License to Till

tractorBehind a Lexus hybrid SUV in a lot on Hoyt Street off Atlantic Avenue, you can spot Andrew Sarno’s tractor, all 2,500 pounds of it. “It just sits out here getting rained on,” Sarno admits. A solid piece of gray-painted cast iron, the 1946 Ford-Ferguson 2N points its curved front end demurely toward the community garden across the street.

“Sure,” Sarno says, when I ask him if he has a green thumb, “I grow some tomatoes in the yard.” The Park Slope resident isn’t going back to the land or heading off the grid anytime soon, though—get him going on the topic of alternate-side parking and you can tell he’s a Brooklynite for life.

So is the thing a white elephant? “I wanted an antique something or other,” recounts the former furniture restorer, who bought a building and lot on Hoyt Street in 1977, and became the go-to guy for the antique stores that until recently formed the lifeblood of this end of Atlantic Avenue. As the neighborhood changed, Sarno shuttered his shop and became a carpenter. About 10 years ago, he says, he started hungering for something to restore. Antique cars were his first thought, but they’re big and expensive. On a 1998 family vacation in Union, Maine, he saw used tractors for sale, but came home without one.“I spent the whole year thinking about it,” he recalls, echoes of lovesick longing in his voice. Next summer he was back, and for $800 he had his own tractor. For another $1,600 the place offered to deliver his purchase to Brooklyn, which Sarno hadn’t expected. “Before then, I never knew anything about a tractor,” he says. But he had one, so he rented a U-Haul and drove it to its new urban home.

The tractor, to Sarno’s delight, required fixing up. He began research, joining mailing lists and subscribing to newsletters. Turns out, there were thousands of these models built, and owning them remains a popular hobby. In more rural environs, they’re still pretty useful. Sarno says he knows a guy in Massachusetts who runs the only tobacco farm north of the Mason-Dixon and maintains a fleet of about 30 antique tractors because they’re small enough to drive right into the drying barn.

Sarno attended tractor shows and corresponded with parts guys in Maine and Indiana—who were surprised by his New York address. The engine went down South in a crate to be rebuilt. He did the wiring and painting himself, sticking to the original gun- metal gray. And the tires—well, those he got from a place right on the Gowanus!

As he assembled parts, he learned a lot about these machines, which tugged planes during WWII, and were used for everything from post-hole drilling to pumping. “The original tractors were like generators—portable power plants. Before them, farmers used to just carry one-cylinder engines out into the fields, and use them to run combines, anything mechanical. Then they put them on wheels.”

Sarno remembers seeing farmland at the end of the N line on subway trips to Coney Island as a kid. But despite becoming the only tractor-owning member of the Antique Automobile Association of Brooklyn back in 1999, he hasn’t found an opportunity to cultivate crops. He considered getting a plow to grade the snow in the parking lot he owns, but there hasn’t been enough weather to warrant it. The tractor is pretty much out to pasture now. He takes it to local street fairs, so keep an eye out in Bay Ridge on Memorial Day, at the St. Patty’s Parade and at Seventh Heaven. And it has received some nice invitations over the years, most recently to the 30th anniversary of the Greenmarket in Union Square. “Seeing an antique tractor in the middle of Manhattan, you had to step back a little and just look at it,” he says proudly.

Since his kids are grown and the restoration is complete, there’s not much to do except love and care for the tough little farm vehicle. Plus, the talkative Sarno points out, it’s a great conversation piece. “But I can’t take it to get gas on a Friday night—people go crazy, they honk, holler and hoot!” Which just goes to show that more than one Brooklynite is susceptible to the charms of a ’46 Ford Fergie.

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Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer, co-author of The Flexitarian Table and a blogger for fitpregnancy.com. She grew up in Park Slope, lives in Sunset Park and regularly eats her way down Fifth Avenue to Bay Ridge.