For the past three winters, Al Smith has been building out two John Deere tractors, a 440 and a 540, that he uses on his small-scale farm.
Southwestern Minnesota hobby farmer Al Smith dreams up big machines and more efficient equipment. Then he heads to the shop and creates it.
"My passion, I guess, is building stuff," says Smith, age 58. While he operates his creations on just 15 tillable acres of corn and soybeans, his ideas stem from regular work on a much larger farm: Smith’s brother-in-law, Mike Fruechte, and his nephew, Brian, farm about 3,000 acres nearby in Pipestone, and Smith is responsible for helping out at planting and harvest, driving primarily New Holland tractors and preparing fields.
Machinery maintenance is a big deal for Smith, who learned to weld through on-the-job experience and an adult education class. He keeps farm equipment greased so it won’t break down, saving valuable time in the field.
"When I get in this piece of equipment, it’s not yours anymore, it’s mine," Smith jokes.
His welding experience has come in handy. Over the years, Smith has built planters, dozer blades, cabs, tillage equipment, three-point hitches, quick hitches, head movers, bale movers, trailers and silage gates for the back of a truck; put front-wheel assist on a John Deere 3010; and put duals on a tractor, among other projects.
"I get all of these ideas, especially when I’m out running Mike’s equipment," Smith says.
For the past three winters, Smith has been building out two John Deere tractors, a 440 and a 540, that he uses on his small-scale farm. He uses both for field work, hauling grain, pushing snow and other jobs.
The 540 is his favorite project to date. Smith likes its style and lines, reflecting what he calls an aggressive design. The cab also has heat. (It does not have air-conditioning.) He spent time rearranging it, lengthening the machine and more, and he says the tractor and its companion are a blast to run.
Mental pictures guide Smith in his work, not blueprints.
"I know what I want, start building it and very seldom do I ever have to cut a piece off because I didn’t like the position or the shape that it appeared to be," he says.
Of course, the 540 looks like a toy when put up against a new machine, say a John Deere 9600 Series tractor. But that didn’t stop him from emailing information about his two tractors to the manufacturer, which responded with a thank-you and later reported that the machines were in review.
"That would be a dream come true if John Deere was to come to me and say, ‘We really like what you’ve made,’" Smith says. He’s not asking for money, just the opportunity to go further with his ideas.
"He’s really resourceful in being able to use what limited materials he has to make something of it," says Fruechte, a fourth-generation farmer whose operation has existed for more than 100 years. Smith is in charge of the shop, garage and general organization at Fruechte’s farm, and he’s built shelves and implemented other changes to improve tool storage and accessibility.
"We’re all wired differently," Fruechte says. "I tend to be more of a big-picture type of person, so I don’t have the patience to have the detail on some of those things."
Smith advises would-be equipment builders to use their imagination and watch what they lift to avoid hurting their backs.
"Health is a big thing," he says. "Take care of yourself, get help and do it wisely."
He uses a Lincoln 255 welder, which he’s had for 14 years and with which he’s used countless spools of wire. Other go-to tools include a cutting torch, a cut-off saw, a band saw, a press and a brake.
"I built these tractors because a 4WD has a place on the farm like a front-wheel assist or a 2WD, no matter the size of farm," Smith says. "I can’t justify a 300 hp John Deere that I love for 20 acres, so this is the ticket—a big 4WD tractor in a small package for us little guys."