Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Sodden And Mired!

Late last week, the sky opened up and dumped one quarter of a million gallons of water on our little farm. Rest assured that it came down slowly and gently over a number of hours but it came just the same. The roof and gutters dutifully routed it away from the foundations and the sandy soil quickly drained it away to somewhere beneath the surface.

I watched the rain from the front window, thinking to myself that it would be good for the vegetable and wildflower gardens. It gave me a good excuse to remain indoors for the evening and I worked on house projects instead. Little did I know that we were getting much more water than we needed.

After the storms had finally passed, I took a walk to survey the results. The wheel barrow had been left out and accumulated an impressive amount of water. It was at least six inches deep. I turned it over, releasing all of those gallons to soak into the yard and join up with the rest of the water somewhere below.

My inspection tour moved on to the gardens. The wildflower garden had only been seeded a few days earlier and had yet to sprout. I found myself peering at the heavily washed sand and wondering if all of those expensive seeds from the wildflower mixes had been washed away. A repeat inspection a few days later revealed that small seedlings were in fact coming up all over the place and everything seems to be fine.

The vegetable garden looked none the worse for wear but looks can be deceiving. After standing at the edge of the garden I decided to walk into the middle to have a closer look. Stepping off of the sod into the saturated soil, I found myself half-way up to my knees in sandy mud that was exactly the consistency of pudding! Seeing the potential for doing irreparable damage to my long-suffering seedlings, I quickly retreated to the solid safety of the untilled yard.

A couple of days later, Sean came home and asked to have a friend over to camp out on the farm for his thirteenth birthday. The boys selected a spot for the tent between the double rows of evergreens that crown a low ridge in our front pasture. Due to the high weeds, they asked if I could mow the area before they started setting up.

We hooked the bush hog to the tractor and I mowed a path through the high weeds to their selected spot. I carefully maneuvered my way through the trees and must say that I did a mighty fine job of prettying the area up for their camp. The job being accomplished, I began the drive back to our side yard where I customarily park the tractor.

Had I gone directly to that spot and quit for the day this tale would have a very different end. Instead, I emerged from the trees into the front field and surveyed the high weeds with the thought that I could quickly mow it as well while I was at it. I swung the tractor along the treeline and began mowing the edge of the field.

As I was rounding the far end of the field the tractor suddenly stopped moving forward. Looking down, I saw that it had sunken to the axles in mud! It took only a few minutes of attempting to back out of the mess to convince me that there was no hope of freeing it.

The transmission casing between the rear wheels was resting on the ground and preventing the big tires from getting any purchase on the muck. I walked back to the house all the while shaking my head at myself that I had not thought about all of that water that had saturated the ground only a few days before. This is not the first time that I have gotten the tractor stuck but it is certainly the worst.

I figure that I'll give it a week to dry out before giving it another try. Until then, there's no shortage of other things to do.

More Work For The Tractor

Over the past few days, I have been using the tractor to get a few more tasks completed. The driveway has been plagued with potholes since before we bought the farm. With the warm spring rains those potholes became huge and filled with water. I felt embarrassed any time somebody came to visit as they slowly bounced and jostled their way up to the house.

When things were particularly desperate, the children and I spent a couple of afternoons loading the wheelbarrow with small rocks and attempting to fill the holes. Our efforts resulted in small improvements but most of the rocks we deposited ended up getting shifted to the sides as our car tires worked their way back down into the muddy mess.

This problem was on our mind when we went tractor shopping. We wanted to be sure to purchase something to help us restore and maintain the driveway. In the end we bought a 6' box blade (fourth photo down).

The box blade has six adjustable teeth that loosen up the gravel as it is pulled along. The loosened gravel accumulates in the box and is graded smooth by the blade on the lower back edge of the box. I made about a half-dozen passes up and down the drive with this implement and it left the drive smooth and the previously packed-down gravel loose and soft.

The second task for the tractor was getting the garden soil ready for planting. I had already plowed it up a few days ago but unfortunately left a few grassy patches. I decided that I would have to turn it a second time to be sure that we wouldn't be attempting to plant portions of the garden in sod and then spending all summer searching through tall grass to find our crops.

