New, it’s worth a half-million bucks. It’s ten years old and now goes for less. Given the current state of the farm economy, you might snag it for closer to $300,000. Regardless, it’s still the most expensive vehicle I’ve ever driven.
This city-dweller had always wanted to drive a tractor. A real tractor. A steel behemoth. One of those you can spot from two miles away lumbering across the rural horizon.
So, when a farmer offered me the chance, I jumped at it before he could rethink it. His farm is a six-hour drive and a world away from where I live. The land is open and flat and interspersed with marshy wetlands, rolling hills, and steep creek valleys lined with oaks.
You should be aware his tractor doesn’t have wheels. It has tracks and looks like big construction equipment you see at a an urban construction site. It’s golden yellow, Caterpillar-powered, and runs on B20 biodiesel.
It’s overwhelming‒especially when this trusting fellow is turning you loose in his big, complex machine. Over the years, I’ve driven vehicles of various size and cylinder count, but nothing like this. A voice in my head whispered “Insurance coverage?” as I attempted to absorb his tutorial.
The farm was in the height of harvest when I arrived. Crunch time. A race against Mother Nature. As a non-farmer, it felt to me like familiarity, fatigue and worry. The farmer, his elderly father and a hired man were pushing for a finish line they didn’t yet see. Their harvest came on top of a long, rough 2019 crop year. To myself, I promised to: 1) do no harm; 2) not break anything; and 3) save them time, not make more work.
Tilling in fertilizer was my job. Behind “my” tractor, I pulled a gigantic rake of claws and spinning disks you’d never want to find yourself under. In the pecking order, I sense this is the lowest job. Not that it isn’t important. It’s just hard to damage manure.
Auto-steer is the coolest part of modern farm equipment. Whatever you’re driving is tied via satellite to pre-recorded field locations. Staring at a map on a screen, you steer until an arrow aligns with a blinking line on that map. Push a button, let go of the wheel, and the entire machine immediately, magically pulls onto that line. After using it, I’m thinking self-driving cars might be possible!
Pro Tip: Don’t touch the controls or auto-steer cancels and it’s all you. That means veering off, missing a patch, and needing an extra, wasteful pass.
Crossing a field at six miles per hour in 10th gear, a screen continually tracks your progress in real-time. At the end of a line, you slow, turn, find another line and push the button again. When you’re running out of field, the system screams at you. That took getting used to. Ignore those warnings and I think you crash into the trees. I didn’t test it.
The fertilizer I tilled into the soil was turkey manure from barns operated on the farm. It didn’t smell as badly as you’re imagining. Really. A separate crew spreads it on the harvested fields. Then, tilling incorporates it into the soil in a replenishing of nutrients. Later, turkeys are fed what is grown here. And starch from that corn is converted to fuel ethanol we motorists use every day.
The beauty of the land and renewable lifecycle had me thinking of the people who have maintained this land’s 150 years of productivity. Driving home, I fueled up with E15 Unleaded 88 at the Shakopee HyVee. Silly, I suppose, but I now have a deeper, personal connection to making that a fuel choice.