Keeping Things Running Down on the Farm
IN 1986, MY GIRLFRIEND and I bought an 88-acre dairy farm in Greenville, in western Orange County. We packed our few belongings into an old Dodge Dart and left the canyon lands of New York City for what was then unquestionably "the country." It was a life-changing move.
In those days, Greenville had a population of about 2,500 and 10 working dairy farms. Black-and-white Holstein cows were a natural part of the scenery. Farming was the dominant industry. Motorists were slowed down on the roads by tractors pulling hay wagons, mowing equipment or manure spreaders. An Agway store a couple of miles from our place carried fertilizer, pesticides, barbed wire and miscellaneous tools.
Today, Greenville's population has grown to around 5,000, but the number of dairy farms has dropped to one. Where cows once grazed, now there are mostly houses with large lawns. Very few of the occupants of these new homes work here. The Agway is long gone. The town has essentially become a bedroom community.
Though my girlfriend (now wife) and I purchased an old dairy farm, it was not because we intended to milk cows. She kept her teaching job, and the plan was for me to try my hand at growing vegetables, herbs, fruit—whatever might prosper—for market. Though I started with virtually no horticultural knowledge, my heart was in it 100 percent. By chance rather than plan, I started farming just as the buy-local food wave was forming, so the new path turned out to be a good one to follow.
Over the past three decades, interest in and demand for local and organic products has increased exponentially, and so has our acreage in production. In the early years, a small tractor, plow and disk were all I needed to plant an acre or two of vegetables; now, with the help of a good crew, we grow 16 acres of field crops every year, using three tractors and an assortment of mowing, tilling, planting and cultivating equipment, most of it purchased second-hand at farm auctions. It's solid stuff, but it requires maintenance and repair, and therein lies a problem.
With the loss of the farms from our town, there has been an attendant loss of people with knowledge and expertise—people with the kind of know-how that can keep an old tractor running or weld a broken implement (or fabricate a new one) to make some aspect of field work a little easier. The fact that I've always been a somewhat mechanically challenged person only compounds the problem for us.
For the past several years, I've depended heavily on three individuals for help. John, about 70 and retired, has spent most of his life around farm equipment and enjoys a mechanical challenge. Bud, a few years younger but close to retirement, runs a small auto repair shop about a mile from the farm. Both of these men have heart conditions and other age-related ailments (as do I), but they've always been willing to lend a hand in times of need. The third, Dave, probably in his mid-50s, is the only man I know who can change the thousand-pound tire on our big John Deere 4040 tractor—and he's done it more than once. (In the early stage of a blizzard one winter afternoon, he worked for two hours in a field behind our barn to repair a slightly smaller flat tire on our midsize John Deere 2350 tractor. Had he waited 'til the next day, the tractor would have been partially buried under two feet of snow.)
In 2017, John did the lion's share of our machinery maintenance and repair right here on the farm. Between doctor's visits, he put a new valve cover on the 4040 and a new clutch and fuel injector in the 2350. He replaced leaky hydraulic lines on both tractors, along with a drag disk. He modified and improved an old potato digger. He replaced a cracked bearing in a manure spreader that we use for mulching garlic. He fashioned a new gasket for our rototiller to stem an oil leak. He replaced points and spark plugs and cleaned the fuel filter on our smaller Allis Chalmers tractor (built in the 1960s but still our most reliable machine)—now it purrs like a content, if elderly, cat.
Each of these jobs called for correct diagnosis of a problem and knowledge of what parts were needed. Also required was much bending, bodily contortion and knuckle-bruising wrench work to disassemble and reassemble often heavy pieces of machinery. Replacing the clutch in the 2350 first required that the 8,000-pound tractor be drained of transmission and hydraulic fluid, then literally split in half and supported with various jacks and blocks. The broken clutch assembly, which weighed some 40 or 50 pounds, had to be carefully pried loose and removed. Installing the new one was no easy task, either, since everything had to line up perfectly.
On a Wednesday morning a few years back, the phone rang. Our market-transport vehicle, a Mitsubishi box truck, was broken down at the farmers' market in Manhattan. After the sinking feeling that comes with such a dreaded call (not the first I've had), I allowed a moment of consolation—at least the truck had made it to market and we could sell our load of vegetables. But, how to get it running again and back to the farm?
"A tractor that won't start or a broken down delivery truck can spell disaster for a small farmer."
I asked the driver to describe the symptoms immediately prior to the breakdown and passed these on to Bud, who made a few suggestions. But the engine refused to start. I called repair shops in New York City, but no mechanic was available on such short notice. Increasingly anxious, I called tow companies, but none would pull a large truck 75 miles across state lines. At 5PM, I called Bud one more time. He listened to me for a couple of minutes (no doubt detecting my desperation), then said, "Keith, you drive me to the City and I'll get that truck running for you."
Two hours later, with New York City traffic hurtling by, Bud took all of 20 minutes to figure out the problem—a broken accelerator cable—and another 20 minutes to fashion a piece of wire to get the truck running. He drove it, slowly, back to his garage in Greenville while I followed in my pickup. The next day, he obtained a new cable and installed it. Problem solved.
Men like Bud and John and Dave remember the days when there were more cows than houses, and they know that a tractor that won't start or a broken down delivery truck can spell disaster for a small farmer. Without them, when something breaks down on the farm or on the road, I'd be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. I am immensely grateful for their rough good humor, their remarkable skills and their willingness to help.
Luckily for me and other small farmers like me, there are still a few men like them in town, but they are a vanishing breed. What will happen when they are gone?