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Randy Brooks can suggest a host of reasons why a grower might want to switch to electric tractors, with reliability being top of the list.

The high price of fuel, concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, and worries about dependence on oil are generating an incredible amount of interest in electric vehicles in general, says Brooks, who runs Brooks Solar, Inc., in Chelan, Washington.

"But I think one of the things that people overlook about electric vehicles is the ­reliability," he said. "There’s no maintenance at all."

Brooks is a member of Advanced Vehicle Innovations, a group of enthusiasts who are promoting the use of electrically powered and hybrid (electric and biofuel) vehicles in north central Washington. Last year, he headed a team of AVI members who converted an old Allis-Chalmers G cultivating tractor to electric for Rachel Airmet, who farms with Guy Evans at Sunshine Organics in Chelan.

It all began when Brooks contacted Steve Heckeroth, an electric vehicle and solar advocate in California, to ask him to bring one of the electric tractors that he manufactures to a summit meeting of the AVI in Wenatchee.

Heckeroth suggested that rather than use all that gasoline to tow it to Washington State, Brooks might consider converting a tractor locally. Flying Beet, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) project in New York, had already converted an Allis-Chalmers G gas-engine tractor to electric drive and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to publicize how to do it. Instructions are on its Web site.

1950s tractor

It turned out that Airmet, who produces organic vegetables on 3.5 acres of land, was already looking for an Allis-Chalmers G tractor because its compact size made it suited to small-scale cultivation. Allis-Chalmers G tractors were manufactured between 1948 and 1955, according to the Yesterday’s Tractor Company Web site. Fewer than 30,000 were sold. Nowadays they are highly sought after because of their usefulness and unique construction. The rear-mounted Continental N62 four-cylinder engine provided traction for the rear wheels, while giving the driver a great view of the belly-mounted ­implements.

Airmet ended up buying two. One was in good working order, but the other, a 1948 model, lacked a motor.

Evans, at Sunshine Organics, said that for a small farm, the Allis-Chalmers G is superior to modern tractors. "There are no tractors on that scale being produced today. We’ve gotten used to growing things on such a big scale, there are no manufacturers catering for the smaller growers," he commented.

Quiet

Airmet stripped the tractor of its gas-engine components, sandblasted and painted it, and towed it to Wenatchee Valley College’s autoshop where Brooks and other volunteers from the AVI spent nine hours one Saturday converting it to electric drive. Brooks attributes much of the success of the project to Flying Beet’s work in pioneering the design and installation of the conversion components.

Airmet said she was interested in converting the tractor to electric because she felt it would be better for the environment and would reduce her use of fuel. A bonus is that it is easier to maintain than a standard tractor. She also envisions using it to take visitors to Sunshine Organics on hay rides, as an agritourism attraction.

She’s found the tractor easy to use. "It feels very user-friendly," she said, though the quietness disturbed her at first. "It’s a different experience not to have the noise of the tractor because you get so used to it and hearing how the engine’s running."

She thinks it has about the same horsepower as the gasoline version and said it crawls smoothly uphill rather than jolting. She’s a little concerned about how it will perform going downhill because it doesn’t have any engine breaking power.

Airmet said she hasn’t used the electric tractor much yet on the farm because she ­didn’t have implements on it last season, but she’ll be putting it to the test this year.

Batteries

The tractor is powered by four 12-volt batteries. With advances in battery technology, batteries are weighing less, costing less, and have a longer life, which has expanded the range of electric vehicles, Brooks explained.

The batteries should last for four hours of solid driving up and down hills pulling loads, and longer if the driver keeps stopping the tractor now and again, since an electric motor shuts off, rather than idling. Brooks has recommended that Airmet plug in the tractor for half an hour to an hour at lunch time so the power lasts all day, and then recharge it through the night.

Normally, the life span of the batteries should be between five to ten years, he said. However, when Airmet was in Mexico last winter she left the tractor unplugged and the batteries discharged, froze, and cracked. Brooks said the tractor should be plugged in during the winter because a charged battery will not freeze.

Converting a modern tractor to electric would be more problematic, Brooks said. On the Allis-Chalmers G tractor, the gas engine hangs off the rear axle, but on many tractors the motor forms part of the frame going from the front axle to the rear. If you were to take the motor out, you would have to figure out some way to bridge that gap. Brooks knows of no one who is converting front-engine tractors, but said Heckeroth makes electric tractors from scratch according to the customer’s specifications. With the high price of new diesel tractors, he thinks an electric one might be competitive and a feasible option.

"If someone with an orchard or vineyard wanted to make a statement about being green, they could certainly do that," he said.

When orchardist Dain Craven paid his bills in April, he couldn’t believe the size of the check he had to write for filling up his propane tanks for frost control and buying fuel for his tractors.

"Energy costs are really going to skyrocket," said Craver, an organic grower at Royal City, Washington. "All of us in the apple industry are feeling good—returns are good, and we’ve had a couple of decent years. But I think as it goes on with energy and labor costs, we need to have the price we’re getting to make money."

Instructions for converting an Allis-Chalmers G cultivating tractor into an electric ­vehicle can be found at the Web site www.flyingbeet.com/electricg.