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Sonoma County startup Solectrac builds electric tractors for vineyard managers, hobbyists

Steve Heckeroth is a natural for running a novel electric tractor business — which is believed to have environmentally created a line in the “soil” to get generations of farmers to know the dirt on noisy, unhealthy diesel engines.

The 72-year-old businessman, who moved his Solectrac operation from Mendocino County to Santa Rosa near the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport a few weeks ago, has dedicated his life to finding alternatives to burning fossil fuels.

Through the years, he has dug deep into his imagination and will to reduce humankind’s carbon footprint by coming up with farm equipment that’s designed to heal the Earth and help the land’s stewards — known in industry circles as the ultimate environmentalists — operate more efficiently and with their own health in mind.

Heckeroth grew up near farms along the Rio Hondo, its namesake river. He later ended up in another rural area of Mendocino Coast where he started the tractor operation’s design and production in a 2,000-square-foot facility.

“We were off the grid,” he said fondly of the Albion homestead.

Through the years, the engineer with a degree in architecture has pioneered renewable energy products such as solar panels as early as the first Earth Day in 1970. Fast forward by a half century, Heckeroth talks about clean energy like every day is Earth Day, an eco-conscious acknowledgement for the planet that hits every April.

Marketed as having no blaring noise, suffocating fumes and mechanical challenges, Heckeroth’s Solectrac electric tractors have started to energize farmers and ranchers trying to reduce their carbon footprint and refrain from spending many hours tinkering on their engines. Many farmers are known to keep their motors running for long periods of time in order to ensure they won’t break down. After all, electric tractors come with essentially one moving part versus hundreds.

“Electric tractors eliminate that sickening exhaust and the noise that can ruin your hearing,” Heckeroth said. “The safety and health features are huge with them.”

According to a 2018 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, the agriculture sector accounts for 9.9% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

“Think about what agriculture could be without diesel engines. Electric tractors could become carbon sequesters,” he said.

Meanwhile, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies diesel engine exhaust as “carcinogenic to humans.” The arm of the World Health Organization notes it has found evidence linking the exhaust to lung cancer.

Touting their efficiency and health benefits, Steve and his wife, Christiane, have sold 36 Solectrac electric tractors, with a few dozen, valued altogether at about $1 million, going on backorder this past year, when parts were delayed as freight shipments coming from India. Dockworkers in Oakland also went on strike, creating more distribution headaches.

But that didn’t stop the Heckeroths, their dozen employees and six contractors from chugging along.

“This is business during COVID,” Heckeroth said, attempting to shrug off being behind by seven months in production at the new 10,000-square foot assembly plant.

Heckeroth has positioned himself as being in the industry for the long haul. From about $900,000 in seed money due to an eight-month “Crowdfunding” online campaign that started last May among other investments, Solectrac has gained about that in sales since Solectrac incorporated in May 2019.

Springing off the growing popularity of electric cars, the time has apparently come for zero emissions business equipment for farmers and ranchers. After all, Heckeroth delved into zero emissions engines early on in the 1990s before electric vehicles became fashionable. He once used Porsche Spyder replica kits to build electric sports cars that could cover a range of 100 miles.

Heckeroth has come a long way with Solectrac expected to make a huge dent in the American farming market. Between his ingenuity and inventive spirit along with his creations, Solectrac’s accolades could cover a wall-size mantel.

In June 2020, Solectrac was awarded a $500,000 grant from the Bay Area Quality Management District. In the following month, the World Alliance Solar Impulse Efficient Solutions placed its coveted label on Solectrac electric tractors.

Today, Heckeroth has worked-on designs for four models of electric tractors, ranging in horsepower from 25 to 70. Solectrac is selling two models. One is the “CET,” which stands for compact electric tractor, and at 2,300 pounds is designed for the hobbyist farmer or municipal landscaper.

Then, there’s the e-utility tractor weighing 4,400 pounds, is assembled in the Santa Rosa facility and is intended for larger operations. The price tags vary from $24,800 to $45,000, respectively. At 6,600 pounds, the e-70 — referring to horsepower — is being built for use in vineyard and orchards. This model is not being sold yet.

As of a few weeks ago, Solectrac started accepting a $1,000 deposit to order one, opposed to requiring half deposit on order.

The tractors are equipped with lights, turn signals and common features like most diesel rigs. But where they differ greatly is how they run. Lithium iron phosphate batteries power the electric models for up to eight hours on a standard three-hour-plus charge. They even serve the added benefit of anchoring the tractor with weight to increase traction.

Benefits of Solectrac tractors 2021.pdf

Using is believing

Jennifer Azevedo is sold on the technology and equipment for her Lavender Fields Equestrian Center and Farm in Granite Bay.

She bought a CET tractor from Solectrac last May and said she couldn’t be happier.

“I went online and looked for a diesel alternative. With my horses, the noise (of diesel engines) can be bothersome,” she said.

Azevedo, who studied horticulture at U.C. Davis, has worked to make her farm a green facility by using composts, solar, cisterns, cover crops and an electric tractor to run operations.

“Electricity is a fairly new technology. There’s a mixed reaction (from other farmers) who still believe that electric cars and electric tractors don’t work — which is patently false,” she told the Business Journal.

Azevedo is sold on about every aspect of utilizing her electric tractor on the farm, especially when it comes to the connection between the battery life and balancing her life of work and leisure.

“The battery lasts as long as I want to be out there,” she said, pointing out its length of operation presents a blessing to getting out of the tractor seat.

But the biggest benefit to Azevedo goes way beyond her own farm.

“There was a time when people said dry farming was crazy, solar was crazy and electric vehicles were crazy. But it’s time to bring history together and not forget our responsibility to the planet,” she said.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, agriculture, energy and transportation as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times in San Diego County, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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