Educating Northeast New Farmers about Farm Equipment - Mechanization

Final Report for LNE02-157

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2002: $119,491.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $31,200.00
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Judith Fuller
New England Small Farm Institute
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Project Information


“Educating Northeast New Farmers about Farm Equipment and Mechanization” addresses two of the most challenging tasks faced by our region’s new farmers: how to develop an effective and affordable mechanization strategy for a new farming operation, and how to go about gaining needed skills in equipment operation, maintenance and repair. While a systematic approach can help avoid costly errors, it must be shaped by choices regarding the new farm’s business (enterprise choice, scale, natural resource base, marketing strategies and financial constraints) as well as by an honest assessment of the new farmer’s existing skills, aptitudes and a variety of personal preferences that may or may not contribute to farming success.

There is currently no effective program to guide new farmers through this start-up process. In an effort to bridge this service gap, the Project has developed and piloted both a mechanization self-assessment/decision tool and a series of four learning guides. All are suited for self-study as well as for use in conference workshops, mentored training intensives and season-long apprenticeships on working farms. All are designed to help new farmers make wise choices and safely operate and properly maintain the farm equipment on which their success may depend.


Many, perhaps most, new farmers, find the task of farm mechanization rather daunting. They're in unfamiliar territory and have few opportunities to learn, first hand, what equipment choices will best suit their new farms, and fewer still to identify and perfect the practical skills they need to acquire. Poorly informed equipment choices can be costly; unskilled equipment operation puts new farmers at serious physical risk. As farms disappear from our landscape, traditional means of gaining equipment-related knowledge and skills disappear with them. New approaches - new learning tools and new learning settings - are needed if a new and inexperienced farming generation is to succeed.

A review of current literature affirms the need for new approaches. Existing vo-ag curricula, for example, are often best suited for use in a formal trade school environment or to accommodate the academic calendar. They fail to meet the needs of adult learners, young or old, who will likely have college, work and/or family responsibilities competing for their time. Moreover, while there is an abundance of information on farm mechanization strategy and equipment operation/maintenance, most is designed to meet the needs of farms that are either outside the Northeast or that are much larger in scale than those most new farmers propose.

The project respects the unique needs of these new learners and has chosen to build on the creative DACUM/learning guide training approach developed by educators at TOSU's Center on Education for Training and Employment. The goal is to create and pilot learning tools that can successfully impart equipment-related knowledge and skills that new farmers have identified as important, and that can be effective in a wide variety of settings, from self-study to two-hour conference workshops, to two-week training "intensives," to season-long on-farm apprenticeships. Perhaps most importantly, the project's approach to training honors new farmers' oft-stated wish to learn from those who are doing it. It engages experienced farmers as teachers and mentors, and supports them with opportunities to develop their own on-farm learning settings and teaching/mentoring skills.

Performance Target:

The project identified three perfomance targets. Of these, only one was successfully achieved.

1. "Of 350 new farmers who inquire about the project's equipment-relatd self-assessment tool, 280 will complete the assessment and create an action plan for meeting specific learning needs."

Meeting this performance target proved to be unworkable early in the project. Use of the assessment tool/action plan in workshop settings was far too time-consuming and it soon lost its value as a verification tool. Participants were quite impatient with the process and eager to move on to instruction in practical skills. Distribution as a handout elicited only a few returns, either at conference display tables or by mail. As the project moved forward, however, it did reach well over the targeted 350 farmers through a variety of outreach methods. While this is an important achievement, the project's failure to document these connections reflects a significant flaw in project design.

2. "Of the 280 farmers who complete an action plan, 224 will participate in learning activities sponsored by the project--10 as apprentices, 84 in classroom settings, 65 in field-based intensives, and 65 in shop-based intensives. 174 will demonstrate competency in specific equipment-related tasks identified in their action plans or make specific management decisions related to equipment and farm mechanization based on knowledge gained through the project."

As noted, the project set aside expectations that its self-assessment/action planning tool was useful in workshop settings. It proved much more useful in training intensives requiring pre-registration, but the number of such events sponsored the project was small. Several participants reported that they found it valuable as a self-evaluation tool. Nevertheless, at least 224 aspiring or early-stage farmers did participate in learning activities, which ranged from two-hour classroom workshops to a two-month tractor repair intensive. In this limited sense, this performance target was achieved.

It is important, here, to add a comment about competency. It is a term that too often is casually used. An important project learning is that becoming proficient in most practical farming skills requires an abundance of time as well as capable instruction, opportunities for supervised practice and, eventually, a chance to demonstrate that competency has been attained. Unless the targeted skill is extremely narrow in focus (a workshop on "Demystifying the Carburetor" is a good example), true competency is difficult if not impossible to achieve in a two-hour training. Offering learning options of longer duration, such as weekend training intensives or longer term apprenticeships, is crucial. Of nine participants in a training intensive on welding, for example, four were able to achieve a high degree of competency.

3. "At least ten experienced farmers (on-farm mentors and other farmer-instructors) and four non-farming instructors in five Northeast states will gain sufficient skills to successfully impart specific technical skills and knowledge to participating and future new farmer learners and commit to paticipating in future (at least three more years) learning activities about farm mechanization and equipment."

