Vintage tractors have become one of the hottest items at farm auctions – it's a trend that should be spread far and wide.
My first car was an old Volkswagen Beetle and it was amazing. The mechanics were so simple and logical that at the age of 16 I was able to teach myself how to do basic repairs and maintenance, and parts were easy to get. Now I look under the hood of a car and it makes no sense. It's like a computer and some plastic boxes – where are you supposed to put the wrench?? What a loss.
So it was with excitement and happy resonance when I read about something that is going on in the Midwest: Farmers are scooping up tractors from the late 1970s and 1980s.As Adam Belz writes in the Star Tribune, "Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software."
Belz writes of one farmer, Kris Folland, whose last tractor he bought for his 2,000-acre farm was a 1979 John Deere 4440. He retrofitted it with some modern trappings, like automatic steering guided by satellite, and get this: The tractor cost $18,000, rather than $150,000 or more for a new tractor.
“This is still a really good tractor,” says Folland. It is the third tractor he has that was built prior to 1982.
“They cost a fraction of the price, and then the operating costs are much less because they’re so much easier to fix,” he adds.
And he is not alone. Belz writes that tractors from the late 1970s and 1980s are hot tickets at farm auctions in the Midwest these days.
“It’s a trend that’s been building. It’s been interesting in the last couple years, which have been difficult for ag, to see the trend accelerate,” says Greg Peterson, the founder of Machinery Pete.
“There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson says. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”
While new tractors have some software advantages, they require a computer to repair them. Why would anyone want something that they can't repair themselves if they so wanted to do? "...if something does break, the farmer is powerless, stuck in the field waiting for a service truck from the dealership to come out to their farm and charge up to $150 per hour for labor," writes Belz.
“That goes against the pride of ownership, plus your lifetime of skills you’ve built up being able to fix things,” says Peterson.
Even when figuring in $10,000 to $15,000 to replace a motor or transmission, which can extend the life of a tractor for another decade or more, the savings are still tremendous compared to buying a new tractor.
Meanwhile, the carbon footprint of an older tractor can be mitigated by using locally produced biodiesel, which also extends the life of an engine because it includes better lubricants than conventional diesel fuel.
While all of this may not be a win-win for tractor manufacturers, it is just so right on so many levels. It saves farmers a lot of money. It keeps old tractors out of the junkyard and reduces the resources required to make new ones. And importantly, it puts the power of repair in the hands of the owner, something that should be inherent in everything we buy.
It all checks the boxes on some of our favorite 7 Rs of recycling: Reduce (the need and cost of new things); Reuse (perfectly good things that already exist); Repair (rather than throw away); and Refuse (the capitalist scam of disposability).
Rather than succumbing to gizmos and bells and whistles, we could all learn a lesson from farmers buying old tractors – and apply it to everything we buy. It's brilliant and lovely, and makes me miss my old VW.
For more on the story, read Belz' article here: For tech-weary Midwest farmers, 40-year-old tractors now a hot commodity.