Charging Up the Farm

By David Herder

Robert Wallace and Wy’East RCD are testing electric tractors around the Northwest, including this Farmtrac model. Photo by Drew Myron

Soon, a tractor moving through a field may make no more noise than the wind.

This quiet future is on its way, thanks to electric tractors.

Robert Wallace, executive director and energy program innovator at Wy’East Resource Conservation and Development Area Council, is helping place some of the first electric tractors into the hands of farmers in Oregon and Southern Washington.

“People are really excited to try it and to experience it,” Robert says.

Wy’East focuses on beneficial electrification: helping farms lower energy costs and emissions by switching from fossil fuels to electricity.

The group often works with precision irrigation, variable frequency drives and other equipment used on a farm. Since 2019, that list has included tractors.

Thanks to a 4-organization partnership, the team buys and tests electric tractors. Area farmers test drive the equipment. Working with Wy’East are Forth—a Portland-based organization promoting electric transportation— Sustainable Northwest and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

“We’re really just trying to find out what works, what doesn’t work and what the best applications for these are,” Robert says.

Wy’East started testing with 2 models: one from Solectrac and one from Farmtrac. As was standard with the first wave of electric tractors, both had around 30 horsepower—more suitable for hobby farming than larger operations.

Robert says people typically have two questions about electric tractors: Will it do the work, and how long will it do it for? He says they often like the answers they hear.

Electric tractors not only work as well as comparably sized gas-powered counterparts, they have less vibration, no exhaust and are significantly quieter, which adds up over long days in the field.

Electric tractors can use the same mowers, rototillers and other equipment attached to tractors already in use.

Battery life for agricultural equipment is improving rapidly, just as it is for electric vehicles. Many current models run for six to eight hours.

“In most cases, it becomes all day because people stop a lot,” says Martha Hennigan, director of marketing for Solectrac. “They don’t realize that they don’t leave it running all the time.”

Battery improvements allow models to run at higher horsepower for a longer time. Solectrac is among the brands with 40-horsepower models and is rolling out 70-horsepower models—comparable to the power of equipment used in larger orchards around the Northwest.

Changing battery types can also impact performance. Kubota is developing a tractor that runs on hydrogen fuel cells, which hold far more energy for its weight than lithium-ion batteries and refuel quicker with less lifetime degradation.

One Solectrac model comes with an additional battery.

“It’s no different than a cordless drill,” Robert says of the battery pack. “You always have a couple of batteries. You’re using one, and you’re charging the other. It’s the same potential with the tractors.”

Wy’East is currently testing four electric tractors, which have received positive reviews thus far.

An Oregon State University study found electric tractors have about the same expected lifetime costs as gas-powered tractors. Higher purchase costs for electric are offset by lower maintenance and fuel costs.

As gas prices rise, fuel costs become especially stark. When Robert recently took one of the small electric tractors to a large farm, he says the farmers ribbed him because of its size. Then one mentioned the cost of filling a riding lawn mower with gas.

For single units, Robert says owners can plug tractors into a 220-volt welding outlet. If pressed, a standard 110 outlet can be used, but it takes twice as long to charge.

“The charging is easier than what we originally even thought,” he says.

The team plans to buy 10 to 12 more pieces of electric equipment—and not just tractors. The list includes skid steers, front-end excavators, a front-end loader and mini excavators.

Robert is excited to test an autonomous tractor designed for vineyard use.

Supply is the biggest problem in getting electric equipment into the field.

“Everything is so hard to get right now,” Robert says, noting that extends to products from refrigerators to couches. “We’re just now getting to the point where we’re actually getting it in hand to some of the local farmers.”

Once in the field, Robert says users are enjoying the experience.

As the global supply chain recovers from the pandemic and scales to meet demand, electric tractors could become readily available.

Soon, the quiet hum of an electric motor could whistle through the fields like the wind.