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Farm Tractor
9 June 2008


When we purchased the coffee farm it came with a shiny red tractor that was practically new.  I had never owned a tractor before.  In fact, I don't think I had ever driven a tractor before.  All I knew about tractors is that I should probably have one.

One of the first things I did on the farm was drive the tractor around.  I justified it by saying that I was familiarizing myself with the equipment but really it was just a joy ride.  The problem is that the joy ride only lasted about 10 minutes before I got the tractor stuck and drove it through our electric fence.  I won't repeat the entire story but it was not a good start and my relationship with the tractor hasn't improved much since then.

My tractor is a Jinma.  Never heard of that brand?  You're not alone.  Jinma is a brand of cheap tractors from China.  A decent compact utility tractor from John Deere or Kubota can easily cost $30,000 while an equivalent Jinma can be half that price.  Unfortunately a Jinma tractor is about half the quality too.  All tractors can be dangerous and problematic but my Jinma has proven to be extra challenging.

Many modern tractors have a thing called a hydrostatic drive.  That means that instead of a clutch and gear shift there is simply one pedal to move forward and one to move backwards.  My tractor has 17 different levers and pedals.  I'm pretty good with a manual transmission but a hydrostatic drive would still be much faster when moving a large pile of mulch or rocks.  Imagine maneuvering your car forward and backward, trying to get into and out of a tight parking space.  Now imagine doing this repeatedly for hours with a finicky manual transmission and a heavy clutch pedal.  By saving a few seconds with every gear shift, a hydrostatic drive can quickly pay for itself.

Bucket Another nice feature of most tractors is the hand throttle.  This is simply a lever that operates the same as the foot throttle except you don't have to hold it in place.  The hand throttle is very useful when doing stationary work.  After setting the hand throttle you can then climb off the tractor and do things like feed pruned coffee branches into the chipper.

My tractor has a hand throttle but it won't stay in place.  I've adjusted the stupid thing a zillion times but the flimsy linkage always works lose again.  Finally I gave up and now I use a piece of string.  I tie the throttle into place, do the work, then untie the throttle when I'm done.  There's a similar piece of string holding the PTO lever in place (PTO stands for Power-Take-Off, it's the shaft that drives any heavy equipment attached to the back of the tractor such as the wood chipper or a mower deck).

Having the throttle and PTO levers tied in place may not be the safest way to operate heavy equipment but that's nothing compared to the pathetic brakes.  Luckily the tractor is rarely driven fast because the brakes are totally incapable of any kind of panic stop.  Even mild stopping requires some major pressure on the brake pedals (two pedals:  left wheel and right wheel).

There is no emergency break or parking gear so holding the tractor in place requires applying maximum force on the brake pedals then using a little lever to lock the pedals down.  Even that isn't enough on any kind of hill.  The only way to park the tractor on a hill is to lower the bucket, digging it into the ground enough to lift the front tires up.  It can be an awkward operation and a little scary until you practice it a few times.

Operating the bucket normally can be scary too.  The hydraulic lines weren't very well designed and as the bucket is raised, the hydraulic lines are pushed back into the lever that operates the bucket.  Pushing the lever back raises the bucket further which pushes the lever back further which raises the bucket further...  Luckily I figured this out in time and now I'm careful to not raise the bucket too high.  As long as you stop in time, you can bend the hydraulic lines and lower the bucket again.

Engine Pistons

Keeping the tractor running at all can be a challenge.  I feel like I'm always fixing something on the damned thing.  Two months ago the tractor spun a bearing.  I won't go into details but the short version is that I had to take the tractor completely apart to fix it.  When I say completely apart, I mean it.  Rather than removing the engine from the tractor it is more accurate to say I had to remove the tractor from the engine.  The bucket sat in one corner of the barn, the front wheels in another and the back wheels in another.  The barn's steel I-beam and chain hoist came in quite handy.

It was almost worth purchasing a whole new engine but instead I decided to just replace the broken parts.  It cost over $1000 in parts and took more than two months to get everything back together and working again.  When I finally got the tractor running again, I stared at it for a few seconds not believing that it was really running.  Of course I had plenty of help from others and I'm still not a diesel mechanic but it's good to know that I can take the tractor all the way apart and put it together again if I have to.

Compared to our John Deere mower, our Jinma tractor is quite primitive.  The Chinese are getting better at making tractors but they still have a ways to go.  For heavy use on a farm, I feel that Jinma tractors aren't quite up to the task.  Unfortunately, as much as I'd like to replace our tractor, we don't use it all that often and it does usually get the job done.  The expense of a new tractor just isn't justified and there is a lot of other equipment we need even more.  So I'll just have to be extra careful and count on getting my hands greasy any time I need to use the tractor.

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