When Ronnie Carlson was growing up, everybody who knew him said he liked to play with dirt. Back then, his favorite toy was a shovel.
The “toys” got bigger as he got older, and for the past 40 some years, the 66-year-old farmer and cattleman has been using tractor-mounted blades and scrapers to do all kinds of dirt work as a sideline.
“I think I’ve done everything there is to do with dirt,” he said. “One thing is for sure, though, I haven’t picked up a shovel in years.”
He started doing jobs for his family in the early 1970s using an 80-horsepower tractor with a big blade behind.
As his customer base expanded, he advanced to a 4650 John Deere with a 150-horsepower motor. He also bought a 9½-yard scraper.
Now he uses an 8310 John Deere with a 210-horsepower motor to pull a 14-yard scraper. A 12-foot dozer blade is mounted in front of the tractor.
Instead of clutches and levers for shifting, the new tractor has automatic shifting and uses toggle switches to control the blade and scraper. The tractor has five sets of hydraulics in the rear end, two to run the cylinders on the scraper, and three to operate the blade. The blade tilts six ways.
Carlson’s son, Eric, helps with some jobs. He sometimes operates a high loader. They dig ponds, house lagoons, house basements, and cattle waste basins. They also clean ponds and prepare building sites. Often dirt has to be brought in and deposited on the site using the scraper to create the right level for the building.
Carlson has done the dirt work for the installation of several geo-thermal heating and cooling systems. He dug the trenches and then filled them back in after the pipes were laid.
Carlson creates terraces and waterways for farmers in Marion and Morris counties. The specifications are laid out by the counties’ conservation districts. He also repairs failed terraces.
He begins a terrace by using a five-bottom plow to create loose dirt along the length of it, as marked.
At first, he used a transit on a tripod to read numbers on sticks positioned along the waterway route to create the proper grade of the terraces. It took two people.
Now, the transit has been replaced with a laser. It is placed at the starting point and programmed to produce the desired grade from one end to the other. A receiver mounted on the scraper guides Carlson to produce the proper grade and fill in low spots along the way.
Carlson said no-till practices have changed the grading of terraces. The old terraces were narrow and had steep sides. The new terraces cover more area with gently sloping sides and wider bottoms, making them more farmable.
Carlson enjoys the work for the most part.
“It’s a release to get away from the farm, but if I get too many jobs, I feel pressured and it feels like a job,” he said.
He said he gets a lot of satisfaction in seeing a completed job.
“I drive around the countryside and see the things I’ve done, and I feel good,” he said.
His next job will be to teach his sons, Lucas and Eric, how to run the equipment, so they can carry it on into the future.