The first time I heard about such a thing as a walking tractor was when Phil Whalen got one.
Phil was in his early sixties and wanted one to make hay on his five-acre homestead just outside of Dayton, Ohio. He and his wife had a huge vegetable garden, raised chickens, and fattened a few head of cattle for themselves and friends. The Whalens were actually the first people I ever knew who raised chickens, and I met them when I was about thirty years old. That story—of my disconnection from nature and food, and how I’ve worked to correct it over the past decade—is a long one that I hope to share in time. For now I want to ruminate on BCS walking tractors.
I think Phil actually had a Grillo—a competitor of BCS—but it’s the same principle: a huge lawnmower-looking machine on two wheels that powers all kinds of different implements, from grass cutters and hay rakes to tillers, snowblowers, and wood chippers. Both BCS and Grillo are Italian companies. The Italians call them motocultivatori, which I assume means, roughly, “motor cultivators.”
Being a “motor cultivator” implies that a primary focus of the machine is working soil. And this is correct.
I don’t remember the first and second times I heard about every item or concept in life, but I actually do know the second time I heard about a walking tractor. It was in a profile on J.M. Fortier that I read in Acres U.S.A. magazine—the first Acres I ever read, which I bought at a Tractor Supply store in Maryland a year or two after leaving the Whalens and Ohio.
J.M. became the world’s most famous market gardener with his book The Market Gardener, and he was—and continues to be—a big proponent of the BCS.
Professional market gardeners like J.M. use three or four different BCS implements. They break the ground initially with either the tiller attachment or—similarly, but with better results—a rotary plow. Then they use a power harrow to work in amendments and to produce a perfectly level bed for direct-seeding. When they’re done with a crop, or when they’ve planted a cover crop and want to mow it down, they use a flail mower.
I’ve read a ton of farmer profiles over the years, and I can’t recall ever hearing about a market gardener using any attachment on their machine other than these four. And by themselves, these three or four attachments are great—they do everything a small-scale grower needs to prepare beds for planting.
But I’m not a full-time market gardener. I’m just a homesteader. Yet I chose to purchase a BCS. Why?
Copy the Pros
After reading that article in Acres about J.M. Fortier (and full disclosure—I ended up a few years later working for Acres, and I still proofread their magazine every month and do some other freelance work for them), I started looking into other growers who were using the BCS and came upon Curtis Stone and his podcasts with Diego Footer (more full disclosure—Diego runs this blog, and I do freelance work for him!).
One of the things I remember Curtis and Diego discussing at some point was that people who weren’t professional growers—like me—could still learn a lot from the pros. They encouraged folks to take from the commercial farmers what worked and apply it to their own context.
So this has been my philosophy from the get-go on homesteading. It meshes well with my personality too. I tend to take my hobbies pretty seriously: doing a ton of research, tracking everything with spreadsheets, buying quality equipment and tools, etc.
I should also mention that my goal for homesteading is to produce as much of my family’s food as possible. In Prosperous Homesteading—one of my favorite books on the subject—Greg Jeffers refutes the idea that all you have to do to homestead is have a few raised beds and some chickens. If you seriously want to grow most of your own food, you have to raise staple crops—both for yourself and your animals—things like wheat, oats, potatoes, corn, hay, etc. And to do this you need a few acres of ground and traction of some sort. Lasagna beds with cardboard covered by woodchips and compost are great, but you aren’t going to grow enough wheat to feed your family that way. I say this not to denigrate anyone who’s perfectly content with a small garden and a few layers—that’s great—but we’re looking to do more.
The great blessing and curse of my personal context is that I was in the Army until this past year. This meant that my family and I had to move every three years, vastly limiting what we were eager to start doing homesteading-wise. But it also meant that I had years to learn by reading, listening, and watching. And, not insignificantly, it now has given me the financial freedom to work from home and to be able to do the myriad of homesteading things my family and I have dreamed of for years on the ten acres we recently purchased in Michigan.
I still haven’t answered the question of why the BCS, though, as opposed to other tools. What are those other options?
The first was to buy a new subcompact-class tractor—something like a Kubota B-series. This would do everything I intend to do here on our ten acres. Its great advantage over the BCS is the front loader. The BCS can do lots of things, but it can’t turn compost or raise up a 300-pound pig for processing.
Another option was an older tractor. This would save significantly price-wise compared to a brand-new Kubota or even a new BCS. Old tractors require a lot of maintenance, but at least most of that maintenance can be done at home. I’m not a super mechanically skilled person, although no one can repair the electronics in a modern tractor or car themselves.
The last non-BCS option, which I only entertained for a few days (over the course of several years) was horse traction. Unlike tractors, horses reproduce. But they also have to be fed year-round, and—most importantly—I don’t know anything about horses. Our kids would have loved this option … but I just didn’t feel comfortable with it. It’d be a lot easier conscience-wise to ruin a transmission than to accidentally hurt a horse or have a horse hurt one of us.
Unsurprisingly, I made a spreadsheet to analyze all these options.
The Winning Factors
After I retired from the Army in the spring of 2020 I spent a year working on a cattle farm in Alabama. In keeping with the “do it like the pros” mentality, I wanted to learn how to graze cattle. I considered commercially farming for a while—a story for another day—but this experience relates to my BCS decision because the farm I was at had an old BCS 853 that they weren’t using. It was in fair—not great—condition, and for a few months I thought about buying it from them.
In the meantime, I re-analyzed all the BCS implement options and drooled over what I wanted to get. Besides its soil-working capabilities, there are a number of high-quality Italian-made implements that are perfect for a homestead—a snowblower, a pressure washer, a chipper/shredder, a generator, a large utility cart, and more. Things that in the absence of a BCS would all require their own motors; with the BCS there’s only one engine to maintain.
The farm ended up deciding to not sell their BCS, though, and when I started to research what it would cost to get all those implements I now desired for a tractor, the number got very high—in the $45,000 price range, with a new Kubota. I ended up getting my BCS 853 and pretty much every implement I wanted for under $17,000.
Another thing that won me over to the BCS was the fact that it doesn’t contain any microchips. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not hugely proficient in the garage, but the 853 is relatively easy to self-service, and Joel at Earthtools (earthtools.com) has posted a fairly extensive collection of maintenance documents and vehicles. Since I bought from them, I’m also able to call for support anytime.
Finally, I was attracted to the BCS by the general philosophical notion that tools should fit the scale of the operation. Ten acres isn’t a thousand, but it isn’t a quarter-acre lawn, either. I needed some serious mechanical power, but I honestly don’t need a tractor. I have four kids to turn compost for me. I’ll buy a steel-chain block hoist to elevate a butchered pig. And my neighbors in every direction own “real” tractors and would love to come help out the guy who doesn’t think he needs one.
At the end of the day, I believe that the BCS is a tool that fits my context. In coming posts I hope to explain that context—to provide an apologetic of sorts for the lifestyle my family and I have chosen—and to describe other tools and plans (and hopefully results) that we achieve on the homestead.
Fitting the Context
I don’t know how much Phil Whalen ended up using his Grillo to make hay. We moved a few months after he got it, and I remember him being frustrated—not with the machine itself, but with his cut hay getting rained on and becoming useless.
Now, ten years later, I finally have a BCS of my own to experiment with here on the homestead. I don’t plan to make hay with it—we have a neighbor who grows basically organic alfalfa, and I have a scythe for little bits here and there, as needed—but I’m optimistic that it’s going to be a quality, long-lasting tool for us.
So far so good—three days in, at least.
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