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Farm equipment mechanics maintain, adjust, repair, and overhaul equipment and vehicles used in planting, cultivating, harvesting, moving, processing, and storing plant and animal farm products. Among the specialized machines with which they work are tractors, harvesters, combines, pumps, tilling equipment, silo fillers, hay balers, and sprinkler irrigation systems. They work for farm equipment repair shops, farm equipment dealerships, and on large farms that have their own shops.
Approximately 33,000 farm equipment mechanics work in the United States. The purpose of the mechanical devices used in farming has always been to increase production and decrease the need for human labor. In prehistoric times, people used simple wood and stone implements to help turn soil, plant seeds, and harvest crops more efficiently than they could with their bare hands. With the introduction of metal tools and the domestication of animals that could pull plows and vehicles, people were able to produce much more. Until the 19th century, farmers around the globe relied on human labor, animal power, and relatively simple equipment to accomplish all the tasks involved in agriculture.
Modern mechanized agriculture was developed in the 1800s. Initially, steam power was used for farm equipment. In the early part of the 20th century, gasoline-powered engines appeared. Shortly after, diesel engines were introduced to power various kinds of farm machinery. The use of motor-driven machines on farms had far-reaching effects. Machines improved agricultural productivity while lessening the need for human labor. As a result of increased use of farm machinery, the number of people working on farms has steadily decreased in many countries of the world.
In recent decades, farm machines have become large and complex, using electronic, computerized, and hydraulic systems. Agriculture is now a business operation that requires extremely expensive equipment capable of doing specialized tasks quickly and efficiently. Farmers can't afford for their equipment to break down. They are now almost completely reliant on the dealers who sell them their equipment to be their source for the emergency repairs and routine maintenance services that keep the machines functioning well. Farm equipment mechanics are the skilled specialists who carry out these tasks, usually as employees of equipment dealers or of independent repair shops.
The success of today’s large-scale farming operations depends on the reliability of many complex machines. It is the farm equipment mechanic’s responsibility to keep the machines in good working order and to repair or to overhaul them when they break down.
When farm equipment is not working properly, mechanics begin by diagnosing the problem. Using intricate testing devices, they are able to identify what is wrong. A compression tester, for example, can determine whether cylinder valves leak or piston rings are worn, and a dynamometer can measure engine performance. The mechanic will also examine the machine, observing and listening to it in operation and looking for clues such as leaks, loose parts, and irregular steering, braking, and gear shifting. It may be necessary to dismantle whole systems in the machine to diagnose and correct malfunctions.
When the problem is located, the broken, worn-out, or faulty components are repaired or replaced, depending on the extent of their defect. The machine or piece of equipment is re-assembled, adjusted, lubricated, and tested to be sure it's again operating at its full capacity.
Farm equipment mechanics use many tools in their work. Besides hand tools such as wrenches, pliers, and screwdrivers and precision instruments such as micrometers and torque wrenches, they may use welding equipment, power grinders and saws, and other power tools. In addition, they do major repairs using machine tools such as drill presses, lathes, and milling and woodworking machines.
As farm equipment becomes more complex, mechanics are increasingly expected to have strong backgrounds in electronics. For instance, newer tractors have large, electronically controlled engines and air-conditioned cabs, as well as transmissions with many speeds.
Much of the time, farmers can bring their equipment into a shop, where mechanics have all the necessary tools available. But during planting or harvesting seasons, when timing may be critical for the farmers, mechanics are expected to travel to farms for emergency repairs in order to get the equipment up and running with little delay.
Farmers usually bring movable equipment into a repair shop on a regular basis for preventive maintenance services such as adjusting and cleaning parts and tuning engines. Routine servicing not only ensures less emergency repairs for the mechanics, but it also assures farmers that the equipment will be ready when it's needed. Shops in the rural outskirts of metropolitan areas often handle maintenance and repairs on a variety of lawn and garden equipment, especially lawn mowers.
