Gene Logsdon and Friends

Old Tractors Never Die

In Gene's Weekly Posts on December 7, 2011 at 5:57 am

From GENE LOGSDON

I see that the conversation on this website has turned lately to old tractors. On this subject I am as garrulous as an old soldier recalling his army days, only old tractors are not past history but very much a current event. Most of us ramparts people depend on them. I own a 1948 WD Allis Chalmers and a 1972 John Deere 2010, both of which run well except the WD’s gearbox is locked up at the moment and needs a visit to the local tractor doctor three miles down the road. These tractors cost me only a small fraction of what new ones of the same horsepower cost and can be kept running indefinitely if you know where to look for help.

In most country areas can be found what I call the Solitary Genius Mechanic who runs a repair shop on his farm. (I don’t know of any women mechanics but would like to.) One I know was for many years a troubleshooter for International Harvester, traveling all of the country to fix machinery that everyone else had given up on. He is also a first rate organic gardener.

The Solitary Genius is a godsend to us ramparts people who operate small farms on the cheap and who don’t know much about mechanics. If you can get your old tractor to him, he can invariably fix whatever ails it. His repair shop may look primitive and junky roundabout, but don’t let appearances fool you. The ones who service farmers in the neighborhood regularly are knowledgeable and fully equipped. They are also delightfully independent philosophers. Most of them don’t charge enough and so I pay more than they ask. Be nice to them; they can be the key to your survival on a ramparts farm.

Mechanics do not usually write and writers do not usually repair tractors, so there seems to be a dearth of information about old tractors and farm equipment. You probably already know this, but there are lots of organizations and clubs whose members spend their time restoring old tractors. Get involved with them and you will learn more than you want to know. To find them, go to country fairs where restorers exhibit their tractors.

Old tractors aren’t all romance and fond recollections. It’s an old joke but I can remember my grandfather lighting a little fire under his Fordson to warm up the oil in the crankcase so the motor would turn over easier, hopefully to make the tractor start quicker. That’s fun to recall, but not any fun to have to do. Starting tractors could be a brutal affair. I was watching when my father was crank-starting our Massey Harris Challenger and the crank “kicked” and nearly broke his leg. Tractors increased the pace and intensity of farm work. Don’t let anyone tell you that the piston engine made farming easier than farming with horses. Tractors just meant you could get more field work done in a day. The wet year of 1947, we kept our tractor running day and night to get the crops in because we could. One afternoon Dad, completely exhausted, put me, a child, on it to “work ground” while he laid down under a tree at the field’s edge and fell asleep. He meant to nap only a little while. I knew how to stop the tractor by turning the key off but I did not know how to start it up again so if I stopped, Dad would have his sleep cut short. When it looked like the tractor was overheating, I just kept going round and round the field till it stopped of its own accord. Dangerous business. One of my cousins in the same desperate situation tied his little boy, age 6, in the tractor seat so he couldn’t fall out and had him “work ground” that way, guiding tractor and disk over the plowed ground while the father followed up with another tractor and the planter and kept a sharp eye on the son. Can you imagine what the labor laws would do to a farmer today who tried that?

In the days when we abandoned horse farming for factory farming, we abandoned biology for machinery and let the futile thought of getting rich override our common sense. After that farming became grueling slave work even if it was faster. We didn’t save time. Lights on the tractor just meant we could work longer. It wasn’t long after 24 hour work days that the Sunday day of rest went off the calendar too. Too bad. Even heathens like me need a Sunday day of rest.
~~

  1. As one of the last farmers in the neighborhood to farm with unrestored pre 1970’s technology I appreciate your post.
    These days most hobby farms sport 21st century front wheel assist loader tractors. There is only one WD-45 that I know that is being used to rake hay. (Aside from tractor collectors)
    Now that the price of scrap metal has gone through the roof I suppose the days of seeing an old MM model U or a WD running in the field are numbered.
    We still use a wide front U for laying out irrigation pipe. There is a hand clutch and you can stand up to drive it so two people can easily load and unload a pipe trailer.
    I suspect farming with horses is a pretty good alternative for a really small farm, although I will say my friend’s 90hp FWA Massey tractor uses very little diesel. Of course I do bash my head on the roof and you are never in the right gear for the baler. But-the radio works really well and it has pretty good A/C.

