Monday, June 15, 2015

Going High Tech

Hay slings laid out in the loft for evaluation.
It's been hot this week... mid 80's with humidity to match. It makes my t-shirt stick to my skin and ride up up under my overalls like an unfortunate halter top. Daily rain is nice for the orchard and garden, not so nice for the weeds which can't be knocked back without a little drying time. The animals all retreat to the barn as soon as the sun is up, where they spend the day avoiding the biting flies whose populations seem to rise exponentially with the temperature. The horses stomp constantly to keep the flies off, and the cows all stand sweating and panting like dogs. The still barn air feels about 10 degrees hotter than the air outside, and reeks of ammonia. The stone foundation is dripping with condensation. Horseflies cover the windows, apparently regretting their decision to follow the animals inside the darkened retreat.

The barn that seemed so well maintained suddenly feels impossible, as the animals deposit all the end products of their night-time grazing indoors on expensive bedding. Keeping up with them feels like mopping up underneath a waterfall. I'm scooping out four heaping wheelbarrow loads a day, but it probably needs to be closer to eight (if there were no backlog, that is).

Weather like this always makes me think of moving back to a cool maritime climate. This year I'm dreaming of Sitka, where this week's highs look to be right around 60 degrees. Last year it was Waldron Island in the San Juans, and the year before that it was Lopez Island. Though wonderfully cool by comparison to our Michigan summer, each location seems to be somewhat lacking in gainful employment opportunities and affordable land. Suffice it to say that I'm really hoping things cool down in time for our second cutting of hay in mid July.

With the construction of our new barn, putting up hay has become a little easier. It would've been considered high tech, circa 1910 -- as evidenced by the patent date on the hay trolley. In the absence of diesel, it will again be high-tech. As far as I'm concerned, it's the best way to put up hay without the direct use of fossil fuels, bar none.

The high technology of our new operation revolves around the use of hay slings, rather than the grapple forks used in our original barn. Hay slings look much like hammocks, which are laid out on the wagon as the hay is loaded, typically three of them sandwiched into the layers on a full load.

For unloading the hay from the wagon, we lower the hay rope with its two hooks on pulleys, each of which attach to a ring at opposite ends of the slings. The horses then pull the rope, which rolls up the hay (each load looks like a large round bale) and raises it to the roof peak. Control lines are rigged to pull the trolley to either mow, where a release cord is pulled, allowing the sling to split in two and release the hay.


What's so good about slings? The biggest advantage is that the wagon can be unloaded in three "bites" rather than the 5 or 6 it typically takes with grapple forks. It's also much easier to attach the slings to the hay rope than it is to set the grapple forks for each bite.  For us, the design of the new barn, with its drive-through center aisle, is easier to use than the bank barn we've been using. The bank barn forced us to park the horses, unhitch the wagon, and roll it in (and out) by hand.

The down side?  Hay slings will load the barn's hay trolley system quite a bit more than other methods, which is why our old barn only gets to use grapple forks. They're also a little more trouble to arrange and keep organized out in the field, as we need to pause to set up the second and third slings partway through each load.


So while the new barn isn't quite finished (it still needs a floor, gutters, stalls, and some paint), we're already making good use of it. Now we just need to get it ready for the animals that will eat the hay.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Do Less

In most respects, "green" energy is no better than the fossil energy it replaces, and serves primarily as a fossil fuel extender. As with the smoker who opts for light cigarettes, or the horribly misguided popularity of diet soda, the easiest solution is rarely the right solution.

Now that faith in the Cornucopia of Technology (what cool toy will Apple make for us next?) has moved into first place as the #1 global religion, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that so many people are convinced technology will solve the very problems it's created (climate change and peak oil / energy depletion come to mind). Never mind the fact that all of this technology rests upon a crumbling pedestal of fossil energy.

A recent case in point is the much touted new Tesla "Powerwall" home battery. It's a lithium-ion battery, with a 7 or 10 kWh capacity, the latter of which will be selling for $3500. Maybe Tesla has made a dramatic improvement in the lifespan of lithium ion batteries, but I doubt it (they promise a 10 year warranty -- which is about the expected lifespan of a well treated lead-acid battery).

