Saturday, April 16, 2011

Working for Fun

I suspect most of my old climbing and skiing buddies back in Washington think I've lost a few marbles after trading my former life of sailing, skiing, and climbing for a new life of manure, teats, weeds, and hay.  I certainly wasn't going to waste my life watching TV and mowing the lawn like so many people I knew, and running a farm seemed just a shade more tolerable than mowing a lawn for the rest of my life.  I would've never wanted to tie myself down with daily milking chores.  Every spare dollar and minute I had was devoted to play.

Something changed for me.  Maybe it was just getting older.  Terrifying Rachel on one especially stormy sailing trip made it tough to take the sailboat (which doubled as our house) out for a weekend.  The arrival of our son Henry added a new hurdle to any trip to the mountains (Are the diapers packed?   Sippy cup?  Oh wait -- it's his nap time now!).  Then there were my nagging doubts that driving 100+ miles to get to the mountains and back wasn't exactly a model of environmental responsibility, particularly in light of new knowledge about ocean acidification and the acceleration of climate change.  Playing on the weekends also seemed to lack a sense of purpose that became increasingly important for me.  Added up together, the reasons began to make my usual "fun" a little less so.  

Around 2004, a friend loaned me a couple of books by Richard Heinberg (The Party's Over and Power Down).  At the time I had pretty much written off any concerns over peak oil.   I was smugly confident in the fact that alternative energy sources would be found, just as my economics classes suggested they would.  Heinberg's books did a good job of shooting down that idea, and made me think that I might want to alter course in preparation for what was coming. 

Another event played a role as well.   My son started bringing home the "disease of the week" from daycare.  A chronic sinus infection set in, and I made repeated trips to the doctor for an antibiotic which would resolve my constant fever and fatigue.  I had a CT scan of my sinuses to see if there was anything requiring surgery.  The CT scan came back with notes of a "possible meningioma", which didn't exactly brighten my mood.  After 9 months I finally found an antibiotic that worked, and a year later I went in for an MRI to settle the question of the brain tumor, which didn't exist after all.  In the elapsed time, I decided that it might be a good idea to take my health a little more seriously, and that meant taking my diet seriously.   I discovered the Weston A. Price foundation, which dramatically changed my views on good food vs. bad food.  

So did I in fact trade a life of fun and adventure for a life of monotony and drudgery?  Not at all!  Well... not most of the time anyway.   The many animals on our farm ensure that there's never a dull moment, and continuously amaze me with their intelligence and affection.  Every day I'm learning something new and interesting about them.  It turns out that even the "drudgery" of forking manure isn't that bad either.   Just this evening, our border collie pup decided to try and catch every cowpie I flung on the manure heap, which turned it into a game for both of us and an unwelcome bath for her.

Working with horses has been a real learning experience, and taking Bobby out in the buggy is a blast as well.  On our last trip this week, we were flagged down by an Amish man who was working on a house nearby.   He was surprised to see a buggy so far away from the usual Amish haunts, and perhaps even more surprised to see that the driver wasn't Amish.  When I explained that the buggy was one of my ideas for dealing with energy scarcity, he agreed that it was a good idea, and lamented the fact that many of the Amish are just as dependent upon fossil fuels now as are their "English" counterparts ("English" is the Amish term for all of us non-Amish).

So what's new on the farm these days?

We've put up a greenhouse alongside the garden, which we're really looking forward to using.   That should extend our growing season by a couple months at the very least, and allow us to produce salad greens year-round now.   It's nothing huge (16x28'), just a hoop house, but should meet our needs for now.

The well we put in last year is all ready for the hand pump, which should be installed here in about a week.  Considering that we typically go through 100 gallons a day for the animals alone, I don't think we'll shut our electric pump down anytime soon, but it will be nice to have a manual option, particularly when the grid goes down in a couple years due to the upcoming solar storms, at which point it will likely stay down

Okay, okay -- chances are that such a storm wouldn't affect the whole US, but it's a possibility.  I wouldn't need electric lights when the grid goes down, 'cause the nearby Palisades and Cook power stations will keep the night sky glowing with their meltdowns.   As this nuclear engineer notes, nukes don't do well without a functional electric grid.  Each nuclear power plant is a bold statement that there will never be another war, terrorism incident, natural disaster, or dumb mistake.   Maybe us humans deserve the fate we've created.   Back to the farm...

