Keeping It Simple Not An Option



I call him Joe Commentator because he spends much of his spare time commenting disgustedly on the news. When he gets really irritated about what’s going on, which is often, he calls me to vent his displeasure. This started because I write a local newspaper column. He uses me the way a horseshoer in the old days would hire the village idiot to stand by and take verbal abuse while he was shoeing a recalcitrant horse. Much safer than taking out one’s ire on the horse. I’m an especially appropriate village idiot because I sometimes make the mistake of voicing slightly liberal points of view in my column. This is a neighborhood where the New York Times is considered more dangerous than the Communist Manifesto. But Joe has finally decided I’m okay, just slightly deluded. He keeps calling even when he agrees with me. His calls are one way I get grist for my columns. Joe knows it and has threatened more than once to send me a bill.

This time, he is angry at farm machinery manufacturers. He is a true curmudgeon and very contrary. In an area where corn is often viewed as the Second Coming if not the First, he has been known to plant all soybeans some years and lived to brag about it. He is so upset today that he can’t even complete sentences. I put all his words over ten decibels in caps.

“I’ve just been thinking about how this whole crazy… I don’t even know how… you just have to stand back and… it’s no wonder the country’s… have you ever just really thought about all this new machinery?”

“What you getting at, Joe?” I have no idea what’s coming.

“I am looking at this tractor I bought last year. We’re talkin’ six figures here you know. It’s got all this electronic stuff on it that I NEVER WANTED. And guess what. That stuff quit working on the first day of planting last year and stopped the whole tractor dead in its tracks. Took two days to get it fixed. TWO DAYS. Because of all that crap that I DIDN’T WANT IN THE FIRST PLACE.”  Pause. Heavy breathing.

“Here’s the thing, ” he finally continues, in tones that sound like he is about to deliver his first inaugural. “Here’s the thing. I could be farming with equipment more like what Dad used and still get it all done. We could get by with new iron that didn’t cost so damned much. All this GPS stuff, all this robotic crap, all these blinking lights makes the cab look like the cockpit of a Boeing 747— I don’t NEED all that stuff. It just makes big gobs of wires inside that tractor that start fires. [His tractor actually did catch on fire once.] In fact, it encourages bad farming. You got to go out there and FEEL that soil with your bare hands, not look at it on the computer. I don’t want a tractor that guides itself. I LIKE driving it. I don’t want gadgets that tell me where I’m at. I KNOW where I’m at. I don’t need a readout telling me where the crop is poor in the field. I can SEE where the hell it’s poor. We’re spending all this money to make somebody else rich.”

He reminds me of when I was working on a farm magazine staff and some engineers from a machinery company came calling to tell us about a very simple tractor they were designing for third world countries. Nothing fancy, no super anything. Just stop and go, two gears forward, one back. No lights. Steel wheels that never go flat. Crank start. Air cooled. No radio, no cigarette lighter, no padded seats, easy to put together. Easily replaceable parts.

“Just what I want!” I burst out.

 “Oh, we aren’t marketing them in the states,” one engineer quipped. “We’re afraid too many people would buy them.”

Joe Commentator would have gotten along well with my mother. She stuck with her Maytag wringer washer almost to the end. When we would suggest she get a new automatic washer she would say that all that new stuff “just means more things to break.” She was so right. Every new washer we buy starts ailing sooner than the last one did.


I farm 7000 acres and would buy tractors in a heart beat that are just simple with no electronic gadgets and all manually activated levers. Most farmers and employees do not even use many of the electronic functions on tractors these days. The tractors are not dependable or affordable anymore. At one point during 2013 I had all 4 of my new tractors in the shop with sensor and electrical problems when we needed them most. We hooked our older model tractors up that have rarely been in the shop because we can work on them and saved our crop.

haha this is so funny for me because I live on the other side of the world, and the New York Times is distant to me. Almost the entirety of New Zealand has been converted to dairy farming. We used to have 30 million sheep but milk was more profitable. and now a lot of our milk powder goes to China.

