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Bigger gear…

Antique sickle bar mower

Thanks to the comments on yesterday’s blog post, this piece of old farm gear, lying abandoned in the field for who knows how long, has been ID-ed as a sickle bar mower. Yet another in a long line of bigger equipment I’ve seen but not used in my tiny farming career. I suppose the main job of this mower was in making hay, something I’ve barely considered. Why? Because it belongs to “another scale” of farming. There’s small-scale—tiny farming, on one or two or three acres—and then there’s mid-size, and then, BIG.

This idea of SCALE has been on my mind quite a bit, lately. More and more people these days seem to want to get back to the land and start farming, and the farming they want to do is usually of the tiny variety. Like what’s pictured on this blog. Small-plot growing is understandable, accessible, hard work, economically tough, genuinely community-building, fun…all of that stuff. Big tractors and combines and other imposing (and EXPENSIVE) machinery don’t figure into the picture. In my few years of market gardening, I’ve only ever driven my Kubota compact tractor, and I know nothing practical about larger scale growing gear.

This is interesting for the simple reason that, if  “we” (referring, at least, to Canada and the US) are going to change what we eat, where it comes from, on any sort of large scale, it’s difficult to imagine our part of the world, with its convenient supermarkets and complex food chain, suddenly fed mainly by hundreds of thousands or MILLIONS of postcard tiny farms. Gathering food for tens and hundreds of millions of people from all those tiny farms would be…complicated. So it seems to me, there’s tiny farming and mid-size farming, and figuring out how they fit together. Hmm…



  1. Perhaps we should be heading for getting most of our food from smaller farms and then only big stuff from the supermarkets.  So the small farms never supply the supermarkets, just the local people?  That would be great!!

  2. Sharon

    Good to see you blogging actively again. Our growing months keep us very busy and usually off the computer. I’m sure it’s the same with you.

    In Idaho, where we live and farm, there is a wonderful program called “Buy Idaho” that small, mid-size and larger growers can become involved with. They actively promote their members on television and various forms of print media and to the legislature. We are also fortunate to have a supermarket chain that buys from local growers, a couple of co-op’s and several permanent fruit stands where we can sell our produce.  The farm that grew the advertised produce is noted on the  circulars that come out in the newspaper every week. We live in a very agricultural area, and it’s nice to have the support of the community.  There are also several local farmer’s markets and CSA’s where local produce is sold. Our extension agent offers classes each winter to help new growers or those interested in trying to grow produce get started. This is an extensive class over several weeks, but it sure helps you focus and gives you great opportunities to network with other people who are interested in small-scale farming. There’s  huge diversity in the interests of the members of each class. This is not meant to “plug” this particular program, but I do think it may be part of the answer to some of the problems we’ve seen in this country and may be helpful in other parts of the world.

  3. The other thing with scale, is that as your scale goes up your prices can come down. Unfortunately, on a vegetable farm that usually means that your diversity must go down too which is risky. For better or worse, my wife and I are trying to scale up our farm right now while keeping diversity high. We want to be able to bring crops to the farmers’ markets and bring the price down – because most people still think the price of organic and local produce is too high.
    The other thing is that scaling up allows the farmer to hire more help and pay better if they have a good plan. Hopefully mid-scale farms can be part of the “green-jobs” boom that is supposed to be coming.
    I hope my farm can fit into a middle ground between tiny farms and 1600-acre monocrop veggie farms like Earthbound.
    Check out Eatwell Farm in California, I think they are doing a good job of this from what I see on their blog.

  4. One of my top 10 all time pics you’ve shot.  Worth a thousand words!

  5. Jenn

    when I lived in Poland, most people in my town bought their veggies from local farms. There was a huge farmer’s market every day in one of the main squares. There was also fresh-baked bread from bakeries, and fresh eggs and meat  in butcher stalls around the circumference of the market.
    There are a few large grocery stores, but even those were nothing like what we have in the US. I think most people do their shopping at the markets and from smaller businesses, and then mostly buy their canned/packaged goods at the grocery stores. If you go in the grocery, it has just a little tiny corner devoted to produce, where you can find basic staples such as carrots, onions, and potatoes. but if you want more variety and choice you have to go to the market and buy from the vendors there.
    I think something like that is also what I wish america would do. It was a nice balance, and I never had any trouble finding what I needed.

