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Home News Headlines Tractors And The People Who Love Them: Freelance writer finds gold in red tractors and combines

Tractors And The People Who Love Them: Freelance writer finds gold in red tractors and combines

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Other than being a bona fide gearhead and having a farmer for a grandfather, Lee Klancher had no special connection to tractors when the editors at Motorbooks International asked him to write a book about Farmall tractors several years ago. But he was also a freelance writer who couldn’t afford to turn down a paying gig, so he took it on.

While taking photos for the book at a tractor show, he realized he’d stumbled onto a niche market, one with a personal connection. Squeezing in close for a shot of one of the tractors, he caught a smell that took him back to a Wisconsin farm.

“My grandfather had died a few years before that, but the smell of that tractor brought him back for a while,” Klancher said. “In the course of studying up on tractors I started to understand how important they are, how all the free time we have now is a direct result of the tractor. The more I found out, the more compelling it became.”

Klancher’s first book, which sold about 40,000 copies over five years, eventually led to more tractor books and to his own publishing company in Austin, Octane Press, which publishes books aimed at the kind of people who can read a title like “How to Restore Tractor Magnetos” and not only know what it means but will also feel their pulse quicken. Octane’s readers hail from the mechanically inclined segment of our population, many of them with a special interest in tractors and farm equipment.

Klancher started Octane Press in 2010 with a few dollars and a vision of what the publishing industry would become.

“I was still freelancing, but in 2007 it got a lot tougher,” Klancher said. “I saw the publishing industry changing and I started wondering if I could start my own press. I figured if I could sell two-thirds or half of what I was selling as a freelancer, I could make a go of it.”

Klancher’s interest in the internal combustion engine focused for many years on motorcycles, which he has ridden all over the world and written about extensively for magazines and in books like “Alaska Adventure Travel by Motorcycle.” Octane publishes a number of books about motorcycles and motorcycle restoration and motorcycle travel, but it was another book about tractors that gave Octane the juice to keep going.

“That niche market (tractors) had been neglected for about eight years, and there was nothing about the more modern stuff. It just hadn’t been covered,” Klancher said. “We got together and decided to do a book that was bigger and more expensive than the other tractor books out there. That was a gamble, but we went with it.”

Octane printed 8,000 copies of “Red Tractors 1958-2013" for a big trade show — and sold all 8,000 before the trade show even began.

“That was really when Octane Press was born,” Klancher said. “That’s when it became something more than a sparkle in my eye.”

Klancher then put together the book “Red Combines: 1915-2013” and stumbled upon a riveting story about the development of the axial-flow combine, a project shrouded in secrecy that took decades to perfect. A post on the Octane Press website, “Secret Garage: How the Axial-Flow Combine Was Developed Under Lock and Key” tells part of the story, which reads almost like a Cold War weapons race.

“That was a game changer, not just for International Harvester but for the whole industry,” Klancher said. “They had an amazing amount of records. The project was off the books for a while — they weren’t officially working on it — but these guys kept doing it on their own.”

Octane has about 50 titles, including a new series geared toward children ages 4-8 about Casey, the farmer, and Tillus, a talking worm that knows more about machinery than most worms. The writer of the children’s series, Holly Dufek, and illustrator Paul E. Nunn use machines as vehicles for educating children about the science and technology of modern farming.

“Mainly, we’re trying to introduce kids to modern farming and everything it has to offer,” Dufek said. “A lot of math and science goes into farming. All the science that goes into it, and the cutting edge technology — it’s awesome. And kids are really open to learning about that.”

Dufek says the kids who come to see her presentations at libraries and educational events fall into two categories. One group would ace any “Name That Equipment” test if it focused on farm equipment and implements. The other group still thinks of a farmer in the dell with a straw hat and a small tractor singing “E-i-e-i-o.”

Dufek, an educator, had to teach herself about modern farm equipment to write the “Casey and Friends” series. She relied on Octane’s histories of some of her mechanized characters, and she interviewed with engineers and other experts, along with a rigorous fact-checking during the publication process.

The books include “A Year on the Farm,” “Big Red Tractors,” “Combines” and “Planters and Cultivators” and feature Paul E. Nunn’s illustrations. Her next book will be on hay and forage.

“I think farmer Casey is an amazing role model for these kids,” Dufek says. “Casey is a female farmer, and I’ve had a couple of kids who couldn’t believe there’s such a thing as a woman farmer.”

Which shows that even kids smart enough to know the difference between a tractor and combine still have a few things to learn about modern farming.

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