Saturday, September 17, 2011

Farm Bulletin: The Soul of an Old Machine

In addition to human hands and a strong back, a successful farm requires dependable tools to wrest a harvest from the soil. Contributor Anthony Boutard elucidates his fondness for one particular piece of equipment at Ayers Creek Farm.

Asked to list a farm's equipment, a tractor and its implements, a pickup truck, and perhaps a hay baler or combine might spring to mind. These machines all have their moment on a farm. It is our iron stevedore, however, that is the farm's machine for all seasons. It is called into duty for unloading fertilizer, moving and servicing equipment, managing trays of drying frikeh and corn, and a myriad of other small tasks. Initially, the appeal of the forklift was economic. At the time, a one-ton tote of fertilizer or seed cost $100 less than 40 50-pound bags. Add in the labor, an hour here and an hour there, and the fact that none of that cost and effort yielded a better flavored tomato or bean. In fact, at busy moments, the time sink of moving stuff could work against the quality as well as yield.

The manufacturer's plate.

We visited a used forklift dealer on North Columbia Boulevard and described what we did and our general needs. The salesman, Steve, pointed out an old, garish yellow forklift, very obviously hand painted with a brush. The manufacturer's plate was in Japanese, and the only English was the manufacturer's name: Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, LTD. The Toyota company started out making looms for weaving silk and later generations of the Toyoda family branched out into autos and industrial machinery. Apparently, changing the D to a T was a purely aesthetic decision.

As we hemmed and hawed, Steve told us a story that we have heard several times since in various renditions. When Toyota was ready to celebrate 25 years in the US, they looked for the first forklift they imported. Didn't take long because the farmer who bought the machine still used it daily. They offered to give him a brand new forklift in exchange. He politely declined, explaining that it was a reliable machine and he didn't need a new one. Ultimately, they got the old forklift to display in their US headquarters, and some versions say it cost the company a bit of brass in addition to the new machine. Between the story of the satisfied farmer and the delicate Japanese characters on the manufacturer's plate, albeit inscrutable, we were hooked. There was also the "homely dog at the kennel" factor.

The rebuilt long block.

Although the machine lacked any of the features we deemed important before buying it, it has proved as perfect as Steve predicted. This spring, however, the old dear's clutch started to chatter, and the oil pressure light flickered at a fairly high engine speed. In rural Oregon, the usual remedy is to use an old machine's last gasp to park it in a blackberry patch among the oaks, and use it for parts and target practice. We really don't have enough time or the inclination to shoot at old machines, so we called Ted King at Portland Engine Rebuilders. He estimated $2,400 for rebuilding the engine. Between the engine, the clutch and the miscellany of things best replaced when the engine is out, the cost would come to about $4,000. A similar used machine costs about $8,000, and ours would be in much better shape for the attention. After unloading our spring fertilizer order, the engine was removed, stripped down and delivered to Ted as a "long block."

The project underscored the fact that the vital connections between a small market farm and a city go beyond just selling fruits and vegetables. Portland Engine Rebuilders is on Hawthorne just before it becomes a two-way street, and we pass it several times a week making deliveries. A short distance away on Market Street is McGuire Bearing, a regular destination because bearings take a beating in the dusty conditions of a farm. The clutch was rebuilt and the flywheel and pressure plate were machined at Ott's Friction Supply on North Columbia, near where our drivelines for various implements are rebuilt. The carburetor was restored at RH Carburetor in Parkrose, and the distributor at Philbin in the Rose District at 28 North Russell. Another stop was City Radiator on Northwest Everett. Good planning goes beyond merely preserving agricultural land, it is also important to maintain a vital industrial zone to have a functioning city.

The assembled engine.

Unlike the first Toyota forklift imported to the US, the history of ours is mysterious. About the same age, it was manufactured in the late 1960s. The model number ends in an H, which indicates the machine was not built to US specifications. Instead, it entered the US much later as a gray market machine, perhaps after working its heart out in an Asian port. According to the rebuilders, the engine suffered a hard life, one of the bearings had spun because of a lack of oil at some point, and it was filthy inside. Nonetheless, the old dear labored on for us in classic Toyota fashion. As we cleaned and polished the various parts, the beautiful craftsmanship of those early Toyotas was revealed. The castings are carefully finished with wonderful and unnecessary embellishments.  Rich, the carburetor rebuilder, told us the accelerator pump was made of leather instead of neoprene and would last for many more decades.

There is a simple elegance to this industrial machine. The cage that supports the engine and protects the operator is welded into a single piece; it is not merely a bunch of modules bolted together like the modern forklifts. The hand of the designer is apparent in the old forklift, rather than simply assembled by an engineer. Looking at the lines, you can sense the pencil lead gliding across the designer's sheet of paper, trying to please the human eye. The little bit of extra steel and time bestows a stylishness and an amiability on a piece of working iron.

Just days before the frenetic beginning of Chester season, the engine was reassembled and hoisted back into the cage. Started up again, first try. A relief, as we were unable to track down the correct engine manual, so we were winging it. The forklift's absence during the frikeh preparation reminded us how much we rely on the old machine.

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