The surface of the garden was still very rough from the large furrows the plow had left. Before plowing a second time, I decided to use the disc harrow to cut up the large chunks and smooth it back out. After backing the tractor up to the disc, I found that it was equipped with the wrong size of draw pins to mate up with the lower arms of the three-point hitch. I ran out to Tractor Supply and bought smaller pins, removed the old rusty ones with a grinder and installed shiny new pins.

The disc harrow (two pictures below the box blade) made quick work of reducing the clods. Then I hooked up the plow set again and turned the entire garden once more. The second try at plowing was so much easier. By the end I really felt that I had gotten the hang of it and the resulting garden was uniformly turned.

I finished up the task by passing the disc set back over the whole area and then dragging the spring-tooth harrow (pictured below the disc harrow) across the soil to smooth the final high spots down. The soil is now fully broken up and very soft. I will have to do a bit of raking to remove small clumps of broken up sod that are still on the surface but otherwise it is ready for seeding.

Nevermind the fact that this task should have been done long ago, I'm still having fun and have decided that we are just going to do the best that we can for this first year. As long as each year brings some improvement over the last, I'll consider myself successful. As things are going, I'm ensuring myself many years of satisfaction by leaving lots of room for improvement!

First Day On The Tractor

I'm finally home and the rain that was predicted for the weekend managed to finish up on Saturday night. Sunday morning, the sun rose in a windy sky while I stood in our dining room hoping that it would dry the grass and ground out quickly. I had been anticipating this day for the entire week in Mexico and had built up way too many expectations for myself of all of the things I would accomplish.

Speaking of grass, I'll digress for a moment to mention that it has begun to grow with vigor. I believe it is foretelling problems to come as its rate of growth will outstrip my ability to find time to push our little lawn mower all over this huge yard. We haven't managed to find the time nor the cash to purchase a riding mower and I fear that it may turn into a green version of my snow-shoveling torments of last winter before we do.

Today turned out to be beautiful, if a bit windy. As the sun did its work on the damp ground, we celebrated our daughter Freya's victory at yesterday's Michigan History Day competition by having a big breakfast with pancakes and bacon. We even cracked open our first bottle of homemade maple syrup! Freya's winning of the state competition means that she will now go on to compete in the National competition to be held in Washington, D.C. in June and her project will be put on display in the Smithsonian. We are very proud of her!

I decided that my first priority would be the prepping of the garden soil for planting. As you may have seen from the picture on the website, the garden area is overgrown with weeds and small trees. As well, the previous owner of our farm had dumped piles of bricks, dirt and trash in one area that would have to be cleaned and leveled before plowing could begin.

The first job that I wanted to perform was the removal of the trees. I reasoned that it would be better to pull them out of the ground instead of simply cutting them off with a chainsaw and leaving the stumps and roots in place. The tree removal seemed a good first task for the tractor so I searched on the Internet for the best way to do it. Right away I found all sorts of accounts of people killing themselves doing the very task I had in mind!

It seems that it is very dangerous to attach something very heavy or stationary to the back of a tractor. If the load is sufficiently large and the traction under the back tires is good enough, the tractor can rear up and flip over backwards in less than a second. The articles claimed that this can occur far too quickly for the operator to drop the power, disengage the clutch or jump clear of the tons of iron rearing back to crush them. The websites drove home the point with scary photos of inverted tractors atop dead farmers.

After reading all of the safety precautions, I learned that it was safest to hitch the load to the swinging drawbar. It is positioned well below the axle to minimize the risk of rollover. With an appropriate level of caution and a sturdy chain, I was able to complete the job in a couple of hours. Two of the trees proved to be too large. They have a date with my chainsaw as soon as I get it back from the repair shop. I suppose we'll have to work around the stumps for several years until they soften enough for me to dare dragging the plow over them.

Once the trees were out of the way, I attacked the dirt piles with the front-end loader. I had imagined that I would simply scoop them up and dump the dirt somewhere else. That proved to be difficult for this novice driver so I simply tipped the bucket vertical and dragged the piles down flat. After we removed the last of the trash and hauled a bucket-load of bricks away, it began to look much more likely that we would be able to grow our vegetables there.

