GENE LOGSDON (1931 – 2016)
From Our Archives June 2007
Ohio’s politicians are considering a bill that would allow giant tractors to go 40 miles per hour on the highway. At present farm tractors are not supposed to be driven over 25 mph on public thoroughfares. The State House of Representatives has passed the bill unanimously and I presume the senators will do about the same. This really cracks me because of a fond experience of my wild oats days. But the law also amuses me considerably just on the basis of its own merits or demerits. For those urbanites who might not divine the reason for this law (if the politicians know, they aren’t spelling it out publicly), farming has become such a wide-ranging enterprise that farmers often rent land far from the home place. The old saying of “trying to farm the whole county” needs to be updated to “trying to farm the whole state.” Getting to the next field sometimes takes more time than getting it planted. Therefore tractors must move faster on the road, (not to mention in the field) or America might starve to death. If that’s not amusing to you, you need to improve your sense of humor.
I wonder if the lawmakers have thought this 40 mph rule through. When behemoth tractors could travel “only” 25 mph, it was easier to pass them in a car than it will be now that they are scooting along at 40. And if they are allowed to go 40, you know for sure they’ll be going 45 or 50 soon enough. That’s one thing but not the whole of the problem. It is daunting enough to see a machine big enough to straddle your car approaching you on the highway at 40 mph., but what if it is pulling some monstrous piece of farm equipment as it certainly will be. Today’s 30 and 40 row planters (or more) take up at least four lanes of highway when fully extended, so of course they have to be swiveled around sideways by the miracle of hydraulic power to be transported over a road. To pass something like that on a highway might take fifteen minutes at legal speeds. Disks and other cultivating rigs are even more daunting. Fully extended, these “tools” are also several lanes wide, so they fold up hydraulically, one wing or arm over the other for road travel. Today’s farm machinery has more hoses on it than a fire truck.
Alright. Now visualize a huge tractor coming at you at 40 mph, towing a towering folded-up disk. Awesome. Stories abound about what can happen in these situations. Rumor has it that one of our local farmers was barreling along, perhaps at the legal 25 mph. One of his disk wings hit the side of a bridge he was trying to pass through. The disk needed about a week’s worth of repair but the bridge fortunately was unmoved. If this happened when the “vehicle” was traveling at 40 mph, I would love to have a video of it.
I hear of homemade tractors now in operation that have upwards of 700 hp., about twice that of the biggest commercial tractors. Think of a hulk like that cruising along at 40 mph. A farmer, high up in the beast’s air-conditioned, sound-proof console cab, listening to Rolling Thunder, might run over a semi and not even know it.
I suppose the new speed limit will apply to self-propelled combines (grain harvesters) too, and that reminds me of one of my favorite true stories about modern farming. Again I will not mention his name, but it is common folklore in our county that a certain farmer, running into trouble with the law, was relieved of his driver’s license. No problem. He drove his combine wherever he needed to go. The law, at least at that time, did not require a driver’s license for operating a combine on the road. The farmer was known to pull out of a field where he was working and rumble off to the nearest town when he needed food or cigarettes. If that doesn’t amuse you, then again, I say, you need to improve your sense of humor.
But the reason I find the new law so amusing goes back to when I was young and foolish and working on a Catholic seminary farm where I was going to school. In the old monastic tradition, we were raising most of the food for the seminary. We fell into possession of a tractor that even back then (1953) could go 40 mph. I kid you not. We bought it because it was cheap. We did not yet understand the number one rule of life: when something is selling cheap, it is cheap. The tractor was factory made, but not of any major farm equipment company. As I recall, it had a Buick motor and an Oldsmobile transmission. On the hood was the word, “Zephyr” a perfect name for it. In lowest gear, it could barely pull a three bottom plow downhill but on the road, it was, yes, “an airy, insubstantial, passing thing,” as my dictionary defines zephyr.
I loved the Zephyr. I would get out on a country road, putt along at say 15 mph until a farmer would pass me up in his pickup doing his customary speed of about 35 as he checked out the crops. Then I would yank the throttle down on Zephyr, and we would shoot off like Comet and Cupid, passing up the pickup and its astonished driver as if they were standing still, while Zephyr and I howled in glee. Hey, when you’re in a seminary, you have to take your laughs where you find them.
I can’t resist adding that the Zephyr is one of the main characters in my new novel about seminary life, The Lords of Folly. I think the Ohio legislature should know that its law is way behind the times. We were tractoring around Minnesota at 40 plus over half a century ago and for the same reason. The farm we had rented was about five miles from the seminary. I must also add, for journalistic integrity, that we had not expanded our farming so far away for economic reasons but as an excuse to escape the monk-like strictures of seminary life for longer periods of time.