At the 2024 Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association Conference, Joel Dufour said, “When you say ‘tractor’ to an American, they automatically think of something with a steering wheel, a seat and four wheels. If you say ‘tractor’ in Europe, you have to specify what type of tractor you’re talking about – two-wheel or four-wheel. Especially in the smaller countries (Italy, France, Germany), a lot of agriculture occurs on mountainous terrain, and four-wheel tractors are simply not practical to use in those types of situations.”

Dufour owns a company specializing in walk-behind tractors called Earth Tools Inc. Its motto is “Farming with Your Feet on the Earth.” Most of Dufour’s customers are working soil on one to three acres on average and/or mowing and making hay on an average of five to 15 acres.

What is a Walk-Behind Tractor?

Dufour is a strong proponent of the walk-behind tractor. He wants farmers, particularly small-scale vegetable producers, to understand that a true walk-behind tractor is built with the same construction qualities as a four-wheel tractor: hardened steel, all-gear drive, automotive clutch, ball bearings supporting all shafts and oil enclosed gear boxes.

A walk-behind tractor is used with detachable implements, just like a four-wheel tractor. A walk-behind tractor, however, is not a single purpose machine like a rototiller or a snowblower. He said, “It is not a disposable piece of equipment.”

In Dufour’s opinion, it’s also not a true walk-behind tractor unless the handlebars turn 180º, allowing the PTO to be positioned in the front or rear depending on where the handlebars are oriented. This allows implements like mowers to be in the front (where the material gets mowed before you drive over it) and tillage tools to be in the rear (so you do not leave tire tracks in worked soil).

On modern models, reversing the handlebars takes around a minute. A walk-behind tractor is also equipped with an in-line all-gear transmission, not driven by belts or chains.

What Can You Do with a Walk-Behind Tractor?

“Anyone who thinks that a walk-behind tractor is something that’s just a fancy rototiller – once they see a hay baler on it, they change their mind. I bale hay with mine,” Dufour said.

Currently, there are over 50 implements available for walk-behind tractors in a broad range of categories including soil working, mowing, snow removal, chipping and shredding, wood splitting, stump grinding, seeding and spraying. There are even implements for pressure washing, precision seeding and digging shallow trenches.

There are many advantages to using walk-behind tractors, including the number of attachments available for the various tasks required around smaller farming operations. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

One tillage tool Dufour likes is the rotary plow implement. Its primary function is to break ground. “This thing is like the bottom end of a post hole digger. It’s a spinning auger that’s turning at 250 RPM, and its sort of screwing itself into the ground as the tractor draws it along. The soil travels up the fluted blades and is just thrown centrifugally out the side as the blades come up and clear the soil,” he explained.

According to Dufour, the rotary plow allows the operator to reach a foot of worked soil depth in one pass. Because it’s a vertical axis device, the only parts of the implement that contact the soil at the bottom are the four-pointed blade tips, so the amount of ground surface contact on the bottom is very minimal, helping to avoid a hardpan.

For secondary tillage, Dufour advocated for a power harrow that uses multiple sets of tines on a vertical axis for a horizontal tillage of the soil. He said, “You could get no mixing of soil layers; you get no hard pan formation because there’s nothing descending through the soil. You get no weed seeds brought up from the bottom layers of soil. Your soil microbes that are at the top stay at the top.”

Walk-behind tractors are particularly effective when working in high tunnels. With a bed shaper implement, growers can quickly form raised 30-inch beds. A plastic mulch layer can also be attached. Dufour offers a customized mulch layer that can handle the biodegradable paper mulches preferred by some growers.

Cover crop management can also be achieved with a walk-behind tractor. “A crimper roller to crimp down a standing cover crop or a flail mower to grind up a cover crop and kill it are two very popular and effective options for dealing with cover crops,” Dufour said.

Why Choose a Walk-Behind Tractor?

According to Dufour, a walk-behind tractor and implements typically costs about one-third of what a new compact four-wheel tractor with the same implement costs. By his estimates, a compact four-wheel tractor with hay mower, rake, tedder and baler costs roughly $50,000; a walk-behind tractor and the same implements runs about $19,000.

Walk-behind tractors are also more efficient than four-wheel tractors in terms of fuel usage and space. The turning radius of a four-wheel-drive tractor typically is equal to two or three times the length of the tractor. The turning radius of a walk-behind tractor is simply the length of the machine.

“The area of your ground that is not cropped is reduced because your equipment requires less space to maneuver and work. You’re just reducing the overall work because you don’t have to weed all that,” said Dufour.

He also emphasized that compared with four-wheel tractors, walk-behind tractors can be more safely operated on steep slopes. They’re also simpler and cheaper to maintain and repair – and he appreciates the additional exercise that using a walk-behind tractor provides.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin