Saturday, January 25, 2014

Big Dog Needed

We decided that being killed on a tractor would not be much fun.

Our old 1952 Ford 8N, a wonderful machine once you accept its limitations, needs to come home to pull a wagon around for my work clearing brush, moving wood, and other light work. It's just NOT the machine for cutting fields when the terrain gets hilly, no more than our 1950 John Deere M that now does gentle mowing on flat spots. The Ford is certainly not the machine to grade a half-mile long dirty-and-gravel road, though I've pressed it into service for that purpose.  It lacks a roll bar and seat belt, features I consider mandatory for work on slopes.

Enter the 50 hp Allis-Chalmers tractor pictured above, a machine we just purchased. The owner, a slow-talking, relaxed cattle farmer, showed me around the vehicle recently and I ran it out of the barn to check the hydraulics and brakes. It's a good one that has not been abused, and I've spent long enough on and around tractors to check hoses, tires, suspension, and motor. I know what a well-maintained diesel sounds like now.

A rural landowner who maintains multiple properties faces the tough decision of buying a big trailer to move heavy equipment (and maybe an expensive truck to pull that load) or looking for used farm tractors to leave "up the road" for occasional use.

We opted for the latter, and I stick with my contention that one can buy outstanding and safe equipment for under $10k. We needed a farm tractor with a loader to replace a John Deere diesel tractor with a loader and backhoe attachment, soon coming back home to Goochland (where we move a lot of dirt and gravel) as well as the 8N.

For the past couple of days, we drove down Virginia's Blue Highways, from the Shenandoah Valley to the Piedmont north of Charlottesville, looking at used machines.  What a delight that has been; there's a farm revival going on in America, and it's small stakeholders as well as the big boys. We have met folks raising grass-fed beef without hormones. We've met small merchants supplying the needs of DIYers going back to the land.

You can get cheated by rural folk as fast as by anyone in town, but I know honesty when I hear it. A guy at a dealership put it clearly, and I'll sum it up here for would-be ruralists. There are three grades of used utility tractors around. Around $10K buys a good machine that's clean, around $7K buys one that has got some wear and will work for occasional use, and under $5K buys a machine that is going to be rough or old, or both.

Everything I've seen bears this out.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Old Man Winter's Friend

It's not fashionable to claim that one enjoys cold weather. I think that fondness for the warm months comes from the easy availability of central air conditioning.  People have grown soft, or at least they complain more than older folks I used to know, people who grew up before climate controls and climate change that force us, increasingly, indoors.  When I go to big-box DIY stores, I see the ideal of the suburban cocoon: a place with all new fixtures and floors so warm and smooth that the models pictured in the displays are in socks or barefoot.

I live in a home where you'll get an inch-long splinter in your foot if  you try that.  And I like that.  I live in a home where we set the heat-pump LOW to save money and once in a while, I have to restock the woodstove in the middle of the night to keep the house warm. And I like that, too.

There's merit to not living with every possible modern comfort. One hard fact of country life is that one must work outdoors in all seasons and weather. In July and August, for the past two decades, I have been required to get up early, at hours my students could never fathom, and work outdoors. Once I only did that to go fishing. My academic year permits this latitude with hours during the dog-days of Summer, yet my job also works against my being out doors during the very best months in Virginia for putting in fences, mowing fields, repairing building, cutting wood, and all of the million things that my father-in-law taught me.

Now, living in the country instead of simply apprenticing, I make the best of whatever weather I get. I do have more time on a hot day, early in the morning, to do a few chores before the burning tyrant called the Sun rises and makes the day and me suffer. In winter, however, I can excel on most days, save one like today, where the thermometer struggles to get out of the single digits. That's very odd for Virginia, though historically, the region could count on a few single-digit lows each year.

So today I sit indoors, work on the semester ahead, and wish there were snow as well as cold. They just don't come together here, as they once did.

Cold weather does cut down on mosquitoes in summer, and it makes life bearable cleaning out barns or working in tight spots where, come spring, I might find a Copperhead ready to bite me.  Black Widows are still around, that that is why gloves are a godsend (and you don't work in this sort of cold without gloves).

Winter has a spiritual side, too. The long dark nights lead a person to introspection. Yes, that's not fashionable in this day, either; to turn off the mobile device and just think about things. But when it's cold, and the coffee and tobacco pipe are warm by the wood stove, there are few things in life more comforting. Then the trek to the log-rack becomes a reminder that we should never take warmth and comfort as expectations.

If life were a little harder, day to day, what would we stop taking for granted?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Why I Don't Make Resolutions at New Year

The tradition of resolutions is doomed to failure, but setting intentions? Now those are flexible. So I will make a few for 2014.
  • Minimalism: My dear friend Steve Gott lived a life of fewer and fewer possessions. He was no hermit but thought that one should cherish what one has. I'm going to see what can be done to at least make do with fewer things and more experiences. We've been doing that since we moved to the country. It is, however, a long journey and one worth making
  • Planning: Retirement is a gleam on the horizon, but it's a brighter gleam than it was, say, five years ago.  We have a lot to do to get the homestead ready for a time of limited incomes, but we have saved many thousands by doing work ourselves or helping our contractor. We plan to keep looking 3 or 4 years out in terms of what areas of the homestead will be developed by adding trails, expanding the bee-yard, and making our woodlot suitable for sustainable harvesting of firewood for fuel.  I'm thinking of setting up, eventually, at our local farmer's market, but we must first really expand our hives and have some other produce to sell. That's going to take a business license, which is easy in our county to obtain.
  • Community: This is a key aspect of rural life that many "come heres" forget. Luckily, my spouse is a "from here" who came back, and we have friends in the community. My goal, without being the sort of butt in at every county council meeting, will be to begin doing some sort of local and non-sectarian volunteer work. I'm going to be giving one day a month to Habitat on a build, so I don't think another day monthly would add too much stress to my life. It also puts a resident on the local map. I may help at our Field Day of the Past, where I know some volunteers who make this rural fair possible each year.
  • Humor: Academics are a serious lot. I grow weary sometimes of how serious they can be, but then, the stakes are low and the prestige of careers in higher education--diminishing in many sectors--is mostly visible only to those inside its confines. I realize now that I'm still searching for a way, in my remaining years before retirement, to bring some of what I love about rural life to the Academy. That intention is going to remain nebulous, for now. But it will solidify into a project, at some point.
Meanwhile, Happy 2014. I hope our world limps along better than it did last year. There's a lot of beauty even in damaged times. Go find some or, better yet, make some.