Archive for May, 2008

Diesel Meditations

Beautiful Mule I heard an industry analyst on the radio speculate that crude oil prices could top 200 dollars per barrel in a couple of years, or maybe even by the end of this year! With oil currently over one hundred dollars a barrel and diesel around five dollars a gallon, we could soon be looking at eight dollar diesel. I use a lot of diesel. Of course, if I depend on you to buy the vegetables I grow, and you depend on me to grow and ship them to you, it’s fair to say that together “WE” use a lot of diesel. Yes, when you support a local farm rather than pay for produce to be shipped from afar you reduce your carbon footprint. A subscriber with Two Small Farms CSA, the community supported agriculture program we do with High Ground Organics, asked me if I’d thought of reducing my dependence on fossil fuels by switching to horse power. Yes, I have. But when I think of horses, I think of people. I think of my old boss Charlie Jensen. I think of Adolph Hitler. I think of my insurance agent, Tony Scurich, and I think of my friend Mark, who works at the feed store.

Hitler brought us blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” By coordinating airborne assaults of dive bombers with a ground attack of mechanized heavily armor the Nazi dictator overwhelmed his neighbors. Blitzkrieg was internal combustion warfare. The crime of blitzkrieg so shocked and awed the civilized world that historians have largely overlooked the role horses played in prolonging Germany’s aggression in the Second World War. Germany didn’t have petroleum reserves. Behind the howling Stukas and snarling tanks on the front, the German Army relied on draft horses to pull wagons of food, ammunition, spare parts, and medical supplies. When the Germans took aim at the oil fields around the Caspian Sea and attacked the USSR, the Red Army fell back and set fire to the steppes. Scorched Earth was Soviet energy policy. By burning the grass, the Russians made German horses eat ashes, and they made German Generals allocate precious fuel for transport. I’ll likely never deliver my harvests in horse drawn wagons, but if diesel gets scarce it is possible to wage agriculture with horse power.

To farm with horses I’d need to farm a lot more land because ground would have to be dedicated to pasture and hay. Good grass hay is already north of sixteen dollars a bale. Hay is grown in the San Joaquin Valley, but uncertain water allotments from State and Federal water projects are causing hay growers to cut back on production lest they be unable to irrigate what they plant. Hay also comes into California from Nevada, but it has to be trucked across the Sierra Nevada, and that means diesel. Hay makes an excellent rotation crop for vegetables, but if I feed hay to horses instead of selling it, I’ll need to charge more for the vegetables to get repaid for my investment in grass. Tractors only burn diesel when you run them. When I was a kid I worked for a farmer named Charlie Jensen who farmed with horses. Charlie raised hay, and he set a whole barn aside to feed his team over the winter when they rested. I’d have to build a barn to keep the hay dry.

Sooner or later if I farmed with horses I’d have to talk to Tony. Tony Scurich is my insurance agent. Tony understands agriculture, but as understanding as Tony is, he’d raise his eyebrows over horses, because insurance agents get spooked by risks the way horses take fright from explosions, dogs, honking horns, sudden flashes of light, weird smells, or quail taking to flight. Jimmy Bell, an old cowboy I grew up with, put the perplexing issue of panicked horses like this; “A horse bucked,” Jimmy said, “and science couldn’t figure out if it was the fart that made it jump, or the jump that made it fart!” People can get killed working around horses. Insurance agents are such a leery bunch they get worried when orchard workers climb ladders to pick fruit. All over California there are orchards of dwarf trees that can be tended without ladders. These short trees are living monuments to the marriage of crop science and the insurance industry. But no one has invented a kickless horse.

To work well with draft horses a person needs strength of body, strength of will, plus plenty of patience and wisdom. My old boss Charlie Jensen was born in a sod house on the Dakota prairie during the First World War. After a career of farming with tractors he went back to farming with horses in his retirement. The first time I threw the heavy oiled leather harness over the backs of the horses and held the heavy reins in my outstretched arms I could scarcely believe how exhausting it was. I was seventeen at the time. Charlie was sixty-five, and he worked that hard for fun! There aren’t many men like Charlie any more.


When I met Mark the first time at the feed store he was wearing a Bishop Mule Days tee shirt. The Mule Days Celebration is a week-long event dedicated to the proposition that any thing a horse can do, a mule can do better. There’s a great bumper sticker you can buy at Mule Days that puts the point succinctly. “If it aint half-assed, it’s only a horse!”