  6. Leiah

    Great picture! We have a couple of pieces of old farm equip. at our place too and I just love them and the history they represent.
    As for small farms and how they contribute on a larger scale, I like to envision a world where people are not just buying and trading their food locally, but everything is available locally through trade.  A large bartering of goods and services in small communities, where someone down the road trades their welding skills to repair my tractor for my fresh farm eggs and a home grown chicken for their cookpot,  and in exchange for some of my homemade jams I can aquire the services of my neighborhood chiropractor.
    I guess I should have been born in a different century, nevertheless one can dream. *shrug*

  7. Michael Anderson

    Or you could go the other way and make the problem smaller.  If more and more people grew at least some of their own food in whatever small of a space they had and supplemented that with what they could get at smaller farmers markets, they would ultimately need less from the actual supermarket and, in turn, less would need to be supplied.
    During the summer months, between what is grown in the backyard and what we get from the farmer’s market, the supermarket only provides the few items that are not at all possible in this area.  Oranges which cannot over winter here for example.

  8. Eric Dieter

    Small scale, environmentally sound farming is in dire need right now. I’ve been growing my own produce over the past couple of summers and have come to realize the great benefits of locally grown foods. Here is a great video that discusses the importance local farming and organically grown goods: enjoy!

  9. That piece of equipment doesn’t have to be just for small or mid sized farming it could be used for tiny farming. If I had that lying around I would plant myself some wheat, cut it with that mower when ripe and feed it to those chickens. Feed and bedding all in one tiny farmed crop.  The chickens do all the thrashing all you have to do is get it to them. When they are done straw is left behind. That method used to be quite common when more people grew wheat and had chickens.
    When I was a kid we had an old draw behind hay rake lying around. It had trees growing up in it and the whole bit. I got the wild idea to put it to use for our sheep. So I got it free and got it working. Every fall I would cut some of the pasture grass with a bush hog and rake it into rows with the rake and then pile it old school style for the sheep to pick through in winter. I cut my dad’s hay bill 15%-25% a year by doing that.  Definately something to consider.

  10. J W Lauber

    Sir i believe you might be overlooking the very heart of the tiny farm, in that horse drawn mower. Orginally it would have only came in a 5 to 7′ bar length, and would be small and slow compared to modern equipment. It could easily be pulled by your small tractor, using no more power than it takes to idle along. When i was younger these were the poor mans answer to chemicals, as mowing down weeds before seed heading improves the land on a whole.  since the machine is already built, no further demand on the enviroment would happen, and since you own it no drain to you resources (money) will occur.  You should be on the look out for other things of this nature, you could use or modify for use with your operation.   

  11. Hey Mike, what size is your tiny farm anyway? We have been thinking of buying land within 2 years for market gardening & an apple orchad with distant plans of building a home in 10 years. The problem we have been finding is most lots are 1/2-1 acre building lots or 50 plus acre parcels. Not much middle ground it seems.

  12. Jeff

    I agree with JW Lauber regarding the use of equipment that is the scale of horse drawn or even smaller. It doesn’t have to be contrary to small or very small scale. There are many after-market suppliers of sickle bars for two-wheel tractors in Europe and they are specifically designed for what Nathan describes– small scale, integrated farms that can still be managed with equipment that is too small to do more than a few acres.  Cutting hay, cover crops, small grains, etc.
    It would be especially interesting to hear from small farmers in Europe or Asia who have small scale equipment and manage a 3-8 hectare integrated farm. This blog is an excellent place for these discussions. Thanks for making it possible, Mike.

  13. Mike

    I don’t use the horse drawn sickle bar, but I do use a dump rake as pictured. I cut 1 acre of straw grass for litter for my chickens and then rake it with a dump rake that I have rigged to my 13 hp  BCS 830.  Small scale farm is a wondrous joy.

  14. Jeff

    Very cool, Mike. I’ll bet that there’s a lot of equipment designed for horse draw that can be rigged to a two-wheeled tractor.  I’ve been thinking of looking for small cultivators and other equipment. Your photo of your dump rake is an inspiration.

  15. Mike

    Hey Jeff,  Joel at Earth Tools in Kentucky is the best source of info and implements for 2 wheel tractors I have found.  He is a great guy to deal with. Here is a link to a cultivator that he offers What kind of tractor do you have? How much land are you working? We live on 90 acres but will only plant about 1.5 acres next year (more than enough for an old man doing it part time thats for sure).

