Farmers chat with Ryan Haas, right, about his award-winning 1970 Case at… (Diana Marcum, Los Angeles…)
TULARE — At this year's annual World Ag Expo there was a star exhibit: a young man and an old tractor.
Ryan Haas, 19, of Devine, Texas, a two-time national grand champion at the Delo Tractor Restoration competition, is at the top of a hotly contested field largely unknown to urbanites.
But in rural places that aren't color-coded blue versus red, but rather green versus orange — as in big green John Deere tractors, or smaller, sunny-colored Cases — tractor restoration is an obsession.
Youth participation in restoration competitions is growing especially fast in struggling agricultural areas. It's deep rooted in drought-plagued Texas and gaining momentum in California's Central Valley, where the dairy industry has been pummeled by high feed prices and low milk prices.
More than just a symbol of hanging on to a slipping heritage, the competition requires the skills needed in modern agriculture jobs: engineering, budgeting, marketing and social media. There is also the allure of big cash prizes at fairs and stock shows and the chance to make a profit selling a vehicle to a wealthy collector.
Haas' restored beauty, a 1970 Case tractor— its vintage "Desert Sunset" and "Flambeau Red" paint gleaming in the Central Valley sun — took two years of long nights and $12,000 to rebuild and restore.
His earliest memories are of being in a tractor. His father would go out to plow and use a wooden pallet on the floor of the tractor's cab as his son's playpen. Later on, his older sister drove her date to a prom in one of the family's tractors.
Haas was 10 when the drought first got so bad that his family mostly stopped planting wheat and sorghum. They parked their tractors and turned to cattle on land the family had farmed near Devine since 1872.
Both of Haas' older siblings competed in the national restoration competition. By the time they got to this last year of eligibility for the youngest sibling, all of their father's and grandfather's oldest, retired tractors had been restored.
The youngest Haas wanted to try to restore something with more complicated mechanics anyway. A family friend bought a ranch and found the abandoned Case with a diesel engine.
"My dad and my granddad both ran Case, so pretty much anything you needed to know, they knew," he said.
There is a strong possibility that father and son bear a striking resemblance, but it's hard to tell for sure with them both in straw western hats pulled low and Tony Haas adding a handlebar mustache and sunglasses. Sometimes in hours and hours of tearing apart and rebuilding, the two would bump heads over the best way to go about the work. How did they settle disputes?
"Well, ma'am, I reckon it was whoever gave up first," Ryan Haas said.
He is majoring in business administration at a local college and wants to open a diesel performance business — specializing, of course, in tractors.
The trade may have a promising future. Tractor-love is spreading, with experts pointing to the earth-churning behemoths as the next high-end collectible.
"Tractors are an up-and-coming trend. Many collectors remember riding in a tractor with their father or grandfather. But a lot of others just think they're cool," said Tabetha Salsbury of Hagerty Insurance, the world's largest insurer of collector vehicles. She is the only other two-time winner of the Delo competition.
In addition to the Delo, which is sponsored by Chevron's brand of oil and lubricants and is considered a Super Bowl of tractor restoration, there's also a tractor restoration Web series ("Tractor Fanatic," with episodes available in a two-DVD set) and Midwest tractor shows that draw thousands of fans each summer.
Dennis Rupert, a national tractor restoration judge, said this may be a moment in the sun for old tractors. But there are a couple of challenges: size and weight.
"You're restoring 20 tons. It's not like those TV shows where they're restoring a pedal car or a Coke machine," he said. "Still, there is something nostalgic that hits home. If it's Uncle John's tractor you oughta see the tears flow."
At the ag show, teenagers posed for photos in caps resembling pink cow udders, the smoky smell of Portuguese linguica drew long lines to a food court and folks hurried to a hay and forage seminar, but one farmer stood stock still in front of Haas' Case.
"This is the best tractor in the whole place," Don Adams, 62, said with a look of delight usually associated with a child opening a birthday present. "Sure brings back memories."
Haas hopes to sell his restored tractor for twice what he spent on it. But if he doesn't, he won't treat it like a museum piece.
"I'd rather see it running than sitting," he said. "It's a tractor."