Friday, December 7, 2012

More Time

Having deluded myself into thinking that winter allows us some reprieve from the many tasks on the farm, I decided to devote some of my time over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to a slightly less urgent but very enjoyable task.   I built a shave-horse, using only hand tools and wood for material (no steel fasteners or fittings).

If you're like me, you probably had some vague recollection of seeing one at a museum somewhere, and logged the shave horse into the "useless relic from the past that I'll never need" portion of your brain's memory banks.  In our high-tech industrialized world overflowing with manufactured goods, where none of us needs to know how to manufacture *anything*, that's exactly where it belongs.  Well... that's where it would belong if such a world were worth perpetuating, or had anything more than an ice cube's chance in hell.

Whether food, clothing, housing, buckets, baskets, or anything else we might find useful, I see a lot of value in making things which could otherwise be purchased for a fraction of the cost in both time and money.  Most of us will soon have much more of the former and less of the latter.

The shave horse is essentially a foot-operated vise designed for use with draw-knives and spoke shaves -- two amazingly useful tools which seem to be nearly forgotten as we near the end of the power-tool era.   They lend themselves well to making wooden basket materials, tool handles, bows (of the archery persuasion), coopering, and just about any other good which can be made from wood.   As I understand it, many of the early farms in this country had these in lieu of a bench vise for woodworking, and I'm now starting to see why.

Speaking of having more time and less money...   I found myself with exactly that, as I was laid off this week from my position as a programmer with a software company I'd been with for several years.  Even though I'd been more or less preparing for this eventuality over the last several years, it still felt like a bucket of cold water in the face.  Anxiety kicked in.  Would my next job involve a commute that would consume all the time I've been able to devote to the farm and family?   Would I even be able to find something in this corner of Michigan?  Would I be forced to return to some suburban hellhole, spending half my day traversing through the land of stoplights, uptight motorists, strip-malls, fast food, and big-box stores?  What about the loss of healthcare coverage?  Would it be possible to make more income off of the farm, particularly if last summer's drought is the start of a new normal?  Do I really want to cut costs (maybe sell one of our vehicles) enough to live on a farm-based income?

I've decided to view this as a gift of time.  I'm getting all sorts of projects wrapped up.   Doing a little blacksmithing.  A little woodworking.  Catching up on our firewood supply. A little hunting.  Taking the buggy out for a spin.  Eventually the bank account will wane, and the anxiety will resurface.   For the time being, however, I'm enjoying my new-found wealth.

In other news, our cow Gertie had a new calf yesterday morning, a little bull calf we've named Gomer.  Each of our cows have distinctive excrement which I take great pleasure in identifying and naming (Gertie Goobers, Josie Juice, Maggie Mounds, Junie-Fruits, and Blossom Bombs), as it becomes a focus of mine at chore time each morning and evening in the winter.  I giggle to myself each time I think of the name I've already given to Gomer's fecal contribution -- "Gomer Piles".   The joke was lost on Henry... so I had to take it upon myself to visit youtube and find an old episode of "Gomer Pyle, USMC".   Now his education in cultural icons is complete.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Human extinction within 20 years?

Starting in 2010, arctic methane emissions from subsea methane hydrates exploded, as noted by the study cited in this blog. Their conclusion?
Developed (and some developing) countries must cut back their carbon dioxide emissions by a very large percentage (50% to 90%) by 2020 to immediately precipitate a cooling of the Earth and its crust. If this is not done the earthquake frequency and methane emissions in the Arctic will continue to  grow exponentially leading to our inexorable demise between 2031 to 2051.
Though I'm no expert on atmospheric methane, this is disturbing to say the least, and likely explains the wild jump in temperatures we experienced over much of the northern hemisphere last winter, this summer, and in what is materializing this winter as well. Going agrarian, or rewilding isn't really an option when the planet no longer supports human life, as now appears to be likely within a matter of a couple decades.

The methane concentrations being cited are likely to lead to a "Permian Extinction" type event by mid-century, occuring first within the northern hemisphere.

