Driving tractors

I believe, for most folks, the thought of farming has a poetic sense about it. Because so very little of the populace has ever farmed, set foot on a farm, or even seen or smelled a farm, I believe we conjure pictures of what farms and farming are all about. I do not know where these pictures come from. Perhaps they are emanations of our overdeveloped sense of fantasy? I don’t mean to burst the proverbial bubble or to be self aggrandizing, but farming is very hard work and although it has its rewards, there is very little that is poetic about it. Allow me to clarify this view by focusing on what may be the most poetic farm vision of all, driving a tractor.

Today’s tractors have amenities that make them feel and drive much like automobiles. They have fully cushioned and infinitely adjustable seats, air conditioning, GPS,  and sound systems. Folks with deep pockets and large agribusiness corporations are some of the few able to afford the largest, and most expensive, tractors. Folks living on small farms can often afford only much older, very used, machines. Because we run this sort of operation here at Pairodox this discussion therefore concerns what it is like to drive an old, nearly antique, tractor.

Older tractors do not have a suspension. They have neither leaf springs nor shock absorbers. Bumps and other eccentricities of the land are therefore transmitted directly from tires, to wheels, to your seat – with no intervening mechanism to suppress or cushion an uneven ride. Tractors can provide a very rough ride under most all circumstances.

Although all tractors are fitted with mufflers I believe that these are merely a nod to cosmetics. Depending on what sort of tractor you’re operating, your face may be two or three feet from the end of the exhaust pipe which leads from the muffler which itself leads directly from the manifold and engine. The exhaust system of a tractor is unlike that found in our automobiles which have long extension pipes and resonators; tractor mufflers do little to suppress engine noise.  Also, many older tractors burn a bit of oil, especially when they work hard, and since the operator sits just aft of the stack he or she is often treated to an eye watering cloud of engine exhaust. Tractors are always very noisy and, more often than not, smokey.

Because few older tractors are fitted with cabs the operator is exposed to the elements.  Remember too that the operator typically sits astride the (hot) transmission housing. Open tractors are hot to operate in summer and cold to run in winter.

Most older tractors have a throttle which is operated by hand – they have no accelerator pedal. If you should fall off a tractor – it’ll keep right on going, without you (or over you), until, of course, it runs into something. Very few older tractors have hydraulic brakes of the sort found on our automobiles. Many of these machines have band brakes. These are composed of a band which surrounds a disk which is either part the transmission or of the wheel itself. When you apply the brake what you are actually doing is squeezing this band around the disk – and doing so slows the rotation of either the transmission or the wheels themselves. Not as easy as pushing a pedal which actuates set of calipers which squeeze a set of pads against a disk. Tractors can be dangerous to operate and difficult to stop under certain circumstances.

All tractors have a fairly high center of gravity. They can roll over if you aren’t careful. Tractor manufacturers know this and now fit machines with ROPS (roll-over protection structures) that protect farmers from the sometimes deadly effects of roll-over. Older tractors do not have ROPS devices. Tractors can be very dangerous to operate over rough or hilly terrain.

Most tractors have multiple gears (forward AND back) in more than a single range. Gear patterns are usually not of the typical H type. My Ford 801, for example, has 5 forward and one reverse gear – these are accommodated by a shift pattern which is composed of two upper position gears, two middle position gears, and two lower position gears. This pattern is unusual indeed and takes some getting used to. Tractors can be very difficult to operate.

Tractors are meant to power or to drag farm implements. They do so through the use of things such as a PTO (power take-off ), lift arms,  and a draw bar. Among these it is the PTO which is most dangerous. A PTO is a shaft, driven by the transmission, which comes out of the back of the tractor and rotates very quickly. A large number of farm implements have drive tubes which derive power from the rotating PTO. While roll-over accidents account for nearly 250 farm deaths per year here in the U.S., accidents directly linked to entanglement in the PTO account for 10. Tractor PTO units are very dangerous.

So what about all of this do you find poetic? A tractor is a tool, it is a very powerful means to an end. Tractors demand that they be used with the utmost care and respect.

Having said all of that – dam, they can be fun to drive!

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