  2. I have an early 60’s John Deere 4020 Diesel. It still runs perfectly and I love her.

  3. Tires, fuel and asphalt country road pavement come from oil wells. USA’s 5% of world poplation uses 25% of oil poduction, and now coming up fast on the outside, neck and neck, China and India overtaking our autmobilia lust, and with 33% of world population.
    Not very far down the road these three nations will want 265% of all the oil produced.

    The village blacksmith can replace rubber tires with iron cleats, and gasifier “smoke” can replace fuel, and vegetable oil can replace lubricants, but how are we to get our produe to market. My lettuce comes from California, 3988 miles away.

    I suspect that our population will tumble off a cliff when the last well has gone dry, so we will all retrograde down to locovores. When? Not later than 2032, a generation hence.

    Sufficient unto the day is the tractor thereof.

    Hoe, Hoe, Hoe.

    • Be careful, Charles: speakers of great inconvenient truths are never treated very well.

      My big concern with the coming collapse of fossil sunlight is that the most complicated things will be “triaged-out” first. That probably means microprocessors and the entire energy-intense semiconductor industry.

      That means that a tractor of decades past that is fixed with a wrench will be operational much longer than those that need a $20,000 fault-code-analyzer and a $2,000 CPU card to fix.

      A computer goes on my desk. A wrench goes under the hood. I work very hard to keep the two separate!

      • 25 years ago I went to New Zealand, bringing back a Pacific Class Fluidyne Gasifier. We used it to run our 6 cylinder gasoline engined welder of scrap wood from a golf tee factory. Then we used it to make steam in a gas boiler. Lots of tire kickers showed up but it was too early.

        I drove across the USA sea to sea in 2003, 100th anniversary of first transcontinental automobiling [4.5 HP] my centenarial, almost 4000 miles in a 3 wheeled British Reliant Robin 1300 pound firreglass bodied car on just a sliver over 60 gallons for the whole trip,

        I am taking a Maine farmhouse back to 1900, ripping out the oil burner replacing it with a waste wood burner, refrigeratable drying the wood with a Nyle Geyser in the cellar which heats my shower water, shutting down the town water supply, replacing it with rain water collection, mounting a solar hot air collector on the porch roof, growing lettuce and swiss chard on the winter porch in modified 2 liter soda bottles, and using the perfect organic fertilizer NPK18:1:5,, urine diluted 20:1, from a waterless toilet , fecal materials are collected in a Moule Earth Closet [1869} because to use the Mississippi as a sewer is sewercide.
        Whales lack the ability to spit and recent discoveries suggest that coral reefs deaths may be fecal related.

        Check the Bible. I don’t know that the Almighty equipped Eden with flush toilets

        They say the Mississippee River passes three times through the human body on the way to the gulf, and there it creates a dead zone as large as Massachusett.

        If it is going to take more than a generation to get up to speed, we are late getting started.
        The Federal Register, wherein our laws and other machinations are published, last year amounted to 84,000 pages.

        Nobody listens. Selfishness and greed uber alles.

        Gene Logsdon ought to be running for President, toss out the clowns.

        Its later than we think.

  4. In case you haven’ seen it, you might like looking over Lynn Miller’s “Small Farm Journal”. It is founded in horse farming and has lots of articles about horse farming equipment. Great pictures and lots of information. Old issues available.

  5. My farming operation depends on 3 tractors now as I just sold my 1963 John Deere 4010. My other 3 remaining are a 1988 John Deere 2555 w/loader, a 1948 Farmall Cub and a 1954 Ford Golden Jubilee (same year as me). I am currently shopping for horses as I always wanted to try farming with horses. I am looking at a couple Halflingers.

    My rule of thumb is 1 HP per acre needed to farm. I sold my 4010 because I lost 80 acres and am not a collector. My equipment needs to work. I now have 20 acres and a cow/calf operation. I have to have a loader to move around large round bales as I gave up making hay and sold my hay equipment.

    My 2 old tractors purr like new. The advice above about the old timer in the neighborhood is right on. I had the local antique tractor guru go through both my old tractors in 2010. His shop looks a bit haphazard with tools scattered about. My total bill for refurbing 2 old tractors was under $400 and list of repairs extensive. There was nothing major but starters and generators rebuilt, carbs rebuilt and general tune-up and lubrication.

    I hope to keep these 2 tractors in the family forever and they run like they could last that long.

    What is built today that will be running in 64 more years? My Cub runs like it will run 64 more years and doesn’t burn or drip any oil. It is built from American steel in America by Americans. My Ford is the same although will need new rings and a valve job sometime in the next 10 to 20 years. Those were the good old days. We need to bring back those days and put Americans looking for a job back to work! Of course, finding workers with the same work ethic we had when these old tractors were built may be very difficult.