The larger 10kWh battery (with 1/3rd the capacity to run the typical 30kWh household's daily consumption) is roughly equivalent in capacity to 3.3 8D series deep-cycle lead-acid batteries, which I see retailing for $330 apiece. But, because lead-acid batteries don't last well when regularly drawn below 50%, you'll want to double the number of conventional batteries for equivalence, so that's 6.6 batteries. You can't buy .6 batteries, so we'll round up to 7. Total cost for 7 - 8D batteries is $2,310, vs $3500 for the Tesla battery. The Tesla battery will be smaller and lighter. That's a big deal in a car, but not so much in a house. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I fail to see the breakthrough here.

Though people seem to be figuring this out as their sales wane, electric cars aren't really any more environmentally friendly than their gasoline counterparts. "Clean burning natural gas", if you include the environmental costs and emissions of the full life cycle, isn't really any better than coal. Then there's nuclear energy, which we can't afford to get rid of (and will be decreasingly able to get rid of as energy depletion bites ever further into our economies). Did I mention contamination that lasts longer than human civilization has been in existence? I suspect that there are some folks in Tokyo who might take issue with its green image.  Have you read about the latest greatest source of CO2 emissions (accounting for about 30% of all human caused emissions)?  It's the draining of peat bogs in Indonesia for oil-palm plantations to meet the demand for "green" biodiesel.

No matter where you peek behind the curtain on green energy, you find problems which reveal it to be the wrong answer for offering a chance at continued human survival.

The problem is, to a large extent, that we opened the pandora's box of fossil energy, fell in love with all it had to offer, and are now willing to commit mass murder in order to keep it. We've insisted that we could reproduce without limits, fly anywhere on a whim, build homes as big as we like, and fill them with manufactured goods shipped from around the world. As it turns out, we've made what currently looks to be a fatal mistake.

The answer is not "green" energy any more than it is "light" cigarettes.  The answer is to reset our expectations. Mother nature and her pesky laws of thermodynamics will take care of our numbers issue in her own less-pleasant ways, because we refused to do it ourselves. Those who remain, if any, will certainly appreciate us making their world a little less bad by making ourselves a little less harmful. That means doing less than we've become accustomed to. Travel should be within walking or perhaps biking distance, not across continents or oceans. Food should (for a million different reasons) be produced (or preferably foraged) locally, by ourselves and our neighbors, as should our modest homes, clothing and tools. I think you'll find that the life we're returning toas a matter of necessity is in many ways much better than the one which we're all clinging to now.  I know that my movements in this direction would suggest exactly that.

When the future we're headed towards turns out not to include us or anything we value, it's probably a good idea to return to the past that does.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Not-so-chocolate Easter Bunny

The cows are out on pasture as of this week, and seem to be enjoying themselves.  I love walking out to meet them in the pasture at first light, with all the birds belting out their morning greetings.  I made my way to the far end of the pasture this morning without finding the cows, and assumed they'd gone to play wild-cow-of-the-wilderness in the small patch of woods they have access to. After searching for them with my headlamp to no avail, I completed a loop around the rest of the pasture, checking the corners where I might have missed them on my way out in the dim light.  Coming full circle, I found them already waiting for me back at the barnyard.  We have sneaky stealth cows, as it turns out.

While milking Penelope, I could hear a bunch of rustling straw in the main loafing area of the barn, which I assumed to be "Ninja" Fritz (our 4 week old calf) tearing around in circles and kicking at imagined foes. Then I heard the screaming, and went to investigate. Burrito the cat had scored herself a baby rabbit and was relentlessly torturing it.

Apparently not hungry enough, Burrito left the bunny to an eager Coon. She's the three-legged cat who became that way while hiding in the tall hay as the horses walked past with the sickle mower one day. Coon carried her prize over to the milking area and made it scream some more before getting down to the crunchy business of eating the cute creature in front of me, starting (as usual) with the delicious head.

In between the screams and crunching, my thoughts turned as they often do to things I've read lately. There's a super El-Nino developing off of our west coast, which is dramatically increasing the die-off of ocean life that depends upon plankton (just about everything, that is). On the plus side, it's also expected to break the 4 year drought in California. On the down side, it's likely to trigger a drought where we live.

