A Review of The Two-Wheeled Tractor Handbook: Small-Scale Equipment and Innovative Techniques for Boosting Productivity by Zach Loeks
By Paul Meyer, Editor of Acres U.S.A. Magazine
The two-wheel tractor fills a unique niche in the agricultural world. Large-scale producers with their “real” four-wheel tractors scoff at what they think of as a glorified rototiller, but anyone who uses one is way more seriously into food production than a suburban raised-bed gardener. Two-wheel tractors are incredibly simple to maintain compared to their four-wheel cousins. And there are dozens of attachments that make it indispensable for smaller-scale farmers and serious homesteaders.
In other words, two-wheel tractors and a perfect example of a scale-appropriate tool. And now there’s an entire book dedicated to their uses and functions: The Two-Wheel Tractor Handbook by Zach Loeks.
Loeks is a small-scale grower in New Mexico who has used two-wheel tractors his whole life. Through this book he aims to “return the two-wheel tractor to its rightful place as a small-scale solution for land management, especially for diversified and highly profitable stewardship of farms, homesteads, and landscapes.”
The book does a good job of explaining the “why” of a technology like the two-wheel tractor. They originated nearly 150 years ago, and non-PTO versions were used extensively for tillage applications in the U.S. in the middle part of the last century. But they really became useful when engineers added the PTO and the swiveling handbars, which enable implements to be attached either in front of the engine (like a sickle-bar mower, flail mower or snowblower) or behind it (like a rotary plow or power harrow).
Two-wheel tractors became particularly popular in Italy in the 20th century. Smaller farming plots due to centuries of land division, along with its undulating or even mountainous terrain, meant that a smaller machine was often more useful than a larger one. Four-wheel tractors can be especially dangerous on slopes; steel-cage wheels — some of them with spikes — enable two-wheel tractors to be used on incredibly steep hillsides.
The convergence here in North America at the beginning of this century of a revival in both market gardening and the homesteading/permaculture movement has made two-wheel tractors more popular than ever. They are a staple on small market farms for forming beds (with the rotary plow or tiller), chopping cover crops and crop residue (with the flail mower) and developing perfect beds for direct seeding (with the power harrow or tiller with precision depth roller). Homesteaders use them for garden preparation but also for splitting firewood, carting around woodchips, pumping water, clearing snow and a number of other tasks.
I have to confess that I’m biased in this conversation — I own a BCS 853 and about a dozen attachments and am a huge fan. I use my BCS practically daily for all of the uses mentioned above, plus some. The generator keeps my essential appliances functioning during power outages. The log splitter does its part in keeping us warm all winter. The potato digger lifts spuds at harvest time. The attachment that gets the most use is probably the humble cart, which moves firewood, compost and anything else around my 10 acres.
All of these functions would be possible on a four-wheel tractor. The reason I — and many others — chose a two-wheel tractor boil down to two things: maintenance/simplicity and cost.
As Loeks explains, and I can corroborate, a two-wheel tractor is powered by a simple 13-hp engine that doesn’t require any electronics. In other words, I can maintain it myself (particularly with the aid of the incredibly helpful videos and documents available from Joel Dofour of Earth Tools in Kentucky). And I don’t need to maintain multiple engines for a tiller and a logsplitter and a generator — it’s just the one.
Cost-wise, compared to a small four-wheel tractor, the BCS is a no-brainer. I splurged on every implement I wanted (minus the haymaking equipment … I’m still considering that!) and spent less than $25,000. To get a small Kubota and the same functionality would easily cost twice as much — probably three times. Plus I get the exercise. Admittedly, I don’t have the bucket or towing capacity of a four-wheel tractor. But I have three very kind neighbors who do, and most anyone who lives rurally probably does as well.
The Two-Wheel Tractor Handbook has many helpful diagrams and infographics. Anyone considering buying a BCS will benefit immensely from Loeks’s in-depth discussion of all the pros and cons of purchasing the machine and the different types of implements. He takes a very holistic, systems-based approach to decision-making that will benefit new and old two-wheel-tractor users alike.
Loeks also includes a comprehensive system on the use of two-wheel tractors to form different types of garden beds. I’ll admit that my bedmaking was a bit haphazard this past year — I eyeballed a lot of it, and this was fine for growing food for my family. But professional growers will want more precision, and Loeks describes the best techniques for doing so on a number of different scales.
He also provides a number of helpful case studies of growers who have successfully adapted the two-wheel tractor to their environment, along with photos and diagrams that show what’s possible with this tool.
This book will be of particular usefulness to newer farmers/homesteaders, but all users will benefit from it. I picked up a few helpful tips, particularly related to maintenance.
Two-wheel tractors aren’t for everyone. But at the right scale — the quarter-acre intensive market farm to the 10- or 20-acre homestead — it’s the perfect tool for the job.