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This is only a test

When you think about making a major purchase of some kind, do you go out to the store/dealership and just pick up the item on a whim? Probably not. Most people like to check around and see what other consumers think of that particular product before they sink their own money into it. You can go to Consumer Reports magazine or for reviews on a wide variety of stuff. If you're talking farm equipment, though, the options suddenly decrease considerably.

One of the very best places to go for such research is a little publication I have been subscribing to for decades. It's an outfit called Farm Industry News. The magazine has a group of farmers known as Team FIN that tests and reviews various pieces of farm equipment and tools. Reviews of those items appear in the magazine from time to time. As a reader and a farmer, I'm interested in knowing what my fellow agrarian scientists think of various "stuff" for the farm. Those reviews are always very popular in the magazine. When the opportunity came up several years ago to become a member of Team FIN, I sent in a letter of application. It seems like I submitted my application in 1999 and didn't hear anything from them until 2001. At least it was a positive response! A year-and-a-half wait for a flush letter would have been disappointing in the extreme.

One of the most popular testing subjects for the magazine has been all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and utility vehicles (UVs). Every year or two, a group of about six or eight Team FIN members heads to sort of a hunting club in south-central Minnesota. The place is spread out over about 800 acres of hills, woods, crop fields and CRP land. Several trails wind through the woods and the fields. It makes for great testing of ATVs.

As is almost always the case in my life, nothing good can happen without a scheduling problem. The idea was to have the ATV Rodeo on the 5th and 6th of August. Okay, that was the magazine staff's idea. My idea was to have it the week before, or maybe two weeks after the single digits of August. I'm always busy with A.I. season for my cows in the single digits of August. It was beginning to look like I wouldn't be able to make it this year. Then some bait was floated my way. The editor wanted to know if I would help the good people at Yamaha. They not only wanted to send a machine or two to the Rodeo, they wanted to send a machine home with a farmer for more "in-depth testing" at his own place after the official Rodeo.

Suddenly the inflexible math of bovine A.I. season was taking on a pudding-like rigidity. The calendar could be shifted, I suppose.

Not that I would bite on the tiniest morsel of bait put in front of me, but I swallowed this minnow whole. I did it for my fellow farmers, of course. They need good testing in the magazine. They need it in a readable format that may make them mildly interested in making a purchase. Could my fellow Team FIN members do that without me? Without being completely conceited and arrogant, "HECK NO!"

We all got to the lodge in late afternoon on the first day of the Rodeo. After thoroughly checking out each machine for the “maintenance and service” evaluation, Team FIN members each got on an ATV and followed the gun club's owner, Randy, through the woods and the trails. We needed a refresher on where everything was and what route we were supposed to follow the next day. Funny thing. On the approach to the creek crossing, we pulled to one side and did a loop to turn around. We were apparently in education mode and not evaluation mode, so no splashing on opening night. We really couldn't get a look at the crossing, because it was around the corner behind some trees. It was sort of a "Go over there to cross. Just trust me," kind of a situation.

When the testing began the next morning, I don't recall which machine I was on, but it wasn't my take-home project and it wasn't the tiniest machine there. I got to the water crossing and realized it was a bit more intimidating than the way it was portrayed the previous afternoon. The entry and the water weren't so bad. It was the exit up the opposing bank that was a bit touchy. Two clear wheel tracks marked the path. One side of the machine making those tracks certainly appeared, to me at least, to have far better traction and excavation capabilities than the other. Either that, or there was a quicksand issue on the stream bank. As I started across the rutted path, I realized that the machine was beginning to travel several degrees away from level. Best guess, it felt like 30, maybe 45, perhaps even 60 degrees. And this was on the first pass. Just think what seven machines, each being driven by seven different drivers, would do to that path by the last round of the day.

I got on my second machine — the smallest and most likely poorest-scoring (in part because of suspension and comfort issues) of the bunch — and made my way to the creek crossing. I got partway up the bank on the other side and my machine pretty much ate the sidewall. I was about to be removed from my machine like Norm Abram running a plane down a piece of lumber on "The New Yankee Workshop." No way was this machine climbing out of there going forward. It also had an absolutely ridiculous series of steps to follow to get it into Reverse. That's a really handy feature to have when you're about to wipe out.

Once I solved that Rubik's Cube of buttons and levers, I got the beast backed up and turned around to go back from where I came. When I got back to the area where we park the machines and do some paperwork, I mentioned to Randy that there were going to be some serious safety issues at the creek crossing before the end of the day. He hopped on his own machine and went to survey the situation. It was decided that we'd make another pass right next to the one with the gorge-like ruts and simply climb the bank there instead. If we wanted to, we could still use the original path. Many apparently did.

Testing is one thing. There is this other small item involved with each and every Rodeo. Nobody reads the magazine just for the stimulating text. You need photos to really sell the subject. Not dealer-showroom-posed photos of some pristine machine straight out of the box. Farmers use stuff. Stuff gets dirty. It happens. I think I read that (or something close to it) on a bumper sticker somewhere. A good photo for an event like this involves a little action. The right action makes for an impressive photo. An impressive photo lands on the cover of the magazine, or maybe the front page. Once again, everybody wants to be Bob Uecker and be in the front row, or on the cover, as the case may be! It's not that we're all ego-driven, narcissistic, spotlight-hogging publicity whores. Well, not all of us. We had a new guy this year. He didn't catch on from the get-go, so maybe he won't be on the cover. Those of us who were veterans know that the stream crossing is where the money shot takes place. Nothing says "FULL-PAGE SHOT!" like a good splash.

Now, let's say, for instance, you know the photographer. Oh, I don't know, let's say he has been to your place before for other photo projects for the magazine. And maybe he tells you to repeat a couple of maneuvers on a machine for “just one more shot." You play along, because maybe, just maybe, “just one more shot” will be THE ONE he’s after and maybe, just maybe, you wind up on the cover of the October issue of Farm Industry News!

By the time the whole event was over, it was getting late in the day. When I got back to the lodge, it was time to gather up my stuff and hit the road. That meant loading up the Yamaha Grizzly 550.

My initial thought on the in-depth testing of the Grizzly would be that I'd get to keep it for two or three days at home. That would be okay, because the A.I. math meant I'd have my cows synchronized to come in heat the day after I got home. That would make for ideal testing circumstances for me to properly evaluate the Grizzly's ability to sort #6041 from the herd, followed by 13 other cows for the morning's matings.

It would be a fun-filled two or three days.

The guy from Yamaha handed me some forms to sign before I'd be on my way with the Grizzly. The plan was for me to return the machine to my local dealer in Riceville, about 30 miles away. One last statement from him made me almost need another product from the good folks at my favorite medical device company's Cardiac division.

"I'm putting down a return date of October 1. Will that work for you?"

OCTOBER 1? That's no three-day test!

Ummm…okay. I'll try to make the math work for me.

Oh, the sacrifices I make for my readers — all in the name of science, of course.

Guy No. 2

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