Tuesday, June 16, 2009

SAITA presents: Equipment Maintenance and Farm Safety with Shane LaBrake

22 Interns and Farm managers, with one 'general public' attended this important all day workshop hosted by Charlestown Cooperative Farm with Shane LaBrake as the speaker. Shane is an agricultural consultant who hails from Maryland, just outside DC, and often peppers his workshop with moving personal stories about farming. He offered several tabletops full of books and manuals, with resource handouts on tractor and equipment maintenance, safety and operation. I'll include some of the links at the bottom of these notes.

Shane admitted to learning by fire in his twelve years of work with the Ecosystem Farm. Founded in 1957, Accokeek, the parent foundation was one of the nation's first land trusts and Ecosystem served as one of the earliest organic farms to hire apprentices and offer a land based training program. Shane has also worked with the New England Small Farm Institute(NESFI), a non-profit organization founded in 1978 by Women in Agriculture. At NESFI, Shane helped train both new and mid-career farmers.

'Design is the first signal of human intention' - William McDonough.

Shane kept going back to this world renowned architect's philosophy during his presentation, admonishing us to think about what we want to actually do and how, before we begin any project. He suggested that we think about land and resource use in terms of the world's increasing population growth and how the resulting allotment may radically change the world in the future. Sustainability is key, and we want to maximize efficiency in the field, while being a good steward of equipment and resources.

In the West we tend to live our lives in 'mindless timefulness' versus a more eastern 'timeless mindfulness'. Shane suggests that this difference is very important in the literal field. We should slow down and contemplate before we act. Safety is always first in his mind and this type of mental training can help to prevent accidents.

Working while exhausted, careless attention, ignoring safety warnings - all contribute to on the farm accidents that can easily be prevented. Rely on standard procedures and only conduct dangerous work when there are others in the vicinity who could help you. Analyze your mistakes with the same kind of criteria used by a good judge working on a manslaughter case; it could save your own life. Major injuries put a burden on family, friends and community. The question is how do you design your daily routine so that you avoid making mistakes that can cause serious harm to yourselves, equipment or others?

Keep your senses acute so that you're able to respond quickly to any situation. Obviously if you're tired, your reflexes won't respond as quickly. Do not work on farm equipment that extra hour at the end of a long day if you're hot, irritable and exhausted. You'll be more likely to take better care of both yourself and the machine by establishing a pace throughout the day's work. Again, mindfulness and intent is designed with purpose. The main objective is to do no harm.

One great routine to follow is to read the equipment and machine manuals. Shane stresses having a standard operating procedure during your day. Turn off the tractor, put it into neutral and put on the brake when you're finished working. Lower any attachment. Stop texting and start reading. Great books include 'How to Keep your Tractor Running' by Rick Kubik. 'Farm Safety Handbook', Rick Kubik. 'The Compact Tractor Bible', M. Graeme Quick. Tractordata.com has great technical information about almost any tractor make or model.

Shane gives his interns paid time to read the manuals while sitting on the tractor, where everything is visible and they can relate the book to the actual machine. He suggests laminating certain procedures, and attaching them to the  tractor itself. That way you're always prepared and the steps become second nature. Try to have both a shop manual and an operator's manual in your barn. 

Wide front ends on tractors are more stable than narrow front ends and can prevent roll-overs. Don't buy a tractor without an ROPS; roll-over protective structure. These can't be retrofitted on older tractors. An enclosed cab, while more expensive, can also help protect a driver, as well as filtering out noise and dust, wayward stones and other objects that you'd rather not have flying into your face during cultivating. Another good practice is to hang a headset on each of your tractors, for ear protection. Throttle down the tractor or shut it off if you need to communicate with someone. Learning how to whistle loudly helps too, as Marvin Anderson aptly demonstrated.

PTO, the power take-off, is the most dangerous part of the tractor. It transfers power through the engine and the shaft spins 540 times per minute. Do not wear untucked shirts, let hair hang loose or sport frayed cut-offs when you're working with tractors and other farm equipment. Shane told of one belly-button piercing gone wrong - you get the picture. Wear steel-toed boots and gloves. Carry a fire extinguisher on board and use tinted or broader sunglasses to help protect your vision. No jewelry!

Photo: The bottom side of the engine block with the oil pan removed, illustrating the position of the crankshaft.  FYI:  the crankshaft transforms the reciprocating motion of the pistons (moving up and down in the cylinders) into a rotational motion that powers the transmission (moving the wheels), and on back to the PTO (power take-off)

Know simple facts: tractors will either run on diesel fuel or gas. Getting your language straight can exponentially increase your credibility when talking to dealers or shop managers. You'll be taken more seriously, and this is even more important for women farmers. You can also avoid time-hogging mistakes like having to drain the gas out of a diesel engine, then refilling and priming it.

Shane went into great detail about how tractor engines work that I won't even begin to try to describe here. He had all kinds of parts spread out on tables, showing crankshafts, gears and explained how the internal combustion machine parallels the human body. Pretty impressive that anyone even came up with the idea. Machinery that revolves fast enough to create forward motion needs lubrication and coolant. Winter weather requires that the coolant doesn't freeze, summer that it doesn't overheat. Make sure you keep your equipment and parts regularly maintained and greased. Write down the number of hours driven and the date when you're changing the oil and filter, just as you would with your car. Get a 17-18 gallon oil pan so that you're not spilling oil all over the barn floor....or yourselves.