Climate change isn't something we might get to experience a few decades from now. It's here, now.  I find it terrifying, and even more terrifying is the complacency and outright denial that grows worse as we watch it wreaking havoc. The same things are happening in Syria, Sao Palo, YemenIran, Ukraine, and California really. It's not just that we're warming, or drying, or seeing unprecedented floods and storms. The problem is that we're losing the stability that has made life possible. We're losing the stability required for agriculture, for forests, and for every living thing.

The drought our farm experienced in 2012 was nothing like the 4 years of drought currently being endured by much of California, but that one year alone cost us several thousand dollars, quickly making the farm a losing proposition. The risk of a similar event in any given year is rising, which turns any farm into a losing bet. Farmers don't just "fail to make a profit" when there's a drought. They lose money, and lots of it. Most are spending hundreds of dollars per acre, every year, for seeds and fuel, and perhaps irrigation. If a crop fails, that's all lost. It doesn't need to fail every year. I'll bet once every third or fourth year would be enough to destroy most farming enterprises and render grocery store shelves bare. After pouring our heart and soul into our own farm for several years now, the thought of it losing viability is gut wrenching.

Look outside your house, and I'll bet you see trees, which are in many ways the lungs of the planet. That makes them just as important as our own lungs. Trees need stability as much as we do.  If the growing conditions that made a forest cease to be reliable, the forest dies. With the rate of change we're seeing, forests won't just move northwards, as many expect. By the time a more southerly species is able to establish, changing conditions will likely kill it too.

A lot of folks are looking to permaculture as the type of agriculture which we should move towards. In a destabilized climate, however, the longer lived species required for permaculture won't do any better (and will likely fare worse) than the annuals that currently comprise the bulk of our agriculture.

But, for now, our farm in spring is beautiful. The breaking buds look like a light green mist settling on the trees. The lambs are bouncing on all fours and chasing chickens that wander past. Our pastures are green and lush, and the cows are fat and happy. For that, I'm thankful.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Ah, the naivete of youth! Perhaps you've read about them - the students of the divestment movement - pushing for their respected universities to stop investing in fossil energy companies. These kids apparently haven't figured out that screwing everyone's tomorrow is the only way to live well and get an affordable education (cough, cough) today.  Perhaps the students are biased, thinking they have more of a future ahead of them than most of the (older) administrators do.

The typical assumption is that investments should be green (like the little green leaf on the back of cars to make us feel better about using them), or socially responsible. I doubt most of the students in these campaigns would protest against their university administration if they were instead invested in wind and solar companies. This assumption is where the true naivete shines through, however.

There is no such thing as green or socially responsible investment, at least none that would be available in any of the major stock exchanges or brokerage firms. The legal structure of publicly owned corporations ("green" or not) prioritizes the need to generate shareholder return above all else. In so doing, it subjugates the human qualities of morality and empathy that would otherwise temper business decisions. Come to think of it, I'm not aware of a single publicly owned corporation that exists outside of the industrial economy. Any business which uses fossil fuel extracted by the "bad" energy companies, is really just "bad" once removed.

It's not just that public corporations are inherently driven to do bad things, like skirting, ignoring, (or re-writing)  our lax environmental regulations. Investing in corporations is exactly what feeds the beast that has subverted democracy around the globe, with a particularly egregious example here in the US.  You did read that we now fit the textbook definition of an oligarchy, right?

Investment in corporations is what blinds people to the corporate behavior that subverts governments
and destroy nations. "Don't look a gift-horse in the mouth" or you'll loose your retirement.

The subversion of democracy is very much in play right now with the Trans-Pacific-Partnership negotiations, which amounts to NAFTA on steroids. NAFTA played a huge role in destroying manufacturing and the middle class in the US while destroying agriculture in Mexico. This lead to destruction of thousands of families in Central America, waves of desperate illegal immigrants in the US, and the creation of new corporate wet-dream worlds such as Ciudad Juarez just south of our border with Mexico. Witness also the rise of super-powerful Mexican drug cartels soon after NAFTA was implemented. Coincidence?

Let's assume for a moment that you're a sociopath with no friends or family, concerns or desires beyond money itself. Social and environmental responsibility mean nothing to you, and you think democracy is massively overrated. I have a convincing argument for you to divest your portfolio as well. It's called peak oil. Oil drove the industrial economy of the 20th century, with stock markets and GDP closely tracking oil consumption.

