Skylar the Surrogate Tractor

Michelle’s Note: Sorry for the lack of posts. Last week was week #1 for our CSA. The first weeks are always the hardest as we organize what we need to pick, wash, weigh and package and figure out how we are going to get it all to of our members.

If you have ever read a Mother Earth News magazine you’ll know that the cliché thing for people to do when they move to the country is to buy a tractor. Oh, and get a horse. It’s just what you do. Most newly arrived country folk don’t really know what they need a tractor for, but they buy one anyway.  It must be true because the magazine is full of ads for small tractors. They are ubiquitous.

When people ask me if I have any regrets about moving to the country and/or living off the grid, I tell them that I regret not buying a tractor! We had a bit of money left over when we sold our city home and bought our country property, so I could have bought a tractor then.  I just didn’t know what I was going to do with it, and Michelle and I have always tried to be logical about spending money so it didn’t make any sense to buy a tractor. Besides I love the work, so who needs one?

If we had bought a tractor I think I would probably be about 25 pounds heavier. I also think my back and joints would be in way better shape, so it’s kind of a trade off. I went the “all you can eat pie” route and did all of the heavy work manually. And it’s a tough regret to have. Although I’ll never regret the pies, so I’m happy. The other day Michelle made me a raspberry pie (using our raspberries from the freezer) and it was on the dining room table, under a glass dome. I made the comment that nothing brings me more joy than seeing a pie sitting on our table. Michelle said “It’s the simple things,” and I hope she was referring to the little pleasures that bring us happiness as opposed to the little world I seem to live in.

Last fall I got a load of horse manure dumped in the garden and this spring I had to move it. I’ve been working away at it but it turns out that 10 cubic yards is a lot of manure! Recently there was a reporter here from the local paper interviewing me as the local Green Party candidate. When she wanted to take a photo I said, “Well I spend most of my day shoveling manure right now so we could use that for the photo” but we decided the optics for a politician to make such a statement weren’t too great.

Recently in a moment of exhaustion and panic I told Michelle I was going to have to cash in the last of my retirement fund and buy a tractor. And yes, that’s how small the fund is! She was onside. It’s a big step and we looked at the pros and cons but we started to research a “compact” small tractor.

I often panic in times like these and Michelle just waits for common sense to prevail. We periodically borrow our neighbor Ken and Alyce’s tractor and they are most gracious to lend it to us, so we don’t want to overstep the boundaries of good neighborliness. When I look at how much stuff I’d use a tractor for, I have to be logical about how much we’d be investing in it and how much time it would spend sitting idle.

About this time we got a response from an ad that we had placed in the local paper looking for a student to help out on the farm. There had been very little response to the ad, part of the challenge being that distances are so great in the country the economics of driving a teenager to a low paying job doesn’t work out. But Skylar called and wanted to give it shot so he arrived one Sunday morning. We cleared some brush then set about the manure pile. He filled the wheelbarrows and I hauled them through the muddy soil and spread it. We went at it pretty hard and kept up a good pace. We would stop periodically and do something less strenuous then we’d get back to it. And Skylar just kept plugging along. Skylar had become my tractor stand in!

He plays football so I was happy to push him. I just kept reminding him of how hard weight room work is when you’re training for a physical sport.

Minimum wage in Ontario is $10.30/hour for students. So we pay Skylar about $50 plus lunch for 5 hours of hard work and he seems happy and we are very happy. No fossil fuels were burned while we worked and muscle mass was built up. I was happy I could keep up with a 16-year-old for 5 hours of slogging. And the next day I had the opportunity to get 3 trailer loads full of manure from our neighbours Ken and Alyce, and so I spent a second day in the horsesh*t throwing department.  The next day I decided to spend the day doing lighter work in the garden and writing some blog posts. I’m not saying I was tired, I’m just saying you can only convert so much pie energy into physical effort.

At one point as I worked away I became really aware of the birds. They are very chatty at this time of year and there were so many different calls. And there was a lovely breeze blowing through greening up after the longest most brutal winter, EVER! And all was right with the world. That pathetic excuse for a retirement plan remains untouched, and basically useless, but it just doesn’t seem to matter. My public school friend Teddy King who died prematurely doesn’t get to spend another day outside in weather like this. My buddy Brian who put his head down on his desk at work and died of an aneurysm isn’t working up a sweat and soaking up the sun on a glorious day like this. Nope, if this is how I have to spend my days until I keel over in the potato patch, I’m pretty okay with that. I just hope that if that is the way I go, I won’t have just spread fresh manure on it, or it won’t be pretty for Michelle to have to drag me out of it. Hopefully we’ll have a tractor by then and she can use the hydraulic bucket (which apparently I’ll just have kicked!)

Skylar has come back to work for one day most weekends and he continues to help me to tackle the big, heavy jobs that never seem to end around here. No doubt you’ll be hearing more about Skylar as I write about all of the tasks that have been keeping me busy!