Here are more photos and descriptions:

The front of the engine with the crankshaft gear at bottom center; the camshaft gear (to control opening of valves) at top right; an idler gear at top center; and a gear to propel the fuel injection pump, and behind that the oil pump.  The gears are aligned with  timing marks to ensure that the entire combustion process (Power, Exhaust, Intake, Combustion, or PEIC as in Prince Edward Island, Canada) occurs in an exact and specific sequence repeatedly while the engine is running.

A top view of the engine block showing the three "bored" cylinders and additional "bores" for the valves (2/cylinder  - an exhaust and an intake), threaded cylinder head mounting bolt holes, and holes for passage of coolant, sometimes called the "water jacket."  

The finished project.  The 1991 tractor runs good as new!  

The "Valve Train" atop the cylinder head with the exposed exhaust ports on a 1968 Ford 2110 3-cylinder gasoline engine tractor, owned by Audrey Gay Rodgers of Hameau Farm in the Big Valley, Belleville, PA.

Filling the fuel tank at the end of each day, after the tractor has cooled off should be a standard procedure. If you allow the tank to remain half full, rust can develop from condensation. Check your tire pressure each week and write down the recommended psi (pounds per square inch) with a sharpie on the rims or hubs.

Maintenance is preferably done every fall, before you're in a rush to get the fields rototilled or seeded. If you're committed to a CSA or you go to markets, budgeting time into your annual workload for maintenance is crucial. Standard routine maintenance checks save money and time. As with IT logic, try the easiest remedy first for any troubleshooting. Keep spare fan belts and air filters in your barn so that you don't spend half a day driving to the nearest dealer to pick up a part that takes five minutes to replace. Make sure to keep your radiator grille clean, these can easily get clogged with dust and dirt and can cause the engine to overheat and seize. Avoid mineral buildup by mixing only distilled water with the radiator coolant. A shop air compressor can be an integral part of your arsenal, but again make sure you know how to operate these and drain regularly so that condensation doesn't create rust.

Older tractors were not built with current safety standards, such as they are, so don't even think about saving expenses by buying them. Shane suggests that an offset cultivating model like the blue Ford 1710 in the Anderson's barn can be found from the 1980's or 1990's. These haven't lost their value and can easily run from $10,000-12,000. Try also to buy from a larger well known company, they're less likely to go out of business. You'll be more assured of parts and lasting customer service. Burkholder Brothers in Lebanon, PA is a reputable local company.

Brakes on a tractor are used to steer and pivot, and these require critical knowledge to avoid jackknifing or spills. If you're driving on the road in some states, locked brakes is required by law. Other requirements include flashers and slow moving triangle signs. If you find yourself sliding on wet ground or mud, just stop. Step on the clutch, or throttle down to 1st gear and use your differential lock pedal. Assess the situation, then use the lower gear to get the most torque to ease your way out.

Another good safety rule is to allow no other person on the tractor except for the driver. Newer versions offer training seats, but again these can be more costly.  Use your seat belts and thank Ralph Nader for insisting they be used on all motor vehicles.

Shane impressed us with the fact that accidents usually happen when we least expect them. The compromise and burden can be on neighbors, family and friends when you literally don't slow down enough to be able to think about what you're doing. Know where the emergency shut-off switch is. Shut off the PTO lever to stop an implement on the tractor and wait for it to wind down. Call 911 before approaching the scene of an accident. Carry a cell phone while you're working. People have been killed while trying to help others out of accidents so don't be a hero, you may end up saving no one and hurting yourself.

Knowledge of your own capabilities is important when thinking about becoming a farmer. The scale should match the skill-set. Be honest and realistic about what you're able to take on, from all angles; financially, emotionally and time management. This will help in devising a practical and solid design of mindful intent, returning full circle to McDonough's ideology. 

Many thanks to Shane for coming all the way out to Charlestown Cooperative to give this informative and important talk and to Charlestown's Farm Manager, Sarah Rider, for hosting. Much appreciation as well to Annmarie and Sam Cantrell from Maysie's Farm for providing a catered organic feast for the group. Annmarie's luscious homegrown beet salad with local artisan feta cheese hit the spot!

Be sure to attend our very special Friday evening seminar on June 26 at 7PM with Alice and John Weygandt of Stargazers Vineyard, for Sustainable Winemaking. Their amazing all solar house is not to be missed.

Happy growing! See schedule for workshops here.

Victoria Webb

SAITA Coordinator



Ten Commandments of Tractor Safety

From Tinkering to Torquing: A Beginner's Guide to Tractors and Tools, by Roger Welsch

Repair Manuals and Literature:

Jensales, Inc.

I&T Shop Manuals

Yesterday's Tractors


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  4. Interesting blog.i appreciate shane for teaching others about "how to avoid from farm accident".if a farmer is conscious at work ..he will not get any damage.