The true money line out of the whole post was this:

“Oh, we aren’t marketing them in the states,” one engineer quipped. “We’re afraid too many people would buy them.”

The last thing the shadow government wants is self-sufficiency. Hence Senate bill 510.

Moshe Ben-David

Selling the maintenance, not a quality, simple machine —how crazy making! My dad noted the same thing about cars when they started to get “high tech” and a wrong sensor reading from a computer chip would shut them down. I love the simple old powerhouse tractors, we have an older kabota and it’s getting the job done, until the axel broke. But you know what? We replaced it ourselves! Talk about user friendly! Thanks for some great thoughts Gene.

I farm with a JD 70 and 60, my cousin has a bunch of JD A’s. On a nice day I can hear the pop-pop of his tractor and the neighbor says she likes the sound when I’m working in the field. You can’t beat wringer washers, we have a speed queen but the wife would like a real dryer for winter, hanging in the basement of our farmhouse takes days to dry!

Getting back to your mother and her washing machine Gene; perhaps what we need to do is figure out exactly what it is we need and then look for that model/item instead of what is available/current fad/being pushed by today’s distributors. As an example, I take saving power rather seriously in my home (we have been off the grid for about 15 years now with just wind and solar which works just fine for two households – and we have most off the ‘essential’ gadgets a modern home deems you should have) and I particularly do not like unwanted services incorporated in electronic equipment such as stand-by functions on TVs or stereos which quietly suck up power all day and every day whether you want them or not. This forces you turn them off at the wall to stop the leakage. Unfortunately most of these darn things all have clocks on them for our dubious benefit or to regulate something or other inside the gadget. I always buy (when I have to have one) a model without those functions on it – they invariably work just fine and are usually more rugged and reliable than the other types. Same with a microwave; just get one with a manual setting and no clock then you only use the power actually used to heat the food and not tell you what the time is when you are not there to see it! The savings are quite dramatic by the way. I also have 24 hr timers on my chest freezers which run it for about 8/9 hours or so at night (cheap power rates then) and since the cold air sits at the bottom you don’t lose any chilling during the day. I don’t do this for fridges though as the vertical doors drop all the cold air out every time you open them – not good for the food inside.I can drop my power bill about 20-25% just by simple tricks like this.

Great blogs as always and the readership just seems to get bigger, better and smarter every year!

Cheers. John


You really need to turn the “tractor with no seat or steering wheel” line into the title of a new book. I just about fell out of my seat when I read that. I needed that laugh!

One of the interesting things that I have become aware of as I have gotten back into small scale farming is the balance that was engineered into much of the machinery of the 40s and 50s. My AC 66 combine and Oliver 5 picker neither have more than about 50-75 lbs of down pressure on the hitch. On a solid level surface I can move them both around by hand. And neither have motors or drive trains to maintain. The computer that controls them is simple enough to fit between the shoulders of the dinosaur setting on the 50 year old tractor pulling them. Although the processing unit wiring does seem to be getting a little frayed.

    Oh Russ, that’s great. My processing unit needs replacing, but they don’t make one that fits anymore. And i can’t resist repeating that old saw about how during one of the periodic farm recessions, agribizz came out with a tractor that had no seat or steering wheel. For the guy he lost his ass and didn’t know which way to turn. Gene

      Sounds just like the one I tried to buy back in the 80s but the bank wasnt interested in loaning me more money after they repo’ed everything else.
      Great line – can’t believe I never heard it before.

Now I am more convinced than ever to keep my old stuff working for as long as I farm. My newest (23 year old) tractor has all the creature comforts, very little electronics and no computer and it does everything I need it to do. In farm machinery as in life, keep it simple.

Kind of funny. Zetor came out with the “major” last a new age no electronics tractor. Still has a cab which is too much, though.

    Mahandra also offers a ‘bare bones’ model with no electronics straight gear drive,local fellow selling Mahandras says he sold several of them.

