Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Union-Bulletin in June 2005.
At the Tumac Machinery Company in Walla Walla, General Manager Dan McClure leaned into the cab of a new John Deere Model 9620 tractor and turned the key.
Perched in the driver’s seat more than 10 feet above the ground, a visitor took in the view as the machine’s 500-horsepower diesel rumbled to life.
Speaking over the engine’s muted throb, McClure explained how easily the bright-green, 25-ton machine can be controlled with just its steering wheel, two foot pedals and an array of switches, knobs and buttons along the driver’s right side.
In an interview earlier that day, McClure talked about how tractors and other machinery for large farm operations have grown since he began at Tumac in 1986.
“When I started in this business, a big tractor was 350 horsepower,’’ he said. “Now it’s 500 horsepower and going up.’’
The larger tractors are needed to pull larger implements that cover more ground with each pass, he explained. That economy of scale, along with new techniques for seeding and new technologies for efficiency, are in the forefront of changes in farm equipment over the past years.
One recent technology which has had a huge effect on farming is the use of Global Positioning System equipment on tractors and combines, McClure said.
Use of GPS technology began in this area with harvesting machines, McClure said. Farmers made maps to analyze yields from different parts of a field.
“As it advanced, they were able to put (it) on tractors. That came along in the 1990s,’’ he said.
For tractor drivers, GPS technology has drastically cut the error rate for overlapping passes or, worse, skipping furrows and creating a gap.
Before the advent of GPS technology, a tractor driver either followed his furrow marks or had a marker at the end of the field to guide him.
Drivers who thought they could guide a tractor accurately that way got a surprise when they used the new system, McClure said.
“People who thought they were good tractor drivers found they were overlapping by five or six feet on each pass’’ he said.
GPS technology cuts that down to inches.
“Farmers are finding they are able to save 3 to 10% in overlap, and if you have an operation that costs $20 an acre and you are saving $2 an acre, well, do the math,” he said.
However, although GPS works best in flat fields, such as those in the Midwest, work is still in progress to get it to work well in the rolling terrain of the Palouse and Walla Walla Valley.
“In the near future we’ll have a guidance system which will steer the tractor around contours,” he said. “Once that comes it will be a great benefit for the Pacific Northwest.”
Meanwhile, across town (at the time of this 2005 interview), Carroll Adams and his son Bob Adams are dealing in the flip-side of today’s tractor business.
Unlike the monster machines used to work Eastern Washington’s sprawling wheat fields, the tractors and equipment Adams’ company sells from its lot on Isaacs Avenue are geared for smaller operators.
“When you’re talking wheat farming, that’s Tumac. Ours is livestock, orchards, row crops and grapes,” Carroll Adams said.
Adams said one of the major trends in his business is a “dramatic increase” in smaller farms. Many of these are “weekend” or “hobby” farmers, people who have moved into country homes with ample space for a few crops, some horses, or both.
Other models in demand are the narrow-width tractors vineyard owners need to thread the spaces between their vines and low-profile machines needed to duck under the tree limbs found in orchards.
The growth of the local wine industry has been reflected in the sales of those specialty tractors, he said.
“When I came here, there were four wineries, now there’s 60 or more,” he said.
“The farm equipment that they use has nothing to do with any other segment of farming.”
One major change in the industry as a whole has been the consolidation of manufacturers over the years into larger and larger conglomerates.
Carroll Adams said when he came to Walla Walla in the 1950s, there were nine tractor dealerships. Now there are two.
Among the effects of consolidation have been bottlenecks with finding parts to repair tractors and demands to purchase new equipment and to service new models, both Bob and Carroll Adams said.
As old-line companies lose longtime managers to early retirement, parts inventories become “lost” by being misplaced in warehouses and other places. Supplies of parts also run short because corporations wait until they have enough demand before ordering a manufacturer to make more.
The situation is a major change from previous years, Carroll Adams noted.
“It used to be if Ford or New Holland didn’t have 95 percent to 97 percent parts in inventory, they would just fly it in to keep their reputation up,” he said.