Sunday, May 27, 2007

Buying a Tractor

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A quiet morning at Vermont Flower Farm. Almost an even 30 degrees colder than yesterday at this same time with a hint of sunrise in the making. There's a chance of rain today and the air feels like that may well happen. Karl the wonder dog and I have already been on our morning walk and my list of things that need to happen today is longer than I want it to be. Yesterday I promised to talk about tractors and at very least I want to follow up on that.

As Gail and I committed to buying a new piece of land and moving our business to a highway with more visibility and traffic, we knew we would need to purchase a tractor. For the past years we have survived with two rototillers, and old John Deere B tractor with plow and brush hog and the help of a local contractor who has used his equipment to do what we couldn't. The new land is 5 acres of meadow right now and just mowing the grass to maintain a nice look was destined to wear out the riding mower we use here. Tractor shopping was in order.

One of my experienced gardening friends advised me only to buy a used tractor. She said that no gardening business can afford the prices that new tractors cost and to openly think about "used". Her old tractor is a dependable piece but she bought it many years ago when farmers were everywhere and turnover in equipment put some good products up for sale. I don't want to say you can't find a good used piece, but there are other considerations to buying a used tractor.

Tractors are not quite like cars and trucks when they need service. You don't drive a tractor to a repair shop and say "Change the oil please". In Vermont you can drive a tractor on a state road but if the trip is longer than going from adjacent pieces of land you personally own, the tractor has to be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles and it has to wear a license plate. Lacking that formal permission, you need a trailer to move the piece around. Trailers become another story and another $3000.

The other issue for me was service. I know nothing about diesel engines and beyond changing fluids and filters, there's not much I can do. A used purchase meant the possibility of more repairs over time and right now I need every spare minute I can get so a piece that might be down for repairs was not on my list.

As I began my search for tractors I spent a lot of time on the Internet. Tractors come in all colors and the most common are green, orange, blue, yellow and white. Brand names include John Deere, International, White, Kubota and New Holland but there are a lot of newer ones out there with names you might not have heard of before. There are tractors from Russia, India, and Korea that I know of but personally I was more interested in something that had been around long enough that I could get parts if I needed any.

New tractors come with about the same warranty so the issue becomes size in horse power, attachments you need and most importantly, the reputation of the dealer and his service. When I buy major purchases I always ask myself to size up the salesman and settle on a person I think is trustworthy. A family business person is the best by far because they have usually been around for a while and they don't hide when you have a problem.

I found a great tractor that was a 2004 model year and only had 98 hours on it. Tractors, if you don't know, are like all heavy equipment, any diesel engine, many modern day cars and most exercise bikes. They all have an hour meter that tells how long the engine has been operating. This was a great looking tractor that looked like the mower had been run over the same rock a couple times but it was in great shape and had a written service log showing how it had been cared for. It was $3400 cheaper than a new model of the same thing.

When looking at used equipment, think about how you're going to pay for the purchase. In our case there was no choice. It's early season here and we have thousands of bucks hanging out there waiting for plants to grow and sales to be made. Buying in September would be a lot better than now so a down payment and a financing plan was important. As I looked at interest rates for used equipment and did the math, I found that if I paid off the purchase in three years, I'd almost spend enough on interest to buy a new tractor instead of used. I'd also get a warranty which I wouldn't with a three year old model. Tractor dealers have been offering no interest loans for 3-4-5 years and with these sales coming to a close the end of May, the decision became less of a decision and more of a "Let's get on with it" affair.

Our final decision was a 30 horse power New Holland tractor with front loader, rototiller and rear mounted mower. We made the purchase from L. W. Greenwoods in East Randolph. The place has been in business since 1929 and is a family business which is what we wanted. It's a company that has had to change like many of us because the +12,000 farmers that farmed in Vermont after WW II is down to 1000. More sales are now made to contractors, small business owners like Gail and me, and homeowners and hobby people.

The tractor will be delivered next week. We need a trailer to get it back and forth from our current location but for this year I'll hire someone to make a few moves. The brush hog from the old John Deere will fit and we'll be up and running next week. This is a no-nonsense work tractor without a bunch of bells and whistles and space age styling. It has 26 horse power transmitted to the power take off (PTO) and that's more than enough to grind clay soil with the tiller and turn the brush hog as it cleans up my woods roads out back. It will handle the brush chipper I want to buy next year and it will suffice to skid out some logs on the mountain here. It's not big but it will work well. About all I need now is a couple fuel containers and tools for the tool box.

If you're thinking about a tractor, there isn't a better time than today to get on with the purchase. I laugh when I see people with two acres of land and a giant tractor going in circles but disposable wealth does interesting things. For us and most farmers there's limited income and certainly no wealth but we enjoy what we are doing and we like to see people smile along the way. To that end, a new tractor will help us make the journey a little less physical and a lot better looking.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where today's chores include fertilizing each hosta in the display garden and making signs for 200 new products. Rain or shine, today is a good day to get out with the family and maybe visit a nursery or two. All farmers help make Vermont a better place!

Good gardening thoughts,

George Africa

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