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Why Midwest farmers are ditching newfangled tractors for old-school rigs
American farmers are seeking out older tractors, and not just as collectors’ items. The dated machinery is easier to use, less expensive to purchase, and cheaper to repair and maintain than modern tractors, so instead of early retirement the old workhorses are being put back into the field.
“There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson told the Star Tribune. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it, and if something breaks you can just replace it.”
Hagerty’s resident tractor enthusiast Becca Hunt, whose farming family owns and uses four vintage tractors, wholeheartedly agrees.
“They’re tough and reliable, and if something breaks, it’s easy to fix,” she says. “Plus, because they’re older, a lot of the parts are interchangeable with other brands. We have an Oliver, but we can get a part from another manufacturer and it still works. You can’t do that with the newer tractors; they tend to be part-specific, which can be a bit costly.”
A quick internet search proves that farm equipment manufactured in the late 1970s and ’80s are popular on auction sites throughout the Midwest, but even tractors built earlier are going back to work. With many American farmers struggling to keep their farms financially viable, it’s all about scoring a durable, back-to-basics, bargain tractor.
“The older tractors definitely get a lot of bidders,” says Hagerty’s Hunt, who attends farm auctions with her father. “Farmers know those tractors are going to last forever, so they’re a hot commodity.”
The Star Tribune reports that Nebraska-based BigIron Auctions sold 3300 pieces of farm equipment in a two-day online auction in December 2019. For the year, BigIron auctioned 27 heavy-duty John Deere 4400 tractors, built from 1977–82, some for as little as 10 percent of what it would cost for a modern-day equivalent.
Tractors with fewer hours sell for more—sometimes a lot more—but even then, they’re considered bargains. For example, a 1979 John Deere 4640 with only 826 hours sold for $61,000 in heavy bidding last August, and that’s a great deal compared to high-tech modern machines that sell for $150K–$250K.
As BigIron co-founder Mark Stock told the Star Tribune, “Those older tractors that had good care and good maintenance, that’s good property. The newer machines, any time something breaks, you’ve got to have a computer to fix it.”
That modern software can be helpful—for instance, on newer machines the dealer receives a warning whenever something is about to break—but high labor costs can be prohibitive for many farmers, who traditionally take pride in fixing things themselves anyway.
“My father and I enjoy working on our tractors,” Hunt says. “If something breaks, it just takes a little wrenching and some elbow grease to get it fixed.”
Minnesota farmer Kris Folland, who uses three pre-1982 tractors to work his 2000-acre property, told the Star Tribune that cost is the #1 motivator for most farmers. “That’s why these models are so popular. They’ve stood the test of time, [they’re] well built, easy to fix, and it’s easy to get parts.”
Folland also answered environmental concerns about employing an older tractor, explaining that the carbon footprint can be mitigated by using biodiesel fuel, which extends the life of an engine since it includes better lubricants than conventional diesel fuel.
Bottom line, he says: “Older equipment is a way to reduce your cost per bushel to become more profitable.”
That means more vintage tractors are delaying retirement—and the show circuit—to keep American farmers working.