The dynamics in the ag machinery industry in recent years have been pretty interesting. Until this year, new, very high capacity machines sold in record numbers. Traditionally, new machines have eventually trickled down to that group of farmers who rely primarily on used equipment. But the size of some new machines on the market now means those second or third tier producers just can’t use machines with that capacity, no matter how cheap they become.
So that started me wondering, what will happen to much of today’s biggest equipment when it hits 10 or 20 years of age. Where does it go when those top tier producers are done with it? And that made me think back to a conversation I had along those lines a few years ago.
I was chatting with a John Deere employee inside the company’s tractor assembly plant in Waterloo, Iowa. We were standing near the entrance to the plant’s office area, just off the assembly line, where a small area was set aside to display a couple of vintage tractors as visitors walked out into the assembly area. These models—including an original Waterloo Boy, if I remember correctly—were impeccably restored.
I mentioned that many of these old machines are small, relatively inexpensive in today’s world and anyone with some basic mechanical skills could tackle a restoration on one. However, the new models slowly moving down the line a short distance away were exactly the opposite. New tractors are much larger, very expensive and significantly more complex. So complex, in fact, it would likely be necessary to access proprietary software to fully diagnose every possible problem they might develop.
That difference means the hobby of restoring old tractors doesn’t seem to have a long-term future. Most tractors from the 1950s or 1960s represent a project on the scale even an urban resident with a two-car garage could tackle. But one of the green brand’s 9R tractors wouldn’t even fit on a city driveway. Drop down to the scale to a 6R, or any competitor’s equivalent, and you still have a pretty large and complex machine.
Sure, there are still small tractors rolling off assembly lines, but it’s different now. Go to an event like the historical tractor, vehicle and machine exhibit at Canada’s Farm Progress Show and ask anyone who’s has a restored classic or vintage tractor on display why they spent all those hours working on it, and why they spent far more money on the project than they’ll ever see back. The answer is always the same: fond memories of spending days on that model of machine in the field, or seeing dad or grandpa work his farm with it.
Few in today’s farming environment run their operations with 40 or 50 horsepower tractors, at least in Western Canada.
When I wondered aloud how many of today’s tractors would live long enough to see their 100th birthday, like the Waterloo boy we were standing beside, that Deere employee quickly came to the defence of her brand. The tractors rolling out of the Waterloo factory today are better than ever, she said. There’s no reason to think they won’t last as long as their fore bearers, she insisted.
She was right. Today’s tractors are far and away better machines. They use better quality alloys and superior technology. Advanced lubricants course through their veins, capable of virtually eliminating wear if maintained properly. But she misunderstood my point.
50 or 100 years from today in order for the same passion for old tractors to exist, it’s likely the same four things will need to be present for anyone to restore a beaten down model or maintain a survivor machine. First, there’ll have to be those fond memories of days in the field, or sitting on dad’s lap as he pulled an air seeder or grain cart. That means, yes, a big tractor is what it takes to spark the emotion.
Second, there will have to be the technical skill to tear down a frothing beast of a machine with a computer for a brain and put all the bits back in the right places after repairing any wear or faults.
Third, a place to pull apart what is, compared to a 1911 Waterloo Boy, a mammoth machine. So, no two-car garage in suburbs is going to suffice here.
Fourth, a restorer will need significant financial resources. Any farmer walking up to the parts counter in a dealership today knows how big a thud the invoice can make when it hits the counter.
As for what happens to very large machines in the medium term, I haven’t a clue. Any guesses?