  6. The same can be said for computers. They don’t save any time. They just make it possible to squeeze more work out of a person.

  7. Mechanics do not usually write and writers do not usually repair tractors, so there seems to be a dearth of information about old tractors and farm equipment.

    Sounds like a project for someone … though audio and video may be as helpful as words in teaching novices how to diagnose problems.

  8. We have an 1970 International with a front end loader and a Case backhoe (don’t know the year, but it’s no spring chicken). I’m lucky enough to be married to a SGM who also knows how to work with horses. His dad raised Belgians and used them to feed in the winter, so he got both ends of the spectrum. I don’t know if I’d call him a philosopher — do philosophers have a broad command of invective while working on machinery? He’s currently replacing a hose on the backhoe and I can hear the cussing from inside the house with the radio on.

  9. Under the spreading chestnut tree
    The village smithy sings.
    He isn’t shoeing horses, though,
    He’s fitting piston rings.

    Can’t say that I don’t appreciate my WD 45, but for the last few months my Halflinger has been working and the WD hasn’t. Not to say that a horse can’t be a pain in the ass, but if it breaks down or doesn’t work its a simple matter of biology to replace it. Now if there was tractor sex and tractors could breed and replace themselves…but you see, there’s the rub. Well, there’s one of the rubs. The other rub is that anyone who thinks that a machine requiring fossil fuel in the tank will be running 64 years from now, regardless of its mechanical condition or capabilities…well, shoot, I’m gonna start chores early cuz I don’t want to ramble on or say something con troe verse eee yal.

    • “anyone who thinks that a machine requiring fossil fuel in the tank will be running 64 years from now…”

      I hear you, and yet hope springs eternal…

      I think the life of farm tractors can be stretched a bit using plant oils. My calculations say that one acre of oilseed crops can power farm machinery for another 15 acres. That 15:1 “energy return on energy invested” is better than the ERoEI for petroleum these days.

      But of course, that includes no overhead for the rest of civilization’s energy needs.

      No doubt, interesting times ahead!

      • ‘I think the life of farm tractors can be stretched a bit using plant oils. My calculations say that one acre of oilseed crops can power farm machinery for another 15 acres. That 15:1 “energy return on energy invested” is better than the ERoEI for petroleum these days.’

        I have been wondering about this lately … is it more effective to plant oilseed crops for basic diesel equipment or raise livestock. Of course, livestock does not need as much supporting infrastructure …
        I just converted a diesel van to run on vegetable oil … it was not as difficult as I thought. Now I am thinking about converting my old Case construction king backhoe.

        Chris

      • Chris, congrats on your vegoil conversion! It’s a good thing to do on anything that runs for longish periods. Living on an island, it’s not so good to do to a car here, as it’s just getting heated up by the time you reach your destination.

        We just got ten blight-resistant American Chestnuts. When mature, they’ll produce 80% of the oil per acre as canola, without any care — just pick them up off the ground, and toss them in the crusher! Of course, I won’t be around by the time they mature, but none of us should be thinking primarily of ourselves, these days — that sort of thinking is what got humans in the mess they’re in.

        The only reason I push oil crops for diesels, rather than animals, is that there is a lot of “sunken cost” in all the existing diesels out there that we should at least try to recover. This can give us a cushion, or a safety net, while we’re transitioning back to animal power. (Which, of course, is ultimately necessary.)

  10. Gene, what a timely post for us. Thanks for saying those words: “we didn’t save time. Lights on the tractor meant we could work longer”. Such contrary words.

    Just hauled off yesterday and bought our first team:
    a Mother/Daughter pair of Norwegian Fjord horses.

    reason: we needed something to cultivate our fields with
    and we’re just not much good at fixing anything without a heartbeat
    and for some inexplicable reason when we saw these two we just clicked. Spent 2 hours riding them around and around in an arena and simply forgot they were horses. Felt more like extensions of ourselves….and folks…here’s the best part: we’re not
    “horse people!”

    But as soon as they were in our pasture, lovelies that they are, I was hit with the fact that they were about to perfect me and discipline me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Can’t cut corners with horses. And so in short I felt we found our perfect farming partners…not to mention we’re trying to bring back an abandoned 10 acres and Fjords love foraging on the dry stuff….

