June 1, 2008

18th Book Excerpts

Another Day on the Farm:

For the second time in my life I have learned that life DOES go on after the death of one’s spouse. Coping with the difficulties of Lillie’s passing was made much easier because of the help and thoughtfulness of a few caring friends. There are many to thank but I am especially grateful to Kathy, Roseanne and Margaret for their support and help both during Lillie’s last days and after her death.

Winter is finally over. The crop has been seeded and doing well so far. The cattle are out on pasture for the summer and it’s motorcycle season once again. My riding friends, Peder and Jim, and I have been out for a few Sunday afternoon rides but I’m looking forward to taking a couple of longer trips this summer. Would like to spend a few days cruising around Southern Alberta and a night or two camping in the Rockies. There are few things comparable with the exhilaration of cruising down the highways astride a bike!

Current Rant:

There are so many things to rant about these days that it’s hard to choose a subject. I am glad though to see that more and more people are gradually waking up to the fact that we are facing very difficult times in the near future. The most serious problem, as I see it, is the inevitable food shortage.

Ironically, it will not be as much a shortage of food as it is inequitable distribution of food. Here in North America the “shortage” will likely be limited only to those who cannot afford the inflated cost of food…there will be plenty available for those who have the money to buy it. In other parts of the world it will be quite a different story though. The combination of changing weather patterns, high production and distribution costs due to petroleum shortages, artificial price inflation due to speculation by the rich and greedy, and hoarding by the general public will likely result in unprecedented mass starvation of the poor.

Until our political leaders wake up to these facts, there is little that can be done to avoid such a catastrophe. Meanwhile it is up to each of us to look out for Number One.

18th Excerpt from “Farmageddon”:
(My latest unfinished book)

Indispensable Water

One of the first steps in our planning was to develop a list of things that would be critically important to twenty first century pioneers. Number one on the list is a reliable source of potable water that is independent of electric power. Without an accessible and sustainable source of potable water there is little need for further planning.

At the present time we have a well that is adequate for our household needs. But since it is a drilled well with a submersible electric pump, there is no practical way of drawing water from it without electricity. In the event of the loss of electricity, a source of potable water that is manually accessible would be of vital importance.

Our livestock are watered from creeks during the summer and from “dugouts” in the winter. If electric power becomes unavailable, we have a choice of either manually pumping water for the cattle from the dugouts, when they are frozen over in the winter, or installing a windmill pumping system.

We briefly considered the merits of a windmill to replace electric power for pumping water. One plan was to set up a tower over our drilled well and equip it with a wind-powered pump jack. But, aside from the cost of the equipment, there is the question of having adequate wind when needed.

We also thought of using an animal powered sweep system to run the pump jack as water was needed. As a kid, I worked for a farmer who baled hay with a horse-powered baler. The horses were hitched to a pole attached to a gearbox that drove a drive shaft which delivered rotary power to the baler as the horses walked round and round the gearbox. I’ve also seen this same kind of system used to power buzz saws and fire-wagon pumps. But it’s easy to get carried away with plans such as these. The best plan is usually the simplest plan — the old “KISS” (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle.

The obvious answer to the potable water problem is a bored well. "Real pioneers" dug their wells by hand because they had no other choice. But we are not real pioneers and are not anxious to do the work required, so we opted to spend some of our transition funds to hire a well-boring crew, assuming that we can find a promising place to dig.

Finding a promising place to dig a well brings back childhood memories. During the aftermath of the Great Depression, my father decided to move his family from a rental house in town to a small “farm” in the country. The farm he chose was less than ten acres in size and totally undefiled by the hand of man. Every square foot of it was covered by brush and trees. There was just room enough between two large Oak trees to park his car off the road.

After clearing a short driveway, and a small future building site large enough to turn the car around, Dad turned his attention to the problem of a water supply for his family. Apparently he had some previous experience with “water dousing”, or had seen someone do it.

He first cut a small forked branch from a Willow bush. Holding the Y-shaped Willow, with one of its forked branches gripped in each hand, he applied enough bending pressure to them to make the main stem point horizontally forward as he began slowly walking around the area nearby the building site. After several minutes of walking around, the stem of the branch spontaneously started to twist downward, whereupon he scratched a mark on the ground with the heel of his shoe.

After repeating this process several more times from a variety of directions, the marks he made formed an intermittent line across the ground. Finally, after many more trips walking along the line and across it from various directions, he place a rock at the point where he felt the strongest “pull” on the Willow branch. It all seemed like magic to me, but Dad was confident that he had found a vein of water. In fact, he was so confident that he started digging a well, centered on the spot where he had place the rock.

