Book Review: The Two-Wheel Tractor Handbook
Small-Scale Equipment and Innovative Techniques for Boosting Productivity, Zach Loeks, New Society Publishers, 2023. 232 pages, $39.99.
Although there is a definite “Tilling-is-bad” mantra in some circles, recent no-till books have spoken in favor of less tilling, rather than never any tilling. Even those in favor of minimizing tilling understand that some circumstances call for tilling, so let’s do it well. This very practical manual will help us deeply understand our two-wheel tractors and get the best out of them while giving them our best. Mindful, good use of machinery is important! This book will be useful to gardeners, homesteaders, landscapers, and small-scale farmers.
One of the author’s goals with this book is “to return the two-wheel tractor to its rightful place as a small-scale solution for land management, especially for diversified and highly profitable stewardship of farms, homesteads, and landscape.” Bigger is not necessarily better. Intensive agriculture can bring more profits than extensive acres of one crop.
Too many of us who use two-wheel tractors (still called rototillers by some, but in actuality two-wheeled tractors are much more versatile than that), look at the manual only when things go wrong. This book gives us the chance to really understand our machines. These are machines that we can maintain ourselves with regular tools. Knowledge is power.
Two-wheel tractors are affordable for new growers, easy to maneuver in small plots of different crops, adaptable with various pieces of equipment for many different cultivation tasks. They have a Power Take Off (PTO) and hitch system similar to four-wheel tractors, and they can connect to multiple implements. Those machines with the ability to rotate the handlebars can be used with a choice of rear-mounted or front-mounted implements.
Two-wheel tractors compact the soil much less than four-wheel tractors, and can use less fuel.
This book explains the various types of two-wheel tractors (BCS, Planet Junior, Ferrari, Grillo and others), so that you can buy the one best suited to the work you need it for. There is help in figuring out how much horse-power you need. The page on safety design will help those planning long hours of operation to get a durable machine. After reading this book, I think you will be able to increase the life of your machine (and maybe your knees).
There are plenty of clear color photos and drawings to help you make sense of it all. As in real-life farming in the US, nearly all of the people in the drawings appear to be white males. It’s hard to be certain when everyone is wisely wearing all the protective gear needed, but I wish the farmers had been more diverse! There is a deep look into the functions of each kind of implement, so you can be informed when choosing between a rotary plow and a furrower, for example. “Remember, equipment decision-making is where growers can make the biggest mistakes or have the greatest successes. Having the right equipment can revolutionize your homestead or farm, but the wrong equipment choices can begin to dictate how you grow instead of facilitating your chosen production.” One example is your preferred bed-width, and how well that matches the width of your equipment.
The book starts with a history of farming with horses and then their mechanical replacements. Next comes discussion of two-wheeled tractor essential components, types, and the benefits of each. The third chapter talks about specific accessories and adjustments you can make. This is followed by helpful discussion of which equipment is best suited to which scale and type of operation, and also the stage of development of the enterprise. Are you starting up, scaling up, or doing what Zach calls pro-ing up? Keep your later goals in mind and buy equipment now that will fit with what you need next.
There is a good chapter on maintenance and care. Be sure to do regular checks and maintenance, and provide good care and storage, starting with day one. Keep a special toolkit for timely repairs. This chapter includes recommended brands of maintenance supplies, a checklist of maintenance tips, and winter storage preparations.
For me, the main value of the book is in the first 5 chapters and chapter 8 on maintenance and care. The other two chapters will appeal most to permaculturists who like the classification of things and spaces into guilds, and circular diagrams. There is information there for everyone on techniques that could save you time and effort.
I learned valuable understanding in the “Two-Wheel Tractor Essential” chapter. I wasn’t raised on a farm and have approached machinery with a “need-to-know” style. I know which way to set switches but forget which setting of the choke is “in” and which is “out.” Now I understand better. Likewise, I followed the machinery manual in clipping the “operator presence control” and clutch into the U-shaped wire clip when putting the machine in the shed, but I didn’t know why it was important to do that. I passed the instruction on to all the people I trained, but noticed they frequently didn’t do it. The reason is to prevent a stuck clutch, which can happen if the two cone parts of the clutch are left touching while the machine is stored. Disengaging the clutch leaves a space between the two cones, so they don’t stick together.
Zach lists eleven Two-Wheel Tractor Benefits, including that the range of engine sizes gives us the ability to avoid over-large engines for small tasks. Another from the list is that two-wheeled tractors are easy to maneuver in small spaces, between diverse crops, including the ability to make tight turns.
There is a fundamental difference between multi-functional 2-wheel tractors with a PTO, and those without, which are mainly for row-crop cultivation, and can be made with smaller engines and a higher clearance for tall crops. The latter crop includes Planet Junior, Tuffy, and Tilmor Ox. The Tilmor Power Ox now has a wide range of cultivation tools made by Thiessen.
Multi-functional tractors with a PTO are more widely used than the cultivator types. Those such as BCS with reversible handlebars, can be used for front-mounted mowers and rear-mounted earth-moving implements. They have a lower clearance than cultivating tractors and therefore are more stable because of the lower center of gravity.
The section on tractor components includes labeled bird’s-eye-view diagrams of three BCS models. How much horsepower do you need? Various brands and sizes of engine are compared, and the pros and cons of each are discussed. Some pieces of equipment need more horsepower than others, so before buying anything, consider all the implements you might need. There is also a page on choosing and using used engines.
I had not considered the value of being able to lower the handlebars for more compact storage or to lift the tractor when using heavy pieces of equipment. Likewise, we here have all been in the habit of walking directly behind the tiller for better ergonomics, and have not fully explored the benefits of turning the handlebars slightly to one side. BCS handlebars are very easy to adjust!
