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MN2020 - Minnesota 2020 Journal: The Roar of Silence
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Minnesota 2020 Journal: The Roar of Silence

September 20, 2010 By John Van Hecke
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By John Van Hecke
Minnesota 2020 Fellow
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August 22, 2008

Some farmers see a tractor as it is. Others see tractors as they wish them to be. In the blue, brackish diesel exhaust of a 1970s-era row crop Hefty-G, Laura Frerichs and Adam Cullip heard silence and made it so.

Their diesel tractor was reborn electric.

It wasn't difficult. After a little research, Cullip yanked the engine, replacing it with an electric drive system and four 12-volt batteries. Then, saluting ag tradition, he painted it John Deere green and yellow.

Where tractors roar, this Hefty-G hums. The roar now comes from near-silence's achievement.

Laura and Adam are organic market produce farmers, renting two acres from the Gardens of Eagan in southern Dakota County. They're the working end of community supported agriculture, mitigating their financial operating risk with assistance from consumer share-purchasers.

Today, Loon Organics operates from Farmington. Next year, they're buying a certified organic 40 acre farm and relocating to Hutchinson.

Frerichs and Cullip didn't grow up on farms. Their learning curve, they freely admit, has been huge. Like their decision to convert their Hefty-G, originally manufactured by the now defunct Hefty Tractor Company of Juneau, WI, their decision to farm arrived bundled in dissatisfaction and a faith that things can be improved.

Frerichs grew up in Worthington and Cullip in Wabasha with decidedly un-farming backgrounds. Frerichs graduated from Grinnell College and Cullip from St Oalf. Both were working "desk jobs" in the Twin Cities; neither was entirely satisfied.

Stumbling into the Gardens of Eagan's organic grower world, Frerichs found a home. Cullip started driving down to Farmington to spend time with Frerichs. Her enthusiasm was infectious. In short order, he was hooked.

Both cite farming's philosophical and practical rewards. They are purposefully small scale growers,
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deeply committed to a renewable, sustainable agricultural and consumer vision. The electric tractor reflects that.

A small row-crop tractor positions the engine over the rear wheels, behind the operator, providing stronger direct ground line-of-sight than front-mounted engine tractors. Row-crop tractors like the Hefty-G and its design predecessor, the Allis-Chalmers Model G, weren't built for a thousand acres. They support small-scale operations, like Loon Organics.

Next year, in Hutchinson, Cullip plans to install solar panels, charging the tractor's batteries without drawing power from the electrical utility grid. Electric tractors, Frerichs notes, function efficiently for a farm as large as ten acres.

Modern farming, deeply rooted in the commodity growing tradition, barely recognizes ten acre farms much less two acre operations. Frerichs and Cullip aren't interested in raising three thousand acres of corn but they are committed to growing and selling high-quality produce delivered directly and personally to consumers.

Loon Organics' goal is to be a sustainable, carbon neutral operation. They freely admit that they're a long way from achieving that outcome yet they remain undeterred. In addition to charging tractors, Frerichs and Cullip plan to use solar panels for their buildings. Eventually, they'll install a small wind turbine.

Like their electric Hefty-G, Frerichs and Cullip envision a farm based on low-end torque, the term describing force produced at low engine speeds.

"The physics of it really work," Cullip said, regarding the electric tractor's advantages over fossil fuel models. Narrowly, he was describing the electric tractor's role on their farm but really, Cullip was talking about sustainable, organic farming.

And, at Loon Organics, standing next to Frerichs, watching Cullips almost silently nose their converted Hefty-G out of the shed, I quietly glimpsed a better future.

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