Meanwhile, here in the Michigan, people are up in arms over a recent failed state initiative to require a 25% renewables mix in our electricity generation by 2025. In light of this information, that goal sounds laughable. We shouldn't be focusing on how much renewable energy we're generating, because much of it is not zero-carbon once the infrastructure and maintenance is figured in. We should simply focus on reducing our fossil fuel use. A 90% reduction in carbon emissions is likely far too conservative.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Maybe their squirming on my tongue would be pleasant, like the bubbly tickling of a carbonated beverage.   Maybe the flavor would be wonderful.   Maybe they'd be the best item on a limited menu, requiring very little time to prepare.   But I'm not sure I'll ever want to eat maggots.  Still, someday I may very well find myself compelled to eat a number of other things I wouldn't currently consider as food.

When I first learned of "rewilding", as it's known, I thought of it as an over-reaction to the clear shortcomings of our increasingly industrialized and dehumanized civilization.   Perhaps it had some useful (and certainly interesting) ideas, but it wasn't really a path of interest for me.  The movement seemed to be mostly comprised of young urbanites, generally clueless about the practicality of feeding, sheltering, or clothing themselves.

As we've continued with our farm projects, however, I'm beginning to see it in a different light.   While the agrarian society I'm personally working towards is certainly in a better position on the sliding scale of "sustainability" than the heavily industrialized society that now dominates, it has significant shortcomings.   Much of what we do is still fully reliant upon an industrialized manufacturing base.   Steel plows are still made with coal.   The steel is mined with fossil fuel.   Even if we don't use the fossil energy directly, we're still using it, and we're still threatening the lives of all future generations.

Even if I wanted to see the continuation of industrial society (which would require complete ignorance of its inevitable conclusion) there are ominous cracks.   Witness the economic condition of ours (and most other)  industrialized countries.  Even if we were to eliminate all non-essential federal spending, we would not be able to balance the budget with our current tax revenues, much less pay off the blossoming federal debt.  The hull has been breached, and we're sinking.   Slowly.

Industrial society has some mortal wounds.   It's not dead yet, but the lifeblood of cheap fossil energy is rapidly disappearing.   Yeah, we may have enough fossil energy to run ourselves for another few decades, but we'll be digging our own graves if we do, and we've already dug a very deep hole.  I suspect that the systemic collapse precipitated by increasing energy prices will ultimately be what keeps the oil in the ground.  Not the spectacular spike as envisioned by many in the peak oil community, but rather a steady downward oscillation as smaller price spikes collapse various portions of industrial society.   As the costs of energy extraction continue to rise with lower quality reserves, many energy companies will fold.  The inevitable collapse of the grid will be the biggest and most noticeable drop, I would think.

Witness the conundrum with oil sands or shale oil production.   When the price of oil rises enough to make these resources economically recoverable, the economy takes it in the shorts, dropping the price of oil below the cost of recovery.  These aren't bountiful new sources of energy (as a corporate media likes to suggest to gullible investors);  they're the desperate last hope of a society of addicts.

When it comes to natural gas fracking, investors are the ones being drilled.  The cost of production there far exceeds the revenue of gas production, to say nothing of the fact that leaking well casings will render the groundwater un-drinkable for the next thousand years or more.  What a deal - we get to heat our homes for a few more years, at the low low cost of poisoning the groundwater for generations to come.

So...  whether we want it or not, I think our future (if we manage to preserve it) will be decreasingly industrial, both as result of circumstance as well as the necessity of true sustainability.   This is where rewilding comes in.

Miles Olson lives on the outskirts of a city on Vancouver island (Victoria, I think).   He owns no land, but squats wherever he's able.  He's been studying the activities of hunter-gatherer societies, and has managed to live using many of their techniques.  His book, "Relearn, Rewild", will be a real eye-opener for most.  Part philosophy and part how-to.    Anyone that's going to eat road-kill (or maggots!) must first understand why it might be useful to do so, and his philosophical argument is quite strong.   I'm not 100% on-board just yet, but his suggested path is among the best I've seen.   His book is definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Much has happened since my last blog update in February!   Spring started early, forcing us to get a running start.   We loaded roughly 40 loads of manure by hand and spread it out on our fields to be plowed and some on the pastures this year.

