Educating Northeast New Farmers about Farm Equipment – Mechanization
Context: Developing an effective farm mechanization strategy is among the most important tasks faced by new farmers. A systematic approach can help avoid costly mistakes. The process must be shaped by choices regarding the new farm business (enterprise type, land [scale and capability], financing and market strategy) and by access to equipment-related skills and/or services within the farm family and in the local community (custom work, equipment repair, and dealerships). The process requires honest assessment of a new farmer’s mechanical skills and aptitudes, and evaluation of personal preferences (draft horses? antique tractors? hand tools?) that may, or may not, contribute to farming success.
There is currently no systematic program to guide new farmers through this process. To meet this service gap, the project is developing, evaluating and producing assessment tools, decision guides and practical skills training modules to help them develop effective mechanization strategies and prepare them to acquire, operate and maintain the equipment they need to succeed. Our process is peer guided, with numerous pilot trials and revisions of each component based on evaluation by participating new farmers – i.e., those who stand to benefit.
Key Project Components: (1) Self Assessment Tool w/ learning Action Plan; (2) Mechanization Decision Tool; (3) Classroom and Field-based Learning Activities (consultations & workshops); (4) Train-the-Trainer Sessions for farming and non-farming instructors.
(1) 350 new farmers inquire about Self Assessment Tool; 280 will complete and develop Action Plan.
(2) 224 who develop Action Plan will participate in a project learning activity (10 as apprentices; 85 in classroom sessions; 65 in field-based workshops; 65 in shop-based workshops); 174 will make a decision or demonstrate competency based on project learning opportunity(ies).
(3) 10 experienced farmers and 4 non-farming instructors, in five NE states, will gain skills in delivering project products; 10 will commit to future learning activities.
As of 6/30/05:
The first two milestones have been reached. Well over 800 new and developing farmers throughout the Northeast have received information about learning opportunities available through the project via NESFI email database emails and mailings (SFA –621, NEWOOF –87, LandLink (seekers) –155 and Library –(119)
NOTE: Although these milestones can be considered to have been achieved, NESFI does not consider this to be sufficient “due diligence” to gain hoped-for project impact. A request for project extension through fall of 2005, if granted, will permit concerted efforts to conduct more targeted outreach. Access to the GNF website and listserve, and development of a new a new “On-Farm Mentors” database will greatly facilitate expanded outreach initiatives.
Also, for the purposes of this report, milestones 1 and 2 have been combined. We feel that it is no longer useful to consider the project in terms of three “phases” and would prefer reporting in two categories – development and outreach.
Milestones 3 and 4 have been partially achieved. Milestone 3 was originally envisioned as measuring online activity. Instead, it has been achieved in workshop settings and through conference displays. Access to the GNF website and listserve, beginning in fall 2005, will enable us to revisit this interactive outreach initiative.
Milestone 4 has been partially achieved through two extended training intensives (2 individuals) conducted in 2004 and 2005, and workshops conducted at the 2004 NOFA Summer Conference (39 attendees), the 2005 NOFA Mass Winter Conference (7 attendees), and the spring 2005 Risk Management Conference held in Sturbridge (37 attendees). All workshops included piloting of the project-generated Self Assessment Tool and Learning Plan materials. NESFI staff and associates have also worked directly with individuals using these materials. Feedback encouraged re-packaging the two tools as one for workshops of short duration, to be advertised for aspiring farmers with little or no experience. More in-depth assessment/learning plan tools appear to be appropriate for and will be retained for use by learners with more experience who attend training “intensives,” whether training is offered to individuals or to small groups. Project extension, if granted, will enable re-packaging of these materials in more appropriate formats and further outreach.
Milestone 5 has not been reached. As noted in Annual Report #2, reconsideration of this milestone is appropriate. Even though competency achievement is an important project (and NESFI) goal, interest in testing for competency has been extremely low. This report suggested a shift in emphasis to documentation of management decisions as reflected in mechanization plans. On further consideration, continued work to promote the value of competency in apprenticeship settings may be appropriate through NEWOOF, NESFI’s apprenticeship matching service, and through work with a newly emerging On-Farm Mentor’s Network. Project extension, if granted, will permit assessment and possible implementation of this strategy.
Milestone 6 has been reached; miletone 7 has yet to be achieved. Project extension will permit further work in this area. A workshop on the DACUM approach to competency-based vocational learning and use of learning guides will be presented to the 100+ invitees to a First Annual On-Farm Mentor’s Network Meeting to be held in Kimberton, PA in December 2005. Invitees who are unable to attend the meeting will receive train-the-trainer informational packages with requests for response. Web-based support for instructors will be made available on the NESFI web-site. Farmers who have already received training in DACUM approaches will serve as “associates” and make themselves available for mentoring instructor trainees.