When the peak in conventional crude arrived as predicted circa 2005, the economy started sputtering. Attempts to fill our tanks with unconventional oil since then haven't helped much. After 2007's now forgotten heart-attack, the stock market is again climbing quite nicely. Do you think that's because the economy is still really growing, or even capable of significant further growth? The Quantitative Easing game of twister currently employed by central banks around the world might make you think so, but eventually this tangled mass is going to fail.

So let's say you're a normal person still set on the concept of retirement, or are already retired. Our culture of the last several decades says that investment (in anything!) is a-okay so long as you don't peek behind the curtain too often. No investment means no retirement, and who wants to keep working until the day they die?

Well... sometimes there is no good answer, but there may be less-bad answers than business as usual. My own answer thus far has been to first invest in myself. First of all, paying off any debt. This will usually garner greater returns (through the fact that you will forego *paying* interest to someone else) than you can expect from much investment now anyway, and the returns are guaranteed. That's a no-brainer in my opinion.

So you're already debt free, and need to invest just to have income? I can't recommend any sure thing for returns, but I do have a suggestion which might ameliorate the damage of investing. The closer you are to your investment, the better.  Perhaps that's investing in yourself through classes that might allow you some increased returns (monetary or otherwise), or skills that may be useful now or in the energy-constrained future.  Perhaps it's a friend or family member that runs a business. Perhaps it's just someone you trust to remain human, and who is operating on a scale which makes that possible. The point here is to avoid the separation of monetary and human interests which occurs with larger corporations.

Ultimately, all investment will again be as it once was - with people we know personally and see daily, and probably with no money involved or needed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Are your teats sore too?

I tend not to relate much to the Tea Party, but they are in fact on the right trail in some respects. I don't personally mind paying my taxes. I do mind, however, not getting anything in return.

In the interest of improving efficiency, I'd like to suggest that we all petition the IRS to allow us to make our tax payments directly to the corporations they're ultimately ending up with. The robots we've created - the ones with the primary purpose of generating shareholder return - are working exactly as designed. Not surprisingly, they've converged on one of the largest, most easily diverted streams of wealth on the planet. It's the stream that flows from you and I to the federal government in the form of federal taxes.

Never fret though... "mainstream" media articles like this are written to make us feel better about being robbed. Apparently people in other countries pay more than we do, on average. This article forgets to mention all the things they actually get for their money that we don't, however (free university education, healthcare, etc).

A few weeks ago, I received a call from the Farm Service Agency, who is tasked with providing money to farmers, ostensibly to support farmers. Our farm is classified as having the potential to grow commodity corn and soy (a fate befallen most farms in our area), which makes us eligible for price supports even though we don't grow either crop. The price of both are down this year, meaning it should be a good payment year, though I don't yet know just how good.

In the absence of such price support payments, farmers would stop growing until the prices rose to the point of making it worth the effort again. Because all farmers receive the supports equally, such market forces are greatly reduced.  These payments serve only to keep the price of such commodity crops artificially low.  Thus, the payments aren't really going to the farmers -- they're going to the purchasers of such commodities, such as ADM or Cargill, and ultimately large industrial producers of "food" like General Mills or Tyson. These industry giants have all the assets they need to ensure that such subsidies "for the farmers" stay in place, especially in a government where being a corporate sell-out is a requirement for successful campaign finance.

This business model isn't limited just to agriculture, as it turns out. Retail corporations have figured it out too! They've figured out that social welfare programs, when given to their workers, allow them to accept starvation wages without actually astarving. Wal-Mart is even known to provide paperwork for such programs to their new hires, demonstrating how important these programs are to their business model.

How well does it work?  Apparently very well indeed, as 6 members of the Walton family of Wal-Mart now have more wealth than the bottom 40% of all Americans (128 million people).

The ironically named "healthcare industry" now has their own program as well. The pharmaceutical industry has Medicare part D, in which our legislative and executive branch promised to let the industry set their own pricing without any negotiation on our behalf.  Strangely enough, prices paid by Americans for various medications are often orders of magnitude greater than those paid by others in the rest of the world.