If a mechanic works in a large shop, he or she may specialize in specific types of repairs. For example, a mechanic may over haul gasoline or diesel engines, repair clutches and transmissions, or concentrate on the air-conditioning units in the cabs of combines and large tractors. Some mechanics, called farm machinery set-u p mechanics, uncrate, assemble, adjust, and often deliver machinery to farm locations. Mechanics also do body work on tractors and other machines, repairing damaged sheet-metal body parts.
Some mechanics may work exclusively on certain types of equipment, such as hay balers or harvesters. Other mechanics work on equipment installed on farms. For example, sprinkler-irrigation equipment mechanics install and maintain self-propelled circle-irrigation systems, which are like giant motorized lawn sprinklers. Dairy equipment repairers inspect and repair dairy machinery and equipment such as milking machines, cream separators, and churns.
Most farm equipment mechanics work in the service departments of equipment dealerships. Others are employed by independent repair shops. A smaller number work on large farms that have their own shops.
Take technical/shop courses that will introduce you to machinery repair, electrical work, and welding. Mechanical drawing classes can also prepare you for the work. Computer courses will be valuable; computers are used increasingly in farm machinery, as well as in the administrative office of a machine repair and sales business. Science courses that include units in soil and agronomy will help you to understand the needs of the agriculture industry. As a member of the National FFA Organization (formerly the Future Farmers of America), you may be involved in special projects that include working with farm machinery.
After graduating from high school, most farm equipment mechanics go on to complete a one- or two-year program in agricultural or farm mechanics at a vocational school or community college. If you can’t find such a program, study in diesel mechanics or appropriate experience through the military are also options. Topics that you will learn about include the maintenance and repair of diesel and gasoline engines, hydraulic systems, welding, and electronics. Your education doesn’t stop there, however. After completing one of these programs, you will be hired as a trainee or helper and continue to learn on the job, receiving training from experienced mechanics.
Some farm equipment mechanics learn their trade through apprenticeship programs. These programs combine three to four years of on-the-job training with classroom study related to farm equipment repair and maintenance. Apprentices are usually chosen from among shop helpers.
To stay up-to-date on technological changes that affect their work, mechanics and trainees may take special short-term courses conducted by equipment manufacturers. In these programs, which usually last a few days, company service representatives explain the design and function of new models of equipment and teach mechanics how to maintain and repair them. Some employers help broaden their mechanics’ skills by sending them to local vocational schools for special intensive courses in subjects such as air-conditioning repair, hydraulics, or electronics.
Farm machinery is usually large and heavy. Mechanics need the strength to lift heavy machine parts such as transmissions. They also need manual dexterity to be able to handle tools and small components. Farm equipment mechanics are usually expected to supply their own hand tools. After years of accumulating favorite tools, experienced mechanics may have collections that represent an investment of thousands of dollars. Employers generally provide all the large power tools and test equipment needed in the shop.
Many people who go into farm equipment work have grown up with mechanical repair—they have experimented with lawn mowers, old cars, and other machinery, and they have used a lot of farm equipment. If you don't live on a farm, you may be able to find part-time or summer work on a farm. You can also get valuable mechanical experience working at a gasoline service station, automobile repair shop, or automotive supply house. Attending farm shows is a good way to learn about farm equipment and manufacturers. At shows, you may have the opportunity to talk to equipment manufacturers’ representatives and learn more about new developments in the industry. In addition, consider joining a chapter of the National FFA Organization. This organization is open to students aged 12 to 21 enrolled in agricultural programs and offers a wide variety of activities, including career-development programs.
Approximately 33,000 farm equipment mechanics are employed in the United States. Farm equipment mechanics work in all parts of the country, but there are more job opportunities in the “farm belt”—the Midwestern states. Work is available with independent repair and service businesses, large farm equipment sales companies, and large independent and commercial farms. Some mechanics are self-employed, running their own repair businesses in rural areas. Most independent repair shops employ fewer than five mechanics, while in dealers’ service departments there may be 10 or more mechanics on the payroll.
