Every winter, when the season comes to do maintenance on the tractors, it is merely my sheer laziness that causes me to meditate on the virtues of keeping draft horses. I know how well the grass grows for free, here. I hear all this talk of “biodiesel,” of “sustainable solutions,” and I’ll tell you this: it’d take ten acres of irrigated soybeans, somehow or another pressed into oil, to power the tractors and trucks on our little farm, and most of Anderson Valley would be outraged to think somebody was using that much water — about a one acre lake twelve feet deep — just to power our own machinery.
Not like we are blessed with an oil press, but if we were, I guess we’d feed the protein and fiber byproducts to our hens, and they would make eggs. You could probably feed it to dairy cattle as well.
It wouldn’t make sense to grow soybeans for fuel in Anderson Valley, so we’re currently purchasing “biodiesel.” The soybean oil in our bold new experiment — the shit burning in our truck, tractor, and station wagon, is no doubt grown using Roundup-ready beans, a genetically modified soup. Still, it smells better than petroleum. Organic soybeans are more difficult to grow in this day and age than they were 20 years ago, when nobody had the option of planting a crop and relying solely on herbicides to control the weeds. That’s going to involve some handwork. Not as popular in the internet age as it was in the days when the first light bulbs burned.
When I was 13 years old, in 1984, I walked soybean fields with my cousins, aunts, uncles, the whole works, carrying machetes that we called “corn knives,” slicing pigweeds, velvetleaf, horseweeds, and lambsquarters out at the crown, careful not to cut too many soybean plants or plunge the blade into the dirt. It was an art form. We generally blabbed about and had a blast. It was a party. We’d sip beer at the end of the long June days, wake up early and get out there again. In the harvest time, we saved a portion of each crop for seed, and planted it the next spring, same as we did for wheat.
Within several years, we were purchasing hybrid seed that might have yielded an extra five bushels per acre, those numbers so difficult to determine accurately in the real world, where reports are mere paperwork, crop rotations mean an intelligent farmer probably won’t even grow a comparable crop in the same field for several years, and these figures are subject to variables too numerous to imagine. Don’t ever believe anything you hear about yield numbers. None of them are accurate. They’re all estimates.
By the early 90s, nearly all the farmers were buying their soybean seed. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe they’d made such a drastic change without blinking. Nobody considered it a big deal. They’d gone from growing their own seed to buying it, adding dozens of dollars to the cost of growing an acre, thousands to their entire farm costs, without proof of a better yield. They were being dealt a very sour hand. The factors that cause good yields are partially chaotic in nature, and farmers who saved their own seed were acclimating their breeds to the particular soil and humidity levels of their own niche, one particular valley’s climate and soil type. The soybean is a highly intelligent plant. It knows how to instantly mutate in response to the immediate surroundings, to maximize utility of space.
Now those same farmers are signing contracts, when they purchase each pallet of genetically modified soybean seeds, agreeing not to replant any of their harvest the following spring.
Not too many folks are walking their bean fields anymore. And I’d hate to say that any of them miss doing it. It was probably hard work. It had always seemed like fun to me, though. But they quit doing it after I was thirteen, so I never got much of a taste. I mean it seemed like everyone just quit. They all used pre-emergent herbicides, then another wave of herbicides, and didn’t even cultivate their rows. When I was 18, we walked fields of beans that were waist-high in July, the mosquito humidity so drowning as we dragged our three gallon spray tanks to exterminate the Johnson grass from the tangles of soybeans, pretending to be grunts invading Vietnam. We’d made the intelligent switch from machetes that we could swing to spray tanks that we dragged through the mud, as we sprayed each blade of grass the field over, stopping to pump up the tanks every few minutes. Soaking the herbicides into the thighs of our Levis, sweating. Sometimes it took all morning to walk one row down, one row back, and then a half-hour drive to the nearest town for lunch. The reason: farms were getting bigger, and the only reason the Johnson grass was out in those fields in the first place was that the previous farmers had been renters who hadn’t given a shit about whether all the weeds went to seed — no way we could have cleaned up those fields without Roundup and its descendents. The need for Roundup had been caused by negligent farming, and by our own greed for more land.
So now we have a nation of farmers growing beans that have been genetically modified by a herbicide company. In other words, we are trusting bean seed produced by people whose main focus is the extermination of plant life.
Soybeans are smarter than those clowns.
Hay sure grows good around here, for several horses and mules. No irrigation necessary. Cut it once a year.
