By Seth Douglas of Lemonade Springs Farm
The question of equipment and capital, it seems to me, is really a question of what decisions you make about your daily work and your financial equilibrium and why you make them. Questions we ask regarding both tools used and money spent (both whose and how much) are those of means and ends- what will the application of a particular sort of funding or a tool mean to the possible success or failure of the farm, how much labor will be eased because of it, what will be further necessary to add as a consequence, etc. Tools shape the user, as well as the farm. Nothing is neutral.
I’ve always been told that debt is the death of small farms and farmers. There’s some truth to this across generations and locales, but this is, unfortunately, the Actually Existing Capitalism of debt-financed America, and without significant saving or lucrative off-farm work, it’s hard to avoid credit.
I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I’m an old-fashioned, reactionary, megatechnics hating anarchist loath to hand money over to the usurious death-trip that is global finance. On the other, I partially own a debt-financed tractor, and have been frequently dependent on the patronage and credit of well-meaning family and friends, as well as banks. The necessities of marketplace existence come crashing in quick and merciless upon my ideological niceties.
For example, Kubota and I own a tractor. It’s a good tractor, and I like it, although I was not given a free hat when I purchased it, a lapse that still has me somewhat salty. Our farm is predominately a one-person farm, especially as far as the row-crops are concerned. The tractor allows me to work the fields alone. It let’s me put in straight, even rows, and one day soon, will allow me to quickly cultivate and weed beds without doing anything more challenging than sitting. It allows one of us alone to move pallets of grain around the farm, turn and spread compost, and move pig and chicken housing through pastures in all weather and seasons. It has more than once rescued a truck from the mud. I love my tractor, y’all. This is naked emotion, right here.
The tractor represents a significant economizing force on a farm often strapped for sufficient labor to get everything done. Nearly all aspects of the farm are in some way or other reliant on its use. It is also the most expensive thing I have ever purchased, and that expense is compounded by the fact that it’s not usable alone- a tractor by itself is a very slow, rather loud way to drive from one place to another. For each task performed, the tractor demands further investments of capital into additional implements specific to it, and with each new implement’s purchase, I’ve made the tractor more essential around the farm. That shapes our farm layout; it shapes our daily routines; it shapes our relationship with our farm. On the balance, I’d say it does so for the better, but that is unique to us, and each farm will answer that question differently.
We bought our tractor new, at no interest, with the down-payment we would have likely spent on a used tractor. That initial money came from our savings, and we’ve managed since to pay the annual dues by way of our farm’s cash flow. In making that decision, we considered the necessity of the tractor as a labor saving tool on our farm; the lack of available cash necessary to buy an ultimately cheaper used tractor that would likely be reliable; and the lack of time, money, and specialized knowledge available to us to spend fixing potential problems with an older used tractor we could afford outright. Thus arose our increased likelihood of winding up in debtor’s prison.
A farm has to be manageable to be successful; the right tools and the right balance of funding help achieve that. It’s always easy to just do the extra work and not spend the money, since the one is usually free and the other is hard to come by. That can be foolish, though, and can as often lead to failed farms as can overextending your finances. You will have to buy tools, many very expensive. The point is to be smart about it. We built our own chicken-plucker and processing equipment, built all our buildings and greenhouses ourselves, and accumulate piles of metal and lumber scrap like magpies. Last year, we dealt with refrigeration by means of two household fridges; this year, with an expanding business, we were able to get a disused walk-in at an affordable price from a neighboring farm and get it running.
You take it slow, when you start from nothing- you take the time to patiently build up what equipment is available to you, starting at the most essential place. One day, you look up, and you’ve built a farm. Even without a free hat.