Many people who become trainees in this field have prior experience in related occupations. They may have worked as farmers, farm laborers, heavy-equipment mechanics, automobile mechanics, or air-conditioning mechanics. Although people with this kind of related experience are likely to begin as helpers, their training period may be considerably shorter than the training for beginners with no such experience.
When looking for work, you should apply directly to local farm equipment dealers or independent repair shops. Graduates of vocational schools can often get help finding jobs through their schools’ career services office. State employment service offices are another source of job leads, as well as a source of information on any apprenticeships that are available in the region.
After they have gained some experience, farm equipment mechanics employed by equipment dealers may be promoted to such positions as shop supervisor, service manager, and eventually manager of the dealership. Some mechanics eventually decide to open their own repair shops (fewer than 4 percent of all mechanics are self- employed). Others become service representatives for farm equipment manufacturers. Additional formal education, such as completion of a two-year associate’s degree program in agricultural mechanics or a related field, may be required of service representatives.
Farm equipment mechanics had median hourly earnings of $14.16 in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This figure translates into a yearly income of approximately $29,460. In addition, the department reports that the lowest paid 10 percent of farm equipment mechanics earned less than $9.30 per hour ($19,340 per year), while the highest paid 10 percent earned $20.77 or more per hour ($43,210 or more per year). Exact earnings figures are difficult to determine because farm equipment mechanics don't generally work consistent 40-hour weeks throughout the year. During the busy planting and harvest seasons, for example, mechanics may work many hours of overtime, for which they are usually paid time-and-a-half rates. This overtime pay can substantially increase their weekly earnings. However, during the winter months, some mechanics may work less or be temporarily laid off, reducing their total income.
Employee benefits may be rare when working for a small shop. A large commercial farm or sales company may offer health insurance plans and sick leave.
Farm equipment mechanics generally work indoors on equipment that has been brought into the shop. Most modern shops are properly ventilated, heated, and lighted. Some older shops may be less comfortable. During harvest seasons, mechanics may have to leave the shop frequently and travel many miles to farms, where they per form emergency repairs outdoors in any kind of weather. They may often work six to seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day during this busy season. In the event of an emergency repair, a mechanic often works independently, with little supervision. Mechanics need to be self-reliant and able to solve problems under pressure. When a farm machine breaks down, the lost time can be very expensive for the farmer. A mechanic must be able to diagnose problems quickly and perform repairs without delay.
Grease, gasoline, rust, and dirt are part of the farm equipment mechanic’s life. Although safety precautions have improved in recent years, mechanics are often at risk of injury when lifting heavy equipment and parts with jacks or hoists. Other hazards they must routinely guard against include burns from hot engines, cuts from sharp pieces of metal, and exposure to toxic farm chemicals. Following good safety practices can reduce the risks of injury to a minimum.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that employment of farm equipment mechanics will grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014 because of the efficiency and dependability of modern farm equipment. To be competitive in the job market, a farm equipment mechanic may need a few years of college training along with some practical experience.
Advancements in technology have revolutionized farm equipment. Those working with farm equipment will have to have an under standing of computers, electronics, and highly sophisticated devices and , therefore, more specialized training.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For AEM press releases, equipment sales statistics, agricultural reports, and other news of interest to farm mechanics, contact:
Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM)
6737 West Washington Street, Suite 2400
Milwaukee, WI 53214-5647
At the FEMA Web site, you can learn about its publications read industry news, and find out about upcoming farm shows.
Farm Equipment Manufacturers Association (FEMA)
1000 Executive Parkway, Suite 100
St. Louis, MO 63141-6369
For information on student chapters and the many activities available, contact:
National FFA Organization
6060 FFA Drive
PO Box 68960
Indianapolis, IN 46268-0960