April 01, 2020
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Midwest farmers learning what Maine farmers always knew about old tractors

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN
It's potato harvest time on the Martin farm in St. Francis, where they still harvest the crop by hand. Jason Martin drives a potato digger through a field for his crew to pick up.

It turns out the nation’s farmers are just discovering what northern Maine farmers have known for years: When it comes to tractors, nothing beats old rolling iron when it comes to value and maintenance.

According to an article on the website Vice, farmers in the midwest are tired of needing computers and advanced technology that is required to fix today’s modern tractors. Instead, they are increasingly buying tractors manufactured prior to 1979 which are more reliable and less complicated to repair.

“When a brand new John Deere [tractor] breaks down, you need a computer to fix it,” writer Matthew Gault wrote in the Vice article. “Farming equipment — like televisions, cars and even toothbrushes — now often come saddled with a computer [and] that computer often comes with digital rights management software that make simple repairs an expensive pain in the ass.”

Two years ago, John Deere started blocking farmers from access to the software that runs the computerized components on their new farm tractors and other arm equipment. If anything computerized on the tractor breaks down, it has to be taken to the dealer — who still has that software access — for diagnostics and repair. Either that, or the dealer has to make a farm call. Either way, the farmer is looking at a bill that can run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars for even a simple repair he could otherwise do himself.

While some farmers have reportedly resorted to hacking into their software or buying blackmarket diagnostic software produced in Ukraine to save on service calls, others are getting rid of the new tractors altogether in favor of the machines used by their parents and grandparents. Good old, American-made, tractors that run on gas or diesel, no computers onboard.

Kris Malmborg grew up in an Aroostook County potato farming family and is no fan of modern, computerized tractors. He’s the fourth generation to work the family land and is currently the proud owner of 10 tractors, none made after 1967.

“Less electronics is always better,” Malmborg said. “My grandfather always liked you could sit on an old tractor, look down and see the planted rows directly under your feet as you drive along.”

According to an article online in the Minnesota Star Tribune, 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 on tractors from that era that are well-built and totally functional. They also aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

This is not news in northern Maine where savvy farmers have been doing their own repairs ever since the first tractor rolled into the area decades ago. Shops, barns and rockpiles here are a treasure trove of spare parts that can be adapted or used right away if a tractor breaks down.

“The old tractors are more reliable and more cost effective,” Malmborg said. “What is really nice is a lot of times the everyday farmer can fix [the tractor] on the side of the road or in the field himself without having to pay hundreds of dollars in labor costs.”

Last year a Nebraska area auctioneer sold off 27 older model John Deere tractors, according to The Vice article. The old work horse tractors are so popular that one with low mileage can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. A 1980 model with 2,147 hours of use sold for $43,500. A 1979 model sold for $61,000.

That’s a lot of cash, but it’s still cheaper than a new model which can run between $100,000 and $150,000. The price is nice, but avoiding the computer components of the newer models saves money in the long run.

Last summer Malmborg picked up a 1928 Farmall tractor to add to his collection.

“It runs as good as it did the day it came off the assembly line,” he said. “How can you beat that?”

 


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