Friday, December 24, 2010

The Allure of Poverty

Being as I am a contrary sort of fellow, I see the dairy as having a greater long term potential than my normal "day job", where I work for a software company that supports equipment dealerships around the country.  The declines in world energy production will ultimately have a significant and negative impact on the equipment industry (among other things), eventually impacting my job as well.

With this in mind, I decided to sit down and run some numbers.  At one time I figured we could realize an annual profit of about $4,000 per cow, which I still think is entirely possible if I weren't stuck on maintaining my ideals (grass-only feeding, calves remaining with their mothers, etc).  While I didn't figure out a "per cow" profit this time around, I did calculate the hourly wage that I'm making.   So long as I don't try to amortize any of our capital investments (farm, fencing, cows, hay equipment, etc), my optimistic Enron-style accounting says I'm raking in about $2/hr.  Not too bad for a hobby, but not so great for a primary career choice.

So let's just say that the slight pay differential between life as a programmer and life as an idealistic dairy farmer makes it very difficult to choose the latter in lieu of the former.  When the time comes that "dairy farmer" becomes the better (or only) option, I'm hoping that $2/hr might actually be a good wage, but at that point money might not have any value anyway.  For now, I have a renewed love of programming.

Our hogs and lambs have all returned from the butcher in neat little packages that have taken up residence in the freezer. 

I thought it would be difficult to eat an animal that I'd raised.  I wanted separation.  A firewall.  I didn't want to have to reconcile the death of an intelligent creature with the food I would be eating.  I didn't want to name any of the animals that were destined for the butcher, because I thought it would be easier to think of them as faceless objects or numbers.  I didn't want to be eating a "pet".

I've changed my mind now.   The fact is that I did love the animals we butchered, and I'm glad that I did.  I watched the lambs being born, and helped them find their first milk.  I loved watching them bounce around the pasture in the spring, playing the universal game of chase. 

I remember the two very cute piglets in the back of the pickup on the hot day in July when they arrived, and how "Popcorn" immediately took a nice cool bath in the stock tank.  I remember how much they relished the first field corn I picked and dropped in their pen, and how excited they were when I came to them with a bucket of surplus milk.  

There's no shame in ending an animal's life to turn it into food.   The true crime is to have no knowledge -- and thus no true appreciation -- for the life that becomes your food. 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The New Slavery

As a brilliant inventor and statesman, a progressive farmer, and a tireless advocate for liberty and morality, Thomas Jefferson has a rightful place as one of our nations most respected founding fathers.   But despite his many excellent qualities, he actively and knowingly destroyed the lives of other people for his own personal gain.  Over the course of his life, Jefferson was known to have owned 600 slaves. 

How is it that somebody who was so obviously brilliant and otherwise morally outstanding plays a part in the destruction of 600 people's lives?  A character flaw, perhaps?

As with any other person, Jefferson's benchmark for morality was set by the norms of the society he was a part of.   With a few notable exceptions, that society had no qualms with the enslavement of other people for their own personal gain.  Something which would appear to be unquestionably immoral to an outside observer was thus unquestioned by the society that benefitted from this behavior.   Morality was based not on right or wrong as we would like to think, but rather upon a lemming-like consensus among peers.

You and I are no different.  We base our moral benchmark upon the norms set by our present day society -  not upon right vs. wrong.  Not only does the collective conscience of our society turn a blind eye to our behavior, but it effectively punishes those who would question it. 

The primary difference between Jefferson's moral failure and our own is that his actions had direct impacts on people he knew and saw on a daily basis.  Our moral failures are a bit more nebulous, and thus more difficult to address.  All we can be sure of is that our actions are likely to destroy the life of people unknown, in ways we can only guess at.  In fact, our own lives are likely to be among those destroyed - by ourselves.

Though Jefferson did speak out against slavery and make efforts to end it, he remained a slave owner until his death.  I'm sure the benefits to be realized as a slave owner were very difficult to give up.  I know I'll be the same in this regard, as the benefits of my fossil fuel use are also very difficult to forego.  I'll continue to destroy the lives of people and animals unknown, for my own personal gain and convenience.  But I still plan to chip away at my own dependence.

Truth be told, no human has ever walked the earth without adversely affecting other people or animals.  Our ancestors hunted desirable species to extinction, negatively altering their own environments.  Our agriculture has had negative impacts all the way back to its infancy in Mesopotamia.  It's simply not possible to be a no-impact human.  It is possible to be a low impact human, however.  Modern American society makes each of us far more destructive than our ancestors by an order of magnitude.  Each of us needs to strive for lower impact, both as a moral imperative as well as for the self interest of perpetuating our species. 

The thing is, we'll never know exactly which of our actions were responsible for which effects.  Just as the x-ray of a lung cancer patient has no Marlboro logo which would allow us to determine the exact culprit, no future dustbowl will come with a BP or Peabody Coal logo.  

I believe that the massive and unprecedented heat wave and fires in Russia are a direct and tangible result of my own fondness for driving to the mountains so that I could go skiing.  But nobody will ever be able to pin it on me.  Am I innocent because everyone else was also driving cars too?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Favorite Season

I like winter.  The trees whistle as the wind blows through their leafless branches.  It reminds me of one of my other favorite sounds -- wind whistling through the sailboat rigging in a marina during a storm. 

In spring, just after we're done with our maple sugaring, the peepers (listen to them here) come out, soon to be followed in summer by the orchestra of bugs running day and night.

Fall seems to be the quiet season, but what it may lack in sound is made up for with a spectacular color display.

There's also a "feeling" that goes with fall. Contentment, perhaps. The barn is full of hay, the wood pile is stocked for winter, and everything we raised this summer is now stuffed into the freezer, pantry, or root-cellar.  We're still busy, but the sense of urgency is gone.  There's no hurry to get the hay put up before the next rainstorm hits.

Two weekends ago we used the horses to spread some of the barnyard manure on our hayfield.  Everything went well until the 5th load, when one of the drive chains broke.  It didn't bother me a whole lot, 'cause I was ready to take a break anyway, and it should be an easy fix. 

The break gave me the chance to take Bobby out for another drive, which I wanted to do anyway.  We've been getting out once a week, averaging about 10 miles.  There are miles of gravel roads just south of our house, weaving through a wooded wildlife area bordered by small farms.  Couldn't ask for a nicer spot to take a sunday drive.

Twice now, we've passed an elderly woman sitting in a lawn chair in her front yard, bundled up and enjoying the fall weather.  She absolutely lights up when she sees us, waving enthusiastically.  That never happens when you're driving a car.

10 miles seems to be about Bobby's limit without taking a rest.  Anything much more than that and he starts to slow down.   That's one of the reasons that older towns were rarely spaced more than 10 miles apart;  it simply wasn't practical to travel much more than that before the advent of cars. 