(These photos of Cam spreading manure were taken at the end of April. Things are MUCH greener now!)

cam shoveling manuremanure2






9 Responses to “Skylar the Surrogate Tractor”

  • Jim:

    Just reflecting on hearing things in the quietness of the countryside…..Last weekend I could hear the rustling of a whirlwind (like a mini tornado but very small) moving across the corn paddock of our neighbour’s place. I live up on a slope 100m from the road, then another 100m to the corn crop with a river in between. Not that it is much of a river. In the 11 years I have lived here I have only seen the water from our house twice when it was in flood and spreading across the river flats opposite. Any other time you have to stand on the bank and peer down into it to see water. In fact last summer it went dry and stayed like that for 7 months until just a few weeks ago when all of a sudden it started flowing again….without rain. Maybe the rain is coming one day.
    Then this morning I could hear foxes (feral) calling out in the corn paddock, maybe chasing rabbits or hares.

  • Jim:

    Hi Cam And Michelle. It is hard work having to move that much material. I took delivery of 16 cubic metres of chook manure and 14 cubic metres of wood chips to use around my garden and it is all uphill to place it there. So I use my garden ride on mower with a small garden trailer. It holds about 3 wheel barrows equivalent. That is good to save the muscles and energy both which I don’t have just to be able to eat fresh home grown fruit and vegies all year round.
    When I was a student and 20 years old my work job paid $10 for a ten hour day ($1 per hour) and I supplied my own lunch and would cycle up to 10 kilometres each way before and after just to get the work.
    Isn’t it great to be able to listen to the birds and animals when you don’t have any other noises around. We have plenty here and I can even tell the change of the season when the different birds arrive or leave. Sometimes it is odd to hear the odd one out when obviously something beyond our understanding has happened. That bird should have long moved on before the next variety arrives and so on. This past autumn we also saw several of our spring flowering trees throwing up flowers so the seasons are out of whack at times. Nature knows though.
    Hope you can find the tractor you need.

  • I am partial to the John Deere model M, I enjoyed it the most of my Dad’s tractors , but I would suggest a 420 would probably be better because it comes with a 3 Point hitch.
    The 2 Cylinder JD’s are economical, rugged and simple to maintain and with a bit of luck will not cost a lot.
    Right not you are spending $10 hr on labour. Flat out you will spend maybe that much on fuel (possibly less – there may be some substitutes for fuel for farms ) but you would get a lot more work done, it would be avail when you needed it and you could recoup the capital by selling it for most like the same price when you no longer need it.
    Save your body, it will not last forever.

  • Bruce Hampson:

    I have a garden tractor that I wouldn’t trade for the world. It has moved 2000 lb rocks and probably more, plowed the driveway snow and cut an acre of weeds too often. Ours cost about $4000 and has a 13 hp engine. I just wish I had have bought the Princess Auto power excavator as well. Sure would have saved a lot of hand and back work. Right now I have to screen about 20 tandem loads of topsoil so I’m building a powered screener. The tractor will move it and place it with the trailer. A couple of years ago we hired a boy for the summer to clear 3 acres of rocks and stones by hand after I harrowed it. Best money my back ever spent. I think I need some of that pie power now.

  • John:

    Hi Cam & Michelle
    Would love you to research small tractors and then pass your research along to us through this blog. I have been researching and I am presently torn between a Kubota or a Kiota. However I am stil not sure and felt it is a lot of money to pay and then maybe not be happy down the road with my decision. Sooo I respect your opinion on all things country and would love any feedback you are willing to share.

  • I feel your pain. I got 10 cubic yards (i.e., 13.5 tons) of gravel delivered and have been moving to various locations on the property, for various projects, by lawn tractor and 10 cu ft dump cart… all the while shovelling it.

  • Susan:

    Young muscle power is great! I occasionally “buy” some of that myself and always wonder why I didn’t do it sooner.

    Retirement money isn’t all it’s cracked up to be unless you are making a significant amount of interest, etc. on it. Mine goes up and down and when it goes down I always wonder if perhaps I shouldn’t have used some of it. So this is what I do. I have a threshold amount that I try to keep in that account. When the investments make over that amount I take it out and buy something that will add to my life. For instance, last fall the amount went up $5,000 over and I took that out to buy building materials to replace a rotting deck on our home that had been in need since we bought it. Our Realtor says it probably added about $10,000 in value to the house. Even if it hadn’t the deck was a death trap and needed replacing before we can sell this house. The retirement fund lost some value shortly after that as it so often does at that time of year but the value of the deck didn’t. Love that kind of investment. It has subsequently gone up again.

    Look for your tractor Cam. It is an investment in your health. You can probably find a good used one from one of those gentlemen farmers that don’t use it.

  • Terri Alice:

    The quiet in which the sounds of nature can be heard is one of the things I most value about rural living. We do not have a tv and rarely listen to radio. We are readers and that seems to fit with listening. I can tell when the Bobcat is around or the snake by the different vocalizations made by the ground squirrels. Animals do talk, we just need to relearn how to listen to them.

  • Gerrit:

    Hooray for Skylar! Having recently retired from a desk job, I’ve had to ration my time in the yard to rebuild muscle and cardio. In the far-off mist of time, I do remember being 16 and invincible. Antoinette has been making rhubarb-strawberry pies. And she uses her Nana’s recipe for the crust! So I will try your pie-power formula in lieu of not being 16 and invincible 🙂

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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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