The project went well beyond expectations in achieving this performance target. As it evolved, staff worked with an emerging network of Northeast on-farm mentors--farmers who regularly host trainees on their farms--to improve both their teaching skills and their on-farm learning settings. To date, over fifty mentors in ten Northeast states (along with one from Canada) have attended training in these two important areas, and a core group of at least ten is committed to continuing this work.


Materials and methods:

As noted, project design was heavily influenced by the work of TOSU's Center on Education for Training and Employment (CETE). Its work promotes self-directd, competency-based education for adult learners who need to gain practical, employable skills. Emphasis is on linking knowing (information) with doing (performance). Teaching methodology relies heavily on DACUM occupational profiles (note: the project builds on previously developed profiles for "Northeast Small-Scale 'Sustainable' Farmer" and "On-Farm Mentor") and topic-specific learning guides--described by CETE as "road maps that show students how to get from where they are to where they want to be.... [A learning guide] tells students about sources of information and where to find them, and describes how studenets can practice the skills they are trying to learn.... Students can move ahead on their own; instructors can spend less time in routine group teaching and more time working with individuals or small groups. A learning guide provides the structure on which the learning process proceeds."

The project selected CETE's learning guide approach--linking "know" with "do"--as an efficient way to impart important information to new farmers early in the learning process, enabling student and instructor to focus valuable time together on developing and practicing skills. The project's self-assessment tool supports this approach by encouraging learners to identify and concentrate on gaining skills they need (not merely want) to acquire.

As the project progressed, it became clear that learning guides are most useful in training intensives or apprenticeship settings--learning environments that provide time for thoughtful review of basic information well ahead of the need to start practicing technical skills. This also enables learners to become aware of prerequisite skills that they may be missing, and to acquire them. When promoting a walk-in conference workshop on plowing, for example, the project failed to properly communicate that tractor experience was an important prerequisite to learning and practicing plowing skills. As a result, several paticipants came poorly prepared to take advantage of an excellent learning opportunity. An important project learning is that new farmers are well-served by structured learning settings that provide time and opportunity to build skills in a systematic manner. Learning guides support this. In the hands of a skillful presenter, they can also serve as the foundation for successful conference workshops. They are truly flexible learning tools.

Pre-project surveys identified the following topics as high-priority learning needs for new farmers: tractor repair and maintenance; equipping the farm shop; selecting and using shop tools; using, maintaining and adjusting equipment for making hay, tilling, planting, harvesting, and fertilizing; and choosing and acquiring power equipment and implements for your new farm. The project planned to meet these needs through workshops, training intensives and guided self-study (including within apprenticeships), using the learning guide approach described above. As noted, pairing a learning guide with the self-assessment/action planning tool helps learners focus on acquiring the skills they need to succeed on their farms.

Research results and discussion:

The self-assessment tool, created early in the project by an experienced farmer-instructor, was first piloted as a part of a regional conference workshop. Feedback was immediate. It strongly suggested that the self-assessment process was far too time-comsuming for use within the limited workshop timeframe. Participants were eager to proceed with the practical skills workshop component( in this case, the topic was "Demystifying the Carburetor.")

The project took this advice to heart and proceeded as follows:

1. The self-assessment tool, including a form for feedback, was produced and circulated as a stand-alone document. It was distributed at several conferences and on-farm mentor gatherings, with the expectation that it could be used independently as a self-evaluation tool. Over 300 handouts were distributed, but feedback via mail or at conference displays was extremely limited. A revised version of the tool will be made available on line at a future date.

2. Requested learning guides were developed and piloted in several settings. As noted, they proved most effective when made available in advance of a training event. As the project progressed, revisions to the original CETE template were recommended. Each guide now includes brief self-assessment and farm-assessment sections, designed to focus practice on skills of high importance. Using this new format, the project has produced revised guides on Farm Shop Welding, Using and Maintaining Equipment: Making Hay, Tilling, Planting, Harvesting and Fertilizing; and Equipping Your Farm Shop. These guides are expected to undergo repeated updating as experience in their use accumulates. Seen as living documents, they are produced as needed for training purposes and will be made available online for use by both learners and mentor-instructors. An unanticipated interest in a "Guide on Creating Learning Guides" has emerged, resulting in a new document that mentors and instructors can use to create their own materials. This document will also be made available on line.

3. Finally, to meet emeging interest, the project produced and piloted two introductory workshops designed for conference settings - one for farmer-mentors ("Starting Trainees on Equipment: Safe and Efficient Farm Equipment Training") and the other a two-day event, for trainees ("Under the Hood: Training for Small and Mid-sized Tractors and their Implements"). It is expected that demand for these popular workshops, developed by project team member Shane LaBrake (Ecosystem Farm, Accokeek, MD) will continue to grow.