I really like your neighbor. I aspire to be like him. In fact, I thought you were talking about me until I realized we live on opposite sides of the country.
Of course I agree about tractors. I can’t even afford to sit in a new tractor. We ran 100 percent Minneapolis-Moline tractors until 8 years when ago we bought a slightly newer but higher horse power FWA White. I think when the Whites die and AGCO runs out of parts for the Molines I will have to retire. Although, Instead of retiring I kind of think the whole farm will one day just crumble into dust like the Parson’s shay.

Ken, not sure about your neck of the woods, but the “kids” i’m around have a profound distaste for all the new farming gadgets & gizmoes, even those who are obsessed with the latest cool app for the iphone. they’re much more interested in finding/making human/animal tools & implements that do more efficient work without compacting the soil. and they ain’t all Grumpy like Joe.

what everyone should hopefully realize is that the new generation is much more wise to the marketing gimmicks used to enslave farmers (and everyone else) into a debt spiral. they are seeking other, more simpler ways to practice agriculture by using technology to share & accumulate knowledge & information, rather than to automate & mechanize sowing & reaping.

they are looking to folks like Gene & Jason above with the draft horses for inspiration.

John Clark our local Allis-Chalmers dealer used to say they runined tractors when they added a starter to them he was way ahead of time apparently(LOL)As the old saying goes if you have a mechanical device that you understand and can work on its your slave but if you don’t understand how it works and can’t fix it you are its slave.Lots of human slaves around today.Best cell phone I ever had was the first one all you could do with it was to make and receive calls which is all I want to do with one.Fortunately I have a large collection of simple easy to fix farm equipment and tractors to carry me way past my years of being able to use them in the future.I do think the USA will regret the day that so much of the heavy duty simple to use farm equipment built for horses and simple tractor power was sent to scrap because it was ‘outdated’.Which is a odd term to me because unless eating goes out of style a way to grow food will never be ‘outdated’.Overall for me technology so called advances in the last 30 years have been a negative complicating many things and really adding nothing of real value top my life.Not all is bad of course but I resist it when its not going to be a clear cut plus.Anyway another good thought provoking read Gene and great comments by others too.

I don’t know much about the new tractors, but the same thing goes for almost every household appliance and sometimes I’ve managed to avoid the bells and whistles that I don’t want by buying from Amish Mennonite sources.

Of course there is also the idea that big tractors are necessary on big farms. You couldn’t possibly farm 25 acres with some of the monstrous tractors that couldn’t even turn around in the space. Do big farms lead to big tractors or was it the other way around?

One of my uncles, who had followed the transition from horses to F20s to big tractors was happiest using his Farmall Super MTA that he had bought new sometime in the 1950s. He always said he could outfit an entire farm for less than $50K and there would be money left. With many farmers and farmer wanna-bees returning to the land on small acreage, perhaps we will live yet to see the introduction of small tractors.

This reminds me of a coversation I had a few times with my dad. He always said that everything breaks now a days because everything is made of either plastic, aluminum, or press board instead of iron, steel, and hard wood. Then I always would tell him that if things today were build like they were back in the day they would be way more expensive and most people today look mostly at the price tag instead of anything else. At this point my dad would usually groan and walk out of the room because he knew I was right and he couldn’t come up with somthing else to support his point.

    People are short sighted. When I had my own remodeling business, one of the first lessons I learned is that it was cheaper in the long run to buy a tool that cost $200 to start with that would last ten years as opposed to buying a $50 tool and replacing it every year for ten years.

A local orchard grower bought a new tractor in hopes his granddaughter was going to take over the orchard. I’ve ALSO heard him complain a few times about his NEW fancy tractor…

we are in a mad rush to eliminate inconvenience and human labor from our lives and if we keep it up, eventually we’ll eliminate us!

Does my New Idea manure spreader that was built sometime in the 1950s count as cutting edge technology in animal waste management systems? I had to replace the bed with a sheet of steel 10 years ago, and the chain at the same time. Little pieces of frame keep rusting loose and dropping off where it is parked awaiting the weekly load of horse pucky. I expect it will last me another 20 years with bed replacement every decade or so. Maybe I can be buried in it. If so, I will , to borrow broadly from William Jennings Bryan, spend my eternity surrounded by a Republican machine.