Our old ram Thunder wore out his genetic welcome, spurring us to find some new blood for the flock.   It just so happened that Tillers International (where I took my draft horse classes) was looking to sell their merino ram.  I remembered him from my classes, where he always tried to parade in front of the horses when we hitched them up.  As luck would have it, someone living just a couple miles from Tillers was interested in Thunder, so we dropped him off and picked up our new ram on the same trip.  Thunder found himself with two nice ewes, who immediately garnered his attention and made him forget all about the traumatic move.

Bam-Bam, as we've named the new ram, looks quite impressive with his large curled horns -- like a rocky mountain bighorn sheep.  He felt right at home with our draft horses, who look just like the horses he's familiar with from Tillers.  He walked up to each horse, extended his right hoof in the air (as if to shake hands) while cocking his head to one side and flicking his tongue.  Bruce (our lead Belgian draft horse) wasn't so keen on this new self-appointed friend, and tried to kick him. 

Bruce knew I didn't like that behavior, and sulked a bit as I scolded him.  Walking back to the barn,  I turned around just in time to see Bruce pick Bam-Bam up in his mouth (ala Tyrannosaurus Rex) and drop him.  I half expected to find Bam-bam mortally wounded with a massive chunk of flesh hanging from the middle of his spine, but he appeared to be unscathed and undeterred.

We've been looking at wood stoves to replace the electric stove in our kitchen.  The new stoves go for somewhere between $4,000 to $7,000, which seems a bit much.  They also use a lot more sheet metal where the older stoves use cast iron.

We finally found a neat old 1930's Kalamazoo Stove Company model for a good price, which we'll be cleaning up and installing some time this winter.  I was especially fond of this stove because it has a water jacket;  essentially a loop of pipe near the firebox which allows the stove to function as a hot water heater.

Slowly but surely, we're chipping away at our electricity use.  Some appliance replacements are easy.   The wood cook stove, while it will be a bit less convenient than the electric stove, isn't such a big change.  Going without a dishwasher takes a bit more time as well, but it's not a big deal either (Rachel disagrees).  The refrigerator could be replaced with an ice box (got one) and icehouse (not yet built), but that will be a big drop in convenience.  As it is now, I don't think we have the time required to make many more changes.

I think two of the most difficult appliances to do without will be the washing machine and freezer.  Right now we can toss a load of laundry into the washer on a whim.  Historically, most families had a designated "laundry day" each week.  Losing a few hours a week would be a big deal.  

There really is no non-electric equivalent for the freezer, unless you count a smokehouse and lots of salt, or canning and dehydrating as an alternative.  There's always the option of a solar powered freezer, but the associated battery banks, charge regulators, panels, and the appliance itself are all both expensive and complex, and thus prone to high maintenance.  They would contain enough embodied energy to negate any environmental benefits.  Suffice to say that the regular AC powered freezer is a huge convenience that will be sorely missed someday. 

Yet the fact remains that most people in the world get along just fine without *any* of these appliances.  I guess it's all a matter of adjusting the paradigm we've come to accept as "normal". 

I figure that our low energy future will look a lot like our low energy past.  Travelling more than 10 miles will be an unusual occurence.  I'll bet that we don't wash each garment after a single day's wear.  A closet full of clothes will be something for the wealthy, whereas most of us will probably return to the historical norm;  one set of work clothes, and another set of dress clothes (if we're wealthy enough for the latter).

A 3,000 sqare foot home will again be a mansion or a multiple family dwelling both because the materials to build or maintain a house of that size will be prohibitively expensive (if they're available), and heating such a space will also be expensive and/or laborious.

I don't see this as a grim future, however.  It's just a change.  Some of it will be good, some of it bad.  It'll just be different from our present reality.  Embracing it before it embraces us seems like a good idea.

Some of our hens have discovered that the new hay feeder makes an excellent high-security nesting box. 

Thursday, September 30, 2010


We've had the buggy out a few times now, with Rachel and Henry even daring to ride.  Bobby has been doing well;  occasionally shying from odd things at the side of the road (such as a plywood silhouette of a horse and buggy), but behaving well around traffic.  We'll give him a little more time on the backroads though before I dare to venture with him into town. 

Due to my lack of experience, I wasn't exactly sure how hard I could push him.  I let him walk up most small hills and continue walking for a while after each one so that he could rest up.  But then on a return leg, he voluntarily trotted up each hill with no hesitation whatsoever.  It's apparently much easier to pull the buggy towards home than it is to pull it away from home. 

We've started harvesting some of our corn, an open pollinated variety called "Henry Moore".  The tallest stalks are about 14' -- some of the ears are sitting at over 8'.  The deer were nibbling at it when it was in the silk stage, but have pretty much stopped since then.  Henry and I harvested a small garden wagon load by hand, which we've been feeding out to the hogs.  It certainly won't be enough to meet all of their feed requirements, but it is neat to be able to provide some of their feed ourselves. 

Speaking of the hogs...  While walking around in the hog enclosure with Rachel and Henry, one of the hogs started nibbling on our dog Bilbo's leg.  At first he assumed it was playfulness, and reacted accordingly.  Then the hog persisted and started biting a little harder, at which point Bilbo realized with horror that he was on the menu.  He quickly forgot about it though, and followed Rachel back into their enclosure the next day.  When I wandered over to talk to her, Bilbo was hiding in the bushes, afraid that the pigs were going to eat him again.  He only came out after we assured him that they were gone.
A lot of people wonder exactly why we're doing what we're doing out here on our farm.  Really, what's not to like about starting a business where we'll likely never make more than $5/hour if we actually turn a profit?  As an added bonus, the raw milk dairy we've started also makes us a likely target for MDA/USDA raids, as has happened with many similar operations.  Who wouldn't want to have their computers and files confiscated indefinitely as they did with this nearby dairy, or have a gun pointed in their face?

How about spending untold hours cutting, hauling, splitting, and stacking 7 cords of firewood, when we could cheaply heat with propane and have our weekends freed up?  Or how about growing our piles of potatoes, spending hours planting, weeding, and harvesting, when we could easily purchase them for a fraction of the cost (if we count our time as money).  Why work the farm with horses when tractors are clearly cheaper, more capable, and easier to use?  Or why farm at all when it's so much easier to buy our food?  What's with the whole Amish buggy thing when we have two perfectly reliable cars sitting in the driveway?

I've been asking myself these same questions.  Sometimes I'm sure I know the answers, and other times I'm not so sure.  Thus far, the answers still seem to make sense, as we keep doing everything.  Here are the answers that work for me...

Green Acres
Most everyone has a bit of nostalgia for "The Country Life", though most folks are smart enough to shy away from acting on it.  There are all sorts of benefits to living a rural life, like the freedom to go tinkle just about anywhere we want to.

I suspect this is how my grandmother views our endeavors.  She makes lots of comments about clean country air and the like when I speak to her on the phone.  But I suspect she still thinks we're nuts, and will soon come to our senses. 

Adventure -- The Cure for Boredom
I don't like sitting still.  Spectator sports bore me to tears, as does most TV programming.  I'm the sort of person who will walk for an hour to avoid waiting 10 minutes for a 10 minute bus ride to the same destination.  I haven't endured a single minute of boredom since we moved here.

