Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.

Jeff farms during the day, but in the evening he e-mails his observations about life on the farm to his city-dwelling friends. He weaves these observations into entertaining stories that are sure to bring recognition, sometimes tears, but mostly a few smiles and outright belly laughs.

Here’s Jeff’s account of how he came to be the proud owner of one of only six Ranch Hands ever made, a machine that Jeff describes as “a hybrid between a pickup and a tractor…on steroids.”

Watch for a new story from Jeff in two weeks. If you’d like to contact him, he can be reached at GuyNo2@aol.com.

Calculating the Wow Factor

There was a point in our operation where we had a need for a different tractor. The 1973 John Deere 4030 that spent most of its time running our portable feed mill was due to be retired. We bought it in 1978 and it had run for more than 10,000 hours. It either needed to be retired or taken out back and shot.

As with most needs like this, a solution was readily available. The friendly salesman at our dealership would surely be able to help. After all, it says right there on his voice mail, “This is Honest RC, The Farmer’s Friend from Beginning to End. I’m out helping someone save some money right now, but if you leave me a message, I’ll get right back to you.”

How can you not want to deal with a guy like that? That’s why RC has been our salesman of choice for nearly 25 years.

RC had just the solution for us this time. He brought out a recently traded-in, two-wheel-drive tractor that was smaller than our old one but a couple decades newer. Sadly, it was also about $33,000, so it was going to take close to $25,000 to trade up.

About that time, Trusty Sidekick Lorne sent Guy No. 1 and me an e-mail he’d received. It came from an auction company that was having an auction on eBay. One item of the many the company had listed was a rather unusual piece of equipment. It was sort of a hybrid between a pickup and a tractor. . . on steroids. The name of this “thing” was The Ranch Hand Tractor & Utility Vehicle. The thing had a 165-horse Cummins diesel engine, a six-speed powershift transmission, 540- and 1,000-rpm PTO, hydraulic outlets, an on-board air compressor, a 25,000W generator with 110v and 220v power, a hydraulic tilt bed and other features. It would fly down the road at 45 mph. We all laughed about it the next day when we were together. At the time, it was priced around $13,000 in the eBay auction with about a week left.

Honest RC called soon after that with a hot deal. He headed out to see us to explain it in person. His fellow salesman (we call him One Price Pete, which is an indication of his willingness to deal) had traded in a two-wheel-drive tractor that morning. RC would trade us out of our tractor and into the new used one for a very reasonable price. He thought we'd be interested, so he told One Price Pete to put a hold on the tractor “until I run out and talk to the Ryan boys about it.” It was a bigger unit than what we needed, but it would be big enough to do a couple other jobs besides running the mill. We told RC we’d take it. He jumped in his truck and headed back for Decorah to write up the paperwork and get it handled.

Within the hour, RC called back, dejected. While he was on his way to and from our place, One Price Pete had sold the trade-in, despite RC having told him to put a hold on it until he drove the 15 miles out here and back to discuss it with us. It was no longer available, but the $33,000 tractor still was.

Well, well, well, did that ever earn One Price Pete a special place on our list! We told RC we’d have to think about the deal, but weren't terribly interested in it right then.

Another check of the eBay auction showed that the bidding for the Ranch Hand was still around the $14,000 level. The more I watched the auction and looked at the machine, and the more I thought about the honor among salesmen at my local dealership, the more the Ranch Hand intrigued me. Lorne and I kicked it around some. He thought it looked pretty decent. Guy No. 1, the keeper-of-the-books and writer-of-the-checks, was skeptical.

I did some digging. It didn't take long to get the name and number of the banker involved in the transaction. This was a liquidation deal. The bank had financed the manufacturing company that made the Ranch Hand. It was a start-up company in the late 1990s. Before it shut down, it made six of these things altogether. The company was located in Kansas, and at that point, Kansas was in its fourth year of drought. The banker said they couldn't get guys in that area to buy used stuff, let alone brand-new machines like the Ranch Hand, which sold for $100,000 to $125,000 new. To find a viable market, the company would have to hire a full-time staffer to sell the machines nationwide.

The banker told me about the foreclosure auction the bank had for the company. There were three Ranch Hands on the sale. One was brand new, one was a used unit with 3,800 hours on it, and this particular eBay item was the factory demo unit with about 300 hours on it. At the auction, the new unit brought $48,000, and the used one brought $38,000. The demo unit brought $30,000, which was less than what the bank had against it, so the bank passed on that offer and decided to sell it privately. Since it was a repo, the FDIC rules allowed the bank to keep it in its possession for only six months before it had to be disposed of at any price the bank could get.

