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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

More than tractor driving


ABT 49 instructors, students weigh in on Davis’ most popular class

Despite Jim Rumsey’s screams to put in the clutch, it was a little too late. With a tremendous splintering sound, the wooden barn doors to the shop were demolished as a tractor drove right on through, the student sitting on top in a state of panic. This was back in the 1980s, when Rumsey had recently resumed the position as the instructor of Davis’ classic tractor-driving course, ABT 49: Field Equipment Operation.

“In our safety talk, one of the first things we say [is], ‘if you panic, and you will, because there’s so much going on even though you’re going three miles an hour, if you want to stop, put the clutch in,’” Rumsey said. “So what I did, I took a big piece of plywood and I painted a bullseye on it, and that was my reminder, and their reminder.”

Field Equipment Operation first began in 1952. Over time, the official title of ABT 49 has transformed into the popular misnomer “the tractor driving class.” As Rumsey puts it, the class is sort of a rite of passage at UC Davis. It seems to represent the epitome of what an “ag school” should offer to its students, and to many it is also a lot of fun.

“I’ll tell you what, […] sometimes we have to tell the student ‘we are done today.’” said Mir Shafii, the current instructor of the class. “Really, we have to kick them out of there. That is how they are excited, especially for driving tractors. They want to continue for as long as possible.”

The pass/no pass class is extremely difficult to get into due to its high demand. It’s split into a lecture and lab, and even though over 100 students can take the lecture component, lab sections are typically limited with 16 students per each of the six sections. Although students in the class are learning a wide array of field equipment applications, as the nickname of the class suggests, students are the most enthusiastic about driving tractors.

“I am only on week two of the class but I have already learned how to drive eight different makes and models of tractors,” said Marly Anderson, a fourth-year design major, in an email interview. “I couldn’t believe we were out there driving them by ourselves in only our second field day and it was a blast.”

Despite the actual tractor-driving aspect of the class, ABT 49 students still have to learn complicated topics like calculating and calibrating different types of seed planters and broadcasting equipment, the basic systems of tractors such as power generation and hydraulics, and how to perform safety checks, basic services and maintenance operations on different types of tractors.

“Learning the actual mechanics and parts behind the tractors has definitely been challenging,” said Pele Gianotti, a fourth-year political science major, in an email interview. “The first couple of lectures I was a little stressed just because I knew absolutely nothing. It is pretty enlightening to realize that you’ve been driving a car for years and yet know nothing about how it runs and how to do maintenance on it. That was definitely the most eye-opening thing about this experience so far.”

As Rumsey’s early experience teaching the class illustrates, one of the biggest challenges for students who enroll in this class is none other than learning how to use the clutch. Even though the tractors roll along at roughly three miles per hour, driving a tractor is often a new way of operating a vehicle for students — especially for those who take the class and don’t have a driver’s licenses.

“[The biggest challenge for students is] using the clutch.” Shafii said. “All of the tractors now have clutch because clutch is a way of starting or right away stopping the tractor. That’s, using the clutch, what we call the ‘panic button.’ They really sometimes struggle with that one.”

Shafii pointed out that very rarely students will students try to fool around on the tractors, and whatever does happen mostly consists of them trying to race each other at three miles per hour. Ultimately, over the years students have been impressively conscientious of all things safety when it comes to operating the field equipment. Safety is nailed into the curriculum, including extensive videos, instructions, walkthroughs, on-site personnel in the form of TAs and a safety coordinator — everything the students need to maintain a safe environment.

“From day one we talk safety, and I always try to put the fear of God in them,” Rumsey said. “From a practical standpoint, day one, I say: ‘okay, everybody gets two warnings, and the warnings come if you’re screwing around.’ They want to go and hot rod my tractors and […] we’ll give you one warning. If we do it twice then you’re out.”

In the nearly 70 years it’s been taught, ABT 49 has a spotless record. Rumsey and Shafii hope it stays this way so that students can continue taking the class for years to come. Its uniqueness and popularity are likely influential factors in why students take the class so seriously, as they’re eager to learn but also keep it around for future students to enjoy as well.

“I would definitely recommend others taking the class,” Gianotti said via email. “I feel like no matter what level of knowledge you have everyone can have fun and learn new things. I love how new it is and think it is a great class to explore different areas of knowledge that you might not have experienced before. Overall it has been really fun and I am ready to learn more.”

Neither Anderson nor Gianotti are agricultural majors or engineers, which is actually pretty typical of students who take the class today. Although Rumsey says the conception of the class was for agricultural students to receive hands-on training in farm machinery, it has evolved immensely over the years, not only to accommodate the diversity of students who seek out the class, but to adapt to other kinds of changes, too.

“What we teach probably hasn’t evolved a whole lot, although technology-wise, it has,” Rumsey said. “Tractors now have auto steer, GPS. It’s pretty phenomenal, to climb on board of a brand-new tractor. The students that we tracked has evolved [too]. I noticed we started getting students who wanted to farm, but had absolutely no farming background at all. So their needs were different than somebody like myself or Dr. Shafii, who at least had some exposure [to farming growing up].”

This is something Rumsey appreciates about teaching this hands-on course. Not only will the practical applications of the class be unforgettable, but he can also tailor his teachings to the needs of the students. His intention is that each student leaves the class with a valuable new piece of knowledge. To both Rumsey and Shafii, the field of work as well as the profession of education are the main reasons they love being a part of ABT 49.

“For me it’s all about loving to be a teacher and also loving the people who teach,” Shafii said. “And also teaching, especially when you teach practical courses, your students love to listen to you. They know that if they listen to you then they’ll do better in the labs, [and] you will enjoy it because you see their eyes, you see the silence in the class. Doing hands-on skills, you never get tired of that. We love to use our hands.”



Written by: Marlys Jeane — features@theaggie.org


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