NOTE: For the purpose of this report, Milestones 6 and 7 have been combined.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
At the close of FY 2003, the project paused for reevaluation of its original goals and objectives. Concerns regarding the high cost of quality hands-on training events, the dearth of effective training settings, and the general lack of interest in documenting competency appeared to be barriers to project success.
These concerns are described in the informal report provided below. (See Appendices.) The project embarked on testing its training materials in a new learning setting that seemed to offer promise – the “training intensive.” A multi-day, one-on-one training approach, intensives offer targeted individual attention. Self-assessment and learning plan activities are immediately and effectively transformed into action — the provision of appropriate informational material, demonstration, extended supervised practice and an opportunity for competency testing if desired. It is clear that the intensive is an effective training tool.
Moreover, strategies that can make this learning option “pencil out” include opportunities for the learner to perform work-exchange tasks for the instructor. We believe the model deserves further attention; it is clear that the intensive is an effective training tool.
The project also focused on refining key project components already completed or near completion. The Mechanization Decision Tool was amended as a result of workshop feedback. A staff handbook on developing Learning Guides was created to provide consistency in product development.
Appendix: Informal Report/Memorandum to Project Participants, Spring 2004
TO:Equipment Project participants
RE:Equipment Training for New Farmer Constituencies
DATE:April 30, 2004
As promised, here is an overview and update of our experience developing and offering equipment-related and shop-based training for new farmers. The enclosed material is offered as backup—it should give you a sense of how our work plays out in real terms. As important, I think, is sharing what we have learned. That’s what this memo is all about.
You probably know that Arnie Voehringer, who is located here at NESFI, has been “mentoring” new farmers (both women and men of all ages) in equipment-related topics for years—in both formal and informal arrangements. He is an experienced farmer and mechanic, and spent some time training minority farmers in the south. Our interest in making what he and others can offer more effective and more widely available has shaped NESFI’s equipment-related program development strategies and workshops. Awareness that this issue needs serous attention is what prompted our NESARE proposal (“Educating Northeast New Farmers about Farm Equipment and Mechanization”). It’s a real challenge to come up with “the right stuff,” as you all know.
To begin with, NESFI has set itself some pretty stringent program development guidelines. We have garnered lists and lists of workshop/short course evaluations, and are committed to honoring them as best we can. Here’s what we have learned and try to do.
(1) Learners tell us, again and again, that they really want to learn from “those who are doing it.” This turns out to be a confidence issue (we’ve asked). So, we make sure that workshop leaders or team members are experienced “do-ers” as well as good teachers. (This is true for our business planning courses as well.) Arnie does most NESFI training in farming skills. He has a talent for making folks feel comfortable and confident. It would be difficult to replace him. (We all need to think about this issue, too.)
(2) Learners have high expectations that a workshop or other training event will meet their needs and interests in ways that are useful. (Pedagogy says this is a typical “adult learner” trait.) It’s easy to disappoint them. So, we try hard to match training with learner “needs”—through clear promotional material and/or through a more formal needs assessment process. We have a lot to learn about this. For example, in a fairly broad telephone survey we conducted before submitting our SARE equipment proposal, respondents told us they wanted offerings at “beginners, intermediate and expert levels.” Naturally, we promised this as a part of our grant. But we have discovered that we really misunderstood what they were telling us. What they really do want and need, it seems—and what really seems to work—are (1) sessions that give “just a taste” or overview of the skill (e.g., for aspiring or transitioning farmers, to help with decision-making about whether they need the skill), and (2) sessions for those who need and expect to gain solid competency—starting at whatever level: beginning, intermediate or advanced. Having a class that mixes these two audiences is like a one-room schoolhouse. It doesn’t work for us, and it has prompted us to do some pretty serious program re-design. This is one reason we are developing (and, now, re-developing) our assessment tool. (It turns out, by the way, that there is a huge audience for the “overview group.”) The survey also suggested several high-priority training topics. We respectfully responded—first, with a plowing workshop. Folks responded enthusiastically and we were over-registered. But it hadn’t occurred to many of them that experience driving a tractor should be considered a pre-requisite! And we had not required it. It was quite an event!
(3) Feedback suggests that folks are most comfortable in supervised practice if they have first had (a) a serious dose of information about the tool or equipment (including diagrams and a chance to look through one or more operator’s manuals), (b) plenty of time to examine it (or its parts), with lots of time for questions, and (c) a thoughtful demonstration, with commentary, by the instructor, in the shop or field. For some folks, it stops right there, and that has to be ok.
