Robert Wallace was puzzled when the first electric tractor was delivered to his home in rural Dufur, Oregon, about 75 miles east of Portland.
Wallace, an expert on rural energy projects, knows his way around a tractor. But the electric machine, distributed by the California-based startup Solectrac, didn’t idle when he turned it on, unlike the loud diesel-powered tractors he was used to. It hummed.
“It was the first electric tractor I’d ever seen,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if it was running or not.”
Wallace has since become a guru of electric tractors, climate tech that’s just starting to show up on US fields and farms. Beginning last year, he fitted several Solectracs with data-gathering sensors and offered them for free tests on farms and gardens in rural Oregon. It’s part of a citizen science program testing first-generation electric farm equipment on the ground, likely the first program of its kind in the US
Thanks to quick production and marketing of electric automobiles, American drivers already have plenty of options to choose from when replacing a gas-powered car with an all-electric one. But agricultural equipment manufacturing, a $38 billion industry in the US, is only beginning to go green. Some small electric models are just becoming available to farmers, and Wallace and his program partners are putting them under the microscope.
Solectrac and Monarch, another California-based startup co-founded by a former Tesla supply chain chief, are rolling out models of small tractors intended for use in vineyards, berry and hobby farms. They aim to lure customers with promises of long battery lives, low carbon footprints and even autonomous technology, in Monarch’s case. But many farmers harbor deep loyalties to big-name brands—think the trademark John Deere green—and widespread unfamiliarity with electric-powered engines. Outright skepticism of green tech is also pervasive among the dryland wheat and orchard farmers in the rolling hills around Dufur, Wallace said.
If farmers are going to replace polluting diesel-run equipment like tractors, side-by-sides, backhoes and, eventually, huge machines like combine harvesters, they’ll first need to know whether they work, Wallace says.
“I want to figure out what parts of this technology will work for me, for rural Oregon, for rural America,” Wallace said.
An Extra $3,000 in Fuel Costs—a Day
There are about 5 million tractors in the US, and almost all of them run on fossil fuels.
Fred Simon owns 12 tractors on his 1,000-acre farm producing grains and hay near Malin, Oregon, just north of the border with California. That count doesn’t include his two combine harvesters and miscellaneous four-wheelers. All run on diesel or gasoline, he said. It’s work that requires lots of machinery and fuel—as much as 700 gallons per day, he said. After fuel prices skyrocketed this year, Simon said he’s spending between $2,000 and $3,000 on fuel each day.
There’s also the environmental toll. Emissions from fuel combustion in agriculture amounted to 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2019, about 0.6 percent of the US’s total emissions that year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s part of agriculture’s 10 percent share of total US emissions.
Kyle Proctor, a recent doctoral graduate of Oregon State University, said electric tractors are “low hanging fruit” when thinking about how to reduce emissions and save farmers money in rural America.
Parallel to Wallace’s program, Proctor recently published a report comparing the cost and climate impact of a 30-horsepower Solectrac tractor with a similarly-sized John Deere diesel model. Like commercial vehicles, the climate benefit of owning an electric tractor depends largely on a region’s energy mix. Even so, the study found the electric tractor option would substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions even in conservative scenarios—for example, when the tractor is lightly used in a region powered by dirty energy sources such as coal. In a hypothetical future with 100 percent clean energy grids, the electric tractor would essentially emit no greenhouse gasses.
The study also found the John Deere and Solectrac cost about the same amount of money over their lifespans—about $40,000—although the electric model costs more upfront. Electricity should provide a cheaper fuel source than diesel, the study said, generating savings over time. Cadeo Group, a clean-energy consulting firm based in Portland, Oregon, estimated in another recent study that switching to a small electric tractor would save about $3,000 in fuel costs per year. Plus, Proctor and analysts widely expect electric vehicle prices to drop as the industry matures.
Despite the cost and climate benefits, the Cadeo analysts expect a slow transition to a future where gas-powered tractors are a thing of the past. When the researchers interviewed stakeholders, some didn’t even know electric tractors existed.
But investors have taken notice. Monarch raised $60 million in a fundraising round last year, and industry giant Case New Holland bought a minority stake in the company. Solectrac was acquired by Ideanomics, a publicly-traded electric vehicle firm, and recently announced the introduction of its largest model yet, a 70-horsepower tractor with up to eight hours run time.
‘No Use For ‘Em’
Wallace, who is the executive director of Wy’East Resource Conservation and Development, a rural development nonprofit, partnered with Oregon State University, Sustainable Northwest and other nonprofits last year to study electric tractors lived up to the hype.
Bridget Callahan, senior energy program manager at Sustainable Northwest, said the project is preparation for rapid electrification she expects to sweep through the region in the coming decades. That transition, she said, will require outreach outside of cities and careful evaluation of new technology.
One of their Solectrac models is available for public view and testing at a central Oregon fairground. The other resides at Rusted Gate Farm, a nonprofit farm and ranch in southern Oregon founded by Christy Walton, an heir of the Walmart fortune investing in sustainability.
John Souza, a project manager at Rusted Gate, says the 25-horsepower Solectrac works “remarkably well” in their “large garden” operation. The technology has improved leaps and bounds from a model they tested before, he said. Its turning radius is excellent, ideal for tight spaces like rows of fruit trees, and charging hasn’t been an issue.
But it still has its quirks. The hydraulics can be a bit awkward, he said. And the tractor can’t run in heavy rain or near irrigation; Solectrac says “extended use or exposure to moisture” can damage components.
“That’s got to get figured out,” Souza said.
Wallace is preparing to deliver a third Solectrac to the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition, an organization based in Portland working at the intersection of food equity and sustainability. Eddie Hill, the group’s co-director, said he also expects to receive an F-150 Lightning, Ford’s flagship electric truck, through the program.
“It’s the start of a very large electrification project of the food system,” he said.
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But plenty of farmers have their doubts. Simon, the southern Oregon farmer, said he wouldn’t replace his fleet with electric tractors even if he could today. He wondered what he’d do if a battery died in his fields, far from any electrical outlet.
“Never heard of one. Never really want to see one. Don’t have no use for ’em,” he said of electric tractors.
Larry Brown, a cattle rancher near the small community of Scio, Oregon, is skeptical the country’s electrical grids will be able to handle a societal shift to electric vehicles, echoing assessments that US grids will require significant upgrades in the coming years. Brown is a board member of Oregon Natural Resource Industries, a group that has protested state Covid-19 measures and climate policies.
But he said small tractors like those sold by Solectrac and Monarch would be “great” for vineyard, blueberry and hobby farm operations “where you don’t need a whole lot of big, heavy muscle pushing the weight around.”
Wallace understands the skepticism.
He’s a firm believe that farmers need to see new technology for themselves, and his program is expanding to provide other kinds of mechanized agriculture equipment. He said they’re waiting to receive a Monarch tractor at the end of the year, along with the F-150 Lightning, Rivian electric trucks and a Polaris Kinetic, an electric UTV that is already proving to be popular in the agricultural community.