We’re not Luddites here at Terra Firma, despite being organic farmers. As you all are probably aware, we take full advantage of the latest computer technology whenever possible to help make our business more efficient. As I write this, we are installing our first ever computer inside the TFF packing shed so that our CSA Packing Manager Jonathan doesn’t have to walk 100 ft. to the office to get the latest version of the daily packing reports.

And yet computers are showing up in places on the farm they were never meant to be. Like our newest tractor, a 2009 New Holland that we rely on to do all the heaviest work on the farm. It’s in the shop right now — been there for over a week, actually. The transmission needs adjusting. But it seems that the laptop that the mechanics use to diagnose the problem can’t communicate with the six computers inside the tractor. And they can’t figure out why. So they sent an email to the manufacturer’s technical support staff asking for help. They haven’t heard back yet. Sound familiar?

I confess that when we purchased this tractor, I somehow didn’t ask if it had any computers in it, much less six of them. None of our other tractors do — and by the way, they are all running just fine right now. When they do break, we can usually fix them ourselves — without a computer. Since tractor mechanics generally charge upwards of $100 per hour — a lot more than anyone on our farm makes — this is a very real way for us to save money.

Most people know that computers don’t like dust. Dust attracts moisture, and moisture causes corrosion. A single corroded electrical connection can cause disaster. Even the oldest tractors on our farm — those with the fewest electric parts — regularly break down due when a corroded connection fails.

Dust is abundant on farms, but it’s not the only threat to electricity-dependent machinery. In the last few years, we have spend over ten thousand dollars fixing forklifts, trucks and tractors with short circuits, melted solenoids and fried computers. The cause? Rodents chewing on wiring in and around engine compartments and dashboards during cold and wet winter months. Ironically, the best outcome in this situation is for the vehicle to catch on fire, since insurance will replace a burned up vehicle but not pay for repairs to rodent damage.

Unfortunately, few manufacturers still make tractors without complicated electronics including computers. “Performance” is part of the reason, as computers increase fuel efficiency and power — when they are new, these high-tech tools work beautifully. Environmental standards also play a role, as the government tightens the rules on diesel emissions. But these benefits also provide convenient cover for the manufacturers to guarantee themselves a source of income for the life of the tractor. The software that mechanics must use to fix the tractors is only available from the manufacturer, and they charge a hefty fee for using their “intellectual property”.

Like desktop and laptop computers, tractors are now becoming more expensive to repair than to fix when they break. Even as recently as 1995, you could expect to keep a tractor running essentially forever — the repair costs might never become so significant that you would save money by replacing the tractor. Now, a single bad wire hidden deep in the guts of the tractor can render it a piece of junk.

Maintaining and repairing machinery is a generally unrecognized component of ecological sustainability — the “reuse” in the three “r”s — and the people who do it are stewards of the environment. Most of the farmers I know take great pride in their ability to keep a tractor running for decades and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from diagnosing and fixing a problem. Not in waiting for an email back from tech support.



Editor’s Note, Part Two:

Thanks to subscribers who offered more suggestions about the newsletter archive. We are currently working with our website designer to add a newsletter archive function so that the content will be stored on our own site in addition to on Constant Contact. This should allow subscribers to search for newsletters or articles more efficiently. I will let you know as soon as we get this feature up and running.

In Your Boxes

Thanks to everyone who responded last week’s question about the quantity of Asparagus in your boxes. We got your message loud and clear — if we have any subscribers who don’t like asparagus, they kept their opinions to themselves. Medium and Large boxes get two bunches this week.

The timing couldn’t be better. Late March is never an abundant time at TFF, but production in our vegetable fields this year is the lowest we can ever remember it. Other local growers who we sometimes trade or buy vegetables from when we are short are in the same situation. Asparagus is the one exception.

Cabbage in your boxes this week is the last of our fall-planted crop. The field has been turned over to the sheep to graze the residue, but we were happy to get one last harvest off of it first. The heads are small, but the leaves are incredibly mild and tender — almost like iceberg lettuce in texture but with tons more vitamins and minerals.

You will also find a bag of Pistachios in your boxes this week, and next week you’ll get Walnuts.

As we go into April, we’ll really need some drier weather to help us get you some Snap Peas and Strawberries. Both crops are almost ready to start harvesting, but constant rain like we’re having this week will cause lots of problems for both. Keep your fingers crossed.