Quiet Roar of Change
Farmers field-test electric tractors in first-of-its-kind state program
Story and photos by Drew Myron Electric tractors are rolling across local farm fields with a quiet hum that could signal the next wave of rural electrification.
Area farmers are part of an energy trend gaining traction as they take part in the state’s first electric tractor program. The project brings together farmers, nonprofit groups, and researchers to explore how electric vehicles can serve the needs of Oregon farmers.
Wasco County growers have a chance to get first-hand experience of the benefits and challenges of electric equipment. The project is a joint effort of four organizations that bring no bias, sales pitch, or pressure: Sustainable Northwest, focused on rural energy efficiency; Forth, a nonprofit trade organization; Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a longtime partner to rural electric cooperatives; and Wy’East Resource Conservation, a rural development organization.
The study is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and environmental foundations, and private donors.
“We’re acting as a neutral third party to test out technology,” says Robert Wallace, Dufur resident and Wy’East executive director. “We’re not selling and not representing the tractor companies.”
The test tractors are equipped with sensors that capture operational data, which is evaluated by Oregon State University researchers who look at cost, battery life, weight, efficiency, and air quality, and make comparisons to traditional diesel-powered equipment.
The program does not prefer any manufacturer and works with electric tractor models from Solectrac, Farmtrac, and Monarch.
The first 100% battery-powered electric tractor arrived in Oregon in January 2021 and has been tested in Pendleton and Medford. A second tractor arrived in Dufur in October 2021 and is available to local farmers who want to take a trial run.
The test tractors are small, compact vehicles, not conventional large wheatfield tractors. The output is equivalent to traditional 30- and 40-horsepower tractors, making it ideal for orchards, vineyards, small acreage, equestrian centers, mowing, and utility use.
“We’re trying to find out where these will work and where they won’t,” Robert says. “This one is not going to replace a 400-horsepower tractor, but I’m hearing from a lot of orchardists who are eager to try it out. People are excited about the technology. They’re reaching out, wanting to learn more about how they can test the equipment.”
Robert shares the enthusiasm.
“This has incredible torque,” he says of the Farmtrac model. “You’re not revving it up, it just goes. And it’s so quiet. I couldn’t tell if it was on or not because there was no noise.”
Electric tractor motors operate at 90% efficiency, compared to diesel motors that operate at 30% to 40% efficiency. The near-silent tractors are clean, low-maintenance, and fume-free. They can be recharged in any standard 220-volt outlet.
“It’s a pretty amazing machine,” says Stan Ashbrook, a Dufur farmer who tends 3,000 acres of dryland wheat and raises 100 head of cattle.
Stan is so encouraged by the industry trend he offered to lend his land and shop for test runs. He says his operation requires the higher horsepower conventional diesel tractors provide.
“I think it’s a start,” he says. “It will be good for smaller operations and truck farms.”
While electric optimism abounds, challenges still affect the green dream.
Electric tractors are more efficient than conventional diesel vehicles, but current models lack the battery longevity many farmers need for long days in the field.
Cost also can be a hurdle. The price of an electric tractor is about 50% higher than a diesel tractor, although operational costs are less because the tractor does not require diesel. While electric batteries are expensive, they typically have 10-year life spans.
Robert acknowledges cost and battery life are challenges, but he is encouraged by the pace of change and improvements in the electric equipment industry.
Solectrac, pioneer of the electric tractor, introduced the first commercially available model in 2012. As small independent companies gain more traction, large corporations such as John Deere, AgCo, and Kubota are introducing and improving their own electric versions.
Change is as near as your local hardware store, parking lot, or mountain trail, Robert says, pointing to the proliferation of electric cars, electric bikes, and electric power tools.
“It’s really happening pretty fast,” he says. “This is the next wave of rural electrification.”