Bigger isn’t necessarily better for small-scale farms

A tractor is often the first piece of larger equipment purchased on any farm, no matter the size or growing practices. Select a tractor-sized to your needs and outfit it with implements that work with your crops and methods.

Whether adapting old equipment, building a new tool out of necessity, or selecting the perfect new piece of equipment, finding the right equipment makes the job easier, is cost-effective, and allows efficient and effective use of time and labor. To solve the equipment puzzle, ask yourself, “What do I need, how large do I need it and is it a good fit for my farm?”

Equipment needs can run from the basic – think hand weeders – to the high-tech, such as GPS-equipped tractors, digitally integrated irrigation systems or specialty harvesters. With any equipment, the purchase price, learning curve, and maintenance and repair costs should be justified by the time and labor it saves and the increase in crop quality and/or quantity it provides.

“Agricultural equipment gets pretty amazing,” said John Wilhoit, associate extension professor, University of Kentucky Biosystems & Agricultural Engineering Department. “There is some pretty amazing equipment available, both in terms of power to move large loads or amounts of soil, and in terms of sophistication – electronics, automation, and hydraulics. The ‘big guys’ can justify the cost of such equipment through economies of scale.”

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However, according to 5Best for the smaller or more diverse grower, purchasing large specialty equipment to make the job easier isn’t always cost-effective, and probably won’t readily fit into the scale of their operation. Unless it’s a high-value crop and the equipment is needed to reliably produce that crop for your market, Wilhoit noted, many smaller-scale operations rely on more versatile pieces of mechanized equipment combined with human labor.

Scaling your purchase

Small growers, in particular, are challenged when selecting equipment. While any piece of equipment that’s designed to do a certain job well can make the job easier, the scale of the equipment, not to mention the cost, is often not designed for small-scale or diverse specialty crop growers.

On the farm, the scale is everything. One mistake is buying bigger equipment than you need. Yes, that larger tractor might be helpful when you expand, but having a tractor that’s too large for your current needs may mean increased fuel costs, and it may not fit down your rows. Improperly sized equipment won’t make your job any easier.

“There isn’t much-specialized equipment out there that’s made for a 5- to 15-acre, diversified vegetable farm,” said Jason Salvo, owner of Local Roots Farm in Duvall, Washington. As Salvo knows, size matters.

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“You have to think really long term about how big you are today and also how big you might be in five or 10 years,” he said. “When we started acquiring equipment, we had to make some decisions about how wide our beds should be, how wide our walk aisles, how big our tractors needed to be to fit that system, and how big all of our implements needed to be to fit our system.”

From top to bottom, a loop hoe (Lee Valley Tools), circlehoe ( and Glaser stirrup hoe.

A tractor is often the first piece of larger equipment purchased on any farm, no matter the size or growing practices. Since a tractor and its implements can perform a wide variety of tasks, selecting a tractor-sized to your needs and outfitting it with implements that work with your crops and growing practices is a smart equipment decision.

“Ground preparation is certainly one of the most important aspects as far as timeliness and effect on the entire growing season,” Wilhoit said. “I would say it is one of the areas where it is probably worth having the right equipment to be able to accomplish what has to be done when it has to be done. Tillage tools can get expensive, but smaller-scale growers can work out combinations of equipment to meet their needs without having to spend too much.”

Even compact tractors can be equipped with hitches and support a variety of implements. A guide to compact tractor selection can be found at

Another important consideration when selecting implements is whether they can be used with all or most of your tractors. “Everything should work together and be modular, in that each piece of equipment can be used by every tractor,” Salvo said.

Choosing a quick-hitch system for the tractor can make life easier, but not all manufacturers adhere to the standards of the American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers.

Another consideration is ergonomics. The pedals, seat (preferably adjustable with armrests and back support), steering wheel, throttle and transmission control should be comfortable and well-placed. If an operator is uncomfortable while operating equipment, it can result in fatigue, stress, and loss of productivity.

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When purchasing used equipment, think safety. Older tractors should be retrofitted with rollover protective structures (ROPS), and all used equipment should be closely inspected for missing or worn parts prior to use.

“For small-scale growers, who are often trying to make do with old or used equipment and who sometimes are new to farming, safety can be an even bigger issue than it is with conventional farmers – and it is a plenty big issue for them too,” Wilhoit said. “Working around PTO equipment can be especially hazardous.”

Planning for mechanization

Dr. Eric Gallandt, associate professor at the University of Maine School of Food and Agriculture noted that tractor cultivation is increasingly attractive as farm sizes increase.

“(It is at) the point where hand harbor cannot complete weeding in a timely manner,” he said, “Tractors have higher work rates. They are able to cultivate more row feet per hour than hand labor.