As reported above, the project required a number of course corrections as it moved forward. As project structure shifted, the original milestones became less useful as management tools for measuring progress, and verification became more difficult. For example, the plan to focus on targeted states (milestones 1 and 2) quickly became hard to manage as successful outreach at regional conferences elicited interest from instructors in non-target states. The failure of the project's proposed self-assessment tool feedback loop made verification (milestones 1-5) virtually impossible. This is the project's most serious faillure. Its greatest successes were achieved at milestones 6 ("4 instructors receive training in the CETE approach to competency-based learning") and 7 ("4 on-farm mentors and 6 others acquire skills in faccilitating competency-based learning, for a total of 14"). Farmers who host trainings on their farms have demonstrated a keen interest in perfecting their teaching skills. (See performance target 3, above.) Their interest in taking the heart of the project forward assures that it will continue to influence the quality of on-farm training opportunities in the Northeast.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

Project-sponsored workshops were offered at both regional and state-level farm conferences and at on-farm mentor gatherings. Those taught by Arnie Voehringer (White Oak Farm, Belchertown, MA) included "Trouble-Shooting Your Tactor," "Demystifying the Carburetor," "Setting Up Your Farm Shop," "Selecting and Using Shop Tools," "Shop Talk: Spring Maintenance," "Shop Talk: Fall Maintenance," "Understnding Farm Tractor Engines," "Farm Tractor Tune-up and Maintenance," and "On Plows and Plowing." Farm safety information provided by NYCAMH was distributed at all workshops. Feedback affirmed that these trainings were well received. In fact, they they often led to ongoing mentoring. As noted, Shane LaBrake (Ecosystem Farm, Accokeek, MD) presented workshops on tractor maintenance ("Under the Hood: Training for Small and Mid-sized Tractors and Their Implements") to both mixed and women's audiences as well as a workshop for on-farm mentors("Starting Trainees on Equipment: Safe and Efficient Farm Equipment Training"). Miranda Smith, project learning guide editor and author of "The On-Farm Mentor's Guide: Practical Approaches to Teaching on the Farm," offered two workshops for mentors on "Teaching What You Know;" Kate Hayes, author of "Cultivating a New Crop of Farmers: Is On-Farm Mentoring Right for You and Your Farm?" presented two sessiions for mentors on assessing the personal and business impacts of on-farm mentoring. Two training intensives on "Farm Shop Welding" were offered by Arnie Voehringer at his White Oak Farm Shop. Each met for two full weekend sessions and was limited to four participants. Extended training opportunities, also offered by Arnie, included three bring-your-own-tractor sessions held in his shop: two for individual farmers (one extending over two months and one for one week) and one for a team of four trainees from a single farm. All sessions began with guided troubleshooting sessions and proceeded with maintenance tasks and repairs as warrented. The project's five publications include the Farm Mechanization Self-Assessment/Decision Tool and four learning guides, as described. An article in "The Natural Farmer," by Judith Gillan, described project achievements and challenges.

No milestones

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

As originally proposed, the project envisioned that its most significant impacts would be achieved through its work with new farmers - its target audience. New farmer groups surveyed during the project's pre-proposal stage had affirmed a strong interest in learning from those who are doing it, and the project was designed to nurture this important link. However, project feedback suggests a more inclusive outcome. Indeed, the project's most noteworthy achievement may be its success in engaging the interest of experienced farmers who host trainees on their farms. Their growing interest in perfecting their teaching skils and improving their learning settings suggests that they will take the lead in pfurthering the project's original goals.

Farmer Adoption

Equipment-focused workshops are always popular at conferences and were will attended, but reliable follow-up on adoption of lessons learned was not achieved. Personal contactd do confirm that the project's more intensive trainings have been extremely successful in fostering development of practical skills. However, it is likely that the project's most significant, ongoing impact will come through the efforts of experienced farmers who offer on-farm training opportunities. They are eager for materials and training that can improve their ability to teach equipment-related skills successfully. They are readily adopting practices that make this possible.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

1. Effectively matching equipment-related topics with suitable teaching settings is a serious challenge. Traditional conference workshops held in a classroom or campus parking lot are limited both in scope and in time. If participant numbers are not appropriately limited, student-teacher ratios can constain effective training, with resulting frustration and disappointment for both parties. On-farm workshop settings often present similar challenges. Not designed for training purposes, farm settings are often crowded, ill-lighted or insufficiently equipped for meaningful learning activities. Careful selection of topics that can be successfully presented in these readily available settings is required.

On the other hand, Shane LaBrake is achieving remarkable success with carefully planned pre-conference one- and two-day tractor maintenance trainings. These feature tractors and implements of several sizes and are held indoors in warehouse-like spaces. Arnie Voehringer's one-on-one tractor repair intensives offer another example of a successful topic-teaching setting match. However, unless a topic is very narrowly focused or involves a very small, portable equipment component (carburetors, for example) or tool collection, the ideal match may be best achieved with an extended training event taught by a skillful farmer-instructor and convened on a properly equipped working farm.

2. The project has also identified what it perceives as an urgent need to study liability issues associated with on-farm training, particularly in the areas of farm equipment operation and the performance of farm shop tasks. If experienced farmers are to be encouraged to assume new roles as instructor/mentors, it is crucial that they have ready access to appropriate and affordable insurance policies.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.