Jason Weston, of Joe’s Gardens, leads Planet Jr. revivalMar 4th, 2017 | Category: Features
by Mary Vermillion
Jason Weston, co-owner of Joe’s Gardens, is inspiring farmers and gardeners across the country to scour barns and collectors’ shelves for antique Planet Jr. farm equipment. With Weston sharing online and in-person tips to rebuild and operate the neglected — or simply collected — machinery, Planet Jr. walk-behind tractors are back in fields, turning soil and helping converts save time, increase production and reclaim decades-old farming know-how.
Beginning in the 1870s and continuing through the 1960s, S.L. Allen & Company workers built Planet Jr. tractors and attachments as well as seeding, fertilizing and cultivating equipment for small farms and gardeners at a factory in Philadelphia. Weston admires Planet Jr.’s quality and craftsmanship, but while he’s passionate about the tractors now, it wasn’t love at first sight.
“My Dad used (the farm’s original) Planet Jr. tractor in the 50s at Joe’s (when he was working for founder Joe Bertero), and I used it as a kid. But, it took 30 minutes to get the engine started, and I didn’t understand how it worked,” Weston recalled. Among the tractor’s design features are gauge wheels that act as a rudder, allowing farmers to walk the tractor down a crop row in a straight line. “When I was younger, I thought those gauge wheels were just about depth,” Weston said. “All I could think about was how deep I could (plow). The wheels do provide some depth control but realizing they were more of a rudder was a revelation. I was blown away by what I could do and how fast. No one is designing for old style truck farming or market farming, (so it’s great to) find equipment designed and tested over decades to do just exactly what I’m doing.”
For farms the size of Joe’s, Planet Jr. and similar walk-behind tractors are the perfect bridge between back-breaking hand weeding and a large, gas-powered machine, which would be overkill for smaller rows.
A skilled mechanic, Weston began tinkering with Joe’s Garden’s Planet Jr. tractor and soon realized how to maximize its use. With the encouragement of his dad, he ignored purist instincts and rebuilt the stubborn engine. With that annoyance solved, he was hooked.
Eager to share his newfound appreciation for the classic small farm equipment, Weston signed up for his first social media accounts and found Facebook groups devoted to Planet Jr. and similar wheel hoes. He began posting how he was rebuilding and using the farm equipment. Word spread and Weston’s Planet Jr. renovations quickly became an old-fashioned solution for today’s small farmers. With the help of Facebook and eBay, Weston and others are discovering Planet Jr. equipment in the Midwest and East Coast where truck farm culture was firmly established during S.L. Allen’s hey-day. This network moves the vintage parts and equipment around the country.
According to Weston, a total of four Planet Jr. tractors were working fields in the U.S. in 2016. This year, a few hundred are in action across 40 to 50 farms. His own collection has expanded beyond that original reluctant tractor to a small fleet of rebuilt Planet Jr. tractors and a rolling rack of attachments built by Weston for various row set-ups.
Weston walks 20 miles a day in the summer working the 5 acres at Joe’s. A tractor with a single weeding attachment can cultivate 250 row feet in a minute, saving him time and freeing him to help in other parts of the farm. With his new hand-crafted three-row finger weeder attached to his Planet Jr. tractor, he’ll cover 750 row feet per minute. He is, understandably, just a bit giddy at the thought of it. In addition to time, it will save Joe’s Gardens roughly $500 a week in labor costs. Weston said using equipment perfectly tuned for small farms also improves crop quality.
While Weston has located and sold tractors to local farmers in the past, he is now focused on sharing his know-how. In addition to exchanging ideas with Facebook groups, he posts videos of the equipment in use on his You Tube channel, The Market Garden Farmer, and he welcomes farmers to try out his Planet Jr. equipment by working the ground at Joe’s.
By researching how to use the equipment, Weston is also reclaiming centuries-old farming know-how. His collection of vintage Planet Jr. catalogs feature descriptions of forgotten equipment and farming techniques.
“I’ve been farming for 30-some years. Joe and Dad taught me how to do everything. I didn’t ask why,” Weston said. “We did it because it was efficient and made sense. By reading the old catalogs, I’m learning the why.”
He’s also having to explain to his online community and to farmers who visit Joe’s with questions. “I had to stop and ask: Why do I do it that way? It was an epiphany.”
Regardless of the machinery, Weston is an eager farmer. “Some people enjoy sitting behind a computer. Some people enjoying working with customers. Some of us enjoy the challenge of farming and working with our hands,” he said. “It’s a lot of strategy and thinking. No two years are the same. Every season Is different. It’s a kick. I love it even more now.”
And that obsession with Planet Jr. equipment? “It’s pure joy to find old weird equipment and get it out in the field and use it for its real purpose,” he said. “It can be 90 degrees outside, and I’m sweating like no tomorrow, but if I’m out on my Planet Jr. tractor, I’m the happiest camper on the planet.”
About Joe’s Gardens
Joe’s Gardens, located at 3110 Taylor Avenue in Bellingham, opens the first week in March. Check their website for hours at joesgarden.com.
Joe’s Gardens is one of the original remaining truck farms in the Northwest, harvesting produce fresh and selling it to the community from the farm stand. Brothers Jason and Nathan Weston carry on the tradition established in the 1920s by Joe and Ann Bertero. Their parents Carl and Karol Weston purchased the farm in 1983. It was a dream come true for Carl, who had worked at the garden with Joe. In 2007, the Westons passed day-to-day operations to their sons, but they still work at the garden along with a crew of seasonal workers. Customers can expect to find all their favorites again this season as well as reassuring advice from owner Jason Weston: “I’ve been farming for 30 years. I never worry about failure. It takes a long time to get really good at this. Be patient. If it doesn’t work out, try again next year.”