For Midwestern farmers, older tractors beat new, higher-tech versions

Sven Gustafson

Consider switching your focus, for the moment, from the gee-whiz world of techno-sorcery that is CES to the world of farming equipment. Specifically, tractors, where older and lower-tech is better in the eyes of many Midwestern farmers.

The Star Tribune in Minneapolis is out with a feature looking at the enduring popularity of 30- and 40-year-old tractors, which it says have sparked bidding wars among farmers at auctions across the Heartland. Financially strapped farmers like the old tractors’ reliability, ease of function and repair, and comparatively low prices.

Farmers say newer-model tractors feature lots of advanced technology that can be useful, like touchscreens, mobile apps, GPS steering guidance, planting and spraying management and remote support. But that’s also off-putting to many users, who say you have to have computers to fix them and must wait for repairmen who charge high hourly rates to come out to the farm from the dealership. Most important, the technology is helping drive prices of new farm machinery out of the reach of many.

What’s more, tractors built in the late ’70s and ‘80s aren’t all that different from the ones being built today, minus all the high-tech software. That explains recent auction prices as high as $61,000 for a 1979 John Deere 4640 with only 826 operating hours on it. That's more than it cost new 40 years ago, at least in non-adjusted dollars. 

It's the same phenomenon as the car market, really: As the new models' prices explode, used prices follow. The John Deere 4640 pictured above sold at Mecum's 2015 annual farm machinery auction in Davenport, Iowa, for just $15,000. Much has changed in five years, but even at today's higher prices, the vintage machinery is a bargain.

“An expensive repair would be $15,000 to $20,000, but you’re still well below the cost of buying a new tractor that’s $150,000 to $250,000. It’s still a fraction of the cost,” said Kris Folland, a farmer from northwest Minnesota who owns three tractors built before 1982. “That’s why these models are so popular. They’ve stood the test of time, well built, easy to fix, and it’s easy to get parts.”

The Star Tribune story is worth a read. Find it here.