    I second all that stuff that was said about computers too….just spent the best day in a long time with my girls and the farm…and the only difference was that I didn’t sit down at this thing till they were in bed.

    Bilocation generally isn’t a good thing…unless you are freaking holy.

    Otherwise it’s just a pain in the neck for everybody and everything around you.

    Okay now….I’m going back out there in the dark to have a nice nuzzle into the shoulder of a Fjord…..

  11. Jan S, I hear you also, and I’d say a couple of things to you. One is that yes, you can get a certain amount of diesel conversion from your own plant matter, and be clear that unless you have diesel powered equipment or a mule powered gasoline refinery yer still shit out of luck with so called biofuels, but I’m from Missouri with your 15 to 1factor. Like growing corn or beans or feeding pigs in a tough year, its one thing to calculate it and another to do it. Them Texas folks know all about doin’ stuff as well as anybody and right now (actually a month ago) they we’re paying $250 a ton for trucked in hay and slaughtering what they couldn’t feed. 250 bux for a single good sized roll!! Cuz congress doesn’t vote on rainfall. And I wonder if your calculations include raising your own seed to plant that acre, providing your own fertility for it and planting, harvesting and threshing it by hand or with animals or by offering a bowl of soup and a place in the barn to sleep for hungry, unemployed teenagers who might represent one of the few surpluses of note in such an economy. And power to do what on another 15 acres? Till it, plant it, fertilize it, weed it, harvest it, process it, dry it, transport it and that sort of thing? or mow it, rake it and get it in the barn or into a pile somewhere? or turn the toughest of the dirt for hand seeding behind it? My take is that nature is closer to 15 to 1 cost than 15 to 1 return. I don’t mean any of that to criticize you but to offer some other considerations.

    The real thing I would try to offer though, is in the matter of hope that you spoke about. I’m not an old fart like Gene, I’m only 68. But I’m old enough to have spent some years now trying to train myself not to hope, but to think and assess and plan and prepare based on facts and established wisdom and real circumstances, which is kind of like one of those greased pig thingies often enough. Many decades ago my older brother had an assignment in school to write a poem about one of the three cardinal virtues–Faith, Hope and Charity for the apostate–and he chose Hope. His poem was simple to the point of stupidity..”with the virtue of hope, you can cope with a dope”. For the multiple decades that have passed since his literary tour de force was first revealed to me, I keep coming closer to the fundamental wisdom of his poesy, which is that beyond the respite available in coping with a dope, there’s not much that hope, or Hope, has to offer.

    Okey dokey, it’s late on my clock and its 46 degrees in here so I’m going to shut my trap and build a fire. Don’t bother telling me that I’m an oddball or a weirdo. I already know that. Oops, one other thing. That 64 years part of it was borrowed from an earlier commenter. From the vantage point of my milk stool it seems that 64 weeks is closer to something, but don’t expect that me and my dogs will vote for 64 weeks either.

  12. Gene,

    My Father is getting smarter all the time. I remembered him crying when the horses left the farm in 1964.. We needed the horse stall space for more cows so we could buy more equipment so the money lenders wouldn’t go hungry. The technological treadmill, so to speak. And it continues to this day. When this next credit meltdown occurs farmers will be mighty sorry they got rid of old Dobbin so easily. All the labor saving, energy burning equipment will be an anvil tethered to the neck.

  13. Gene, my 1955 WD-45 transmission linkage seized up last summer and it was a small metal tab that had become worn and cost about 30$ along with some new gaskets and a metal ring. All parts live under the shift lever case. Good luck. Doug Day at Spring Bay Farm

    • Thanks Doug. I am pretty sure, from previous experience, that you are describing accurately what is wrong with my tractor. Gene

  14. I had always thought that in order to be a farmer you had to be part mechanic, part welder, part theologian and part crazy (among a few others). I’ve worked at a john Deere dealership longer than I’ve been farming. It amazes me how many farmers know nothing other than “it don’t work”!

  15. My brother is one of those hard-to-find tractor guys. He’s redone several and shows them in tractor shows. He and his wife even go to one in Ohio every year. Now he has too many, not enough room to store them all, and I think he wants to start on another one. He wants to GIVE me an old Farmall, from the 40s or 50s I think to use on my place! It’s immaculate. He was going to give it to me a few years ago, but I told him the chickens would poop all over it–they were roosting in the rafters of the old tobacco barn it would be housed in at the time. He’s a neatnik (I know that part goes against the grain, but really you COULD eat off his shop floor) and I knew he wouldn’t be too happy with his pretty little tractor covered in chicken shit.
    I guess he’s desperate for space now though. Lucky me! He refuses payment, and assures me that if I tear it up while using it, we’ll just fix it. He’s been my brother for well over half a century so I know he means it. Oh well, I’m excited and just thought I’d brag a bit!

  16. I use an old 51 model 8n, still 6 volt. I keep it out of the weather and it starts every time even when it probably shouldn’t. Work the snot out of it and is much more powerful and rugged than modern tractors of its size. I really wanted a newer tractor with a loader but bought the Ford because it was cheap. Now I wouldn’t have it any other way and our little farm does not require a loader to do any work.
    Keep on chuggin.

  17. Hey Gene – ya, i love the old tractors too, but sometimes modern times mean better fuel efficiency.

    Too, modern science can be applied to increase yields and saftey.

    The romance of older equipment should not be debated.

    But the romance of your support of Sewage Sludge on farm land should.

    Here are some new scientific articles that question the use of Sewage Sludge (or as you call it “biosolids”) on farm land.

    I again ask you to revisit and revise your position advocating using sewage sludge on precious farm land.

    http://rdrza4002.wellsfargo.com:8080/workspace/dataaccess/ZEROADMINHTML

    http://toxics.usgs.gov/highlights/earthworms.html

    http://sludgenews.org/resources/documents/Kinney_Sludge_study_2006.pdf

    You farmers who still use this toxic waste, i ask you to get more informed.
    The internet, a modern technology in itself, is a vast resource.

    You will see that science can keep our farms, our families and our equipment safe and useful well into the future.

  18. Municipal sludge IS suspicious on food crops. But the real villian is the flush toilet which is totally undisciplined. Take toilet bowl cleaner for example. Some of them suggest that the maid of all work in our homes should wear hazmat gear when using them. One I know has a secondary application. When sealed up in isolation within a two liter soda bottle, the other component being powdered beer can, when jostled to combine, gas is generated and young people enjoy the explosion noise which follow, said to be as loud as a shotgun blast. Might be a good way to scare deer or veggie poachers away if the bottle was stood upright with a black thread tied to its neck and run to a bush on the other side of the path.
    And likely a secondary benefit would be a generous deposit of deer manure [which is OK and organic] or a lawsuit from the garden thief for grevious mental assault and terrorism.

    • I agree with the comments urging caution with municipal biosolids. People dump all sorts of nasty stuff into their toilets! And yet, this is one of those issues that are ill-defined in some ways.

      We need to get health authorities to approve small, well-controlled, private “humanure” systems, both for certificates of occupancy for new construction (as an alternative to septic systems) and for use on food plants.

      And organic certification bodies need to get on board, as well. (Currently you can’t be certified organic if you use any human biosolids, whether from your municipal sewage system or from your own body that only has organic food going into it.)

      This is similar to the fear-mongering and paranoia surrounding raw milk. One can’t simply be in favour without recognizing that raw milk from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) probably is a health hazard, while raw milk from grass-fed animals in small herds most likely is not a health hazard.

      The devil’s in the details…

  19. One tip for mowing with old tractors, the old Ford gets great gas economy unless I bush hog with it. Found a deal on a sickle mower and have never used the bush hog again. Now If I mow anything with the sickle mower it gets used for hay and no more bush hogging for me.
    The newer tractors definitely get better gas milage with the rotary mowers.

  20. I learned to drive a tractor when I was 13 on an 84′ blue Ford model. My dad quickly switched me over to his 1943 Farmall Super A.

    I know old tractors can be finicky things and fuel consumption can be a beast – but there’s something to a machine that is still running effectively 68 years down the pike.

  21. Anyone know about when John Deere tractors (diesel, 2 WD) went computer controlled?

    • Depends on size. Most of the smaller tractors have just changed recently. What model/series/horsepower are you considering?

  22. Gene….
    Please visit the website: http://www.sewagesludgeactionnetwork.com
    I urge you to read and learn and understand what is “in” sewage sludge. If you are using “biosolids” on your farm… the land has now been marked with an expiration date, because in a few years the toxic heavy metal accumulation will have poisoned your farmland. It will be a toxic waste dump. Is it worth it? Is your land worth taking this chance ?

    If ‘biosolids” are so great… WHY ARE THEY GIVING IT AWAY?

    Myra Dotson
    myradotson@hotmail.com

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