Thursday, August 15, 2019
The Shrewd King 4.4: The agricultural brain-trust
Prakash had a problem. How do you boot-strap an economy of 150 survivors?
Prakash asked a couple of old-timers to perform a census of the ten square miles that were south and west of the river and were closest to his store.
Estimates ran between 120 and 200 survivors.
Prakash estimated that an equal number on the other side of the river would occasionally visit him to make purchases as well.
Figuring a minimum of 400 pounds of corn a year per person and 30 bushels of corn per acre, Prakash estimated he needed at least 70 acres corn to make it through the year.
Even though modern yields, assisted by fertilizer, pesticides and hybrids, usually exceeded 200 bushel per acre it was only prudent to expect 1920’s level productivity given the low level of inputs available.
When Prakash asked the old-timers which field they would plant, if it were up to them, they universally pointed to the field that was southeast of, and just out-of-sight from Prakash’s store.
He was surprised.
Had it been up to him, he would have picked the field north of him on the other side of the stream.
When he asked the old-timers why, the answers varied.
One old-timer was suspicious of outsiders. People from north of the M-99 bridge would walk past the field every time they came to Prakash’s store and the old-timer suspected they would slip a few ears of corn in their pockets every time they visited.
Another old-timer, one who had hunted pheasant on those same fields, informed Prakash that the field Prakash favored was “droughty”. That is, the soil was sand and gravel which quickly dried out. The field Prakash had not considered was flatter, lower and had finer grained soil. That is, water soaked-in and remained available for plant growth.
A third old-timer pointed out that the field they preferred was a short walk from where many of the survivors lived while Prakash’s favorite took them out of their way.
Prakash called Kelly and requested that the eighty-acre field preferred by the locals, which had been in soybeans the year before, be plowed up and planted in corn.
Kelly counter-offered that he could break up the surface with a disc, which he could do more quickly and with far less fuel, and plant half to maize and half to spring wheat.
Kelly did not know if the soft, red wheat typically sown in the fall would produce much if planted in the spring, but he had been educated by Farmer Ken, Don and Earl about the need for rotation. According to Farmer Ken, he needed to plant about a half-bushel of wheat per acre and he might get 30 bushels back...or he might break even and only get back the seed he planted.
Early in his venture, Prakash asked the locals why they were not harvesting the corn that was still standing in the fields from the year before.
Prakash quickly got an earful about the evils of vomitoxin. Vomitoxin is exactly what it sounds like. It is a mold that grows on corn that is exposed to rain and warm weather. The mold grows and produces toxins that make animals, and people, projectile vomit in massive quantities.
In a way, the residents were lucky. Aflatoxin is another toxin released by mold. Aflatoxin has fewer obvious symptoms and worse, long-term consequences...consequences like damaged livers and cancer. The residents stopped eating the corn harvested from crops that were still standing in the field because of vomiting but it also saved them from Aflatoxins.
Farmer Ken, Farmer Don and Farmer Earl had a standing, Thursday night poker game. They were invariable joined by Mike, a local guy who was handy with general mechanic work and a good guy to have when you needed somebody to drive a truck.
In times gone by they played for match-sticks. Times being what they were, matches were worth a lot more now. They switched to washers as each farmer had at least fifty pounds of washers of various sizes in their barns.
Talk turned to the upcoming planting season.
Farmer Earl, the oldest of the working farmers by far, folded. Then he noted “We need to be thinking about changing the row spacing on our equipment. My grandad bought a new seeder back in ’29 and it caused no end of trouble” he said.
“Granda’s cultivator was set to 40” to match the horse harness and the new seeder came set at 36”. You had to really pay attention or you would wipe out a row of corn” alluding to the fact that the kid running the team through the field would typically judge where the “lane” was by watching a single row.
“Things didn’t settle down until granda moved the seeder unit over to match all of the rest of the equipment on the farm” Earl concluded.
“That might not be all bad” Ken said as he studied his cards. All farmers are gamblers. They don’t fly to Vegas or buy lottery tickets to gamble. They do it every time they make a business decision.
“I don’t know how much stress resistance we are going to lose since we are planting hybrid seeds” Ken said. “And without fertilizer, I reckon each plant will need wider spacing so it can find the nutrients and moisture it needs.”
All of the farmer's equipment was set up for 30" rows and changing the row spacing to accommodate horses without changing the seed plates would automatically reduce the plant density.
That caught Don’s attention. “What are you guys thinking for seed densities?”
Ken looked over at Uncle Earl. Seniority has its privileges.
“Back in the day, Granda planted 18,000 per acre on sandy ground and 20,000, maybe 22,000 on bottomlands” Earl said. That was in contrast to the 36,000-to-39,000 hybrid seeds they currently planted.
“Of course, corn plants were bigger back then” Earl said.
That was a bit of a dilemma. Fortunately, they had a little bit of time to sort that out.
The previous week, the agricultural brain-trust had decided to put off planting until mid-May. Before Ebola, the three farmers would have been planting like crazy-mad the last full week of April, confident that the seeds would safely wait for warmer weather and knowing that they could beat the weeds down with a single spray of herbicide.
As Farmer Ken said, “Our seeds aren’t treated with fungicides or insecticides. It would be stupid to plant the into 45 degree soil. The only thing that will happen is the weeds will get a head-start and the seeds will be sitting there that much longer, rotting and getting eaten by bugs
After a few more hands, Ken said, “I think I will run with 20,000 seeds to the acre and 40” rows.” Then he looked over at Mike and asked “Do you think there will be any problem moving the seeding units on the old corn planter?”
Ken was referring to an antiquated piece of equipment he had hung onto for decades. It was exactly as wide as an old disc he had and the two could be pulled one behind the other.
Mike smiled. “Not as long as I spray the bolts with penetrating oil the day before.” He knew what he was going to be doing the over the next few days.
The other men nodded their heads in agreement. The large pile of washers in front of Ken attested to the fact that he knew when to play it safe. It would be far better to have 20,000 corn plants each produce a single ear than to have 35,000 runt out and produce nothing.