It’s the same with pickup trucks. I want one with hose-off seats, no carpet, and a stick shift. Can’t even order one.

My JD A still works, though you get hot when it’s hot out, cold when it’s cold out, wet when it rains, and blisters on your posterior. No GPS, so if you don’t know where you are, the tractor won’t tell you. Then again, if you don’t know where you are, why are you there with a tractor anyway?

Just a few observations on this subject:

This article makes me appreciate my shovel, rake, and used push garden seed planter I paid $20 for at a yard sale even more.

I use to be in the Ag business and it always seemed to me the seed, fertilizer and equipment dealers were always one step ahead of most farmers.

I hate to admit it but I think some of the gadgets in farm machinery were meant to keep some of the younger people interested in farming. They seem to like that kind of stuff. (Am I on to something here?)

Keep up the good work.

When designed obsolescence became the force behind market creation, the concept and future design certainly wasn’t left out of computer chip construction and the entire information age plan of reduction of the value of human participation. The people that make this info management junk are the ones making money mostly. Although some may have spread sheets that forecast paying for their bigger machinery through bigger production, they always leave out most biological considerations including human touch and health. I love it when they do this development for the safety of the operators. The safety of the operators should have a long term view of the operators now and in the future. Their involvement must be seen beyond production numbers. The energy dependence of modern agriculture is untenable. If we measured the efficiency of American style ag. on a calories of energy produced for calories of energy invested basis, just as we do “economy” cars, human labor and small ways of doing things would supply better energy equations. In those real world whole costing equations, the mental health of farmers should have a value, as it would naturally translate to the larger community, i.e. consumers of ag. products. That it is harder to do things the right way makes sense to me. Shortcuts always come up short, in the long term. Mother nature bats last and if you don’t think a grand slam is possible, then you just should join the doom day preppers, but be prepared for being shot by your paranoid neighbor….

Oh yea, I still use draft horses that I breed myself and most of my equipment is beyond age qualified antique status. I know we can produce more food with less energy this way and that dignity is result of my investing myself as an opportunity cost to live the way I want to.

I think they call it planned obsolescence. The more there is to break, the more there is consumers need to buy. So big companies only offer products with lots of gizmos pre-installed. Then, their marketing department argues that more complexity is what people want since that’s what people are buying. But people are buying the complex items because that’s pretty much all that’s available to them. So it creates a vicious cycle.

That’s a great story. You should see the John Deere R40 Rice Combine on display at the John Deere Pavilion in Moline. It’s for the China market. I had no idea Deere still made a combine that small with no cab!

I was thrilled to find a new gas stove that had NO electronics. Electronics on the last one quit and I couldn’t use the oven, though I could light the burners with a match. This one works…every time, all the time. Our tractor is a 1960s Massey Ferguson, cost us $2000. Even my husband can fix it (he is NOT mechanically inclined). How many of today’s tractors will still be running fine and easily repaired in 50 years? I want to buy a new pickup truck with NO digital stuff and a crank for the windows. Wish me luck.

I think it would be nice though if the padded seats were an option. Pretty bumpy around here. .

I agree, as a noob to farming it is totally daunting. You pop open a magazine and they have you thinking you can’t plant a radish unless you have all this equipment. At the same time I disagree that machines are not better in some ways. It takes a keen eye and good business sense to tell treasure from garbage. Where I think it especially counts is where you have low or breakeven margins. If I don’t have years of experience, it is worth it to me to have a combine that tells me deficient fields. Then I record it and go back and apply on extra fertilizer to that location on the next go around. Its all dollars and sense in the end… (yes sense!) If I don’t have the sense then the dollars make up for it in the short run. If I spend $100,000 on a new tractor and it saves me significant dollars while executing a management plan, I think it may be worth it.

Ditto for cars, refrigerators, phones etc. Way too much of what we don’t need, increases waste & decreases our connection with the real world.

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