Tractor Lessons: A Farm Kid’s Rite of Passage

For 10-year-old Margret Aldrich, learning how to maneuver a Farmall tractor around her family’s Iowa farm was par for the course. Now, it’s her son’s turn to discover the wonder and wisdom of his first tractor.

| February 1, 2011

Margret Aldrich is an editor and writer living in Minneapolis with her husband, Gary, and sons Abe, 3, and Asher, 1. While Margret enjoys driving her VW station wagon, she looks back fondly on the days of driving tractors on the family farm near Beaver, Iowa. In this story, history repeats itself as her dad gives Margret and then Abe their very first tractor lessons. Driver’s ed was never so much fun ... 

“The first thing you need to learn about driving a tractor is how to shut it off,” my dad said matter-of-factly, looking me straight in the eye and pointing a finger at my nose. This was how he began my inaugural tractor-driving lesson, which was a rite of passage for every farm kid. I knew that this was serious business.

It was summertime in central Iowa, and I had just finished fourth grade. The corn, soybeans and alfalfa were in the ground, our flock of sheep was in the pasture and because Dad had some extra time on his hands (and a 10-year-old girl to entertain), he thought this might be a good time to begin tractor-driving lessons. I had been on a tractor plenty — sitting on Dad’s lap and “helping” him steer as he plowed a field or drove a wagon of beans the 2 miles to the elevator — but I hadn’t been tall enough to reach the clutch and break pedals and, therefore, hadn’t been old enough for driving lessons. Like the amusement park signs that said, “You must be this high to ride,” I had to pass the clutch-pedal test before I would be allowed to pilot the tractor.

So, before he imparted any further tractor wisdom, he motioned for me to climb up into the driver’s seat of the IH Farmall 806D and show him that I could press the clutch all the way to the floor. I pulled myself up into the seat. It felt good up there. I looked to my right at our farmhouse and felt about as tall as the third-floor attic window. Over my left shoulder, I saw our border collie patrolling around the sheep in the east pasture, subtly herding them into a loose group. I enjoyed the scene for just a moment then took a deep breath, grabbed on to the steering wheel, and stomped on the clutch as hard as I could. It groaned as I pushed it down, down, down — all the way to the floor.

“All right,” said Dad, “That means you’re ready!” In one motion, he climbed up beside me and started up the engine, because, as he had promised, our first lesson would be shutting it off.

“How do you think you do it?” he said over the roar of the engine.

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