I have not bought a new tractor for 30 years. Indeed I am so mean with expenditure on machinery that I once saw a photograph of myself in a local machinery dealer’s office where my teeth had been blackened through the use of a black felt tip and devil horns were springing from my forehead.
My reputation among machinery dealers as the devil incarnate is richly deserved. (I used to submit my farm accounts to the government’s farm income survey and they once told me that my investment in machinery per hectare was less than 25% of the average for a farm of my type and size).
This refusal to loosen my purse strings to buy kit means that I watch the ups and downs in the national registration of new tractors each year with bemused detachment. 2015, it turns out, was a really bad year to be selling tractors in the UK.
Sales of tractors over 50 horsepower declined to 10,842 units, which was a drop of 12.8% on sales for 2014. More worrying still for those with a forecourt full of shiny new toys, 2015 was the worst year for new tractor registrations for a decade. As Agricultural Engineers Association economist Chris Evans puts it: “The old adage of ‘up horn, down corn’ is definitely not the case at the moment. Prices across the board are down, ultimately reducing people’s spending.” He then goes on to say that grain prices have a particular impact on machinery sales as “half the value of all kit is sold into this sector.”
I wonder what Mr Evans thinks of this pattern of arable farmer behaviour where, as soon as grain prices rise, they start shelling out ever larger wads of cash on kit, presumably to cut their income tax bill? What about the surely sounder principle that the time to replace the old tractor is when it is beyond economic repair? After all, the marginal rate of income tax is only 40% so why blow money on kit when you could keep most of the money in the bank even after HMRC have taken their slice?
Indeed Mr Evans does refer to this by pointing out with approval that sales of very large tractors (over 240hp) have held up much better than smaller ones because the buyers of these big machines are “likely to be sticking to a replacement plan.” He contrasts this with the buyers of smaller tractors who “are more likely basing their buying decisions on farmgate prices.”
But even a replacement plan where tractors are traded in at a particular age or when they reach a given number of work hours is not good enough for me. As you would expect from a devil, for a tractor to leave this holding it has to have gasped its last. I’m only happy if its gasket has blown for the last time or its complex gearbox has fallen apart once too often.
Only Lucifer himself could smile at the sight of a trusty old workhorse being winched on to a lorry for its trip to the breaker’s yard. Once there, its near exhausted component parts are to be ripped out to lengthen the lifespan of some other old workhorses being similarly flogged to a spluttering end. Can you hear my maniacal laugh, machinery dealers? Be very afraid.