The Ranch Hand seemed kind of familiar to me. A little more digging with my contacts at Farm Industry News revealed that my suspicions were correct. In 1999, the Ranch Hand had been named the magazine’s FinOvation Award winner as the most interesting machine of the year, as voted upon by readers.

I kept watching the eBay auction and kept working on Guy No. 1 to see if he'd go for the purchase of a Ranch Hand. He didn’t think it was such a great idea for the corporation to buy something like that. He’s always such a skeptic. At roughly half the cost of the $33,000 tractor, I was failing to see the downside to this deal. Finally, I came up with a solution. I proposed that I would buy the Ranch Hand personally. If it worked well for us, I’d hire out to the corporation to do custom work with it at a reasonable rate. If it didn’t work out, I’d get rid of it myself and take whatever bath I had coming to me.

Under those terms, Guy No. 1 didn't seem to have a problem. As he and I discussed it further, I told him the value I thought it might have for a few jobs. He agreed with me on most of it. Then we got down to the intangibles. “You know, you’ve gotta consider the Wow Factor, too,” I said. “We can compare this to a tractor dollar-for-dollar and job-for-job, but there's still that value of . . . ‘WOW, that's cool!’ It’s just hard to know what the value is.” (It wasn't hard for him, of course, because it was my money!)

I continued to watch the auction. As the end drew near, I began bidding. One of the other bidders showed an unusual habit in his bids, which was readily noticed by this numbers junkie. Every time he’d bid, the last two digits of his bid would be $.77, usually $77.77 if we were close to that level on the minimum increments. For example, if I would raise the bid to $14,800, he’d go to $14,877.77.

By the end of the auction, we didn’t reach the minimum bid level, but I was the high bidder.

The banker and I stayed in touch. Due to those nasty FDIC rules, they had to get rid of this machine in a matter of days. They decided they would let the three high bidders on eBay submit one final bid. The high bid of those three would then be the proud owner of a Ranch Hand. I got my fax machine fired up to meet the deadline. While I was typing up my fax to submit the bid, I thought about bidding $__,778.00, but then I figured they'd have another bid-off if we were twenty-three cents apart. Why not bump the margin to something closer to a hundred bucks so there’d be no chance of a tie?

My phone rang the afternoon of the fax deadline. It was the banker from Kansas. He announced that my bid was the highest, so I won! Not wanting to pass up some delicious irony, I asked what the second-place bid was. It was $72.23 less than mine. That’s right, it was so-many-thousand-and-seven-hundred-seventy-seven-dollars-and-seventy-seven cents!

PSYCH!!!

My new tool showed up a few days later. Not wanting to pass up even more delicious irony, I asked RC if I could use the handy loading dock at the dealership to download my cargo from the semi that delivered it.

By the time I got to the dealership, I’d already received a couple calls from them. One of my favorite mechanics had apparently been the one who helped unload the Ranch Hand from the semi. That automatically made him the resident expert on it. He had me jump in the cab for a lesson on how to run it before I headed off down the road. It was fairly simple. Next thing you know, I was heading west down Highway 9 for home. I wasn’t on the shoulder, either. Why hide on the shoulder or even on some side road? This was December, so I was right on the slab with the rest of the traffic. Go big or go home! That’s the rule, isn’t it?

Between my first call to the bank in Kansas and the day my Ranch Hand arrived, the banker had put me in touch with the guy who owned the company that made the units. Bryce was a great guy in his late forties. He was an excellent engineer and was constantly quoting all kinds of gearhead information to me like I was on his level. I wasn’t. Not by a long shot. Even so, Bryce wanted me to know that I could call him if I ever had any questions.

We put the Ranch Hand on several different jobs as we got the feel of it. Since it was winter, that meant there weren’t as many things to do as in, say, May or October, but it was still like a Farm Industry News test. It didn’t take long for me to figure out I was keeping this baby! The one thing I didn’t like about it, though, was the paint job. It came from the factory in red and white. That just didn’t work for me. I’m more of a green-and-yellow guy — one shade of green in particular. I did some checking around and found a guy in Readlyn who could paint it for me.

Next up was a little graphics research. I sent an e-mail to the head PR guy at Deere and asked about paint and decal options to get my Ranch Hand to fit in better with my other toys. He was flattered by my color selections, but he wanted me to know that once the leaping deer decal and the words “John Deere” went on it, then the attorneys from Deere would be in touch. Green and yellow paint was fine, but the decals were going to be extremely spendy. I opted to go with yellow rims on the wheels, a green hood and cab, and a black flatbed. It meshed quite nicely, even though it wasn’t visually spectacular. Keep in mind, though, that the color was easily overshadowed by the Wow Factor!