Last night I got to wrestle with a very agitated Maggie the cow as I put her in our shoeing stocks to get an infected foot bandaged up.  After two hours of pulling her to the stocks, dodging kicks, well aimed geysers of manure, and her urine soaked tail, I was definitely not bored.  I wasn't very clean, either.

Peak Oil
I've made references to this before.  Suffice to say that I think the near future will be very different as global oil production begins to decline.  Food and manufactured goods will become both scarce and expensive.  The economy turns south on a permanent basis (oh wait -- that's already happening!), leading to feedback loops which I think will ultimately result in the collapse of the electrical grid.  I wouldn't be the least surprised if it leads to a collapse of industrial civilization within my lifetime (which is a good thing for the survival of the human race). 

The more I prepare, however, the more I realize that my preparations are likely futile.  I figure it's always good to hedge your bets though.  Growing our own food and running the farm with draft animals seems prudent given what I believe is coming.  So does buying a buggy.  They might help us transition to a low-energy world if the transition is of the slow variety, but I suspect the transition will be tumultuous enough that they won't make much difference in the end. 

Sure -- none of the stuff we're doing is necessary at this moment in time, but I see it all as having significant educational value.  It makes sense to know how to do this stuff before it may become a necessity.  I know a lot of folks have a "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it" attitude, and I think it's going to bite them.   Build your boat before the floods arrive, eh?

Climate Change
Continuing with my Chicken Little theme, I really do think the sky is falling.  You'd have to be nuts to believe that we can release an eon's accumulation of fossil carbon into our atmosphere without significant consequences.  We're already witnessing the death of the oceans -- an event which many people don't seem to recognize the significance of.  Anyone seen this google map of the recent fires in Russia?  Think of it next time you hop into your car or fly somewhere for vacation.

I'm not worried about saving the planet -- it's us humans I'm worried about.  I think we're probably past the point of no return as far as CO2 emissions are concerned, but...  it's always good to hedge your bets, as I said.  That's why we're spending weekends cutting wood and learning to use fossil-fuel free transportation.

Henry has developed a new tool which may help us convince people to give up their fossil fueled lifestyles.  It's still in the development stage, but looks quite promising.

Henry and his new brain-wave transmitter

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tractors never do this

Doc bolted right for me, as Bobby ran for cover and made me wonder if I should do the same thing.  He'd never been aggressive before, but...

Just as I was contemplating my fate, Doc spun 180 degrees and came to a screeching halt, presenting me with his enormous fanny just inches from my face.   Planted firmly above his tail was a small bird horsefly which I promptly slapped.  It made a satisfying "crunch" as the blood he'd been sucking splattered all over my arm.   Doc thanked me and looked quite relieved. 

This is fly season, which makes me glad I'm not a horse.  The horseflies around here approach 1.5" long, and seem to be especially bad this year.  The horseflies don't bother people too much, unlike the smaller deerflies that like to play "trampoline" on the back of my head.  They seem to be genetically programmed to only land in this spot, such that you never actually see them.  Even if the sun's not shining, I always curse myself for forgetting to put on a hat when they're around.

I had lots of things figured out before we started farming that haven't worked out too well in practice.  One of those things was the promotion of dung beetles.  Why are dung beetles such a big deal?   Because they bury cowpies and displace the face-fly maggots who otherwise inhabit them and grow up to harass every animal on the farm.  Most people unknowingly kill the beetles with wormers such as Ivermectin, and have never seen them.

I was quite excited last year to discover that we do have dung beetles, such as the rainbow scarabs shown here.  Tunnelers like these are the best, since they actually dispose of the cowpies by digging tunnels underneath and then packing them with egg filled dung balls.  Another type is the "dweller", which just lives out a life of bliss while crawling through the food it likes best.   I'm sure their world is very much like the "Land of Chocolate" envisioned by Homer Simpson.

I've done my best to avoid the use of dung-beetle killing wormers, but it just doesn't seem to do the trick.  They're around, but not in enough numbers to bury many cowpies.  Last year I blamed it on the arrival of Doc and Bruce (our draft horses), who had undoubtedly been wormed.  This year, Bobby (our driving horse) and Shasta (our newest cow) could be to blame.  Maybe the beetles will take over next year, but I'm not holding my breath.

We've got some organic fly spray, which is just a bunch of essential oils (cedar, cinnamon, thyme, etc) blended with mineral oil.  Doc knows what it's for, and lets me spray him down with it.  Bruce, on the other hand, runs away from me like a two-thousand pound sissy when he sees the sprayer.  The cows run away from the sprayer as well.  It ain't cheap, but it does seem to work for the animals who hold still long enough to let me douse them.  The conventional sprays all use permethrin/pyrethrin, which are actually quite dangerous neurotoxins, so I've been avoiding them. 

Let's all hope for a nice early killing frost!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Tale of Two Piggies

We have two hogs now, both purchased from an Amish family whose chicken butchering services we've been using.  It was a very hot day when they arrived, so we showed them the water right away.  This one knew just what to do with it.

Hogs are omnivores just like people, and are known for eating people who pass out or die in their pen. Our hogs don't seem to feel the need to wait for either event, and are both interested in eating me no matter how lively I am (they gnaw on my leg when I'm in their pen). So I guess we're even, now that we both want to eat each other.  Hopefully I'll eat them first.

Our broiler chickens have all gone to Freezerland now. We're quite happy with the breed, a newer variety called "Freedom Rangers". They dressed out to a nice 4-5lbs at 11 weeks, and are quite tasty. Although one kicked the bucket (heart attack?), we had no health problems with them whatsoever, aside from the few I ran over with the portable pen.

The more common Cornish Cross (the meat bird raised in the US, aka "Great White Mutant") is known for twisted feet, high mortality rates, and poor foraging ability. But they also finish out in 8 weeks, which means much lower feed costs. We may try those next year just to see how our experience compares.

While I'm on the subject of home-raised chickens, I read recently about a Utah family whose daughters were found to have extremely high levels of arsenic, well above what's considered safe according to the EPA.  How did they get it?   It turns out that their family was using conventional chicken feed for their backyard flock of layer hens, which was essentially the same feed being used by comercial poultry growers.  The commercial poultry growers now add ARSENIC to their feed, achieving the same increase in growth rates that poultry growers have been getting with antibiotics placed in the feed. 

So guess what?   Eat any "regular" grocery store or restaurant chicken lately?   Not only are you getting your RDA of arsenic, but you're very likely getting a dose of FORMALDEHYDE, which is also used in poultry feed as well as in "sanitizing solutions" applied directly to the meat. 

So let's see here... that same old chicken you buy at the grocery store now has:  antibiotic resistant bacteria, arsenic, and formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) in addition to the usual load of salmonella and campylobacter (66% of all grocery store chicken has one or both types of these infectious bacteria).  In addition to that, conventionally raised chickens are being fed a diet of corn and soy, both of which are most likely genetically modified to produce their own toxins, as well as being heavily sprayed with endocrine disruptors like Atrazine (60% of the US corn crop gets this) which are known to cause cancer as well.  Anyone wanna go to KFC?