Our half acre of corn (being plowed above) and a half acre of oats went in without a hitch.   Oats need to go in early to gain an advantage over weeds that germinate at higher temperatures.   I thought I'd lost this race when the temps hit 95 shortly after getting the oats planted (in early March), but the crop still did well.

Aside from harvesting our oats and straw, and one load (out of 9) of hay, we've completed all of our fieldwork with the horses this year.  All the manure spreading, plowing/discing/harrowing, planting, hay mowing, raking, tedding, and hay loading were done without any direct use of fossil fuel.  We're not 100% yet, but I'm proud of that.

The first cutting of hay was a bit late due to a business trip of mine to Pennsylvania in May, but we got it all in the barn without rain.   Lots of volume there, but the humidity was so low (in the 20's) that we lost a lot of the leaves as they crumbled off in the field.   Leaves contain most of the nutritional value in alfalfa hay.

As soon as the hay was in the barn, we were feeding it out, as the rain had stopped and our pastures stopped growing as a result.   Feeding this winter's hay in June wasn't something I'd planned on.   With the lack of rain, our hayfields screeched to a halt as well, and the price of hay started to take off.  I can usually get good dairy quality hay at around $4/bale, but I've seen prices as high as $17 this year.   We started buying as much as we could, and sold another cow and some sheep.   We butchered our steer a few months earlier than planned, as any gain he made on hay would've been dearly expensive.  Even with the cuts in our herd and our own hay production, our hay requirements were quickly becoming a several thousand dollar liability.  Milk production dropped nearly 50% with the heat and return to a hay diet.

With temps hovering in the '90's and topping 100 a few times, I decided that it was time to move my computer (where I make money to support my farming habit) to our 72 degree stone basement.   I made friends with a salamander who lives under some boards in the dug-out "michigan basement" section under part of the house.  Hopefully he liked the cricket I put down his hole.

The past non-winter and summer starting in March began to worry me.   It was entirely possible that our farm would be untenable if this continued much longer.   Drought had been plaguing many southern states on a regular basis.   Had that situation moved north already?   Climate models (most of which have proven themselves to be far too conservative over the last decade) suggest that Michigan is destined to lose its forests and become a grassland area.  Would we also be losing our woods?   The massive sugar maples that shade our house?  Certainly changes of this magnitude aren't possible so soon... or are they?  With the north polar icecap on schedule to disappear by 2015, anything is possible.   There's little doubt that this will send our climate patterns into a new state.

About three weeks ago, the rains began again, with a 2" in an hour deluge.   We've had some rain every few days ever since.   The hay is growing again, and the animals just returned to pasture this week.  Hopefully we'll continue this way for the rest of the summer.   The nightmare is over, for the time being.   I'm still not sure we have enough hay to get through this winter (but that won't be a problem if winter doesn't come!), and am hesitant to buy what I'm seeing offered at the moment.   Hopefully our own remaining cuttings will give us what we need.

We've found that our wood cookstove is fine in the mornings, but a bit much in the evenings on days above 90, so Rachel requested a rocket stove for outdoor cooking on our patio.  Rocket stoves, for the uninitiated, are a very simple third-world type of design;  essentially an L-shaped chimney.   Put the wood in the bottom of the L, and set your pot on the top.  They burn quite efficiently.  We happened to have some bricks from an old chimney we took down last summer, which seem to work well for the stove.  So far, so good.   Our materials have cracked from the heat already -- but hopefully will stick together.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Running the Wrong Way

Bonneyville Mill near Bristol, IN.   Built in the 1830's and still operating
Engineers and inventors the world over are hunting for the holy grail of clean carbon-free energy that will "save the world".  Hardly a week goes by when I don't read about some amazing new technological development which will revolutionize the way we generate energy and allow us to continue our happy motoring habits without guilt.

