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Dr. Steve Jones, when he was here talking to us about small scale grain growing, suggested looking around for old threshers, balers, tractors and other medium tech equipment. He also suggested that if we find something, try to buy more than one, because the parts are hard to find. The equipment is itself hard to find. The high price of scrap steel has led to collecting up the old machines from the early 20th Century and shipping them to China to be melted down. Once you beat the scrap dealer to some agricultural equipment, it has to be maintained. Everything about farm equipment takes a beating. It is operated in mud, dust, rain, high starting torque, often long hours of operation followed by sitting in the loafing shed for months. Belts slip, chain drives break, motors break down, bits fly off and metal fatigues. And, as Steve reminded us, the stuff is dangerous.

This is not idealistic back to nature stuff, this is personal protective equipment, lockout tagout, maintenance schedule, job site hazard analysis, do the research, know what you're doing and have multiple backup plans, park the little kids at Grandma's, and be aware of where all your parts and pieces are in relationship to the machine.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John (DVD, check the library) has some cringe inducing opening scenes of little kids frolicking in the path of the disk harrow and riding behind the driver on a high wheeled tricycle tractor. The movie is a thought provoking piece about Farmer John's journey from failing at industrial agriculture to successful organic farming. Just as the sigh of relief hits that there are no more scenes of home movies from the sixties with little kids playing around big iron, there's Farmer John as a grown man, welding without gloves. At the end, John takes his investors on a conga dance on the ridge line of the newly raised barn, leading me to leap up from the couch and say "John, you idiot! That's your sponsors! You leave the money on the ground and feed them barbecue until they roll into their cars and go home!"

Sadly, this is not just theoretical. Older farmers in Whatcom County remember the family who lost a little girl because one of the neighbors thought it was cute to let her ride on the back of the tractor. One day she fell off, into the fail mower.

Job site analysis is a basic tool. It is no more than thinking through the process and identifying what could go wrong at each step. Drive out to the county to pick up horse poop, and the drive out is no big deal. Then the pickup has to be backed up to the pile, so check the path first for holes and obstacles and stay in the driver's view during the backing. Returning with the truck heavily loaded, stay off the interstate and allow plenty of stopping distance. Stop traffic to back the truck into the garden space. Then ground guide the driver while he backs the truck downhill. Put a block under the wheel while offloading poop.

Labor and Industries tells us that most work site accidents are the "struck by, caught between, impaled by, crushed under" types of mishaps, and that they are 99% preventable.

Most of us chair butt cubicle monkeys got a great grounding in French verbs and writing comparative literature essays in school, but maybe not so much practical training. Some folks out there maintain their own vehicles, took Agricultural Mechanics in high school, or took Art Welding at BTC, and they have a big head start on the rest of us cubicle monkeys.
Where then to get the safety training, the mechanical training, the small engine repair and tap into the network of local know-how and suppliers? How to get off that cubicle butt and learn which wrench is used for what application?

We have a great local resource at Bellingham Technical College, in the Electrical Mechanical Technology (EMTEC) program. EMTEC was started as a way to provide training for employees of Alcoa and the refineries on Cherry Point. A typical class meets one night a week for a quarter. There is a large range of classes (electricity, hydraulics and pneumatics, belts and drives, maintenance management, welding, etc., etc.), enough to get a two year degree with different areas of concentration, if so desired. Recently laid off persons may even be eligible for some retraining funds. Better apply quickly, before the State of Washington runs out of money.

The EMTEC program is going through an identity crises lately, since the heavy industries quit paying tuition for their employees. The program is reorganizing and putting more emphasis on day classes. You can get an idea of what they have offered in the past, in the 2008-2010 catalog at Scott Stidham (360) 752-8568 ) runs the EMTEC program. If there is a class that would help you gets hands-on with equipment, and you are willing to pay three hundred bucks and spend ten weeks going to night school for, call Scott and talk to him about it. There has been limited overlap so far between the type of people who groove to the bands at the Great Unleashing and the type of people who take Introduction to Hydraulic Circuits. This is unfortunate, because that wealth of medium technology built up over the past three centuries is your inheritance, as much as heirloom tomato varieties and quilt making.

Some folks would just rather stick to hand tools. Youtube has a wealth of how to videos. Brian Kerkvliet will teach you how to use a scythe or sickle without cutting your fingers off, for a modest fee. An internet search on "scythe" will produce a wealth of resources. The challenge is the social organization rather than technology. Harvesting a field by hand takes 30 person hours for every comparable one machine hour. So to get in even a modest grain harvest by hand, you have to mobilize your friends.

This was once normal. Lawrence Durrell described how the contractors remodeling his house on Cyprus in the 1950's downed tools and went into the orchards for the lemon harvest. Anybody who is interested in helping to harvest grain by hand or dig potatoes this summer can call Walter Haugen.

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Comment by Susan Templeton on April 14, 2010 at 4:15pm
Celt, HEY... thanks for this practical and thought provoking run down! My dad restores old farm implements as a hobby so I can snag you a hand wheel plow (one or two rower) in bright red!
Comment by Celt M. Schira on April 13, 2010 at 11:30am
Rebecca, Good point, that gender thing is far less of a perceived barrier to re-skilling than it used to be. It is way cool that I can take Belts and Drives at BTC and nobody even blinks. I'm old enough that my decision to focus my training on stuffing calculus into college students instead of fractions into fourth graders was an act of radical feminist ideology, back in the day.

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