Arsenic in your chicken is yet another fine example of corporations displaying psychopathic behavior, as is very well documented in the movie "The Corporation".   If you haven't seen it, go and rent it.  It's well worth watching.

While you're gnawing on that chicken leg, let's talk about what makes these corporations behave the way they do.  That's also your fault, btw.   You know that IRA or 401k you have?   The one that has recovered to about 75% of where it was back in '07?  Yeah, that's it.

Let's say you've got a couple stocks and a handful of mutual funds.  If the funds are anything like the mutual funds offered by my employer's plan, they're full of morally and ethically challenged companies like Monsanto, Halliburton, Wal-Mart, ConAgra, and Exxon. 

You've invested in these companies, which makes you their master.  Only you don't really exert any control over them.  You're not actively involved in their management, so you exert no moral or ethical pressure.  You're really just there for one reason, which is to get a little money.  Sure, you may want them to act morally, and within the confines of the law.  But you're really just there for the cash, and these corporations are designed by law to provide it for you.  Whenever a decision is made that will affect your bottom line, they have no choice but to select the option which they believe will result in the greatest return on your investment.  They do need to follow the law (or at least not get caught if they don't), but there's no requirement for them to behave ethically.

And really, it's not that hard for them to follow the law when they often write it themselves.   The congressfolk they bribe lobby usually don't have much of a problem with the industry writing its own laws.   

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Devil and I

It happens all the time.  In conversation, I bring up my plans or goals for minimizing our use of fossil fuels, though I oftentimes wonder why after I've done it.  A skeptic, with a wry twinkle in his eye, says something like "I think you'll really learn to appreciate that <insert any fossil-fueled machine> once you try using a <insert non-fossil fueled equivalent here>."

I think to myself, "Yes, but if we all keep using <insert fossil-fueled machine>, I can kiss my kid's future goodbye.  Thanks for your concern, a--hole!"

In most cases, the "skeptic" is absolutely right.  Using the fossil fueled machine is almost *always* much easier, more effective, more fun, more productive, quicker, safer, and cheaper (at least for now) than the human or animal powered equivalent.  I must be naive to embark on a quixotic quest to avoid them.

So why does this skeptic, and the vast majority of humanity, effectively place their money on anything that uses fossil fuel, when they know what the consequences of that use are?  I think we're in denial.  We're in denial so deep that we refuse to even consider the consequences of our actions.  If we've ever dared to glimpse at the future we know is coming, we shut the door on that thought and throw away the key.  It's a wonderful human survival trait -- this ability to ignore unpleasant images of your own future and hope they never arrive.  Occasionally, we get lucky.  Time takes a turn, and the unpleasant situation is averted.  Then again, ignoring a problem often makes it much worse.

The thing is, I'm one of these skeptics as well.  My problem is that I don't have the ability to forget or deny the consequences of my actions after I've been made aware of them.  I simply can't shrug off the fact that my use of fossil fuels is destroying not only my son's future, but the world I live in here and now.  Even so, I'll probably still be one of the fossil-fuelaholics for quite a while to come.  But I do plan to fight my addiction, for better or worse.  I'll be like the smoker who has quit cigarettes on several occasions.

The differences between fossil fueled machines and the alternatives are really dramatic.  One gallon of gasoline can produce the equivalent amount of work as a person working for three weeks, in one figure I read.  For $2.85 (or about 20 minutes of work at a modestly paid job), I can buy three weeks of work.  What a deal!  It would seem there is a point at which the deal is so incredibly good that it makes sense to just say "Screw the future -- I'm gonna burn me some gasoline!"  Would you sell your soul to the devil if he made you a deal you can't refuse?   It seems most of us already have.  Is it ever a good deal, too!  Heck, if the devil never sweetened the pot, nobody would ever deal with him.

This Fourth of July weekend was one of those times when the deals were just too good to pass up.  For the devil and I, that is.  This was the weekend we put up our second cutting of hay.

It started out well.  Saturday morning, I tedded (that's basically stirring up your hay so it dries faster) one field and raked the second, both done with the horses.  Saturday afternoon, I helped out with our neighbors who were baling one of the fields for us.   I simply don't have the time to get everything done myself with horses, so this was a concession to the devil.  It does beat the alternative of buying hay, since at least some of the work done on this hay was fossil fuel-free. 

Sunday was to be a busy day.  Started out with raking the remaining hayfield into windrows, and then continued with loading the wagon using the hayloader, all done with the horses.  It was hot -- about 90 degrees.  Squadrons of horseflies were out on patrol.  The filtered sunlight seemed to have an orange glow that accentuated the heat.  Doc (one of the draft horses on our team) got pissy and started backing up when he wasn't supposed to, jack-knifing the forecart against the hay wagon while Rachel had the lines. 

We got him calmed down, but the little shot of adrenaline didn't really help out after I'd already spent hours in the hot sun.  After we brought the first wagonload back to the barn, I tied the horses up to a convenient light pole in our yard, still hitched to the forecart.  Something (probably another horsefly) got Doc excited again, so he started running around the pole, dragging the forecart and wrapping the halter ropes for both horses around the pole in a big mess.  So I decided to give them a rest.  That means unhitching each of them, taking off lines and halters, and bringing them in the barn so they could sit at a tie-stall and eat some hay, and then repeating the process in reverse.  That adds another half hour of work to the operation. 

Next, I messed up the grapples as I set them into the hay for unloading.  Everything looked fine, until the trolley was up at the peak of the barn roof, but the trip line wouldn't budge.  We had to bring the hay back down to the wagon to reset everything.  I discovered three unique ways to mess up the grapples, each time requiring a re-do.

After two wagon loads of hay put up with the horses (with three remaining in the field), I was absolutely shot.  Rain appeared in the forecast for the evening, just to make my day a little better.  A quick shower came through, but not enough to hurt the hay.  Knowing that Rachel was only in slightly better shape than I was, I decided to follow her suggestion to use the tractor for the third load.  It was a life-saver.  No time spent to harness up, no need to babysit it, and it didn't get scared by the "BIG SCARY HAY LOADER" the way Doc did when I walked him past it earlier in the day.

I figured that if I was going to make a deal with the devil, I might as well go for the deluxe package. So we used our Honda (a Honda Element) to pull the hay rope. But I didn't just use it to pull the hay rope. It had other fossil fueled amenities that I could partake of, which I did with great zeal. I had that AC cranked on full. Boy did it feel great.

We finished out the remaining two loads the next day using the tractor instead of the horses.  Just avoiding harnessing time saved an hour right off the bat.  Boy, is that tractor a neat tool.  Thank you, Mr. Devil. 

Friday, July 2, 2010

Calves, Cars, and Crackpots

Our two cows which were due in June have both calved. Buttercup went first, with a bull calf we dubbed "Brisket" (aka "Limp Brisket"). His front feet were initially curled back a bit from sitting in the womb wrong, which made it impossible for him to stand right away as calves are supposed to. We brought the vet out, who splinted the legs to straighten them out. He was able to stand with the splints, but couldn't get up on his own, and wasn't nursing well, so we had to tube feed him. I didn't like it any more than he did. Finally, after a week, the splints had done their job. He was able to get up on his own and run around, and started nursing on his own.

