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July 9th, 2017

Our July farm tour took a different shape than the standard CRAFT experience. Instead of learning about one farm, we explored hands-on skills for every farmers’ toolbelt. We invited four farmer instructors from around WNC (Chris from Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Jamie from A Way of Life Farm, Ben from Goldfinch Gardens, and Franklin from The Lord’s Acre) to orient us with the basics of carpentry, plumbing, equipment maintenance, and electrical wiring techniques.

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy Incubator Farm hosted us in their classroom space, and Chris kicked us off with an overview of the amenities offered by the incubator farm. The SAHC incubator farm (a term used to describe similar operations all over the country) offers training, land, equipment, and technical assistance to beginning farmers, with the goal being ‘incubating’ businesses to maturity. SAHC, WNC Farm Link and OGS are helping complete the land access/farmer training support loop through a partnership called Farm Pathways.

The rest of the day was spent in 30 minute workshops dedicated to each of our four topics. Life on the farm is demanding, and in many ways you need to be a Jack or Jill of all trades when it comes to basic maintenance of farm infrastructure. Each of the topics addressed below are applicable to life on any farm, and useful basics to understand as an apprentice or farm worker of any kind.

Basic Carpentry
Taught by Jamie, A Way of Life Farm

Jamie focused on tool safety and importance of having a variety of basic tools at your disposal when doing on-the-fly carpentry for farm infrastructure, as well as tool identification, branching into what each type of tool may be used for in a farming setting. “On the farm,” notes Jamie, “carpentry is often about what works.”

  • Tool Safety:
    • Always check that guards are working on any power saw you’re using.
    • Always use eye protection!
  • Good Beginner Tools:
    • Speed squares are used to make basic measurements and mark lines on dimensional lumber, and convenient to carry around in a toolbelt or pocket. They may also be used as a saw guide for making short cuts.
    • The impact driver is worth it’s weight in gold! It prevents wrist pain caused by operating drills, and is an overall great beginner tool to have.
    • Brands: Jamie recommends Cobalt and Skill, and also to not settle for the cheapest version of a tool.
  • Saws 101:
    • Large teeth on a saw blade indicates it should be used for cutting wood; small teeth are better for cutting metal. Because plywood is assembled from multiple pieces of wood, it’s usually best to use a smaller-toothed blade when cutting it.
    • Skill saw/circular saw is used for short chop cuts. You can now find battery powered versions of these which are useful in the field.
    • Miter/drop saws are used to make a quick, accurate crosscut (against the grain of the wood); this saw can be set at varying angles to obtain different angles of cuts.
    • Jig Saws can be used to make both straight and curved cuts in a wide variety of materials, including wood, particleboard, plywood, plastic, and metal.
      • Safe and easy to use, which is why it’s often the very first power saw a new DIYer buys.
      • It’s a reciprocal saw, meaning that the blade jumps back and forth to make a cut as opposed to the spinning blades of the miter and skill saws.
    • The “Sawsall”, also a reciprocal saw, is mostly a ‘crude tool’ used for demolition. Very useful for pruning and other fast jobs on the farm.
    • Hacksaws come in both power and manual saw form. It is often used for metal or PVC (as it has fine teeth), not on wood.

Basic Plumbing:
Taught by Franklin, The Lord’s Acre

Franklin overviewed the types of piping you can use for your different plumbing needs, with a focus on PEX pipe (as this seems to be the trend in the industry). Although he was able to touch a bit on irrigation, he pointed out that irrigation is a little more advanced than plumbing, and understanding the materials used in basic plumbing is the first step in understanding a complex irrigation system.

  • The plumbing kit rental from Home Depot is a great, cheap way to get access to all the plumbing tools you’d need for a basic plumbing job without having to invest!
  • Types of Piping:
    • There are health issues with all types of plumbing, and you have to weigh your options based on convenience, cost and appropriate material for the job.
    • PEX:
      • Most popular, may be a bit expensive initially (especially the joints) but has easy connections and is generally easy to work with.
      • Flexibility makes it particularly adaptable to varying plumbing needs (and means you need less fittings overall, so less places to bust!).
      • Can freeze and not break.
      • Although hacksaws are traditionally used for cuts to plastic pipes, they result in plastic burrs that can end up in your plumbing system. PEX has designed a new ratchet cutting tool that eliminates this problem and makes cutting easy.
    • Copper:
      • Most traditional (often found in old houses), but needs to be heated (‘soldered’) together and requires special fittings.
      • The key before fitting copper pipes it to make sure all parts around the fitting is very clean; either use sandpaper or metal pipe cleaner to clean thoroughly. Check out this great tutorial on soldering a copper pipe!
    • PVC:
      • Has different sizes and thickness based on its intended use, so special types of PVC need to be bought for pressurized water systems. For example in drip irrigation systems, because the pressure is so low, it’s fine to use thin-walled pipes.
      • Very forgiving — you can heat PVC to mate to a variety of types of joints if you’re in a bind in the field.
      • Teflon tape can be used to seal plastic/plastic of metal/metal fittings.

