The Rise of Orchard Tractors

Streamlined orchard tractors were designed to slip in and out of tight places.

| May 2017

In the last years of the 19th century, agronomists discovered that cultivation of orchards and vineyards with tools such as a spike-tooth drag pulled by a horse markedly improved the yield and quality of the harvest. The advent of the gasoline tractor occurred at about the same time. Like the steam tractors that came before, these early gas tractors were too big and cumbersome for orchard use.

Yet in 1912, Avery Co., Peoria, Illinois, promoted its new Model 12-25 for orchard work. The 12-25 was a 7,500-pound monster that only fit between the rows of orchards specifically designed for it, and it was much too tall to fit under limbs hanging with ripening fruit.

In the summer of 1914, Holt Mfg. Co., Stockton, California, introduced its Baby Caterpillar “18” crawler. This was the first tractor specifically tailored for orchard work and was built both low and narrow. Avery, realizing the shortcomings of its Model 12-25, came out with a new Model 8-16 that same year. It featured a short cooling exhaust stack, a low driver’s seat and fenders over the rear drive wheels.

Development of a new line

Over the next decades, most major tractor makers adapted their smaller standard-tread tractors for orchard use. Steering brakes, not usually found on standard-tread tractors, were added to these versions. Lowering the operator’s seat and narrowing the tread width were major modifications made by some manufacturers. Because of the relocation of the seat, foot clutches were sometimes replaced by hand clutches. Also, an “O” for orchard was added to the official designation.

Orchard tractors, as offshoots of standard tractors, but with fancy sheet metal capes, came into vogue in the early 1930s and continued into the 1960s. They were specifically tailored to slip through low-hanging branches and navigate the rows and steep hillsides typically found in fruit orchards and vineyards.

These machines had features that appealed to the fruit grower including a lower overall profile, underneath exhaust pipes, built-in or retractable headlights and sheet metal fairings that allowed branches to deflect and slide off rather than catch. Further, the operator’s station was lowered and a windshield-like fairing was usually added for operator protection.