The little tractor that could

The Agro-Util tractor, which has ties to South Haven, was the color yellow because the color was cheerful, and it was also Doris Jensen’s favorite color. Her husband, John “Jack” Jensen developed and sold the tractors from the 1960s to the 1990s in an attempt to help farmers in third world countries. The Jensens are shown sitting on one of the tractors.

SOUTH HAVEN — Sixty years ago, a man’s desire to help struggling farmers in third world countries resulted in the birth of a tractor that has ties to South Haven.

The late John “Jack” Jensen, a South Haven resident who traveled the world for his export business, developed the Agro-Util tractor – a rugged and durable machine that was designed for use on small farms in remote areas and intended for farmers of any mechanical skill level including those with no experience.

In celebration of South Haven’s 150th anniversary, there will be a special exhibit on the Agro-Util during the Antique Engine & Tractor Show at the Michigan Flywheelers Museum. The show runs Thursday through Sunday.

“Agro-Util was born out of dad’s world travels in the export business, where he witnessed the struggles of Third World farming,” explained daughter Susan Butler of South Haven. “Poor subsistence farming relied on manual hand implements and farm animals to produce barely enough food to support a family. Mom and Dad’s education in global food insecurity was often informed by missionaries and government agencies like AID (Agency for International Development) and the Peace Corps. The thinking was if rural communities in underdeveloped countries could form collectives that could support each other, they could pool resources, land and energy, and produce cash crops that they could take to market. Sharing modern farm implements, like a small compact farm tractor, was at the center of this thinking.”

Born in Chicago in 1910, Jensen moved to South Haven and graduated from L.C. Mohr High School in 1927. After earning a Ph.D from the University of Chicago, he launched a career in advertising and marketing. In 1940, he married Doris Sanford and together they embarked on a 64-year journey that took them around the world. Before forming his own export business, he acted as account executive and vice president of advertising agencies in the United States and overseas. He also served as director of radio distribution for the U.S. Government’s wartime information agency in Latin America and later did editorial and project work for the international editions of Reader’s Digest while living in South America.

Jensen was at one time the export manager for Wheelhorse garden tractors. Even though it was considered a smaller tractor, Jensen felt the Wheelhorse was not suited for use in the overseas’ rough terrain. He saw the need for one that was powerful, easy to handle and low cost to operate.

“Up to that time in the ‘60s, most agricultural tractors were big and complicated,” Butler said. “By designing a low-cost tractor that was belt driven, with a bulletproof pull-start engine, a repair could be done in the field. The Agro-Util had been just such a tractor that was used in 47 countries and contributed to dad’s dream of ‘feeding the world’.”

The 17-horsepower tractor was powerful enough for most chores associated with fruit and vegetable farming, said Jensen in a 1981 Herald-Palladium article written by Ed Zdrojewski, farm writer. After marketing the machine overseas for 17 years, his South Haven firm was set to introduce the Agro-Util to the U.S. market.

Produced in two models – a diesel version that cost $4,477 in 1981 and a gasoline model priced at $4,125, the Agro-Util featured an engine made in Italy and serviced in the United States by Wisconsin Motors of Milwaukee. The tractor itself, according to the HP article, was manufactured under contract with Kalamazoo International, which Jensen owned.

“After the war, I started an export management business (Kalamazoo International),” explained Jensen in the article. “We looked around for a tractor that could fill the need, and we couldn’t find one so we designed our own.”

Production of the tractor ended around 1992.

Jensen’s son Sanford, who lives in Ojai, Calif., has fond memories of his father and the Agro-Util. He remembered an unexpected use of the tractor when he accompanied his dad on a business trip to Central America.

“It was ‘market day’ in a small Guatemalan village and people were all over the road, walking, carrying items like produce and turkeys, etc. on their backs and heads. As we glanced down the road, there was the Agro-Util with a ‘pyramid of people’ on the seat, the hood and standing on the hitch while pulling a wagon piled high with children. The tractor chugged right along, never missing a beat.”

Jensen passed away in 2004 but his legacy of caring about the welfare of others lives on through the tractor and his family.

“In these uncertain, hate-filled times I miss the altruism and kindness of my father who dedicated a large part of his life in helping others whether here in his community or forging strong friendships abroad,” said Butler. “The Agro-Util tractor was one facet of that philosophy. The world needs more people like him.”