The garden is all ready to go;  peas are planted, and potatoes will likely go in tomorrow.   We just planted a half acre of "hull-less" oats, which will be our first experiment with small grains.  My only harvesting equipment is a grain cradle for now.   Chances are we'll be hand-tying the sheaves and threshing with flails.  I keep thinking that an old pull-behind combine like an Allis Chalmers All-Crop would be nice though...

Field corn will be going in here in a couple weeks.   This year I've decided to try Reid's yellow dent instead of the Henry Moore (both open-pollinated varieties), for the sole reason that it will fit the seed plates on my planter better.  It's either that or find a new planter, because my 100 year old Deere & Mansur planter is too old and obscure to find new seed plates for.  Otherwise, I think we'd continue planting the Henry Moore.

While plowing our garden with the horses a few weeks ago, I realized that the left line wasn't responding due to a buckle hooked on the check-rein.   Losing steering is always a bad thing with horses, and this was no exception.  Horses naturally like to freak out.  They took the walking plow for a spin through the orchard (fortunately missing all of the trees) and ended up coming to a stop in the raspberries I'd just wired up.  The only damage was to a couple wires and some raspberry canes, but both of the old leather harnesses had multiple tears. 

I decided that it was probably time for a new set of harnesses anyway, so we're waiting on those at the moment.   The new harnesses use a different design to avoid the problem we encountered, though I'm sure I can still find a different way to screw things up.  But every cloud has a silver lining.   While we're waiting for the new harnesses, we've been super productive while we use the tractor for everything.


Marshall said...

I don't think you are crazy at all.... well, you were always a little "different" but not crazy.
The more we see farms down here, the more I think that you are really on to something. We spent a night at a farm (that is probably going to be buried by an upcoming dam project) a couple of nights ago and they are mostly off the grid. They do use a truck to get to town and get some supplies but when I looked around I thought of you and how the Veale compound could really exist in Patagonia. Land is cheap down here, there is plenty of water and sun and you won't have to drive to the mountains at all because giant glaciated peaks are literally across the river.
It is a fantastic place down here and it only took me 250 gallons of blissful gas to get down here. I hate to think of how much it will take to get back.
Although I'm not quite ready to take the measure that you have, I really respect what you have done and your choices have had a big affect on mine.
Looking forward to seeing the ranch someday. Maybe this fall.


Anonymous said...

We are also planting hull-less oats this year (only about 1000 sq ft), and we have 1000 sq ft of winter wheat. After the exceptionally tedious threshing event last year, we are actually building a threshing machine (based on the Rodale Press model in the Small Grain book, 70's edition). All the welding is done, and we just need to assemble it. You might want to think about building something like that as well for processing your grains.


David Veale said...

Birgit -- I would love to compare notes with you on the small grains, esp with regards to harvesting/processing. Though I've done a fair amount of research, I was not aware of the Rodale book, but have run accross some interesting info. Please email me (

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog.
A few things in life have opened my eyes to what's really going on. Unfortunately, I think you're probably closer to the truth than most would imagine. Maybe not exactly the things you stated, but perpetual growth isn't sustainable in any regards. We're most likely seeing the beginnings of changes most can't imagine, on many different fronts.

Hopefully I've started my path to sustainability soon enough. The year to come I have a bad feeling is going to be "interesting" to say the least.

One thing I haven't ran across is how you intend to deal with all the ones who haven't come to terms with reality. Who won't be able to stop at Walmart or McD's for their "cheap sustenance".

Take care and good luck.

David Veale said...

Regarding "the ones who haven't come to terms with reality"...

That's a very good point. I'm fairly certain there will be fewer than 1 billion people around to witness the turn of the next century (if anyone makes it that far, which might be a stretch considering the upcoming climate chaos we've built for ourselves).

For now I'm just interested in making it through the transition period, where TSHTF.

American as a group are very well armed, so I'm sure those will be put to good (and bad) use. I like the idea of "speak softly but carry a big stick". That may help us survive the initial phases, but eventually, people will find that ever larger groups engender greater success rates when it comes to getting their needs met, and someone will have a bigger "stick" than we do.

My hope is that we can build someting of a community where neighbors see eachother as important to their own survival instead of envying eachother's stashes of rice and beans. Will such a policy be successful? I have no idea, but it's the best idea I've got.