Friday, January 11, 2013

The Perfect Farm Truck?

Audrey and Michael Levatino’s book The Joy of Hobby Farming provides a list of essential gear for the would-be rural homesteader. I think "hammer" and "tape measure" are on there, forged from the author's experience at Ted's Last Stand farm, up the road from us in Gordonsville.

It was pleasing, in a culture that often makes a fetish of the pickup truck, to see the vehicle in the book as just another essential tool.

So which truck should a Tractorpunk own?

First off, there probably is no such thing as a perfect truck. I could also care less about brand loyalty. I'm partial to Fords because my dad drove big ones to haul produce, but any truck that runs well is a good truck to me.  Every truck owner can describe the truck that felt right, that did the best work before, sadly, it  had to be "put down" like a beloved farm animal who had reached the end of its life.

Second off, I've never owned that perfect truck. My closest-to-perfect one was a '95 white contractor's F-150 called "The Bull" (that's me and The Bull outside Brewer's General Store in Camp, VA). It came pre-dented and lacked four-wheel drive. It also rode like a buckboard wagon, though in the end getting stuck in mud too many times in the back parts of the property, even with a locking differential, meant a change had to come. I'll probably buy it back one day if Jimmy, the present owner, tires of it.

My current truck, an '03, Chevy, has 4WD but also the personality of a recliner. It's unassuming and useful, but rather bland. I miss the old buckboard ride and hand-cranked windows of The Bull or a '98 Dodge Dakota that was great on gas and the right size, not too big or small, but very unreliable.

I'm surprised how few miles we drive our truck, which is good because it drinks gas. I'm also surprised how often it hauls things about. It would seem that work-trucks have three categories:
  • Small four-cylinder haulers for dump runs or moving stuff from house to barn or field. Often I see older 2WD  trucks in this role, since compacts are scarce on the late-model market. These trucks won't tow much.
  • Larger contractor or used trucks like The Bull or my Chevy. They are great for lots of purposes, including light towing. The 8' bed on many of them makes hauling lumber, gravel, or firewood a reasonable chore.
  • The big dogs, often full-sized diesels of the "one ton" category. These can tow a big tractor or haul lots of gear in the bed or on a trailer.
I don't include any ideas about trucks for commuting. In fact, I think that to be a great waste of money. Buy a car. The older rural folk I knew scoffed at the idea of trucks for "going to town," partly because when they came of age, all trucks rode like The Bull.

I suspect that many new homesteaders would love to go straight to the big dog, since it could do anything, but we decided against that sort of expense ($40,000 plus). We do occasionally move farm equipment, but we found that for $100-$200, the guys who service the tractors (when I can't) will transport them.

In time, I'll find the perfect truck. It would be something like the diesel Hilux Toyotas I see in England, or my dream Jeep pickup, like the J12 concept they rolled out last year. . . maybe one day, and used, given my budget and propensity for punishing my trucks. I don't want to put in the first scratch.

Before buying a truck, my wife and I made a list of what we absolutely needed. It ran:
  • 4WD: not everyone needs it, but if you go back into the mud to work the truck, you'll thank yourself for the extra expense
  • Extended cab: even with a nice roll-down tonneau cover, water seeps into the bed. Things that need to stay dry could go into a tool box (especially on a beauty like the J12) but extended cabs still permit a truck bed that is not a joke
  • 8 Foot Bed: at the time, we planned to renovate our farmhouse. I saved thousands of dollars by running the crew materials. When I ran into 16' lumber, however, I had to have it delivered. But a 6.5' bed would still have worked, had I installed a ladder rack on top.
Your list will be different, but if you farm, you are going to need a truck in the toolbox, along with a hammer and tape measure.

Monday, January 7, 2013

What is your address??

Joe & Bunny Move Rocks
Image: Joe & Bunny rock on, winter 2011-2012

On the day many folks felt that the Maya predicted the end of things, we spent our first day as full-time rural dwellers. Winter Solstice, and the return of light. Not a bad place and time to begin.

Welcome to Tractorpunk, my blog about this transition. First, there was the housewarming party, where many very city folks decided to make the trek to our farm. I got a first lesson about rural and city distances. How do you explain that addresses, mere numbers on a legal map and a mailbox, matter less here than mileage? When the choice got made for us about where to retire, the family farm where my wife grew up, I think we did well: 11 acres in an area zoned firmly against suburban development by habit of centuries and the presence of lots of wealthy and horsy folk, both from-and-come-here residents. Right on.

So I answer “This many miles past the end of the four-lane road.” But my former neighbor from the city looks confused. “But what is the address?” I dutifully give it, knowing that unless my city friend looks carefully, her Honda will sail right by the mail box at the end of the driveway. When she did arrive, it was at about 20 miles per hour, with a long and patient line of cars behind her. But find us she did.

It is at such moments—and there are many of them—that I have come to realize how far indeed we have traveled, not in miles but in years. The rhythm of this place is still that of thirty years ago. It’s why folk came, and perhaps it will be that way for a long time. No one can control the flow of events, but I suspect that the decades as I drift on toward my personal twilight will see me change more than my surroundings.

As this blog evolves, I’ll chart my transition to rural life, hobby farming, and a more sustainable manner of living. I’m no greenhorn: for twenty years I’ve helped operate tractors, split my own wood, made my own lumber, sometimes starting from a tree we felled, grown and canned a good deal of my own food. Some principles will guide me:
  •  Unlike “In a Strange Land,” my long-running blog about virtual worlds and technoculture, this blog will be light on snark. I’ll leave that to my Second Life avatar Iggy and his worlds. The tone for Tractorpunk will be far more positive. Urban irony and Hipster style are as useless here as the single-speed bikes and sleeves of tattoos to be found not 25 miles from my new doorstep.
  • DIY and intense localism will be focal points. As in my work with virtual worlds and non-corporate uses of technology in education, my DIY ethos is very much intact here in the hinterlands of Central Virginia. Some new equipment had to be purchased to get started and more on that later; mostly our work has involved making do, re-making from old materials, and doing without. The watchwords are economic and environmental sustainability. 
  • Tractorpunk will focus less on Peak Oil and decline than have my occasional forays in print and at the other blog. Here I break with my occasional correspondent and fellow hater-of-suburia, James Howard Kunstler. Jim is convinced that we face an era of non-linear events, from climate change to resource depletion and the end of our economic system. My attitude has been that we’ll muddle along with what Jim calls “the project of civilization,” but the easy times are indeed over; technology old and new will help blunt the edges of an edgy new reality, but we are not headed for a reset to, say, the Colonial times.
  • Preaching won’t be part of these postings. If this venture turns at all didactic, it will be to help others who are venturing out from urban and suburban life not in the manner of idealists from the early 1970s but as sojourners who very much plan to stay and make part or all of a living on and from the land.
  • Spirituality will not be a heavy part of this blog. I feel a kinship to the land and a need to learn from it but I won’t be straying into neo-pagan reveries and magical thinking. There is magic enough in the day to day and the passing of the seasons.
More will follow. Many thanks to Bryan Alexander's Scaling the Peak and the young DIYers at Farmhack for some needed inspiration.