Josie waited about 10 days before dropping her calf. After closing the chicken coop one evening, I noticed her standing in a corner of the barnyard with a couple hooves sticking out underneath her tail. I ran to go get Rachel.  By the time I'd returned, a nose was out as well. Rachel yelled at me to hurry as I climbed over the barnyard gate, and I ran up to Josie just as "Blossom" plopped out unceremoniously on the dirt before I could catch her.

Buttercup was never a great hand milker, due to her smaller teets. We originally bought her while we were milking goats, and they seemed fine by comparison. However, with a fully engorged udder, the teets shrunk to half their original size, just like you would see the little "nipple" on the end of a balloon disappear as you blow it up. She became the bane of my existence. I had to lube up her micro-teets with udder balm and pinch between thumb and pointer finger, which I would then slide down the half inch that remained of each teet to get the milk out. Frequent resting was required to ease cramps in my thumb.

I resolved to sell her, and found a young guy from Indiana who planned to milk her along with the goats he and his fiancee already have. We sold her along with her calf, as I didn't want to separate the two after they'd already bonded. So now we're down to two adult cows, just Josie and Maggie. Maggie is about to be dried off in anticipation of her new calf due in September, so then we'll be only milking one cow. Might have to buy another, but am not sure yet.

One of the biggest problems we have as hand milkers is teat size. 100 years ago, it would've been no problem. With the advent of machine milking, larger teats have become nothing but a liability (cows sometimes step on their own teats), so the industry has been breeding for small teats ever since.

Though the process is not yet complete, we started pulling the trigger on going to oil-free transportation. Our new driving horse is "Bobby", a standardbred we purchased from an Amish farmer. The Amish use this breed extensively for their buggies, and frequently import them from horse-cart racing tracks, which is where Bobby was originally from. Our buggy and harness are on order, and should be arriving in mid July.

Bobby is a very nice horse, often coming right over to me when I call him. He desperately wants to be part of our existing horse "herd", but Bruce isn't too keen on this new guy, who is the proverbial 90lb weakling compared to the draft horses. He likes to keep Bobby in his place by biting him whenever he gets close enough. Bobby still grazes near them when they're out on pasture, but I have to separate them at night when they're in the barnyard.

We've had a very warm and wet June. Our barnyard blossomed into a muddy pit, which I'm trying to remedy with loads of wood chips. Our garden hasn't needed watering for a month, and my field corn is well ahead of the "knee high by the 4th of July" measurement -- it's already taller than I am. Our second cutting of hay is down and drying now, and will undoubtedly be keeping us busy this weekend.

Bilbo has succumbed to his bird-dog instincts, and has eaten 3 of our young turkeys now. The turkeys were pecking each other's beaks (one now has the soft portion near his nose completely pecked away), so we let them out a little prematurely in hopes of stopping this behavior. The Bourbon Red chicks seem to be especially vicious towards the larger Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys, of which we're down to 3 now.

The herdshare business is going well, with a few new customers signing up in the last month. We might even be edging towards profitability if I ignore capital costs. Keeping Josie's calf on her has definitely cut production -- probably by a couple gallons per day -- so I'm thinking we may need to purchase a new cow to cover the gap when we dry off Maggie here in a couple weeks.

On many of the websites I frequent, I see people singing the praises of "alternative" energy.  Wind, solar, biofuels, electric cars, tidal energy, or energy storage mediums like hydrogen (which is not actually a source of energy) are all touted as saviors.  If only we made the switch, we could all be driving our cars, heating our homes, and running our factories guilt free! (just so long as we ignore embodied energy anyway)  These folks are often mystified (<----this link is definitely worth a watch, btw) by the fact that we haven't embraced these technologies yet.  I agree with them that there are plenty of excellent reasons to wean ourselves of fossil fuels (the near term survival of the human race, for one), but I don't see the panacea that they see just around the corner.  Here's why...

Every source of energy has an EROEI (energy returned on energy invested).  In the 1930's, oil wells often had an EROEI of 100:1.  In 2000, The US  averaged  10:1, and you can bet we've declined significantly since then.  Deepwater wells (like the now famous well that Deepwater Horizon was drilling into the Macondo field) are quite a bit lower -- typicaly less than 5:1.  Not only that, but many of our deepwater fields are producing less than 20% of what they were expected to produce.  The Canadian tar sands -- which I understand are now our leading source of imported oil -- are at 3 or 4:1, depending on the source.  Natural gas -- which is used to cook the oil out of the tar sands -- isn't much better

The Hubbert curve of oil extraction is a symmetrical bell curve, and we're just past the top of the bell.  The downhill slope, however, assumes an EROEI that is equal to the uphill side, which isn't the case.  As EROEI declines, it makes the available energy decline much faster, as is shown in the third chart down on this page.

The natural gas industry seems to enjoy a slightly elevated image when it comes to pollution.  However, with a very small (and relatively unavoidable) percentage of leakage, it can actually be much worse than coal for global warming.  Newly developing gas fields, such as the Marcellus shale, were being touted as a breakthrough source of new energy for the US.  It appears now that the breakthrough was one of duping investors in these fields, as they're not producing nearly what they were reputed to produce.  People are also discovering that the gas extracted through hydrofracking in these fields often leads to poisoned wells, or flammable water in their faucets.

So, suffice to say that our sources of fossil energy are in trouble.  Follow the curve down from 100:1 to 5:1 over the last 80 years, and it doesn't take a genius to see we're not so far away from 1:1.  At an EROEI of 1:1 (and probably long before that), it's time to pack up and go home.  It's also easy to see that each gallon of gasoline we burn in our car today has a much greater carbon footprint than a gallon burned 10 or 20 years ago.   Keep in mind that worldwide consumption, despite the economic downturn (gee, what caused that?), has risen exponentially over the last century, meaning that we're burning through what we've got left at much greater rates than when any of us were born.  Everything is accelerating, driven both by exponential population growth as well as exponential growth in per-capita energy use.

There is always nuclear energy, which many people falsely believe is carbon free.  Fuel supplies are limited -- certainly not enough to satisfy current world energy use.  As it's done currently, nuclear energy is fully reliant upon fossil energy for mining, processing, and reactor construction. The EROEI varies dramatically based upon the process used to enrich the uranium, and is typically better than our current sources of fossil fuel.  But I simply don't trust it (and neither do insurance companies, none of whom are willing to insure a nuclear reactor -- they're all insured by the federal government here in the US).  Why?  Because humans make mistakes.  Lots of them.  We also like to bomb each other every so often, and cause general mayhem (particularly when energy resources become constrained).  Both of these characteristics bode poorly for atomic energy.  It only takes one mistake or act of aggression to poison a region for longer than human civilization has even existed.  In my not so humble opinion, the risks far outweigh the rewards.  In a half century of nuclear energy production in the US, we have yet to come up with a good solution for storing the waste, which is dangerous for 10,000 years.  Is that a problem?

