Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How Technology Almost Killed Mixed Farming

Technology has a way of changing the very fabric of our society, usually without our even noticing. Some major changes to western agricultural technology occurred in the 60's and 70's thanks to the development of two machines. As with all technological shifts, these new machines were intended to increase farm productivity and profit potential, while reducing the amount of human labor required. The two machines were the combine and (later I think) the swathing machine.

Before then, but since the industrial revolution and the proliferation of machines, grain harvesting was accomplished by an involved process. I'm proud to say that I am one of VERY few in my generation in North America who can say I know and have taken part in it. The first step in the process was using a horse (and later tractor) driven machine called a binder. This machine cut the ripe lengths of grain and tied them into simple bundles or sheaves. These bundles were piled on a small one ended rack which could be lowered to the ground. Friction would then pull the pile of bundles off, leaving them on the ground and the rack would lift back up to receive the next pile of bundles. At some point, someone would come along and rearrange all those piles of bundles into "stooks", or upright tipi-like structures which allowed the grain stalks to finish drying.

Once the stooks had enough time to dry, carts were driven through the fields and each bundle was pitched (yep, with a pitch fork) into the cart. Then the cart would be brought to the threshing machine where each bundle would be tossed into the front, to then be separated into grain and straw. In a lot of ways, this was ideal for the mixed farmer. This is why you used to see wooden granaries in groups of two or three, with some space in between each group. The grain could be funneled into a granary and the straw blown next to the granary, into a large pile. This straw would then be used as bedding for the herd through the long Northern Winter.

* Thanks to the website from whom I borrowed this picture. There are several old pictures of this process out at the farm, but I have not yet gathered them for scanning.

By the time I was a part of the process we were already switched to using a tractor instead of horses and/or steam engine, so we basically did it all ourselves. We also used an actual grain truck instead of the tiny grain wagon you can see in the picture above. We still have one of those grain wagons on the farm still though, not totally dilapidated yet (gosh I need to get at saving it somehow). Before I was old enough to help (and I admit I was not made to work until I was fairly old, compared to my dad for example) dad would hire a fellow to help him, and mom did her significant share of course. I never saw the days of the wandering harvest workers but I know the days were long and brutal and the pay was not much. I also know that even though we used machines, the days were long and hard and exhausted both of my parents. I think a lot of the reason I look back at it was such fondness, is that I was allowed to watch or play, I didn't have to start working my ass off at 8 years old like my dad did. I can understand why it is hard for my dad to look back at those days with much fondness, where I find it kind of...magical I guess.

But back to my point...

The introduction of the combine meant that all separation could be done in the field and all that "waste" straw could be chopped finely and blown back onto the field. Priority could finally shift to maximizing either grain or livestock production, and the benefits and alternate efficiencies of mixed farming were soon forgotten. Now grain farmers had to buy manure from animal farmers and animal farmers had to buy food for their animals from grain farmers. This created a market for alternate options like synthetic fertilizers and chemical herbicides which were cheaper but of which we are also now seeing the results. This allowed for the proliferation of "middle-man" enterprises which were ripe for absorption by the new large-scale industrial corporate agricultural sector.

So, the result of not truly pondering the outcome of technological advancements, the result of ignoring wisdom and avoiding forethought, is what we see now; a global choke-hold on sustainable agriculture and a massive struggle in front of those of us who recognize the real necessity of local, sustainable agriculture.


MoonRaven said...

Great post, Jerry. A thoughtful way of looking at how choices got us to where we are now. The question is, what will be the cost to back track back to 'local, sustainable agriculture'?

TH in SoC said...

This looks like an interesting post, although I've not had time to dive into it. I'm looking forward to spending more time with it. Technology and centralization of economic power have threatened to kill a lot of things.

Jerry said...

Thanks for the comment TH. I look forward to hearing more thoughts.

Thank you, MoonRaven. I actually wonder if I should have left local off of that statement. Obviously I totally support local food markets but the reality is that trade over distance is important as well. We've just gotten ridiculous and dangerous in scale.

But as for cost, its going to end up coming back to human labor. We COULD choose (and this has always been the choice) to find a better balance between technology and human labor, while building better societies...IF only we could find a better balance between "me" and "everything else". In the end though, I suspect the only way we'll go back to a more naturally oriented system is out of sheer necessity. But I sure as hell hope I'm wrong about that.

linda said...

Great post Jerry.
I agree with you about going back to human labor but I also wonder how we will train that labor force? While in rural areas, some of the skills are still alive, would the existing trained population have everything covered?

Jerry said...

I think many skills will have to be re-developed completely.

linda said...

Hi again
I'm curious to see if there are "old skill institutions" anywhere in the world. I found one near the farm but they rely on people who have some of the skills who then do workshops. Nothing consistent in other words and all loosely organized but also, not often beyond an introductory level. I suppose apprenticeships would work best, or work studies. I'd love to find something like this.
While others may wait for it to be no choice, who is going to step in when there is no choice?

Jerry said...

You're right, Linda. I've been thinking this myself for a couple years.