When the Back Up Plan to the Back Up Plan Fails

I am “Mr. Plan ‘B.” In fact, I’m a big believer of the necessity of having a ‘Plan C’ and ‘Plan D’ and on and on. We run a CSA and supply 40 families with a weekly basket of our produce during the growing season. I don’t own a tractor but I do own a rototiller. The rototiller is the one internal combustion powered piece of equipment that is essential for our operation. Until I can convince a number of young people to work here for extremely low wages, or I can find a magic elixir that will return my 50+-year-old body and joints to its former teenage vigor, the rototiller isn’t up for negotiation.

When you hear of “no till” farming as an environmental panacea you have to realize that the only way to keep weeds down sufficiently is to nuke the fields with a weed killer like glyphosate. If you’re going to grow organically and hope to able to see your plants over the weeds, you’re going have to till the soil.

Several springs ago the 30-year-old refurbished rototiller that my mom had found for me when we first moved here gave up the ghost. So I compromised my usual “always buy used” principals and bought a new Troybilt rototiller from Canadian Tire. And yes, I earned “Canadian Tire Money” as a reward! Soo Canadian.

It turns out that the tines on new rototillers don’t rotate front to back, pulling the soil back as the tiller moves forward. They do the opposite and as the wheels pull forward the tines rotate backward, pushing the soil ahead as you till. Some soil scientists must have figured out that this is more efficient but it’s not. IT SUCKS! I hate this new rototiller. The first time that I used it I panicked and called the 1-800 number to complain that they’d hooked something up wrong and the tines were going the wrong direction. Of course if I’d read my manual I would have discovered how lucky I was to own such a high tech piece of modern technology.

So I scrambled around, found a $100 engine replacement for my old rototiller, and kept the shiny new one as my backup. Last year I helped my neighbor Ken load up a trailer with scrap metal. He had a 40-year-old rototiller that wasn’t working in the pile of scrap metal. I grabbed it, put a $100 engine on it and it worked great. I was in heaven! Three rototillers! And a backup to my backup plan.

A couple of weeks ago I took the rototillers out of my metal shed to check them out and get them running in time for spring. I got the old tiller started fine but I noticed grease leaking out of the rear transmission housing (the gears which turn the tines). So I thought, well at least I have my brand new one to use until I get my old one fixed. But there was a problem. The newer rototiller wouldn’t start! I tried all the tricks I’ve learned recently to start stubborn small motors. Then I noticed that it was leaking oil out of the front transmission housing (the gears that turn the wheels). Really? It’s only 3 years old and the oil seals are gone already? They’re both Troybilt but I’m pretty confident the oil seals in the 40 year old one are still originals. I certainly haven’t had to replace them in the last 15 years.

And there you have it. No Plan B. No Plan C. And a honkin’ big garden that needs to be tilled. Needless to say it was with great trepidation that I attempted to start up the tiller that I salvaged from Ken’s scrap metal pile last year. Thankfully it started and has no apparent leaks. So I do have a Plan B, for now.


When my mom purchased the old rototiller 16 years ago for me, she actually got the original manual from the guy who sold her the tiller. It’s from 1983. It’s 70 pages long and all English since it was Troybilt in Troy, New York. It not only provides the basic operating instructions, it also provides instructions on how to service the rototiller with photos. It’s so nice to actually be able to see how to change the transmission oil. It even shows you how to completely tear the engine down and rebuild it. You can see every part, what it does and how to remove it.


Then I pulled out the manual that came with my newer Troybilt rototiller. It is 20 pages long and shows you next to nothing. When I called customer service at Troybilt to ask how to get the oil seals off the transmission they said, “Take it to a dealer.” I explained that the nearest dealer is 45 minutes away and in my truck that would cost about $35 in gas, once trip to deliver it and one to pick it up. And also I’d be at the mercy of the dealer to get it fixed in a timely manner. The customer service rep was unmoved by my concerns. It turns out that it has a 4 year warranty, so hopefully the repairs will be covered, but I had to budget half a day to run the darn thing around to get it fixed. I understand stuff breaks, but sometimes I just wish it were easier to figure out how to fix it myself.

Remember in the olden days when you knew someone who could “tear engines down and rebuild them?” People used to change their own oil and do their own repairs. They even liked it. It was gratifying. Now, open up the hood of any car today and try to figure out how anything works. With the latest major auto company recall I remember reading somewhere that a modern car has a ‘million lines of code’ running it. That is so terrifying. I took some programming courses in the 1980s and have spent my life working with computers and when I hear this I find it absolutely terrifying. Do you know how easy it is to write bad code?

When everything seems to be cheaply made and disposable, or is so complicated that only the high priests of technology can fix it, I think society has a problem. I thought I’d simplified my life a lot moving off the grid, but when I look at the inverters and charge controllers and our satellite internet system my head spins. It makes me want to radically simplify. Some day one of these things is going to break and I’ll have to become “pioneer man.” Up at dawn, in bed at dusk and I’ll only grow my own food with hand tools and seed that I have saved. I will cut my firewood by hand and be warm and well fed and exhausted but I will be far removed from the craziness of modern technology.

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Thanks to A.M. for her recent donation and thanks to the ten wonderful people who attended our workshop here on the weekend. As usual, we had a great day and enjoyed meeting all of you! If you are interested in attending one of our workshops, send me an email (michelle at aztext dot com) and I will put you on the list. The next one will take place in the fall.

4 Responses to “When the Back Up Plan to the Back Up Plan Fails”

  • Aaron:

    Hi Cam, I enjoyed this post. I find time and time again that ‘tech support’ personnel only know what is in the same manual you have and cannot provide any insight into helping with your repair. I think you may enjoy this article from James May – http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/oct/31/james-may-diy

  • CJ:

    You just need to run the new one (once fixed) in reverse, then the tines will spin in the right direction.

  • Marilyn:

    The powers that be have determined that we are no longer able to be self-sufficient and that our abilities do not extend to the old tear down and rebuild skills even our parents took for granted. Planned obsolescence in a throw away materialistic world. Keep up the good work Cam and Michelle, I admire you both a great deal. Here is hoping for a great growing season with minimal black flies.

  • Bruce Hampson:

    Hi Cam,

    There used to be a website that had blow ups of just about everything you can think of. Can’t find it anymore. However, Troy-Bilt is owned by MTD and you can get just about any part from them at http://www.mtdparts.com . Hope you get plan B and C back on line. Very frustrating having three plans all fail at once.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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