Why a Tractor Is So Indispensable to a Real Working Farm

Why a Tractor Is So Indispensable to a Real Working Farm

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Mallory Samson
Nov 8, 2014
(Image credit: Mallory Samson)

Many times over the course of the growing season, I have witnessed Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow of Amber Waves Farm, a community organic farm on the East End of Long Island, start and end their days on tractors.

Today we're taking a closer look at the integral role the iconic tractor plays in real-life, day-to-day farming.

Assessing the field before starting the job.
(Image credit: Mallory Samson)

The Importance of a Tractor in Farming

Amanda and Katie vow that tractors are now an indispensable part of their daily farm life and after their first season of growing and cultivating crops by hand, they both agreed that making tractors a part of the crew was the next step in expanding food production for their CSA (community supported agriculture) program.

While much of the farm work is still done by hand (seeding hundreds of thousands of plants, hoeing, and harvesting), the tractors play a pivotal role in plowing and readying the fields for planting in the spring, “cultivating” (farmer speak for killing weeds) throughout the season, shaping beds for planting, pulling the transplanter, spreading fertilizer, harvesting the wheat, pulling the mobile chicken coop, and seeding cover crops to put the soil to rest in the fall.

Early morning stop to refuel before the station gets busy!
(Image credit: Mallory Samson)

When Tractors Are Used

Time on the tractor is solitary work, so the farmers try to do their time in the early and late hours of the day, enabling them to be part of the action with the crew and CSA for most of the day. So on this particular day, I’ve joined the farmers at 6:30am and the cold tractor engines roar to life breaking all calm and silence of the early morning summer stillness. There’s work to be done and the first task is making sure the tractors are fueled up and ready for the day, so I am following the farmers on their trip to the gas station in tow.

The early morning trek is deliberately timed before the single main road through the Hamptons comes to life and the farmers, donning ear protection, take off solidly rumbling down Route 27 at 10mph.

Amanda and Katie laugh when I ask if people are ever surprised to see them out and about in town on their tractors, “Yes, sometimes we’ll see a little boy as we’re driving down the road, we wave, and he’ll look up and be like, “Wow! Tractor! Tractor! Ponytail?!”

Katie on her 1982 Case International 584.
(Image credit: Mallory Samson)

The Two Amber Waves Farm Tractors

Amber Waves has two tractors. Amanda favors the vintage, Allis Chalmers, a mid-seventies behemoth in a fitting vibrant orange. Katie drives the bright red Case International, clinching the quintessential image of a classic farm scene. Each tractor comes with an origin story about the day of their precious acquisitions, which Katie and Amanda tell in rounds, each filling in with pride.

Katie's Case International

The Case International came all the way from the Wengers of Meyerstown, Pennsylvania. Planning, scouting and journeying left them feeling nervous for their first major purchase that held the hope of self-sufficiency. They asked their young tractor salesman, Craig, if he would be comfortable selling the International to his own wife. After a long and thoughtful pause he answered, simply and honestly, “Yes.” They were sold.

Amanda finishes a pass on her 1970s Allis Chalmers (called "Allis" for short around the farm).
(Image credit: Mallory Samson)

Amanda's Allis Chalmers

The Allis (pronounced Alice, like the plucky heroine of Wonderland) was first introduced to Katie and Amanda by neighbor farmer, Alex Balsam of Balsam Farms. Alex is a true ‘tractorphile’ with a large fleet of his own. He urged them to check out the Allis which was up for auction as part of a local collection of a fellow tractor aficionado. There wouldn’t be a chance for Amanda and Katie to take it for a test drive. The auctioneer started the tractor, it roared to life and the auction began. They bid confidently and won! Which meant immediately driving their new tractor off the lot in front of a crowd where they were the only women bidding.

Weights on the front of the tractor help balance a heavy rear load.
(Image credit: Mallory Samson)

Tractor Maintenance

The life of a tractor is calculated in hours, rather than mileage. More so than the year, a tractor’s hours measure how much a tractor has worked in its life and dictates when the tractor is due for maintenance and service. Rather than a tachometer, there is a gauge on the dash measuring hours of operation (imagine if all our lives were measured in working hours?).

Tractors that are three and four decades (and thousands of hours) old break down. A lot. Frank Ruppell (aka “The Wizard”) is one of the only (and the undisputed best) tractor mechanics on the east end and he doesn’t travel. The Wizard is a fair man by all accounts, but as Amanda said, “We want to keep him happy,” which means letting him work on the tractors with no pressure or hurry (he is remarkably quick anyway), trusting his expertise, and paying him on time.

It is no small feat to trailer an inoperable tractor through the Hamptons to Frank’s shop in the height of summer when the equipment is needed most, yet inevitably breaks down. For this transportation the farmers rely on friends of the farm: Pete Ludlow (of Mecox Bay Dairy) and Riley Sullivan — an accomplished mechanic in his own right.

Amanda and Katie work with Mark to adjust spacing on the transplanter wheels.
(Image credit: Mallory Samson)

Hooking Up a Tractor Is Complicated and Time-Consuming

Even when the tractors are in perfect working condition, it takes a team to hook and unhook the many implements (pieces of equipment that attach to the rear of the tractor - the plow, mower, and transplanter among them) meant to carry out a variety of important tasks.

To hook up an implement, the tractor operator must back up with such precision so as to get the tractor’s two 3-point hitch “arms” that lift the equipment within an ⅛th of an inch of their intended target: metal pins on each implement that correspond to the arms.

Hooking up stubborn steel implements often takes many reverse attempts by the driver while the directing, lifting, pushing, leaning, coaxing, kicking, and finally clipping the implement in place is the job of the assistant on the ground. Neighboring Balsam Farms solves this trouble of time spent hooking and unhooking equipment by simply owning a tractor for nearly each of their implements (more than two dozen tractors in total). But at Amber Waves there are only two tillage tractors, and therefore the switching is constant.

Team work! Katie drives the tractor as apprentices learn to use the transplanter by placing seedlings in holes made by the planters two water wheels.
(Image credit: Mallory Samson)

Tractors Represent Growth

Amanda and Katie are proud of what these tractors represent — they show the growth of their farming knowledge. It’s no small feat to work these machines which require respect and extensive training to operate (the Peconic Land Trust gives tractor safety training each year and Katie and Amanda make sure they attend with their apprentices).

Towards the end of the farming season, each of the farm’s apprentices has the opportunity to learn basic tractor operation and help complete some fall tractor work. To the crew of Amber Waves Farm, the tractors are not mere noisy hunks of metal; they are machines of pride.

And to those who have farmed without them, they are time machines. Jobs that once took hours by hand or happened weeks too late because of delayed borrowed equipment are now executed with model efficiency. Back at the gas station, Katie and Amanda top off the diesel with one last squeeze of the pump and take the tractor parade back to the farm to begin another day of work in the fields.

A New Generation on the Farm is a season-long exploration of the work at Amber Waves Farm, and it is a partnership between The Kitchn, photographer Mallory Samson, and the Peconic Land Trust. Founded in 1983, the Peconic Land Trust conserves Long Island’s working farms, natural lands, and heritage. This is the first in a series about first generation farmers the Trust is working with to ensure that protected farmland is used for farming on Long Island’s East End.

Photographer: Mallory Samson

Mallory Samson is a storyteller who uses photographs. Mallory was a former Fashion Editor at J. Crew and Photography Editor at Nike. Mallory’s photographs have appeared in numerous magazines and she has authored two books featuring her photographs. Mallory has been a professional photographer for 17 years and lives in Southampton, New York.

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