So why not wind?   I like wind power.  I think it's a great idea.  We've used it for centuries to do all sorts of things.  But it has limited usefulness.  The relatively low EROEI makes it viable only in certain areas, and it can be fickle.  Most of these areas tend to be remote, difficult to maintain (particularly in the corrosive environment of marine installations), and far from transmission lines.  The last issue can be resolved, but it's an expensive one.  I think wind should have a place in our energy future, but it will never be able to fill in the massive gap that fossil fuels are soon going to leave us with. 

Solar is also nice.  Like wind, it's only viable in certain areas where it can pay for the solar installations.  As with wind, these locations are often far from large population centers.  It has a role in our future as well, but it would require *massive* installations to meet current worldwide energy needs (which are really just energy wants, btw).  In an energy constrained environment, I don't think we'll have the money to pull it off on a large scale.  The energy density just isn't there as it is with fossil fuel sources.

Biofuels.  For the most part, they're a joke, and fully reliant upon damaging and unsustainable industrial agricultural practices for nearly every crop grown.  Grain based ethanol exists for one reason only -- because we subsidize corn prices with our tax dollars.  The best EROEI numbers I've seen put it around 1.2:1.  Most put it at below 1:1.  Forget about it.   Biodiesel is slightly better, usually producing an EROEI of around 2:1.  It also benefits from massive tax subsidies.  There simply isn't enough land in the world to both feed us and grow our fuel.  Cellulosic ethanol does supposedly beat the EROEI of grain based ethanol, but it's still pathetically low.  The energy used by the tractors and irrigation equipment to grow it, the trucks to haul it, and the energy to manufacture all of this equipment is simply too much to justify creating this stuff. 

What about electric cars?   GM is shipping the Volt this fall.  Nissan has their new "Leaf".  Why won't these take off? 

First of all, electric cars aren't an energy source.  They're simply a different means of energy storage.  The energy still has to come from somewhere else.  In the US, that's typically coal.  You know -- the stuff that we're now destroying entire mountains and watersheds in Appalacia to get.  The stuff that's covered the entire planet with mercury (such that no lake -- even those thousands of miles from coal burning -- has fish that aren't contaminated with mercury).  The same stuff which the EPA now says is at brain damaging levels in 20% of our kids.  It also has the highest carbon output per btu of our common fuels.  We don't want to burn more coal.  "Clean" coal doesn't exist except in PR campaigns from Peabody coal.  It's a theory, and if ever used, would require that we burn much more coal to power the sequestration equipment.  There's plenty of reason to believe that the captured CO2 would eventually leak out anyway.

Another problem with electric cars is that the electric grid is inherently inefficient.  About 7% of the electricity pumped into our grid is lost in the lines that bring it to your home.  Further significant losses are incurred in charging the battery, and there are significant energy costs in producing the batteries, many of which aren't living up to range expectations, and aren't living very long themselves.  The current grid isn't capable of feeding car chargers for everyone anyway.   The money to build a better grid simply won't be there now that our energy sources are drying up.  Have I mentioned that our economy (or lack thereof) is directly tied to our energy use? (our current recession is a permanent result of energy decline, imho) 

Perhaps I'm a pessimist.  I've been accused of it before.  But I do read a lot about energy issues, and that reading has me absolutely convinced that the world my son grows up in will be nothing like the world I grew up in.  The answers to our "energy problem" don't lie in finding elusive new sources of energy, but in finding ways to live without energy, the way 99% of our ancestors lived, and the way much of the world's population still lives.  The sooner we make the change, the easier it will be.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Figuring it all out

This last week was a lesson in humility.  For the first time we put up our entire hay field loose, using the hay loader and hay trolley/grapple forks in the barn.  This has been a goal of mine for quite a while, as it's the only practical way to make hay without using a tractor.

Yes, it's much more work; of that there's little doubt.  But it's much less work than trying to revive a planet we've put into cardiac arrest -- a requirement if we continue using tractors. 

Suffice to say that there was a steep learning curve.   I learned that it's not possible to back up a hay wagon into the barn.  The only way to back it up is to disconnect and walk it while manually steering via the tongue.  A fully loaded wagon doesn't always move too easily.  It was hot -- in the high 80's.  Good for drying hay, not so good for working.  That's how haying always goes. 

The hay trolley in the barn worked very well, but it takes a bit of technique though.  You have to pull it hard back towards yourself at the center of the barn, fast enough that it trips the release at the center of the track.  But you don't want to pull too hard, or 60lbs of sharp pointy steel will come crashing down on top of you from 30' above.  I finally figured that I could loop the trip line around a beam, which lands the grapple forks well away from me.

It's hard to say exactly how much hay we put up when there are no bales to count.  But, based upon last year's 2nd cutting which produced 160 odd bales, I think we put up the equivalent of 200 bales this time around.  We can fit 4 600 foot long windrows on the wagon before we have to return back to the barn.  With about 28 windrows, that's 7 trips to the barn and back (actually more like 8 or 9, since it took a few trips before we figured out that we could fit four of them on the wagon at a time).

Before we started, I figured that we'd pitch everything off of the wagon and into the hay loft by hand until it became too high, at which point it would become worthwhile to use the grapples.  I was naive.  The grapples can unload a full wagon in 4-5 bites, which is much easier than using pitchforks. 

The horses pull the hay rope, which lifts a huge pile of hay up to the peak of the roof.  As soon as it reaches the trolley, the trolley trip is released, and the whole assembly flies to the end of the barn where it hangs until I pull the release on the grapple forks, when a few hundred pounds of hay drops to the floor with a big woomf!

Another recent lesson in humility was my attempt to cultivate our small patch of field corn using the horses. I was able to focus on the horse's hooves or the cultivator's position relative to the corn plants, but never both at the same time. I think I managed to "save" about 10% of the plants in the last row before I gave up. With the cultivator set to its widest possible setting, there's about an 8" slot through which the corn must pass.

We bought a reproduction of the old "Planet Junior" wheel cultivators, which I've been using instead. It's not nearly as fast, but most of the corn plants get to live for now, at least until I polish my horse cultivating.

BTW -- if you're looking for a non-gas powered option for garden cultivation, I highly recommend the Planet Junior style cultivator. The original models trickle through on Ebay, but they go for about the same price as the reproduction which we purchased.

Buttercup the cow is just about to calve, based on the way her udder is growing ever larger and pinker.  Both she and Josie are due on June 5th, although Josie doesn't seem to be showing it as much.   Like my great grandparents, we're going to try leaving the calves with their mothers, which is almost unheard of in the modern dairy world, where feeding cheap powdered "milk replacer" is the new norm.  Most dairies "beef" their cows after 3 lactations now.  My great grandparents had cows that they kept in production well into their teens.

