Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
Eugene Canales: Farm Equipment Idea Man
by Karen Van Epen, NCAT Program Specialist
Photos courtesy of Ferrari Tractors
In 1973 Eugene Canales bought land near the little Sacramento Valley town of Gridley, California. He wanted to farm, but lived in San Francisco where he worked for the federal government. At first he only came up to his land on weekends.
Then in 1979 Canales quit his job in the city, moved north, and began growing vegetables and doing farm work. He helped organize a farmers' market in the nearby town of Oroville, but found it did not provide enough customers for all the vendors.
The local Ferrari tractor dealer quit in 1987 and Canales took over the business. Ferraris were popular with Sacramento Valley kiwi growers because the machines were small and sturdy. Able to pass under the trellises and negotiate hilly terrain, these low-profile, low-impact tractors were perfect for orchards, vineyards, and small market farmers.
Italian Regional Specialties: Farm Machines
The business developed slowly and Canales went looking for implements to match the tractors. He found plenty. It turns out that the varied countryside of Italy has spawned many small farm machinery manufacturers, each with their own regional specialties, catering to local crop preferences and soil types.
These companies have designed tractors of all sizes and configurations—walking and riding—for working the land and for transporting loads on farm lanes. Many of the machines are adapted for the narrow rows of ancient hillside vineyards. It's common for Italian tractors to be very low-slung, with four equal-size drive wheels that provide good traction. The original two-wheeled walking tractors have developed into articulated tractors that steer equally well forward and backward. Several companies make small track-layer transporters, versatile in close quarters.
The variation of implements developed for all these small tractors is staggering. Equipment ranges from spaders, fork lifts, skiploaders, balers, and bed shapers, to greens harvesters, potato diggers, and all kinds of mowers, seeders, and cultivators.
In 1990 Canales started to import spading machines because they "were the biggest breakthrough I had ever seen," he said. "They work really well without creating a hardpan the way that tillers can."
There is a major problem, though. "Spaders are the most expensive tool farmers will buy, after their tractors," Canales said. "Many new small farmers have no established credit rating and are operating on a shoestring, so it is hard for them to buy the equipment."
Even so, spaders caught on in a big way and now Canales shares the market with some other dealers. "There are about five manufacturers, with an infinite number of sizes," he said, "so you can never stock the size everyone wants. These days spaders are respectable, not just a weird implement. For example, at first the Fetzers and the Freys were the only folks to buy these 'radical' machines. Now lots of vineyards use them."
|1961 prototype spader|
For a detailed rundown on various kinds of spaders and how to maintain them, see:
Innovations and Stumbling Blocks
Currently the most exciting new machine is the stone burier, according to Canales. "In Europe they are as common as grass," he said, "But here they are not easily found." As stone buriers cultivate a field, they throw soil back against a grill. Rocks, twigs, and debris don't pass through, so they drop and are covered by the sifted soil. The process creates a fine seedbed suitable for small seeds. For a diagram of how this works, see:
Some types of specialty equipment, while innovative, may face marketing problems. For instance, Canales is often asked about grain harvesting implements. "There are some smaller-size grain binders and combines," he said. "But grain is so cheap and the price of the machines is so high that only very savvy growers who know their markets really well—such as specialty grain dealers and bakeries—will be able to afford these."
Canales' Italian farm equipment suppliers are all small manufacturers, making a few models for every continent. "These businesses can survive because they are able to switch products relatively easily," he said. "They do not employ very many people and they make lots of different machinery."
|Eugene Canales has created a very informative website, with many articles on the history and development of European farm machinery as well as pricing and ordering details. Ferrari Tractors CIE,
"Now that the Euro has gone up 30%," Canales observed, "it is much harder for Americans to purchase European equipment. Two years ago, the dollar and the Euro were more nearly equal." A few domestic equipment manufacturers are producing implements for small fields. T.G. Schmeiser Co. of Fresno, California, makes seed drills designed for the narrow rows of vineyards. S&A Manufacturing builds a two-yard compost spreader that is just a little over four feet wide. These specialty tools are generally built in small batches, only available in certain seasons or by custom order. Undoubtedly the manufacturers would respond to increased demand.
Small farm machinery is an interesting and complicated niche. Most larger American tractor dealers are not interested in selling to market farmers, since there is no mass market. "Because there are so many European manufacturers and so many different set-ups," Canales said, "it is necessary to show all the alternatives, explaining every variation. There is no economy of scale, since every case is different."
Small farms are like that, too. Every situation is unique. It's a continual challenge, where producers have to figure things out all over again every time, field by field.
This page was last updated on: August 26, 2014