LittleField Notes Hot and Dry

LittleField Notes: Hot and Dry

by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA

It has been another summer for the record books: hot and dry followed by hot and dry and served up with a side of hot and dry; this from the Washington Post, “A parched Seattle breaks two incredible all-time records – hot and dry.” It was the driest period on record between May 1 and July 31. On a typical year Seattle will experience four days of 90 degrees or more. This summer we hit that number ten times! I know to a Midwesterner or Southerner these are not numbers even worth mentioning. But we Northwesterners, used to a steady diet of clouds and cool, spent the summer stumbling around in a stupor, sweating and feeling oppressed like the Israelites enslaved in the deserts of Egypt.

From time immemorial farmers in our region attended the 4th of July festivities and began cutting hay the next day. And it is truly amazing how our weather pattern does noticeably shift right around the first week of July: out with June gloom, in with actual summer. This year was different. June started off hot and dry with none of the usually persistent marine cloud layer in sight. I wondered if I should start cutting hay early. I hesitated, not trusting the sun. Finally my cautious reluctance melted away and I had to join my neighbors and begin dropping some hay. Once I started I didn’t stop until the whole crop was tucked away in the barn. I finished this year before I would have usually even started.

Hot and dry conditions settled in with an endless sameness day after day. It felt like a new dustbowl. Working a bare-fallow field one day, the dust enveloped me and swirled about, driven by erratic winds. I had to irrigate row crops for the first time ever, carefully threading drip lines through already established crop rows. This proved challenging and time consuming, but necessary since I had to be efficient with my water use. One reliable spring by the barn, the old moonshiners spring, had quit flowing entirely, and the one that feeds the house and provides what little irrigation water I have, was lower than I had ever seen it.

As I write these words in mid-September the rains have returned. There is a flush of new growth in the pastures, cover crops are establishing rapidly and the air is once again moist and hospitable. The farm feels like it has come out of a long hibernation filled with uneasy and restless dreams, waking to a bright new morning, full of promise.

LittleField Notes Hot and Dry

New Mower

I would be remiss if I didn’t make a special note of what may be the most important horse-drawn technological advance since John Appleby invented the twine grain binder in 1878. I&J Manufacturing of Gap, Pennsylvania, in consort with ESM of Germany, have developed the first new ground-drive, horse-drawn mower in more than 60 years. I first saw it demonstrated at Horse Progress Days 2013. I&J developed the chassis and paired it with ESM’s innovative pitmanless reciprocal sickle bar. It would be exciting to see any new ground drive mower on the market even if it was simply a reworking of the old technology, but this machine takes a significant leap beyond its old predecessors. What could be so special as to cause me to leave my beloved John Deere parked in the machine shed the whole of this year in favor of this new machine?

To illustrate I’ll first offer a brief review of the basic principles of old style sickle bar technology. On the most common horse drawn mowers still in use, the McCormick-Deering #7, #9, and John Deere Big 4, the sickle bar works like a pair of scissors. The sickle, composed of individual knife sections moves back and forth across guards, which have a flat bearing surface called a ledger plate. Imagine this action at a micro level: as the blades of grass are pinched betwixt knife sections and guards they are cut and fall, cascading back in the wake of the forward motion of the machine. With this system all the sections align with all the guards at precisely the same moment, hence all of the grass in the mower’s path must necessarily be cut at the same instant. If the sickle encounters very fine grass, or the sections begin to dull, plugging can result and in certain conditions can be a maddeningly common occurrence.

The new I&J mower has dramatically changed this calculus. Instead of a single sickle moving over fixed guards, the new machine employs two sickles moving in opposition. This system does away with ledger plates and guards altogether. Picture the scene at the micro level once again: the cutting action now involves two reciprocal knives. At no time are all of the sections of both knives in complete alignment. Instead, the cutting action ripples back and forth across the length of the cutter bar, cutting the grass successively along its length rather than all at once. This simple innovation virtually eliminates plugging, resulting in a 40% greater efficiency over the old style mowers. In other words, a two-horse team can now effectively pull a seven-foot cutter bar with the same effort previously required to pull a five-foot bar. This is a radical leap forward. I know of no equivalent technologic leap in recent memory. If I told a group of manufacturing CEO’s I could get them 40% more output with no additional input I would be run out of town on a rail. Yet I&J and ESM have done just that. I put this new machine to the test this year in my carpet-like, extremely dense stands of bottomland native grass hay and it performed beautifully, just whirring along and dropping hay as pretty as you please.

