Learning the ropes of tractors

Posted Aug. 12, 2010, at 8:08 p.m.

Just what is it about tractors?

I mean, I’m no gear-head, but there is definitely no denying the rusty metal mystique surrounding those mechanized beasts of burden.

Just ask anyone who makes a living from or tends acreage of any size and they will tell you it would be all but impossible without some form of tractor.

Among the first things I learned about tractors — other than they have an array of moving, spinning or otherwise whirling parts all best kept a healthy distance from — was tractor people are deeply, passionately loyal to individual makes and models.

There are the John Deere, or “green” tractor people; the IH, or “red” tractor people; the Ford, or “blue” tractor people and so on.

Though my own love affairs with tractors came late in life, I am unabashedly a true-blue red IH tractor woman thanks to becoming the sole owner of an IH-Farmall 656 farm tractor a little over two years ago.

Becoming a single-tractor parent was as sudden as it was unexpected after the death of my husband — a tractor dude from way, way back — and admittedly I had very little experience.

Luckily, I had logged some time on the IH, but that had been pretty much limited to driving it — very slowly — from point A to point B on the farm and always under supervision.

Now I was flying solo on a rig that outweighed both my cars put together, and that was without throwing in the dizzying array of mysterious implements that went with it.

It was definitely baptism by fire. Actually, it was more baptism by snow as my first winter with the tractor coincided with northern Maine’s record-breaking snowfall of 2008.

Even though good friends were keeping the driveway plowed, there were only so many places that much snow could be pushed.

Eventually, it had to be moved and that’s where a tractor with a snow bucket can come in mighty handy.

Bundling up that first morning — old tractors have neither enclosed cabs nor heat — I managed to figure out the intricacies of the glow plug to pre-warm the diesel and fire the beast up.

Once the blue haze of diesel fumes cleared enough to see through, I slowly eased the tractor out of the shed and pointed it at the first snowbank.

Lesson one: Two hands are not nearly enough when maneuvering the 656.

One hand is needed for the throttle, one to lift-lower the bucket, another to empty the bucket, and it’s kind of handy to have one left over with which to steer.

It took a while, but eventually my hands were able to multitask over the levers and knobs, and the snow piles were actually getting moved.

Lesson two: Always pay attention.

One’s mind cannot wander while on a tractor. I figured that one out the day I noticed that the bucket, when lifted to its full height, could catch overhead electrical wires.

Let’s just say disaster narrowly averted.

By spring I was feeling confident enough to use the tractor when two friends came by to help load a pile of tamarack logs for a trip to the sawmill.

Lesson three: Tractors have more gears than first and reverse.

In fact, in my case there are five forward gears, which brings me to lesson four: Even though a tractor can be engaged in any gear, it’s probably not the best idea to have it in fifth right off the bat.

That is, unless you really want to look and feel like Wile E. Coyote on the Acme rocket.

By that summer, I was all about the tractor and had even reached the point of swapping out implements when needed, such as using the plow on the three-point hitch to dig a trench or the draw bar to drag tree-length firewood out of the woods.

Lesson five: When swapping out implements two things are needed: someone who knows what they are doing to help and the ability to cuss in several languages.

Luckily, I have friends who really do know their way around tractors, and I do possess the second linguistic ability.

Among those friends is Dr. John Bouchard, who, though green in his tractor sensibilities, has helped me out of more than one jam.

“I think for a lot of people who are into tractors who have agricultural roots brand loyalty goes back to what they remember their fathers or grandfathers using,” he said. “Of course, that doesn’t apply to me because I didn’t grow up on a farm.”

With “around 35” vintage John Deere tractors in his personal collection, Bouchard has definitely been bitten by the tractor bug.

While I am nowhere near Bouchard’s class when it comes to maintaining my own tractor, I’m slowly getting there with a lot of help from those in the know who are always ready to lend a hand.

My neighbor up the road, Andrew, is always willing to talk me off the ledge when I call about real or imagined tractor issues.

Like the time I spied a quarter-size spot of something dark on the ground below the engine.

He came over, looked the tractor up and down, looked at me, and uttered the memorable words, “She’s an old girl, she’s going to leak.”

A little farther down the road there’s Farmer John who has been over to tighten tire chains or help out with moving implements.

There’s Kevin who this spring showed me how to hook up the 6-foot brush hog and actually mow one of my fields with the sage advice, “If you can run over it, you can mow it.”

Proof positive that when it comes to being a single-tractor parent, it does take a village to keep it running.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News.

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