Arguably smart phones are the most important technology of our lifetimes, and they have become globally ubiquituous. They have probably reshaped our economy and society more than any invention since the automobile. But in many ways, they are more similar to another revolutionary 4-wheeled technology that few people give much thought to anymore…the farm tractor.
Smart phones can be used as telephones, of course. But since they can emails and texts, they are a much more versatile tool for communication. And “phones” also perform numerous other tasks — from checking the weather to guiding you when you’re driving — and can be customized via apps to do hundreds of other jobs.
Similarly, a farm tractor is a vehicle with four wheels, an engine, and a steering wheel. But that’s about all it shares in common with a car or pickup truck, and it has numerous features that even the most tricked out automobile does not. Like a semi-truck (also called a tractor), a farm tractor can pull many thousands of pounds thanks to special gearing and an engine designed for power instead of speed. That load can be a trailer loaded with crops, but it also can be one of many tools. Some are on wheels but others, such as plows and harrows, are dragged through or on the soil — creating a tremendous amount of resistance that would rip any other vehicle to pieces.
But dragging heavy implements is probably the least amazing thing your average farm tractor can do. They are also equipped with an auxiliary driveshaft that can power another piece of equipment. Called a “Power Take Off”, or PTO for short, this driveshaft sticks out of the back of the tractor and can be attached to a mower, a tiller, a sprayer or any other tool that would otherwise require its own engine. The tractor simultaneously pulls and powers the machine.
And the PTO is not the only mechanism by which a tractor can provide auxiliary power to an implement. All vehicles, including the car you drive, use a system of liquid oil pumped through pipes to accomplish tasks like braking and steering by operating pistons. This is referred to as “hydraulic power”, as opposed to “engine power”. But unlike a car, a farm tractor has external outlets that can be connected to other pieces of equipment, much like the way you can plug an extension cord into your house to use its electrical supply to power a vacuum cleaner.
Like a car or truck, a farm tractor has a simple “pull” hitch that can attach to a trailer tongue. But it also has an entirely different and unique system to attach to implements that need to be lifted up and down in order to transport them. Called a “Three-point Hitch”, it features two lower arms and one upper arm that attach via a system of simple pins that are secured with clips. Equipment that is lifted with the tractor three-point hitch have a standardized, matching assembly on the front. Using this system, multiple pieces of machinery can be easily and connected and disconnected from the tractor in minutes.
As a technology, farm tractors have single-handedly enabled a tremendous economic shift in developed countries. A hundred years ago, a majority of Americans worked in agriculture — mostly doing back-breaking work that is now obsolete. That labor has now been replaced by tractors, and less than 2% of U.S. residents currently work on farms.
Of course, agricultural tractors currently run on fossil-fuel powered engines and it is commonly assumed by most people that they are a large contributor to climate change. The scientific analysis is far more nuanced. For example, it actually takes fewer fossil fuels to produce a pound of wheat, for example, then it did in the 1970s. That’s simply because tractor technology has advanced. On the flip side, by producing more food with fewer people, agriculture enabled human population to grow far beyond what subsistence or human-powered agriculture could have sustained.
For farmers, there are currently few alternatives to fossil-fuel powered tractors. While a few electric tractors have come onto the market, they are not powerful enough to accomplish most farm tasks. And battery technology does not exist yet that would enable a full shift to electric. The most likely substitute for fossil fuel power will be hydrogen, but that technology is still decades away for agriculture.
Here at Terra Firma, we have a fleet of over a dozen tractors (only one is electric). And with our wide diversity of both orchard and field crops, we have over 50 implements that allow us to reduce the human labor that it takes us to grow everything. We use tractor-powered machinery to prepare the soil, plant our crops, weed, and harvest them, as well as for a dozen other tasks. As I write this, I can see two of our staff using one tractor to load heavy tomato stakes onto another tractor that drives them into the ground using hydraulic power.
And it’s pretty amazing to see how much work we can accomplish with a small amount of fuel in a short amount of time. For example, to mow the weeds in 10 acres of orchard takes 8 hours and about 5 gallons of diesel. Doing that job with a backyard lawnmower would not only take 100 times longer, but likely use several times more fuel.
In certain corners of social media and the internet right now, it’s fashionable to talk about small-scale, human-powered agriculture as being a solution to climate change and a viable alternative to fossil-fuel powered farming. To me, that idea has about as much chance of success as convincing people to abandon their smart phones and email in favor of land lines and writing letters.