By Mike McClintock Special to Tribune Newspapers
January 3, 2013
If you don't live on a farm, why would you want a tractor? Because companies like John Deere, Kubota and Mahindra that make the agricultural giants also make yard-size models with dozens of practical attachments. There are backhoes for trenching, buckets for moving dirt and gravel, sweepers, snowplows, tillers, rakes, mower decks and more.
Instead of buying a slew of specialized machines, the idea is to buy one power plant and add attachments that let you maintain and improve your property year-round. Nearest to me is a Deere dealer, so that's the one I tested to answer the question. And there's no farm here. It's woods, some lawn, house at one end, second garage and workshop at the other.
The 1 Series I used is Deere's entry-level compact utility tractor: a 25 horsepower high-torque diesel loaded with big-tractor features. But it's compact enough to fit in the garage with attachments hooked up front and rear. Without buckets and backhoes the tractor is 4 feet wide with a 5-foot wheelbase. You don't need a barn.
You do need time to get used to the machine. Dealers will explain the controls and arrange an extensive test drive. But it's not like driving a car, though there are some similar features. You can engage 4-wheel drive, turn on the flashers or hit the high beams to work at night.
And like many SUVs, the transmission has a high and low range to exchange speed for torque on tough jobs. But the throttle is an up-or-down lever. The two main pedals are for forward and backward; instead of a clutch, the harder you push, the more they engage.
It's a little herky-jerky until you get the feel of the controls. But for monotonous jobs, like mowing a huge lawn, there's cruise control. On a tractor? Turns out to be quite handy. Engage it and you don't have to keep steady pressure on the pedal to maintain a constant pace that produces a consistent cut. And you don't have to wrestle the machine around trees and tight corners, even on hills in 4-wheel drive, due to the power steering.
It's a work vehicle but also fun with the engine humming, outside and up on the seat, getting things done that would take forever by hand. Among other jobs, I used it to scrape and roughly level a secondary driveway through the trees. The rear-mount tine rake did most of the grading, with some help from the bucket to uproot a few stumps, move a couple of big rocks and bring in all the gravel.
The Deere 1026R I drove came with a big front bucket. There's a learning curve for it too. A four-way knob beside the steering wheel controls both lift and bucket angle.
I've run small backhoes and loaders before, and found the not-very-slick technique I've developed worked pretty well on the 1026R. Set the bucket blade flat and a bit off the ground, run into the pile, then pull the tilt-up lever as the tractor edges further in (you can get a pretty full scoop that way), then lift and off you go. And if not gravel, maybe dirt, rock, bags of concrete mix — up to 900 pounds with the tractor properly balanced.
There are many attachments aside from the basic bucket you could use to clear snow, or hook up the adjustable plow blade or the snow thrower. Most attachments park in a ready-to-engage position. You drive the tractor into them, then lock in a couple of pins and connect the hydraulic lines.
The slickest changeover is the mower deck, driven from the front power takeoff. Deere has developed a self-aligning system so you don't even get out of the seat. You just drive the tractor over the deck.
When the front wheels come down, the power connections interlock, and if the ride-height wheels on the deck are set, you start mowing. Prices vary, but typical compact utility tractors run $11,000 to $12,000, with a bucket about $2,500 more.