WATERVILLE — In North Central Washington, where orchards, vineyards, cattle ranches and vast wheat fields cover much of the land, kids often learn to drive a tractor long before they get a driver’s license to legally drive a car.
High school FFA classes help students learn to operate farm machinery safely. But when fair time rolls around, it’s all about the competition and the taste of victory.
“Can I drive a tractor? Heck yeah,” boasted Lupe Villasenor, who graduated Chelan High School last year but still competes with the school’s FFA team in tractor driving competitions. The team placed fourth in state last year, she said before hopping on a new, bright blue Ford New Holland all-wheel tractor.
The first of several competitions this year was held Friday at the NCW District Fair in Waterville. More competitions will be held at other county fairs and school events leading up to state final competition in Moses Lake in November.
The NCW District Fair continues at the Waterville Fairgrounds until 6 p.m. Sunday.
Villasenor raced the tractor and its flatbed trailer through a tight obstacle course of pylons in reverse and then forward, but not without casualties. The trailer was still dragging one of the pylons when she backed in to the finish line.
“You were trying to go way too fast. I’ve seen you do it much better,” said Dan Elwood, Wenatchee High School ag teacher who was judging the competition Friday for his 30th year. The course must be completed within 2 minutes, 30 seconds. Longer times get point deduction, but there’s no bonus points for going faster.
Villasenor wasn’t the only driver to lose points for hitting pylons, riding the clutch, grinding gears and several other indicators that they hadn’t been practicing much.
Benjamin Lorenz, 17, Chelan, had to change direction several times because he couldn’t weave the pylon course tight enough. Elwood told Lorenz he had the diesel tractor’s rpms set too high.
“Oh, that was bad,” Lorenz said after scoring only 86 out of a possible 200 points on the drive. Students also take a written test worth 100 possible points. Some students did worse and a few either quit or were disqualified before finishing the course.
Chelan teammate Luke Gleasman did much better with 115 points. Just 15, Gleasman doesn’t have a driver’s license yet, but has been driving a tractor in the family orchard all summer.
Adam Grubb, a four-year state top 10 finisher, showed the other competitors how tractor driving is done. He graduated Wenatchee High School last year, but can still compete for the team. He weaved through the pylons backwards and forwards with steady speed and only a nudged pylon in parking that cost him a few points shy of a perfect score. His 184 was event’s top driving score. Grubb said he’s driven tractor in the family’s Wenatchee Heights orchards for years.
Cody Schuyleman, 16, Wenatchee, also had a clean run, but lost a lot of points for a slow time.
Elwood said the competition prepares students for operating all kinds of equipment safely, including tractors, forklifts and even a pickup pulling a trailer. Some students pick up skills and get a taste for competition early on family farms or at Super Oval races, he said. Others have never driven a tractor before. All improve greatly as the fair competition season continues and if they practice during school ag classes.
“The scores were pretty low today, but I’d rather see them get a low score for going slow than see them rush and mow down every cone,” said Elwood. “They’ll make up the time with a little practice.”
Wenatchee FFA won Friday’s team competition, followed by Chelan and Ephrata.