Everyone assumes that all will be well if we can find a source of carbon free energy.  Never mind that we had carbon free (or neutral) energy for thousands of years, and did just fine with it.   For reasons I can't fathom, it seems as if we're wanting a *new* source of energy that doesn't exist yet (and probably never will).

Or, perhaps we should focus on increasing our efficiency?   What about that 100mpg car?   Installing CFL lightbulbs?   A high efficiency furnace, or a newer, more energy efficient refrigerator?  Never mind that a more efficient device becomes a cheaper device to operate -- thus *increasing* our energy demand.  How many times have you decided that it was okay to leave a light on, justifying the action because it's an efficient cfl instead of an energy sucking incandescent?

I've advocated for many of these solutions myself at one point or another.  I've been wrong on many if not most of them.   The fact of the matter is that we don't need more energy, nor should we strive to meet our current energy wants.   If our goal is to ensure the survival of the human race, we need *less* energy, not more!

Carbon emissions -- and their unfortunate side effects, aren't the only problem excessive energy has brought us.   Like pouring a bag of sugar into a vat of yeast, too much energy is exactly what has enabled the continuing explosion of the human population.   It's enabled our vacuuming of the ocean, leveling of the rainforests, blowing up mountains for coal, plowing of the prairies, and thousands of other activities which threaten the life support systems we rely upon.  What happens to an overextended yeast population once all the sugar is used up?

Instead of exploring new ways to render large portions of the globe uninhabitable with nuclear energy, perhaps we should focus on resetting our expectations.   Maybe the scope of our travels should return to historical norms.   Instead of worrying about the efficiency of our lights or air conditioners, we should worry about the fact that we "need" them at all.  

Monday, February 27, 2012

A deal which sounds too good to be true...

You've seen it before, if you follow the news.   Under the guise of "helping" them, president Clinton negotiated trade policies with Haiti which flooded their country with cheap subsidized rice from the US, for which he later apologized as if he had been innocent to the end result of such a deal.   While I'm sure there was some initial relief at the influx of food, the Hatian farmers were unable to compete, and are now out of business.   They're slowly losing the expertise to provide for themselves while they have developed a dependence upon our highly efficient (and thus vulnerable) and industrialized agriculture.

We've done the same thing with Mexico, using NAFTA to flood their markets with cheap subsidized corn, thus destroying their farmers.  Many of them had little choice but to starve or emigrate to the US as illegal aliens. The longer their farmers remain out of business, the more expertise they lose.

This same pattern has repeated itself throughout the world.   At the behest of the large corporations which own it, our government pushes our products into foreign markets, destroying their agriculture and engendering a dependence upon us while destroying their local expertise.  When the foreign country rejects our products as France did, we look for ways to punish them.

The problem isn't limited to people in foreign lands though.   You and I are just like the Haitians.  Every time we opt for the cheap industrial alternative (whether food, clothing, energy, or transportation), we lose the local expertise we once had in providing these goods and services for ourselves.  The gains in efficiency always come at a cost in resilience, lost knowledge, and greater dependency.

A great example of this is the field corn we grow on our farm.   Last year we produced perhaps 25 bushels on our half-acre field.  It took several days to spread manure, plow, disc, harrow, plant, cultivate, and harvest this crop.   At $12 per bushel (organic prices), the end value of our efforts is worth about $300.   If I figure an optimistically low 40 hours of labor involved, and subtract costs, we earned perhaps $5/hr.

A rational person would quickly realize this poor return on investment, and instead shell out the cash for organic, open pollinated corn (if they could find it). That person would be the little piggy who saved on the house of straw just as the wolf is starting to huff and puff..  Why?   Because they're still completely reliant upon a food system that is fully dependent upon fossil fuels -- which are, as I write this, becoming decreasingly viable to extract (not to mention their climate-altering side effects).   If the time comes when the complex industrial food system collapses, they will not have the expertise required to feed themselves or their families.   What do you think that knowledge is worth?

