Jane Kuhn - Apr 10, 2017

Is a Walk-Behind Tractor Right for You?

Photo of BCS with Flail Mower attachment. Photo credit: Eliza Milio


If you’re continuing to expand a hand-cultivated production system, sooner or later, you may find your production size has reached the “awkward stage.” The awkward stage is that blurry boundary where the cultivated ground is too much to keep up with by hand, but perhaps not quite big enough to justify the investment in a tractor. If you’re at the micro-production scale and are looking to improve efficiency, you might be a solid candidate for a two-wheeled, walk-behind tractor. Walk-behinds are typically selected by farmers who plant densely, have odd shaped fields (often due to maximizing limited space), or are concerned about compaction in high clay content soils. There are several walk-behind tractors on the market; BCS is a popular brand offering lots of options and serves as a good measure for assessing the potential costs and benefits of acquiring this type of tool.

BCS history and dealers
Originating in Italy during the 1940s, this two-wheeled tractor was initially designed to aid small-scale hay farmers on sloped terrain by replacing the hand harvesting of wheat with a sickle bar mower. By the time BCS came to the U.S. in the 1970s, the company had already expanded the capabilities of the walk-behind tractor by adding multiple implements and various engine sizes. Their domestic headquarters are located in Portland and they have dealers all over the country, but if you’re looking to purchase a BCS tractor, I’d recommend Earth Tools. A family-owned business in Kentucky, they are extremely knowledgeable and carry a lot of inventory, minimizing the turnaround time on ordered parts.

Options
Offering up to 10 different tractors and about 20 different implements, the uses for BCS tractors are quite varied. With attachments including flail mower, power harrow, rotary plow, and cultivators, the BCS can potentially supply all you need to create raised beds, maintain vegetable crops and manage cover crops. The trick is choosing the right tractor for your needs. If you’re planning on managing a row crop production with a walk-behind, you’ll likely want to go big– this way you can utilize the widest variety of implements, particularly those that require more horsepower, like the mowers.

Is a walk-behind tractor right for you?
This is the big question, and it all comes down to scale and systems. Assuming you’re considering a high horse powered model, and acquiring at least 2-3 implements, you could be looking at an investment of somewhere between $7,000 - $10,000 (all new). Most walk-behind owners are cultivating just a few acres; rarely more than three. Jean-Martin Fortier, author of the well-known handbook, The Market Gardener, has developed an efficient and profitable farming system utilizing a BCS on 1.5 acres of land. If you’re scaled up past 2-3 acres, a four-wheel tractor is likely going to be a better option. However, even if you’re growing on much greater acreage with riding tractors, the BCS might still be a handy tool to navigate perennial alleys and corners too narrow for a four-wheel tractor, or to manage inconvenient single or partial rows in a mixed block or field, or even for use in permanent or semi-permanent high tunnels.

Other things to consider
A BCS tiller or other walk-behind tractors can be a valuable addition to your fleet of tools if you’re small scale farming...at the cusp of tractor scale but not quite there. Given that they aren’t cheap, and can feel a bit unwieldy, it’s likely an investment only worth making if you intend to utilize its capacity for multiple implements. In this case, it’s better to select the larger, more powerful models. Although they’ll be more machine to lug around, it’s worth having the option to select any implement as you experiment and fine-tune your system. I’d also recommend the PTO quick coupler– well worth the investment for easy implement changes!

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Jane works as a Field Production Specialist at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, where her days are filled with tractor work, irrigation coordination, orchard care, and educating apprentices and interns. Her favorite way to end a long day's work in the sun, is running down the hill to Mitchell's Cove and jumping in the Pacific.

Comments

Wasikye Godfrey

Jul 26, 2018 at 11:37 AM

Can I know more about a walk behind tractor which can do weeding of maize and do the plowing at same time?Thank you!Godfrey

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