciate the share. My husband grew up on his family’s farm during the Farm Crisis and watched many a farm, and farmer, fall. In his neck of the Midwest a small family farm could be hundreds if not thousands of acres, depending on what the farmer was producing and the type and quality of the land he/she had to work with. But the resourceful farmer will always find a way to repurpose and repair machinery.

  7. Jack Nachamkin

    Wonderful article. I just recharged the 6v battery on my Ford 9-N tractor. I use it for hauling, harvesting, post-hole digging, plowing new ground, etc. It has a personality and charm all its own. Parts are cheap and from the hundreds of the machines lying idle on old farms and in junkyards. In seven years I only fixed fifty-year-old tires, rebuilt the carburetor, and re-gapped/filed the sparkplugs. Most of the machines are almost free for the asking to haul them away. Not many people know that the 4-cylinder engine is identical to the ones on Model-A cars. Old Henry made those high-compression engines to run on either ethanol or gasoline. They were actually detuned to run on gasoline. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks, Jack! I appreciate the encouragement! Love those old tractors – and the 9-N is a good one to be sure! Like you said, you can actually work on a machine like that and keep it going with little difficulty. Looks like you’ve added another generation of use to the one you have. Way to go!

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