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Turlock FFA members refurbish iconic tractor
Turlock FFA tractor
Turlock High's Justin Avila, Tony Gonzalez, Isaias Hernandez, Nick Salcedo and Kamron Young worked alongside welding teacher Derek Soares to successfully refurbish a rare 1938 John Deere DI tractor (Photo courtesy of TUSD).

Members of the Turlock FFA are receiving statewide recognition after refurbishing one of the most iconic and rare tractors in American history.

Students Justin Avila, Tony Gonzalez, Isaias Hernandez, Nick Salcedo and Kamron Young worked alongside Turlock High FFA welding teacher Derek Soares to successfully refurbish a 1938 John Deere DI tractor. The tractor, which has all of its original parts, received first place honors at both the Stanislaus County Fair and the California State Fair this year.

The ’38 John Deere DI is considered a hot commodity for a number of reasons. Soares explained that there were only 100 John Deere D model tractors made that year, and of the 100, only 10 were painted industrial yellow, hence the “I” in DI. Furthermore, Soares believes that there are only a few still in existence considering the fact that many tractors and their materials were taken and used during World War II.

“The fact that this thing still even existed with most of its parts is unbelievable, even though it was in pretty rough condition,” Soares said. “I think I’ve only seen one about two others on the internet.”

Soares and his students have Turlock’s Steven Kephart to thank for keeping the tractor alive. Kephart’s grandfather was the one who originally bought the tractor and put it to use on his farm. Years later, Kephart’s father inherited the machine with an intent to have it compete in tractor pulls. Prior to having it compete, he decided to paint the tractor green so that it would be more identifiable amongst audiences.

“I don’t think he knew just how special the tractor was when he painted it,” Soares said. “He didn’t think anything of it, and at the time, neither did anybody else.”

When Soares and his students were looking for a fair project to work on this past March, Kephart stepped up and offered the family tractor.

“At first when we took a look at the tractor on their property, we thought it was just a regular Model D. It wasn’t until we started getting up close and taking things apart that we noticed the yellow paint underneath. That’s when we knew we had something special on our hands,” Soares said.

It took a while for many of the students to fully grasp the magnitude of their project as well. But the more they worked on it and the more they researched on their own time, they quickly realized the just how unique of a project they had on their hands.

“When (Soares) came to us with the tractor, we were all pretty excited to work on an older model,” said Kamron Young. “We thought it would be a fun, pretty quick and simple project, but then we realized how big of a task it was.”

The project required the boys to sacrifice extensive amounts of time. During the school year, the group used every second of their 45-minute class time to work on the tractor. Once the school year ended, Soares opened the shop for hours every day so that the boys could go in and try to get the tractor done before the fair came around.

“We just needed to finish it no matter what,” Young said. “We were in there all the time, each pitching in on different parts so that we could have it ready. If one person wasn’t there, we always had another person to take their spot. We always had at least three people working at one time.”

Soares praised the students for the extensive work they were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time, especially considering that they lost opportunities to gain hands on welding and mechanical experience due to COVID-19 keeping them off campus for two years.

“Being away from school, I knew the kids would be excited to start a project. The fact that they were so committed to the DI and for how great it came out, they should be proud,” Soares said.

After showing the iconic tractor at this week’s Stanislaus County Fair and winning both county and state first-place honors, the group is already looking forward to next year as four of the five students will be returning to THS for their senior year.

“We’ve already got some special tractors coming in that we plan on working on for next year,” Soares said. “After this one, the students are excited to get back after it in the shop.”