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Back when we first moved onto our home ranch here on Harkins Slough, we quickly realized that our 40 horse power Ford tractor, the one that had seemed so big when we first bought it, was no match for the amount of acreage and the heavy clay soils we would now be farming on. Our options at that time where limited. We quickly realized that the only four wheel drive wheel tractors that come up for sale around here were ones used to the point that there wasn’t much left. And the new ones were far beyond our reach. After much thought, the solution we finally fell upon was to buy an old crawler.
With their tank-like metal tracks, crawlers exert more tractive force, or pulling power, than a similar sized wheel tractor. And used ones are reasonably priced. After doing some research, I decided that what we needed was a Caterpillar D4. We found a 1953 D47U in the Central Valley and had it trucked over to us. For the first five or so seasons we farmed here it was exactly what we needed. With its wide tracks it had no problem pulling a disc and chisel plow up and down our slopey ground and it was nimble enough to work in the tight spaces and around the many obstacles that our farm presents.
In time we expanded to the point that we could consider training employees to take up some of the tractor driving burden which I had been doing myself up until that point. As fond as I was of the D4, by modern standards, it would never be considered user friendly. To get it started you use a pull-rope to start a small gas “pony” motor which in turn engages the main diesel to get it started. It’s a somewhat complex procedure that involves multiple levers, switches and valves. Driving the tractor isn’t exactly straightforward, either. Instead of a simple steering wheel, one uses a combination of clutch levers and brake pedals to make it turn. We trained one employee to drive it for a time, but often I found myself breaking away from whatever I was doing to help him get it restarted or to address another issue it was having.
As we expanded we also got to the point that we could consider buying a new four wheel drive tractor—one that would be more versatile and easy to train employees to drive—one that started with a key. After we took delivery of our “big” (120 horse power) John Deere tractor we used the D4 less and less, to the point that it sat unused in our shed for many years.
That all changed when we bought our Lewis Road property. Wheel tractors can develop what is called “power hop” on loose, sandy soils—especially on hillsides. When this effect happens the tractor starts to rhythmically bounce or hop with increasing intensity, until one has to stop the tractor entirely and start again in a lower gear. Crawlers have no such problems and the D4 proved the ideal tractor for that site.
These days the D4 lives in its own shed and we primarily use it to work the ground up in spring, and again in Fall in prep for planting cover crops. Every spring I reacquaint myself with it by doing all of the necessary maintenance before taking it out of the shed. Among those farmers who still use them, there is a real affection for these old tractors. They were built to a level of simplicity and sturdiness that doesn’t exist anymore (even though the D4 takes up about as much space as a Toyota Prius, it weighs over three times as much). And even though it isn’t exactly user friendly, with the rhythmic clacking of the tracks and big diesel humming away it is quite a thrill to drive.
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