Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tractors and the Man Who Loves Them

I've already spoken in this venue about loving cars, and to a much greater degree, trucks.  It's not that I love the device itself - not a lot of reciprocation - but the philosophy behind it. 

Let me state right now that I will be taking this opening statement out to the woodshed at a later date.  Right now, just roll with it.

But as much as I love a truck, I think I could kick the truck to the curb for a tractor.  Whatever the truck can do, the tractor can usually do.

Convey you to town?  Yes.  In a hurry, not so much but it will get you there.  And that's where the shared capability pretty much ends.  At this point, we park the truck in a safe place while the tractor flexes its muscles.

The tractor can carry a load.  Not directly, but its capacity to drag a loaded trailer is almost the definition of a tractor.  The machine was originally called a "traction engine," and haulage where rails didn't go was its stock in trade.  A traction engine's original purpose wasn't exclusively agricultural, but it quickly became exactly that as automotive technology and roadbuilding technology advanced side-by-side, and motor freight capabilities developed that could move as much as a traction engine, but much faster.  And even then in very remote or inhospitable areas, traction engines continued to serve yeoman duty in bulk haulage.

What else can a tractor do?  Modern ones are almost outlandishly sophisticated, calling on satellite navigation (and even satellite guidance - concepts are driving themselves!) to plant in the same place as last year to an accuracy of inches.  Not a lot of inches, either - three or four.  You know those popular corn mazes that crop up (ha ha ha) every autumn?  The old way was to mow the corn in the desired pattern.  New computer-controlled planters can plant the maze directly - that's how it comes out of the planter, that's how the corn grows.  Think of it as a supersized dot matrix printer, and the planter is the print head.

I have an old tractor.  Really old, if it was a person it'd be knocking on the door of the Social Security office.  It starts with a crank.  It runs on gas but if I wanted I could make a few alterations and run it on kerosene.  You might not be familiar with kerosene - think of a tiki torch like you see at Wal-Mart or Home Depot this time of year - the lamp oil inside those is pretty close to kerosene.  Or I could run it on paint thinner.  Alcohol (yeah, flex fuel, baby), probably I could get it to run on diesel with a little work.  It would still be spark ignited of course.  Hmm.  Have to think on that one for a while.  But what's it good for?

Dragging the giant stump out of the yard, for starters.  I had a tree blow down, and had to cut it up.  But I'm not going to mess with the stump, all that dirt and roots and whatnot, and it'll never split right for burning.  But how to get it out of the yard?  My old pickup is trusty and ready to serve, but its little tires will never get the traction to get going.  Subaru is out, too - even with AWD, the stump isn't going anywhere.

Enter the tractor.  Out comes the logging chain, and back away in reverse.

Everything stops.  Not the engine, just the motion.  As tractors go, mine isn't much.  18 horsepower on its best day, and did I mention it was 65 years old?  I don't reckon its best day was anytime recently.  But the engine never stumbled.  The tires spun.  18 horsepower, lots of gearing, and tires 48" with brand new lugs makes up for a mighty tug, but the stump stayed put.  If I could lift it, it would probably come in at something over 600lbs with no wheels or anything else conveniently low-friction like that underneath it.  So I change the angle, move the chain, and tug again.  Success!  That was two years ago, and the marks the chain left in the street as I dragged it to the city's pick-up spot are still visible.

What else can it do?  Dragging isn't that big a deal, after all.  Well, a tractor's designed to power things as it drags them around.  Power Take-Off, or PTO is its big party piece.  Plug a removable shaft in to that, and it runs tillers, post hole diggers (imagine a giant wood boring drill bit, 48" high and 12" across.  Where do you want the post hole?  Okey-dokey!), mowing decks as big as fifteen feet across.  Not my tractor, but some out there will do it.  Hay balers, sprayers, vacuums, blowers, combine harvesters - whoa!  Combines?  Yup - before there were giant self-propelled combine harvesters, it was a machine you pulled behind your tractor.  You can still find them for smaller farms.  Of course, a used combine in working condition can be had for about the same price, so maybe you wouldn't bother.

I don't love anything that can't love me back.  But I do love the wide-open potential it brings with it.

That, and the occasional bird nest on the intake manifold.  That's with the hood removed, between the engine oil fill tube and the exhaust.

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