GENE LOGSDON: Speed Farming


The Contrary Farmer

The farm news (DTN/Progressive Farmer) reports that Finland is boasting a farm tractor that can go 80 mph on snow. How’s that for technological progress? As far as I can tell, the speed is not meant for farming— crops won’t grow on snow. However, farm machinery companies in both Europe and the United States are touting their latest models that can hit 50 mph on the open road. This is not mere technological fantasy trying to find an outlet: many farmers today spend about as much time moving their rigs from one farm to another as they do in the fields, so having a souped-up road gear makes cents if not sense. Field speeds are increasing too, and that makes even more cents. Farm machinery engineers say that increasing field speed from 10 mph to 12 mph increases productivity by 20%. How about that? With my kind of arithmetic that means that when you bury a monster tractor in the mud and need three more monsters plus three snapped cables plus ten hours to get it unburied, as happened in my neck of the woods one spring, your productivity decreases (four tractors times zero) to a minus 80%.

The farmer friend who told me about that four tractor debacle has two hobbies, bird watching and monster farm watching. He recently observed an operation in his neighborhood that has contrived a drawbar hitch-up that enables one tractor to pull four anhydrous ammonia tanks at once. Awesome. That rig must need half a township to turn around in. My friend jokes that he tried to get all of this outfit’s machinery, parked in a field one evening, into a single photo but couldn’t because one frame on his camera couldn’t encompass it all.

Installing drainage tile underground is an example of speed farming that is very near and dear to me because I did that in the slow old days. The first time I made a hundred dollars in one week was when I operated a ditching machine, inserting farm drainage tile underground. I thought I was going to get rich. The ditcher was a sort of truck affair holding a big wheel fitted with little bucket shovels around its circumference. As the machine inched across the field, the wheel turned and the shovels dug a ditch as much as five feet deep. A “tile layer” guy lifted the clay or concrete tiles, each about a foot long, by hand into the ditch one at a time with a long handled hooked tool and placed them snug against the previous tile. It was hard work and if the machine operator went fast, that is maybe .01 mph, the tile layer had to place the tile precisely in the correct position in the ditch at the first try or fall behind and have to stop the ditcher until the tile got straightened properly in place. That meant displeasing the machine operator immensely. Not a good idea. I eventually graduated to operator and my tile layers loved me because I was kind enough to creep along at something like .001 mph so they didn’t have to work quite as hard. Laid about as many tile per hour because I didn’t have to stop so often.

Fast forward now, and I mean that literarily, to the present. Using sheer horsepower, a huge tractor pulls a plow like affair that opens the soil to the required depth, inserts and covers the drainage tile all in one pass, uncoiling it from big rolls of plastic tile, all at a speed equal to that of any other cultivating tool which is to say about 8 to 10 mph. Nothing makes me feel so old as to watch that amazing rig in operation.

I am sure the old adage about haste making waste is going to apply here. Let us say we reach the awesome ability to plant the nation’s entire corn crop in two days. Just think how wonderful it will be to get the job done in April so we can go mushroom hunting in May and watch the whole crop killed by late frost. But hey, no sweat, we can replant it all in two days. Reminds me of a friend who got the quaint notion one year that he could make a killing on oats. He decided he would plant 200 acres worth. But the weather did not cooperate and he got only 50 acres planted before it was time to do corn. The oats price dropped precipitously that year and he figured he lost $10 an acre on the stuff. “Just think how lucky I was to have sowed only 50 acres,” he said.

I know things work that way in tile ditching. When I first took over as an operator, I set the grade line markers wrong and laid a short length of tile uphill so to speak (water drains through the tile by gravity). Because I was only going .001 mph or so, I discovered the error after only about 50 feet. At today’s speed, I’d have half a section to do over and get fired to boot.

Once in the dear dead days beyond recall, my cousin, Eddie Rall, and I decided to determine which of us owned the slowest tractor. We lined up side by side, throttled down in low gear as far as we could without killing the engines and inched across the barnyard. I can still hear Eddie cackle triumphantly when he came in second and won.