Diary of an Organic Farm Apprentice: Tractor & Machinery Maintenance

“Don’t hug me, I stink!” I warn my coworker as I warm up over a hot bowl of soup in the farm office. I never thought I’d go from smelling like pig poop to reeking of diesel and lithium grease. This winter I’ve been rolling around on my shop creeper getting up close and personal to all of the nuts and bolts of farm mechanics as a tractor and machinery maintenance apprentice at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. We’re half way through the off season and let me tell you, the winter is not long enough to grease all the fittings, change all the filters and sharpen the mower blades. Farm manager Julia Trunzo asks me about the ins and outs of my experience.

cristian cosentino Diary of an Organic Farm Apprentice

cristian cosentino Diary of an Organic Farm Apprentice

Julia: Please tell a little about how this tractor and machinery maintenance apprenticeship came to be.
I learned a lot about vegetables and livestock this year as a full season apprentice at Sylvester Manor. But I still lacked experience operating and maintaining tractors and machinery. It’s a part of farming education that is often overlooked in apprenticeships, since tractors are very dangerous and their work is usually reserved for more experienced farmers. Fox June (the machinery specialist at Sylvester Manor) is a valuable educational resource with years of farming experience. I wanted to learn as much from him as I could in a safe environment, within a practical farming context.

Julia: What is a typical day in the shop like?
We have a long list of long and short term projects for about 10 machines ranging from a 1945 John Deere Model 40 to a 1988 Ford 555 backhoe. Fox gives me daily lists of tasks ranging from taking apart engines, to researching parts and schematics, to detailing engines and replacing an ignition. I’m even learning how to weld. Usually new, pressing tasks arise once we have a machine apart and we have to switch gears (literally) to troubleshoot whatever new problem we discover. But I am learning every aspect of how to choose and safely use tools, operate machines and diagnose issues.

Julia: What surprises you most about this apprenticeship?
I am shocked by how much I am able to understand and accomplish. Fox doesn’t just fix everything while I shadow him. He actually gives me instructions, lets me make the repairs and explains when I hit road blocks. Mechanics is kind of like solving a murder mystery. You use deductive reasoning to trace steps back to the source. There’s a lot more creativity required than I’d imagined. And a lot more patient observation through listening and feeling to find an issue.

Julia: What do you enjoy most about this apprenticeship?
I feel connected to a new community within the ag world. This kind of practical knowledge requires sharing ideas and innovating together. Machinery is finicky and being able to fix and share it is crucial to resiliency and sustainability. Something as simple and zen as loosening bolts is actually really empowering. Especially as a woman.

You’d never think that it took a welder to grow the carrot you’re eating.

Julia: What is the connection between the work you do and growing vegetables?
You’d never think that it took a welder to grow the carrot you’re eating. But each vegetable is connected to the thousands of pounds of steel it took to open, turn, and maintain the land it was grown on. Properly maintained machinery is the key to running a sustainable farming enterprise. Kurt Ericksen (vegetable grower at Sylvester Manor) always says “In order for a business to be sustainable, it must be profitable.” Farmers can throw away thousands of dollars by abandoning broken tools. Taking care of your tools not only makes growing vegetables easier and more efficient, but it can also make or break a financially successful business.

Julia: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into farming?
If you want to farm, you need to go out there and do it. It’s a field of mentorship and learning by doing. Find a good mentor, ask questions you think might be stupid and try as many different kinds of farming as you can on different scales and models. Just jump in. I devoured farming books for years but until I stuck my hands in the soil, I really didn’t understand how it works.

Julia: What is next for you in the world of agriculture?
I am looking to experience larger scale production, say 15+ acres. I am curious about mechanical cultivation, crop planning and management and the dynamics of such a scale. I desperately need to learn about the business as well so working in a for-profit setting would be beneficial.