Farmers test drive an electric tractor

Non-profit leaders, researchers, scientists and farmers are teaming up to conduct the first field test of electric tractors in Oregon.

The goal of the project is to identify the pros and cons of electric tractors. The team will study battery life, emission reductions, operating costs, safety and which farms and crops are best suited for electric tractors.

“Our goal is to learn more,” said Bridget Callahan, senior manager of Sustainable Northwest’s energy programme and one of the project leaders.

Over the course of this year, the team will conduct field research with farmers across Oregon.

On March 4, the current non-profit Rusted Gate Farm in the Rogue River Valley was selected to test-drive Oregon’s first electric tractor.

Dave Picanso, manager of Rusted Gate Farm, tests the tractor in truffle and apple orchards.

“I was, and probably still am to some extent, as sceptical as everybody else,” Picanso said. “You know the mentality: ‘You’ll pry the keys to my diesel pick-up out of my cold dead hands’.” It’s hard to accept change. But I think it’s inevitable. Consumers want it. I can tell there’s a future.”

The study is a collaborative effort of four environmental and energy nonprofits: Forth, Sustainable Northwest, Wy’East RC&D and Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Oregon State University will also join the team.

The research is funded by a grant from the US Department of Agriculture, environmental foundations and private donors.

Robert Wallace, executive director of Wy’East RC&D, said the team has secured the launch of three e-tractors: two 40-hp and one 30-hp, both from California-based Solectrac.

Erin Galiger, programme manager for Forth, said the team chose these models based on size and what was commercially available. Electric tractors are still just emerging on the global farming scene.

The first tractor is being tested at Rusty Gate Farm. The second will be at the Crook County Fairgrounds. The third will be in rotation on state farms. Trials will be mainly on small to medium sized farms.

The electric tractors can be charged from any standard 220 volt outlet.

Several team members have predicted what they expect to find when comparing electric and diesel tractors.

One difference is cost. Galiger of Forth estimates that the initial cost of an electric tractor is 50 per cent higher than a diesel tractor. But operating costs should be lower because the e-tractor requires no fuel other than electricity.

Electric batteries are expensive, but the expected battery life is about 10 years.

Wallace of Wy’East estimates that e-tractors can last three to 10 hours without recharging.

Electric tractors are expected to emit 90-100% less emissions than diesel tractors, which OSU researchers will measure through air quality studies.

Electric tractors are quiet.

“There’s no roaring engine,” said Wy’East’s Wallace. “It’s almost silent. It was hard for me to get used to it.”

Farmer Picanso said he likes that his e-tractor doesn’t idle, doesn’t emit smoke and has terrific torque.

“I couldn’t believe how much torque it has,” said Picanso. “When you take off, it really takes off.

But there are other aspects he doesn’t like. The model he uses is not four-wheel drive, he has to be careful not to wet the electrical systems, it doesn’t have a back-up safety horn, it keeps rolling at the end of the row, and some of the controls could be more ergonomic.

But Picanso said he was pleased that the research team was taking his feedback seriously and confirmed that the manufacturers plan to use the feedback in future models.