Third Year Summary -2013
It’s coming to the end of my three year training period at North Slope Farm. The years have passed in the blink of an eye but the amount of personal growth and knowledge I’ve experienced and gained will stick with me for a lifetime. Organic farming is a trade that is simultaneously coherent and chaotic, exhausting and rewarding, liberating and nerve wracking, but overall it’s just pretty darn fun. Few other jobs allow one to be outside enjoying the blue sky and bright sunshine; to make one’s own decisions about what needs to get done and when; or to see the final result (perhaps a shiny, colorful bunch of Swiss Chard) of hard work, all while helping the greater community and by practicing environmental sustainability. Training here over the years has begun to give me an understanding of how to balance the fun, the practical and chaotic nature of working and managing a farm. All potentially confusing tasks are broken down in to easily manageable elements: administration, infrastructure, compost, equipment, crop care, planting, greenhouse, marketing, harvesting and handling. And our years are structured such that we can get the most out of our experiences. My first year here was a whirlwind of information since trainees are made to engage with small tasks in all of these elements in order to be able to pick which one to focus on during the second and third years. The second year I had I focused on greenhouse duties. For the third year, I chose to focus on equipment, not as a manager, but because they were frightening during my second year, and I needed more practice with them.
To allow me to get more aquatinted with the equipment, Mike often gave me the tasks of stale seed-bedding the Big Garden Beds, mowing and weed-whacking the sides of the BGBs, mowing the perimeter of the deer fences that surround our fields and then weed-whacking around the wooden fence posts, mowing the trails in “backyard” area and finally by occasionally assigning me to some light tractor work.
The two tasks I’m going to focus on describing are stale seed-bedding and mowing the perimeters of the fences. These are repetitive tasks for almost the entire growing season.
First on the docket is stale seed-bedding the Big Garden Beds. A good explanation of a stale seed bed can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stale_seed_bed
In order to prep the bed, we mow off the sides and then existing crop on the top using the Billy Goat, our walk-behind mower, and the weed-whacker:
Then we till the remains on the top of the bed using the rototiller:
The result looks something like this:
(*Note: This is a picture of field beds, but the top of the Big Garden Beds looks like that after rototilling.)
The next task was mowing the perimeter of the fence with the Kubota and scalping the posts with the weed-whacker.
(*Note: as the Flicker page says, this particular area of the fence is also mowed for water management)
I’ve found that any sort of mowing with the Kubota, Billy Goat or weed-whacker is accompanied by a complex set of instructions due to hazard avoidance and removal, making sure the grass-blower is facing the right direction (grass clippings can damage crops, or mowing through a build-up of clippings can cause equipment damage), and general efficiency of movement. So, I’m not going into full detail about the riding patterns needed to complete the perimeters with the Kubota, but just note that getting lost is easy (especially in the “backyard” areas), double-mowing and getting stuck in the mud and running over branches is easy when attention is lost.
Of course, there’s always a word of safety and caution before working with machines. Always know what safety measures are in place for the equipment that’s being used. It may be needed in an emergency or it may be engaged by previous user upon shutdown and maybe the reason for a machine not starting. Remember to check all fluid levels (gas level and fuel type, oil, hydraulic fluid, etc.) and to grease any joints that need it. Since each piece of equipment is unique, it’s best to check the corresponding manual (which means keep the manual) if something isn’t working, or turning on, or if you can’t remember what type of fuel or oil to use. Finally, always use headphones, protective eye-wear, heavy-duty pants and at the very least, sturdy shoes. Overall, the experience I’ve had with machinery this year has made me a lot more comfortable operating them.The mystique and fear have almost vanished, and now I just need to keep practicing in order to be able to work with them intuitively.
Equipment Purchased in 2012
The following items are significant additions to the Equipment of North Slope Farm’s Training Program and basic production systems. The Cultivating Tractor has a three point hitch which finally allows us to utilize our Williams Tool Bar for close crop cultivating.