Over the course of several weeks of hand digging with pick and shovel, and hoisting the dirt to the surface by bucket and windlass, he dug a well four feet in diameter and forty two feet deep, with Mom at the top dumping the buckets of dirt.

To make a long story short, they had to give up on that well because, beyond a depth of forty feet, the physical effort became too great. They tried two other promising locations with the same results. Finally, after moving to the farm, and hauling water from a neighbour’s well for two years, Dad had saved up enough money to have a well drilled. His confidence in the first well location had never waned, so, after filling up the well to enable the drilling rig to get close enough to drill in the center of the original well, they began drilling a six inch well.

The new hole had to be cased with steel pipe for the first forty two feet to prevent the loose dirt from caving in. After reaching solid ground, beyond the forty two foot level, the driller continued on down with a six inch uncased hole. At a depth of one hundred and eight feet they found signs of water.

Upon drilling down another twenty feet or so, to form a reservoir for water, the driller pumped the well dry and shone a light down the hole. To everyone’s amazement they saw a stream of water, which appeared to be about the diameter of a man’s thumb, shooting across the very center of the six inch hole. Within a few minutes the water had risen to a level above the stream so that the stream was no longer visible.

Whether it was luck or magic, or some natural phenomena at work, I cannot say, but since that experience I have been a believer in water dousing and we plan to “witch” for our water supply.

To be continued next time…

18th Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)

Learning a Trade…

After working for about six months for ALCOA, I heard of a better paying job, with a different company, and went to my boss, Mr. Danner, to give notice that I would be quitting. He asked how much the new job paid and offered me an equivalent raise. From that time on, raises and new responsibilities came fairly regularly but I felt insecure with neither an college degree or a trade to fall back on. So, when an opening for an apprentice machinist job was announced, I put in my application, along with a dozen or more other applicants from throughout the plant. A few days later, Mr. Danner called me in to his office and asked why I had applied for the apprentice job. I told him I felt insecure in my present job and wanted to learn a trade. He offered me another raise, which I declined. He then told me the apprentice job was mine.

The standard apprenticeship training period is four years but I got my machinist certificate in three and a half years. New machinists were always assigned to the graveyard shift—midnight until eight in the morning. The machinist that I replaced had been on graveyard for several years and was very pleased when I showed up six months early.

Stepping Up…

After about three months on graveyard, Mr. Danner came in early one morning and asked me to come into the office. He told me that they were setting up an inspection department in the machine shop and wanted to know if I would be interested in the inspectors job, at an increase in pay. I took the job.

A few months later, I was promoted to foreman of the weekend maintenance crew, which was a steppingstone to moving up into management. My crew consisted of machinists, millwrights, welders and pipe fitters and we did maintenance work throughout the plant. Next I was promoted to foreman of the graveyard shift.

Sometime later, a man by the name of Frank Letterman arrived at the plant from the head office in Pittsburgh. He seemed to be some kind of liaison man for the Works Manager, but he was assigned to the Mechanical Engineering department. What his real assignment might be was the subject of much speculation.

Early one morning, about an hour before the day shift started, I was paged to call the cafeteria. Thinking there was some maintenance problem, I went to the cafeteria to have a look. As I entered the dining room, Mr. Danner motioned to me to come over to the table where he sat with Frank Letterman. They had a coffee waiting for me. After a bit of small talk, Mr. Letterman made some comments about the good job I had been doing and then asked how I would like to take over the General Foreman job in the machine shop. It caught me completely by surprise. I suppose I would not have been too surprised to have been offered the job of Machine Shop Foreman, but General Foreman was a double promotion. They both sat there, kind of grinning, waiting for my answer. I'm not sure what I said, but it was probably something like, "Sure – when do I start?"

About a week later I took over the new job. It was a little awkward at first because I was now supervising men who were formerly my supervisors, but, aside from a few attempts to 'test' the new boss, things went quite smoothly.

To be continued next time…

18th Excerpt from “But…What About Tomorrow?”:
(The book is available from http://www.publishamerica.com)


Typically, desertification is the result of bad management practices rather than deliberate human activities, in contrast with deforestation. Overgrazing by domestic animals is the predominant cause of desertification.

Change takes place at a very leisurely pace in nature. One season subtly melds into another; a flower bud forms and opens ever so slowly; a baby's features change imperceptibly from one day to the next. Although these changes are obviously taking place minute by minute and second by second, we don't recognize them in real time. We are not conscious of most changes that are continually taking place all around us until they become noticeable with the passage of sufficient time.

Even in our man-made world of communities, cities, etc., change appears to take place at a snail's pace when you're exposed to it on a daily basis. It's only when you have been away for a while and then go back for a visit that you see how much your old neighborhood has changed.

