Past Perfect

Right up front, I’m going to admit that I know diddly squat about farming — I can’t tell a cornfield from a minefield, nor a rake from a pitchfork — but at the same time, I think I understand what’s going on here.

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques.
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.
“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,” said Greg Peterson, the founder of Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company in Rochester with a website and TV show.
“There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

But why, you may ask, are farmers rejecting the New ‘N Improved Tractors, which come with all sorts of Gadgets And Software, Guaranteed To Make Life Easier For Farmers?

The other big draw of the older tractors is their lack of complex technology. Farmers prefer to fix what they can on the spot, or take it to their mechanic and not have to spend tens of thousands of dollars.
“The newer machines, any time something breaks, you’ve got to have a computer to fix it,” Stock said.
There are some good things about the software in newer machines, said Peterson. The dealer will get a warning if something is about to break and can contact the farmer ahead of time to nip the problem in the bud. But 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.

In other words, tractors are becoming like today’s passenger cars:  crammed with all sorts of shit that sound oh-so wonderful when listed under “Safety”, “Convenience” or “Efficiency”, but which have little actual utility and simply serve to drive the price of the fucking machine into the stratosphere faster than one of Elon Musk’s rockets, while making them more prone to failure  — because as any fule know, as complexity increases, Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) shortens exponentially.

Wrenching the topic into an area which I know better than farming (and cars, for that matter):  it’s the same reason I prefer a simple AK-47 to a tricked-out AR-15.  The AR is finicky, has all manner of geegaws that can break and render the thing useless, whereas you can drive a truck over an AK and it will still continue to send bullets downrange into an 8″ kill zone.

So to all those farmers who prefer 1970s-era technology over 2019 technology in their tractors, I am very much a kindred spirit, because I prefer simple 1947 rifle technology over most of what has happened to semi-auto rifles since 2000.

And just as they’d rather spend $50,000 on an old, fixable warhorse than $150,000 on some prima donna luxo-trax made by Rolls Royce/IBM, I’d rather take the money I save on an AK and spend it on ammo.

Fuck this modern bullshit.  Fuck it all to hell.

21 comments

  1. Sounds like a market opportunity (more than one really). Advertising “computer-free” tractors, automobiles, etc. would likely be quite popular, especially if they cost less than their computerized counterparts.

    Me, I still want wind-down windows. The automatic windows are convenient, but unnecessarily fancy.

  2. Round here the old tractor trend has never been anything else. My neighbor across the road has 3 and the newest is a 90’s something. The older tractors, with JD being the overwhelming preference, are fairly easy to work on, are simple in design and engineering, and as long as you put a coffee can over the exhaust pipe to keep water out will always start right up where you left it in the field or yard. Yes, yard. If you don’t have an old tractor or 2 in your yard you are very out of style. A neighbor a few houses down the road owns a dairy farm and has a 3000hp custom built JD that he runs in tractor pulls. I don’t have a tractor (cept my little 22hp V-twin Craftsman lawn tractor) but I sure would like to have about a 1955 Ford, the little blue/gray one, but the cost is on the moon.

  3. The other issue with these new tractors is all the software (without which they don’t run) is “leased” You don’t actually own it and you aren’t allowed to repair it. It’s driving a bunch of these right to repair bills.

  4. Wondering when this “quiet trend” will appear on MegaCorp balance sheets. Tractors, cars, Boeing 737 Maxes, everything IOT…….

    From here it looks like a rather precarious balance point with a steep slope on the other side. How many farmers does it take to say “fuckit” before John Deere starts shutting down some of their plants, and if JD starts laying off several of the smaller makers will have started that trend a couple months earlier (JD is embroiled in several lawsuits about “maintability” regarding their ownership of the software their larger tractors depend on to run, and that’s a wild card). Sure, the GiantMegafarmers will keep right on buying 400HP 8WD tractors to pull those 40 foot wide plows, disc and planter combos across 6,000 acre fields, but to someone with <1K acres who can't afford a $300K spare tractor, 2 days' downtime the wrong week can be nearly fatal.

    Extend this to auto and appliance manufacturers and that precarious balance point begins looking a bit more finely sharpened. "Used to be" – that's in quotes for a reason – you could buy a better-but-not-best name brand appliance and trust it to run long enough to become a family heirloom. Today, the top line washer and dryer mfgs are touting "designed to run for 10 years" as an accomplishment. "Better, Faster, Cheaper" is the unwritten corporate motto, "the fucking things are so fragile we're surprised they work at all" written in disappearing ink on the corporate masthead.

    Ain't no surprises about why people are hanging onto cars and other stuff longer.

  5. The summer after my high school graduation ( ’71, Tulelake, CA) I worked for the local John Deere dealer assembling new farm equipment. Loved that job. The new combines had enclosed cabs with AM radios.

    I graduated the US Army Small Arms Repair School at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in ’74. Kim’s remarks about the AK are spot on. I have never owned one. Back in the days of boat loads of imported SKS’s, the price of an AK would easily get you an SKS + 1000 rounds of ammo. So, I have more than one SKS and a stash of 30 round duck-bill mags.