  16. Jeff

    Hi, Mike. We bought a 12 hp diesel Grillo 131 from Joel and you’re right, he’s a great resource. He steered us right when we bought our attachments and we ended up getting a rotary plough and a power harrow as our secondary tiller (we also have a flail mower). Next, I think is a Biagioli tool bar and cultivator.
    2009 was our first full year on the farm and we cultivated 1.5 acres with half of that in cover crop. We put up a hoop-house this fall. You’re right as well– that’s a lot to start with and age is certainly a factor, especially with a foundation to roof house reno underway. The farm is 176 acres of which 42 is tillable. The part not in our organic market garden production is in hay which we sell as standing hay to a neighbour. The long term plan is to have some livestock to graze and then we’ll keep most of the hay. At that point, the Grillo will not be able to handle the volume and we’ll need to move to our 35 hp Kubota which is primarily used right now for its front loader (moving a giant manure pile, snow removal, etc) and heavy lifting like post removal. We don’t take the Kubota onto the fields that are in vegetable production as we try to keep the weight off and compaction to a minimum.
    So, we’re tiny in the way we handle our mid-sized farm but our eastern Ontario site will keep scale small because of wetlands, rocks forests and odd-shaped fields. There’s an opportunity to move to a mid-scale operation as Mike discusses in his first posting on this topic but wisdom is telling us to keep it small and do things better over time, I think. It seems we’re all learning as we go.

  17. Mike

    Jeff, we are in Virginia. I think if I had it to do over again I might get the Grillo just because of some of the attachments.  I increased the hp on the BCS to handle the flail mower and I have Berta Rotary plow, which is invaluable. In addition there is a sickle bar mower, which I love, a scrapper blade, which I hate and is rusting away. There also is disk that has never worked very well. We have clay soil and many rocks. I actually play more than farm but we do sell, barter and give away veggies. We had about 300 free-range laying hens until last year.  I am hoping to retire from my regular job in the next year or two, get more chickens, and increase to about two acres. Right now, half of our cultivated land is also in cover crop as well. I am also looking at a Kubota L35 with a front-end load and a scraper blade. We moved here 18 years ago, I have done most by hand buy I am now 58, and things are a little more demanding on my body than my body is ready to deal with. Yesterday I was turning the compost by hand and said this is enough I need to break down and buy the damn tractor. It is snowing today so the tractor would be handy we have a little over ½ mile of road to tend. I have a blog but am not very good at keeping it up. Let stay in touch.

  18. EtienneG

    Mike, specifically, which implement for Grillo would tip the balance?
    I am vaguely considering a Grillo over a BCS because they are cheaper, however BCS may win in the end because there does not appear to be a Grillo dealer in my part of the world.  If there was must-have implement for the Grillo that where no available for BCS, I may reconsider.
    EtienneG, aspiring market farmer in Québec (zone 4b)

  19. Jeff

    Hi, Etienne
    There is no Canadian dealer for Grillo but Earth Tools in Kentucky can deal with you directly. Joel Dufour at Earth Tools has lots of customers in Canada and has been great with us, sending us parts when needed and offering advice. Also, they have a tremendous inventory of parts and implements as well as hands on experience using them. Mike gave the link to their site in his December 4 posting above.
    Joel can also give you information to help support your decision for Grillo versus BCS since they carry both.
    Bon chance

  20. Mike

    Etienne I believe that Jeff has given you the answer I would have given, Joel at Earth tools is great and services BCS all over North America.  I have  a BCS dealer about 10 miles from my farm but still buy everything from Joel because I an call him and he usually has it in stock and most of all knows more about BCS than anyone I have ever met. As far as Grillo vs BCS,  I was mistaken I would like to buy a sub soiler and thought it would only fit the Grillo it turns out it will also fit the BCS 848 still larger than my 830.  All in all I love the BCS.
    Good luck

  21. Mike, Jeff
    I just wanted to say thanks to you guys for sharing your experience.  I bookmarked Earth Tools web site, and will think about it further (set to buy only in a year from now).  The choice between Grillo and BCS will probably boil down to cash, and I will see then.  I have to say that the BCS does appear to have a better set of implement, so I am leaning this way.  We will see!

  22. Ronald Currie

    I am looking for a small sickle  bar mower that can be used with a small compact Kubota tractor. I live just outside North Bay, Ontario.  Please contact me if you have or Know where I can get  this item. Thank you.

  23. Ronald Currie

    Regarding a small sickle bar mower, if you know where one is available for sale please e-mail me at currie  Thanks very much.

  24. gretta

    I have a question about the shaft between the wheels in the photo; it’s the adjustment lever which is squeezed by the handle to release the stop in the cog so that the disk is raised or lowered…. I’m wondering if anyone can tell me what it’s called?
    (new to your blog- very interesting premise. whether sustainable/adaptable to american culture of today, it’s useful- on any scale- for the public to know where and how their food is grown. glad you’re willing to share.)

  25. Milan Hollyday

    Great article.

    This is irrelevant, but what is your favorite soil conditioning fertilizer? I’ve tried Pro-Gro on my veggie garden, but I don’t know how happy I am with the results. Anyone have suggestions?

  26. Georgina

    This is the question i am also playing with, large scale, 50 acre market gardening with high diverstiy. I watched the neighbour cultivate and sow 3 hectares of beans he took the same time i did to sow 12 100m beds with a stanhay. to then be thawted by dense weed bank. its the same with broad acre the mental manaement it takes to pre and sow a hectare of any thing compared to the mixed diverse cropping takes huge amounts of mental planning and well planning is not the solution all farmers know it’s the body rhythem of cropping your farm your seasons the smell in the air. but time wise comparitavely it takes about the same time set up the seeder, and change implements these are the time takers and time is money even pushing a seeder is quick for realy tiny but it is never as acurate as a stanhay. I am scaling up my garlic production 120kgs first year 700kgs scond hopefully 5 ton in my third. if i stuck to just garlic ….. but this doesn’t seem right the challenge lies in feeding your community.
    it the same with my csa 5 members year one 20 members year two 50 year three etc to get to 200 off 3 hectares is the aim. To have the farms 50 acres producing for a CSA now that would be interesting rather than the 5 lines we currently manage.
    I could spend a whole morning selling stuff at my farmers market and make a few hundred bucks or i could sell 2 tons of one line to my wholesaler in the same time and make 5 times my market takings there are ceilings at markets and the prep involved is huge!
    But the tiny farm still ploughs and disks this even though borrowed is not light weight equipment but the coop model is what we practise on the farm sharing implemts between farms and farmers is a bloody good idea.
    I am in New Zealand so we use hectares and kgs and stuff like that :)

    • Yes, that seems to be the question: how big to go? I have no illusions that tiny farming on 2-3 acres is on its own a viable way to feed the masses and reset the food system. It is hard to see how, say, 25 2-acre farms could be nearly as efficient as one 50 acre farm, with both growing and marketing. If we are indeed getting back to more local, sustainable food production, it seems pretty clear that the mid-size farm is the way to go, 50-200 acres at least, depending on crops and livestock. There are many ways bigger farms could work as far as people, both in ownership and labor. Where I am, the current cost of land is more or less prohibitive when it comes to farming it for a living, starting from a working person’s budget. Even generational farmers who have inherited their land have to work out to make farming ends meet – I think the figure on that is something like 75% of farmers in Canada have to take a second job. So the way to bigger requires a lot of more social and political (as far as zoning and other legal issues) work, in addition to simply scaling up production.

      Balancing that, the tiny farm is a start and a valuable test bed! It is fairly easy to get started on rented land – unused farmland is unfortunately plentiful. And the same inefficiencies you mention, with prepping, seeding and so forth in the market garden, compared to growing fewer crops on a larger scale, are advantages on several levels. With our new,crazy, unpredictable weather, growing many crops and varieties in multiple plantings is a much safer bet than committing to a few crops and varieties, and this can be done quite efficiently when you are small – we can no longer rely on weather conditions or pest cycles, so any sort of monocropping seems more risky than ever. And then, the direct contact with the actual end consumer – through CSA, at the market, on the farm stand – is also an advantage, it builds a resilient, reliable customer base, and helps rekindle real local economic infrastructure: overall, I’d rather rely on direct to consumer in uncertain times than on wholesale.

      So I think the kind of tiny farming that you are talking about, and that I cover on this blog, taking place in our “affluent” society and the context of the existing industrial food chain, is collectively the beginning of a something rather than an end in itself. And where is it headed would be the real question! :)

  27. Russ


    I have a question for anyone here who might be able to answer it. I have an old belt driven sickle mower made of what looks like iron. Where can i locate the numbers or code on it that would identify the make, model and manufacture? Plus where can I find some good photos of this style of old farm equipment? My Uncle left it here on his farm after he passed and I am trying to figure if I can restore it or if parts are still available. Thank you in advance for any answers.

  28. Liam

    I am selling what I believe to be sickle bar mower, if any one has any interest in buying one!
    It’s currently on eBay!

  29. khizar

    I am interested to purchase sickle bar push mower – manual -. I shall appreciate if some one could advice me. Thanks,

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