Sunday, September 12, 2010

Looking for a combine

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sabbath eve came around and I couldn’t find a word to write if my life depended on it. I didn’t work particularly hard this week; we had rain, even the threat of floods, so I did little more than the usual chores and a bit of work in the garden. However, I seem to be suffering from cumulative fatigue, not so much of the physical nature, although my fifty something year old body seems not to work as well as it once did, but instead from the general strain of life in a time of crisis.

As documented in past writings, getting the harvest in this year has been difficult. To add insult to injury, this week I got an invoice for crop insurance. OK. This is a self-inflicted wound. I signed up for the abuse. That doesn’t make the pain any less real. If there was any chance of a profit from the crop I raised, the goddamned insurance premium will get it. All of it.

Seems old Adam Smith’s invisible hand has been sharpening a pencil of late and the bastard knows how much it costs to raise a crop, to the penny. If you are a good old boy and play exactly as the government and its handlers dictate, they allow just enough profit to continue on in indefinite servitude and perpetual debt. And they do dictate how things are done.

An example: After suffering the abuse that hiring a combine to harvest my crops entails for the past couple of years, I decided to go online to see if I could find a small combine at a reasonable price so we could harvest our own row crops. I typed the words small combine into a search engine, only to discover those words have become mutually exclusive.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s we owned our own combine, a John Deere model 6600. A larger version had just come out, the largest to date: a 7700 model. That 6600 model got repossessed along with the rest of the equipment we had and the farm on which that equipment worked. It was about then I began smuggling marijuana for a living. That’s a long story, so I won’t bother you with the details other than to say I have not owned a combine since, nor have I kept up with the models that have been made in the interim years.

So, as I search though lists of used combines, I notice a trend. Each and every time a new model came out, it was larger, of higher capacity and significantly more expensive than its predecessor. There was no improved version of a similar sized machine to be had.

Consequently, if you wanted to continue farming, you had to farm more acres with larger equipment and use less people to do so. Either that or get good at fixing used worn out equipment with obsolete parts which, if found, proved cost prohibitive.

The trend applied not only to harvest equipment, but also to tractors, plows and planters. Monsanto’s Roundup-ready crops began to dominate the market, with them no-till planters and spray equipment necessary to grow that type of crop. Over the years, four-row equipment gave way to eight rows and now twenty rows, perhaps even more in real farm country. Around these parts, a single farmer might plant a few thousand acres instead of a couple of hundred. In Iowa or Nebraska, it’s not uncommon for a single farmer to work 20 thousand acres. His tractor is set up with global positioning satellite equipment. He drives to a field, pushes a button and sits back while the tractor steers on autopilot. You’d have to jog to keep up with a moving combine and it might be cutting and threshing the grain from a forty foot swath of ground while simultaneously dumping into a truck or a trailer as it moves through the field. And that farmer is probably harvesting better than 200 bushels to the acre where we once considered 100 bushels to the acre a record breaking event.

The truth is, modern farming techniques use less fuel than the older ways, which involved mechanical and or manual cultivation of crops instead of herbicides. Modern crops are cheaper to raise, per unit, and have higher yields per acre than ever achieved in the history of this planet.

I find myself in the unenviable position of advocating less efficient, more labor intensive methods, a losing argument for most.

Unless you consider the black swan.

Nassim Taleb once wrote, (and I paraphrase): the more complex a system, with the greater amount of redundancies and fail-safes, the less likely it is to fail. But, when it does fail, and it will fail, the more catastrophic that failure will be.

I don’t know what will trigger the event; endless possibilities exist, but I do know that our very complex and seemingly efficient and fail-safe way of feeding ourselves will fail, and when it does fail, the failure will be catastrophic, perhaps greater than any recorded failure in the history of the human race.

Call me crazy. In the meantime, I’m still looking for a small combine.

The idea of harvesting grain by hand on any scale other than for personal use is too much to consider at this point. Even for someone as crazy as I.

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