This coming season, the Monarch Tractor company out of California will deliver a hundred new 40 hp electric tractors into the vineyards and orchards of that state. The batteries run for 10 hours, re-charge in four and have a guaranteed life of ten years. The Monarchs are driverless and can run a sprayer or even a baler. At $50,000 US they aren’t cheap but they’re still within spitting distance of their gas-and diesel-powered competitors.
It’s just a question of time before one of these machines shows up at the tractor pull competition at my local fair. We’re used to a noisy display and a lot of black smoke. Will the tractor pull become a very quiet thing, like the spinning demonstration run by the ladies of the sheep show? Will it be like watching the battle of the electric winches? Maybe we could match one up against a team of horses . . .
In my last year of high school a hundred years ago, a kid in my class made a lot of heads snap around when he submitted a sugar battery for the annual science fair. He lit a light bulb using current created by a pail filled with sugar, water and some kind of acid. It may have been lemon juice. The Toronto newspapers made him an instant celebrity, our school won the national science prize and the young lad went off to university to become the new Thomas Edison.
The energy crisis was still a few years away and I heard nothing more of him, or any of the other guys in my circle who dreamed up brilliant ideas. There was the dental student who invented false teeth that could be glued onto the front teeth of a sheep and extend its life span by three years. He went off to Australia hoping to cash in on their 60 million sheep flock at two bucks a pop. Another guy invented a new fish cake using potatoes and cod. Yet another made a can-opener for seniors whose fingers weren’t strong enough to depress those little round caps on the early pop cans.
Some eggs just don’t hatch. The invention of the ring pull-tab put my can-opener friend out of business. Fish cakes did not have enough salt or fat in them to catch on as a fast food. And there has never been enough money in sheep in my experience to justify the attention of a dentist. But I always wondered why the sugar battery kid didn’t become a household name. (He also developed a chemical process for synthesizing THC, which might offer a clue why we have not heard from him. He may be flourishing quietly in another trade).
The idea of a battery made from cheap and renewable materials has been with us since the first days of electricity. The problem then and in 1969 and until quite recently was too little voltage, too heavy to lug around and too expensive. Then along came lithium, which isn’t renewable but it is cheap and abundant and promises to put gas guzzling cars off the road within the next ten years. Even General Motors thinks this will happen.
At a recent socially-distanced meeting of the Driveshed Coffee Club I raised the question of electric tractors with the aging farmers of the Back Settlement, expecting a unanimous scoffing chorus. Much to my surprise the old guys liked the idea a lot. Turns out they were never all that fond of the internal combustion engine in the first place.
“It never worked,” said Arden. “Always a problem. They persuaded my dad to give up the horses for that little Massey tractor and he was happy to try it because he hated horses. But he learned to hate that tractor, too. Because it never worked. I’ll bet he would go electric in a heartbeat.”
At Walkers Small Motors in town you can buy an 18 hp Cub Cadet electric riding mower, but you have to pay a $1,500 premium. Bruce Walker says he sells a lot of electric walk-behinds, trimmers and some chainsaws but no riding mowers. In the end, it all comes down to price.
“It’s just a lawnmower!” says Bruce impatiently. “You don’t drive it around town showing off to your friends. So price is important.”
Maybe that holds true for the homeowner, but a farmer is very different. It’s not just a tractor. Lots of us very much want the latest thing and we do want to show it off to the guys at the diner. If it runs as cheaply as an LED bulb and you don’t have to wear earmuffs, maybe you could listen to the birds sing in the hedgerows again like when you were a kid.
I’m going to pitch the electric tractor pull concept to the fair board one more time.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca