Credit: Larry Hardie

A potato digger is pulled by a tractor, digs into the ground, and uses a chain system to lift potatoes out of the ground and shake off dirt and vines. To convert it into the above gravel reclaimer, Gilliam County (Ore.) Road Department Road Master Dewey Kennedy and Mechanic Larry Hardie removed its chains and installed a conveyor belt. They also added cleats to the belt to help convey the material up, and they added a vibrating screen to the back of the machine to screen large debris.

When summer heads into fall, Gilliam County activities are fairly typical of Oregon's rural communities: Wheat farmers prepare for harvest, fly fishers ready for spawning season, and the county's road crew works its one-of-a-kind “gravel reclaimer.”

“As far as I know, there aren't any other machines like it,” says Dewey Kennedy, a second-generation road master with the Gilliam County Road Department. “Before, every two to three years, blade men would pull ditches.” But with no way to remove large materials with graders, the debris fell back into the ditches during the process.

This meant oversized rocks, sticks, sagebrush, and even scrap metal from farms occupied the ditches, creating safety hazards. Because drivers consider roadside debris as obstacles to avoid, they'd move to the center of the road instead of keeping to one side.

Now, says Kennedy, his five-man crew produces clean, straight ditches that look professional and finished. And drivers keep to their lanes.

“My father was a road master here 35 years ago, and he always complained about the gravel roads and debris-filled ditches,” recalls Kennedy. “I've been thinking about how to fix this since I was a kid.”

So after working for the department for a couple of years, he teamed with childhood friend and department mechanic Larry Hardie to work on a solution. Hardie, who once worked on a potato farm, suggested a potato digger.

They bought a used potato digger for $2,000 in 1999 and began tinkering. Though run-down, the machine's frame, PTO drive, and hydraulic system were useable. It took at least five different tries and another $5,000 in parts before they got it to work.

Kennedy and Hardie removed the machine's chains and installed a conveyor belt, cleats for the belt, and a vibrating screen. The result is a machine that processes gravel that's picked up from ditches, places it back on the road for grading, and collects oversized rock and debris. The rock is kept to build shoulders and the debris is hauled away to the landfill.

It's a labor-intensive process requiring two graders, a crew member on a tractor pulling the reclaimer, a crew member on a front-end loader, and a dump truck and driver to haul debris. But, says Dewey, the results are worth the effort.

The department has reshaped and resurfaced half of the county's 350 miles of gravel roads. Plus, the machine enables the crew to reuse, on average, 2 to 3 inches of gravel, saving the county $5,000 to $10,000 per mile on new gravel.

“That's how much rock that has been thrown back into the ditches over the last 40 or 50 years,” says Kennedy. “That's quite a few cubic yards.”

Kennedy is happy with his machine. But don't bother breaking out a blue book to find one for your department; you won't find one at your dealer. Kennedy, however, is willing to give pointers on building one.