Tractor driving school was tough

Learning how to drive a tractor from my father was a stressful process. Like most farmers I know, my dad always has too many things to do and not enough time to do them, so when he decided to teach me how to drive a tractor, it wasn’t because he gave it a lot of forethought and carefully decided on the best situation in which to place me in charge of a few tons of motorized steel. It was because he needed a field plowed, and he didn’t have time to do it.

To be fair, I had been driving a lawn tractor around the farm to do small jobs for quite some time, so my old man might have reasonably expected me to hop on a John Deere 3010 and plow a field of beans at the age of 13 with little instruction. Boy, did he ever bet on the wrong horse.

First, the gear shift diagram on our 3010 looked less like instructions and more like a jigsaw puzzle designed to make NASA scientists cry in frustration. That’s how it looked to me, at least. To my dad it was the simplest thing in the world, and he had no clue why I was having trouble with it.

Second, our family farm is located in the Mississippi hills, so we do our fair share of contour farming. Some of those curves can get a little sharp, so you have to know what you’re doing as you make your way around them to avoid swinging your plow bottoms into the beans.

I didn’t know what I was doing.

So there we were – me holding onto the steering wheel with white knuckles and dad with one foot on the axle housing, one foot on the swing arm of the 3-point hitch, one hand holding onto the driver’s seat, and one hand pinching the fool out of my upper arm every time I plowed up a bean plant. (My arm still hurts, Dad.)

It seemed like there were a hundred things to focus on all at once. You had to plow deep enough to cover up the weeds, but if you sunk your plows too deep or drove too fast, you’d plow up the young beans. If you drove too slowly, you’d never get done. If you focused too much on those things, your tires would drift out of the furrows and into rows. When it came time to turn around, things only got more complicated. My father expected me to pick up the plow, brake one rear wheel, make a sharp turn, line up with the next set of rows, and drop the plow again without ever touching the throttle or hitting the clutch.

The whole time he was gritting his teeth, pinching my arm and shouting in my ear. “Don’t look at your tires, look up the row! Don’t baby this thing, son, DRIVE IT!” I love my dad dearly, but when he finally left me to it, I don’t think I was ever so happy to see him walk away from me in my life.

Well, I survived his training and so did most of the beans, and I’ve always remembered the experience with pride as a rite of passage or an initiation into the ranks of qualified tractor drivers. So you can imagine my jealousy and dismay when I learned that farmers today now have access to a technology called auto-steer. One farm wife told me the farmers now sit in the tractor and play on their iPads, only looking up to turn the thing around at the end of the row. The tractor steers itself? What did I suffer, I mean, learn all that stuff for?

If you take advantage of auto-steer in your operation and you get a little bored between headlands, you might want to direct your iPad or smart phone to the Farm Forum mobile site ( or download the Farm Forum mobile app. We have ag news, an ag business directory, ag events, current commodity prices, weather information, and all of our classifieds (in case your implement breaks and you need to find another one ASAP). We’ll keep you up-to-date on everything happening in the ag world while your tractor and the satellites do all the hard work.

Just don’t forget to look up at the end of your row because the one thing our digital content can’t do is pinch your arm.