Earth Day is the best day to praise the gas engine

By Dennis T. Avery
Director, Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute


CHURCHVILLE, VA (B)--Time magazine is publishing a special Earth Day issue, with Ford Motor Co. the exclusive sponsor, emphasizing the pledge of Ford president William Clay Ford Jr. that his company will lead the world in the development of environmentally "clean" vehicles.

I want to know whether Time and Henry Ford's great-grandson will finally give the old gentleman credit for saving millions of acres of wildlands with the gasoline tractor.

When Henry began tinkering with gasoline engines around 1900, America's farms were literally horse powered. American farms had more than 20 million horses. They not only covered the streets of New York City with hundreds of tons of manure a day but ate billions of tons of grass a year.

With an average of four acres of land to grow grass, hay and oats for each horse, America used the equivalent of four Iowas or 25 Yellowstone National Parks to grow fodder for its draft horses.

Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba in Canada says if American farming were horse-powered today it would take 250 million horses to match our tractor and harvester engines.

We'd need 740 million acres of land to feed the horses--twice as much arable land as the United States has. Instead of exporting food to densely populated Asian countries, the United States would be hard put to feed itself.

Millions of tractors in Europe, South America and China serve the same function of saving land for nature that would otherwise be in feed crops for horses, draft oxen or water buffalo. Every acre of cropland that can produce food instead of being used to produce animal fodder means at least one acre of wildlands is saved.

Some of the high-quality cropland is worth four or even 10 acres of wildlands. Tractors also get the fields prepared faster, so the growing season is longer and yields are higher.

Every bit of extra yield per cropland acre means more wildlife habitat on a planet that cultivates 37% of its land area. People before Henry Ford tried to invent the modern tractor with steam engines.

But steam engines were terribly heavy. Imagine trying to drive a 10-ton railroad locomotive across a wet field, without rails. Tractors could power stationary threshing machines, but rarely could they be used for fieldwork. Their smokestacks were also a terrible fire hazard for something like wheat harvesting.

Also, 2000-pound draft horses are terribly dangerous. One of my neighbors kept draft horses as a hobby, but died after being kicked in the stomach by one of his huge geldings. I was in a draft horse runaway when I was 10 years old, but survived.

Horses are flight animals. If there were 250 million draft horses on today's farms, incidents like these would be multiplied by millions per year.

Henry Ford helped change horse power to horsepower. He was working with the new, lightweight gasoline engine. Shortly after he developed the famous Model T auto, he put his engines to work in revolutionary farm tractors.

They were light enough to stay on top of the soil, and powerful enough to plow the land much faster than any team of horses.

If and when Ford Motor Co. or someone else comes up with a replacement for diesel oil and diesel engines, the farmers will cheerfully use it. At the moment, however, oil is still readily available and cheap, except when OPEC periodically refuses to pump it.

Ford deserves to be proud of its record in producing safe, efficient cars and trucks that are better for the environment than any vehicles in history. The company should be commended for their new research in high-mileage diesel-electric vehicles and potentially still-cleaner fuel cell vehicles.

But Ford should also help tell the world about the environmental achievements of Henry Ford's tractors. we're all still enjoying the benefits of his inventive genius.

Posted on Saturday, January 1, 2000 12:00 am.