NEW CASTLE, Pa. — It started with an ad on eBay.
Someone in Pymatuning, Pa., was getting rid of a rusted, broken-down 1937 Farmall F12 and at $535, Kenny and Brandon Ball thought it was a pretty good deal. The father-son team liked to restore antique tractors and they thought that parts from the F12 could be used on one of their current projects. It was 2001 when they bought the tractor and took it to their New Castle, Pa., home. Brandon was only 9 years old.
But things didn’t go as planned with the F12 — Brandon and Kenny ended up finding the parts they needed somewhere else and the old tractor spent the next seven years sitting under a tarp on the Balls’ property.
Then, early in 2008, something made Brandon take another look at it. At 16, he had several years of restoration experience and was looking for a challenge. He tightened, tapped and tugged at the F12’s engine for 20 minutes, trying to breathe life into the deserted relic.
And as it turned out, Brandon started a lot more than a tractor when the engine turned over.
What he began on that January day was a chain of events that would place him among the country’s most skilled and talented youth. Just 10 months after the F12 sputtered to life, Brandon’s diligent work earned him one of eight places at this year’s National FFA Convention tractor restoration contest in Indianapolis, Ind.
The Mohawk High School junior took an interest in the contest during his first trip to the national convention in 2007. As soon as he realized what the contest was about, he immediately wanted to enter.
So he went to work on the F12, documenting his efforts in a workbook designed for the FFA contest. He worked on it during weekends, after school and all through the summer.
“To me, restoration is tearing it down to nothing and rebuilding it,” Brandon said. “Almost every bolt was out of that tractor.”
More than 600 hours and $2,400 later, he submitted the workbook for official evaluation. Much to Brandon’s surprise, he was selected to compete at the national level.
He restored the tractor to the exact way it would’ve looked when it rolled off the assembly line in 1937, but the teen also added a creative touch to the project.
“I like them to be unique,” he said. “Usually, when you go to a tractor show, you see same thing and I like mine to be a little different.”
Brandon gave his F12 a dash of personality by adding a mounted one-bottom plow with a mechanical lift and an air cleaner extension. The tractor also has a single front wheel.
For the most part, the tractor is undeniably authentic.
“Everything on this tractor is original,” Brandon said.
In Indianapolis, Brandon gave a verbal presentation on the tractor’s restoration, showed a 10-minute video of his work and answered questions from the judges.
Unfortunately, he didn’t realize how big of an impact his workbook would have on the final score. Brandon had been more interested in the tractor than in recording every detail of the restoration, so, although the judges were impressed with Brandon’s overall result, they didn’t name him as the winner this year.
But that hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for the 2009 contest. In fact, the teen has already spent about 600 hours working on his next entry — a $200 junkyard find that could barely be classified as a tractor at first.
When Brandon found the 1932 Farmall F20 narrow tread, its front end had been cut off with a torch, the engine was stuck and the wheels were long gone.
“It was basically a carcass,” Brandon said.
But it met his two most important criteria — it would be a challenge to restore and it’s a unique machine. The tractor was the 766th of its kind off the assembly line, which makes it the earliest one still in existence, according to Brandon’s research.
While rare tractors, engine knowledge and a background in Farmall history certainly make the restoration process easier, those aren’t the only reasons for Brandon’s success. It’s actually much simpler than that: He sees treasure where others see trash.