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.

1 Response to “Diesel Meditations”

  1. 1 Marquita Jensen

    Ever think that people look at the picture the wrong way? Fuel costs $100 a barel, $200 a barrel averages over a thousand dollars a person a year. Why don’t we (as a country/world) swich to say hydrogen and electric fuel and instead pay $100 a year on fuel? Prices would be a lot mor estable. Can you imagine the types of inovations that wourd occur when travel is CHEAP? Marquita, on spring break you should drive to visit grampa Jensen 400 miles away for a day. OK! If you have the tiem, why are we bound to these chains? Think about it, would it be bad if oil went to $2,000 a barrel for 2 years?

    —Marquita Jensen

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