Basic Equipment Maintenance:
Taught by Ben, Goldfinch Gardens

Ben stressed that the most important thing for equipment is preventative maintenance. Smaller engines that are often used on small farms are much more sensitive than larger ones, and therefore require more attention. Ben was also sure to mention that the best way to make sure your equipment is well maintained is to find out what brands of equipment are being worked on by your local small engine repair shop, and buy those brands! It’s so useful to have en expert on-hand, as each engine is different.

  • It’s important to change air filters and oil every year.
    • You can keep track by writing the date on the air and fuel filters themselves.
    • Be sure to dispose of oil properly and to limit it’s impact to a certain area of your property. County waste disposal facilities or any auto shop will be able to dispose of your oil properly.
    • NEVER change oil or add gas in the field.
  • If you buy used equipment, make sure you change the oil, air filter, transmission and hydraulic fluid, and check the tires. Poorly maintained used equipment may not be worth investing in! Be sure to check for fluid leaks.
  • A ‘zerk’ or grease fitting is a small metal fitting used in many mechanical systems (in this case, found on all universal/hydraulic tractor joints) for the purpose of feeding lubricants through the joints. These joints are important to lubricate every couple of months.
  • If possible, purchase ethanol-free gas for your equipment. It lasts longer, stores better, and generally small engines run better on it.
    • Diesel doesn’t really go bad either and offers better fuel efficiency, but of course has other environmental impacts.
  • Use the Earthtools Equipment Maintenance page for other good suggestions.


Basic Electrical Wiring:
Taught by Chris, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy

A clear understanding of how an electrical system works and making safe and secure connections are the most important part of doing basic wiring. Stripping a wire and making splices and connections are easy to learn.

  • Good pliers are important for making secure connections. Lineman’s pliers are mostly commonly used for wiring, as they’re a multi-use tool able to perform multiple parts of the wiring process.
  • Getting to know your circuit breaker and which breakers operate which parts of the building you are working in is useful; be sure to cut off power to the area that you will be working in before touching any part of the electrical system.
  • ‘Stripping’ is the process of removing the plastic insulation from the end of the wire.
    • Be sure to use a pair of lineman’s pliers instead of a knife or other tool to make sure the stripping is done accurately as to not damage or chip the wire.
    • Make sure the copper below the insulation after you’ve stripped it is intact.
  • Splicing’ wires is when you begin to make the electrical connection happen!
    • Hold the stripped wire ends tightly next to each other. Grip both ends with lineman’s pliers. Twist clockwise with the pliers until you feel more resistance, then stop. Twisting too hard could break a wire. Practice on scrap wire before you start a project.
    • Cut the tails off the tip of the splice. This makes it easy to push the splice into a wire nut and ensures that both wires are held firmly together. Don’t cut it down all the way; trim so that about 3/4 inch of spliced wire remains.
    • Choose a wire nut to fit the size and number of wires you have spliced. Push the spliced wires in, then twist the nut clockwise to tighten. Tug on the wires to make sure the connection is tight, then wrap the bottom of the nut with electrician’s tape.
  • Joining wire to a terminal is the last point of connection.
    • Wrap the wire almost all the way around the screw before tightening it. Make sure to wrap the wire clockwise around the terminal screw so that as the screw tightens it pulls the loop in.
    • In an ideal connection, all the wire under the screw head is stripped and no more. You can use long-nosed pliers to bend the end of the wire around the screw.

Thanks so much to SAHC and all of our farmer instructors! It’s so invaluable to have you on our team. We look forward to seeing everyone at the next CRAFT event!

Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2017! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Director at 828.338.9465 or


Sera Deva

Author: Sera Deva

Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology & Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She works with OGS as the Director of Programs & Systems Design, is the President of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Board of Directors, and is the Administrative Director for The Firefly Gathering. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time growing and eating food in the South Toe Valley in Burnsville, NC.

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