Eulogy For A Breaking Heart
Gerald Herbert - May 2010
“A young heron among oil-covered mangroves in Barataria Bay, Louisiana"

This photo recently appeared in one of the economics blogs I read. It's not as if I've never seen a photo of a pathetic oil soaked bird before, but this time around I realize that I'm responsible for what it shows. BP is nothing more than our hired hit-man. Sure -- they deserve some credit, but the real guilt rests on the folks who paid them to risk this.  Look in the mirror to find your culprit.

Unless you and I change our lives dramatically we're going to do this again, to billions of other creatures, including ourselves. I'm not talking about changing the flavor of our lifestyles ("I know -- I'll sell my SUV and buy an electric car!") because that won't solve our predicament. Major painful changes are necessary (as in making car ownership a distant memory). Yes -- we will be seriously inconvenienced, to say the least. Personally, I'd take the inconvenience over watching my son realize that his future is no brighter than that of the heron in this photo.

You say you can't get to work without your car?  Then move to where you work, or find a different job.    You would *die* if you could no longer drive to the mountains each weekend (as I once did)?  Find another way to have fun, or figure out a way to live in the mountains.  Can't live in your house without using fossil fuel heat or air conditioning?  Then you're living in the wrong spot.  Find a way to eliminate the need for fossil energy.  You're smart -- you can do it.  Yes, it is that important.

From a contemporary perspective, you and I seem pretty normal. We do pretty much the same thing as everyone else. Our houses are about the same. We all drive cars, and occasionally fly in airplanes.

From a historical perspective, however, you and I stick out like Roseanne Barr at an Anorexics Anonymous meeting. Compared to everyone who came before us, we're fabulously wealthy. My family of three has 600 slaves working for us, and is probably just like yours. Just because we pump our slaves out of the ground in places like the Gulf of Mexico, dig them up from underneath the boreal forests of northern Alberta (now the leading source of oil imports in the US), or blow up entire mountains in Appalacia to get them -- doesn't mean we get to live with a clear conscience. Instead of stealing the lives of folks we've kidnapped from other continents, you and I have resorted to stealing the future of our own kids. But everyone else does it, which makes it alright I guess...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Farmer Training Techniques

The horses have developed an annoying habit over the last few weeks. They now like to run away from me when I approach them with halters in hand. Bruce likes to tease me. He lets me get close, sniffs the halter, and then spins around and bounds playfully away, farting with every bounce. He still follows when I give up and walk back to the barn though, because he knows my backup plan always involves the grain bucket.

When he's finally harnessed and ready for his bridle, he's decided that he can no longer accept the bit in his mouth unless I smear it with molasses first. I tried not to let him make a habit of this, but he tried harder than I did. I'm becoming very well trained.

Doc has become ever more friendly lately. He walks up to me whenever I'm out on the pasture (so long as I don't have a halter in my hands), as he's developed a taste for back scratching. He's even started reciprocating, and now scratches my butt while I'm scratching his back. Sometimes he gets a little carried away though, and just bites me.
Just before the rain started, I managed to put our plot of field corn in; maybe a half acre or so. The horses did everything -- plowing, disking, harrowing, and planting.

While sitting on the newly converted corn planter, I started to get a little nervous. The drive chain was grinding away menacingly next to my pant leg. The depth control lever was pointed right at my chest, and the row marker was held by a rope which would surely hook my foot if I needed to bail off the back for any reason. It dawned on me that the corn planter might not be OSHA approved.

We put together a "chicken tractor" last weekend.  It's basically a portable chicken coop for broilers out on pasture, ala Joel Salatin. Broilers don't live long enough to become smart enough to roam freely, so they stay in this until they're butchered. It allows them to eat some grass and bugs in addition to their grain. We just drag it forward once a day to give them fresh greens.

Word has it that the chicks know enough to stay away from the advancing rear wall as you move it forward, but we had 3 that apparently failed to read their Proper Chicken Behavior manual. When we moved the tractor for the first time this morning, two of them got their legs stuck.  One went to birdy heaven. Hopefully we can avoid that in the future, or we won't be eating much chicken this year.

Horses are an easy choice for a farm; they lasted on farms up through the 50's, well beyond the point at which cars became commonplace. Horses for transportation are another matter though, particularly on roads which are still dominated by cars.

I've spent much of the last several months contemplating how our life will change if I replace my car with a buggy. Where can I safely tie up while I'm in a store? What routes will I take in to town? I'd like to take the shortest route, but that's along a busy highway which would be suicide. There are safer routes, but they are considerably longer. That's a big deal when you're relying on a horse's muscles rather than a gas tank.

I say "my car" because Rachel isn't yet on board with "our cars". So long as we retain "her car", most of my contemplation is probably moot, because I'll just use it instead of the buggy whenever the buggy seems to be too inconvenient. I suspect that will be the case about 98% of the time.

How long will it be before energy constraints reduce traffic and make the roads safer? The Pentagon now says we're likely looking at a 10% shortfall in oil supplies by 2015, with shortfalls increasing every year.  Will that be enough to change the traffic levels? I couldn't find exact figures, but I suspect that's a much greater shortfall than we experienced during the oil shortages in the 70's. I remember the gas lines from the one in '79, enough to know that it wasn't fun for most people.

Conventional crude production peaked 5 years ago.  If we count unconventional crude and condensates, world oil production peaked in July of '08.  We're still near the top of Hubbert's roller-coaster shaped curve, but the downhill leg has begun.  Net oil production (even including new fields as they come online) is expected to decline at a rate of over 6% annually according to the IEA.

Our world will be a whole lot smaller than it is now if we go buggy (it's like going "batty" - only different). I won't be taking any day trips up to Grand Rapids to check out a find on Craigslist. Buying farm supplies will be difficult. Most of what we purchase is from Shipshewana, about 50 miles round trip by car, and further if we take back roads. That will be out of buggy range. I could take my bicycle, but cargo capacity will be much reduced. Taking the bike in the middle of winter or the humid heat of summer wouldn't be easy either. Maybe we'll rely more on UPS?

There are plenty of Amish in the area -- but the nearest are probably about 15 miles away. Within our own buggy range, there won't be much in the way of buggy accomodations, like the hitching posts that many businesses maintain in their parking lots. The highway department also avoids using rumble-strips on the side of the highways in Amish areas, but our local highways are loaded with them (they can scare horses). We won't really be able to blend in here in Three Rivers.

Most all of my ancestors did just fine without cars. Our house was built well before cars existed. Only the last 3 or 4 generations had the benefit of cars in my family. Granted, earlier generations lived in a world which was organized to function without cars, but much of that infrastructure still exists. Are we as capable as our great grandparents?

Most people that I share these ideas with are pretty dismissive. How can you live (particularly in a rural area) without a car? Everyone is convinced that we'll all be able to transition to electric cars soon, but I think we'll sooner find ourselves buzzing around in flying saucers like George Jetson. The energy which made the technology of the 20th century possible was great stuff, but the technology won't keep flying along without the energy that feeds it.

I guess the obvious consequences of our petroleum addiction are more acceptable when the addiction and associated denial are shared. Just like our sheep, humans are herd animals. So long as we're doing what the rest of the herd is doing, we should be fine, eh?  