The "Affordable Care Act", which has doubled my own family's insurance rates for what appears to be nearly identical (i.e. crappy) coverage, has been a real boon for the insurance industry, who turns out to have written most of the bill. How are they faring as a result?

Never one to be left behind in terms of government teat-sucking, the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about has far exceeded his worst nightmares. With the collusion of a purchased corporate media, they've convinced most Americans that we need to blow up just about everyone else on the planet, preferably with ultra expensive hardware.

They've even convinced us that we need to poke the nuclear-armed Russian bear, by encouraging and funding the neo-nazis in Ukraine to attack their own people, and then blaming Putin for "aggression" when he helps the ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Unbeknownst to most Americans, Kiev (the capital of Ukraine) once served as the capital of Russia.  Brezhnev was from Ukraine. When I asked a Russian friend about his thoughts on our antics Ukraine, he was incredulous. "It's like Russia funding a revolution in Michigan, and then blaming us for American aggression in trying to keep it!", as he put it.

The F-35 joint strike fighter, deemed un-usable at a current cost of 1.5 *trillion* dollars, has in fact performed exactly as intended by the military-industrial complex.  It has transferred enormous amounts of your tax dollars to someone else, for which you've received absolutely nothing. Better yet, the carrier specifically designed to accommodate the fighter is apparently going to need numerous expensive upgrades in order to actually accommodate it.  Strange...

Somehow, I don't think voting for Jeb or Hillary will change any of this, as they both have a long history of catering to corporate wealth at our expense.  We're going to have to stop choosing our candidates from the corporately sponsored menu if we're to ever be to the land of the free.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


The gently sloping property to the west of our farm has been in the conservation reserve program since the 1980's. It's a big plus for us. We don't need to worry nearly as much as most rural Michiganders about pesticide or nitrate contamination of our well, for instance. It's been a haven for wildlife, and has undoubtedly made our farm a nicer place for hunting. It's also the reason that my bee hives survive the winter much better than those near conventional farms (which often experience 100% mortality).

I was a little concerned, then, when I saw the neighbors clearing and disking their fields last summer. Big changes were clearly afoot. Turns out they were preparing to plant hay, as the conservation reserve program was making expensive demands that had turned it into a losing proposition. That seemed like a good thing for us as well, since we could likely purchase their hay directly out of the field at a discount. The location couldn't be more convenient.

A couple weeks ago, I received a call from the owners. Some family health problems were jeopardizing their plans, and they wondered if I might be interested in leasing 21 acres of their property. I said that I was interested, and would get back to them after discussing it with Rachel.

This set in motion a bunch of number crunching and soul searching that I'd had the luxury of avoiding until now.

We currently produce about 1/3rd of our own hay requirement, and none of our straw or purchased grain feeds (though we have grown small amounts of both). Most of our hay is put up with horses -- something which I'm quite proud of. However, doing everything with horses is not easy. Upon learning about our practices, one astute farmer noted "You can do about 10 acres that way, but no more." He was absolutely correct. Our current hay acreage is about 6-7 acres, and some years (particularly during second cutting in mid July's heat, humidity, and horseflies) I swear that it's nearly enough to kill me. Our horses probably don't like it a whole lot either. Getting it all cured and in the barn before the next rain invariably feels like a race against time.

Though our farm is nowhere near self sustaining, we're far enough down the path that I have an idea of what it would take to be that way. Without the use of fossil fuels, it turns out that meeting your own food requirements is a full time job for an entire family. Attempting to sell some of your production, when your competition invariably makes as much use of fossil fuels as possible, has got to be one of the fastest routes to a new life at the local gospel mission. It's like challenging someone to a race in which you'll wear sneakers while they drive a Maserati. You might enjoy the race, and leave the world a better place than the driver will, but you're gonna lose big.

With all this in mind, it's a given that 21 additional acres of hay, if we were to lease it, would not be managed without fossil fuels. We would probably have to use chemical fertilizer to keep the fields in good shape as well, since our manure spreader is always loaded by hand and our total manure production is not enough to cover that much ground.

