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.

1 comment:

Cassie Brendan said...

Bruce reminded me that horses are intelligent animals, too. The way you treat those animals is really inspiring. This idea of riding horses for transportation is actually good, although the number of people relying on cars increases almost everyday. But I also agree that this technology requires energy from living creatures on this planet. Humans are the ones who invented cars after all, right? Let's just hope that people will become more aware on the importance of utilizing these inventions responsibly so we won't run out of resources.