    Personally, my front line is an AR. I have been wrenching on them for several decades now, kinda know my way around. Also, age forces compromise, and the AR platform is more forgiving in this regard, especially when it comes to optics for old eyes. Doc says I have cataracts coming along in both eyes, so will have to deal with that at some point. Hopefully I will be able to see iron sights clearly again.

    1. First of all, do the cataracts. Had mine done this spring. I also went for the toroidal lenses which set me back as in my personal account $3200 per eye but worth it if you can stand the surcharge. For the first time since the onset of puberty I don’t need glasses. I can buy sunglasses off the rack and close-up and reading glasses are $6 a pair. They do one eye and then the other about three weeks later. During that interval it is fascinating closing your eyes alternatively and noting the difference in color.
      Anyway. I was the shop officer of the maintenance company of the support battalion of the 196 Lt. Inf. Bde. Sep. in 1971-1972 near DaNang, RVN. We fixed trucks, tracks, electronics, arty., small arms, generators. I kept the maintenance float to the point of having my own personal 155 Howitzer, towed. My small arms E6 was an armourer back in the world at Ft. Bening for the AMTU or the guys who shoot guns at the range for a living. One of the nifty things we had was a 2 1/2 ton truck with a box on the back with a full small arms shop. We supported M14s, M16s, M79 grenade launchers (My personal favorite), M60 MGs, 1911s, or anything else you might bring in. My saddest day was having to order the destruction of a Colt Python recovered from Charlie and of doubtful provenance. Anything Charlie touched could be boobytrapped. Anyway as an OJT exercise the guys built me the most accurate 1911 possible with fixed sights. Everything was tightened up. Trigger job. The hammer was thinned and lightened up. The slide moved like glass. The trigger was from a Navy gun as was the flat mainspring housing. Did I mention that this magical truck had drawer upon drawer of parts for the weapons we supported? Aside from the frame which was on no one’s property book, everything else was hand-picked from these drawers for best fit. Barrel, bushing, slide, trigger, etc. stippling on the front of the grip. I loved that gun. I couldn’t bring it home so I passed it on to a Combat engineer Capt who had admired it.

      1. “First of all, do the cataracts.”

        Agreed. They are correctable with lenses for now, but it’s coming. I have worn glasses since the 2nd grade. HAD to wear them after about age 25. Hope mine works out as well as yours. Thanks for the advise on the toroidal lenses.

        Small world. I was with the 156th Maintenance Company outside of Nurnberg (Pinder Barracks) ’74 to ’77, 71st Maint Bn, 2nd Spt Cmd. I was an SP/4 in the Small Arms shop.
        We had an M-109 shop van as well. Difference being we were in (the former) West Germany during the Carter Administration. Our drawers had Jack Schitt in them. We had to order parts on a per job basis. Still, I did get to travel in the van by my lonesome to support customer units. Rather enjoyed that. I also got to go on the range with our sister Bundeswher unit and qualify with the P-38 and the MG-3.

        We would also occasionally get turn-ins of leftovers from the days when units had pistol teams. High Standard match barrels, Colt national match slides, etc. Nothing to be done but declare them excess and pass them on up the chain.

        Oddly enough, I didn’t hear about the AMTU until after I got out and started shooting NRA competition. Got my High Power Rifle Master card in 1990. Had I known, I just might have re-uped for the AMTU.

        A short story you might enjoy.

        My buddy and I met in Small Arms School. We requested and got assigned to the same unit. Comes the proud day we are promoted from Sp/4 to Sp/5 at the morning formation. For about four hours. On our way to noon chow, we follow the usual herd by the mail room. Our 1st Sgt. is waiting for us. He locks our heels up against the wall and give us a 60 second ear burn about why the #$%!! are we out of uniform. My buddy and I are thinking “What the eff did you DO?”. “Nuthin'”. What the eff did YOU do?”. Top then slaps rolled up papers into both our hands and walks away cackling.

        New orders. Our MOS had been changed to hard stripe. We were now E-5 Sergeants.

        1. Nice to hear from another Ordnance guy. Cool story about the E5 change. Sometimes those gruff old Sergeants can be pretty cool. In basic at Ft. Leonard Wood we saw a drill sergeant in the PX with his campaign hat wearing Spec5 insignia. A couple of guys were making fun of the drill specialist, but I figured that he’d just finished his training and his stripe orders hadn’t caught up. That’s the Army for you.

        2. “Nurnberg”
          =========
          We were neighbors, sort of.
          74-77 I was stationed with the 54th Engr Bn at Wildflecken “The Rock”.
          Did lots of field exercises in all the regular places.

          1. Do tell. Our unit had three maintainence detachments stationed with customer units, one of which was at Christensen barracks up at Bindlach, home of the 1/2 ACR. We called them the ‘half acre’ just to piss them off. This post is/was up on a ridge and also referrd to as “The Rock”. My buddy was assigned there for a year. I was sent up TDY a few times to help out.

        3. What JLW III said about the cataracts, if for no other reason than it makes all the girls prettier. Secondarily, after surgery I discovered this thing out on the end of the barrels of my rifles and pistols that makes it ever so much easier to hit the target. Thirdliy, I’ve got in-focus peripheral vision for the first time in my life and now I can buy the cool sunglasses.