Some of you may rightly question my enthusiastic promotion of greater efficiency. Perhaps if I care so much about improved efficiencies I should just go ahead and get a tractor – a big one. Why farm with horses at all if I’m so worried about getting more work done in less time? In response to this fundamental question I’ll take this opportunity to step back and take a basic look at agricultural technology vis-àvis efficiency with a bit of a parable:

A man lives with his tribe and cattle in a far off land with a mild climate and abundant rainfall. He and his fellows wander around the country driving herds to fresh grazing and setting up their camp anew each time. It is not a bad life, but longing for a more settled existence, our hero one day has the bright idea to take a stick and scratch up some soil and drop in a few seeds he has collected along the way. He has just invented the first tillage tool. Scratching at the soil is so effective that he decides to make the stick longer and lash a sharp stone to the end of it. Now he has a sure-enough hoe and it works even better than the stick, allowing him to plant more food for the village (for by now his people have ceased wandering) with less time and effort. He is happy enough with the hoe, but he is very tired at the end of the day and some people in the village are still hungry, so it is decided to make the stick stouter and bigger and yoke it up to an ox and use the beast to provide the power to scratch at the soil instead. Our budding farmer is really thrilled with this new development. The village is prospering and many such farms come to populate their little fertile valley, which now supports a thriving village center with bakers and blacksmiths and all manner of small shopkeepers. Some farms are sporting horses at this point, which are replacing the slower oxen and iron has replaced stone. When at long last the first tractor arrives on a neighboring farm no one looks too askance. Isn’t this just one more logical step in our stately advance in farming efficiency? The fellow who bought the tractor soon realizes that he is so efficient that he can not only till his own field in short order, but the fields of several of his neighbors as well. In the interest of increased profits, and in part to service the debt on his new tractor, he buys out his neighbors and lacking any other livelihood, the neighbors leave the village. This pattern repeats itself over and over again until the village can no longer sustain the supporting shops and industries that made up the once thriving village. Soon the village itself withers down to nothing and the man with the tractor stands alone in the middle of his vast empire of emptiness and a single tear drops down his face and lands in the soil at his feet.

You see, not all efficiencies are created equal. A line is crossed at a certain point where the costs of greater production and increased efficiency become greater than the returns. That line exists at the juncture of community, family, neighborhood and landscape. A new technology must be put through a litmus test of sorts: does a technology advance the common good? Does it degrade ecosystems and soil? Does it displace people, and as Wendell Berry asks, does it do the job better and more cheaply than the tool it replaces?

A fine example of this concept in practice is the use of motorized forecarts in Amish communities. I am frequently asked about the apparent contradiction between the Amish ban on tractors and the ready acceptance of motors on forecarts. Remember a tractor knows no human-scaled limits, while horses, pulling a motorized cart most certainly do. The endurance of the horses becomes the limiting factor, not simply the amount of fuel and time one has to sit making endless rounds, even to the point of turning on headlights and insanely continuing into the night. At the end of the day the farmer using the motorized forecart will still have neighbors, his children will still have schools to attend and his countryside will be well-peopled and filled with agrarian loveliness. If you have ever driven west out of the Amish country of Holmes County, Ohio and head into the corn and soybean monoculture that is the heart of this country, then you know first hand what I mean.

I am, in fact, happy that I don’t have to cut 20 acres of hay with a scythe or till my garden with a stick. Nor yet do I want to race through my work with the latest air-conditioned laser guided tractor. Wonderfully appropriate efficiencies are waiting at hand every time we set out to accomplish a task following in the heavy footfalls of team of horses in harness. Draft animal power, whether it be horses, mules or oxen is a most appropriate and indeed timeless technology.

LittleField Notes Hot and Dry

Cautionary Tale

In conclusion, I’ll entertain you at my own expense. It happened on a beautiful sunny early morning in June as I prepared to go to the field to cut the first few acres of hay of the season. I store my mowers in a completely enclosed and weather tight shop that has big garage style doors along one side. When I need a mower I simply open the door, roll the mower to the edge of the concrete floor letting the tongue stick out, go to the barn and fetch the horses, hook up to the waiting mower, drive out of the shop and head for the field.

The new I&J mower waited in readiness; I hitched up the horses, clucked and away we went – for about two feet that is – until the top of the cutter bashed into the bottom of the shop door. I hollered “Whoa!” Everything came to a sudden and alarming halt. The mower folded up where the tongue is hinged to the chassis and I fell back and landed unceremoniously on the floor. I quickly stood up and while Star and Donald waited patiently (a testament to the temperament of heavy horses, especially the Suffolk) I forced the now mangled shop door up to its fully open position. I stepped the horses up, which neatly unfolded the mower, and off we went, none of us any worse for the wear.

Moral: when you drive a mower out of a shop with a seven foot cutter bar you must first raise the door higher than was previously necessary to clear your old five footers.