Farmers swarming to buy used 40-year-old tractors


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Buy dumb! The market for used 40-year-old tractors is booming, due to the “smart” but expensive-to-repair designs of modern computer-based tractors.

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques. Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

“It’s a trend that’s been building. It’s been interesting in the last couple years, which have been difficult for ag, to see the trend accelerate,” said Greg Peterson, the founder of Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company in Rochester with a website and TV show. “There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

Because of the computer software built into the new machines, a farmer can no longer fix it himself. He must call in a service truck, at high cost with long wait times. This extra cost is on top of the high cost to buy the new tractor, which cost a lot more than the used machines.

I predict that the cost for used tractors is going to continue to rise, until some smart entrepreneur realizes the market possibilities, and begins making new tractors without the bells and whistles.

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16 comments

  • pzatchok

    We have a guy around here in Ohio who is rebuilding and reselling the old farm equipment.

    He started out rebuilding really old stuff for himself and the small collector market. It just expanded from there to working equipment.

    I have heard of a few farmers who have gotten together and hacked their farm equipment computers because it was cheaper then calling out the maintenance crew who often times just updated the software and charged them thousands.

  • mike shupp

    Been a while since I was on a farm, but … Thing is, a tractor is a general purpose pulling machine — you drag along a wagon or a plow or baler or whatever, without a lot of complicated interface. Putting a 2010-vintage tiller behind a 1970’s tractor is no big deal. But a modern harvester or combine is a self contained piece of machinery, and these days probably has a fair amount of software built into the equipment — along with a hefty modern price tag. So I suspect the farmers looking for simpler and older tractors are older folk with smaller spreads, say 80 to 200 acres, rather than the corporations who seem to be taking over agriculture. The market for “new tractors without the bells and whistles” just probably isn’t that great — it’s likely not too different from the market for 1950- or 1960-vintage cars without all the gadgetry, which a high school kid can work on with his own hands.

    Sad in a way.

  • Phill O

    I have a John Deer 60 for sale.

    My bee tractor is a John Deer 4310 (32Hp) bought in 2002. Hydrostactic is about all the bells and whistle besides the mid mount mower.

    Sure wish I had it down in NM right now.

  • Kyle

    Not tractor related, but the company BLU manufactures smart phones without all the bells and whistles. They don’t have the fanciest of chipsets but it will get the job done, so no fancy gyro dna iris scanners or 3+ cameras but then they only cost $100. Best thing is that they are an American company who manufactures their product in the US. Only downside is they they are on AT&T and where we live, Verizon has better coverage. They are not Apple or Samsung or Google, just a small entrepreneur who gets it.

  • Kyle

    Correction, BLU makes their phones in China, like Apple and Samsung and google. But they are still cheap.

  • Stephen Taylor

    The big issue is “Right to Repair”. With the increased use of electronics on agricultural equipment and systems, the ability to replace single components can be very effective in reduce repairs costs.

    However, major manufacturers like John Deere, or Apple in the consumer electronics sector, fight tooth-and-nail to keep consumers from having the ability to hire someone to troubleshoot and repair their equipment. This major manufacturers will not supply schematics or technical information, and in some cases they actually take independent repair technicians to court claiming the right to repair the equipment is exclusively the manufacturers’. See https://repair.org/agriculture

    Independent repair techs can replace a faulty cap, IC, or power transistor on a board for $200-$300, parts and labor. The manufacturers like Deere will have their techs replace the entire board, with the total service call ending up over $4,000, plus a backlog waiting for the repair to take place.

    There is currently evolving a nationwide movement for “Right to Repair” that will hopefully expand to all products and markets.

  • TL

    “I predict that the cost for used tractors is going to continue to rise, until some smart entrepreneur realizes the market possibilities, and begins making new tractors without the bells and whistles.”

    Part of the problem with that option is that many of the bells and whistles are needed to comply with today’s emissions requirements. Farm equipment used to be exempt from those regulations, but not so much anymore. For better or worse, complying with those emissions regs means new equipment must have a fair amount of electronics involved to operate.

  • Calvin Dodge

    There is an open source tractor available, but I don’t know its suitability for farm use.

    https://opensourceecology.dozuki.com/c/LifeTrac

  • Lee S

    Relevent to both this thread and the latest evening pause, I work for Scandinavias largest supplier of spares for US cars, and as such we are very active members of the Right to repair” movement.
    It’s both crazy and morally wrong that vintage cars can be worked on with a relatively basic tool set, but modern cars all have OBD ( on board diagnostics ), the readers for which are mostly available only from the manufacturer, and the cost is WAY out of reach of all but the largest workshops. ( Just to clarify, this applies very much to European cars also)
    The situation is only going to get worse with the rise of electric cars, which I believe are virtually impossible to do anything more complicated than change a windscreen wiper.
    It’s also reprehensible that on modern tractors you might own the tractor, but as far as I am aware, you only ever rent the software, so the machine is never truly your own.
    I can see a market for a Tractor with bells and whistles with open source software, so a tech savvy farmer, or the local workshop would be able to service the thing without paying thru the nose to the manufacturer for any work needed.

  • commodude

    OBD is a standard diagnostic system for all cars. I can go to Harbor Freight and get a code reader which will work on any car with OBD-II(the standard since 1996) for $50. For a little more I can get a reader which will read ABS brake codes and airbag codes.

    You can do the same with a USB dongle and code reader software for your cell phone.

    The reality of OBD-II is that once you’re used to working with the diagnostic codes, it’s very easy to work with.

    European cars use EOBD, Australians have their own version as well, and they all use the same diagnostic port.

    The difference with the tractors is that Deere John and others, having no SAE equivalent standardization have created their own packages which lock the owners out of the repair loop completely. The lawyers will eventually win, either through legislation or the courts, as the concept of someone owning a piece of equipment but not being able to repair it themselves is utter lunacy.

    There are extremely high end cars which factory only service and repair requirements, but the way the manufacturers work around that is they don’t truly sell you the car, it’s essentially an open ended lease.

  • Jay

    Stephen Taylor is correct, this is about “Right to Repair”. I live in the part of Washington where agriculture is still around and I have heard about this for the last two years not only from farmers, but the mechanics who work for cities. If your CAT (Caterpillar) Grader or Deere tractor goes on the fritz, you have to call their techs to come out and read the code(s). You can not simply replace the part, you must tell the computer that as well.
    During harvest, time is of the essence, and farmers can not wait for some tech to find the combine out in the middle of 5,000 acres of wheat to clear a problem code. Farmers around here do their own “Mechanicing” as they call it and do not want to pay $2,000 for a tech to come out to replace a $10 part and clear the computer.

    As for Calvin Dodge’s post, I remember seeing a website as well where someone made a free program to read CAT codes using your laptop so you do not have to pay a lot of money to some tech.

    The right to repair not only is for farm equipment, but also your cars and electronics. I do most of my own car repairs. It is something I can do to save money and I also enjoy it. There is a satisfaction when you do the work yourself.

  • Lee S

    @ commodude, are you sure this applies accross the board? ( My specialty is in exhaust systems… I don’t have much to do with up past the manifolds, and oxygen sensors are pretty universal. ), but I know the OBD readers we sell only work for cars of a certain age, and I’ve spoken to a few local mechanics that have told me that VOLVO and certain French and German manufacturers will only supply readers for extortional prices… I could be wrong, and perhaps it’s a different deal over the pond, but it seems a common complaint over here

  • commodude

    Anything newer than 1996 should have some flavor of OBD II. Older than 1996 and it’s a crapshoot.

  • Lee.S

    Yeah…. If I recall correctly, cars before 96, but after 70somthing in California, and early 80s in the rest of the US needed cats, but only the sensor after the cat, and the laws were a bit looser…. Once OBD2 came in you need a sensor before and after the cat… ( Unless you know a guy in Sweden/wherever that will bend you a “test pipe” , untill it’s time to have your car checked…)
    But I thought OBD2 applied to the whole car, not just emissions?

  • commodude

    OBD II is the entire vehicle, minus certain subsystems like the airbags and ABS systems. Code readers that handle those systems are a bit more, $75 US.

    Those just aren’t available for tractors, as they don’t follow a standard, and the computer systems are proprietary to the manufacturer.

  • pzatchok

    I do most of my own work but on stuff I need help on I go to my cousin, a mechanic for 30 years.

    He has had to purchase those code readers for years and his last software update cost him 250 bucks. Over all he has spent thousands on code readers and software. But having him around is a life saver and a wallet saver.

    He says the code equipment and software are his largest tool expense. He would work on more foreign and exotic cars but the equipment is just not worth it. For those few foreign jobs he gets he calls in a few favors and borrows the needed equipment.

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