Friday, February 22, 2019

Seven Fat Cows 4.2: Milo gets an education

Milo had just finished up rebuilds on several pieces of equipment for a farmer south of Buchanan, Michigan. The case was unusual because the equipment had not broken first. The farmer noticed that corrosion had weakened the metal around several critical reinforcing patches and decided to address it before it broke. Consequently, the work went quickly.

Milo finished up a half hour after noon. Steve, the farmer, must have been watching him. “Why don’t you wash up and eat lunch with us?” Steve suggested.

That sounded like a fine idea to Milo. He had been smelling the food cooking as air currents wafted about the shop.

After washing up, Milo followed the smell to the shop’s break-room. Steve ran a medium sized operation of about 4 sections. The break-room was filled with aerial images of his operation with the images taken about five years apart. Steve walked in as Milo was inspecting them.

“I look at those a lot. Helps me see the big picture.” Steve said.

“What are those?” Milo asked, pointing to what looked, to him, like rows and rows of the kinds of awnings used to shelter carports.

“Solar panels.” Steve said. “Farmers harvest solar energy. Usually we use corn or soybean plants. I figured I would diversify. Solar panels don’t need rain. Plus, I get a check every month instead of once a year.”

Ladling out the soup, Steve informed Milo that there were “sandwich makings” in the fridge.

The soup was a rich and hearty ham and bean soup and had been brewing in the slow cooker all morning. The deli meats were fresh as was the bread and leaf lettuce.

“Did you make the soup?” Milo asked, surprised that he was being treated like visiting royalty.

“Yup. Sure enough.” Steve said. Then he pointed to quart mason jars on the shelf above the slow cooker. They were filled with beans, lentils and other dried ingredients. "Just add a gallon of water, meat and plug it in. My sister-in-law makes them for us."

“First time I have ever been served lunch by a millionaire.” Milo commented.

“About that:” Steve said “I farm millions of dollars of land and I have millions of dollars flow through my pockets each year, but I have damned little of it stop long enough to say 'Howdy'. It goes in one pocket and flies right out the other.”

“I keep hearing that. How does that work?” Milo asked.

“Not very well!” Steve said, glumly. “Not very well.”

Milo raised his eyebrows in the universal signal “tell me more”.

“Take, for instance, Federal loan guarantee program. The only way I can borrow money is if the Feds guarantee the loan. Every banker knows farming is risky business.” Steve said.

“That means everybody has the dumb farmer by the short and curly ones.” Steve continued.

“My maternal grandma grew up in an old farm house a half mile from this shop. She read ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' as a kid and planted a Tree of Heaven in the back yard.” Steve said.

“Last year, some Federal government weenie I never met before told me that I had to ‘eradicate’ those trees because they are an invasive, alien species.” Steve said. Milo could see Steve’s face was getting red. “Then he tells me that ‘Your loan guarantees are at risk if you don’t comply’.”

“Bastard. I may just be a dumb farmer but I know when I am getting jerked around.” Steve said."I'd have bulldozed the whole lot fifteen years ago if it hadn't been for granny's trees...and then he tells me I can't take out the other trees because its within five hundred feet of a stream."

"So I had to go in and hand cut Granny's trees and I still have to farm around the lot." Steve said.

“You are still in business.” Milo said. “That is more than a lot of people can say.”

Steve sighed. “Yeah, and some of that is blind, dumb luck.”

Milo pointed to the picture with the solar panels. “And a lot of it isn’t.”

“Would you like to see them?” Steve said. “I figure I can let the help run the place for a couple of hours. They are pretty good. I been training them since they were born.” meaning his kids, of course.

That is how Milo got a tour of Steve’s farm. It wasn’t a showplace in the sense that Martha Stewart would be proud of it. It was a showplace in the sense that everything worked together, supporting a common goal of industry, productivity and conservation.

Milo was impressed and he said as much.

Then he asked, “Why do farmers keep all of the old equipment? Even progressive farmers like you.”

Milo asked as they were sitting in Steve’s UTV looking out over the “scrap yard.”

“You never know when you might need something.” Steve said.

Milo pointed at an old tractor. “Why would you keep that?” Milo asked. “Surely, you aren’t going to be able to farm over two-thousand acres with that little thing.”

Steve chews on his lower lip, trying to decide how much to tell Milo. Normally he wouldn’t have bothered but Milo was an earnest young man with promise.

“My dad escaped from Poland in 1949 and worked his way over here. He told me how things were during WWII and afterward. Nothing was thrown away. What kept him alive was a tractor far more primitive than that one.” Steve said.

"What you gotta understand is that all the grown men, including my dad's pa, were taken away by the Soviets to work in the war material factories. They never saw him again." Steve said. "The Soviets also took the horses and mules. It was just an eighty-year old man and woman and my dad's ma trying to work the farm without horse or mules or oxen."

“Did you know they couldn’t get petrol to run them tractors? They figured out how to run tractors and cars and trucks on wood and dried cow shit.” Steve said. “Its called producer gas.”

"They woulda starved or froze if they couldn't run the tractor." Steve said.

“Thing is, you probably can’t get one of these super-smart, computerized tractors to run on producer gas. That old beast, however, you can start with gas...if you have any...and then flip over to producer gas and it won’t miss a beat.” Steve said.

Milo was intrigued. “Is producer gas just as good as gasoline?”

“Oh, hell no. If it was everybody would be using it. You only get about half the horsepower and you gotta keep it in low gear and the RPM up. You let the RPM drop and it takes a gentle touch to coax them back up. It is a pain in the ass to start and getting the wood to feed through the generator is a right bitch unless you bust it up fine.” Steve said. "Iffen it was me, I think I would try to run it on corn. Corn is easy to come by and it flows like greased ball-bearings."

Then, as an afterthought, Steve added “But there are a lot of jobs around the farm that it works for. Plowing and pulling, fer instance. You just have to use a lower gear so it takes longer. Just never let those RPM drop or the feed hopper ever get empty.”



  1. Resourceful people can survive. Our throw away society makes it more difficult but old equipment can be re-purposed. Excellent story. Please continue.

  2. And a critical lesson is learned... :-)

  3. I've got a link to the FEMA pamphlet from the 1980's that shows, step by step, with a bill of materials and everything how to convert a tractor to wood gas. Here it is. Link

    The PDF at the bottom is the original.