The Last Windrow: Farmers used to be able to fix almost anything


You can't fix it yourself anymore. That was the title of an article I read in an ag publication a week or so ago. I've found it to be increasingly true with any machine.

There was a day on the farm when farmers fixed almost everything themselves. Machinery was manufactured with you in mind. Cars carried motors that allowed you to actually see the spark plugs.

Just about every farm had what was called a "machine shed." That building held welders, acetylene torches, a thousand wrenches of every type, oil by the barrel and other tools that were used to fix stuff. There wasn't a computer screen to be seen except a possible oscilloscope or timing light.

My mechanically inclined uncle used to put his fingers on individual spark plugs to check their spark. If you stood close enough and weren't paying attention he might reach out and touch your ear with one of those charged fingers. I've still got a scar on my right ear.

If you farm, you break equipment. Tractors stop in mid-stride out in the middle of a section. Rarely do they break down when sitting near a machine shed. And, they break down at the most inopportune times, like during a hail storm or a blizzard.


As they say, back in the day another tractor or truck was employed to journey to the dead machine and tow it into the repair building.

One of my cousins, who helped out at our farm from time to time, experienced a time when a hydraulic hose let loose and promptly doused him with a nice warm oil bath. It happened on the far end of the field and he came walking back into the farm yard with his hair glistening in the sun.

But, with a few tools we traveled to the breakdown site, repaired the split hose, filled the oil tank and he was off again, though slightly damp with an oil soaked T-shirt. But, we fixed it ourselves.

In the article I referred to earlier it was explained that now a tractor or combine might just stop in the middle of its chore via a signal from some distant computer. The implement would sit where it stopped until a computer engineer showed up to fix whatever was the cause of the stoppage.

The operator was not able to get the thing running on his or her own. That sounded spooky to me. And, computer mechanics don't come cheap.

A mechanic acquaintance of mine a number of years ago told of an experience he had in his repair shop. Seems he was working on a large combine in wheat country. He was deep inside the bowels of the huge machine when all at once the engine started on its own.

As he sat there on an internal auger, he said he had visions of heaven. If the auger went into operation he would have been on his way upstairs. Somehow an electronic signal had traveled to the machine he was working on and started the combine running.

He seemed to remember the occasion well. I can understand why.


Farmers used to pride themselves on being able to fix just about anything themselves. My dad tore numerous tractors and machines apart and put them back together. There were always neighbor farmers who had developed an expertise in fixing machines at a reasonable cost.

Sometimes they just traded out their work for some other need they had at harvest time. Very few repair trucks were seen on the country roads.

There seems to be a movement to get back to allowing farmers to fix their own stuff if at all possible. But the machines of today are so loaded with computers, I rather doubt that without some kind of computer education it will be tough for most to diagnose and fix modern machines without calling the repair shop.

Our farm featured a giant walnut tree with a block and tackle hoist dangling from a huge lower limb. That's where tractors were torn apart, engines installed, tires changed and other mechanical challenges were met. I doubt you'll see many of those block and tackles hanging from trees anymore.

You just can't fix it yourself anymore. Unless you're very lucky. And, stay away from any mischievous uncle with his finger sitting on a running spark plug. He was fixing the tractor himself.

See you next time. Okay?

John Wetrosky - Last Windrow.jpg

What To Read Next
Get Local