New cultivation equipment is not cheap, but depending on the farm’s weed pressure and labor costs, it may not take more than a couple of seasons to pay for the investment.”

While tractors may seem an obvious choice for first big equipment purchase, Salvo has some words of wisdom for farmers eager to make that purchase.

“If you have a tractor but no attachments, you aren’t any better off,” he said. “I think the most important pieces of equipment on our farm are our seeder and our tiller because we use them so much.”

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Salvo stated before purchasing equipment and scaling up, remember that your beds and aisles will have to be sized appropriately.

“Everything flows from your bed system. We have all of our beds set to 60-inch centers; we have 48-inch bed tops and 12-inch walk aisles,” Salvo explained. “We chose that size because there’s a lot of equipment out there that’s in the 60-inch to 72-inch category, such that every pass does one bed. Now that we have chosen that configuration, we are more or less locked in unless we want to invest in a lot of equipment.”

Opting for less equipment

On small farms, sometimes the labor involved with certain tasks is best done without mechanized equipment. Making many cultivation adjustments on a tractor-mounted toolbar can be cumbersome. Gallandt said the size of the crop and the soil conditions would also be accounted for in order to achieve optimal adjustments, and field conditions often favor hand tools.

“Smaller growers are often highly diversified, with many species and planting arrangements throughout the farm. Using hand tools, it is easy to move from one row per bed, like peas or beans, to two or five rows per bed, like radish, turnip or carrots,” he explained. “Many small farms in Maine have irregularly shaped fields, often on sloping ground, both of which make tractor cultivation challenging.”

He continued, “Even if growers choose to stick with hand tools, a lot can be done to increase their efficacy and working rates. Working rates are much faster for long-handled tools, especially those that work on both push and pull strokes, like a stirrup hoe and wheel hoes. Straight, consistent-spaced rows make wheel hoeing and work with long-handled tools more efficient.”

A walk-behind tractor, such as the one offered by Earth Tools (, may be a good fit for a small farm. Implements for mowing, vertical tilling, laying plastic and more are available for these types of tractors.

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Other popular equipment includes compact plastic mulch layers, many requiring just one operator. Some models also lay down irrigation line simultaneously. However, such purchases can be expensive.

“Here in Kentucky, we have a lot of opportunities for shared-use equipment related to plastic mulch through our county extension offices,” Wilhoit said. “Many counties have plastic layers, waterwheel setters and plastic lifters available for shared use for free or a relatively low rental fee. Smaller-scale growers should check on possibilities for borrowing such equipment before spending so much on it themselves, not only through extension but from other growers.”

Gallandt conducts field research on hand tools and scale-appropriate weeding tools for the small farm. In qualitative surveys, where farmers rated different hand tools for weeding, some farmers had a preference for one tool, while others felt negative about it. Quantitatively, the tools were similar with regard to working rate, with the exception of wheeled tools, he noted.

After researching the Finnish Weed Master, Gallandt said the wheeled tool is much faster than similar long-handled tools. Links to videos of his field trials, as well as more information on the research, can be found at

“The Weed Master is a very clever design, adapting toolbar technology to a hand tool, but despite its promise and many on-farm demonstrations and farmer tests, I’m not aware of any growers who have purchased one,” Gallandt said.

Other examples of equipment designed to meet the needs of small operations include push seeders and paper pot transplanters.

Designing small farm equipment

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Farmers are innovators, and many small farmers have designed tools to fit their needs. Sometimes this involves retrofitting existing equipment, and sometimes it’s built from scratch.

“I wanted a tiller/bed shaper combo. They make them for much bigger tractors, but not for the smaller equipment we use,” Salvo said. had a welder build a sled that goes on the back of our tiller, so we now make raised beds when we till, all in one pass.”

Innovative equipment design for small farmers is what Farm Hack, “a community for farm innovation,” is all about. Recently, the National Center for Appropriate Technology joined Farm Hack ( to host an event at the University of California, Davis. Projects included grain elevators for small-scale growers, and an equipment showcase highlighted homemade farm equipment and repurposed tools.

“Most specialized equipment is designed for larger-scale farms, so there’s a lot of room for innovation among us small-scale farmers to design and build equipment that can make our operations more efficient, yet also works with our small equipment,” Salvo explained.

When it comes to equipment for small farms, bigger isn’t always better, and new equipment might not fit your farm. Selecting the right equipment for your needs may even mean getting creative and engineering your own design. Whatever you decide, plan your equipment to best match the cultivating, planting and harvesting needs of your farm. Finding the right equipment is like slipping that last puzzle piece into place, enabling you to effectively get the job done.

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