14-year-old future farmer helps bring tractor safety course to Newport

Written by
Stephen Mease

July 27, 2022


Brent Chitambar

You’ll usually find Brent Chitambar underneath a well-worn Carhartt cap. The soft-spoken 14-year-old has spent a lot of his childhood on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Newport Center, and farming has always been the only thing Brent has ever wanted to do when he grows up.

In these respects, Brent is like a lot of young Vermonters who have grown up around farming. But Brent stands out for his passion and initiative.

While other teenagers would likely complain about having to get up at 2 a.m. to start chores, Brent loves the work. “It’s really neat to look up at the sky on the way to the barn,” Brent says. “You can see all of the stars.”

But as Brent finished up 8th grade this past year and prepared to start high school, he has begun shifting his mindset from simply shadowing his grandfather to seeking out opportunities to sharpen his skills and set himself up for career success.

One such opportunity was a half-day tractor safety course, which Vermont 4-H brought to Newport Center – on Brent’s request – at the end of April.

Brent’s grandfather, Leonard Hammond, had started teaching him how to drive the tractor, but the two had a close call while tedding hay last summer.

“My grandfather was sitting on the fender, and I thought I pushed the brake, but I pushed the clutch instead, and the tractor started rolling downhill,” Brent recalls. Fortunately, his grandfather jumped off and nobody was hurt. But the incident prompted both to start thinking that a class might be a good idea.

This past winter, during an ice fishing outing with his school’s outdoor classroom, some of the game wardens on-site that day mentioned a tractor safety course, and Brent’s ears perked up. He asked his teacher, Ms. Piette, for more information, and she then turned to Norma Gregory, North Country’s VSAC counselor, to help.   

Norma had worked with Brent throughout his 7th and 8th-grade years through the GEAR UP program, which helps prepare middle and high school students for college and careers. “I first met Brent in March of 2021 during a career exploration and college information workshop,” Norma recalls, adding that Brent has since participated in more than a dozen GEAR UP activities, which have focused on career assessment, financial planning, organizational skills, time management, and workshops on high school course selection.

“I’ve always been impressed by Brent’s passion for farming, and even more so when he expressed an interest in learning tractor safety to gain more knowledge and more confidence,” Norma says.

She contacted the UVM 4-H Extension Service, which put her in touch with Liz Kenton, 4-H Youth Agriculture Project Coordinator. Then, Norma worked with Liz, Brent, his parents, and his grandfather to bring the training to the Northeast Kingdom. 

The class was held on a Saturday in late April at Brent’s grandfather’s farm. Leonard offered the use of his farm and tractors to host the training, and neighbor Ryan St. Onge also donated an additional tractor for the students to practice on. While the training was opened to several additional North Country students, the date fell over April vacation, and they all had other commitments. So, Brent was the only one able to attend and successfully complete the course.

The day began with 45 minutes of classroom instruction on safe and proper tractor operation. The presentation covered topics such as how to control the clutch, how to back up, how to go up and down hills, and how to be safe around the power takeoff, or PTO, which connects the tractor to the attachments. “It’s amazing how much material can get gathered up in the PTO in a matter of seconds," Brent says. He also found the center-of-gravity demonstration, with miniature tractors on a scale model, quite helpful. “The visuals and the hands-on with that made it more real,” he says.

Then they went out into the field to practice a series of operations on the two different machines. Was Brent nervous? “Kind of,” he admits.

But Norma, who attended as well, saw it differently. “To see Brent, he’s definitely a natural. You could sense that he knew his way around the tractor. He looked at home,” she says.

While Brent has also driven a car and parked campers before, the tractor is a different animal, mostly because of its size and center of balance.

One rule of thumb Brent learned in the course that day: “Don’t overcommit while you’re steering. Only turn the wheel about a quarter of the way.”

Brent’s mom, Karen Chitambar, who teaches automotive technology at the high school, said she has noticed that “opportunities to pursue applied learning and make connections within his community have always transformed how Brent perceives school.” She said she hopes this course, and other similar hands-on learning opportunities in the future, will foster a commitment to lifelong learning.

Indeed, Brent says he’s looking forward to high school because he’ll be able to choose some of those more hands-on-type classes, such as heavy equipment, automotive tech, metalworking, and woodworking. While he’ll have to wait a year or two for some of them, he’ll be able to take the introductory metalworking and woodworking classes his freshman year.

Norma gives Brent a lot of credit for reaching out to make the tractor safety class happen. The course is a standard 4-H offering, but instructors only present it upon request – so Brent’s initiative was, quite literally, a driving factor.

“It was a delight working with Brent and his family,” says Liz Kenton, the instructor. She added that she hopes other students who are interested in agricultural careers will think of 4-H as a resource. She also plans to work with Norma starting this fall to offer the course regularly to students in the Northeast Kingdom.

“Brent’s need for this is going to help out a larger population of students,” Norma notes – which is one thing that makes Brent smile.

The other?

“We start haying this weekend, and my grandfather said he would put me on the tractor for the summer.”

For information on college and career planning and help with financial aid, go to www.vsac.org/FAFSAfirst and check out our online workshops and events. You can also give us a call at 800-642-3177, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and online at info@vsac.org.

This story is produced by Vermont Student Assistance Corp., created by the Vermont Legislature in 1965 as a public nonprofit agency, to advocate for Vermont students and their families to ensure that they achieve their education goals. Our vision is to create opportunities for all Vermont students, but particularly for those—of any age—who believe that the doors to higher education are closed to them. We begin by helping families save for education with Vermont’s state-sponsored 529 savings program. To help Vermonters plan and pay for college or career training, our counselors work with students in nearly every Vermont middle school and high school, and again as adults. Our grant and scholarship programs attract national recognition, and our loan programs and loan forgiveness programs are saving Vermont families thousands of dollars in interest.