New farmers learn about these unique machines
By LARRY KERSHNER
AMES – Twenty small-farm operators filed into a classroom Thursday to learn what most farm kids seem to know instinctively – how to maintain and safely operate a tractor.
Called Tractors 101, the two-day course was designed to help those new to agriculture to understand what instructor Mark Hanna called “a very unique machine.”
The attendees, all members of Practical Farmers of Iowa, had different objectives for attending. None had grown up on a farm, but all were in local foods production, selling at farmers’ markets or similar niche outlets. Most had a small tractor around the farm, and many admitted having trouble with maintenance or keeping it running.
Some discovered they’ve been buying expensive over-the-road diesel to keep their machines going, not realizing there is an off-road diesel fuel for tractors on farms.
“Many here didn’t have tractors until recently and don’t have the deep background,” said Sandy Worley, the PFI coordinator for Tractors 101, “and we don’t want them to get hurt or to be scared of tractors.”
Hanna, who said he’s never conducted a course like this before, opened discussions with the four basic strokes of a combustion engine and the differences of how a gas diesel engine work. The course was held at the Iowa State University Ag Research Farm, between Ames and Boone along U.S. Highway 30.
He moved into oils and lubricants and found a congregate lack of knowledge among the audience of the different fluids that are required to keep even a small tractor running.
Assisted by Richard Van DuPol, manager of the Iowa State University Ag Research Farm; Nick Howell, superintendent of the ISU Horticulture Research Station; and Nick Fiscus, manager of the ISU Agronomy Farm, Hanna led class discussion on diesel fuel blends for summer and winter and between seasons, about power takeoff uses and safety, the difference between live power and non-live power and how to use a tractor’s three-point hitch correctly.
Following two hours of discussion in the room, the attendees moved into the research farm’s workshop where two tractors, one diesel- and one gas-powered, awaited PFI members.
They worked through an exercise of identifying more than a dozen tagged items and equipment on each tractor and then discussed each item’s function and how its used.
On Friday, the participants learned to hook-up to the power takeoff, drive tractors and get familiar with the three-way hitch.
“We basically wanted them to know two things,” Hanna said. “One is understand tractor and engine operations and know the fundamentals for trouble shooting.
“Two, the unique safety aspects. It’s a different kind of machine. It’s high-centered.
“The most common fatalities are in rollovers, extra riders and PTO injuries.”
Howell also led course discussion for small-scale commercial vegetable growers on the uses of tillers, plastic strips along rows and planting implements.
Nicole Friess-Schilling, of Jefferson, said she thought the two-day event was worthwhile, but was hoping for a more to tak eaway with her.
Friess-Schilling said she’s been managing her corn-soybean operation for three years after her husband’s death. “I grew up on a farm,” she said, “but my experiences were more driving the grain truck.” She said she wanted to do more of the farm work herself, rather than hire the labor.
“We have all the equipment,” she said. “I want to be able to use it.”
Tractor operation was one of her developed skill sets, she said. Operating a John Deere 4450, she said, the course’s use of smaller tractors wasn’t as helpful as she hoped. “They were smaller tractors, more for horticulture crops.
“But I thought the maintenance was helpful and the PTO attaching.”
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