China has done something similar to us as a country.   Our manufacturing sector has been giddy with the prospect of utilizing their cheap labor in lieu of our own.  All they ask for in return is our expertise.   As we become increasingly reliant upon their manufacturing, our knowledge begins to disappear, and we become completely dependent upon them.  Should we rejoice at the cheap consumer goods that enable us to save money (or just buy more stuff), or should we be concerned about our new dependency?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Finding Time

We didn't get around to shearing our ewes before lambing season this year, but the lambs don't seem to mind too much.

Our non-winter has been an odd one -- hopefully not a harbinger of winters to come.  We've been waiting for the right moment to tap our maple trees, when the daytime highs first climb above freezing -- usually in late February.   This year, however, we haven't had a solid week where they remained below freezing, much less a few months of this weather.   We finally put our taps in this morning, and they are all flowing well.   Looks like we could've tapped them about a week ago had we been prepared for it.

I've always had an interest in woodworking, and did a lot of carving while I was growing up, first making toys for friends and myself (swords are very popular with eight year old boys) and then carving figures as Christmas presents for my grandparents.  I've never owned the larger and more expensive power tools for more serious woodworking though, and don't see a whole lot of reason to purchase them now anyway.

Traditional woodworking, however (sans power tools) appeals to me immensely.   A friend of mine is quite knowledgeable about it, and my father suggested that I watch "The Woodright's Shop" on PBS.  I didn't imagine it was the same show I remember seeing a few times while I was growing up, but it is.   It's been running for 30 years now -- a very impressive run!   After dinner we've been picking out a few episodes here and there which I've really enjoyed.

We picked up a pile of black walnut for a song at an auction last spring, which has been tantalizing me ever since.   Made thus far is a milking stool.  Next?   Maybe a medicine cabinet, or....?   Now if only I could find the time to actually complete one of these projects...

As an aspiring blacksmith, I've come to the realization that I can make many of the simple woodworking tools which I don't already have.   I've made a "hook knife" used in spoon carving, as well as a large froe for riving (splitting) planks, allowing me to make smaller lumber without a sawmill.   I'll probably attempt a bowl-adze here sometime soon, but am not sure my skills are up to snuff just yet.

Doing things "the hard way" has a number of benefits, whether learning new skills, avoiding the use of fossil fuels, or gaining a bit of pride and self sufficiency.  Sometimes I think I'm piling a little too much on myself, and other times (such as after watching this video) I'm disgusted that I'm not doing it enough.  So in that vein of thought, I came up with the idea to cut some lumber (white oaks purchased from a landowner across the street from us) which I'm planning to load and haul with our horses to a friend's mill, a little over a mile away.

I know the theory behind loading logs on to a wagon using horses.  This weekend I'll get to see how well I can make it work.   I'm still using a chainsaw (thank you Alberta Tar Sands!), and the mill uses gas as well, but there will be no fossil fuel use beyond that.  No skidders, logging trucks, or kilns.  I'd *really* like to take the logs to a water powered mill, but the two former sites near our farm have been long since abandoned.   Maybe someday I'll get to help rebuild them.

Divesting yourself of the suicidal tendencies inherent in our industrial society isn't easy.   I'm not even sure it's possible with all the bridges we've burned and the knowledge we've lost, but I am certain that it's important to try.   I, for one, would like to see my son have a chance of living on an intact planet.   If we all continue with business as usual, that's not going to happen.

Time is one of the most important -- and scarce -- factors in doing things the right way.   Riding your bike vs. taking the car.   Growing and preparing a meal using your own fuel rather than going to a restaurant or grocery store.   Teaching your kids vs. dumping them at a daycare or school.   Time is of primary importance.

For most families, both parents hold jobs outside the home, often both full-time.   As a result of time constraints we don't even have the option of doing things the right way.   I'm beginning to think that this is a package deal;  doing things the right way may very well require removing yourself from the security of full time jobs, and in many cases taking an effective vow of poverty.   Is it better to remain part of the machine that will kill you and everyone you love, but provide for your immediate comfort and convenience?