“Are you going to Mule Days this year?,” I asked Mark.

“Are you kidding?” Mark said. “I’m all about the mule!”

Mark is younger than me, quieter than me, stronger than me, more patient than me, and has vastly more experience with draft animals than I do. During the winter he works at the feed store, and during the summers he drives mule trains in the high Sierra. I’m going to Mule Days again this year to watch the muleteers work. I love the dust and the braying and the animals showing off what they can do. When the best muleskinners work with the best trained mules it all looks easy. If diesel goes to eight dollars, I may need to start thinking about learning how to work with teams of mules and save my tractors for the heaviest work, but this is easier to think about than to do.

Mules are hybrid creatures. A good mule combines the grace, beauty, endurance, strength, patience and intelligence of the donkey with the athleticism and compliance of the horse. I have two donkeys at home that I keep as pets and hiking companions so you might think that I’m already half-way there. But I’m just experienced enough to know how hard working with draft animals can be. To start with, you have to be smarter than the mule. Living so close to Silicon Babylon, as we do, more people can manipulate a mouse than drive a mule, so Mark, with his mule skinning skills seems like something of a throwback to an earlier, more complicated time. Who knows? Maybe Mark is actually on the cutting edge of the future. Maybe I can get Mark to teach me how to harness my donkeys to do some pulling on my farm when he comes back from the mountains. Living with higher fuel prices puts new stresses into a farmer’s life, but cultivating with a team of mules or donkeys could be fun. I might even get a real kick out of it.

Photo gallery This links to photos that have the following captions:

  1. A lovely roan mule waiting backstage for show time at the Bishop Mule Days.
  2. A series of pictures of a lady muleskinner guiding her mule down the competition course. The goal is to thread the slalom course of orange plastic cones with the mule pulling a load of telephone poles without disturbing the cones. The event is timed. The fastest, most accurate mule wins.
  3. Another muleskinner.
  4. And another.
  5. A gentleman guiding a team of mules in the team competition.
  6. Another team of beautiful mules.

Working Like A Dog

Blue the Guard DogThe truck came with a dog, but I didn’t know that at first. It was 1976. I was sixteen. I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, but I’d gotten a job on a cattle ranch outside of Montague, California, on the high desert north of Mt. Shasta, and my employers gave me a pick-up to use. They also provided me with a horse, a saddle, as much beef as I could eat, and four hundred dollars a month. The first time I hopped behind the wheel and started off down the dirt road, Sis came tearing out of the barn where she’d been sleeping in the hay and chased after the truck barking, incredulous and offended that I’d forgotten her. Sis never completely trusted me after that, and she always slept where she could keep an eye on her truck.

I worked like a slave on that ranch, and since meat was free I didn’t eat vegetables for months. I was happy. Being a cowboy had been my ambition since childhood, and working on the Montague ranch was my first job away from home. It was a learning experience. As a boy, being a cowboy had been more about shooting Indians than working with cattle or managing rangeland as a renewable resource. Somewhere there’s a black and white photo of me, age three, in my cowboy hat, astride my tricycle with my six shooters, staring down the photographer. I look like I’ve got Mad Cowboy disease. But pictures can’t tell the whole story. My great grandmother gave me an Indian war bonnet of colored chicken feathers for my fourth birthday, so sometimes I’d killed cowboys too. Homicide wasn’t a daily activity on the ranch, and when we weren’t fixing fences, moving the herd, or giving cattle routine vaccinations, irrigating alfalfa for winter hay was a common chore.

The alfalfa fields were large— one of them was a square fifty acres. The fields had been leveled and were divided into long strips by checks, which are long, low, parallel mounds of soil that look like speed bumps and run the length of a field. When the flow of water is directed into the field, these checks act as dams to “check” the water’s lateral flow and guide it over a specific section of ground.

The water was delivered according to a contract with the irrigation district. Every ranch in the district had their allotment fixed on the calendar months in advance, and on the appointed day, the ditch master would come and open a valve that released the water from the district canal into the ranch’s main irrigation ditch. The water continued to flow, non-stop, for two weeks, until the contract ran out, and during that time the ranch was obligated to direct the water in a responsible manner twenty-four hours a day. Wasted water is wasted money, and water flowing where it doesn’t belong is a flood. One rancher in the valley that summer thought to “borrow just a little water” by cutting a small ditch into the levee at night with a backhoe, but the force of the water soon eroded out an ever-widening gully. When the sheriff’s deputies arrived to investigate the source of the flood they saw the fool haplessly pushing dirt into the torrent with a bulldozer.

