Tractor parade signals start of 2014 farm-to-fork festivities

They rattled, rumbled, hummed, purred and roared in the midday sunshine Friday: Dozens of tractors – big and small, new and old – kicking off two weeks of farm-to-fork festivities with a homespun parade on Capitol Mall.

Onlookers at the event that signaled the start of Sacramento’s second annual celebration as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” stopped and smiled and waved, snapping photos with their phones as the tractor drivers – some of them farmers, others avid collectors – waved back, steering their slow-moving rigs down the boulevard between Tower Bridge and the Capitol.

Designed for work, these no-frills vehicles conveyed a sense of romance, nostalgia and charm to many in attendance, their burly engines providing a soundtrack to the procession, hitting notes high and low with an occasionally off-key sputter.

If the farm-to-fork movement had an official vehicle, it would be the tractor, according to those in the parade. (Sorry pickup truck. Maybe next year.) These vehicles, perfect for tilling and towing, made history, taking the place of tens of thousands of working horses and driving the farm into the modern era. A tractor could do the work of four or five horses or mules; it also freed up the land devoted to growing feed for these animals – 25 acres or so per small farm that could be used for other crops.

“This equipment is what took us from horse farming to mechanized farming,” said Rod Hisken, who has a collection of 70 restored tractors on his property in Oregon House in Yuba County. “It made the Sacramento Valley a world food producer – and this is the equipment that did it.”

Finding their way onto Twitter feeds and Facebook posts Friday were, among others, a 1935 John Deere model G owned by Walt Keller of Brownsville; a 1960 John Deere 60 owned by Jim Escheman of Browns Valley; a Depression-era “Doodlebug” tractor made of makeshift car and truck parts owned by Allan Avery of Roseville; and a 1939 Allis-Chalmers owned and piloted by the affable Hisken.

Many of the tractor owners in the parade are in the Sacramento chapter (Branch 13) of the Early Day Gas Engine & Tractor Association, which has 300 members, making it among the largest chapters in the country. On the road Friday were several vehicles of historical importance and technological significance, but that was likely lost on the average city slicker stopping to watch.

However, even a casual observer could appreciate the tractors’ durable, rugged beauty, even if his or her only experience with them is being stuck behind one for a spell when driving down a country road.

“They’re much more impressive in person,” said Tony Massara, an analyst for the Office of the State Public Defender, who was on his way to lunch. “Having seen pictures of tractors, it doesn’t quite convey the utilitarian nature of them.”

Employees from the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, an organizer of the event, led the parade by holding a banner declaring Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” In the past two years, this marketing and branding campaign has grown into a identity embraced by many around the region.

Last year, the inaugural festivities started with a downtown cattle drive that launched a successful slate of events, including a daylong, free festival that attracted 25,000 people. The farm-to-fork celebration culminates with a gala dinner held on Tower Bridge.

Organizers chose to showcase the tractor this year because of its importance to agriculture. Whether it’s a tiny farm or massive one, tractors are vital to getting the work done in a cost-effective manner. Some critics, however, argue that the overmechanization of farms has led to soil-erosion problems. Advocates of no-till farming say that practice produces healthier soils, reduces erosion and increases crop yields.

There’s no doubt, however, that the arrival of the tractor, beginning about a century ago, changed the face of farming. Many of those who collect tractors say they are drawn by the historical importance, the technological innovations through the years and, of course, the roll-up-your-sleeves romance of it all.

Avery, who works in electronics for a Silicon Valley company, said he’ll spend about nine months restoring a broken-down tractor to its original glory. He takes them apart, figures out what works and what doesn’t, creates a spreadsheet of parts he needs to order and how much they cost, then gets down to work.

These tractors aren’t necessarily big-ticket items. The glistening red Farmall model AV he restored sold for $6,200 to a collector in Woodland – less than Avery spent working on it.

“You run into a lot of problems when you take it apart and go through it – and I’ve got to solve the problems,” he said when asked to explain the appeal.

On Friday, Avery was near the front of the parade, smiling and waving as steered his “Doodlebug” along Capitol Mall, followed by Hisken and scores of others. While mostly men were behind the wheels, one woman was spotted driving a tractor in the parade.

By noon, the tractors were headed across the Tower Bridge toward Raley Field, where they would be loaded onto trailers and driven to their homes, another day of work complete.

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