As the shadows of late afternoon slid across the field, I backed the tractor up to the brush hog. Locking the brakes, I jumped down and wrestled with the three-point hitch and attached the mower shaft to the power takeoff. This was my first attempt to hitch anything to the tractor and I hopped on and off of the tractor again and again before I had it lined up just right.

Once I was convinced that I had hooked it all up correctly, I raised the mower, put the tractor in gear and started for the field. After driving only a few yards my attention was drawn to my spectators as Janet and Aidan tried to alert me to the fact that the brush-hog had dropped back down and was dragging two deep furrows across the lawn! I raised it back up again and finally made it into the field to begin cutting the brush.

I would love to report that it went smoothly and that I knew just what I was doing. Nothing would be further from the truth. Luckily my audience became bored of watching me struggle to get the mower at the correct height and left me to continue the fight unobserved. The tractor seems to be bogged down as if the mower were dug into the ground and preventing forward progress. A couple of times I found myself digging a hole with one of the back tires and I wondered how the brush hog could change the way that the tractor drove so much that I could no longer produce enough power to move over the slightest bump!

I jumped off of the tractor twice and scratched my head at the puzzle. There was absolutely nothing that should be impeding forward motion, yet there I was digging a big hole on one side as if I were attached to an anchor. Finally, I noticed the cause of the whole struggle. I had failed to disengage the brakes! I had been practically dragging the left rear wheel the entire time! What a dope!

I disengaged the brake as I shook my head and chuckled. As if a great weight had been lifted, the tractor sprang forward and began mowing with ease. Shortly thereafter I learned to stop fiddling with the height of the mower as the tractor's hydraulics miraculously began adjusting the height to match the terrain. In my defence, I should mention that the operator's manual that I ordered has not arrived yet! After those revelations, the job became a snap to complete. I parked the tractor and headed in to tuck Aidan into bed but not before I had coaxed everyone to the window to see that I had finally managed to figure out what I was doing as evidenced by a nicely mown field.

Tractor Shopping

My snow shoveling misery of last winter made the purchase of a tractor one of our major goals for this summer. Now that the weather is warming and things need to be planted in our garden, that need is rising even higher on the list of priorities. Not knowing much of anything about tractors, I set myself to the task of studying up on them and doing an exhaustive search for the perfect machine for our uses and budget.

The first step in the process was to think about the particular uses that we had for a tractor. The three things that came to mind instantly were plowing, mowing and snow removal. Secondary things that would be useful if we could afford them are shoveling loose material such as dirt, gravel and manure, post hole digging and road grading. We also have a fairly tight budget target for the whole project which helps to keep things in perspective.

Tractors come in a wide range of sizes in terms of horsepower (hp). There are two different important horsepower ratings depending upon what uses you have in mind. The first power rating is "drawbar horsepower". That is an expression of the tractors ability to pull something behind it. Our greatest demand for drawbar power is for plowing the fields which with my preferred three-bottom (three cutting blades) plow in our loamy sand soil will require at least 45 hp at the drawbar.

The second power rating is "power take-off" or PTO horsepower. The tractors have a spinning shaft at the back end that can be used to power implements called the "PTO". Our greatest demand for PTO torque would be for a brush hog mower. A six foot wide brush hog will require at least 50 hp to operate well without overtaxing the engine.

The final requirement that eventually moved from the "would like to have" to the "must have" column was a front-end load bucket. This implement will allow us to scoop and move dirt and gravel around as needed. The hydraulic lift on the arms that hold the bucket can even be used to pull brush and small stumps out of the ground.

Given all of those requirements, I began an Internet search throughout Michigan and Northern Ohio for the perfect tractor. Right away it was obvious that an older model tractor would fit the bill and still be reasonably priced. There are many large tractors from the 60's, 70's and 80's that still have many years of useful life in them and are far more affordable than newer models. However, not so many of them come equipped with front-end loaders which helped greatly to narrow the field of possibilities.

In the end I located a couple of strong possibilities at a used tractor dealer in Fenton, Michigan. I have visited them twice this week and am starting to get very seriously interested in the 1976 Massey Ferguson 255 that is shown in the pictures. After talking to the dealer about adding in a wide assortment of implements, I am now armed with a final price tag and just have to figure out how to pay for it!
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