Friday, June 16, 2017

As easy as possible

In early January, through the magic of video-conferencing, I interviewed Kevin Cunningham and Tom Jenkins about their oxen. Kevin is "a straight-ahead organic, tractor-based vegetable farmer" who started working oxen 6 years ago in Northern CA. Tom is a low-impact forester in NH.

RC:  Every teamster you know has a trick.  As professional ox teamsters, what tricks have you learned to make you work more efficient?
Kevin C (left), Tom J, and mini-me (lower corner), talking oxen

TJ:  I’ll walk mine over the log a lot of times.  I’ll turn them over one end of the log and walk them all the way up the log with the log in between the team.  You know, just because it’s easier than backing them up.

A couple of other things:   I'll almost always throw a pole on the ground before I drop the tree.  So if I've got a heavy saw log,  I'll drop  a four-inch pole or even a couple of branches off another top.  And I'll throw those on the ground and then I'll drop the tree on top of them.   It helps the team get it started.   That log will slide along that pole you threw down and it gives them an easier time getting it moving.  

And another thing I do is I try not to start them with the full weight of the log if I can help it.   If I drop a tree (facing) exactly away from my landing, I could grab the butt and head straight to the landing,  but I’ll buck a log off from it and then grab the tip of the log so I spin it around in a circle; And that way they gain momentum and they're moving a few steps before they actually have the full weight of the log. I think that makes a really big difference.  


I'm always saying:  I do everything I can all day long to make it as easy on the team as I can.  You know it's fun once in awhile to watch them pull and do really hard work and be proud about that, but anything you can do to make it as easy as possible, the more they're going to be happy to work for you you want to make sure that every day they go out and give you a hundred percent, so you want to make it easy for them to do that.  

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Without a Net

 "I take my chances, I don't mind working without a net." - Mary Chapin-Carpenter


Nose baskets are useful.  For some teams, VERY useful.  But like powertools, they can get in the way of learning to do things without crutches and with precision.  

I raked hay the other day with Brutus and Cassius.  They weren't hungry, so any eating would simply be misbehavior.  I decided to take along the nosebaskets, but hook them onto my forecart.  Ready if necessary, but only if.  

Long story short, the hay is done and the baskets remained on the cart.  One test for the week, passed.

Now, about the insulators on the fence post. . .that's a tale for another day.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Magic and Rhythm

Economies of scale conspire to remove the magic elements of farm work.  That one tree left in the middle of a field, providing a resting point for a farmer and her animals.  The ringing silence after the threshing machine is powered down, when the joking among the workers involved steps back out to occupy the now-empty spaces.  The sound of leather creaking on a harness or of yoke rings jingling, creating a bit of ambient, yet not unpleasant music to accompany the task.


Once they're gone from a farm, those magic moments often stay gone.  So it was a real joy to spend an afternoon last Wednesday putting up loose hay in the barn at Tillers using animal power.  

The class was "Farming with Horses and Oxen," and the students were living history professionals and prospective animal-powered farmers.  

While we worked (and I scrambled around deleting old clips from my phone to shoot a little video), Jim Slining remarked that there is a real rhythm to the teamwork involved in putting up hay with hooks and tracks.  Each person has a job and they all have to work and wait for their task to come round again. Some life metaphor probably lives in there.  Maybe you'll find it while you're putting up loose hay.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Yoking: Just a routine

Brutus and Cassius don't always yoke well at the hitching post.  Cassius assumes Brutus's long horns are intentionally invading his space.  Brutus knows how Cassius feels and fears retaliation.  A couple times they've dropped the yoke, making a smooth yoking routine more of a challenge.  

So it was nice to see this footage my son took in 2015.  It it, the boys are calm and relaxed.  That summer, we were working quite often and regularly worked on our yoking routine. 

It's nice to have a reminder of what it should look like.  We'll be back there again.  It's just a matter of routines.  

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cutting the Grass: Part 1

A 54" walk behind mower, not being used.  
Depending where you live, you may: "mow the lawn," "cut the grass," possibly "cut the lawn," or some other regional variation.

Regardless of the moniker, the task remains the same:  culturally-enforced drudgery.  Make the yard look pretty by keeping the grass short, while at the same time making yourself too busy to do what you'd really like to be doing.

Luna makes sure the boys are back in their paddock and
 that all is right with the world
One way around this is to shoot the moon and ignore what the neighbors might think.  String a wire and put the oxen on the lawn.  Oxen fed?  Check.  Lawn shortened?  Check.  Two birds for the price of a solitary rock.

With a fairly wet spring, things in Michigan are growing really well, but as of Memorial Day, a couple of sections of lawn haven't been touched by the mower.

Maybe the neighbors whisper behind closed doors; Maybe they don't.  Either way, the feed and fuel bills are less.




Sunday, May 21, 2017

First Timers

For the last several years, I've taken my Government class out to Tillers International for a day of service / field trip.  One course requirement is that students complete 4 "volunteering" events throughout the year, with the service day acting as the final event.

 Also, for the last few years we've included a unit on global development and foreign aid, so the trip provides a great learning opportunity to see what non-profits do in this field (no pun intended).


But anyway, we usually try to get the oxen out for a little bit to demonstrate what they can do.  I find that, even in a rural school like ours with an on-site AG program, kids love to see the oxen and are fascinated by being that close to such a large, calm animal.  

This year, we were lucky enough to be clearing brush, which meant we needed to haul some to the burn pile.  "You can use the red farm-truck," we were told, so we fetched a red cart and a team of
oxen.  That seemed close enough.

With a few long straight lanes to navigate, quite a few students experienced driving success with Castor and Pollux.  They were well-mannered, if a bit plodding.  

They may not all run home and beg the folks until they get their own team, but someday they'll tell their kids how they once drove a 2-ton team of oxen (with embellishments, four-part harmony, and
orchestration, of course).


Friday, May 12, 2017

Look Ma, No Hands!

When teaching people to plow, we often throw out the standard advice: lean to the left to go right, lean to the right to go left, keep a light grip on the handles (so you could peel an orange with your fingers is how I describe it),  stand up straight, walk a tightrope in the furrow, etc.

With this cacophony of instructions, beginners often get overwhelmed.  Their brains can't keep up with the action, even with a slow team (see "Stuck in First Gear").

When they've been overloaded, most people follow their instincts- grabbing the handles and wrestling the plow down the field, trying to push it along.  The predictable result is frustration and sore muscles.

Lately though, I've tried a different approach.  Similarly to teaching handsawing, the goal is to let the tool cut, while the operator stays out of the way.

To demonstrate, I walk the plow, occasionally letting go of the handles.  If the oxen are pulling straight and the plow is set up right, it makes little, if any, difference.

Try it sometime.  Peeling the orange is optional.