Sabbath morn, October 30, 2010.
It’s 4:30 am and I’m awake. The god of more (hat tip, Paul Speir) has tortured me throughout the night. Numbers roll through my head. How many pecans must we gather to pay for the cost of raising them? Am I paying hands too much? Should I buy another new machine? To be sure, if you tally the number of pecans we gathered yesterday against the amount of money I spent gathering them, we lost money. This is the time of year when a man should be not only paying daily harvest expenses, but also covering costs accrued throughout the year in the process of actually raising a crop and caring for the land.
More and more, I find the numbers don’t add up.
The more complex and “efficient” the machine and the more machines required to do a job, the more catastrophic breakdowns become.
To gather pecans, first we go out to the field and pick up branches. Then we run a tractor and a shredder to cut grass and weeds. Later we shake the trees with another machine. More branches fall and must be gathered. Still another machine rakes and windrows the pecans, leaves and small sticks. Then a nut harvester pulled by yet another tractor picks up the pecans and blows away debris. The nut harvester dumps pecans into a cleaner that blows light or underdeveloped pecans away and then runs what remains onto a conveyor belt where men pick out any green or cracked pecans. The pecans then fall into sacks and are stacked on a trailer pulled by a truck. From there, it’s off to a barn where each sack must be weighed, adding or subtracting pecans to arrive at the proper weight. A sixty mile round trip delivers the pecans to market, utilizing yet another pickup and trailer. The process continues under the watch of others until the pecans reach their final destination, which may very well be China, before all is said and done, involving who knows how many more fossil fuel powered machines along the way.
Yesterday, the shaker (a self propelled version) began to misfire. An operator drove it into a hole and got stuck. It didn’t have enough power to get out. The engine died and wouldn’t restart. The battery was low and required a jump; another tractor and a chain was required to pull it out of the hole after the engine started. Meanwhile, everyone else stands around waiting for the shaker so they can do their job. A man drives to town and buys points, condenser and a new rotor and returns to install it on the shaker’s engine. The machine runs better, but still has problems, perhaps the carburetor (?). It’s lunch time and we haven’t harvested a fucking pecan.
After lunch we finally shake a few trees, despite the mis-firing engine. I notice the shaker scars the trees in places. And we wonder why some of them die every year. Another man starts windrowing the pecans; yet another cranks up his tractor and pulls the gatherer over the windrow. I notice it’s leaving a lot of pecans behind. Perhaps it needs an adjustment. (?) He dumps a load and the guys running the blower/conveyor go to work. When the man operating the gatherer arrives to dump his second load, someone notices the pecan gatherer has a flat tire. The tubeless tire has separated from the rim and the rim has been destroyed. Of course it’s some special size available only in Bumfuck, Egypt…
Meanwhile, on a second crew, a man knocks pecans out of the trees with a long cane pole. Men and women rake and hand gather pecans by hand.
At the end of the day, the crew hand gathering pecans picked more pecans than all of the rest of us with our goddamned high-powered expensive machines. This may seem an anomaly, but it happens more times than you’d expect all across the land, not the group of hand gatherers; most if not all of them have been displaced by machines, but the breakdown part of the story in the mechanized operation.
Of course, when all of the machines work as they’re supposed to, an impressive pile of pecans can be gathered.
But I can’t help but wonder when all costs are factored in, from the cost of making and maintaining these machines, to the cost of fuel required to operate them, to the cost of supporting the hundreds or thousands of people put out of a job by these machines, if the price we pay for all this shit it just too Goddamned high.
Later, I’m at the scale of a pecan buyer with a ton of pecans on my trailer. A man walks up with a couple of sacks of pecans he gathered, perhaps from his yard. He looks enviously at my trailer load of pecans and I look enviously at his two sacks. I bet he made some money…