There is design box explaining which gear to use for best results with which job. There is a bit of a human tendency to think faster is better. It ain’t necessarily so! Likewise, pressing down on the handlebars to get deeper tilling will cause the tractor to “walk” on its tines, removing the center of power from the engine and wheels (where the operator is in control). If you need deeper tilling, set the depth deeper! The mechanics of the tractors and implements are very clearly explained.
Tractors with a differential drive can make tighter turns when you unlock one wheel, meaning only one wheel is then being driven. The differential should be locked for field work (greater stability) and only unlocked for turning or negotiating tight spaces.
I like understanding the tractor better. I now appreciate what a wonderful thing a PTO is, and don’t take it for granted. It enables us to power a range of implements from the engine, rather than simply being ground-driven, or pulled. Having both color photos and hand-drawn diagrams makes it easier to understand the machines.
I don’t plan to need wheel weights, front weights or implement weights, but I know where to turn if I end up needing to know. Likewise, if we need a different space between the wheels, I can find out how to do it. I did learn that our rotary plow would work better on our BCS 732 if we had slightly larger wheels. Choosing the implements is only half of the job, the other half is learning how to get best use under your circumstances.
Safety is about design, maintenance, operation and protective gear. In this book you can read about the safety features designed into your BCS or other two-wheeled tractor, a list of operating safety tips, and a list of protective clothing and equipment.
The next chapter is about implements and their uses, and instructions for getting them on and off the tractor, with good clear photos. I’m a big fan of the BCS Quick-hitch. We graduated from one BCS with a quick-hitch, tiller, hiller and rotary brush mower, to two BCS machines. We kept one set up for mowing, one for tilling, but each had a quick-hitch and so could be called in as a backup if one machine was down.
Zach addresses the misconceptions around tilling. All working of the soil is a form of tillage, however you do it. No-till and low-till methods reduce tillage. But you cannot successfully (organically) eliminate all earthworking from a farm. If the soil was not tilled previously by someone else, you will need to do primary tillage to open new land. Tarping will not deal with soil compaction. You can move towards the 4-S tillage principles: Seldom, Shallow, Softly (minimal depth?) and Sorted (patterned, meaning leaving a patchwork of untilled areas while tilling the areas you need soon). (There might be some specialized permaculture terminology there that I didn’t quite understand.)
The chapter on equipment decision-making alone is worth the price of the book. It can save expensive purchasing mistakes. Chose implements matching the scale of your enterprise (bearing in mind planned future expansion). How many acres do you have in actual production? This is a more important number than the total acreage of your farm. Market growers working more than 2-3 acres might need a two-wheeled cultivating tractor as well as a multipurpose BCS-type tractor. They may even need a 4-wheeled tractor.
Consider “investment” as a concept including space, time, energy and money. Growing more extensively will use more space, while saving time by using a bigger tractor. That will involve more fuel use (energy) and more money. Trade-offs. Zach has a chart of three scales of enterprise and the tools needed for each of four tasks for each scale. The discussion of extensive versus intensive agriculture shows that either type can be done on a small acreage (consider an acre of garlic in rows 6” apart (intensive) or 15” apart (extensive)). Intensive agriculture can bring in higher profits from the same space without requiring investment in more equipment. The investment there is of more time. Extensive land management uses more land, but less time, and it can save on money too, as when hay, mulches and green manures are grown on site, rather than bought-in.
Projects can develop and grow over time, changing the scale and the needs of the operation. Be mindful of your goals, and prepare a “Static Goal” rather than do continuous random expansions. When you reach the static-state goal, everything should be in balance, equilibrium. Zach then leads us through an example towards a static state 3-acre farm. For example, better to buy a 30” tiller at start-up than the initially-adequate 26”.
Here the book dips more towards permaculture terms, diagrams and ideas for a chapter. The information on deciding which implements you need is accessible, and you can either embrace or ignore the guild terminology. The glossary at the end will save you from getting lost in the TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms). Some of the same implements are mentioned more than once, to fit the format. There are many pieces of equipment I did not even know of.
Other aspects of farming to consider (apart from intensive/extensive) are profit per square foot and resiliency. Diversity of crops and crop rotation can provide resiliency, but continuous fancy lettuce grown with bought-in inputs can make a higher money profit.
Chapter 5 looks in detail at several example farms, from a backyard gardener to several market gardens. Interesting narratives, with drawings of soil prep stages using various equipment. And separately, lists of tasks to be undertaken. I started by assuming the numbered tasks correlated with the drawings, but it’s not as precise as that. There is a useful “Design Box” on cultivation for row-based planting, useful to those of us who haven’t tackled that yet. Another is about tree nurseries, a side of farming that doesn’t get many manuals (that I’ve seen).
In chapter 6, there are instructions for farming on terraces, and then the permaculture “Permabeds” system. In this chapter you can also learn how to add wheel extensions.
Chapter 7 starts with ways to clear new land, micro-plow it, and form beds with the formidable BCS power ridger, which goes on the front of the tractor. Using tarps to get rid of weeds is also briefly explained, and shown in a series of photos. Zach recommends making life simple by choosing five variations of row spacing, centered on a constant center row.
Chapter 8 is a mini-manual on maintenance and care, another useful section written in a very accessible way. The tool kit drawings are helpful, as is the advice to keep the tractor tools in a special bag on a special shelf, ready to grab if you need to take it down the field. There’s a good list of maintenance supplies, including recommended brand names. There is information on winter storage, and specific instructions for checking and tightening cables, changing Honda engine oil, understanding oils (making it more likely we’ll use the right kind).