Perspective: The Decline and Fall of Fixing

March 8, 2011 12:24 AM

I was struck by the irony. After a career spent longing for a warm shop with ample room to work on my machinery in comfort, I finally build one just in time to wonder if it will spend more time as plush storage.

There may be a watershed in farmer careers where investment in infrastructure seems dubious, as the remaining years would not offer enough return, at least on the spreadsheet. So I thought as well, until my son, Aaron, returned, offering a new time horizon and the perfect cover for a long-cherished dream.

But after these first few years, I have noticed with some consternation that the tide of technology is moving away from knuckle-busting heroics in the farm shop. In short, I built my repair haven just as several factors are taking the wrench out of my greasy hand.

1. Machinery doesn’t break like it used to. While we whine about the cost of machines, we are buying very high-quality products. Discounting occurrences such as run-ins with foreign objects, field hazards and stupid farmer tricks, when used as intended, today’s machines simply don’t fail as often. And when they do …

2. More repairs are not "farmerfixable." Much like a roadside motorist staring under a hood he or she has never opened before, a farmer looking at an error code on the dash readout doesn’t necessarily see an intuitive path of action. With elaborate computer controls, electronic black boxes and an unfathomable emissions control apparatus, rare is the day when you merely replace a sheared bolt or even a bad bearing.

3. Better in-field service. This past fall, we had a service tech from a dealer 45 miles away show up within 30 minutes, as the dealer keeps several personnel roaming the area in elaborate mobile
shops. Even if we could conceivably manage the repair ourselves, the time it takes to disassemble, go for parts and reassemble (assuming none of those steps have to be repeated) often is more expensive than paying the repair guy.

4. Stronger warranties, offseason tune-ups and faster turnover. Several of our colleagues trade in their combine every year. Even with tractors, we usually have a couple of years before any problems that develop are truly ours. In addition, sending equipment in during the winter for inspection and repair has proven cost-effective. Having it come back spotless is addictive, too.

5. The "bigger wrench" factor. The first time you have to buy gigantic sockets, you begin to suspect you are in over your head. Then there are the safety/hernia considerations of tackling some of these repairs without jigs, hoists and special tools. Remember, the bigger they are, the harder they fall on your foot.

6. Longer service intervals. Check out the daily or weekly lube points or oil-change intervals on new iron. Elaborate lube bays are edging toward obsolescence, especially when coupled with Factor No. 4.

7. The end of the self-upgrade. You don’t weld clever, homemade "improvements" on a $400,000 machine if you want to ever trade it in. Ditto for jiggering with the wiring harness.

Still Worth It. Having listed all these trends, I still don’t miss the dollars spent on a warm shop. But the reasons for this are not what I thought they would be. I appreciate our modest facility for the lights, so I can finally see what I’m trying to repair. I love having a bathroom right there (my wife, Jan, broke down in tears of gratitude for this modest upgrade). And we have a computer that we can use with muddy feet to check markets, search for parts or access field maps.

The biggest beneficiaries, perhaps, have been the machines. They are finally getting the attention that optimizes their life and function. Sprayers and planters are conveniently and thoroughly adjusted in the shop, instead of at the entrance to the field.

So, the ostensibly enormous cost has proven a good deal for us, just not quite for the reasons we thought, and certainly not so we could say goodbye to the service technician. Maybe we’re no longer fixers so much as tenders.

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