Now I grew up in a rural environment surrounded by dairy farms, including my uncles. It was pretty cool as a kid, but I had one experience that is burned into my memory. At about age 8, after working on my uncles piggery he asked me to take the tractor back to the yard. Now I had never driven this tractor before, but being a lad I was really keen. So I jumped on and did the typical male thing and didn’t ask how to operate it. I drove it down the road and into the yard feeling proud as punch. But then I put my foot on the brakes and nothing happened. Because I didn’t engage the clutch I kept going. And going. And the gate to the yard was closed. So instead of crashing through the gate, I veered to the side and took out the leg of a diesel storage container. This promptly crashed down sideways emptying its cargo of fuel all over the yard. My Uncle, being a stoic South Island farmer was not impressed. I never got to drive the tractor again.
Now a diesel/petrol storage tanker is commonplace on almost every farm across the world, because with all the engines on a farm you need a convenient local fuel to drive them. You can’t just jump on the tractor and drive to the gas station. This requires special storage containers, safety requirements, and not giving an 8yo the tractor.
The other big thing about farming is it is a dirty businesses. When it rains everything gets caked in mud. Now internal combustion engines don’t really like this. They can overheat if they are caked in mud, or ifs the exhaust gets blocked. They have to be cleaned and serviced regularly or they just break down a lot.
But what if there was a better way. Electric engines in comparison to internal combustion engines having very few moving parts, and are completely sealed, meaning they don’t suffer in the mud like internal combustion engines do. They also don’t need to be maintained, and they have incredible levels of torque. So think about what farmers actually need their machines to do. Apart from motorbikes, they need the big stuff like tractors and harvesters to have heaps of low down torque and be able to bubble along over infrequent periods of time. This is perfect for electric motors. And all farms have three-phase electricity which is used at peak operation and then not used for extended periods. Dairy farms for example have peak energy needs during milking, but outside this they don’t have massive energy needs. So overnight charging of electric motorbikes, tractors, harvesters etc is perfect. If they don’t get used for a period they can just stay plugged in - their fuel doesn’t go off. And you don’t have to have that on-farm fuel container which turns out is often a target for thieves. And good luck stealing an electric bike.
OK so is this just some townie EV fantasy? Is anyone actually making electric tractors that you would recognise?
John Deere - who hasn’t heard of the big green John Deere? They have produced an electric tractor and more recently an autonomous electric tractor with a 1km extension cord. Yep you heard right - go and check that one out!
Fendt - a massive agricultural manufacturer in the US has been playing around with electric tractors for a while.
There are also a host of new EV tractor start ups starting to make an impact.
So they are coming. One of the big challenges is still battery cost, but this will come down over the next two years to the point where it won’t just make sense, it won’t make sense to buy a new diesel version.
In the farm bike space in NZ we have Ubco, which is marketed as a utility bike which can go 120km on a charge, charge to 90% in 6 hours and costs less than 8,000 NZD. This thing is whisper quiet and is charged using a standard wall socket.
Polaris have brought out an EV which can tow around 700kg, along with haul 350 kg as a payload
Ecocharger from the UK also make a fully electric quad bike in 2wd and 4wd. Now it only goes 30km on a charge, but that’s more than enough for most farmers and when it's not being used, throw it on the charger.
So while it’s not making the shift quickly, the farming industry is perfectly positioned for a transition to smooth, quiet, low maintenance electric vehicles. What might hold them back? Well there is no real incentive for farmers to make the shift, they are currently more expensive than their diesel counterparts and there are not many emission standards for farm machinery - most farm machinery dances around issues like emissions standards.
Now while you gruff old farmers might chuckle and mutter too right, bear in mind those diesel fumes from your farm machinery are killing you far faster than those lazy city folks. And every stock farmer I know can appreciate the impact of noise on their animals. Hey some dairy farmers play specific music in their milking sheds to get the girls to provide a better yield. That good old noisy quad or diesel tractor might actually be damaging output.