The Earth and Turf Multi Spreader has proven to be an excellent, reliable (Ground Driven) compost spreader. It allows one worker to accomplish what previously took three workers to do by hand. In first gear on our Tractor, and fully open (beaters removed) on the spreader, a full load empties nicely over two beds (down and Back). Each bed needs two passes to apply our typical 1.5 cyds per bed, I do one pass in one direction and the return in the other direction to average out vagaries in spreading.
Finally, I broke down and bought a new model, walk-behind mower, because our old Bachtold mower was viewed with such disdain and fear by Trainees as to be worthless. After asking around I went with the Billy Goat Outback, Brushcutter and in the few times we’ve used it, the BillyGoat was easier to use, though not as aggressive. We will modify the skids to get the deck closer to the ground for a more aggressive cut. The new mower allows the Manager to assign any trainee mowing jobs without fear of accident or burnout!
Equipment – Special Focus
My focus this year was equipment. The first task I had was to make a list and identify every piece of equipment on the farm. My list will need to be modified and added to because as the season rolled on more equipment emerged out of overgrown grass and other equipment never worked in the first place. Troubleshooting was eminent from all of the challenges we had with equipment failure this year. In the beginning of the season our main work horse, the ATV, would no longer start. After checking loose cables, gas lines, and the spark plug we realized that there was a more serious problem going on. I checked the internet with the ATV’s make, year, and model and all signs pointed to a problem with the electronic motor start system. This was further backed up when a proper electrical test determined it needed a new starter system. The ATV spent over a month and half in the shop and we were left to improvise with the equipment we had working to spread compost, assist in planting, and move vegetables and materials around the farm. We were very happy when the ATV came back from the shop.
I started the season with retrofitting a trailer top to a new chassis. This was a great exercise in simple metal work and structural design. Out of tube stock and bolts I was able to customize an attachment point that has held strong all season with a lot of use. General maintenance started with locating and greasing zerks (nozzles that the grease gun attaches to) on all of the machines so they were ready for the field. A procedure was placed when operating all machinery that entailed checking the fuel, coolant, and oil levels. Even though we tried to do this before each use, the hectic frenzy of trying to get things done when time allows led to some mistakes. We ran out of gas in the field and towed the tractor in with MR’s Volvo to only realize the tractor needed gas. Gasoline was put in the Kubota mower instead of diesel, something that was done several times in the past years as well. For the most part machines were fixed and we made do with what was available.
Here are some notes from the maintenance log:
John Deer 2240: Hydraulic hose leaked and it seems to be because of the new fitting attachment. We put Teflon tape and liquid rubber that created a gasket to solve the problem.
Maschio Rototiller: Gear box set to medium low. This caused the Ford 4600 to overheat after two passes of rototilling. We set the gearbox to low and the overheating has stopped.
Bachtold Mower: Blade would not engage when the lever was pressed. Everything seemed to work mechanically. The nut at the bottom of the mower was tightened and allowed the blade to be engaged.
Spring Hoe tires: After pulling the implement out of overgrown grass we discovered the tires were rotted. MR found a local dealer for new tires, but we lost valuable hours to get into the field before the rain began
The reality of farming is that not everything works when you need it to. Also, farming is dependent on weather and field conditions so failed equipment can be very disruptive. This season I had the opportunity to use all of the field implements to turn new ground, which require minimal maintenance and a working tractor. I also was able to trouble shoot small engine machines, which are critical in bed preparation and field care. I have learned that we need to have a station that is organized and in a central location to fix our small machines and tractors. We need to label our fuel clearly as well. Our hand tools we use in the field can also be reorganized for better care and clarity for potential newcomers. As the season slows down I am looking forward to placing some procedures in place dealing with equipment and finally doing the much needed oil change on all of the tractors.
We have a number of tractors and small engine driven implements like a ‘walk behind’ mower and rototiller. The second year of Training is when we introduce our workers to these power tools. As workers develop their skill and interest they are encouraged to “be the one the gets the job done!” Equipment at North Slope Farm has never been our greatest strength but we strive to provide trainees with multiple opportunities to experience the power, danger and effectiveness of the combustion engine and its ‘Power Take Off.”