It took a couple weeks to get everything done, which meant a couple trips to Readlyn for consultations. Before I even got out of the door of the shop one time, the owner's dad was there and wanted to talk. He is a first-rate character. He wanted me to know that this machine was the talk of the town. “You have no idea how many guys have stopped by to look at it,” he said. “We'd leave it sitting outside when we weren't working on it just to get a rise out of people."

The Wow Factor at work.

Since I test stuff for Farm Industry News from time to time, a lot of my neighbors and local townsfolk figured the Ranch Hand was some sort of test vehicle I'd be reporting on in an upcoming issue. Actually, many of them figured it was some sort of prototype vehicle I was testing for Deere & Co., because it was green and yellow, but it didn't have any decals or model numbers on it. “He does all those regular tests, so they probably have him do secret stuff, too.”

My favorite description of the Ranch Hand and its stealthy qualities came from Ray, one of the guys who trucks a lot of my hay. He refers to it as “The Phantom.” He calls it that because “everyone's seen it . . . but only for a couple seconds! Then they all sit around and say, ‘Did you see that? What the ____ was that!?! It was there and then it was gone!’” Lots of people will pass me on the highway and immediately slow down to my speed just to see how fast I’m going.

When the bike ride across Iowa was in Cresco last summer, some bicyclists were guests here at the farm. Two of them were Carla and Chuck Offenburger. Chuck is a former columnist for the Des Moines Register who covered the ride. They had plans to meet some people in Protivin the next morning. After a tour of the farm that morning, they needed to get to Protivin quicker than the bike route would get them there. There was an obvious solution. It involved a livestock trailer and the Wow Factor.

As I loaded Chuck, Carla and their gear into the trailer, I decided to shut the side flaps on the trailer to keep the road dust to a minimum. The only blacktop route from here to Protivin was the route the bikers were taking. You can’t gain time in a vehicle on that route under those conditions. We took gravel instead.

I left the side flap at the very back of the trailer open. When I pulled up to the LP tank loading station, on the north end of Protivin, I turned the Ranch Hand and trailer around in the lot and went back to open up the door so that Chuck and Carla could get right out and join the crowd. Small problem. All I had in the trailer were powdered-sugar replicas of Chuck, Carla, their bikes and their gear! By closing the side flaps on the trailer and making Ranch Hand-quality time on the nine miles of gravel between home and Protivin, I’d created sort of a gravel dust vortex inside the trailer. Chuck and Carla looked like they had either been rolled in flour and were ready to be thrown in the frying pan, or should be placed on a napkin and consumed with a latte!

So I was in deep trouble, right? But, wait, you forgot about the Wow Factor! I went back to the Ranch Hand, flipped open the toolbox on the side and proceeded to unroll my 50-ft. air compressor hose. I put the end on and then worked the Offenburgers over like a couple of show steers. While they weren’t church-portrait quality, it was far better than just patting them down or beating them like a rug. Chuck was reasonably impressed with my resourcefulness . . . and everything the Ranch Hand can do.

After having a problem with a radiator leak in the Ranch Hand, someone gave me the name of a guy in nearby Preston, MN, who works on radiators. I decided to take it to him to see if he could fix the chronic leak I’d have each time we’d fill up the flatbed on a hot day. When I got out of the cab at Preston Service Plus, Don, the owner, was beside himself. We probably stood there for close to an hour as he asked all kinds of questions about every feature of the machine. He’s right on busy Highway 52, so I knew that the Ranch Hand would probably draw some looks and maybe even some business for Don.

Again, it’s that Wow Factor at work.

When Don was done with the Ranch Hand, I went back to Preston to get it. Being a picture of efficiency, I had a plan. Why waste someone’s time and gas to take me to Preston to get it? My Volkswagen dune buggy has a tow bar on the front I can take on and off. I can put the tow bar on and pull the buggy behind anything with a hitch, like a pickup or a tractor . . . or a Ranch Hand.

I pulled up to Preston Service Plus in the buggy when the Ranch Hand was done. When I finished talking with Don inside, I headed out. Don followed and immediately saw the buggy. That’s when I hooked the buggy up behind the Ranch Hand with the tow bar. Don’s eyes lit up. “Boy, you make quite the package coming down the road I bet, don’t you?”

Again, it’s the Wow Factor at work. This time, exponentially.

Partway between Preston and Cresco is Harmony, MN. In and around Harmony is a fairly significant Amish population. From what I could tell as I met and passed several Amish buggies on my way back to Cresco . . . in my Ranch Hand . . . pulling my bright yellow Volkswagen dune buggy behind it, the Amish were extremely impressed with my new toys, only in a bad way.

Again, it’s called the Wow Factor.

I wanted to tell the driver of that other type of buggy that I would gladly put my buggy up against his in the quarter-mile any day. I’d even spot him a thousand-foot head start. Don’t underestimate the Wow Factor, though. It’ll get you every time.

Guy No. 2