If you drive around a rural area, you’ll see some big, shiny new tractors out in the fields just about every day. But during the busiest times of year — planting and harvest seasons — you’ll see plenty of old tractors as well. Farmers tend to use their newest tractors more, because they are less likely to break down. But they also keep their older tractors around, sometimes for twenty years or longer, for those “all hands on deck” situations.
At Terra Firma, we definitely keep tractors until they die. Because we produce so many different kinds of crops, we need more tractors than most farms our size. Orchard tractors are low to the ground and narrow, while vegetable tractors are tall and wide. We spread lots of compost, which means we need a tractor with a bucket loader. And because so many of the tasks we do with tractors are highly time-sensitive, it’s a good practice to always have backup tractors for the important tasks.
We have 10 tractors and we generally keep most of them pretty busy. It can be frustrating if there’s a task that needs to be done, but there’s no tractor available that can do it. So it’s nice to have a tractor that can do most, if not everything, that needs to get done at any time. Unfortunately, the tractor companies don’t make many of those.
There’s one tractor at Terra Firma that can do more different tasks than any other. Not surprisingly, it’s everyone’s favorite. It’s small enough to fit in the orchards but it’s powerful enough to do many of the tasks in the vegetable fields. It’s also very intuitive to drive, which many tractors are not.
Being everyone’s favorite tractor (EFT), though, is not necessarily a good thing. A tractor’s life is measured in hours instead of miles, and Terra Firma’s EFT has almost 10,000 hours — the equivalent of 300,000 miles — on it. It’s banged up and rusty. And “it’s had some work done”, so to speak.
Some people might die of a broken heart, but tractors tend to die from being loved too much. Two weeks ago, our EFT suffered a fatal injury to its transmission. This came just a month after an extensive and expensive repair of its implement-lifting system. The expense of the transmission repair simply can’t be justified for such a heavily-used tractor, no matter how well-loved.
While shopping for a nice used replacement for the EFT, I discovered that 2019 is exactly the wrong year to find one. That’s because as of this year, the state of California is requiring all new “medium sized” tractors to use a new emission-control system. Those new systems appear to be failing at an alarmingly high rate, and tractor dealers are recommending the farmers lease them rather than buying.
Most farmers are not interested in being beta-testers for buggy new technology, even if it’s a leased one. When you get a new tractor, you expect it use it all the time for several years. If a brand new tractor has to go back for repairs every two weeks, there’s no point in having it.
Combined with the general economic slowdown in agriculture, the new tractor emissions rules have caused a shortage of late-model tractors without emissions control systems: there simply aren’t any for sale. So we will limp along for the rest of the year without our favorite tractor, until auction season comes along in the winter, and see if we can find a replacement.