CENTRAL POINT, Ore. — Nonprofit leaders, researchers and farmers are teaming up for Oregon's first field trial studies with electric tractors.
The project aims to uncover electric tractors' pros and cons. The team will study battery life, emissions reductions, operational costs, safety and what type of farms and crops e-tractors are best suited for.
"The goal is really to learn more," said Bridget Callahan, senior energy program manager at Sustainable Northwest and one leader on the project.
Throughout this year, the team will conduct field studies with farmers across Oregon.
On March 4, Rusted Gate Farm in the Rogue River Valley, a working farm and nonprofit, was chosen to test-drive Oregon's first electric tractor.
Dave Picanso, Rusted Gate's farm manager, is testing the tractor in truffle and apple orchards.
"I was and probably to a certain extent still am as skeptical as anyone," said Picanso. "You know the mentality: 'You'll pry the keys to my diesel pickup out of my cold dead hands.' It's hard to accept change. But this is inevitable, I think. Consumers want it. I can tell there's a future."
The study is a joint effort between four environmental- and energy-focused nonprofits: Forth, Sustainable Northwest, Wy'East RC&D and Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Oregon State University will also join the team.
The study is funded through a USDA grant, environmental foundations and private donors.
Robert Wallace, executive director of Wy'East RC&D, said the team has secured three e-tractors to start: two 40-horsepower and one 30-horsepower, both from California-based Solectrac.
Erin Galiger, Forth's program manager, said the team chose these models based on size and what was commercially available and affordable. E-tractors are still just entering the world's agricultural scene.
The first tractor is being tested at Rusted Gate Farm. The second will be at the Crook County Fairgrounds. The third will be on rotation at farms statewide. Trials will mainly take place on small- to medium-sized farms.
The e-tractors can be recharged at any standard 220-volt outlet.
Several team members predicted what they expect to find while comparing electric and diesel tractors.
One difference is cost. Galiger of Forth estimated an e-tractor's initial cost is 50% higher than a diesel tractor. But operational costs should be less because the e-tractor requires no fuel other than electricity.
Electric batteries are expensive, but the expected battery life is about 10 years.
Wallace of Wy'East estimated e-tractors can run three to 10 hours before being recharged.
E-tractors are expected to emit 90% to 100% less than diesel tractors, which OSU researchers will measure through air quality studies.
E-tractors are also quiet.
"There's no roaring engine," said Wallace of Wy'East. "It's nearly silent. It was a mental challenge for me to get used to."
Picanso, the farmer, said he likes that his e-tractor doesn't idle, produces no fumes and has amazing torque.
"I couldn't believe how much torque it had," said Picanso. "When you take off, it really takes off."
But there are other aspects he doesn't like. The model he's using isn't a four-wheel drive, he has to be careful not to get electric systems wet, it has no backup safety buzzer, continues coasting at the end of rows and some controls could be more ergonomic.
But Picanso said he's pleased the research team is taking his feedback seriously and has confirmed manufacturers plan to incorporate feedback into future models.