If we were to harvest it ourselves, we'd need a bigger tractor to make it practical, along with a haybine, baler, and likely a new rake and additional hay wagons. That's several thousand dollars at a minimum, which we're woefully lacking as we recover from the recently finished barn. We'd ultimately need yet *another* barn to store all this equipment.

So the question then becomes whether we can find someone who would be willing to bale it for cash or on shares -- without costing us more than it would to simply purchase the equivalent hay. We have a neighbor who's expressed interest, but I do worry that this hay won't be a priority in such an arrangement. Hay that isn't prioritized gets rained on.

There are, of course, other criteria to be evaluated beyond the purely financial. No matter how it's harvested, hay from the field next door is invariably an environmental improvement over hay cut in the next county (or, at times, much further than that). Hay which we grow won't be sprayed with nasty insecticides for leaf-hoppers as may be done with purchased hay. Keeping the field next door under our control also ensures that we won't be drinking pesticides in our well water or losing our bees every winter to neonicotinoids (which are used on nearly all corn/soy seed).

Leasing opens up other options as well. While they're unlikely to be utilized while I'm pouring 50 hours a week into my day job and commute, we would potentially have the option to grow a significant portion of the grain (corn, oats, soy, etc) that we now purchase. We could, in theory at least, do some of the hay harvest with the horses as well. Raking or tedding hay, for instance, is nearly as fast with horses as it is with a tractor.

Last but not least are my ever present Chicken Little concerns. I've had these for a while, but thus far they've been delayed by lots of creativity (damn you Ben Bernanke and your quantitative easing!).  They force me to see things not just as they are, but as I expect them to become. First and foremost is the consideration of how long oil will be readily available or affordable. When that becomes a problem, there will be no hay or feed available at any price.

At least I'm in relatively good company. Both the Pentagon and the German Bundeswehr, among many others, have produced studies which point to 2015-2016 as the most likely period for the onset of significant problems with regard to global oil production. We don't need to wait for oil to run out before we have problems, as *any* supply constraints are likely to trigger economic gyrations that could easily derail us -- and make oil supply problems even worse.  If these studies are correct, now might be a *great* time to have a bunch of hay growing next door which we'll still have the ability to harvest, at least while our equipment holds up.

On the flip side, business as usual might well be sustained a bit longer by more creative economic contortions, making my concerns moot for the time being. If we go ahead and lease the property, I could easily spend *more* to lease, plant, and harvest hay than we do currently to purchase hay, while working ourselves to death for the privilege. We would also carry the entire risk of failed harvests, as has happened in two of the last three years on our existing hay fields.

I suppose it all boils down to this. So long as the industrial economy continues to function, it's the only place to make a living, and will remain a force with which we cannot successfully compete. Once it fails, clinging to it in hopes of a revival (a popular choice, I suspect) will be a recipe for certain failure. In the mean time we have to straddle both worlds -- making a living in the present while preparing for an uncertain future.

Thursday, March 5, 2015


I'm always a little offended when I see it.  Horse drawn plows, manure spreaders, grain drills, wagons, cultivators, etc, parked in someone's front yard for display.  

Sure -- the people who commit such crimes probably don't intend to offend. Some might even share my love of old farm equipment, but are having trouble expressing it in a proper manner. It absolutely kills me to see these things rotting and rusting away for no good reason, particularly the implements which started out in perfectly usable condition when they were parked there in the flowerbed.

Why should it bother me? It's like dancing on the grave of a more noble era. An era in which we had yet to go completely insane, and were less hell-bent on destroying our future for today's fleeting convenience.  An era which we'd do well to emulate rather than memorialize.  It's a burning of the bridge that offers the only route to a future.

Propping up a bit of our past like this seems to say, "Gee, isn't it great we don't have to use those things anymore!?", when we'd be much better off if we still did. Don't these folks understand that our "modern" lifestyles and technology are but a brief blip in the timeline of history that also threaten to end it? Apparently not.  We should look twice before discarding our past into history's waste bin.

I have a revenge planned, to be implemented as soon as I become fabulously wealthy from my dairying habit. I'm taking the biggest, baddest six hundred and twenty horsepower John Deere tractor -- the flagship of diesel fueled, chemically enhanced agriculture -- and I'm parking it in a flower bed. Watching it rust will warm my soul each time I gaze upon it.