In the last 15 years we've already started to pay for our addiction by giving up most of the world's coral reefs, among other things. It angers me that everyone seems to be so accepting of this, and so unwilling to stop doing the things which caused it. I wonder if most people even comprehend how important the reefs are to their own existence, beyond the fact that it won't be fun to snorkel on them any more. The oceans as a whole aren't far behind at the rate we're currently pumping CO2 into them. If the ocean ecosystem goes belly-up, a worldwide shortage of fillet-o-fish will be the least of our worries (assuming we're still around to worry, that is).

The Deepwater Horizon Rig wasn't just another oil rig like the many others which fill the gulf. It was an ultra-deepwater rig, designed to get oil at depths well beyond what we've drilled in the past. Much of the oil that remains will be deep-water. Mishaps will be more common due to increased pressures at these depths, and they will also be nearly impossible to recover from, as evidenced by the current spill.

We're going to destroy more and more unless each of us personally kick the oil habit. Have you ever thought of how much you're willing to destroy before you make your own changes? How will you explain to your kids that driving your car everywhere or flying to Hawaii for vacation was more important than preserving the only planet they could have survived on? I don't think they'll view it the way we see it now.  This is the one inheritance they can't live without, and we're gleefully spending it before their eyes.

Nobody can expect everyone to immediately stop using cars. We typically live miles from our employer, states away from our families, and have no decent public transportation.  We still think it's fine to go for a Sunday drive and waste a few gallons of gas. Maybe it's time to start positioning ourselves for a transition?

There's really no questioning the fact that we will -- sooner or later -- run out of fossil fuels that are economicaly viable. It's just a question of when. I expect that most of us will be forced to make significant changes within the next 10 years as a result of peak oil.

And on a lighter note, this is what a frustrated lamb does when mom won't get up for nursing time.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Red Light District

Much has been arriving in the mail lately.  Fruit trees, grape vines, and now baby chicks.  They provide endless hours of entertainment for Coon the barn cat, who dreams of joining them inside their brooding pen. 

While some friends of ours were visiting, Rachel notices one of the new chicks sprawled face down on the straw.  Uh oh.  Kate sees it too, and is thinking the same thing.  Should I go and bury it now with everyone here, or just wait 'till later?   Oh -- there it opened an eye for a second.  So it's still in the process of dying.  Great.  Just then the chick springs to life and runs to the feeder.  Just a deep sleeper, apparently.

Our second ewe finally gave birth a week ago, to a single female lamb.  She had a little trouble finding the teets at first but did finally figure out how to nurse alright.  We've moved them in with the other ewe who has been roaming our orchard along with her two lambs.  Our poor ram now has no flock to attend to, and has befriended Josie the cow.  He follows her around like her calf.  Josie doesn't seem to mind, and  licks him on the head every so often.

Earlier this week, the two male lambs were hiding in a hole where I dug up a tree.  As mom walks by, they jump out and ambush her, each one immediately dropping to his knees on either side of her (they're getting big now) and latching on to a teet.  Their tails start up like the ringer on a fire alarm bell as soon as they make contact.  Mom isn't putting up with it though, and wanders off to leave them staring at each other.

One of the great things about moving to this farm is that we can do a lot of the things we've always wanted to.  That's also one of the bad things about moving here.  There's an awful lot of temptation to plant anything that interests us.  Today that was paw-paw trees, currant bushes, pecans, spruce trees (for future Christmas trees) and a buckeye tree for Henry.  Last week it was wine and table grapes, raspberries, blueberries, and more apple trees (the 20 or so we planted last spring weren't enough). This all fits in around our regular chores (milking, feeding, watering, weeding, cutting firewood, etc), which take increasing amounts of each day.

Much of the day yesterday I spent working on our horse-drawn hay mower.  One of the oil seals blew out last fall and needs replacement before I can cut anything this year.  I spent a couple hours trying to remove the threaded flywheel shaft, using ever more leverage and language to try and break it free, until I realized that I was turning it the wrong direction.  Once I was turning the right direction, it came unscrewed with barely any effort at all.  With the shaft removed I needed to replace the bushing that sits behind the oil seal (and which is probably the reason for the failed seal).  Spent another hour mangling that as I tried, unsuccessfully, to remove it.  Projects like this make me feel smart. 

The day after I returned from a business trip to Bellingham earlier this month, we drove down to Yoder's auction (about half of the Amish seem to have this name), which was a sight to behold.  There must've been over 500 buggies parked there in addition to nearly as many cars and trucks. 

This appears to be the grand-daddy of all Amish auctions, with everything from restored wringer washers by the dozen (the amish use these powered with a gasoline motor) to horses, furniture, farm tools, and ponies.  A bunch of Amish kids were flying around the field in pony carts and catching Henry's attention. 

We were there shopping for our next "car", but didn't see a whole lot of interest despite a fair number of buggies entered in the auction.  There were a couple that I thought might be worthwhile if the price was low enough, but the buggy auctioneer was so slow that I couldn't take it any more, so we finally gave up and headed home. 

Maybe it's for the better that we haven't found a buggy yet.  Since the world is ending soon, I've also thought that it might be nice to have a water source that works when the electrical grid fails.  Earlier I was thinking that a nice Aermotor windmill would be the way to go, but our location doesn't lend itself to wind power very well, and they're not particularly cheap.  

We're investigating a solar well pump, which is quite a bit cheaper than a windmil, as well as being more suitable for our location.  I like the fact that they don't need batteries, which seem to be an achilles heel in most solar power systems.  These are a bit cheaper than windmills, and could use our existing well.  The main downside is that they don't work all that well at supplying a pressure water system, so the best bet would be to install a big storage tank (more $) and pump from that.  That means no showers or sprinklers or "normal" faucets. 

We would still be reliant upon a relatively complex (and thus failure prone imho) system for our water though, so I would like a hand pump as a backup.  So maybe we should just go with that. It would require a separate well, but we could keep our decadent standard electric well pump in the mean time, and still take showers or water the garden with sprinklers until the grid goes down and the hand pump becomes our only option.

Speaking of failing electrical grids...   One of the things I really like about our house are the big maples that shade us in the summer from the east and west -- but not the SOUTH, where shade would be most beneficial..  The powerlines run accross our narrow front yard, making tall trees there a no-no.  I'm thinking that I should plant a nice sugar maple under the powerlines anyway. By the time the tree reaches the power lines (10 years?), I think they'll be out of commission.  It's like placing a bet on the demise of the grid.

Just think -- in 10 short years we could be living in a world without coal fired power plants spewing mercury and CO2 into the atmosphere.  Monsatan and the type of agriculture it spawns would crumble.  No grid means no gasoline, so we'd all be walking or using bikes and buggies.  There would be no more traffic noise from M-60 near our house.  A veritable utopia would erupt, until we realize that we can't buy toilet paper, or nails, or chicken feed, barn roofing, lumber, buggy parts or...  

I could make some really neat copper bracelets out of the old powerline wire though.