Farming With Junk: A rumination on fidelity

At dawn I fired up my old Ford farm tractor. It is three years older than I am and the same age as my wife, who has weathered the decades far better than it has. Various fluids leak out when it is parked or running. The power steering works only occasionally. The engine runs hot if it has worked too hard or too long, and sometimes it tries to keep running even after the ignition is shut off. Most of the gauges have long since ceased to function.

Likewise, my AGCO manure spreader predates me by a decade or two. It is held together by bailing wire, spreads as much manure through the rotted floorboards as by the beaters and breaks almost every time I use it, requiring that I shovel it out by hand for repairs. My lawn tractor throws sparks when the blades scrape the bent mowing deck. My brush hog now has more welded patches than original metal. And I am the only person in the vicinity who can get my weed trimmer started and keep it running. Like many of the small farmers I know, I farm with junk.

The tractor engine caught and sputtered, needing more choke, belched a cloud of blue-grey oil smoke from worn valve guide seals and finally smoothed out into a slow idle. With a complaining whine of hydraulic pumps and squealing of worn brakes, the rusty old machine took me and my chainsaw down into the woods to drag out logs for firewood.


In spite of their ragged appearance and general tiredness, my machines still do their work, even if not as quickly or as well as they used to. My old tractor still mows hay; pulls a plow, disk and rototiller; frees stuck pickup trucks; and starts pretty much every time I need it to. I still have a barn to park it in, unlike my neighbor Jack, whose barn almost burned down when his old Allis-Chalmers tractor spontaneously short-circuited, sending sparks that ignited a nearby pile of straw.

Farmers, even romantic ones, are by necessity a practical and pragmatic folk. Small-scale farming like ours is often a break-even enterprise at best, so while most of us would love brand-new equipment, we simply cannot afford it. We cannot even afford the time or cash to make all of the repairs we would like on our old equipment. So we limp along and make the best out of what we have.

Unlike another neighbor of mine, who can make a new machine old within a season, I recognize the limits of my equipment, which was old when I bought it. I try to be easy on it, not ask more of it than it can deliveras I would with an elderly person walking gingerly on a trick knee or a weak hip. In fact, my fleet of aging machines reminds me of an elder-care facility. Like a good orderly bringing meal trays and changing bedpans, I dutifully check and change oils and filters, grease fittings, sharpen blades and weld or replace many broken parts. Like an older man always ready to volunteer information about his current medical maladies, organizing his time around pill schedules and doctors appointments, I keep a running inventory in my head of my machines various ailments and handicaps.

My inventory has three columns. The first is critical or code red; it includes all the interventions necessary to get the equipment to run another day. You cannot shrug off a flat tire or broken water pump any more than you can keep going about your day after a heart attack.

The second column is the longer-term, strategic repairs and maintenance, like replacing leaking seals instead of continually adding more hydraulic fluid or rebuilding my wheezing tractor engine. These things, like recommendations to diet and exercise for longer life and better health, I attend to in fits and starts. As often as not, unfortunately, the leaky seal does not get replaced until it has become the blown sealjust like the person who waits until after bypass surgery to get serious about eating right and going to the gym.

Of course, theres the third column, my wish list, my non-urgent, non-essential, postpone-able, wouldnt-it-be-nice-if list. Wouldnt it be nice to sandblast and repaint the old tandem disk? Wouldnt it be nice to get a new tractor seat, even if the old torn one still holds my rear end? I dont think Ive ever gotten to anything on this list. My equipment is aged and tired; why try to hide it? Why ask it to be anything but what it is: proudly and unapologetically old?

I wont lieif a pile of money fell into my lap, I would likely do my farming quite happily with a brand-new, turbo-diesel, four-wheel-drive tractor and shiny new implements. But necessity, pragmatism and the lack of an inheritance or winning lotto ticket are not the only things keeping old junk equipment going on my farm and the farms of my neighbors. Perhaps on some level we feel that they dont make em like they used to, that newer is not necessarily better. We pride ourselves on the ability to keep things together with bailing wire, duct tape and crossed fingers, rather than computer diagnostics, specialty tools and factory training.

For all our practicality, I suspect that one of the less-admitted reasons we keep old equipment around is that we have grown attached to it, even as it rusts away. On the deepest level I think we realizeor fancythat our equipment has been faithful to us and deserves the same from us. To be a good farmer demands fidelity, a degree of patience and commitment that seems out of vogue in a culture always fascinated with the future and the next new thing. We farmers deal with very old things: the ageless cycle of seasons and uncertain weather, the necessary bonds of family and community and the land itself the source and sustenance of all living things, which might build an inch of topsoil over a thousand years but lose it to carelessness and erosion in just a few.

And what or who, after all, does not get old? We all run down; we all live within ever-encroaching limits of time or energy or health. So how do we respond to this undeniable fact? Do weas farmers and as a societypretend we can run and hide from mortality, finitude and age? Do we hide wrinkles or rust, constantly trade in our spouses or our equipment for younger models, look the other way from anyone or anything whose age and infirmity remind us of our own inevitable decline and demise?

Or do we pledge fidelity to the old thingsand old peoplethat have given us much over a long life? Do we recognize that they might still have some life left in them and contributions to make, even as they get crotchety and need more attention and care, even as they struggle with incontinence of mechanical or bodily fluids? Do we honor these long lives and accompany them to the scrap heap or the grave with thanksgiving and gentleness? Do we show a little mercy and tender affection in the hope that as we age, break down and become less able, others might show us the same?

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