Yankee ingenuity, hands-on farming online

  • This picture is from 2018 when the students in my NHTI Sustainable Agriculture degree and certificate program experienced hands-on training at Miles Smith Farm. In 2020, like so many other professors, I’m teaching the same class online. Courtesy of Carole Soule

For the Monitor
Published: 4/19/2020 3:00:07 AM

The art of farming requires that the farmer be willing to learn skills like getting a reluctant calf to nurse on his mom, extracting a cow whose horns are stuck in a hay feeder (ever do a Chinese nail puzzle?), or fixing a broken machine when you can’t get parts. The farmer has to learn to adapt and improvise. It’s part know-how and part attitude.

For instance, at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown, the radiator hose broke on the farm’s skid steer (a handy combination of tractor, bulldozer, and forklift). In the “Before Times,” we could have ordered a new hose from the factory. Not so in the COVID-19 time. The factory was closed; its workers sent home. This was not a simple hose to be MacGuyvered out of household junk. It had to be able to withstand extreme heat and pressure and remain firmly in place. Husband Bruce’s first three tries failed, but after watching a dozen YouTube videos, he patched together a successful heat-resistant hose, clamps, and all from parts typically used in cooling systems for engines that power machinery like ski lifts, oil pumps, and sometimes race cars.

While a lot of what a farmer does requires on-the-job learning, some of it can be taught, and the NHTI is doing just that. NHTI offers a Sustainable Agriculture degree and certificate program to prepare students for careers in farming, and they hired me to teach the practicum course. When I taught it in 2018, students clipped cattle, fed piglets, shoveled manure, weaned calves, and hunted for eggs. They also learned about the sometimes-harsh economic realities of farming and ways of surmounting them. The key was to get up-close and personal with the animals while learning the business of farm management.

In March 2020, the day before the current class met, I was told it had to be taught online because of the COVID-19 threat. What a blow! I had to scramble to adapt my hands-on course into an oxymoron – a distance-learning practicum.

Certified as a special-ed teacher and high school principal (in another life), I know the value of lesson plans. So I got busy. I spent three hours of planning for each hour of classroom time. My lessons include lectures on rotational grazing, how to contain contagion in livestock herds, (believe it or not, farmers practiced social distancing and anti-bacterial precautions long before COVID-19); and many YouTube videos for my armchair farmers. They even have a final project where they must demonstrate how to make a profit from farming. Like all good professors, I also make them suffer with frequent quizzes and, ultimately, a final exam.

My students join me online twice a week for a conference call. (If ever there was a time for smellavision, this would be it.) We watch videos together, discuss reading assignments, identify farming challenges, and problem-solve them. I think it’s working. Connecting remotely with students is a challenge, but these days what isn’t?

The videos show how to handle cattle and that even the professionals get kicked or knocked over on occasion. Students get to see livestock operations from other parts of the country as well as videos I make right here on Miles Smith Farm, enlisting my cattle as extremely-adjunct faculty. But it’s still not quite the same as actually driving a tractor or attaching a cow’s ear tag.

Even though the students are learning about farming, I’ll be glad when we are in Post-COVID-19 Times. So much of modern life is vicarious and sterile – accessed through digital screens. But farming is a real as a fistful of mud or as urgent as a panicky animal. And its vitality is partly why I love it. So I’m eager for the days when my students can get their hands dirty – instead of washing them.

(Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm, milessmithfarm.com, where she raises and sells pastured pork, lamb, eggs, and grass-fed beef. She can be reached at cas@milessmithfarm.com.)




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