To channel the water from our main ditch into the fields we used a system of logs, sticks, and heavy canvas tarps. Before the water arrived we set a series of heavy six-inch pine logs perpendicularly across our main irrigation ditches. Next to each big log, we laid out piles of straight sticks, each about five-feet long and two inches thick, and sharpened with a hatchet on one end. When it was time to irrigate, we’d lay a row of these sticks against the log and shove the sharp ends a few inches into the damp earth at the bottom of the ditch. When we had enough sticks set so that the framework of our dam looked like a rib cage, we’d drape a tarp over the ribs on the uphill side. With the point of a shovel blade, we’d force the tarp into the earthen walls and floor of the ditch, and then we’d heap mounds of mud over the edge of the tarp to make a seal.

The water flowed in and rose behind our dam, until it overflowed through a short, shallow lateral notch cut through the rim of the main ditch that allowed the water to run into the alfalfa field. While one section of the field was being irrigated, I’d go down stream in the dry ditch and build the next dam. When the water reached the end of the field it would spill into a tail ditch. To irrigate the next piece of land all I had to do was pull the upper corner of the first tarp down a little to let the water spill back up behind the next tarp. I let the dams fill slowly, rather than jerk the upstream tarp out and release a flood all at once, because it was easy to wash these temporary dams away.

The fields were all different sizes, but I’d try to arrange my irrigation schedule so that I watered the longest runs at night and could get a little sleep. I’d set a series of tarps down the ditch in the afternoon while I kept one eye on the water flowing across the short runs. The last tarp of the day would be pulled at 10pm and I’d go to bed and let the water flow down a big field. I’d be out of bed at 12:01 am for the first move of the morning. I’d go back to bed. I’d get up for the second movement at 2am, then sleep, then get up at 4am, pull a tarp, sleep, and finally get out of bed at 6am to pull my last tarp just before breakfast and the start of a new work day.

My father came and visited me, and when he saw our system of checks, logs, sticks and tarps, he smiled. “There’s a painting on the wall inside the pyramid at Giza,” he said, “that shows Egyptian slaves irrigating their fields with water from the Nile in exactly this way.” I imagine he was confident my experiences on the ranch would convince me to go into law or academia. If so, he miscalculated my contrarian nature. Being able to participate in something so ancient appealed to me. As I stood at the edge of the ditch during the day watching the water spread across the field I’d gaze at Mt. Shasta looming on the horizon to the south. On the evening of the Bicentennial Fourth of July I was irrigating and I watched the fireworks in explode in the sky to the west over Saddleback Butte. Other nights I’d look up and see drifts of stars. It was easy to stare off into the distance and wonder what it must have been like to tend the fields in Egypt or Babylon. Being timeless gets boring. My attention was eventually drawn from the cosmos and the past down to the details of life around me, like the dog that lay panting in the shade of the pick-up truck.

Sis was a medium sized white dog with patches, maybe mostly Border collie, with ears that could perk and flop. I’d never been crazy about dogs, but Sis not an undisciplined, crotch-busting mutt. When we moved the cattle she’d trot along next to the foreman and await his instructions. If he said, “Go get ‘em,” she’d go get ‘em, and she always knew who to get and where to put them. If stray cattle were down in the willows along the Little Shasta River, she’d drive them out to join the rest, then lay off so as not to panic the herd. When I irrigated the alfalfa fields Sis trotted back and forth in front of the advancing water. I noticed she was hunting the gophers brought to the surface by the flood and methodically killing them with a snap of her jaws. I learned to watch her progress down the fields and make an accurate estimation of how far the water had gotten so I no longer needed to walk the fields myself. When I complimented Sis on her work ethic and gave her a pet, her tail would wag, but she stayed focused. We became friends. The ditch water came from a reservoir upstream and sometimes it carried trout. One day Sis caught a rainbow trout and carried it gently in her jaws back to the pick-up truck and deposited it at my feet, still flipping. Fresh fish was a nice change from beef. I was the pup back then, and Sis was an old ranch dog, showing me new tricks.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

Note: the photo above is of Blue: Andy’s current working dog. He’s a puppy being trained to guard goats and sheep. Shelley Kadota, our fabulous CSA manager, took the photo in one of Blue’s many lazy moments.

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