Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Things I Like

This is Marco the ox in the blacksmith shop at Tillers International in Scotts, Michigan.

There's just something right about anvils and oxen being in the same room. They are both symbols of things that have ultimate utility, yet there are very few people that understand them and their place in the modern world. After spending 25 years around anvils, I feel I understand blacksmithing pretty well. I only began studying draft animal power 4-5 years ago when I started to consider options for working larger and larger gardens for more food production.

I wondered how much land would need to be cultivated to feed a family or a small group of neighbors. An acre is essentially the size of an American football field, and I thought I would choose that as an approximation of my needs. Working by hand is slow and brutally labor intensive. Often there is a week of soil work to do, and just 2 days of good weather, so something has to be added to the equation to make it work.

Of course, the first thought goes to tractors. Common 21st century thinking offers that nothing can make things go more smoothly than the addition of petro-energy to a project. The energy density in tractor fuel provides more work per pound than anything this side of a nuclear reactor, and it's no wonder that the ox has pretty much been swept into the dustbin of farming artifacts.

Part of the attraction I found in oxen was the fact that they were around long before the use of petro-energy came onto the scene. There was a lot of work done with draft animals prior to the availability of tractors, and they still can work today. Oxen were everywhere 150 years ago, and now there are only a relative handful of people that have ever seen a working team; far fewer have actually worked with draft cattle.

The ox is not a separate breed or species of cattle; it is simply a castrated bull that has been trained to work. Training begins as soon as possible, but the young team must develop their bodies before any real work can be done with them. This young team below is only a couple of months old, and with a week of training by a beginning class at Tillers International, they were already responding well enough with commands that they were able to complete the obstacle course pulling a light wheeled wagon at the Midwest Ox Drovers Association (MODA) meeting last weekend at Tillers in Michigan. Each year, a pair of calves is trained by the Tillers Oxen Basics class the week prior to the MODA meeting, and the trained calves are raffled into the oxen community as a fundraiser for MODA. This year's team are named Thomas and Jefferson, or Tom and Jeff. They were the nicest team of calves I have seen in my 3 year association with the event, and they will find their new home in North Carolina.

A solo ox can be used for lighter tasks, or for more delicate jobs like pulling a weeding cultivator through corn rows. A single yoke is attached to the implement by way of chains on either side of the ox. This is Will, a Dutch Belted ox about 10 years old weighing in at about a ton. Will's partner, Abe, couldn't make it to the event due to a leg injury, but Will seemed to enjoy himself pulling the weeding cultivator through the corn and sorghum fields.
This team is being led by a Tillers intern from Mozambique. Zacharias is learning the draft oxen techniques from Tillers so he can go home and teach new ways of making agriculture more efficient. He is driving Herschel and Walker and pulling a disc cultivator through a freshly plowed field. A pair of oxen can pull a tremendous load and do a lot of field work in a day. The heavy double yoke is attached to a chain that pulls the implement as Zacharias leads the team with verbal commands and taps from the goad. This team has been working the fields at Tillers for a long time, and seem to know what is expected of them. Watching them cooperate through the universal language of the ox drover is magic. 'Gee' and 'haw' are 'right' and 'left' around the world, and the oxen know their names, regardless of the accent the drover might have. I hope Herschel and Walker enjoyed working with Zacharias as much as I did. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his love and understanding of the animals was strong.
My wife and I had a great time at Tillers last week, and hope to be adding a couple of young calves to the yard next month. If you're interested in finding out more about oxen, here are the links to Tillers and MODA.

As we reach a place in time when we must all begin to be more mindful of the delicacy of our balance in the availability and consumption of petro-energy, we should consider options to the sources of power and energy we have taken advantage of for so long now. The broadfork business has introduced me to so many people that see the writing on the wall that the days of cheap and easy petro-energy are in their twilight times. If you believe in the broadfork, you believe in a very old concept that still works as well today as it ever did before. Oxen fall into the same category, and I believe it was my attraction to them at first.

This is a link to some more photos from our time at Tillers last week. Click here. All photos by Karen Stack.

"The ox is slow, but the Earth is patient."

Good soil to you,


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hi There

It's been a long time since I have posted anything here, and I would like to thank you for making that happen. You see, if I am busy making broadforks, I have no time to do this.

In fact, I have been very busy making broadforks, and I would like to thank all of you that have put me in that very enviable situation in recent months. I have even sent a couple of broadforks to Fairbanks, Alaska this spring. When I started this little business, I never would have thought I would be shipping broadforks to the permafrost zone, but I did.

A wonderful customer in California sent me a picture of a garden 'bed' he did with his broadfork this year.
Tom told me that he never even cranked his rototiller this year; he did it all with the broadfork he got last year. He also said that he would never have to use the rototiller in any of those beds again.

That's heavy stuff to me; I have created a business that provides an implement that allows people to step back from the use of fossil fuels to do the 'heavy lifting' in their gardens. Because of my broadfork, there is one less rototiller running in California this year!

Tom, I have to say that your email and photos have made me know that I am doing the right thing. Thank you for turning the lights on for me.

I am an Alabama native, and lived my first 42 years there. The Gulf of Mexico was in my backyard, and I loved visiting that coast.

The point of this blog was to inform people about the utility of the broadfork and give some insight into the man that makes them. I never wanted to be political, or controversial. I must say, however, that the disaster that has occurred with the deep water drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico has made me feel that any time I can steer someone away from the use of fossil fuels to good old fashioned hand labor, I have done a good thing. The reason you are reading this is that you believe the same thing that I do.

We need to lessen our need to use petroleum products. The low hanging fruit has all been picked, and the rest of the crude oil that is available is in the inhospitable places where it is probably best to just leave it alone.

Step by step we can lessen our need, and step by step we should.

The news from my beloved Gulf is dark. It has a deep effect on all of us, and should. We are all responsible for the need to stretch our luck in the drive to fill our need and desire for the most dense form of energy the world has ever known.

By picking up your broadfork and using it in your garden, you have made a choice to lessen your impact on this ever more vulnerable planet. The impact of your actions will be felt by future generations, perhaps even your own children, as you teach them the importance of doing the right thing, right now.

We all weep for the environmental maelstrom in our Southern Coastal Waters. We can begin to repair the damage when begin to lessen our need for fossil fuels.

It's time to take that step.

Press that broadfork into your soil again and again. Get in touch with the way your body works with a good hand tool and let that be enough. Put matters in your own hands and become the difference you want to see in the world.

Good soil to you,