Drive north out of the small central Pennsylvania town of Muncy, alongside the West Branch Susquehanna River, up into the crinkled hills, and you’ll find it: the farm that grows machines. They sprout slowly as you approach: a landscape dotted with balers, manure spreaders, feed grinders, and more lining the old country road. Those errant shoots soon give way to clusters; round the final curve and those clusters explode into fields and fields of old agricultural equipment stretching on almost endlessly, covering the hills in twisted rows, undulating with the terrain and stretching out of sight.
Fry’s Machinery Inc. doesn’t really grow tools, but it does cultivate something just as valuable as any staple crop: a farmer’s ability to repair their own machines. As the largest farm equipment salvage yard in Pennsylvania (and quite possibly the entire eastern U.S.), Fry’s is a lifeline for smaller farmers in the region seeking hard-to-find parts for a litany of machines as the tools of their trade grow more expensive, more computerized, and ever more difficult to fix.
Plows, combines, planters, balers, spreaders, choppers, mowers, tractors, and more—that a place like this, so vast and sprawling and organic-feeling, still exists in 2022 feels at least a little bit miraculous. Of course, Fry’s Machinery is no miracle. Instead, it’s the result of one man’s hard work and one family’s dedication amid the larger forces that have reshaped agriculture in America over the last half century.
A key difference between cars and farm equipment is that few people would daily-drive a 40 year old car, but farm machines can have a useful life of several decades or more. That means unlike your standard junkyard, the majority of Fry’s customers aren’t hobbyists; they’re full-time farmers. For them, replacing a broken part isn’t about completing a restoration; it can mean the difference between harvesting on-time or losing thousands of dollars.
Though 40 percent of America is farmland, an odd set of circumstances collided in Pennsylvania to support Fry’s business model. The state ranks 14th in total number of farms, but 45th in terms of average farm size. That unusual concentration of small-acreage farms creates a localized demand for smaller (and often older) equipment—it may not make financial sense to use a six-row corn planter in Iowa, but it might here. It’s also far more economical to purchase the smaller stuff secondhand as manufacturers shift their focus to building products for larger operations. Plus, you have Pennsylvania’s large number of Amish and Mennonite farmers, who often eschew more modern equipment.
As we’ve covered before, the Amish aren’t the only ones turning away from new technology. While larger farms can afford modern, high-tech equipment, the right-to-repair their own machines has notoriously been blocked by some OEMs through software and hardware lockouts. The result has helped fuel an already surging demand for older tractors and machinery that is easier to service. As a result, it’s become harder for small and medium-sized farmers to afford the equipment they need. Throw in the supply chain crises of the 2020s and in many ways, the demand for a place like Fry’s has never been greater.
Business Is Booming in the Garden of Machines
Which, in turn, means Fry’s demand for new inventory has never been greater. Jess Fry, son of company founder Floyd Fry and current day-to-day operations man, travels frequently to sales and auctions around the Mid-Atlantic in search of used equipment they can either sell whole or part out. “A lot of our stuff comes from the South, and from New York [State],” he told me, although they do have equipment buyers working for them as far west as Iowa and Illinois. Like old fashioned horse-traders, the job requires snap judgements based on years of experience.
“We just know so much [by now],” he explained. “We can look at a piece and tell what the value of the parts are, and then just buy it off of that… If you put more into it than what you can sell the parts for, there’s no sense in buying it.”
Stroll through the fields and you’ll see many iconic and now-defunct names, such as New Idea, Allis-Chalmers, Badger, Fox, Oliver, White, and Minneapolis Moline, as well as a handful that have survived to present day, like Massey Ferguson, H&S, Case IH, and John Deere. Their number one seller is everything New Holland, which makes sense seeing as the company’s birthplace is only a couple hours away. Known for innovations in haymaking, New Holland’s iconic red and yellow mowers, balers, and choppers can still be found on farms across the state, including the one I grew up on. Regardless, Jess does his best to supply parts to everyone, no matter how obscure they might be.
“I’ve had stuff I’ve thrown in the dumpster, and I have people call the next day asking for it,” he said with a chuckle. After scavenging the most valuable parts off a machine, the leftover steel is sold for scrap. He said they send a roll-off dumpster to the recycler almost every other week, sometimes more.
The economics of farming are particularly unpredictable right now due to, well, everything. Having grown up on a farm myself, it felt like there was never a so-called “normal” year, but for some time the situation has been dire enough to cause a sustained exodus from agriculture, especially for dairy farmers. Farmers are retiring and they aren’t being replaced.
Shaking his head, Jess laughed. “My dad says, ‘How are all these farmers quitting, but the price of equipment is still so high?’”
People are welcome to pick and pull their own parts, but Jess told me that the majority of farmers prefer to buy things off the shelf, where they stock a combination of new, salvaged, and third party reproduction parts. The overwhelming majority of their offerings are mechanical, not electronic. That includes a huge variety of gearboxes, shafts, springs, knives, tines, teeth, wheels, hydraulic cylinders, and more–often brand-specific.
They used to ship parts around the country, but like pretty much every business these days, Fry’s doesn’t have the manpower and has struggled to hire more employees. For the time being, customers must be willing to visit in person, anytime Monday through Friday or Saturday by appointment. My own dad was one of those customers in 2019, and it was photos from his search for parts to a Ford chisel plow that convinced me I had to see this place for myself.
A Family Affair
Fry’s Machinery didn’t start as a vanguard for the right to repair—in fact, it was originally just something Floyd liked to do.