I never hear anything in the alternative energy circles about horses, mules, or donkeys. They don’t factor in those dramatic human achievements. I think it’s because there’s no patented technology in those animals. They perform the simple tasks that are considered obsolete in our speedy society. And horses and donkeys produce mules, so anybody with horses and donkeys can be a mule factory. No expensive assembly line equipment necessary, which bums out the politicians, who are always busy as hell trying to create more work for the rest of us.
American agriculture depends on oil nearly as completely as a developing fetus feeds through the umbilical cord, and human life in America certainly depends on the production of those farmers. Most of the nitrate fertilizers are derived from petroleum. The fields are worked, planted, and harvested with diesel fuel, the trucks hauling the grain thousands of miles to the warehouse or factory are only one link in the chain. The subtraction of crude oil from the equation — an element that was not part of the farm until the end of the nineteenth century — would render the entire method incompetent.
I’ve seen candles burn out before. There is only so much fuel in the tank.
Had Al Gore’s election been upheld several years back, I might not be stressing so hard about the necessity of bringing the means of food and fuel production back to local communities. I might still be trying to write the great American novel, or trying to romance the world, or whatever I thought I was doing, before that fateful November. I wouldn’t be working so hard, for sure, had a Democrat been elected. I wouldn’t be so worried. Because Al Gore, corrupt as you or I might be, probably understands that he is a human being sharing the planet with quite a few other human beings, and that our society is in transition. He wrote, or at least takes credit for, a book called, Earth in the Balance. Not that I believe blandly that Al Gore would have had the courage to confront the morons who are pushing their global pirate agendas on the unsuspecting minds of the masses — I certainly don’t — and I think he would have caved in on many significant issues. But at least he probably understood that he was managing a complex society that could seriously be injured by poor decisions, and he would have done his best. He would have tried at least as hard as I do to insure the safety of the hens in our flock of layers.
Maybe Al Gore can help us bale hay. We can probably pay seven or eight bucks an hour, plus free beer after work, and probably a good home-cooked meal. We could reminisce about the old Democracy. People didn’t even bother to bale hay until roughly half a century ago. They cut hay, raked it, and stacked it, but they didn’t bale it. The baler actually complicated what had been a simple job. I think the sickle bar mower was a great help, and the rake is a great tool — both can easily be drawn by horse or mule, but it’s a little silly to actually bale the hay in a climate like this one, where the stack doesn’t even have to last too far into the winter, if you manage your pastures with some level of attention.
Still, if we had access to a baler, I’d probably want to use it. Bales are easy to work with, and they are units that can be bought and sold.
Hay is a commodity in this day and age. I had never considered it much of a commodity before because in the farm days, which don’t have much to do with the changes that are supposed to be taking place in society, hay is virtually easy to come by. It is omnipresent, like God. Like the stupid conflicts between so-called “liberals” and “conservatives.” You’d have to take measures to stop hay from growing around here.
Just like oil, though, hay, I guess, is subject to fluctuations in price. I don’t understand how, but it is. Just like wheat and corn and rice. So when hay doesn’t sell, it spoils.
Spoiled hay is the favorite plant food championed by the renowned lazy-ass queen of gardening, the late Ruth Stout. Every autumn, she would cover her Connecticut garden with flakes of spoiled hay donated by farmers in her county. That was her only fertilizer. She never tilled her soil, but let the decaying hay mulch out the weeds.
Wouldn’t she love to drive though the central valley of California, these days! Stacks of spoiled hay line the rural roadsides, rotting on the edges of fields. I’ve noticed them for several years. There are stacks so immense, one could probably load ten tractor trailers from each pile, and those stacks are all over the place. We could cover Anderson Valley a foot deep in spoiled hay, if only we had the means to haul the hay over Highway 20. But we’d have to burn diesel fuel, or soybean oil, to do it.
Why is that hay standing there? I’d say there must be millions of tons of spoiled hay in California, all of it rotting in giant compost heaps, habitat for skunks, mice, and rattlesnakes. Recently, I asked a Yolo County farmer about the stacks of hay lining one of his fields.
“So what’s the story with all that rotting hay?”
“The price of hay hit rock bottom after the fall of the Asian markets.”
“You mean when Tokyo crashed?”
“So what did that have to do with the price of hay in California?”
“Japan was buying our hay for top dollar.”
“You mean we were using our state’s most precious resource, our water, to make hay to put on ships, burning diesel fuel from the Persian Gulf to send hay across the blue oceans to Japan, where they — what? Fed it to their beef cows? Why didn’t they just use the carcasses of sick cows, like we do in America?”
There must be loads of abandoned hay equipment, lying about the graveyards of defunct farms. All of it is powered by diesel fuel. Go figure.