          And when a whiny five year-old crybaby candy-ass (like me for instance) tells you “There’s nothin’ to it”, then “Then there’s nothin’ to it!

  6. “The dealer will get a warning if something is about to break and can contact the farmer ahead of time to nip the problem in the bud.”

    Yeah, right, because no dealer would EVER contact a farmer saying “Your tractor’s computer says the widget on the #3 cylinder is about to fail, better bring it in for emergency repairs!” At which time there will be plenty of OTHER things requiring repair, with a large bill no doubt.

    I’m no stranger to tech (Hell, I bought my first computer in 1986), but things have gone too far. Wife and I are looking at buying a new stove, and the ones with the features we want (propane cooktop because electric stoves suck, but electric oven which provides more even heat for baking) are all wi-fi enabled. So we can control our oven from our phones apparently. Guess what feature will NOT be activated. (Deleted rant about internet-connected appliances, and my plan to install a second router without an outside connection to which all such things will be connected at such time when you can’t buy appliances without such connection).

    The problem with the software in cars, tractors, etc is that it’s not designed to be fail-operational, so if the computer fails you’re stranded. They SHOULD have a mode wherein a computer failure still allows the car to be driven (perhaps not as efficiently, and maybe not at full speed/power) so you can at least get home or to a mechanic instead of being stuck on the side of the road until a tow truck arrives. I get that some failures will get you stuck, just like some mechanical failures will get you stuck (break an axle or throw a rod and you’re not going anywhere), but let’s please save towing for real problems and not “The computer doesn’t know how much fuel and air to send to the engine for best efficiency because the sensor shit the bed, so it’s shutting the engine down”. Oh, it’s POSSIBLE to design it so, otherwise commercial aircraft would be falling out of the sky every time their computers hiccup.

  7. Anyone using those types of tractors is probably no more than a hobby farmer. Even the 200+ acres my grandfather and uncles farmed until the late 80s was not viable as a real farm anymore. (It was a side thing for them even then.) They used old tractors because there was no reason to spend money on better.

    I have some extended reatives who farm commercially, they have a couple thousand acres or so plus more they lease. I am not close enough to it to say how much they have in equipment, but I know it is a lot. Pretty sure they lease much of it anyway, at least the combines. I know they also rent the combines to smaller farmers too, at least some times. They would not likely have any real use for a 50 year old tractor.

    The tractor companies know their markets.

  8. Know what you mean. Right now I’m in search of a pickup with breaker points and and a carburetor, because I know I can keep one of them running. A Pocky-Clips Pickup, if you will. I’m late to the game on this, and the prices will take your breath away.

    This is complicated by older trucks being driven by Manly Men who manipulated manual transmissions. And here I am with a gimp clutch leg that dictates an automagic transmission, which are rare in those vintages.

  9. I don’t know jack crap about tractors but I do know a little bit about ARs and AKs and they are both fun to shoot. I had an AK in the 1990’s and I ordered a scope mount base that required drilling and threading the milled receiver on my Bulgarian AK which I did, I put on scope on it and probably because I did not know exactly what I was doing I could never get that gun to shoot accuratly so I sold it. Years later I started doing the ARs with an entry level S&W which was a decent rifle and it was easy to make modifications, trigger upgrade takes almost five minutes.

    I was never a black rifle guy but somehow I have ended up with a handful of them and by changing out uppers and mags, about a 90 second job, for a reasonable price you can increase your firepower considerably. For competition you can change barrels, going from carbine to rifle gas systems, put in different buffers and because the scopes mount on the upper receiver with dedicated scopes for each upper the zero never changes. It is a lot of fun for a person who likes gun projects that can be done in the garage with minimal equipment or experience. I think the CNC machines that are used today have made our ability to put parts together with almost no-brainer success.

    Of course, if I were to live outdoors in the mud and dust for a month or two then I would probably want the folding stock AK I bought from Palmetto few years ago and shot for fun a bit and now my son in another state has that gun. There has always been discussion about the best rifle and I remember a WWI saying by an English Officer remarking: “The Americans have a target rifle, the Germans have a sporting rifle, and the English have a military rifle.” I have owned all of those rifles and I would have to agree with the Brit.

  10. I still farm on the side, and have had multiple issues with my newest 2014 tractor. Computer hickups mostly.

    The biggest thing wrong with the new machines is Emissions. They’ve got those fucking DEF systems on them. Anything goes wrong on those, kiss $5-10K gone.

  11. A. The castle grounds look nice, but would look better with raised bed food gardens imstead of the fucking lawn.

    2. Big ole tractors are mo betta than computer controlled new crap. Except for air conditioned cabs, autopilot, gps and interactive maps.

  12. I have an early 80’s Yanmar 3110d 3 cylinder diesel rice paddy tractor. These chonky units were built for the Japanese rice farmer market and have a creeper low gear that will crawl along at about 100 yards per hour. I added a new FEL and a gannon box and it keeps the Arizona farm tidy. Sadly, I only get out there 1-2 times a year, but she starts up 1st turn and after 30 seconds, is good to go.

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