“We bought the farm at the end of ’85,” Floyd’s wife Michelle Fry told me. “And in ’87 [my husband] started moving some of the machinery here. But we really didn’t start like a ‘business’ business until ’88, ’89, when we started going over and doing the taxes and stuff.”
Having been a farming family for generations, Floyd Fry’s grandfather began collecting and selling machinery over 50 years ago. As Michelle tells it, the machinery bug “skipped a generation” and Floyd picked it up again during the 1970s and ’80s. Working full-time at a factory in town and part-time on a farm, Floyd began expanding the machinery side of the business after losing his job.
“He got laid off,” explained Michelle, as we sat in the warmth of their barn-turned-business-office. “And they wanted him to come back, but then he said no, he wasn’t going back.”
It turned out Floyd had a knack for fixing used farm equipment, and he had an even better ability for finding it on the cheap.
“He worked 24/7.” Michelle said. “It was just business, business… machinery and making money.”
Today he’s slowed down a bit, as Floyd and Michelle’s son Jess runs the day-to-day operations of the business. It continues as a family business, with Jess’ wife April helping to answer phones and keep the books along with Michelle. The only outside “hired man” is Jim Budman, a longtime friend who helps Jess in the yard. Meanwhile Floyd still goes to auctions, oversees a couple hundred acres of actual crops, and tends to their small herd of beef cattle (which double as lawnmowers for the salvage yard).
“Dad does most of the farm stuff,” Jess said, looking over a dusty counter strewn with papers and two large cats. “I help when things are slow.”
Into the Fryer
When exactly things are “slow” is unknown. Spring planting and fall harvest seasons are the busiest, but it really never stops. When I visited in March, the area around the office had a constant hum of activity, filled with people and engine noise. With a cigar and a grin, Floyd used an old skid-steer to feed cows and load equipment onto trailers. Amish men in straw hats bargained and bartered for parts. Friends and family congregated around the counter, coming in for a chance to talk shop and get out of the cold. The office phone rang nonstop, with both individuals and dealerships on the line looking for parts they couldn’t get anywhere else.
Covered in multiple layers of winter clothes, Jess navigated the maze of metal mounds on his ATV as he showed me around, stopping every now and then to search for components. According to him, there’s no “official” organization system, but I sensed a general method to the madness. PTO shafts were piled in one area, wheels and tires in another. Older square balers, silage choppers, and silage blowers covered one hillside; and on the other sat combines and mowers. Conspicuously lacking in number were tractors. A small area featured a handful of broken-down John Deeres, Farmalls, and Fords, but the overwhelming majority of items were engine-less implements meant to be towed by tractors.
On the other side of the road sat the “newer” equipment. Less rusty and less densely packed, some of it looked ready to go right to work. Near the road sat a handful of lightly-used and even brand-new machines for sale, but the rest of the inventory would eventually be stripped for parts. A John Deere Gator laden with acetylene torches and a fire extinguisher waited ominously nearby.
Traipsing across the frozen ground, I was awestruck by the never-ending piles of twisted metal. Mangled silage choppers sat in the mud next to lichen-covered feed grinders. Disembodied corn planter units rested next to piles of worn gears and pulleys. I perceived a quiet violence to it all, knowing that these machines had been dragged here with chains, dumped here by loaders, and piled on and smashed into each other to make room for more. The jagged clusters of steel seemed to almost become one with the equally forbidding terrain, with its rocky hillsides and gnarled trees.
Yet, in the mess there was beauty. A tiny bird built its nest between a tree and power-take-off shaft. Colorful moss grew on the remains of rotting twine within an ancient hay baler. The smattering of faded paints added color to the dormant and barren landscape. The twisting, branching pathways reinforced the idea that this was all natural growth.
Ashes to Ashes; Rust to Rust
Climbing to the top of a rocky hillside, I surveyed the area below and imagined what these machines must have been like when new. I pictured the excitement farmers must have felt bringing them home, their great expectations for years of service and all those hours of loud, dirty work in the bitter cold, soggy mud, and blazing sun. Back before almost every manufacturer had merged and acquired its way into becoming a global conglomerate, farmers around the country were fiercely loyal to their regional equipment builders. Now, manufacturers won’t even let farmers fix their own tractors.
The way farm equipment was marketed used to contain this jaunty, very American optimism. Their slogans and logos oozed character and pride. Machines had names like Super Hayliner, Cyclo Air, Uni-System, Bale King, and Whirl-a-Feed. Seeing these rusting nameplates and peeling stickers, I couldn’t help but feel like the optimism wasn’t what it once was. Today’s farmers work just as hard, but some of that old-fashioned charm is missing.
As I stood upon the hill, a giant snow squall swept across the valley. Suddenly, the clear sky gave way to a wall of white, and millions of hard tiny snowballs pelted me. My friend Alex and I took refuge under an old Gleaner combine, unaware of just how dangerous the storm had become. A thin layer soon coated the ground and the surrounding piles of metal. Perhaps I’d read too many books about anthropomorphic tractors as a kid, but in that moment I actually felt sorry for the equipment. The machines once built to tame Mother Nature were now slowly returning to her.
But as the sun came back, the snow quickly melted, and the ground began to thaw, I could smell the slightest hint of spring in the air. That familiar scent of cool, wet earth never gets old. Planting season was indeed on its way, and soon the fields would be green once more. Although these machines would never run again, the Frys would make sure that their much-needed parts can keep others humming along for years to come. There was still some life left in all this old iron.
Joe Ligo is a contributor at The Drive and a former producer for MotorWeek on PBS. He owns a 1972 AMC Ambassador and is currently working on a documentary about the history of American Motors Corporation.
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