The same thing is also true on a larger scale. Take the cradle of civilization for example, the countries bordering the Mediterranean. Many of them were once covered with lush forests and deep rich soil. Now some are largely barren and rocky. The forests were cut down long ago and much of the soil washed or blew away. We have come to accept this as normal for those countries, when, in fact, it is not. The change was all due to mismanagement by man.

Human activity is also responsible for the elimination of the forests that once covered much of the Middle East. The Sahara Desert, spreading three thousand miles across northern Africa, is largely a human-made desert. As a desert reaches a certain critical mass it tends to become self perpetuating. The once fertile soils that grew the grain that fed the Roman Empire have largely turned to desert because of human mismanagement. But now the vast desert seems normal to us, because that is all we have ever known it to be.

Sadly, the same thing is taking place right here in North America, but it is not yet apparent to the general public. Our grandchildren may one day think the world of sand dunes, sage brush and bare rock that we may be creating for them is normal because that will be all they will have ever known. According to one journalistic report, forty percent of North America's crop and range lands have already turned to desert.

The western range lands were once grazed by enormous herds of buffalo. Their sharp hooves trampled everything into dust … grass, organic matter, weeds and shrubs. Dead vegetation was trampled into the ground where soil microbes could break it down. The organic litter helped retain moisture for plant growth. Gradually the debris rotted and returned the nutrients to the soil.

When these roaming herds left one area, they were free to find greener pastures in another area and the trampled prairie they left behind was able to recover without interference, thus allowing it to regain its former lushness. Man, on the other hand, fences the land into small parcels and stocks them with cattle which graze much differently than buffalo. Cattle spread out and graze only on the choicest grasses, leaving the course vegetation and unpalatable weeds virtually untouched. They don't tend to trample down standing dead grasses from previous years very effectively. About the only places you will find the vegetation trampled to smithereens by cattle is around their watering holes and salt licks.

Since they are generally confined by fences and not free to wander to greener pastures, cattle are forced to repeatedly return to previously grazed areas, without allowing the vegetation to recover, until it ultimately resembles astroturf and their human manager is forced to move them elsewhere. In time, overgrazing will destroy the grasses that are most palatable, leaving nothing but the coarse unpalatable weeds and shrubs to thrive unmolested.

This insidious process happens slowly and subtly. When the damage becomes obvious, we wring our hands in despair and wonder why someone didn't do something to prevent it from happening. But we eventually become accustomed to the new look and it seems normal to us. And that is the sad irony … we accept the whole process of destroying our environment and our vital natural resources as being normal.

The end result is that our range lands are gradually turning to desert. Maybe not the Sahara sand-dune variety, but desert with regard to its utility as range land. As the weeds take over, the land becomes unfit for grazing livestock and it is essentially desert. Halting and reversing the process of desertification can be done, but it requires playing by Nature's rules. It also takes time and costs money.

Although cattle are generally perceived to be the cause of the problem, that is not precisely true. The cause is the result of management practices, or the lack thereof. There actually is no reason why our vast range lands cannot support huge numbers of cattle if properly managed. Some advocate the clustering of cattle into massive herds, like the buffalo, so that they destroy everything in their path and then leave it to recover. Although that worked well in the free-range conditions of the past, I doubt that it would work with domesticated cattle because their grazing habits are not like those of the wild buffalo. Cattle find no need to bunch up for protection from predators, as was the case with buffalo. It seems to me that limiting the size of livestock herds to the optimum grazing capacity of the land makes more sense. While I'm certainly not an authority on the subject, it stands to reason that the solution to the problem will only be found in proper management.

While the United States has about ninety eight million head of cattle and nine million sheep and goats, China has an estimated hundred and thirty million cattle and two hundred and ninety million sheep and goats. Chinese officials have calculated that nine hundred square miles of land are turning to desert each year. The Chinese government is so concerned that it is considering planting a huge belt of trees that would separate the desert from fertile ground.
How that will solve the problem, I'm not quite sure.

Overgrazing isn't a function of animal numbers, it's a function of time. Overgrazing happens when cattle are kept in an enclosed area too long or brought back too soon. Reducing livestock numbers won't necessarily stop overgrazing. Animals graze selectively. Given the opportunity, they will overgraze because the newest growth is the most palatable forage in the pasture. Even one cow in a big pasture will overgraze the choicest plants if she's kept there long enough.

I believe there is still time to reverse our course and bring some of the damaged land back into production, provided we do not wait too long. At the very least we should stop destroying any more. But I'm not very optimistic because it seems that we humans have to learn everything the hard way.

To be continued next time…

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Have a warm day…