Diary of an Organic Farm Apprentice: Plow Deep and Straight and Don’t Cut Corners


The purr of the engine was just right; she was revved up, but steady, absent of rattles, changes in pitch and overexertion. I had the throttle at 20,000 RPMs in B3, one of 12 gears on the 125-horsepower John Deere tractor. Fox told me one giveaway that you’re an amateur on a tractor is the consistency of the engine throttle. Newbies tend to use the foot throttle, which bobs up and down with all of the machine’s bouncing, while more seasoned operators know to use the hand throttle to stay steady. The handle throttle is an adjustment after 10 years of driving a car. Tractor operation is certainly something to be learned slowly, but it’s good to know veteran tricks.

Though tractors are big and loud and “nothing runs like a Deere,” keep in mind that we’ve only been using them since 1892 when John Froelich designed the first gasoline tractor. It wasn’t until 1949 that John Deere came out with the first diesel, the Model “R.” They’re finicky creatures, and I call them creatures because they are literally the neediest, most susceptible and moody tools on a farm (even more emotional than pigs).

Tractors are even more emotional than pigs.

Far from perfected, tractors love to break, especially at the height of the season a day before a two-week rain storm. Rev her too high and you’ll be bobbing all the way down the field, which is hard on the engine. “If the ride is hard on you and you’re bouncing a lot, it’s definitely too hard on the tractor,” Fox advised during one of my first lessons on disking a 20-acre pasture. Don’t rev her high enough and your implement won’t do its job. “Should I rev down and shift into a higher gear?” I thought. “Nope, that will be too fast for my implement.”

Maintaining the perfect equilibrium of air intake and fuel, I lowered my implement, the tool mounted to the back of my tractor. On this day in March my weapon of choice was the disc harrow or discs, several rows of concave, offset steel discs with cutting edges mounted to a large frame. They sit on a set of wheels and connect to the three-point hitch on the back of the tractor. You can raise and lower them with a lever next to the seat. Discs are a form of secondary tillage that chop up unwanted crop remains, incorporate cover crops, or turn over new land. For Fox’s lesson, I had to disk a pasture undergoing a renovation aimed at improving drainage and eradicating a nasty plow pan. Disking was just one step of many.

I made sure I was in gear, checked my seat belt, leaned forward, and braced myself. I don’t think tractors were designed for 5-foot, two-inch women, because the safety weight indicator light often went off while I bounced on the seat. The tractor even turned off once, and I thought I broke it. I really could have used a telephone book or two. I knew as soon as I popped off the clutch that it was full-speed ahead. Never trust the brakes to stop you on a tractor; it doesn’t work that way.

Driving a tractor might seem boring, but there is a lot going through my head while I drive. First of all, how is that throttle speed I decided on? Am I going fast enough? Is my implement deep enough to break up clumps of soil? Is the pitch or tilt of the implement correct? Once I’m settled behind the wheel, I balance my attention from front to back, leaning over my right shoulder to routinely check my implement. Is the path ahead clear of rocks? Do I have to quickly pick up my implement and put it back down to avoid one? Do I have enough room to turn around at the end of the row? Is my bucket lifted high enough so that I won’t hit the deer fence when I turn around? And on top of all that, am I driving straight?

Sean from the HOG Farm reassured me on my first day disking there that perfectly straight rows are not an absolute necessity during the first disc run. The fields will most likely see another disking, a manure spreader, a fertilizer spreader, spader, seeder, or roller in their near future. Shaping beds or direct seeding an area that will be mechanically cultivated requires more precision. One way to drive straight is pick a far spot on the horizon and focus. I usually find a bent tree limb or curvy fence post. Another way is to line up your tire with the previous pass’ tread. This ensures your pathway widths are all the same and you don’t end up with inconsistent bed sizes. But of course, it’s never perfect.

Flashback to Shelter Island, as I approached the end of the field I was disking. “Here we go,” I thought as I simultaneously finished the straight row, turned the tractor, picked up my implement, avoided crashing into a tree, and managed to stay throttled up. I couldn’t wait to show Fox how fluid I had become by the end of the day.

I couldn’t wait to talk to him and Julia again either! It might sound stupid, but the most immediate difference between last season’s fieldwork and this season’s tractor work is the solitude. A farm the size of the HOG Farm or Sylvester Manor’s back pastures requires a lot of tractor work. Sometimes you work alone for hours without talking to anyone but yourself or the occasional osprey paying a visit from above. The only work-songing I’ll be doing is solo, if I can hear myself over the engine and get past the constant stream of exhaust fumes. Bring on the solo ballads, Bennett!

Don’t get me wrong, I love it. And I am learning so much in my new role. But it’s something to consider when contemplating working on a larger scale. Luckily at the HOG Farm I still do lots of other work, like helping set up the new greenhouses, weeding, and harvesting when the time comes. I’m so relieved I got to learn about tractors from Fox and Julia this winter. They have operated just about every machine imaginable and definitely didn’t skimp on the safety bits. I’m also grateful to be able to contribute my new confidence and skills to the HOG Farm this season.  (Sean and I are still trying to find the perfect gear and RPMs for the manure spreader). Come July I’m sure I’ll be thankful for the break from weeding and come to appreciate the cushy seat of the tractor.