About a week ago The Organic Mechanic paid us a visit. I got a phone call from a local farm and was introduced via email to Thomas Kamiya.
Mechanic breathes life into farmers, machines
By STEVE BROWN
ROCHESTER, Wash. -- Thomas Kamiya proudly points out a rototiller that was underwater for four days during a 2007 flood.
"We clean up, start up, it runs," he said. "It's a miracle."
Less miraculous are the lessons he teaches his students. The Japanese-Canadian retired as a heavy duty mechanic in 2009, and he now spends about six months a year teaching young organic farmers how to maintain their equipment.
Until this summer, Kamiya has taken his class on the road only in Canada. Now he's working his way south, through Western Washington and Oregon. He's hoping someone in California will invite him to continue south.
Kamiya came to Canada from Japan in 1975, studied at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and started working at Finning International, a heavy equipment company based in Vancouver, B.C. There he settled into what he calls "The Canadian Dream" -- a wife, two kids and a garden.
Since he retired, he has shared his knowledge with 123 farmers and counting. He is now 67 and has no plans to retire again.
Why focus his teaching on organic farmers?
"Organic farmers support public health," he said. "They are food doctors. They are a 'farmacy' -- that's with an 'F.'"
Many young farmers have come from non-farm backgrounds and never had to learn technical skills.
Kamiya said he teaches life skills in parallel with mechanics. "Maintenance is good for the machine and for life," he said. "You shouldn't need to repair it. That means you didn't do maintenance."
Taking care of machines need not be difficult, but it is all-important.
"One minute of checking for leaks before start-up can save you a thousand dollars," he said.
A 1958 Farmall Cub now runs well after he taught a young farmer how to troubleshoot it. He called the repair and parts manual "the machine's Bible."
This machine should last another 20 years, "but without maintenance, tomorrow morning it's gone. You have to make it last. They're not making these anymore."
Student Drew Schneidler said any of Kamiya's student had better be ready to work.
"He's a traveling teacher, not a traveling mechanic," he said.
Schneidler farms next to Helsing Junction Farm, where Kamiya stayed during his visit to the area. The young farmer has confidence to do things he earlier would have hired out to a mechanic.
"Before, I could tinker. Now I can figure out anything wrong, at least with smaller machines. With bigger machines, at least I get in the ballpark."
Kamiya doesn't charge for his services, asking only for a place to plug in the van he travels and lives in.
Any donations go to relief efforts in the earthquake- and tsunami-stricken areas of Japan, where he plans to teach next summer.
"I want to build a bridge from the U.S. to Japan," he said. "I want to bring hope from heart to heart."
I ended up on the phone with Thomas and told him that though we may not need any maintenance work I would be delighted to meet him. He came down to the farm on Saturday and stayed until early Monday morning. I know he was a bit frustrated by the fact that we made him take Father's Day off. This man really likes to work. I think he was duly impressed by our maintenance program and completely baffled by the safety measures we take here. He was unwilling to believe that we had not had a fire when he saw that we have fire extinguishers in all our buildings and field and delivery vehicles. After searching and searching, meticulously going over our tractors, lawn mower, chainsaw, weed-eater, pressure-washer, and two generators, Thomas was finally able to point out one grease fitting that had not been serviced.
My daughter took a real shine to Thomas and his elegant manner and thoughtful approach to an intentional journey are inspiring.