Jerry Nelson: Before artificial intelligence, an intelligent artificer optimized John Deeres

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
Jerry Nelson

Everyone is unique, but some people are more unique than others. Don Dufner would be a good example.

Don, 85, and his family farm several thousand acres at Buxton, North Dakota. The Dufners raise a variety of crops that includes edible beans, wheat, rye, oats, alfalfa, buckwheat, and potatoes.

What sets Don apart from the herd is his deep and abiding passion for John Deere horsepower, especially the two-cylinder kind.

“Dad gave me 320 acres to farm in 1958,” Don said. “It took me ten days to plow that half-section with our new John Deere ‘720’ diesel. I told Dad that this was way too slow, that there had to be a faster way.”

This thought – that there had to be a faster way to farm – unleashed Don’s inner Dr. Frankenstein.

“In 1960, I bought a John Deere ‘D’ for $65,” Don said. “I took the front end off the ‘D’ and put subframe under it. Then I built a special hitch for the ‘720’ that allowed me to couple the two tractors together. It worked really well. One day, a neighbor said to me, ‘Why not put three tractors together?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’”

Don Dufner, 85, is a North Dakotan farmer with an artificer's streak.

In 1965, Don purchased two more John Deere ‘Ds’ – for $60 and $55 respectively – and mated them to his original ‘D’.

“We were farming 3,000 acres with two-cylinder tractors,” Don said. “Then the price of gasoline went to 70 cents per gallon. I thought that was too high, so I began to look into diesel power. I bought three John Deere ‘830s’ and rebuilt them bolt for bolt. After we got the three ‘830s’ hooked together, my son said that we should put a Sound Guard cab on the outfit. I wasn’t going to, but he insisted. It took us three winters to complete that project, including installing all of the controls and the air conditioning.”

How does that mechanical mashup perform out in the field?

“I can farm anyone under the table,” Don ginned. “An ‘830’ tractor is extremely fuel efficient. And we estimate that our ‘830 Special’ produces the same lugging power as a 300 horsepower four-wheel-drive tractor.”

Have you taken the ‘830 Special’ to any tractor pulls?

"Yep. One year, I took it to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag, Minnesota and hooked onto their pulling sled. I started out with just two of the tractors pulling. When the going got tough, I simply engaged the third tractor and pulled through to the end of the track.”

Don has constructed numerous hybrid tractors over the years. One of his favorites is a four-wheel-drive John Deere “7520” that has been coupled with an “830” that he purchased at a junkyard for $275.

“The ‘830’ is basically acts as a pusher tractor for the ‘7520’,” Don said. “My son said that I made that outfit just because I like the sound of a two-cylinder tractor.”

Don has been able to successfully mate tractors that have vastly different performance specs. This despite the fact that he has no engineering education other than what he has taught himself on the farm.

“I would simply jack up a back wheel of a tractor and count the rotations,” he said. “If I couldn’t get things to match up, I would take the transmission apart and put in different gears. If I couldn’t find the right gear, I would make a new one.”

Don owns an extensive collection of two-cylinder John Deere tractors, including some rare and one-of-a-kind models. He wouldn’t put a number on the size of his collection other than to admit that it’s quite a few.

But that’s not all. Don also has an enviable accumulation of parts for old John Deeres. A good deal of the parts are what is known as new old stock.

“When Deere switched from two-cylinder tractors to tractors with four- and six-cylinder engines, I went around to John Deere dealers and offered to buy all of their two-cylinder parts,” Don said. “Many of them were happy to unload their obsolete inventory. I can fix almost any two-cylinder tractor with the parts that I have on hand.”

Of the many hybrid tractors that Don has assembled, his “830 Special” has garnered the most attention. Don has taken it to numerous shows so that others can marvel at his farm-built ingenuity.

“I took the ‘830 Special’ to Belleville, Illinois last August to participate in a plowing contest,” he said. “They hooked me up to a twelve-bottom plow. It barely slowed me down.”

The statement, “It barely slowed me down” could also be said of Don Dufner when he faces a new tractor engineering challenge.

If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.