So, we make sure to hew to this three-step process. You will see this reflected in the workshop agendas and handouts I am sending. It also means that we try to offer the three training components in appropriate “learning settings.” Information (a mini-lecture, a resource display, written informational packets with review, Q&A, etc.) and in-class demonstration (e.g., a first look at/discussion of a carburetor or welding rod, with a chance to handle it) are offered in a classroom setting. Demonstrating the performance of a skill usually means that a course or workshop needs ready access to a shop or field, or both. (At NOFA workshops, for example, effective learning is often really compromised by site-based constraints.)
A critical “learning setting” issue is class size. Four (not six) turned out to be just right for our welding intensives, for two reasons—we had four welders, not six, and supervision for skills such as welding has to be intense. At our most recent plowing workshop, we worked with eight learners on four tractors, each of which was accompanied by an experienced local farmer/helper who (God forbid!) rode along or ran alongside during each practice run. Although we felt we had solved the supervision problem practice time was the issue. Folks really want to spend their time doing, not watching. In that workshop, learning would have been more effective with four.
Yet another “learning setting” issue is related to scheduling. One of our most frequent evaluation comments is “not enough time.” One solution has been to offer additional “supervised practice” sessions. Participants in our first full-weekend welding intensive elected to schedule a second weekend that focused entirely on perfecting their skill. It was fun, we were glad to accommodate, and they made great strides. We also piloted another approach this past winter—an eight-week “mini-apprenticeship” in tractor repair and maintenance. The learner, who brought his own tractor, spent three days/week working under supervision in Arnie’s shop. Focus was on both principles and practice. The apprentice was involved in troubleshooting and did almost all the work, with an expert immediately available if required. Talk about highly motivated, highly effective learning—this approach is expensive but it really worked. And the tractor and its engine were completely overhauled, including a fresh coat of paint! (Note – we had originally imagined there could be a swap of labor, but working on the tractor consumed almost all the apprentice’s time.)
(4) We have discovered that economic considerations, or the training/cost ratio, are a real challenge. First, as a part of our grant-funded work, we (mainly Arnie, along with a few others) have attended numerous regional workshop offerings, all followed by an informal SWAT analysis in-house (what about this offering was strong and worked well, what was weak?) I think its fair to say that covering costs can be a serious barrier to training effectiveness. Many offerings meet costs by requiring a certain number of committed registrants before they go forward, and when equipment-related or shop-based skills are involved, educational purpose (effective learning) is defeated if the group, of necessity, is too large. While we have discovered several potential training settings—farms, repair shops and farm shops that are owned by skilled and interested potential trainers—they rarely have sufficient equipment inventory and can’t provide (and couldn’t afford to acquire) “extras” such as adequate space or lighting—all things that an effective learning experience requires. Matching seasonal workload is also an issue. And, of course, they also have liability concerns.
We were asked to check out evening or weekend use of vo-ag school facilities as an affordable training site option. I have communicated with several and visited a few. To confirm what I had been hearing, I recently spent an evening with our local vo-ag machine shop advisory committee. They and the shop instructor gave me a tour of the shop (beautifully set up for training) and confirmed that their challenge was to outfit the shop with state-of-the-art equipment. They are training folks for the current job market, of course. There was nothing there that would be at home in a typical farm shop. In fact, when asked, all were nostalgic about the “good old days” when skill and craftsmanship—not a computer—controlled the welders, lathes, grinders and drills. Many of them had grown up on a farm.
We also considered encouraging informal local “skills training swaps” as an affordable option—a learner swapping labor for a local farmer or shop owner in exchange for supervised practice in a skill. Nice idea, but we have decided not to promote it. We received feedback on one attempt in which the “experienced” farmer set up a mig welder improperly. It could have been a disaster. It’s not only the liability issue that concerns us—trainers in any sponsored program must be skilled.
One last comment on affordable training. Our winter apprentice pointed out that, if he had brought his tractor to a regular repair shop, it would have cost him something. And it’s unlikely that the owner would have let him hang around to watch (shadow?) or participate. So, we think there is value embedded here that can be quantified, and we are trying to take a crack at it.
Along with work on our skills/interest/aptitude self-assessment and mechanization decision tools, this is what we’re focused on at the moment. We plan to pilot a new idea this summer—following a regular (NOFA) conference workshop presentation with 1 ½ days of on-farm training. This is a good way to capture an audience and may work well for the “overview” folks. In short, we plan to keep at this because we feel it’s truly important. I know we have a way to go before we can recommend and presume to train others in effective, safe and affordable skills training strategies for new farmers in ways that will truly result in competency.