MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich.—They're kind of like the Energizer bunnies of the tire industry: Farm tires just seem to keep going and going and going. . . . From time to time, a photo will turn up of some farmer astride his 1940s-vintage John Deere that still sports its original equipment farm tires. But they do wear out—just not as quickly as their truck or passenger tire cousins.
A farm tire's lifespan, however, is calculated in hours of service or seasons, rather than miles.
So when they've reached the end of their furrow, so to speak, the farmer is faced with a rather expensive decision. The cost of a new replacement bias rear tire can range from $300 to $1,000, a new radial somewhere between $400 and $1,600.
There is a half-as-costly, though not as readily available, alternative: retreaded farm tires. But that's a field (pardon the pun) that hasn't been plowed much by retreaders. And apparently for good reason.
Ask John Olson, 61, president of Olson Tire Service Inc., a one-outlet retail/commercial dealership in Mount Pleasant, Mich. He's been retreading those big boys since 1981, and readily admits it's been a tough row to hoe.
``It takes a lot of effort and work,'' he said. ``They're big, heavy tires—just a lot of work.''
Asked who his competition is, Mr. Olson had to ponder long and hard before conceding: ``I can't think of any.'' He's unsure of how many—if any—other shops in his operating area, covering 13 states, do farm tire retreading.
Marvin Bozarth, executive director of the Louisville, Ky.-based International Tire & Rubber Association (ITRA), acknowledged as much. He recalled doing some farm tire retreading back in 1958, when he ran a recapping shop. But he said he was hindered by the unavailability of decent casings. Most were literally rotten and weather-checked.
Today, the situation hasn't changed all that much. Obtaining good casings still is a big obstacle.
While farm tire retreading is much more commonplace in Europe, Mr. Bozarth said, few shops in the U.S. do it. He knows of a guy in Iowa who puts a tractor design on irrigation tires, and a few others are doing relugging, as well as retreading terra tires of the flotation and skid steer type.
But it's always been a very small and not highly profitable market, Mr. Bozarth said.
``The cost of the equipment is just horrendous,'' explained Mr. Olson, who is an ITRA board member. ``Everything you buy is special—custom-made for that job.
``I got into it slowly. Bought one mold, then another and another. If I didn't have sons coming up in the business, I guess I wouldn't have gone into it as much as I have.''
Tim Olson, 33, and his brother Pat, 35, are involved in the day-to-day operation of Olson Tire, which handles Firestone, Michelin and Hankook truck and passenger tires, and primarily Firestone farm tires.
In business almost 40 years, the dealership operates a six-bay retail store, eight service trucks and separate farm- and medium-truck-tire retreading plants in Mount Pleasant, a farming community 70 miles north of Michigan's capital, Lansing.
John Olson said his farm tire retreading ``has not been without a lot of problems, simply because there's nobody to tell you what to do. And if they did know, they wouldn't tell you. So you've got to figure it all out for yourself.''
Initial problems included tread separation ``until we built a big drying room. That solved that.'' Then it was getting equipment to work properly.
He also discovered early on that he had to get into the trucking business. Unable to rely on for-hire freight trucks to pick up worn-out casings and deliver finished product, he had to buy a tractor/trailer. ``That was an expense we didn't calculate into startup costs.''
Even after retreading farm tires for almost 16 years, he still says: ``I think it's going to be successful.''
The company's retreading business covers the Midwest. ``We go as far west as North Dakota and as far east as Pennsylvania,'' said Tim Olson, adding that the company's entry into farm tire retreading was ``always a dream'' of his dad, who started out in the agricultural tire business.
Using a mold-cure process, Olson Tire retreads rear farm tires—from sizes 30.5x32 down to 16.9x38—as well as the smaller front-wheel-assist tires on some tractors.
``We mill our own rubber and have molds specially built for us,'' he said. ``We can do 19 different sizes of farm tires.'' Rubber usage per tire can range from 150 to 400 pounds depending on size.
The company has built up a dealer network throughout the 13 states it services. ``We look for hands-on dealers who want to service the farmer,'' he said.
Come late fall after the harvest, the company begins picking up worn casings from farmers and its dealers. Then the retreading begins in earnest, with the plant running 24 hours a day through the winter months until April.
Over the last six years the company has purchased all-new segmented molds to accommodate the growing prevalence of radial farm tires, and is equipped to retread both bias and radial.
But it is a limited business, partly because some farm tires tend to last so long.
``Not only that,'' Tim Olson continued, ``but there's only a certain amount of the tires out there. That's why we've got to travel such a big area. I couldn't do enough of the business just here in Michigan to keep the molds hot. So we have to travel all over to accumulate enough.''
Still, John Olson said, ``we have a great product. But anytime you've got something new, everybody's hesitant. So it's taken a lot of work to build the market.
``We'll get a few farmers in an area to try our product, then their neighbors will all watch them to see the results. That's a three- to four-year process before they'll try it out.
``Farmers are very leery of anything new.''
A tire's life depends on how the farmer uses it. Driving on pavement to get to a field, for example, will reduce it. When a farm tire reaches about 50 percent of its original tread, it begins slipping.
``Some farmers will get three years out of a farm tire; others, 10 years,'' the senior Olson said.
At any rate, the cost of a retreaded farm tire is about half that of a new tire. ``And they wear longer,'' he said. ``It's a great value.''
Paying his father perhaps the supreme compliment, Tim Olson called him a ``great innovator'' who designed a lot of the equipment in the company's retread shops—often to solve a nagging problem.
Take for instance the envelope expander found today in most every precure retread shop. John Olson invented it in 1987 after employees complained about how tough it was to put a curing envelope on a tire.
``I got to fooling around and finally came up with a design,'' he explained.
``Basically, we built it for ourselves, then took it to the retreaders' trade show in Louisville, Ky., and stole the show two years in a row. Our booth was jammed. . . . I guess I didn't realize what I had.''