Saturday, September 13, 2014

Farm Bulletin: The Charms of Allis Chalmers

The right piece of farm equipment can make a huge difference in the workload on a farm. Modern farm equipment is expensive to buy and operate and is often too large to nimbly negotiate the tighter confines of small farms, whereas older equipment was designed for just that sort of use. Contibutor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm brings an old but still useful piece of small farm history back to life.

Michael Abelman and his son Aaron stopped by Ayers Creek for a few days in late July 2004 as part of his Fields of Plenty project. Rereading the profile a decade later, it is striking how much things have changed, though fundamentally we are the same farm. The profile celebrated the summer here, but we already had one winter market season under our belt. That spring we learned that the combination of spring break, Easter and Passover can kill a market. Lowest gross we have ever had; when vendors leave their cash box unattended there is not much to say for the day. Also learned that we should grow horseradish. Somehow, black radish does not have the same allure as a bitter herb for the seder, much as we tried to laud its many virtues. Our first planting of Roy's Calais flint corn was in the ground, and we were planning our orchard and vineyard.

Combining chickpeas.

After leaving Gaston, Michael visited Jennifer Greene's Windborne Farm in Scott Valley. There he fell in love with her old Allis Chalmers All Crop. It is a small combine pulled by a farm tractor. A combine gets its name because it combines the formerly separate tasks of cutting, threshing and winnowing seed crops, including legumes and grains.

Closeup harvesting chickpeas.

A couple months later he located a pair for sale in Canby, one apparently almost running and a decrepit example for parts. We went to see them with him, and it was clear the rose's bloom was withering as he paced around the two dusty, rusty hunks of machinery with their frayed belts, broken reel bats and rotting tires. We shared his reservations, even as he clung to the memory of Jennifer's machine and all it could do. The challenge of transporting the machines to Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island and repairing them dislodged the yearning.

The straw rack.

Apparently, the pathos of the bedraggled machines and their potential gnawed at us. Not sure what exactly happened to dislodge us from our rational frame of mind, but we purchased them. The machine is boxy with most of its drives on the outside. Like Han Solo's Millennium Falcon, it is meant to be repaired on the fly with materials at hand. Not sleek or elegant, just enough of it to carry out the task well. Perhaps the idea opening up the list of crops we grow had some influence.

Corroded cleaning shoe.

Other farmers with big machines speak admiringly of the All Crop, with its mixture of flexibility, simplicity and economy. Encouraging the endeavor, not emulating it, mind you. They take their old combines to the Banks demolition derby, not the shop. They are quite comfortable in their modern air-conditioned cabs with stereo and computer controls. In less than an hour, they can harvest more grain than the All Crop can in a day. However, their machines take a full day to clean between crops, and the All Crop is clean and greased in less than an hour.

Bullet holes a point of pride.

Drawn to the machine, we forgot the first rule of purchasing equipment: turn over the engine to make sure it is operable. Apparently, someone tried to start the engine by using a lot of starter fluid (ether) which cleaned all the oil off the cylinder walls and the engine corroded solid. Neither Marvel Mystery Oil nor grease pumped into the cylinder would dislodge the corroded pistons. Perhaps we would have purchased it anyway, but it threw a disappointing money wrench into the works. The All Crop took a backseat to other projects until our daughter married Jonathan Hunt. In March 2008, he visited and helped strip down the machine. Later he found us an old driveshaft to replace the engine.* Relentlessly, he peeled away the excuses for delaying and pushed us to get it running.

Newly balanced cylinder.

Restoring farm equipment as a show piece is very different from a functional restoration. We want the machine to operate for thousands of more hours reliably, so pulleys, shafts and bearings need cleaning and, if necessary, replacing. Rubber and wood parts likewise. Tom Yasnowski specializes in locating or replicating obsolete Allis Chalmers parts, supplying us with the belts and rubber parts that had disintegrated over the decades. The cylinder and concave chamber where the threshing of the seeds takes place needed a complete overhaul. Yasnowski supplied replacement rubber-faced bars for the cylinder and Dave Naumann at Ernst Irrigation in St. Paul helped us locate a shop where the cylinder was balanced. It spins at high speed and, balanced with modern equipment, it runs as smooth as silk. Being an old piece of machinery, we deemed it acceptable to keep the bullet holes that appear when machines are unattended for awhile in rural America.

Bagger's platform.

We replaced upwards of 100 corroded bolts holding together the 10-foot-long straw rack, and saturated the dry wood with linseed oil. The adjustable cleaning shoe is where the seed is separated from the chaff, the winnowing task. It had corroded in place making adjustments impossible, requiring several days of careful cleaning and lubrication, and a layer of linseed oil on the wooden parts.

Jon Hunt at work.

A couple of weeks ago, Jon took his place on the bagger's platform where the seeds drop into sacks. We put in a couple of hours figuring out the fine points of combining chickpeas. As we tried to communicate over the roar of the tractor, the rattling of grain conveying chains and the thrashing cylinder, I might have well have been communicating with a wookiee. It was great to see the patina of a working machine return, that fragrant, short-lived gloss from the resins of the plants. Some of you may have picked up on the fragrance in the barley, and it will be present in the chickpeas as well. There was Queen Ann's Lace growing in the field, giving the grain a hint of wild carrot aroma. Thanks, Jon.

* Anthony clarifies that "the machine was equipped with the optional engine or motor. Motor was seized so we replaced it with a drive shaft or PTO (power take off) shaft to run the machine off of the tractor's engine."

All photos by Anthony Boutard with the exception of the portrait at top.

1 comment:

Toni Brock said...

That was interesting. I love it when the simple workhorses of days past can be restored to do such a reliable job once again. The pictures were wonderful.