Special tractors for specialty growing operations

On wheat and cornfields in the West and Midwest, the biggest tractor is often the best tractor. However, in many other forms of agriculture-orchards, vineyards, some fruit and vegetable farms, for example-things can get a bit more nuanced. Sometimes, narrow tractors help facilitate narrow rows and, hence, more production per acre. In yet other cases, sloping hillsides require a tractor with stability and a low center of gravity. In other cases, high-clearance tractors function best to traverse over sensitive crops. Fortunately, there are tractors on the market to meet each of these specialized needs.

"We’ve got a new line of vineyard/orchard tractors," explains Barry Nelson, manager of media relations with John Deere. "We had a narrow series already (the 5EN series), but these were designed specifically for orchards and vineyards." The new models-introduced last year-include models 76F, 85F and 100F, which range from 76 to 96 engine horsepower. Model 76F is just 53 inches wide, while the other models are just 57 inches wide.

This line uses a transmission featuring 24 forward and 16 reverse speeds with working speeds of less than 1 mile per hour all the way up to 20 miles per hour during transport. The company says that a 10-gallon-per-minute hydraulic fluid flow rate was included to help operators power the many specialty attachments found in the orchard and vineyard industries. "They also have PTOs, they have three-point hitches-all the normal things that you would expect to find on a tractor," adds Nelson, "and they have mechanical four-wheel drive, which is very important."

Kubota’s M8540 Power Krawler is proving popular in vineyard and orchard operations, where steep slopes put a premium on traction, while retaining a narrow profile.

The tractors are designed to handle not only the narrow rows but also the sloping terrain that is commonplace in orchard and vineyard operations. That means a low-slung appearance and low center of gravity. In addition, all are equipped with roll guards, and Nelson says that seat belt use is always recommended. "Anytime you’re on a hillside, you need to be a little more cautious," he emphasizes.

As part of the specialized lineup, John Deere introduced its 20A nursery/greenhouse tractor that sits just 32 inches wide and 40 inches tall. Despite its small size, the unit uses a 21 hp engine and offers 1,100 pounds of lifting capacity. Most important, though, is its 45-degree articulated design, helping users get in and out of tight spaces and to make best use of the planting space available. John Deere’s 5EN narrow series tractors come with engines ranging from 83 to 101 hp.

John Deere also offers a "high crop" tractor designed for use in vegetable crops where clearance is important. The 5095MH model utilizes 230/95R40 R1 tires in both front and rear to offer nearly 2 feet of front axle clearance. The unit is available with or without a cab and boasts 80 PTO hp.

For Antonio Carraro, specialty tractors are an everyday business. The company offers an entire lineup of tractors designed for use on steep slopes and tight areas-just the type of sites often encountered in vineyards, orchards and nurseries. In addition to narrow profiles and articulating capabilities that provide tight turning radiuses, these tractors feature a number of unusual features designed to boost productivity and flexibility. "We have low-profile, very stable tractors that feature high horsepower," explains Bruce Clark, general manager with Antonio Carraro America.

John Deere’s new F-Series lineup of tractors range from 76 to 96 hp and was designed specifically for the narrow needs of orchard and vineyard operations.

In particular, he says, the company’s hydrostatic models have proven popular recently with a wide array of specialty agricultural users. "We have an orchard/vineyard tractor with a hydrostatic transmission in it that’s been very popular because it’s reversible. So, it’s used by anyone from fruit growers to guys doing snow removal," explains Clark of the Antonio Carraro model TRH 9400. "It takes about 5 seconds to reverse a tractor; you turn the seat around and all the controls come with it. Then, you can use it as a loader, a forklift, you can put snowblowers out front."

This helps the operator see what they’re doing by always working with attachments in front of them. There are related advantages as well. For example, in orchard operations where pruning results in piles of brush between rows, Clark says the operator can use a front-mounted flail mower. "Instead of running the brush over and risk tearing out hydraulic lines, this lets you do all the flail work out in front of you."

Clark says that safety is the primary focus for Antonio Carraro. "You can get conventional tractors that are narrow, but they retain a high profile so they don’t have a lot of stability," he explains. "They might try to lower the profile and make it more stable by putting tiny little tires on it, but then you don’t get any traction. It takes more than just cutting down a big tractor to make it work. Our narrow tractors are articulated, which lets you have big tires out front but still be able to steer the tractor. This gives them great traction, stability and clearance, and yet they’re narrow."

In addition to orchard and vineyard applications, Antonio Carraro offers a tractor that can be as narrow as 35.5 inches, which has proven popular in stake tomato growing operations. "It’s still about 54 hp, so it does an excellent job when it comes to cultivating or spraying," says Clark. He says part of the trick is to produce a narrow tractor without giving up horsepower and traction. For extreme applications, the company’s SRX model uses a track system. Because the unit is articulated, there are separate tracks in the front and rear, which provides tight turning without tearing up the soil by skidding one side to turn.

Antonio Carraro offers an entire lineup of specialty tractors designed for use in vineyards, orchards and nurseries with the wide range of unique attachments growers use in these operations.

Kubota recently introduced a tracked narrow model tractor, the M8540 Power Krawler. "There are tracks on the back of it. It’s a very unique piece of equipment," says Paul Williams, project manager with Kubota. "It was tested in a vineyard operation, and it’s amazing what it could do on the most extreme terrain. It’s only 54 inches wide at the tracks, and yet there is a lot of horsepower."

The M8540 is also available with tires, as part of Kubota’s lineup of three narrow tractors, which also includes the M6040 and the M7040. "They all have hydraulic shuttles now, which makes them very user-friendly," says Williams. They range from 52 to 75 PTO hp and are available as cab models. In addition to vineyards, the M8540 is also proving popular in apple orchards in the Pacific Northwest, adds Williams.

Kubota also offers a low-profile model-the M9540-which is 84 PTO hp and available in 2WD and 4WD versions. "It’s designed for orchards and nut groves, where they want the tractor low-slung, so it doesn’t hit the branches," Williams explains. "We’ve taken the controls and made them more confined, which also makes them grab the branches less." For those in need of an even larger unit, Kubota offers the M108S, a 96 PTO hp model for super-large orchards and nut groves. "It’s got big, wide, special fenders-again to keep the branches from getting caught," says Williams, "and we go to smaller diameter tires to bring the tractor down to the ground."

Finally, Kubota has introduced its M126X (108 PTO hp), which is attracting the attention of strawberry growers in California, Williams explains. This tractor is also available as a Power Krawler model with tracks. "We have a vineyard grower in Michigan who is using them to run a special laser-controlled vineyard transplanter," he says. "The tracks offer traction as well as great straight-line operation."

For growers who need a high-clearance tractor in order to work in vegetable crops, John Deere offers model 5095MH.

For vegetable growers, Kubota offers a specialty "mudder" tractor-the M9000 series with 80 PTO hp-featuring four equal-size, large tires to provide necessary clearance out in the fields. "They’re used for planting things like celery and carrots. They do some harvesting. It’s also popular with strawberries. There’s about 32 inches of clearance," says Williams. "Every segment of agriculture has its own special needs. It’s vitally important to the user that they have a tractor that works to get the cabbage out of the field or plant the celery and run every day. Reliability is critical because there’s often only a short window to get the job done. The cost of the tractor isn’t nearly as important to specialty users as the fact that it can do what they need it to do, and that it is a perfect fit for their application."

In specialty growing operations, it’s all about specialization.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.